“We believe in constitutional action in normal times; we believe in revolutionary action in exceptional times. These are exceptional times.” The words of James Connolly are at the head of a poster pasted on various street electricity boxes.
Revolutionary action? Exceptional times? Aren’t the times always exceptional and what is achieved by attempts at violent revolution?
My forebears rallied to the revolutionary cause in 1645, they stood in the ranks of the Parliamentary army on 10th July 1645, an army that inflicted an humiliating defeat on the forces of the Crown, and what did it achieve? The miserable and violent years of rule of the Commonwealth, the dictatorship of the war criminal Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell. No Stuart monarchy could have been worse than the rule of the Puritans.
Forty years later, the men of our community rallied to a Protestant revolutionary cause again, supporting the claim to the throne of the Duke of Monmouth against the Catholic King James II.
Monmouth was popular in the south-west of England, popular among the farm labourers and artisans, popular among non-conformists. Monmouth landed at Lyme Regis in Dorset on 11th June 1685 and met the Crown forces on Sedgemoor, outside of Weston Zoyland on 6th July 1685. Monmouth’s army suffered heavy casualties on the battlefield. 2,700 of the rebels were captured, 750 of those were transported and 320 were executed in the Bloody Assizes of Judge Jeffreys.
The West Countrymen had little cause to love the Stuarts and welcomed William, Prince of Orange, when he landed in Brixham in 1688 and began the Glorious Bloodless Revolution. The Catholic James II was driven out and the Protestants William and Mary became monarchs, not that it made much difference to the lot of poor farm workers in Somerset.
In the Nineteenth Century, agrarian conditions had worsened and revolutionary actions were again seen as the only available option. In the neighbouring county of Wiltshire in the 1830s there were more than two hundred acts of violence in the name of the mythical Captain Swing, actions that included machine breaking, rick burning and cow maiming.
Whilst expressing deep anger at the deepening poverty felt by far workers, the Swing disturbances did nothing to improve the lot of those who were suffering. The response of the government to the widespread poverty in the nation was the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act which brought with it the horrors of the workhouse.
Revolutions have only worsened conditions, even those who quote James Connolly must realise the consequences of revolutionary action. The 1916 revolution in Ireland brought a bloody War of Independence, a bitter Civil War, and years of struggle for working people. Much as the revolutionaries may despise it, reform has always achieved far more.