The Pentrich Uprising, 1817

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Pentrich is a small settlement a few miles north-west of Ripley, just inside the eastern border of Derbyshire. It is a quiet place these days but in 1817 it had a pub, the White Horse, in which was fomented a plot to overthrow the Government of the day. Wars kill large numbers of people. These do not usually include the capitalists and their toadying politicians whose interests and self-seeking activities caused the war in the first place. Wars also create demand – the economy booms and while it lasts there may even be full employment, plenty of overtime and workers with spare money to spend. Hard-faced men supplying the war effort do even better.

When wars end, the economy usually goes into a rapid and severe slump. Demand falls off and large numbers of those who have been fighting cannot find work in civilian life. Britain had been at war with Revolutionary and Napoleonic France almost continuously from 1793 to 1815. When war ended, the economy plummeted into slump. As always, it was the poor who had borne the brunt of the fighting in these wars that had not been of their making. Now they were required to bear the economic and social fallout from the subsequent peace.

Britain's ruling elite hated the democratic principles which had underpinned the early stages of the French Revolution and had been determined that nothing similar could be allowed to happen here. The same democratic principles which disgusted the well-to-do and powerful inspired a wave of radicalism and idealism among sizeable layers of middle-class and working class opinion. These feelings survived the wars with France and so when they ended, there was a widespread belief that the corruption and narrow base of power that characterised British politics needed to be swept away and replaced by institutions which would better represent the ordinary people and act to address their needs. For their part, the ruling elite stood four­square against any manner of democratic political reform. Never in modern times, has there been such a reactionary political elite.

brandreth.gif
 Jeremiah Brandreth

In 1817 a small number of half-starved labourers, stockingers and weavers met in the White Horse Inn in Pentrich and made plans for a march on London. This it was believed would gather support as it went and the intention was that it would turn into a mass uprising to topple the Government. The leader was Jeremiah Brandreth. It may well be that the planning of the uprising was largely the work of an agent-provocateur, a shadowy figure often referred to as Oliver the Spy. His job was to join and gain the confidence of groups of political dissidents and then foment 'subversive' activity. The authorities would be alerted and poised ready to catch those involved and make an example of them.

The threat of internal unrest and rebellion could then be used as the excuse to strengthen political repression. In 1817 Habeas Corpus (the right to no imprisonment without a trial) was suspended while the Seditious Meetings Act was intended to suppress all organisations committed to political reform. Both the Government and local magistrates in the industrial districts made systematic use of spies and infiltrators in radical movements. Snippets of information about their activities filtered out from time to time and aroused considerable concern even among those not necessarily supportive of radical or democratic causes. Ironically the Government argued that these measures were required in order to maintain the much vaunted liberties of the 'free-born Englishman'. The half-starved wretches of town and country wondered what on earth these so-called liberties actually were.

The working class was in a state of ferment. There was extreme economic distress, large-scale unemployment especially in the textile and iron-manufacturing trades and soaring inflation – all the ingredients that understandably led many to seek extreme measures to change their political and economic situation. In the post-war depression starving miners went on strike in Somerset, the North-east and the Black Country. The Luddites of the East Midlands, Yorkshire and Lancashire engaged in strikes and sabotage as a way of fighting against the reduction of wages and the loss of jobs associated with the introduction of new machinery, particularly in the textile and hosiery industries.

While working people did not necessarily win all these disputes, they were groping towards an understanding that they could rely only on their own solidarity and collective action as a class. They also learned that the law was not an impartial institution. Their experiences taught them that the courts were presided over by men sympathetic only to the interests of the rich and powerful. They dispensed 'justice' according to their own narrow class viewpoint and used the armed might of the State, particularly the yeomanry, to back up their determination to keep those they considered to be the 'unwashed masses' in their place. They were incensed when such people took action, fighting for a living wage and to keep jobs, especially when these struggles were associated with demands for some say in political matters. This was an affront to the traditional right of the rich and powerful to abuse and exploit the poor and expect them to be grateful for the experience.

In Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire distress was greatest among what were known as the hand-workers, especially those in the textile and hosiery industries who owned or hired their simple tools and machines. They were proud of their skills and saw their livelihoods being threatened by the loss of jobs which came from the replacement of handicraft work by labour-saving machinery.

On 9 June 1817 two hundred, perhaps a maximum of three hundred men, mostly stockingers, quarrymen, iron workers and a few agricultural labourers, gathered at Pentrich, muttering angrily about changing economic forces over which they had no control. They had a few ancient firearms, blunderbusses and pikes, scythes and bludgeons. They trudged off in the dark and the pouring rain intent on covering the 14 miles to Nottingham during the night. The rain literally had a dampening effect on them and their morale, and ones and twos held back in the darkness and then went home. En route the marchers called at farms and houses demanding arms and support. At one such dwelling where they were told in no uncertain terms to clear off. Brandreth, who was a loose cannon, was so angry that he foolishly fired a shot through a window and killed a farm servant.

This did little to reinvigorate the flagging spirits but Brandreth had invented some verses which he insisted they should sing lustily as they went along. One of them went like this:

Every man his skill must try, He must turn out and not deny; No bloody soldier must he dread, He must turn out and fight for bread.

The time is come you plainly see

The government opposed must be.

 
No, it's not great poetry and it's possible that after a few miles, Brandreth was just about the only person in the soaking-wet party who believed that there was a purpose to the mission. He himself was utterly convinced that the authorities would abandon Nottingham as soon as they knew the insurgents were on their way, that tens of thousands would rise up all over the land and the government in London would be forced to give in to their demands. He was in touch with other disaffected groups elsewhere, for example around the Huddersfield district of West Yorkshire, and he was sure that they would likewise march on London, gathering support as they went. He tried to boost the dejected feelings of his followers by promises of roast beef and ale but he was careful enough not to say when.

So they proceeded towards Nottingham managing to make a considerable amount of noise. But when dawn broke they became only too aware that they were wet through, hungry, most were frightened and those that were left were demoralized, since it was evident that many of their number had slipped away in the dark. Brandreth became even more volatile and threatened to shoot anyone who, as he put it, deserted. When a small force of hussars came in sight at Eastwood, outside Nottingham, most of the marchers simply dropped whatever weapons they had and ran. They were mainly rounded up within a few hours. The `Pentrich Uprising' was something of a fiasco.

The Government was determined to make an example of the Pentrich rebels. Thirty-five men were tried at Derby accused of treason and levying war against the King. The reality was that they were half-starved, insecure and desperate to find a way to put bread on the table. They saw the rich and the powerful and their political and legal system as their oppressors. They were of course absolutely right in this but there was no way in which the system that oppressed them was going to be overthrown by a ragged handful of desperate men with such callow leadership.

The authorities fastidiously handpicked a jury whose members could be depended upon to view the evidence in the way the Government required. Only two lawyers were allowed to appear for the Defence. The Prosecution was represented by no less than ten. Some of the accused were pardoned and some transported but Brandreth and two others were hung, drawn and quartered at Derby. Great care was taken to insure that the doings of Oliver the Spy never reached the proceedings of the court. In his summing up, the judge loftily and self-righteously declared, "A crime is no less a crime because the man who commits it is poor." With his class background he certainly wasn't going to utter the words, "A crime is often less a crime because the man who commits it is rich." Warming to his theme, he snarled at the defendants, "Your object was to wade through the blood of your countrymen, to extinguish the law and the constitution of your country, and to sacrifice the property, the liberties, and the lives of your fellow subjects, to confusion, anarchy and the most complete tyranny."

The poet Shelley was outraged by the Government's draconian reaction to this localised and abortive uprising. He knew that, for all its shortcomings, Pentrich was indicative of the widespread and justified grievances of working people assailed by economic forces over which they had no control and ruled by a tyrannical Government who regarded them with callous contempt. He used the event to write a pamphlet with the curious subtitle of We pity the Plumage but forget the Dying Bird. In this he points to the day of national mourning called for the death of Princess Charlotte. She was the only daughter of the future George IV, one of the greatest wastrels ever to occupy the British throne. As such the Princess had never wanted for anything in her life but equally had never done anything useful either. Shelley contrasts this event with the treatment meted out to starving working men.

It was just a couple of years later in 1819 that Shelley produced what is probably his angriest work. This was 'The Masque of Anarchy', a long, complicated poem with the well-known line, / met murder on the way, he had a mask like Castlereagh. Viscount Castlereagh was a notoriously reactionary cabinet minister in the Conservative government under Lord Liverpool which came into office in 1816. It is clear that he and other leading government figures were prepared to stoop to any measures in order to maintain the power of their class. This determination to prevent root-and-branch change is something of which all socialists must take note. No ruling class in history ever voluntarily gave up its power. It is a testament to the strength of the ideas controlled by the ruling class both then and also now that many people are astonished when the State sheds its veneer of 'impartiality' and resorts to naked force in order to maintain its power.

In modern advanced capitalist countries the ruling class greatly prefers to govern through institutions which it controls but which give the illusion that the adult population has full and democratic control over the decision-making processes. While nothing could be further from the truth, as socialists we still have to defend those democratic advances which were won by our predecessors in the movement. At the same time we must always be aware that those gains were made out of struggles when the balance of class forces temporarily favoured the organisations of the working class. What the ruling class is forced to concede at one stage, it will grab back ruthlessly later if working people and their organisations are not vigilant and determined. To safeguard such gains and as the only way to move on to the effective defence and development of the interests of ordinary working people and their families, the movement needs to be equipped with a socialist programme. Such a programme has to absorb the lessons of past struggles.

 

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Dialectical Materialism is the philosophy or methodology of Marxism. Every political movement, party, or even statement of any kind bases itself, consciously or unconsciously, on some sort of philosophy or world outlook. Marxism is concerned with effecting a radical change in society, and therefore requires an exceptionally clear, thoroughgoing, and systemic set of philosophical principles.

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Marxist economics is the study of the laws of motion of capitalist society. Why does capitalism perpetually go into crisis? Why does mass unemployment exist? Are commodity production, the domination of the market, and rich and poor natural, immutable states of being for humanity? Or are they merely the products of this specific mode of production - capitalism? If so, is there any way capitalism can exist without these problems, or by minimising them?

Marxist economics is a “holistic” way of analysing capitalist economy. It starts out by placing it in its real historical context (rather than dreaming up abstract idealisations of capitalism to justify it, as bourgeois economics does), studying all its interconnections and contradictions, rather than artificially isolating one aspect of it. In doing so, Marxist economics lays bare the functioning of capitalism; the exploitation and injustice inherent within it. Those who want to get to the essence of why, in the 21st Century, despite having a more advanced understanding of the world than ever before, humanity seems plunged into perpetual crisis it cannot get to grips with, should look no further than Marxist economics, beginning with the writings of Marx himself.

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Like money, the state is something we are all very familiar with and take for granted, but its real essence tends to elude us. The ideologists of capitalism have tried, in various ways, to justify the capitalist state as supremely rational; a neutral arbiter for society, and the embodiment of justice. For Marxists, the state is not at all neutral, nor just. It is certainly anything but rational. We must strip the vale of mysticism away and reveal the state’s real basis. To do that, we have to treat the state historically - taking in its origins, rise, and eventual fall.

The state has not always existed. It is inseparable from class society. Ultimately, it is the instrument for the ruling class to oppress and hold down the masses, guaranteeing the status quo and the sanctity of property. Although the modern state performs many other functions, these are secondary to its real basis - the protection of a set of property relations. To do this, it needs “armed bodies of men” and a monopoly on the use of violence. To establish socialism, it will not be possible for the working class to use the state as it currently exists - that is, with

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The Russian Revolution is the greatest event in world history for Marxists. For the first time, the working class successfully took and held power. The slaves fought back and won. For these reasons, the name of Lenin and Trotsky, and the entire 1917 episode, has been deliberately dragged through the mud by the bourgeoisie ever since.

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Radicalised youth, seeking to understand how to change modern society, naturally tend to look to both Marxism and Anarchism in equal measure. The question as to which philosophy, or which combination of the two, has the best answers, has long been at the forefront of the minds of revolutionaries.

Anarchism is naturally attractive to all those correctly alienated by bureaucracy in the revolutionary movement. Anarchists are certainly correct to reject Stalinism and careerism. However, it is not sufficient simply to reject these phenomena. We need to understand why bureaucracy and oppression exist and what role they play, in order to understand how to avoid them. We believe that, for all its opposition, Anarchism has little to say about the alternative to bureaucracy. Instead, it is Marxism’s historical materialist method that allows us to understand these problems. In this section the reader will find a series of articles dealing with anarchism and the issues that anarchism raises.

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The discrimination and oppression of women is integral to class society, such that Engels even referred to it as the “first class oppression”. Along with the class system itself, the oppression of women often takes on the appearance of being natural, immutable and eternal, since it has been with us for so long.

But Marxism is a historical science, concerned with understanding the fundamental changes that society goes through. It cannot be satisfied with comfortable prejudices. A study of the origins of human society, as Engels famously conducted in his book The Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State, reveals that the oppression of women is by no means natural and was not even known for much of our history. As Engels explains, the oppression of women arose with the emergence of class society and private property; it will fall with it.

Marxists are fully in solidarity with feminists: we are irreconcilably opposed to the oppression of women and fully support the struggle for their emancipation. We believe this will be achieved through the class struggle, since that is the basic locomotive of history in a class society such as ours. However, Marxism represents a distinct set of

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Fascism is something of a bogeyman in modern British society, and has an almost mythical character in bourgeois public opinion. But despite constant talk of it, very little is said about why it happened and how it may or may not happen again.

Fascism is really the death agony of capitalism and the “distilled essence of imperialism”. The fascists in Germany, Italy, Spain and other countries were only able to come to power on the back of defeats of the working class. Ultimately, the madness of fascism expresses the historic crisis and dead-end of capitalism that had arrived by the early 20th Century, alongside the inability of the working class to take power and replace capitalism with a workers’ state, due to the corruption of their leadership, in the form of both reformism and Stalinism. Fascism could and should have easily been avoided had the working class possessed a militant and united leadership prepared to take power.

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The question of nationalities - that is, the oppression of nations and national minorities, which has characterised capitalism from its birth till the present time - has always occupied a central position in Marxist theory. Once again, the historical materialist approach of Marxism dissolves the apparent “natural” role of the nation as a necessary expression of human society. Nations have by no means always existed, nor will they always exist in the future.

The nation as we know it today is a product of the development of capitalism and its need to unify peoples into units of a certain size (depending on the level of the system’s development – e.g. more recently formed nations tend to be much bigger) to consolidate the market. The contradictions and tensions between nations are a result of capitalism’s “combined and uneven” development. The contradictions of the capitalist mode of production itself force each ruling class to expand outwards, developing a global market and imperialism in the process.

The violent tensions that this process breeds in turn give rise to nationalism, racism and wars. There is no way a successful world revolution, abolishing the global capitalist system, can take place without a careful and nuanced understanding of the

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Socialist Appeal is the British section of the International Marxist Tendency, which is active in around 40 countries. Our aim is to spread the ideas of Marxism, in an organised fashion, in the labour and youth movement. Only the British working class has the ability to change British society, because of the central role they play in production and their shared interest in establishing socialism.

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In this section readers will find a series of articles explaining our position on the class struggle in Britain, the key points in the history of the British working class and the lessons to be learnt from them, and the strategy of the Marxists in relation to the movements of the masses.

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The ideas of Marxism and the need for a revolutionary party are not the result simply of a single individual, but arise from the study of history - the history of class struggle. In this respect, the revolutionary party is often referred to as being the memory of the working class, and our task is to learn the lessons from history in order to prepare for the revolutionary events taking place today and in the future.

In this section we present a series of articles and audios covering the key revolutionary struggles in history - from the early class struggles in Rome to the tremendous movements of the working class in the 20th Century. By reading and listening to these, our readers should gain a good overview of the history of the revolutionary movement and the main lessons to be learnt from these.

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