The British empire defeated Napoleon in 1815 on the field of battle at Waterloo (Belgium) and smashed the universal principles of the French Revolution – liberty, equality, and fraternity. Furthermore, it expropriated communities from their commons all over the world by Parliamentary enclosure acts in England and military acts of conquest elsewhere. At this post-war moment in 1819 of high prices, failed strikes, declining wages, unemployment, empty stomachs, and disaffection, a remarkable, but incomplete, coalition of reformers and revolutionaries met in St Peter’s Field in Manchester, U.K., on 16 August two hundred years ago. The class struggle is in the open. The ruling class of landlords, merchants, bankers, and factory owners are arrayed against a working class of handworkers, factory workers, plantation workers, home workers, ship and sail workers, and workers without work. A massacre ensues. Surveying the carnage afterwards a clever journalist came up with the equation: Waterloo + St Peter’s Field = Peterloo.
Mike Leigh’s film of this name is a major representation of a major battle in the history of class struggle. Eighteen (18) were killed, six hundred fifty (650) were wounded. The massacre was effectuated by sabres, swords, and horses hooves, not gunpowder. That’s why so many were wounded. It was a bloody butchery. At a minimum the film does the event justice, but, as we shall see, more than a minimum is required.
In 1819 “a revolution was possible,” writes E.P. Thompson, author of The Making of he English Working Class, because the ruling class was divided and isolated. The integument of power depended on deference and fear which is what the Romantic poet, Percy Shelley, understood and tried to disrupt:
Rise like Lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number –
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you –
Ye are many – they are few.
This is from Shelley, whose rousing hymn “The Mask of Anarchy”was “written on the occasion of the massacre at Manchester.” Shelley was in Livorno, Italy, already slumbering in exile, already dreaming imaginatively underground with Mary’s Frankenstein, but now awakening himself from afar.
The film begins with a disoriented bugler wandering on the battlefield of Waterloo, twitching, turning this way and that in a state of traumatic bewilderment. In its grimaces, distortions, and wordless mumbling his face models the chaos around him. The next scene is the Prime Minister speaking in Parliament proposing a motion of a gift to Wellington of £750,000! Then, we see Joseph trudging back to Lancashire along the mud flats of low tide. Back home he looks drearily for work in the rain at a stables or cart yard.
Preceding the great outdoors meeting, debates pit constitutionalists against insurrectionists, proponents of armed self-defense against those of non-violence, advocates of Parliamentary reform against economic demands, advocates of physical force versus advocates of moral force. The working-class debates occur in tavern, factory hall, kitchen hearth and table, or in open fields down by the river. (The camp meeting is absent from the film as is the Methodist Sunday school.) The informal tavern meeting concludes with the reminder that a child may be forgiven and comforted for fearing the dark, but how can a grown man be comforted or forgiven if he fears the light?
The “gilded reptiles” of the ruling class meanwhile are also divided – among nobles, the military, lawyers, and the bourgeoisie; we hear them debate in magistrate’s court, House of Commons, the Home Offices, where they open mail, hire spies, instruct provocateurs, and issue orders to regiments of the local yeomanry or the national hussars. Shall they hang one or two? Shall they raise wages a pittance? Or, shall they attempt to awe the rabble as a whole, and if so is mass terror required? Part of statecraft is the management of class struggle. The tools of repression are several: censorship of the press, imprisonment of leaders, criminalizing the poor, policing the unpropertied, the military against all. Statesmanship is shown to be hypocritical trickery. Government looks for an excuse, then produces one – massacre. The noose tightens, sabres are sharpened.
Three people appear before the sitting magistrate, “a loose, idle, and disorderly” woman, a thief of a silver watch won at a game of dice, and a man who took a coat rather than stoleit, a self-described “reformer” who propounded an economy of “sharing.” These bring loud guffaws from the vulpine magistrate. With lip-slurping glee the magistrate hands out his punishments – a public whipping, transportation to Botany Bay, and a hanging. Albion’s fatal tree.
The reformers demanded political organization, freedom of the press, the freedom of public meeting, and the right to vote. They had to transform themselves from a mob to a political movement. The workers were out for five weeks the previous year at one of the mills and gained “nowt.” It is not a theme that the rhetoric of the speaker and secretary could accommodate; Parliamentary reform was at best only a means to the improvement of life and at worst a dead-end or an entanglement in a politics which a Lancashire working-class lass could not be expected to embrace. In these early debates, and the movie essentially is a debate ended by massacre, the separation of political themes from economic realities emerge in the various experiences of their advocates.
A banner of Magna Charta and the red cap of liberty, these symbols of English and French liberty, present the proletariat as it transforms itself into a working-class. “Liberty or Death.” A banner with an Irish harp. The rhetoric can be hard to take (dictions includes words like “odium” or “spurious”), you have to tune your ear to the different voices. An Irish voice leading the Manchester Female Reform Society Women’s Reform, plenty of Lancashire voices, the London voices of the toffs.
Samuel Bamford should be read today, just as Frederick Douglass or Malcolm X is read or Olaudah Equiano. He was a handloom weaver in contrast to the factory proletarian weaver. His trade, not portrayed in the film, has been made redundant by machines and steam-power. A haunting lament is sung by a penurious ballad singer – “the sun will shine on the weavers again.” Bamford is dramatically paired against Henry “Orator” Hunt.
“Breathe from the bottom of your lungs and speak from the top of your voice,” intones Henry “Orator” Hunt as he removes all speakers but himself from the hustings that day. His orotund, inflated grandiloquence entrances Manchester locals. His pompous ego provides the foil to the good-natured, intelligent, and observant, Samuel Bamford. Bamford advocates armed self-defense but Hunt threatens to drop out if arms are present. Bamford leads the contingent marching in from Middleton, on the grassy path on a sunny day. The women are dressed in white, the men in their Sunday best, and men, women and children adorned with laurel leaves; they form ranks of loveliness. This is a festival of the oppressed. Cleanliness, good order, sobriety are the watchwords: the goal is to shame the upper-class which smears the people as the mob or the rabble – all dirty, loose, and disorderly. So having cast aside their sticks and stones off they go, a peaceful, determined folk from the local textile villages, leading with their left foot forward!
“The peaceable demeanor of so many thousand unemployed Men is not natural,” General Byng wrote. It frightened them. This was a fragile ruling class. A potato thrown against the glass window on the Prince Regent’s coach quickly escalates in the ruling class mind as frightening gunshots. The tinkle of broken glass is enough to cause the Home Secretary to stutter in fear. “Tranquillity” purrs the consort of the prince regent as she sticks another bon-bon down her throat. The proletariat had indeed been “tranquillized”, i.e. massacred. These royals are worthy of Shelley’s acid depiction of the rulers dispensing human hearts to feed their dogs, dropping millstones on children’s brains.
The fondest parts of the movie are scenes depicting the micro-economies of the oppressed. Meat pies are not sold but exchanged for a few eggs (“a farthing, or penny farthing for half dozen!” she shouts at the market). Penny a pie. Joseph’s mother shares her food.
There is a pastoral interlude in mid-movie without speeches, without plot advancement, or character development. Three fiddlers seated in the grass play a pretty tune. Across the stream two lasses in white aprons arm in arm listen with appreciation. The ground, the grass, the stream are nobody’s property. It’s common.
Among contemporary statements of witness we find, “They cut down and trampled down the people; and then it was to end just as cutting and trampling the furze bushes on a common would end.” It is worth pausing over the statement. Two completely different events are described, massacre and expropriation, which belong to two completely different processes of economics – the creation of a labor market and the creation of the arable field. Yet, it expresses a truth of the time, the expropriation of community – the death of the people and the expropriation of land.
Some viewers may find rather too much ‘history from above.’ The political debate is tame. The debate is about Parliament and the House of Commons (equal electoral districts, secret ballot, manhood suffrage) rather than popular assemblies and houses on the common. Some topics of debate are not presented in the film. The followers of Thomas Spence who had long advocated commons for all, i.e. equal redistribution of land from the 400 lords laying claim to it to the millions in want of it. Robert Wedderburn, a Jamaican man of color, “the offspring of an African” as he’d say, led debates among the common people of London. A week before the Peterloo massacre the topic of debate was “Can it be murder to kill a despot?” A government spy reported him saying that the stealing of men and females in Africa was “done by Parliament men – who done it for gain – the same as they employed in their Cotton factories to make Slaves of them to become possessed of money to bring them into Parliament.” He argued that Christ was a radical reformer. Then by 13 October 1819 he was calling for revenge of the Manchester murders, and put the question for debate at the Hopkins Street chapel, “Which of the two parties are likely to be victorious, the rich or the Poor in the even of Universal War?” By May 1820 he was clapped in Dorchester Jail.
Ruling class fear was evoked by “the translation of the rabble into a disciplined class,” writes E.P. Thompson. Yet, the class is incomplete. Just look down the alley next to the factory wall, and what do you see? Bales of cotton stacked upon one another. It is not enough to hint at it. There are circuits of money and circuits of labor that are global; neither’s in the film. Capitalism is not merely an English affair. So many of those early factory proletarians were Irish immigrants fleeing starvation. But who produced the cotton and how did it get to Manchester?
It is not just that capital in England commands labor from India to Cape Town to Missouri; the working-class in England is global too. This is no longer a forgivable flaw among the cultural workers of England. Its historians, poets, novelists, film-makers alike should know better, unless they are content with the same-ole same-ole green lawns and precious drawing rooms of BBC Jane Austen films which only buttress the ideological apparatus of white supremacy.
A factory houses scores and scores of mechanical, power-driven looms. The proletariat (children, women, men) bustle by in the noisy din. Outside, piles of cotton bales crowd the alley, leaning on the factory wall. Everyone can see the Atlantic provenance of the raw materials of production. That’s one way of looking at capital. But we do not see the Atlantic circuits of capital in its monetary form. Most to the point we do not see the Atlantic nature of labor power, that is, slavery.
There is no reference apart from these so-called “raw materials” of the plantation system and the productivity of whipping which produced them in America. Robert Wedderburn, we noted, was a man of color from Jamaica who was active in the English movement. John Jea, was born in Calabar, enslaved in N.Y., married to an Irish woman, preached “the everlasting gospel” in Lancashire and in Manchester having composed, sung, and published freedom hymns the year before. A substantial proportion of ships’ crews were people of color. William Davidson, son of Jamaican slaves, will join Arthur Thistlewood, six months after Peterloo, in a failed insurrectionary attempt to assassinate the entire British cabinet at dinner (the Cato Street conspiracy), and with others he hanged for it on May Day 1820. Then Denmark Vesey of Charleston, South Carolina, in summer of 1822, attempted an Atlantic insurrection.
Peterloo is at the zenith of a cycle in the class war. In America and the West Indies resistance was moving from individual acts like running away to collective struggle as insurrection was rumored in Virginia and Florida in the spring of 1819. In Charleston the population was 4/7ths African American,. The African Methodist church was strong with numbers and budding radicalism; it faced active suppression in 1821. More than thirty people were hanged in July that year in Charleston. Compare this number to the eighteen dead in Manchester for a measure of working-class composition Atlantic-wide.
But back to the movie. Joseph is slain at Peterloo. The last words of the film are the Lord’s Prayer – “give us this day our daily bread” – but the last image of the film is Joseph’s mother who has comforted, fed, accompanied him, and now buries him. If there is daily bread to be given she gave it sharing hers with a very hungry couple at the demonstration who’d just walked in from Liverpool. Hers has been the down-to-earth voice throughout, in equal parts skeptical and hopeful. She has survived from the first moment we see her at her kneading board shaping her dough into pies in a light through the window worthy of Vermeer to the very last image of the film her face, grieving and impassive, in a portrait worthy of Walker Evans. She looks at us: what do we think? How do we respond?
Karl Marx was born just a few months earlier. The labor theory of value gets its clear expression thanks to the massacre; the labor theory of value gets its seat at the center of political economy at this time. Here is Shelley addressing “The Men of England”
The seed ye sow, another reaps;
The wealth ye find, another keeps;
The robes ye weave, another wears;
The arms ye forge, another bears.
Sow seed—but let no tyrant reap:
Find wealth—let no imposter heap:
Weave robes—let not the idle wear:
Forge arms—in your defense to bear.
Shelley’s stirring hymn to the “Men of England” must be revised to include women and slaves. So, to that first verse we add,
The cotton ye pick, another takes
The children ye raise, another breaks
And to the second quoted verse, we’d have to add something like,
Pick cotton – for yourselves adorn
Raise children – and yourselves, reborn.
Finally, Mike Leigh’s film is in the tradition of E.P. Thompson’s Making of the English Working Class. As such it shares its major flaw. The Irish say, ‘English history happens elsewhere,’ and so it is even here. The film and the book are restricted to a version of England that is all right, all white. However, this flaw must not blind us to the virtues of book and film, so needed now: the emphasis on the absolute reality of class, the emphasis on the historical dynamic of class struggle, and an insistence that we think of the ways and means to attain victory.
This article originally appeared on First of the Month.