Saturday, 23 September 2017

The Glorious Revolution 1688: Britain's Fight for Liberty, by Edward Vallance 372pp, Little, Brown, £20

Edward Vallance has joined a crowded market of books and articles both academic and non-academic that have sought to evaluate the Glorious Revolution of 1688.

It is noticeable that the last decade has seen a more serious study of this neglected period. The book is one of the better ones. It is well-written, researched and appeals to the general reader and academic alike.

Vallance begins the book with two quotes. One from Thatcher and one from Karl Marx. It takes a brave historian to quote both. It takes an even braver one to claim that their positions on the Glorious Revolution was similar.

In her Revolutions of 1688–89 speech said  Thatcher said this “there are many important conclusions to be drawn from those momentous events 300 years ago. First, the glorious revolution established qualities in our political life which have been a tremendous source of strength: tolerance, respect for the law and the impartial administration of justice, and respect for private property. It also established the tradition that political change should be sought and achieved through Parliament. It was this which saved us from the violent revolutions which shook our continental neighbours and made the revolution of 1688 the first step on the road which, through the successive Reform Acts, led to the establishment of universal suffrage and full parliamentary democracy.

“The events of 1688 were important in establishing Britain's nationhood, and they opened the way to that renewal of energy and resourcefulness which built Britain's industrial and financial strength and gave her a world role. They demonstrated that a free society will always be more durable and successful than any tyranny”.

It is quite striking that Thatcher believed that England’s place in the world stemmed from what amounts to a coup and foreign invasion to boot. Maybe Ted Vallance had his tongue firmly in his cheek when he wrote the book, but it is stretching a little to compare the two.

In his analysis of the Glorious revolution, Marx was scathing of both the Whigs and Tories. This on the Whigs gives us a real insight into his position “Ever since the “glorious revolution” of 1688 the Whigs, with short intervals, caused principally by the first French Revolution and the consequent reaction, have found themselves in the enjoyment of the public offices. Whoever recalls to his mind this period of English history, will find no other distinctive mark of Whigdom but the maintenance of their family oligarchy. The interests and principles which they represent besides, from time to time, do not belong to the Whigs; they are forced upon them. By the development of the industrial and commercial class, the Bourgeoisie. After 1688 we find them united with the Bankocracy, just then rising into importance, as we find them in 1846, united with the Millocracy”.[1]

Vallance could have called upon another revolutionary if he had any doubts on the nature of the British bourgeoisie’s position which was to either played down this revolution or erase it from collective memory.

The Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky commentated on this phenomenon “In the seventeenth century England carried out two revolutions. The first, which brought forth great social upheavals and wars, brought amongst other things the execution of King Charles I, while the second ended happily with the accession of a new dynasty. The British bourgeoisie and its historians maintain entirely different attitudes to these two revolutions: the first is for them a rising of the mob – the “Great Rebellion’; the second has been handed down under the title of the “Glorious Revolution”. The reason for this difference in estimates was explained by the French historian, Augustin Thierry. In the first English revolution, in the “Great Rebellion”, the active force was the people; while in the second it was almost “silent”. Hence, it follows that, in surroundings of class slavery, it is difficult to teach the oppressed masses good manners. When provoked to fury they use clubs, stones, fire. Moreover, the rope. The court historians of the exploiters are offended at this. However, the great event in modern “bourgeois” history is, none the less, not the “Glorious Revolution” but the “Great Rebellion”.[2]

The labelling of the revolution as the "Glorious Revolution" or the “bloodless revolution” tends to denote that this revolution was peaceful or bloodless.Vallance’s book counteracts this argument. Vallance believes the revolution was neither peaceful or bloodless.His book which is largely narrative driven explains in concise form how the "Glorious Revolution" of 1688 came about.


The book is successful in providing a basic introduction to the historiography of the revolution.
A solid read around the subject of the Glorious Revolution will tell the reader that the “Whig interpretation of this so-called bloodless of revolutions has dominated historiography.

The term the “Whig interpretation of history” can be traced back to Sir Herbert Butterfield’s slim volume of that name. Butterfield’s book was written primarily as a polemic against the Marxist theory of history. Whig historiography has always been associated with Victorian society, which oversaw a degree of stability that that had not been the case in the previous two centuries. This type of history saw Britain as having a special destiny.

According to the Marxist writer Ann Talbot, there is a sense “that in Britain things were done differently and without continental excess was not entirely new. Burke had expressed it in his Reflections on the French Revolution, but there were plenty of voices to gainsay him and the social disturbances in the years of economic upheaval that followed the Napoleonic Wars were a testimony to the contrary. Luddism, anti-corn law agitation, the anti-poor law movement, strikes and most of all Chartism demonstrated that Britain was not an island of social peace.

She continues “the Whig interpretation of history had deep roots in the consciousness of the British political class. The visitor to Chatsworth House in Derbyshire can still see in the great entrance hall a fireplace inscribed with the legend “1688 The year of our liberty.” It refers to the “Glorious Revolution” when James II quit his throne and his kingdom overnight, and William of Orange was installed as king. This was the kind of palace revolution that the British ruling class increasingly preferred to look back on rather than the revolution in the 1640s when they had executed the king, conveniently overlooking the fact that James would not have run if he had not remembered the fate of his father—Charles I” [3].

Thomas Babington Macaulay

Macaulay and for that matter, the majority of Whig historians exhibited a sort of Whig triumphalist view that the Glorious Revolution saved England from the full dictatorship of James II and the revolution led to a  constitutional monarchy which gave England civil and religious liberty and rule of law.

According to Blair Worden “Macaulay's account is thought of as the summit of Whig historical partisanship, but to him, 1688 was the triumph not of a party but a nation when the best of the Whigs joined with the best of the Tories”.[4]

Macaulay’s overtly fawning political approach put him firmly in the camp of what Trotsky called a “court historian”. Karl Marx attacked Macaulay’s writing for being one-sided and complacent and a 'systematic falsifier of history'.
GM Trevelyan

George Macaulay Trevelyan a British historian and academic was the ultimate whig historian. He was heavily tied to the political establishment, and his work reflected this fact. In his book The English Revolution, 1688–1698[6]  he portrays James II as a tyrant.  Despite this, the book has become a standard text for any university course.

On the plus side, he was a readable and talented historian. This was was spotted at an early age the Fabian writer Beatrice Webb who recounts when she met the historian in 1895 "He is bringing himself up to be a great man, is precise and methodical in all his ways, ascetic and regular in his habits, eating according to rule, exercising according to rule... he is always analysing his powers, and carefully considering how he can make the best of himself. In intellectual parts, he is brilliant, with a wonderful memory, keen analytical power, and a vivid style. In his philosophy of life, he is, at present, commonplace, but then he is young - only nineteen." 

However, not all historians were smitten by Macaulay’s partisan approach. Geoffrey Elton accused him of being "not very scholarly writer" who wrote, "soothing pap... lavishly doled out... to a broad public". John P. Kenyon thought he was an "insufferable snob" with "socially retrograde views".

It must be said that some these comments border on character assassination. Macaulay is worth reading and was one of the few historians to link both the English revolution of the 1640s and Glorious revolution in what could be interpreted as being part of an extended seventeenth century.

The Communist Party Historians Group

Much of what passed for a Marxist analysis of the Glorious revolution was written by the historians that were in the Communist Party Historians Group. Having said this, they did not write an awful lot.

The necessary myth of the “Glorious Revolution” was the aim of Christopher Hill’s first published article. This article was written under the pseudonym E.C. Gore in 1937. It appeared in the magazine Communist International and is extremely difficult to track down.

Hill wrote very little on the Glorious revolution preferring to concentrate on the English Revolution 1640. His writings on this subject as Ann Talbot says “contained a concise statement of the arguments that Hill was to spend the rest of his life elucidating”.  
In many ways, the Communist Party’s attitude towards the revolution has a strange similarity to the position of the British bourgeoisie, and that is to play down its importance.

Socialist Workers Party (SWP)

The SWP put a relatively orthodox position on the revolution. According to Duncan Hallas, “1688 represented the completion of the stabilisation of the English revolution, and it represented it in the most conservative form possible, consistent with the establishment of a stable bourgeois administration”.

They like the Communist Party have not bothered with the period. With other revolutions, it has always co-opted historians to write on them but not so the Glorious revolution.

Current Historiography

Vallance rejects the commonly held view, especially amongst Marxist historians that the English revolution and the Glorious revolution are linked in what should be termed the Long Seventeenth Century.

Revisionists and post-revisionists have according to one writer have “rebranded 1688 as a dynastic revolution serving Dutch interests - especially conflict with France - rather than the defence of England's "ancient constitution".

Vallance’s book is firmly in the Post-revisionist camp in that rejects both Marxist and Whig historiography. Vallance does not seem to want to post a new historiography appears to be happy arguing that the revolution was “less bloodless, less glorious”.

On this matter, his viewpoint is like Steve Pincus whose new book also sought to overturn the two dominant schools of historical interpretation. According to Graham Goodlad, Steve Pincus’s new study of the Glorious Revolution challenges the familiar Whig orthodoxy, originally expounded by Macaulay in the nineteenth century, and refined by successive generations of historians. According to this tradition, the replacement of James II by William and Mary was the work of a politically conservative elite, intent on restoring a balanced, historic constitution that had been threatened by the authoritarian, pro-Catholic actions of a misguided monarch. Pincus rejects both this interpretation and the more recent version of revisionists like John Miller and Mark Goldie, who have argued that James’ principal aim was to secure religious toleration for Catholics and Protestant Dissenters – a goal which led him into conflict with the narrowly Anglican prejudices of the English landed class. Pincus holds that both approaches underestimate the truly revolutionary nature of the struggle between the followers of James and William of Orange”.[5]


It is evident from the significant number of new books on the subject of the Glorious Revolution that the period is gaining something of a renaissance.

The centuries-long domination of Whig historiography has come under sustained challenge. Despite being clear what they reject both revisionists and post-revisionist historians are unclear what they want to replace both Whig or Marxist historiography with.

While classical Marxists such as Karl Marx have laid the foundations for a serious study of the Glorious revolution from the standpoint of historical materialism very few historians who professed to be Marxist, have built upon this platform. This theoretical indifference to an important period in the history of Britain is puzzling. Even more dangerous is that it mirrors the attitude of the bourgeoisie itself.

[1] Karl Marx in the New York Tribune 1852- The Elections in England. — Tories and Whigs-
[2] From Chapter 4 of Terrorism and Communism (1920)
[3] "These the times ... this the man": an appraisal of historian Christopher Hill-Ann Talbot -25 March 2003-

Sunday, 17 September 2017

La libélula mecánica y el averiguad

This article is an English translation of a review of the book La libélula mecánica y el averiguador by the Guatemalan author Arturo Monterroso. The review is by Claudine Giovannoni.

A copy of the Spanish article can be found at

Ten years have passed, and Isabel and Inés have grown up: do you remember the young protagonists of the novel La Mosca Dragon?

Arturo Monterroso brings us back to Guatemala, still full of political strokes, bloody attacks where drug traffickers, soldiers and those who make little money, say how to run terror.

This time, the protagonist is something that resembles a small insect that looks a lot like Maruca and Enriqueta’s Dragonfly in Tecpán: its code name is Rx566SL-REAPER.

There are a thousand possibilities where even the most trivial situation might be the cause of a shootout; but following the intimidation that happened that night, Antonio, father of Inés and Isabel, decides to bring his wife Nina and his daughters for some time to Gertrudis, a relative of theirs.

A week after having moved to Aunt Gertrudis’ house, Antonio and his family were invited to lunch at San Lucas in the house of the engineer lquijay, and this is where the REAPER appears during a walk in the garden of the villa.

Young engineer Manuel, Inés and Isabel’s friend, will be a valuable ally in finding out how it is made and what it is, using an electronic scanning microscope.

The pungent irony of the author takes shape in the conversations of the characters where the raw Guatemaltecan reality of each day (and of many other countries) is defused. On the one hand, pretences for shooting during the festivities of a thousand different Saints, on the other hand, he can ridicule those who must support foreign technology by possessing a cell phone.
Moreover, the improvised investigator Don Ramiro, well personify sarcasm when he speaks to his young helper Amadeo. A hitman commissioned Don Ramiro to find Adelaida Prado, while Inés and Isabel are as well on Adelaida’s traces.

The young anthropologist Adelaida kept hidden by Maruca and Enriqueta in Tecpán in the novel of the La Mosca Dragon, returned after years of political asylum in Mexico, in fact, she was not a subversive but was only guilty of not having accepted the advances of Cifuentes Ortega. Nevertheless, why are they looking for her again?

Then, the characters are intertwined: from American Zachary Collum, a gringo veteran, who has to leave his dog Henry in custody to someone before leaving for the United States. The poor black dog passes from hand-to-hand to finish with those of David Garrett (not the famous violinist), manager of the Jaguar Nook Restaurant, which then leaves him to Antonio, who finds himself as animal rights activist almost by accident.

In the story does not go unnoticed the D2 intrigues, the Guatemalan FBI, and the dirty chores of General Cifuentes that eventually die and no one knows who murdered him.

However, the final remains a question, why would Rx566SL-REAPER be recovered? Moreover, who had driven it and with what purpose? Moreover, if it was Alfredo Nottembaum, Carlos Lahsen’s partner, and Luisa’s father-in-law? He had been funding the putsch in 1989… Moreover, he is portrayed in the photograph of the conservative members of the Coffee Club along with Carlos!

A novel to read by keeping the breath, written with sincerity and humour, in which true human values are reported as opposed to violence and crime.

I like Monterroso’s style of naivety, as if it were his inner child to dictate words, knowing how to describe a variety of situations while maintaining a candid, though meticulous, language until the last detail.

Even this novel is suitable as well for a young audience; I also recommend it for educational purposes as it (unfortunately) deals with situations that are always up to date… Everywhere on this planet!


Arturo Monterroso was born in Guatemala, 1948. He is a writer and journalist. He studied language and literature at the University of San Carlos and held a degree in Journalism from the Universidad Panamericana.

In 1994 he published the short story book La ira oculta, and received the Novella Prize in 1995 for Piano Dark. This year, Editorial Norma published his novel for young people, The dragonfly. He has several novels, and some of his stories and articles have been translated into German and French.

He received the Novella 1995 Award for Oscuridad del piano  and the Award Brevísimos Dinosaurios 2009 del Centro Cultural de España, for Soy feliz. La libélula mecánica y el averiguador is his latest novel for young people.

La libélula mecánica y el averiguador can be purchased at this website
Editorial Norma– Ciudad de Guatemala , agosto 2016 ISBN 978-9929-42-210-0


Tuesday, 15 August 2017

Kishlansky on The Rise of the New Model Army

Dear Keith,

                  I have seen your comments on Kishlansky's book on your blog, A Trumpet of Sedition. This work is identical to his doctoral thesis supervised by David Underdown, a copy of which is in my possession. The text was not rushed into print prematurely.

Its central argument about the post-1646 politicisation of the New Model Army depends on his claim that, prior to that date, the armies of the Long Parliament lacked political interests of their own but this is clearly mistaken as any study, for example, of the 3rd Earl of Essex's army after the autumn of 1642 or of that of Sir William Waller or of the 2nd Earl of Manchester shows. Each of these armies had its own allies and advocates at Westminster and followers or supporters in the capital and relevant counties.

Kishlansky failed to recognise the implications of the works of Hexter and of Valerie Pearl in this respect. Nor should it be taken that the Levellers alone were significant in forming the political and religious attitudes of the New Model Army: the proposals debated at Putney were, as Philip Baker and Elliot Vernon showed, formulated by Henry Marten and his radical London allies rather than by the Levellers. 

       In any case, by the time Kishlansky's work was written, his argument hardly fitted into the pejoratively-termed 'Revisionist' project of Conrad Russell and his allies: that project focused on overthrowing the Whig-Marxist synthesis embraced by Hill, Stone, Manning and others. Its dominance was, however, mythical since it had already been challenged by figures like Hexter and John Ball in the 1950s.

In Christopher Hill's case, his influence waned rapidly after c.1972 when his model of analysis came under sustained challenge. Kishlansky's thesis and book were incidental to this process rather than central to it. Peter Lake described Kishlansky in September, 2015 as a "contrarian", someone who liked turning old notions upside down. You can see what he means from Kishlansky's study of Parliamentary elections in early modern England or from his last short book on Charles I.

It was this aspect of his approach that appealed to Russell and Morrill. Revisionism itself was, in any event, spent by c.1990 and has long since passed into the pages of secondary works just like the Marxism of Hill and his CPGB colleagues.

Thursday, 3 August 2017

The Rise of the New Model Army Paperback – 12 Jan 2008 Mark Kishlansky- Cambridge University Press; Reprint edition ISBN-10: 0521273773

They lived, they suffered, they died. Thomas Hardy

This version of Mark Kishlanksy’s The Rise of the New Model Army in paperback form is a meticulously-researched but highly controversial study of the rise of the New Model Army. Kishlansky challenges the fundamental assumptions upon which all previous interpretations of the New Model Army have been based.

It is Kishlanksy’s contention in the run up to the formation of the New Model Army to be more precise the years 1643–6, Parliament far from being in conflict operated as “model of consensus”.

So, for him, the New Model Army was not a direct result of Cromwell’s attempt to prosecute a far more aggressive and radical war against the King, and by radical I mean Leveller influenced. For Kishlansky radicalism hardly existed and the army was a by product of Consensus and compromise.

It was only after this consensus broke down did the army develop a political voice and become radicalised. The historian Ivan Roots is critical of Kishlansky’s attitude towards the army when he wrote “The New Model Army, 'departing little from the armies it replaced', is seen as a child of compromise. Not until the spectre of defeat was lifted in 1646 did 'adversary politics' seriously disturb Westminster internally, encouraging outside pressures. Factious now, Parliament failed to comprehend genuine professional grievances – arrears of pay and whatever – and by denying the right to petition politicised the Army, equating national liberties with soldiers' rights, making it seem more radical than it really was. (To all this the Levellers were irrelevant.) Stung in its honour the Army, reluctant but in good order, entered London in August 1647 to restore 'a free and lawful parliament' against internal and external 'faction and interest'. At this point, the story breaks off – on the brink of a revolution as yet undefined”.[1]

Kishlansky in the book discounts the belief that the army had a relatively worked out perspective and was beginning to act as a political force. He believed that  “From disparate and inchoate ideas the army formed its self –justification, and the process by which this happened, as do so many others of similar circumstances, remain mysterious”. The dictionary definition of inchoate used for our purpose is: not organised; lacking order, this is not correct.

It is clear the army had some form of collective ideology. The actions it took before and after Putney proved this. This is perhaps why Kishlansky stops short of discussing the Putney debates in his book.The Levellers persistent agitation had turned the New Model Army into a potent military and political force that had to be recognised.

Kishlansky attacks the concept that it is possible to draw wider political conclusions from the debate that took place in the New Model Army. He believed that Ideology inside the army had been exaggerated and misconceived.

He writes  ‘Much has been written about the ideology of the army, but most of it misconceived. A principle reason for this has been historians have assumed that the lowly social origins of many of the officers created a commitment to radical ideology. This is false on both factual and logical grounds. There were men of low birth among the new Model’s officers, and much has been made of Pride the drayman and Hewson the cobbler more still might be made of obscure officers like Spongers and Creamer whose surnames suggest backgrounds in trades and service. The army also contained a Cecil, a Sheffield, and three colonels who were knights. A careful study of the armies social origin, which lends support to the view that they were more traditional in nature (of solid status in rural and urban structures) still does not meet the real objections to existing interpretation- the fallacy of social determinism’.[2]

If we were to accept Kishlanskys assertion that “From 1645 to March 1647 there is almost no evidence of political activity within the New Model Army: for fifteen months the soldiers fought; for eight they waited”.

What is his point? Ideas do take the time to develop, and they do change under the pressure of political and economic changes. There is not a mechanical relationship between economic changes, and their political expression there is a dialectical one.

Kishlansky’s hostility to Marxist historiography is well known and runs through all of his work. He does not believe that class has any bearing on how a person thinks or behaves and rejects ‘the conception that social being determines social consciousnesses. A by-product of this intellectual myopia has led him to downplay the amount of radical literature available to the army. Kishlansky calls for a complete rethink on what ideas did motivate individual soldiers.

Book Reviews

The book was well received by some high profile historians. Bernard Norling comments which have been echoed by many other reviewers said “ A more fitting title would be "The Efforts of the House of Commons to Govern England, 1640-1647[3]”.

Some commentators have picked up on that Kishlansky stops short of discussing the Putney Debates of 1647. It would appear that he is looking to fit his ideological positions into a highly particular time frame something he has accused other historians particularly  Christopher Hill of doing.

Kishlansky walks a tightrope with this book. It is not easy to combine one's ideological convictions and still produce an objectively written book. Very few historians have managed it. Kishlansky has a habit in this book of letting his conservatism get the better of him.

Christopher Hill and the CPHG

Kishlansky defends his positions like an animal protects her offspring. He has a no holes barred approach to historical work. This approach has led him into many scrapes. He seems to have reserved most his ire for the historians who came out of the Communist Party of Britain. Despite the Stalinisation of the Party, these historians produced a level of work that has not been surpassed.

Despite launching many unprovoked and in some cases disrespectful attacks especially on Christopher Hill, it must be said that the CPHG returned very little fire. Hill’s conception of the revolution and the New Model Army are well known and do not need to repeating here suffice to say as Ann Talbot writes Hill “recognised that revolutions are made by the mass of the population and that for a revolution to take place the consciousness of that mass of people must change since revolutions are not made by a few people at the top although the character of their leadership is crucial at certain points. These achievements were considerable at the time and are of continuing relevance today when historians increasingly reject any serious economic or social analysis and argue that revolutions are nothing but the work of a tiny group of conspirators".[4]

Kishlansky accused Hill of being “ immune to criticism”. An attack that was answered by Alex Calinicos “Well, if the criticism Hill’s work has encountered were all of the quality of Kishlansky’s shabby attack who could blame him for ignoring it? The insinuation that refusing to follow the tide of historiographic fashion is morally equivalent to sending dissidents off to the Gulag Archipelago is typical of a critique which proceeds by insult and innuendo rather than by anything resembling a careful argument.[5]


This book is not without merit, and Kishlansky is a capable writer. It has been pointed out that the book seems to have been hurried and that many mistakes occurred that should not have given the quality of the publishers.

The discounting of sources such as Edward Hyde, Earl of Clarendon, Edmund Ludlow, Bulstrode Whitelocke, and Richard Baxter on account of bias and their supposed unreliability is bizarre, to say the least.

As one writer said, “This strategy enabled Kishlansky to conclude that Cromwell’s New Model Army, far from being the mainspring of revolution, was the product of a politics of consensus and, in its early years, at any rate, lacked any radical consciousness. In the 1980s, the age of Margaret Thatcher, the Levellers, Diggers, and other radical groups, whose seemingly modern doctrines had so fascinated an earlier generation, were consigned to the historiographical sidelines”.

The Rise of the New Model Army book was the by-product of the revisionist domination during the last three decades of English Revolution historiography, and the reader should be aware of that. The American historian Mark Kishlansky embraced the revisionist doctrine fully. While recommending the book the reader should be aware of the Historians politics.

[1] The Rise of the New Model Army -Ivan Roots-History Today
[2] Ideology and Politics in the Parliamentary Armies, 1645–9-Taken from Reactions to the English Civil War 1642–1649-Editors: John Morrill-ISBN: 978-0-333-27566-5
[3] The Rise of the New Model Army by Mark A. Kishlansky Review by: Bernard Norling- The Review of Politics, Vol. 43, No. 1 (Jan. 1981), pp. 139-141

Wednesday, 26 July 2017

John Gurney and the English Revolution

‘Action is the life of all and if thou dost not act, thou dost nothing ‘– Gerrard Winstanley

There is no denying that the death of John Gurney was a sad and terrible moment for both his family and the history community. His passing at such a young age of 54 of cancer, removes from the scene a gifted historian whose work was starting to produce results on a level of the great Christopher Hill, with whom he met at Oxford on some occasions.

Gurney was not a Marxist historian but his latest work published after his death showed a profound shift to the left in his thinking. His paper Gerard Winstanley and the Left is insightful and thought provoking. It is certainly one the best analysis of left wing historiography of the English Revolution.

Contained within his writings is an excellent example of the Historians Craft. I never met him but had some correspondence with him towards the end of his life. Even with this brief connection, I could tell he was a historian of great ability and tenacity. This was recognised by his friends and colleagues. In a tribute to him, Scott Ashley wrote “John was someone who in both his professional and personal lives could sniff out a story and extract the gold from the archive that made time and place shine fresh. To walk with him around North Shields was to see the streets and buildings with different eyes, not only in the sometimes prosaic now but as part of a more poetic then, as home places to Commonwealth-era churchmen, eighteenth-century ship captains, Victorian professionals. Among the many things I learned from John during the years, I knew him was that being a historian and making a home, physical and imaginative, were part of a common enterprise”[1].

Gurney spent most of his historical life studying the area around where he lived. However, his work on the Diggers and Gerard Winstanley was far from parochial. In many ways, he was instrumental in bringing a fresh perspective to the Diggers and Winstanley. He produced two books on them Brave Community: The Digger Movement in the English Revolution published in 2007 and Gerrard Winstanley: The Digger’s Life and Legacy of 2013[2].  Both books took our understanding of the Diggers to a new level.

John had many skills as a historian, but three leap out at you. He had a capability to explain complicated historical issues in a way that any one could understand. Secondly, he brought his subject to life and thirdly his stamina to spend significant amounts of time “grubbing in the archives”.

To deep mine, an archive may to a lay person seem odd, but this ability gave him a more in-depth insight into the complicated problems faced by revolutionaries such as Winstanley. These seventeenth-century revolutionaries were working without precedents in which to guide their revolution.

If Gerard Winstanley is more well known and highly thought of today, it is because of Gurney. It is hard not to agree with Michael Wood’s claim that Winstanley’s place in the pantheon of English literature and political thought should be higher than previously thought. Wood believes he should be put alongside Hobbes and Harrington as one of the great writers of English prose of the seventeenth century. We should not forget that Winstanley was also a man of action as well as words. In 17th century eyes, he was as dangerous revolutionary.

Historians Craft

Gurney’s attempt to recreate the past and therefore understand it is done with much empathy and imagination. There is also a doggedness and intellectual objectivity about his work. While some historians seek to make an objective understanding of history, Gurney was almost religious in his pursuit of historical truth.

Gurney’s work exhibited a disciplined approach to complex historical questions. He recognised that he did not know everything about his area of expertise. But his work did show an honesty which enabled him to have a greater understanding of his role in the presentation of facts.

Gurney was also mindful of presenting his work in a way that was never apart from its moment in time. Gurney’s approach was similar to the French historian of feudal society, Marc Bloch, who wrote in his book, The Historian’s Craft “In a word, a historical phenomenon can never be understood apart from its moment in time. This applies to every evolutionary stage, our own, and all others. As the old Arab proverb has it: ‘Men resemble their times more than they do their fathers.’

Gerrard Winstanley: The Digger’s Life and Legacy of 2013.

The book is a meticulously researched, scholarly and well-presented. Gurney provides us with a good understanding of the origins of the Digger movement. It has been praised for setting an “extremely high standard for local histories of this sort and must rank alongside similar studies such as Eamon Duffy’s acclaimed The Voices of Morebath.

Gurney was clear that the study of Winstanley should be not solely of historical value but must have a contemporary resonance. He says: “Today knowledge of Winstanley is widespread, and he has become one of the best-known figures from the period of the English Revolution. There have been numerous plays, novels, TV dramas, songs and films, and Winstanley has often been cited as an inspirational figure by politicians of the left.

More specifically, his ideas and achievements have remained prescient, inspiring generations of activists and social movements”. He believed that Winstanley “has in recent years also been invoked by freeganism, squatters, guerrilla gardeners, allotment campaigners, social entrepreneurs, greens and peace campaigners; and both Marxists and libertarians have laid claim Who was to him as a significant precursor”.

Gurney’s book is invaluable when it starts to trace the origins of Winstanley’s radicalism. Gurney did not subscribe to the theory that it was solely down to the war radicalising people such as Winstanley. Gurney believed that radical views were being expressed all over the country before the outbreak of civil war.

In a previous essay, Gurney elaborates on why the Digger’s achieved a level of local support in Cobham “Local support for the Diggers may also have been connected with Cobham's marked traditions of social conflict. The manor of Cobham, a former possession of Chertsey Abbey, had passed into the hands of Robert Gavell in 1566 and was to remain with his family until 1708. During the later sixteenth century the Gavell family became involved in a long and protracted series of disputes with their tenants. In a case brought in the court of Requests by William Wrenn, a Cobham husbandman, Robert Gavell was accused of overturning manorial customs and of infringing his tenants' rights, by seeking to extract more rent than was customarily paid, and by spoiling the timber on Wrenn's copyhold. He was also charged with attempting to escape the payment of tax by shifting the burden on to his tenants, laying 'a hevy burden uppon the poorer tennants contrarye to the Ancient usage, equitie and Consciens'Actions against Robert Gavell and his son Francis were resumed in the court of Chancery during the 1590s by tenants seeking to halt the continued assault on manorial custom” [3].

Who Were The Diggers

Gurney was one of the few contemporary historians involved in the study of Early Modern England who understood the importance of class in understanding the English revolution and its radical wing.
Gurney is correct to say that there has been no unified theory regarding the class basis of the Diggers. To say this is a complicated question. Even historians such as A L Morton and Christopher Hill changed their position numerous times.

The Diggers along with other radical groups who sought to understand the profound political and social changes that were taking place at the beginning of the 17th century and act upon them.

From an ideological stand point, they were far ahead of the likes of Cromwell and Ireton. Their weakness while being sympathetic to the poor, they had no programme to bring about social change; they never advocated a violent overturning of society. Their class outlook, that being of small producers, conditioned their ideology. At no stage did the Diggers or that matter did the larger group the Levellers constitute a mass movement. The contradiction between their concern for the poor and their position of representatives of the small property owners caused some tension. They had no opposition to private property, and therefore they accepted that inequalities would always exist, they merely argued for a lot of the poor to be made more equitable. 

Brave Community: The Digger Movement in the English Revolution published in 2007

Gurney’s study of his local area in this case Surrey was not done from a parochial viewpoint. A survey of local events correctly done can add to a more broad and objective understanding of events.
Brave Community was the result of painstaking investigations. Somewhat surprisingly it was the first full-length modern study of the Diggers. 

It was well-received by academic historians. One review of Brave Community by Henk Looijesteijn described it as “a study that successfully blends social and intellectual history in recreating the environment in which one of the most original thinkers of mid-seventeenth-century England originated and acted. As such, this book should be regarded as the starting point for any student of Winstanley and the Digger”.

Gerrard Winstanley and the Left

Gurney’s last essay Gerrard Winstanley and the Left is a very significant piece of work. It lays the critical ground work for a further examination of the left's attitude towards the English revolution. Gurney understood when writing about left wing historiography on the English Revolution that you had to be aware of the pratfalls especially when writing about the Communist Party Historians Group. One must be cognizant of the enormous amount of ideological baggage these historians carried around. It must be said that some of this baggage was not in always in perfect condition.

In many ways, this essay is in microcosm a summation of Gurney’s whole body of work. He was very much at the height of his powers when he wrote this article. Gurney acknowledges that it is only recently that the words of Winstanley have been fully appreciated.  However, he believed that it is not the case that nothing of note was written before the 20th century. He thought that Winstanley’s ‘extraordinarily rich body of writings’ were read and studied between the years 1651 and the 1890s.

As he wrote in the essay “The historical legacy of the Diggers is usually seen as being very different from that of their contemporaries, the Levellers. If the Levellers were misremembered, the Diggers have been understood as being largely forgotten before the 1890s, with professional historians playing little part in their rediscovery.  It took, we are told, the Marxist journalist and politician Eduard Bernstein to rediscover Winstanley quite independently of academic historians when he spent part of his exile in London working on the section on seventeenth-century English radical thinkers for Karl Kautsky’s Die Vorla¨ufer des neueren Sozialismus. 

Later, in the 1940s, it was Marxist historians associated with the Communist Party of Great Britain who are said to have picked up Bernstein’s baton and created the image of a communist and materialist Winstanley which remains familiar to this day. The left’s responsibility for, and role in, the rediscovery and promotion of the Diggers can, therefore, seem quite clear and uncomplicated. There are, however, a number of problems with this interpretation. For one thing, the Diggers had, before the 1890s, never fallen from public view to the extent often imagined. In fact, it seems that they were reasonably well known over the centuries — and perhaps even more accurately remembered than the main stream Levellers, who were often confused with them. It is also evident that early detailed research on the Diggers was not confined to the left and that Bernstein was by no means alone in taking an interest in Winstanley’s writings in the 1890s”[4].


Where does Gurney’s work fit in with today’s in today’s historiography of the English Revolution? Due to no fault of his own Gurney’s work on Winstanley is an oasis in a desert of revisionism.

As Michael Braddick points out, revisionists have “have tried to cut the English revolution down to size or to cast it in its own terms. In so doing, they naturally also cast a critical eye over the reputation and contemporary significance of its radical heroes”.

The historian Mark Kishlansky’ has a habit of cutting down the radical heroes of the English Revolution. It is perhaps surprising that he recommends Gurney’s book saying “this is a clear-eyed yet sympathetic account of one of the most baffling figures of the English Revolution. Gurney's painstaking research provides a wealth of new information that is assembled into a highly readable narrative. An informative and thought-provoking book.”

Kishlansky despite recommending Gurney’s book he is keen to downplay Winstanley who according to him was “a small businessman who began his career wholesaling cloth, ended it wholesaling grain, and in between sandwiched a mid-life crisis of epic proportions”.

Kishlanksky inadvertently raises an interesting question. What was the relationship between Winstanley’s religion, his economic status and his politics? As the Marxist writer Cliff Slaughter says “for the understanding of some of the great problems of human history, the study of religion is a necessity. What is the relationship between the social divisions among men and their beliefs about the nature of things? How do ruling classes ensure long periods of acceptance of their rule by those they oppress? Why were the ‘Utopians’ wrong in thinking that it was sufficient only to work out a reasonable arrangement of social relations to proceed to its construction? It was out of the examination of questions like this in the German school of criticism of religion that Marx emerged to present for the first time a scientific view of society. ‘The criticism of religion is the beginning of all criticism[5]”.


Gurney’s work on Winstanley and the Diggers is the start of a new form of historiography on the English Revolution. His work is ground breaking in many ways and is an antidote to revisionist historiography.

Gurney is correct to state there has never been what he calls a definable left-wing interpretation of the Diggers and Winstanley or to be even more precise there has never been a consistent classical Marxist position on the Diggers.  It is hoped that Gurney’s work is used to further our knowledge of the radicals of the English Revolution and present a more unified theory as regards these radical gentlemen of the revolution.

[1]  Brave Community: A communal and personal tribute to our friend and colleague, John Gurney (1960-2014)
[3] Gerrard Winstanley and the Digger movement in Walton and Cobham- John Gurney
[4] Gerrard Winstanley and the Left-John Gurney.
[5] Religion and Social Revolt Cliff Slaughter Labour Review Vol 3 No 3 June 1958