Sunday, September 18, 2005

Failed revolutionaries

Space fillers from an Idler magazine about revolution


The Paris Commune

In the spring of 1871, Paris came under the control of a revolutionary commune. This unusually democratic, working class and left leaning body was formed thanks to the chaos after France’s crushing military defeat in 1870 when the national government abandoned the city. Karl Marx for a while believed that it could signal the start of the international workers’ revolution.

The most striking aspect of the communards was their relaxed nature once the usual authority figures had disappeared. The city became the stage for what was described as “a festival of the oppressed”. Observers stated that it had all the signs of simply being on holiday. This lasted for almost two months until government forces broke through the barricades once more. Even on the day they got into the city, there were large crowds in the Tuileries gardens listening to one of a series of concerts given in aid of the wounded widows and orphans.

Many Parisians chose to die rather than lose their new society. Horrifyingly, by the time the government had re-established control, its troops had massacred between 20 and 30,000 communards, including huge numbers of women and children.



Machine wreckers

1780 - 1816

The originators of the word ‘Luddite’ are so poorly regarded that the word has become an insult. It’s an ineffectually mocking term, implying a hopelessly reactionary nature and a quixotic opposition to the tide of technological progress. The group of Nottinghamshire knitters that claimed to be led by ‘King’ Ned Ludd and went around destroying knitting machines in 1811 – and all the other machine wreckers of the early industrial revolution that are usually lumped together with them – are by implication history’s losers.

Yet, the Luddites weren’t indiscriminately fighting technology, they were
were fighting social injustice. They were trying to protect their way of life and individuality rather than being forced to work on a production line under factory rules. It was the machine in the hands of the capitalist, not the machine itself they were after, There are well known cases of machine wreckers (like the Lancashire wreckers of 1788-80) only attacking large spinning jennies suitable for factories, preserving the small ones that could help them. Attacking mill owners’ property was also one of the only bargaining tools available in early industrial disputes. Organised gangs like the Luddites often brought about improved conditions and can even be seen as progenitors of the Trade’s Union movement. It was this success that doomed them. A government bill of 1816 declared machine wrecking a capital offence. It was vigorously enforced.


Picture of the leader of the Luddites here;

Interestingly, no-one knows what happened to King Ludd – or if he ever existed at all.



Giordano Bruno


Giordano Bruno wanted to start a revolution in the head. He was a scholar and a vociferous and recklessly brave opponent of the repressive practices of both the Protestant and Catholic church. If his ideas had been accepted, they would have turned the beliefs of the Renaissance world upside down.

Most of Bruno's theories now seem weird; a bizarre combination of magic and science. Some still have resonance, however. As well as writing too incredibly arcane tracts of magical theory, he suggested that the earth revolves around the sun, that the stars in the sky were actually suns like our own and that the universe might be infinite. He also claimed that the Bible was not a strictly historical account.

These ideas were deeply unpopular with most of his contemporaries. He was expelled from his position as a Franciscan monk, and condemned to a life as a landless wanderer. When the Catholic Inquisition caught up with him, they were predictably nasty, but Bruno refused to recant his beliefs even after torture. He was burnt at the stake in 1600.


1000BC – 100 BC

Helots in Sparta

The ‘helot’ slave class in Ancient Sparta attempted to gain more of an equal footing with their masters in a series of bloody uprisings. Their reward was the formation of the famously tough Spartan military system, and centuries of tradition designed to oppress them. One of the choicest rituals was sending groups of teenage boys out to hunt and kill
randomly selected slaves.





During the tumult and upheaval of the English civil war, the magnificent libertarian Gerrard Winstanley lived in Walton-on-Thames. He herded cows and wrote religious pamphlets until he had a vision in a trance instructing him that “the earth should be made a common treasury of livelihood, without respect of persons.” Gathering a band of followers, he began to dig up the common land on St George’s Hill near Kingston-upon-Thames and invited all England to join him. It was the world’s first socialist commune.

His manifesto ‘The True Levellers’ Standard Advanced’ is one of the finest pieces of socialist polemic written, rightly revered by hoary old campaigners like Tony Benn. It was one of the first works to advocate the rights of man and can be seen as a direct influence on Thomas Paine and the American Declaration of Independence. His egalitarian, communist society was, of course, a model for the USSR. Most importantly many of his ideas and thoughts are still moving today. Who could dislike a man who “would have none live in beggary, poverty or sorrow,” and allow everyone to “enjoy the benefit of his creation” ?

All the same, he was little better than a laughing stock in his own lifetime. He was brought before the fearsome roundhead General Fairfax who had been alerted to the ‘Diggers’ activity by the complaints of the horrified Kingston gentry who dismissed the Diggers as harmlessly mad. Within a year they had been forced off their hill and dispersed by the local gentry. Winstanley faded into obscurity. No one has any idea how, or even when, Winstanley died.




Not all revolutionaries are left wing libertarians. Catiline, wanted to replace the Roman Republic with a dictatorship. According to his main (victorious) opponent, the orator Cicero Catiline was a feckless sybarite, given over to indolence and voluptuous indulgence. His main recruitment method appears to have been holding massive grape-fuelled orgies and rubbing the young men of Rome up to such a pitch of excitement that they would die in his name. Having failed to take over the state by guile, with a few well timed, (but hopelessly unsubtle) assassinations he tried to take it by force. The army he raised was crushed in its first battle and killed almost to a man.


James Naylor

James Naylor was an early Quaker and political radical. He fought on the Parliamentary side in the civil war for 8 years but felt they failed to “set free the oppressed people”. He was a convincing and popular speaker who gathered a large body of support in a remarkably short time. In 1656, he entered Bristol on a donkey with women strewing palms in front of him. This was probably meant to be symbolic (though plenty of people at the time did have Messiah complexes – like Arise Evans who told the Deputy Recorder of London that he was the Lord his God), as Nayler believed it was possible for any man to achieve what he saw as Christ’s perfection. It was, however, just the opportunity Parliament needed to nail him. M.P.’s devoted six weeks to denouncing him and had him branded and brutally whipped. He died three years later, a broken and considerably quieter man.

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