Oh God. The BBC has commissioned a ‘History of Protest’.
Lovely idea, you think. A welcome change from the Nazis and Henry-the-bloody-Eighth.
The trouble is, though, they’ve gone and got Owen Jones to do it.
Now, I’m never a big fan of those piece which basically run, ‘I’m-an-academic-and-I’m-annoyed-that-[insert media outlet]-has-done-a-story-and-they-didn’t-ask-me.’
But there are literally squillions of historians who would have done a better job. People who know about their subject, care about it.
The result is an abomination. A conservative celeb-fest. An article that manages to achieve the complete opposite of its intensions. It basically writes protest out of history, making it look like an aberration. Nothing could be further from the findings of recent historians.
There are some errors, of course, and some shocking omissions.
‘Back in the 13th century most of the English were serfs’. Almost certainly not true.
‘The (sic) Magna Carta was later appropriated by those resisting authority, not least during the 17th century English Civil War’. Well, it was appropriated by the rich parliamentarians – the true radicals like the Levellers and the proto-Communist Diggers argued that the whole ‘Norman Yoke’ had been thrown off by the death of Charles, and with it the rich man’s Magna Carta.
Martin Luther probably didn’t nail any theses to any church doors. The Poll Tax was only a small part of the grievances of the peasant revolters. The irksome tea duties were a small part of the reasons behind the American Revolution. The British Civil Wars of the 17th century, er, happened.
Seeing as Jones likes English history, where are the Levellers? Where is Robert Kett and the ‘Commotion Time of 1549’? What about the northerners who joined the Pilgrimage of Grace, perhaps the largest popular rebellion in English history?
Why do we persist in the horribly anglo-centric idea that the English Peasants’ Revolt (1381) was somehow different, rather than part of a larger anti-feudal movement over Europe? Non-Europeans only seem to matter once we get to the late 20th century.
The Luddites (though not Captain Swing) get a mention (their revolt was in 1812, apparently), but there’s nothing about India’s ‘First War of Independence’ (or ‘Mutiny’, if you prefer). US Civil Rights are important, resistance to European imperialism is not.
But more fundamentally, why focus on the ‘big-ticket’ rebellions. The celebrities. The Wat Tylers and the Martin Luthers (though not the Jack Cades or the Robert Kett’s. Or Gandhi).
Generations, and I mean generations, of scholarship – much of it in the radical tradition of people like E.P. Thompson – has shown that resistance to authority was not just something that happened once in a while. It was a continuous part of life in any society which was felt to be unfair.
Wherever people felt oppressed by a harsh economic regime, they resisted. Whenever they believed their landlords were denying them freedom, they resisted. Whenever they saw an uncaring government destroy the church they loved, they resisted. Whenever a colonial regime oppressed them, they resisted. Writing the history of protest as a timeline makes it look like they didn’t.
English social historians like Thompson, Keith Wrightson, and Andy Wood have been saying this for years. As has the influential anthropologist James C. Scott, in his incredible work on everyday resistance in south-east Asia.
In fact, the very idea of writing a ‘timeline’ of popular resistance is silly, wrong, and demeaning to the struggles of ordinary people. It emphasizes the big moments, the celebrity activists. It writes the poor out of history. It’s not just bad history, it’s Geoffrey Elton, Conservative-with-a-large-C, top-down, patronizing history.
I don’t doubt Mr Jones’s good intentions. But he should do some reading.
POSTSCRIPT. To his colossal credit, Owen Jones got in touch about this piece. He’s a journalist and a writer I’ve always respected. Even today, I was enjoying his important piece about the attempts to understand the rise of the Nazis and of Da’esh. Unlike some of the other people I’ve written about on this blog, he was polite and humble – qualities so commonly lacking amongst today’s media personalities. He pointed out to me that the choice of subjects wasn’t his, but was made by the BBC, hence the change in my title. They need to pick their subjects better, and this means talking to some professional historians.