The Mill Was Good Socialist TV. Let’s Make More.

We need high-quality, entertaining class-struggle television. The BBC’s period drama The Mill, which was ahead of its time when it debuted in 2013, shows us how it’s done.

Kerrie Hayes as Esther Price in BBC's drama The Mill.

On these warm late-summer evenings I like to walk around my neighborhood in Los Angeles. Built in the 1920s for public-sector workers, its homes are modest but their architecture is comprised of eclectic, one-story stucco bungalows fitted with fantasy turrets or festooned with candy-striped awnings. Their strongest commonality is the wavering blue light that seeps through the blinds and drapes: everyone’s inside watching television.

This is disconcerting to me. Usually I’ve spent all day writing for the Web about capitalism, socialism, and class struggle, attempting to convince readers that the current economic and political system is not the final stage of human society, and that we can have security and freedom for all if we build a mass movement to change it. Often I close my laptop feeling accomplished, and then I go for a walk and am overcome with awareness of the limitations of our project.

Socialists have footholds on the internet, but we have essentially none in television. Lately I’ve grown more convinced that to complement everything else we do, we should try to change that.

To be sure, Marxists don’t think that socialism will automatically flow from shifting popular perceptions alone. Instead we identify organized, concrete, mass class struggle as the method of social transformation. But real-world class struggle must be undertaken by people, and people always have beliefs and convictions and ideas in their heads that make them more or less likely to take risks by banding together to push for change. It will be easier to convince people to do this if they’re predisposed to our values and worldview.

That’s why we argue our case in socialist publications, for example, and it’s why in every age socialists have understood that we must have popular socialist art and entertainment too.

In the United States, socialists used to be more involved in making movies and television, before communists and fellow travelers were purged from Hollywood during the McCarthyist era. We should attempt to reestablish that presence in the United States and elsewhere, and expand beyond commentary to the kinds of entertainment that people already like to kick their feet up and enjoy. The short-lived BBC drama The Mill showed us how it’s done.

Case Study: The Mill

In the last few months, socialists I know have been running a word-of-mouth promotional campaign for The Mill, which ran for two seasons in 2013 and 2014. It’s a solid period drama typical for the BBC, predictably transporting and emotionally satisfying. It’s not pitched to viewers who are intentionally seeking out political content, just people who like old-timey costumes and human tales of heartache and heroism, which it offers in abundance.

The Mill is set in 1830s Cheshire, England and is based on the real stories, curated from the national archives, of workers at the Quarry Bank Mill. In reality, Quarry Bank Mill was the largest textile mill in England by the time its founder Samuel Greg died of injuries sustained when he was gored by a stag on the grounds of his estate. It employed children plucked from poorhouses, orphans, or paupers with no other means of survival.

The Gregs enjoyed a reputation as enlightened employers, providing workers between the ages of seven and sixteen with food and lodging. Samuel Greg and his wife Hannah were the benevolent “job creators” of their day. Without their benefaction, the reasoning went, the helpless peons would become beggars. In exchange for rescue from certain destitution, the children and teenagers were expected to work an average of twelve hours a day. They were conferred no rights, and not given a wage. Survival was their reward. When they came of age, they were counted lucky to be hired on as workers and paid.

The color palette of the first season of The Mill is grey, the mise-en-scène grim, the depiction of events vivid and unmerciful. Its protagonists are Esther, a young textile millworker with a natural intolerance for injustice, and Daniel, a skilled mechanic whose agitational spirit has already been crushed by a stint in a debtor’s prison but begins to stir anew as he witnesses fresh abuses at Quarry Bank.

The first season of The Mill sends up the Greg family, who fashion themselves as progressives while not only working their charges to the bone but also running a slave plantation in the Caribbean. Daniel chafes at his employers’ command to sign a pledge not to join a union, a bridge too far for a class-conscious worker, even one who has resigned himself to a quieter life. He is encouraged to resist by a publisher and radical agitator he knows from his life before prison, who is incensed by the Gregs’ opposition in parliament to a bill limiting the workday to ten hours, and seeks to enlist Daniel to subvert the Gregs inside the factories.

Meanwhile the teenage Esther, who unlike Daniel has no broader political understanding but makes up for it with a surfeit of innate rebelliousness, seeks to rally the other girls to blow the whistle on the cruel practices of management, ranging from sexual harassment to manslaughter. At first she finds solidarity hard to come by: the girls are afraid to speak up, coerced into silence by the threat of retaliation from management at best, and unemployment and certain indigence at worst. Thus a show that has drawn the viewer in with its immersive sooty Dickensian aesthetic has become a show about the mechanics of class struggle.

By the second season, the show is a visually a bit brighter, but its politics grow even more militant. This season introduces us to Peter, an emancipated slave from the Gregs’ plantation in Dominica. Like the rest of the British slaveholding class, the Gregs were compensated for their loss of property when Britain abolished slavery in 1833, and Peter, unbeknownst to his owners-turned-employers, has a score to settle. While the anti-slavery Hannah Greg regards Peter’s freedom as an achievement that soothes her own conscience, Peter is haunted by memories of brutal domination that leave scars on his body and his psyche.

We also meet the Howlett family, economic migrants from the South of England who’ve been dispossessed and displaced from the land on which they previously lived and subsisted. Starving and desperate, they’re willing to accept lower wages and conditions that violate hard-won pro-worker laws, inflaming tensions between groups of workers. The economic migrant and ex-slave each represent new populations being unevenly incorporated into the nascent proletariat at the dawn of industrial capitalism, a process whose legacies weigh heavily on our prospects for united class struggle today.

As the drama of the second season swells, we witness the rise of the Chartist movement, which fought for universal adult male suffrage and social reform, as well as the lead-up to and execution of a full-blown strike at Quarry Mill. It’s stunning to imagine how many people relaxing in their homes were exposed through this show to a popular rendering of some of the highlights of socialist history, from strikers battling strikebreakers at the factory gates to thousands of early socialists chanting “We are many, they are few!” in an open English field, one of the last of its kind.

Class Struggle Makes Good Television

The second season of The Mill ends inconclusively; the show was unceremoniously canceled. Just a year later Jeremy Corbyn was elected to the leadership of the Labour Party, making his mantra “For the many, not the few.” The following year, across the Atlantic, Bernie Sanders’s presidential run revived the concept of socialism and called forth a budding movement to match. Despite the Left’s electoral losses, class politics are back on the map in much of the English-speaking world. I can’t help but think that the show was made just a hair too early, and that if it ran now it would last for a few more seasons. Maybe the BBC should revive it.

Regardless, we should look to the show as an example of the kind of socialist entertainment we need. The Mill shows that class struggle can make a great backdrop for gripping storytelling. There’s conflict, there’s camaraderie, there’s violence, there’s the triumph of the human spirit. The structure and incentives of capitalism itself offer plenty of grist for plot twists and turns. Opportunities abound for heroism and villainy, unexpected solidarity and bitter betrayal. And the stakes could not be higher: only human survival and dignity, bread and roses.

When you put it like that, one wonders why there isn’t more class-struggle television. Where are our period dramatizations of the Haymarket affair or the Flint sit-down strikes, or black and white meatpackers’ discovery of the strategic utility of militant multiracial solidarity in mid-century Chicago, or the collaboration and tensions between working-class and wealthy women suffragists?

The answer is that our ideas are not only not hegemonic, they’re also threatening to the capitalist class, which controls the entertainment industry like every other industry. Still, there are plenty of cracks to slip through, and the political reward for pulling it off could be high. So screenwriters, read up on socialist and working-class history and get busy. Everyone else, next time you find yourself in search of a substantial and entertaining drama, watch The Mill.