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The Rioting Crowd

The Crowd in History, 1730-1848

by George Rudé
John Wiley, 281 pp., $5.95

The century of the common man calls for the history of the common man; the era of mass civilization for the study of the masses. It is all the more curious that it has taken the historians—and even the sociologists—so long to take a serious interest in this subject. Largely the product of the 1950s, its relative immaturity is obvious. It does not even possess that essential characteristic of any “discipline” which wishes to establish university departments and raise money from foundations: an agreed brand name. The sociologists hover between two or three labels, of which “Collective Behavior” seems to have the best chances until something more authentically Greek-sounding comes along. The historians of the common people still shelter under the wide umbrella of “social history,” which is itself an extremely vague though increasingly popular category gradually emancipating itself from a modest existence as a euphemism for the history of radical organizations, an after-thought to “economic history,” or another way of describing the history of such things as clothing and furniture. In the Anglo-Saxon world it still lacks even a specialist journal.

Nevertheless, without awaiting the proper academic baptismal rites, scholars from various starting-points have been spontaneously converging. Anthropologists, sociologists, philosophers, historians, experts on religion, orientalists, and even a professor of French, have in the past ten years produced a substantial literature about millenarian movements. Historians, sociologists, literary scholars, psychologists, and old-fashioned amateurs have contributed numerous studies about popular culture. There are more studies of labor movements, and what is more novel, of the working classes, than ever before. The study of the French Revolution (and through it of other revolutions) has been transformed by the pupils of the late Georges Lefebvre, the greatest man in this field in our lifetime, whose most original contribution to it was piecisely the discovery that it could be studied “from below.” Indeed his definition of “the essential problem of social history” is a very fair description of what the students of “collective behavior”—few of whom have read the passage—are trying to do: “to determine precisely the needs, interests, sentiments, and above all the mental content of the popular classes.” The curious fact is that, while Lefebvre’s research program was formulated in the 1920s, and his masterpiece in this genre, the study of La Grande Peur—the remarkable agrarian agitation of the summer of 1789—is more than thirty years old, he did not acquire pupils and major influence until after the Second World War.

The reason is, of course, political. Ours is the characteristic age not merely of the passive “mass civilization” of the industrial West, but of activist mass revolutionary movements. There were almost certainly more millenial movements active in the world in the 1950s than at any time in the Middle Ages. The subject is inescapable, all the more so because the conceptual framework into which the traditional, social, and political movements of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were fitted, is clearly incapable of holding all the movements which appear in the world of colonial liberation. Moreover, political commitment—mainly of the left, only rarely of the anti-left—has contributed very heavily to the study of the common people. Lefebvre himself (like most serious historians of the French or other revolutions) sympathized profoundly with it, and derived his ideological inspiration from Michelet, Marx, and Jaurès. One of the ironies of the 1950s, which were so widely advertised as the age when ideology had ended, is that they produced this extremely ideological branch of studies.

George Rudé’s The Crowd in History is both an excellent introduction to one part of the new field and a very typical product of the movement. Rudé himself began, as a pupil of Lefebvre, with a brilliantly lucid and convincing study of The Crowd in the French Revolution and has since extended his field mainly to eighteenth-century England, on whose riots he is now the ranking expert. In the course of these he published the standard monographs on the Gordon Riots of 1780 and the Wilkes agitations. His present study, an admirable introduction to popular disturbances in France and England in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century, is in fact more ambitious than the title indicates, for he clearly believes—probably correctly—that his findings are more generally applicable. Rudé’s work reflects both the youth and the achievements of this new branch of history. Most of it was quite unknown before 1950, and much of it will be new even to experts today. At the same time most of it rests on the single, simple question, so elementary that one never ceases to be amazed that it was not asked before: whose were the faces in the crowd? It may seem incredible that nobody tried before to discover what sort of people actually stormed the Bastille, but Rudé is the first to have done so, and has discovered it by such simple processes as analyzing the list of 662 of the citizens who got a title for it.

They—and virtually all the other “mobs” or “crowds” which figure in eighteenth and early nineteenth-century history—were not “the entire people” of Micheletian romanticism nor the “dangerous classes” and lumpen proletariat of reactionary mythology. They were essentially respectable citizens, artisans, skilled journeymen and apprentices, small shopkeepers and workshop masters—men and women of fixed abode and settled jobs, often—as in English agrarian riots—mature or even middle-aged family men. Before the 1840s they were rarely proletarians in the modern sense, though in the June rising of 1848 the industrial workers—e.g., from the railway workshops—already appear to play a crucial part, and in Chartism they were obviously prominent. Intellectuals and members of the middle classes were rarely great barricade-raisers or mounters, and are dominant in only one of Rudé’s riots, characteristically the royalist riot of Vendémiaire 1795. It is equally significant that the eighteenth and early nineteenth-century riot was remarkably unviolent, except in the destruction of property. The “mob” was anything but bloodthirsty, immeasurably less so than those who repressed it. Nobody was killed by the Gordon Rioters, but 285 were killed or died of wounds in their suppression. None of the numerous food riots of eighteenth-century England killed anybody; but at least nineteen were shot dead in their suppression in a single year (1766). More surprisingly, the same is true of the revolutionary uprisings in France. On the other hand early English labor disputes were more dangerous to the lives and limbs of scabs, and there were the massacres of August and September 1792, on which the reactionary myth of the bloodthirsty mob largely rests. Whether the “crowd” was or was not responsible for the September massacres (which were actually carried out by small groups of massacreurs under orders) is a matter for debate; the incident is untypical.

Rudé applies an equally commonsense treatment to the actual mechanisms of the riot—its place of explosion, mode of propagation (illustrated by several clear but approximate distribution maps), procedure and leadership. He is hesitant about drawing sharp distinctions between “militants” or “activists” and the passive mass of the population whenever rioting crowds are not yet composed of bodies of politically conscious or organized men, the sansculottes for example. The rioting farmlaborers of 1830, transported to Van Diemen’s Land contained few specially dynamic or activist types, as their subsequent Australian careers show. Nevertheless the crowd sometimes had leaders—local and temporary “riot-captains” in England and beyond them the outside “heroes”—real, like John Wilkes or Marat and Hébert, perhaps mythical like General Ludd of Captain Swing’s machine-breakers among the rioting farm-laborers—who gave it unity and direction. With the development of revolutionary and labor movements a major change took place: the rank-and-file leader ceased to be “occasional, sporadic and anonymous” and became “continuous and openly proclaimed”: the sans-culotte militant, the local radical shoemaker or printer, the union activist.

The analysis of leadership already takes Rudé beyond the nominal limits of the book, which is the rioting crowd, and into the wider region of “the movement.” So does the analysis of the “crowd’s” motives and beliefs. For if the occasion of the riot could be simple—characteristically a combination of unemployment and sharply rising foodprices, such as was likely to occur periodically—they had an ideology and a program, though in general neither was explicit or adequately formulated. And the most interesting aspect of this unformulated ideology is its change from the political “right” to the political “left.” It was always on the side of the “laboring poor” against the rich, even when its ostensible victims were the Irish or the Catholics. When the rich were themselves identified with radical ideologies (as in Naples or Birmingham during the French Revolution), or simply when the “crowd” was prepolitical, its “program” might take the form of a militant traditionalism (the “church-and-king mob”), rejecting the tensions and disturbances of social and economic change for the idealized stable order of the past. Yet after 1789 the slogans of the left began to take over. The Parisian crowds rallied to the cry “Long Live the Third Estate” even before the Estates-General had assembled (though the radical Parisians also demonstrated in 1793 for the right to preserve the traditional Corpus Christi procession, whose function in the preindustrial community was vital). Rudé is too able a historian to oversimplify this transition from traditional to revolutionary ideology, which anticipated modern democratic and labor movements, but he leaves us in no doubt about the general tendency.

Like all Rudé’s work, The Crowd in History is concentrated, simple, and clear, and admirably suited to the nonspecialist reader. Its weaknesses are those of any synthesis of a subject which has hardly yet begun to develop. It does not take us as far as we would like to go, and it is likely to be by-passed by more recent work—Edward Thompson’s Making of the English Working Class, for example, which Rudé has evidently been able to utilize only in his later chapters, and more recent American work on the 1830 revolution in Paris, which has appeared too late for him to use. Still, these things are inevitable. It is far better that recent research be made available immediately, than that the books which schoolboys, students, and the general public read, should lag twenty years behind the frontiers of real history, as was the case not long ago. It merely means that the historian has to abandon the old and utopian ambition to write definitive works. If the history of the common people advances at its present rate, very little of this book should be worth reading in ten years’ time. This would be a triumph for, among others, its author.

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