Social Unrest and Popular Protest in England, 1780-1840.
This work is a fine addition to the Cambridge University Press series "New Studies in Economic and Social History," the fomat of which provides surveys of historical themes in the form of extended review essays. The series is directed to students as well as to their instructors struggling to keep up with an outpouring of historical monographs and articles.
Archer's book examines agricultural protest, food riots, and industrial, political, and policing protest during the turbulent decades between 1780 and 1840. He is concerned with change over time, which he sees as especially profound with respect to political protest, which is framed in his chosen period between the reactionary Gordon Riots and the emergence of Chartism, "the first truly independent working-class movement" (p. 74). Archer's historiographical survey of social unrest and popular protest is especially welcome, given the burgeoning interest in the subject since the 1960s, inspired by the pioneer work of George Rude, E. P. Thompson, and Eric Hobsbawm, who in Thompson's famous words sought to rescue the poor and oppressed from "the enormous condescension of posterity." Archer acknowledges the manner in which these three set the agenda for further enquiry, while recognizing the ways in which their findings have been refined and even challenged. The enquiries of M. Harrison and J. Bohstedt oblige us to recognize that Rude's notion of "the crowd" conflates a number of distinct "mass phenomena," each of which requires careful analysis with respect to quotidien timing, propensity to violence, and geographical and social location. Bohstedt, for example, has shown how popular demonstrations tended to be more disorderly in new industrial town than in rural market centres, suggesting connections between industrialization and emerging class conflict.
Any consideration of class still has to proceed, of course, with Thompson's The Making of the English Working Class (London, 1963) still firmly in mind. Many recent studies serve to give added depth to Thompson's grand narrative. Archer himself refers to the "proletarianization" of rural laboring communities during the period under consideration and he cites recent studies which follow Thompson in seeing the 1790s as the critical decade in this process. Yet the path to class identity was not a straightforward one either in industrial or agricultural communities; there were many forks in the road, as recent local studies now reveal. The Captain Swing movement, for example, though more widespread than Rude and Hobsbawm originally thought, was not a simple movement of class struggle. It initially attracted some gentry support; though when savage repression was applied to suppress it, proletarian anger was unleashed in a wave of incendiarism. The latest work on Luddism, as both broadly and narrowly defined, reveals a similarly complex story. Did it have a political dimension or did it retard the emergence of authentic working class politics? Was it class based or community based? Archer judiciously avoids absolute responses to these questions, because the answers tend to be different, or at least have different nuances, depending on the particular cases investigated.
The book concludes with an assessment of the potential for revolutionary change in the movements of social protest that Archer has explored. He seems to accept the arguments that middle-class resistance and the propensity for the crowd to "tame itself" minimized the possibilities for revolution, but at the same time he is anxious to show that the accumulation of local experiences and demands shaped the genuinely national movement of Chartism.
John Sainsbury Brock University
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|Publication:||Canadian Journal of History|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Dec 1, 2002|
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