pelz people's history

Pelz’s People’s History of Modern Europe gives an illuminating history of the class struggles and revolts which accompanied the modernisation of Europe, finds Tom Whittaker


William A. Pelz, A People’s History of Modern Europe (Pluto Press 2016), xi, 273pp.

People’s history seems today to be all the rage, with a proliferation of books bearing this title. Probably the two best known books of the genre remain A. L. Morton’s A People’s History of England (1938), and Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, published in 1980. Both works set out to tell an alternative version of their respective country’s story through focusing on the struggles and politics of subordinate and oppressed groups. Each is a ‘history from below’, a term coined in the 1960s by E. P. Thompson and closely associated with the idea of people’s history.

After Zinn, the deluge, with people’s histories including those of The World (1999); The British Empire (2006); The Third World (2007); London (2012); The Second World War (2012); Scotland (2014); The French Revolution (2014). This is far from an exhaustive list, but a crucial common denominator seems to be that they were all produced by Marxists. It is, however, debatable whether a focus on history ‘from below’ requires the author to draw radical conclusions. For instance, Wikipedia lists Orlando Figes’ history of the Russian revolution as an example of people’s history despite his clear hostility towards the October Revolution. Certainly, the broader genre of social history has become increasingly compatible with political conservatism in recent years.

Therefore, it is perhaps useful that Pelz clarifies a number of methodological issues in his introduction. Firstly, the ‘bias of selection’. Pelz refers to a famous 1999 experiment in which people were asked to watch a basketball match and count the number of passes made by the white team. During the video, someone wearing a gorilla suit walked across the court pounding their chest for five seconds, but when asked afterwards whether they had seen the gorilla, fifty percent of respondents replied that they hadn’t. For Pelz, the common people are the ‘gorilla’ of history, too often missed by scholars and students (p.x). Driving this common process of exclusion of the common people from history is what Pelz dubs ‘an unholy trinity’ of class, sexist and ethnic prejudice (p.xi).

However, no people’s history can be exclusively a history from below that looks only at the struggles of the common people. For it is precisely through conflict with those in power, the ruling classes, that the common people really develop a sense of their own agency and their own power. Therefore, people’s history, more narrowly and usefully defined, is the history of the class struggle, of popular revolt and of the risings of various oppressed groups.

History of class struggle

In such a vein, Pelz opens with the decay of western feudalism and proceeds through the radical reformation, the English and French revolutions, and those of 1848, to tell the tale of the rise of industrial capitalism and the working class. He then moves on to the twentieth century, that epoch of war and revolution, fascism and genocide. Finally, Pelz covers the Cold War with its division of the continent and threat of nuclear annihilation, and the new social movements to which it helped give rise; a narrative he takes right up to the financial crash of 2008 and beyond. Of course, the history of modern Europe is still being made.

The opening chapter deals with the collapse of the medieval order, and on page six we learn about ruling class’ sexual predation on the common people. It has even been claimed that in the feudal period peasants were subject to jus primae noctis, the right of the lord of the manor to have intercourse with a peasant bride on her wedding night, a custom symbolic of the feudal lords’ power over their serfs (p.6). Although the literal reality of this particular practice is disputed, there can be no doubt of the oppressive nature of lords’ actual powers over the peasantry. A genuine grievance of the 1381 Peasant’s Revolt in England was the attempts by officials gathering the Poll Tax to verify the virginity of peasant daughters through which they would be exempted from the charge.

Retribution for the many oppressions of the feudal period was on its way, however; the Hundred Years war between England and France witnessed the end of the feudal ruling classes’ military monopoly as the heavily armoured knights mounted on horseback were slain by the peasants’ longbows. As the power of the French nobles waned, that of Joan Arc rose. Capable of rallying the common people, she proved hard to control, so it was of some relief to the French ruling class when she was burnt at the stake as a witch (p.10).

The Reformation

Considerable space is given to the clash between the conservative and radical theories of the reformation (pp.18-29), which came to a head in the German peasant war of 1525. This was, according to Pelz, the largest rebellion of in Europe until at least the English revolution of the 1640s, if not the French revolution of 1789. Thomas Muntzer was the spiritual leader of all those who rejected not only papal exploitation but secular oppression as well. His followers opposed both the Roman Catholic hierarchy and Luther’s reformist programme. Theology increasingly gave way to secular demands as Muntzer’s peasant followers demanded the abolition of serfdom, restoration of ancient hunting and fishing rights, and restrictions on taxes, rents and forced labour. The repression meted out to the ill-equipped peasants was of course brutal. Martin Luther implored the upper-class knights to: ‘Stab, smite, slay whoever can. If you die doing it, well for you! A more blessed defeat can never be yours…’ (p.24).

Industrialisation and colonialism

So Pelz’s narrative of class struggle is necessarily one of numerous, tragic and bloody defeats, periods of reaction and brutal repression in which the good people were often slaughtered. Furthermore, many of the processes which drove the emergence and transformation of modern Europe, of which Pelz sees industrialisation as the key, were not ones in which the common people were in the driving seat. Industrialisation was driven by both the internaldispossession of the Europe’s common people and the external plunder from the colonies, the slave system ensuring that the exploitation of the colonies was such a success (pp.61-2). Moreover, in the wake of the defeat of the 1848 revolution, the process of national unification of Germany was driven by Otto von Bismarck from above; the contrast with Italy and Garibaldi’s more popular completion of the process of Italian unification being instructive here.

Frequently, the sheer daily grind of having to earn a living kept the common people of Europe in their place and certainly, that is sadly often the case today. However, Pelz strikes an upbeat conclusion:

‘If the average European worker or farmer lives a significantly better life than others around the planet, it is in large measure because they have fought. None of the advantages that so many enjoy today were gifts from an enlightened ruling class. Every reform, every concession by those with wealth and power came as a result of the self-activity of average Europeans’ (p.217).

Whilst no doubt largely true, this also begs the question as to whether the class struggle has been particularly intense in Europe, and whether modern Europeans are better off because they fought harder than the African and Asian counterparts? This seems unlikely, so we must surely also take into account the fact that capitalism arose first in Europe and that it extended itself across the globe in the form of a destructive colonialism and imperialism. Of course, the external plunder from the colonies and the amassing of wealth by Europe’s ruling classes could act, at different times, to both nullify and intensify the class struggle of Europe’s common people.

Of no doubt is that Pelz’s sympathies, as he had earlier made clear, lie with the various revolts against the European Empires waged by the common people of Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean and, as in the case of Ireland, from the people of Europe who were themselves the subjects of empire. Perhaps, to return to an earlier point, there is an opportunity for the further proliferation of people’s histories, with one of the early colonies complementing that of modern Europe.