10 Years Later

‘Singur Eviction’–a Marxist Retrospection

Sandeep Banerjee

The year 2006 started with Kalinganagar—the battle of Adivasi people against eviction. The Day-1 'score' was—Tribal 12-37 and Police 1-4—the first figure indicates number of persons died and the second figure, number of persons injured—January 2, 2006. Adivasi people there were claiming 'Tata's land' to be theirs. 2006 ended with Singur—some 1000 peasants and agro-labourers were evicted and Tata got 1000 acres—December 1, 2006, walls came up on boundaries of Tata's land. In 2007 and onwards people of Nandigram, Jagatsighpur, Raigarh, Niyamgiri and others carried the flag of resistance.

The Bengal 'Marxists' (mainly CPI-M variety) considered this land acquisition and 'industrialisation' to be the only solution left for 'progress', 'employment generation'. Many other 'Marxists' thought it historically progressive; because after all, Indian agriculture, per se, in general, is underdeveloped, contained many pre-capitalist aspects and industries, in spite of everything, will increase the number of 'proletariat', social consciousness and so on so forth.

In the time of Marx, Engels or Lenin the world did not see any such forceful land acquisition, making of SEZ and industries therein and etc. It was unfortunate for the Indian left; they could not get any suitable 'quotation' of these leaders to nail opponents (other than some discussions on primitive accumulation, and then, the soviet 'socialist accumulation—industrialisation' discourse). [What else Marx would have done than exposing the cruelty of the capitalists and as well as swallowing the 'historical fate' at the same time with a proclamation that it would only increase in number the grave diggers of capitalism, the proletariat]—this might be in their mind. Muzhiks' fight, for their land was anachronistic and historically backward to those Indian lefts.

The Chapter 27 of Capital Volume 1 (Expropriation of the Agricultural Population from the Land) starts with these two sentences: "In England, serfdom had practically disappeared in the last part of the 14th century. The immense majority of the population [1] consisted then, and to a still larger extent, in the 15th century, of free peasant proprietors, whatever was the feudal title under which their right of property was hidden". And in Footnote 1 Marx quoted Macaulay. Macaulay wrote : "The petty proprietors who cultivated their own fields with their own hands, and enjoyed a modest competence.... then formed a much more important part of the nation than at present. If we may trust the best statistical writers of that age, not less than 160,000 proprietors who, with their families, must have made up more than a seventh of the whole population, derived their subsistence from little freehold estates. ...It was computed that the number of persons who tilled their own land was greater than the number of those who farmed the land of others". Macaulay : "History of England", 10th ed., 1854, I. pp. 333, 334.

In the next paragraph, Marx explains how capitalism was founded : "A mass of free proletarians was hurled on the labour market by the breaking-up of the bands of feudal retainers, ..." And then, "...the great feudal lords created an incomparably larger proletariat by the forcible driving of the peasantry from the land, to which the latter had the same feudal right as the lord himself, and by the usurpation of the common lands. The rapid rise of the Flemish wool manufactures, and the corresponding rise in the price of wool in England, gave the direct impulse to these evictions. The old nobility had been devoured by the great feudal wars. The new nobility was the child of its time, for which money was the power of all powers. Transformation of arable land into sheep-walks was, therefore, its cry." Enclosures (or "Inclosures" in many texts of that time) started, fences came up, ditches dug and the land was enclosed.

Simon Fairlie informs, "In the 1381 Peasants' Revolt, enclosure was an issue, albeit not the main one. In Jack Cade's rebellion of 1450 land rights were a prominent demand. By the time of Kett's rebellion of 1549 enclosure was a main issue, as it was in the Captain Pouch revolts of 1604-1607 when the terms "leveller" and "digger" appeared, referring to those who levelled the ditches and fences erected by enclosers." [A Short History of Enclosure in Britain, in the Land Magazine, land Issue—7, Summer 2009]

Robert Kett was a wealthy farmer and owned a tannery business. He was also a well-educated man. He was almost 57 years old when he started leading a rebellion which he did out of compassion. Kett's rebellion began in July 1549. In the previous month, there was a rebellious action of the peasants at a nearby place where the fences to enclose common lands were torn down. After the Wymondham feast on the first weekend of July a group of dissenters set off for tearing fences in another village. One of their first targets, according to Stephen Land, was Sir John Flowerdew, a lawyer and landowner at Hethersett who was unpopular for his role as overseer of the demolition of Wymondham Abbey (part of which was the parish church) and for enclosing land; and Flowerdew bribed the rioters to leave his enclosures alone and instead attack those of Robert Kett at Wymondham [Kett's rebellion, Stephen K Land, 1977 edition, page 42|. Robert Kett listened to the "rioters" and decided to join their cause. He himself led the people to dismantle the fences in land owned by him. The peasant masses appreciated his action and dedication and knowing he was a learned man, requested him to take the leadership. Thereafter Kett led the army of Peasant Rebels. As the rebel army advanced their rank swelled. It was advancing victoriously. The King had to send thousands of troopers including foreign mercenaries to quell the rebellion. King's victory was not easy. But at last, at the end of August, after loss of more than three thousand lives in the brave final battle the rebellion could be halted. Kett and some leaders were arrested and on December 7, 1549 Kett was hanged to death.

The first demand of the rebels (there were twenty nine demands in all) was "We pray your grace that where it is enacted for enclosing that it be not hurtful to such as have enclosed saffron grounds for they be greatly chargeable to them, and that from henceforth no man shall enclose anymore". This was not anti-feudal or capitalist in essence, as such. Officially the rebellion did not ask for an end of old or feudal land tenure system as can be understood from the twenty nine demands. (But aspiration of people could be felt from other sources. During the rebellion of Kett people heard the complement that "For the pride of great men is now intolerable... These" (i.e., the rich] "abound in delights and compassed with the fulnesse of things ...thirst only after gaine, but themselves" (i.e., the people] "had nothing all their lifelong but sweat, mourn, hunger, and thirst. How long should we suffer so great oppression? .... For so far are they (the "gentlemen now gone in cruelty and covetousness as they are content not only to take by violence all away, and by force and villainy to get, except they may also suck, in a manner, our blood and marrow out of our veines and bones. The common pastures left by our predecessors ....are taken away. The lands which in the memories of our fathers were common are made several [i.e., private property]—We desire liberty and an indifferent" (i. e., common) "use of all things". [The Working Class Movement in England, Eleanor Marx Aveling, 1895] Even we hear about a prophecy in Yorkshire which ran "that there should be no king reign in England, the noblemen and gentlemen to be destroyed and the realm to be ruled by four governors to be elected and appointed by the Commons holding a Parliament". [The pictorial history of England during the reign of George the Third: being a history of the people, as well as a history of the kingdom, Volume 2, By George Lillie Craik, Charles MacFarlane, Ch 1 page 487, in Google Books] Anyway, Marx did not use these anecdotes while analysing the rebellion.

In his German Ideology, Marx, ridiculing the notion that is implied in words like "the workers' disturbances which flare up here and there" wrote, "Workers' disturbances, which even under the Byzantine Emperor Zeno led to the promulgation of a law (Zeno, de novis operibus constitutio [Decree on New Works]), which "flared up" in the fourteenth century in the form of the Jacquerie and Wat Tyler's rebellion, in 1518 on the Evil May Day in London, and in 1549 in the great uprising of the tanner Kett [67] and later gave rise to Act 15 of the second and third year of the reign of Edward VI, and a series of similar Acts of Parliament; the disturbances which soon afterwards, in 1640 and 1659 (eight uprisings in one year), took place in Pans and which already since the fourteenth century must have been frequent in France and England, judging by the legislation of the time; the constant war which since 1770 in England and since the revolution in France has been waged with might and cunning by the workers against the bourgeoisie—all this exists for Saint Max only "here and there", in Silesia, Poznan, Magdeburg and Berlin, "according to German newspaper reports". Here he not only praises Kett's Rebellion as "the great uprising of the tanner Kett" but also places it in the string of historical movements dating back from workers' revolts in ancient times to the present-day workers' revolts. Eleanor also placed this Kett's rebellion in her History of Working Class Movement in England. He did not criticise that rebellion that was acting de facto against the then prevalent path of capitalist development (through enclosures and large scale sheep cultivation) of the capitalist landlords. Now, will it not be baseless to conjecture, based on the above discussion, that had Marx (or Eleanor) be alive in 2006, he (or she) would stand in support of the anti-eviction movement.

Vol. 49, No.26, Jan 1 - 7, 2017