✍ Revolución industrial y revuelta agraria. El Capitán Swing [1969]

por Teoría de la historia

La importancia de la obra de los historiadores marxistas ingleses no para de crecer. Los trabajos de E. P. Thompson, Cristopher Hill, Eric Hobsbawm o George Rudé son referencias inexcusables para tener ejemplos de cómo se pueden mezclar la toma de partido político con el mayor rigor sin que ninguno de los dos términos pierda intensidad. La reedición de uno de los mayores clásicos de esta corriente, públicado originalmente en 1969, es una buena oportunidad para comprobarlo. “Revolución industrial y revuelta agraria. El Capitán Swing” se abre señalando un hecho que a principios del siglo XIX separaba radicalmente a Inglaterra del resto del mundo: no existían campesinos. Tras una intensa oleada de cercamientos de las tierras comunales durante el siglo XVIII, las formas de tenencia de la tierra se habían transformado hasta presentar, por un lado, a un arrendatario encargado de la producción agrícola presencial y, por otro, a una masa de asalariados campesinos sin propiedad alguna. Un fuerte aumento demográfico en el campo unido a la creciente mecanización de las actividades agrícolas y al deterioro de las relaciones laborales tradicionales tuvieron como resultado la aparición de un enorme ejército de reserva laboral y, como suele suceder en estos casos, una precarización generalizada de la relación salarial con formas de contratación altamente inestables. La respuesta del gobierno fueron las leyes de pobres, una figura de la legislación social del Antiguo Régimen destinada al mantenimiento de la paz social por la que los pobres agrarios recibían un salario de subsistencia de la parroquia. El análisis de las leyes de pobres, en concreto de la versión de Speenhamland que hacen Hobsbawm y Rudé, se centra tanto en los efectos de subvención a los bajos salarios como en la dependencia territorial y política que supusieron para el proletariado agrícola. El efecto combinado de ambos procesos fue una fortísima pauperización. En este marco se desarrolla el núcleo de la narración histórica, una serie de revueltas agrícolas a partir de 1830 que presentan características similares: destrucción de trilladoras, elección nada trivial puesto que estas máquinas redujeron en un 20% la necesidad de trabajo, quema de cosechas y graneros, recuperación del diezmo pagado al clero y toma del dinero de los arrendatarios y el envío de cartas amenazantes firmadas por un misterioso lider que, en realidad, era una metáfora de la rebelión colectiva: el Capitán Swing. La narración de los hechos es absolutamente detallada, aldea por aldea, rebelión por rebelión, Hobsbawm y Rudé ponen nombres propios, fecha y características singulares a cada uno de los cientos de levantamientos que pusieron en jaque a las autoridades, los arrendatarios y el clero en la Inglaterra cerealista durante 1830. Mediante metodologías completamente innovadoras en su día, como la revisión de las fichas policiales, de los periódicos locales y de las cartas que enviaban los rebeldes, se da cuenta de una de las principales preocupaciones de la historiografia marxista británica: hacer la historia desde abajo.

[Isidro LÓPEZ. “Reseña”, in Traficantes de sueños (Madrid), s.d.]

This book [“Captain Swing. A social history of the great English agricultural uprising of 1830”] gives a vivid and stimulating account of the great movement of protest and revolt by agricultural workers in 1830, which in a matter of months swept through 23 counties from Kent to Worcestershire, and from Norfolk to Dorset. Marching from village to village, armed with hammers and crowbars, hundreds of workers confronted the farmers with their demand for a minimum of two shillings per day, and proceeded to smash the threshing machines which deprived them of the greater part of their winter employment. At one and the same time, they demanded reductions in rents from the landlords, and reductions in tithes from the clergy, so that the farmers could afford the increase in wages. Whilst ricks burned at night, threatening letters circulated, signed by the mythical leader ‘Captain Swing’. Yet no violence was done to persons, and the worst that happened to an unyielding Poor Law Overseer was a ducking in the village pond. So forceful were the actions of the workers that at first opposition crumbled and their demands were widely accepted, with some farmers even dismantling their own threshing machines. The background to this great outburst was the steadily worsening condition of the farmworker since the Napoleonic wars. He had been robbed of his land and grazing rights by generations of enclosures, and his cottage industries had been undermined by the industrial revolution. The old system of annual hiring, which had given him a measure of security, was being replaced by weekly and even daily contracts, with frequent unemployment. As corn prices fell after the battle of Waterloo, wages were lowered until men and their families were literally starving, whilst the hated Poor Law, which was supposed to provide minimum subsistence out of the rates, encouraged the farmer to lower wages still further. In this desperate situation, which, as the men saw it, ‘was contrary to all natural justice’, the actions of a few bold groups in Kent spread like wildfire from village to village and county to county, rocking the countryside to its foundations. But it was not long before the ruling classes hit back with troops, forces of special constables and widespread arrests. 2,000 workers were brought to trial, of whom 19 were executed, 491 transported and 644 imprisoned. These savage sentences provoked widespread protest but were not finally commuted for 15 or 20 years. For a time the wage increases were retained but the downward pressures soon returned and it was only four years later that the Tolpuddle Martyrs were transported for forming the first Agricultural Workers’ Trade Union. A more lasting effect was that threshing machines were not widely used for another 20-30 years. By their detailed research, Eric Hobsbawm and George Rude have demonstrated the extent and significance of this great movement. They have shown the role of cobblers, blacksmiths and other village craftsmen in the spread of ideas and in providing some of the leaders. They have carefully reconstructed the feelings and aims which inspired the men, and the terrors of revolution which haunted the rich. The maps, charts and tables, and the very valuable appendix, combine to convey an accurate picture of what took place. The book can be strongly recommended to supporters of the labour movement in town and country, and to the farmers and farm workers of today. Right up to the present, the farm worker has remained at the bottom of the wages ladder, and the industry as a whole suffers from the pressure of monopoly combines on the one hand and government policy designed to provide the industrial worker with cheap food on the other. Captain Swing made me feel the power of direct action in the countryside— a power which could be wielded with great effect today. It also brought home to me the inevitable defeat of direct action unless sustained by strong and united forms of organisation.

[Margaret BRAMLEY. “Captain Swing, by E.J. Hobsbawm, George F.E. Rudé”, in The Labour Monthly, mayo de 1969, p. 238b-239b]

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