Friday, 20 January 2017

Historical Research Plenary Lecture 2017: (sponsored by Wiley) The English Revolution as a Civil War by John Morrill.

The first thing that struck me about John Morrill’s lecture was that in an age of twitter it was a rare treat to hear a man with such erudition. Whether you agree or disagree with his historiography he is a man worth going out of your way to see and listen to.

As he said in his opening remarks the title of the lecture was a bit of a minefield. Anyone who knows Morrill’s work will know that he rejects the premise that a revolution English or for that matter bourgeois took place in the 1640s’.

He seems to have spent most of his academic career opposing this conception. Wednesday night's lecture was no different.

About the conception of a civil war Morrill believes there was a series of civil wars which fits into his agreement with the theory of the war of three Kingdoms historiography[1].
Morrill avoided a search for the origins of the English Civil War’. He has recently written, that this ‘is the early modern historian’s Holy Grail.’

Early on in his career, Morrill opposed the Marxist approach to the English revolution. He rejected the “rather triumphalist claim that you could now produce a kind of social determinist view of the long-term causes and origins of the English revolution. It was that I think, which several people quite independently reacted against”. In his lower narrative, Morrill characterized the Civil Wars as England’s ‘Wars of Religion’.

He rejects the conception of a bourgeois revolution and her certainly does not believe that this period witnessed a transition from feudalism to Capitalism.

At one stage, he quipped that the Socialist Workers Party(SWP) had asked him to lecture on the English revolution. He told them that the only revolution whereby land was transferred in any great amount took place in Ireland. They were apparently not interested.

Joking aside Morrill’s work on Ireland is worth a look at. The massive land grab that was undertaken by the English bourgeoisie was staggering. This smash and grab raids were done in a brutal manner.

At least half of Morrill’s lecture was given over to how non-revolutionary the events of 1640s England were. However, even he did not deny how much savagery was involved
During his talk, the subject of the Clubmen arose. His own studies on the Clubmen movement is another indicator of his attempt to downplay the revolutionary events.

John Morrill emphasizing the apathy felt by most during the conflict, argued previously “A majority had no deep-seated convictions behind their choice of side.”  Many in England simply chose to support the faction they felt gave them the best opportunity to preserve the status quo; whether it be royalists, parliamentarians, or local neutralists such as the Clubmen”.

Morrill believes that many “ordinary” Englishmen were unconcerned with fomenting revolutionary ideas.

During his lecture, it was surprising to hear that Morrill rejected any social understanding of the Revolution.

Even a cursory look at his work shows he was clearly influenced by the New Social history historiography in an interview he describes his attitude towards those historians who were in the forefront of the group “So there came along the new social history which opened up a whole range of types of evidence, and so one of the most important things to happen for my period was the work which is most obviously associated with Keith Wrightson (who trained in Cambridge, spent many years in St Andrews, returned to Cambridge and then moved to Yale). And the Wrightson revolution really, in the way in which social history is done, had a huge impact on those of us who were more interested in high politics. I mean popular politics, constructed high politics. Wrightson’s importance for my work is again something that people might be a bit surprised to hear about, but I personally, in my mid-career, saw it as absolutely fundamental”.

I doubt whether we will agree completely on the English civil war. Despite that Morrill is worth listening to and his work read. It is also hoped that his major project on the works of Oliver Cromwell is finished and that it reaches a wider audience.


No Newes is Good Newes


'A cabinet of rarities-: the curious collections of Sir Thomas Browne
30 January 2017 to 27 July 2017

Royal College of Physicians of London

11 St Andrews Place, Regent’s Park, London NW1 4LE

The Putney Debates 2017

Constitutional Crisis in the United Kingdom

2–3 February 2017

St Mary’s Church, Putney


The Leveller Revolution- by John Rees Verso Books (2 Nov. 2016)

John Lilburne & The Levellers: Reappraising the Roots of English Radicalism 400 years on (Routledge Studies in Radical History and Politics) Hardcover – 31 May 2017 by John Rees (Editor)

Alehouses and Good Fellowship in Early Modern England (Studies in Early Modern Cultural, Political and Social History) Paperback – October 21, 2016, by Mark Hailwood (Author)

Early Modern Women’s Writing: Domesticity, Privacy, and the Public Sphere in England and the Dutch Republic, published in the Early Modern Literature in History series by Palgrave Macmillan.

TV & Radio

George Fox and the Quakers-In Our Time-
Melvyn Bragg and his guests discuss the origins of Quakerism. In the mid-seventeenth

Monday, 16 January 2017

Radicalism in the English Revolution, 1640-60 (Historical Association Studies) Paperback 18 Apr 1985-F.D. Dow

“That an inequitable thing it is for one man to have thousands, and another want bread, and that the pleasure of God is, that all men should have enough, and not that one man should abound in this worlds good, spending it upon his lusts, and another man of far better deserts, not be worth two pence, and that it is no such difficulty as men make it to be, to alter the course of the world in this thing, and that a few diligent and valiant spirits may turn the world upside down, if they observe their seasons, and shall with life and courage ingage accordingly”.
William Walwyn

Given the speed that historiography of the English revolution is moving it is sometimes wise to look at where we have been to find out where we are going. A review of F D Dow’s book would be a good place to start.

Written over thirty years ago, Dow’s book was aimed at students and the public. Her book is of a very good standard and in no way dumbs down her writing. In fact, given that her target audience was pre-degree students it is of a very high academic standard.

It is undeniable that there has been a resurgence of interest in the Levellers both in academic and non-academic publications. It is certainly easier to write on the Levellers today than when Dow wrote her book. Dow’s 1985 book was separated into five chapters with a preface but has no separate concluding chapter.

The Debate on the English Revolution

Chapter 1 begins with a Debate on the English Revolution. F D Dow makes clear that her little book is not a narrative of the events of the English civil war. The first chapter with limited space gives a good introduction to the level of radicalism in the English Revolution.

She is clear that the subject of her book has generated a lot of controversies. Outside of the Russian and French revolutions respectively no other revolution has generated as much.
Her assessment of 1980s radical historiographies is precise and informative. Today’s readers should bear in mind that at the time of Dow’s book revisionist historians had been attacking any historian who sought to place the Levellers in their proper historical context. This had been going for decades.

More specifically Dow believes that most of the revisionist’s fire had been against Marxist historiography especially any understanding of the importance of any long-term causes of the English civil war.

Even the use of the term radical to describe groups such as the Levellers had come under attack by historians as Glenn Burgess points out “it has been suggested - by Conal Condren and Jonathan Clark especially - that the term 'radicalism' should not be applied to phenomena that exist before the term itself was coined. Clark has pointed out that it applies "to a doctrine newly coined in England in the 1820s to describe a fusion of universal suffrage, Ricardian economics and programmatic atheism. To speak of an eighteenth - or a seventeenth-century radicalism is therefore as much of a solecism as to speak of an eighteenth- or a seventeenth-century fascism or Marxism”. His point is essential that in using the term to yoke together disparate phenomena with a common label, we create false or fictional histories and traditions. Condren suggests other objections. First, that 'radical' as a label risks miss-describing the language used by those so labeled. It attributes to them polemical and rhetorical strategies of subversion and opposition without considering whether such strategies were adopted. Secondly, the label risks miss-describing intentionality. Its application suggests an identity - that a person or group is knowingly and consciously 'radical' - whether appropriately or not[1]

It is hard to find Dow’s own historiographical preferences. Given that this book is aimed at students it is not surprising. But her own thoughts on the revolution and its radical participants does get an airing. While not rejecting out of hand both the Marxist and conservative historians she does, however, posit what she calls a third-way argument on the radical groups.

She says “Hill’s picture of a radical plebeian culture cannot be ignored. The significance of his work and of other like-minded historians prompts the question: can radicalism be put into a new perspective which considers the convincing arguments of the conservative ‘revisionists’ but leaves room for the belief that there really was a ‘revolution’ in the 1640s and 1650s[2].
This argument anticipated by well over three decades the current position of the post- revisionist school of historiography.

Dow explains that the turn away from Marxist historiography brought about a plethora of other explanations as to why the radical groups were not really that radical.

Conservative historians such as by A M Everitt and later John Morrill sought to examine local aspects of the revolution while playing down the influence of the radicals.

Studies such as The County Committee of Kent in the Civil War by A M Everitt and more famously John Morrill’s work on the Revolt of the Provinces emphasized short-term explanations. The rise of local studies does not necessary mean all the historians who adopted this approach had a right-wing agenda. David Underdown’s Riot, Rebel, and Rebellion is well worth a look at.

Other revisionist historians such as John Adamson limited the civil war to a struggle amongst the nobility not a class struggle in his Noble Revolt and his forthcoming Noble Realm. This has led to the muddying or an outright denial of class struggles in the English civil war.

Despite agreeing with many conservative historians Dow does not buy into the premise that there were no long-term causes of the revolution or for the rise of radicalism.

Dow leans on the work of Brain Manning who she says “forcefully argued that economic discontent and popular unrest were important elements in producing an atmosphere of crisis before and after 1640 ... that this eruption of the lower and middling orders into the political arena crucially affected the alignment of political groupings within the elite ... parliament’s appeal to the ‘middling sort of people’ was ... to release one of the most dynamic forces of the decade and substantially promote the cause of popular radicalism”[3].

Parliamentarians and Republicans

In Chapter Two Dow examines the philosophical basis for the Civil War. She explains that before the Civil war the English ruling elite was largely content with the divine rule of kings. Society was in order and that God ordained everything.

Dow correctly spends some time on the philosophy James Harrington. The importance of Harrington is that his writings are a confirmation of the relationship between political thought and political action. Dow, however, downplays Harrington grasp of the relationship between property and power saying he was not a “proto-Marxist”. While this is true he was a writer who anticipated a materialist understanding of social and political events
The Levellers

Chapter three Dow examines the complex issue of the Levellers. To what extent were the Levellers able to articulate the political and social needs of large sections of the population.
Dow believes that the Mournful Cries of Many Thousand Poor Tradesmen was a huge issue during the English revolution. “O Parliament men, and Soldiers! Necessity dissolves all Lawes and Government, and Hunger will break: through stone walls, Tender Mothers will sooner devoure You, then the Fruit of their owne wombe, and hunger regards no Swords nor Cannons. It may be some great oppressours intends tumults that they may escape in a croud, but your food may then be wanting as well as ours, and your Armes will bee hard diet. O hearke, hearke at our doores how out children cry Bread, bread, bread, and we now with bleeding hearts, cry, once more to you, pity, pity, an oppressed inslaved people: carry our cries in the large petition to the Parliament, and tell them if they be still &illegible; the Teares of the oppressed will wash away the foundations of their houses. Amen, Amen so be it”[4].

Whether social inequality was to most important factor in leading to revolution is a matter of conjecture. What is clear from Dow’s book is that the Levellers amongst other radical groups exploited this and they politically articulated the wants and needs of a large section of the population.

While how to fill, your belly became a significant social and political question there was also a questioning of people’s place in the grand scheme of things.

As the Marxist political writer, David North explains “Until the early seventeenth century, even educated people still generally accepted that the ultimate answers to all the mysteries of the universe and the problems of life were to be found in the Old Testament. But its unchallengeable authority had been slowly eroding, especially since the publication of Copernicus's De Revolutionibus in the year of his death in 1543, which dealt the death blow to the Ptolemaic conception of the universe and provided the essential point of departure for the future conquests of Tycho Brahe (1546-1601), Johann Kepler (1571-1630) and, of course, Galileo Galilei (1564-1642). Intellectually, if not yet socially, the liberation of man from the fetters of Medieval superstition and the political structures that rested upon it, was well under way. The discoveries in astronomy profoundly changed the general intellectual environment”[5].

It would be wrong of course to mechanically apply this type of reason to the thinking of parliamentary opposition to the King. People's thinking was mostly confused and not coherently thought out. As Dow mentions on (p15) “Four major issues were touched upon by these new writers, the nature, and location of sovereignty, the origins of government in the consent of the people, the welfare of the people as the end or purpose of government and the role of common people in resisting the king”. Dow attempts in this chapter to establish a link between the new philosophy and the actions of the Levellers revolution.

For Dow, the chief ideologues of the revolution were the radical groups such as the Levellers, Diggers etc. She states on page 8 that “Ideological and organizational advances were made by radicals who were not matched until the 1760s. Although the Levellers did not achieve power and succeeded more in frightening those who did hold power than in convincing them of the merits of the radical case., their beliefs and their program opened new vistas of political participation, religious toleration, and social equality. If not for all men, then at least for very significant sections of the middling classes”.

The Levellers per Dow were “founding fathers of the working-class movement”. Dow claimed the Levellers broke new ground.” They grounded their program of a new ideological basis by developing arguments based on doctrines of natural rights and popular sovereignty. And they mobilized support for their movement by employing sophisticated modern techniques of propaganda and organization”.

Dow’s assertion is tempered by AL Morton who said of the Levellers “it was a radical but not a working-class party: indeed, how could it be at a time when the working class as we know it was only beginning to exist? Still less was it a ‘socialist’ party in the sense of advocating the type of egalitarian and agrarian communism which was widespread now” and to add was not articulately expressed (until) Winstanley and his Diggers or ‘true Levellers’[6].

Dow admits it is difficult however to paint an exact picture of what constituted the Leveller party and it was as the Baptist Henry Dunne said a “very heterogeneous body”. It is to Dow’s credit she places the rise of the Levellers in a socio-economic context. “The socio-economic preconditions for the rise of the movement like the Levellers had been created by long-term changes in landholding and in the manufacturing. Those changes which had adversely affected the status and prosperity of the urban and rural ‘middling sort’ of people were especially important in providing potential supporters for the Levellers, who were to become principally the spokesmen for the ‘industrious sort’. Pressure on the smaller peasant farmer who lacked the resources of his larger neighbour to benefit from the expanding market and rising prices: the discontent of the insecure copyholder subject to rack-renting and the fear of the small cottager or husbandman at the prospect of enclosure, produce dissatisfaction which the Levellers could tap and issues on which they could take a stand”.

Dow makes the strange assertion that the Levellers lacked strong leadership and in the end lost all effectiveness as a group. Dow makes the that some weaknesses of the Leveller program doomed them from their start: Leveller ideology may have frightened the rich, neglected the poor, and been "too innovative in its assumptions to embrace all the godly 'middling sort"' of people.

She believed that their social base was that of the small craftsmen and tradesmen, particularly in the towns, “whose independence seemed threatened by large-scale merchants and entrepreneurs. The existence of such problems in London was crucially important, for the capital was to provide the core of the Leveller movement. Here, a large pool of discontent existed among journeymen unable, because of changes in the structure of manufacturing to find the resources to set up as masters in their own right. Anger smolder among small tradesmen and merchants chafing at the alleged oppression of the guilds”.

Dow makes the point that the Levellers tapped into a growing hostility from people especially in London towards a deal with the monarchy. An outward display of this came about through the army at Putney. Dow makes a very perceptive point that “The radicalisation of sections of the rank and file did not happen solely, or even directly, because of Leveller influence, it happened because soldiers’ perception of their own ill-treatment at the hands of the Presbyterian majority produced a political consciousness on which the Levellers could capitalize”.

Dow crucially examines the nature of the society, or specifically sections of the society, from which the Leveller movement sprang. Several attempts have been made to explain a class background to the Leveller movement and the people whose support it attracted. While it is prudent to acknowledge David Underdown’s warning that "Class is a concept that can be applied to seventeenth-century English society only with the greatest possible caution".

Religious Radicals

I am not sure about the title of this chapter. The groups that Dow mentions are diverse and she is hard pressed to establish a common thread that unites them.

Dow is correct in saying that any study of the group would have to take into consideration the foremost authority on the subject being Capp’s 1972 study.  Capp placed the Fifth Monarchists in their broadest context being principally an urban movement and appealed to people below the gentry. In modern terms, this was a movement of the petty bourgeoisie and its lowest section. Many of the members of the Fifth Monarchists like other radical groups had a real fear that the civil war would reduce them to penury.

One right wing pamphlet at the time wrote of the Fifth Monarchy men “The scum and scouring of the country.... Deduct the weavers, tailors, brewers, cobblers, tinkers, carmen, draymen, broom-men and mat makers and then give me a list of the gentlemen. Their names may be writ in text, within the compass of a single halfpenny.  Mercurius Elencticus (7-14 June I648), British Library, E447/ II, 226.

The Diggers and the Clubmen-A Radical Contrast
Dow’s last chapter is a bit of a theoretical muddle. The Diggers were the extreme left wing of the revolution. The Diggers were part of a group of men that sought to understand the profound political and social changes that were taking place at the beginning of the 17th century. They were the true ‘Ideologues of the revolution’ and had a capacity for abstract thought. While the Diggers were sympathetic to the poor, this stemmed from their religion they had no program 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.

The lumping of the Diggers in a chapter with the Clubmen seems to be a bit of an afterthought by Dow. Maybe her editor should have intervened to separate the two. The Clubmen were in favor of a return to “ancient ways” and to describe them a radical is stretching it a little. It seems almost to be a concession to the conservative revisionists that she ends the book. The world was not turned upside down.


The book is a very good introduction to the subject of radicalism in the English Revolution. Dow’s work on the Levellers is equally important. Her conclusion is a little disappointing, to say the least. But I concur with A L Morton who said “A Party that held the centre of the stage for three of the most crucial years in our nation’s history, voiced the aspirations of the unprivileged masses, and could express with such force ideas that have been behind every great social advance since their time, cannot be regarded as wholly a failure or deserve to be wholly forgotten”.

[1] Cromohs Virtual Seminars-A Matter of Context: 'Radicalism' and the English Revolution by
Glenn Burgess-
[2] Radicalism in the English Revolution, 1640-60 (Historical Association Studies) Paperback 18 Apr 1985-F.D. Dow
[3] Page 5
[4] The mournful Cries of many thousand Poor Tradesmen, who are ready to famish through decay of Trade.Or, the warning Tears of the Oppressed. (22 Jan 1648)
[5] Equality, the Rights of Man, and the Birth of Socialism by David North-24 October 1996
[6] A. L. Morton Freedom in Arms: A Selection of Leveller Writings, Lawrence and Wishart, London 1975,

Sunday, 1 January 2017

A Socialist History of the French Revolution-Jean Jaures -Pluto Press-Abridged -2015- 288 pages- ISBN-13: 978-0745335001

“Every revolutionary party, every oppressed people, every oppressed working class can claim Jaurès, his memory, his example, and his person, for our own” - Leon Trotsky

Despite the passage of time the popularity of the French revolution has not diminished. Aside from the abridged translation of Jean Jaures’s multi-volume Socialist History of the French Revolution, the last decade has seen a significant output from writers like Éric Hazan’s People’s History of the French Revolution (published in French in 2012) and several other high profile books.

The French Revolution was an event of world historical importance. It would not be an overstatement to say that it changed not only European history but world history. The Revolution also changed the way future generations saw revolutions. Historians still argued about the processes of historical change that were thrown up by the revolution.

This new abridged version of the writings of Jean Jaures painstakingly put together by translator Mitchell Abidor is a welcome addition to an already crowded market. Jaures’s original work filled several volumes.

Jaurès was born in Castres in Midi-Pyrénées in 1859. He became a leading international socialist who was later assassinated for opposing the first world war. He was also the celebrated leader of the French Socialist Party leader. His history of the revolution was published in 1914.

His work has stayed fresh and has endured the rigors of time. It is one of the most important and influential accounts of the French Revolution. Mitchell Abidor’s much-anticipated translation brings Jaures’s work to an English audience for the first time. Jaures application of the historical materialism method will help students, academics, and the public to a greater understanding of this complex event.

Jean Jaures
Jaures account of the revolution is not without controversy. Throughout his work on the revolution, he defended Robespierre’s reputation.

Jaures believed that Robespierre acted out of necessity and in the words of one writer “to save the new republic from its enemies. Robespierre, like Jaurès after him, was anti-militarist and argued passionately against war with Europe in 1792.

Jaures use of narrative history makes his work very readable without lowering political or academic standards. Despite Jaures concern to portray ordinary people in his work this is not a “history from below”.

Despite the working class appearing on the scene, Jaures was careful enough not to portray this revolution as a proletarian revolution while the working class may have stormed the bastille this was firmly a revolution in the control of the developing bourgeoisie.

Per Jaures “The Revolution's origins were so profoundly bourgeois that a few weeks after July 14, when the National Assembly, freed by the people from the court's attacks, set up the electoral regime and excluded millions of the working poor from the vote... not even the most democratic of them remembered that at the Bastille the workers of Paris had conquered the title of active citizens for the poor of France.[1]

Jaurès continues “that the proletarians were neither bold enough, conscious enough, nor organized enough to substitute their revolution for the Revolution, they marched light-heartedly against the chateaux and turned against the ancien régime the weapons they'd seized... We can see that there was a kind of conservative movement of contraction, or tightening, which was followed by a revolutionary expansion. Under the fear of the unknown and before the uprising of the have-nots, the communities of the villages withdrew into themselves, elected men of whom they were sure, established a militia, and, having thus guaranteed the order of property within the Revolution, attacked the feudal system”. The contradiction between the entry of the working class onto the stage of history and the bourgeois nature of the revolution is at the heart of Jaures work on the revolution.

Henry Heller in his introduction is correct in one sense to point out that Jaures saw the French revolution as the first struggle of socialists to overthrow capitalism. Given the abridged nature of the book Heller’s introduction takes a more important role than is normal for an introduction.
As Jaurès writes “Perhaps it wasn't possible for one generation alone to bring down the ancien régime, create new laws and rights, raise an enlightened and proud people from the depths of ignorance, poverty, and misery, fight against an international league of tyrants and slaves, and to put all passions and forces to use in this combat while at the same time ensuring the evolution of the fevered, exhausted country towards normal order and well-ordered freedom”.

The Bourgeois Revolution

Jaures was an astute enough writer to know the French revolution was not a chemically pure revolution. The bourgeoisie was not a homogenous class and was made up of factions who were still integrated into the social and economic structures of the ancient regime.

Other sections of the middle class who were unable to profit under the old regime established new forms of production undertook a revolution to profit from it. As Jean Jaures said the finance bourgeoisie represented a hybrid social force at the crossroads of the ancient regime.

The reaction to the revolution of the European bourgeoisie was one of fear and horror. Best summed up by Edmund Burke “France has always more or less influenced manners in England; and when your fountain is choked up and polluted, the stream will not run long, or not run clear, with us, or perhaps with any nation. This gives all Europe, in my opinion, but too close and connected a concern in what is done in France. Excuse me, therefore, if I have dwelt too long on the atrocious spectacle of the 6th of October, 1789, or have given too much scope to the reflections which have arisen in my mind on occasion of the most important of all revolutions, which may be dated from that day, I mean a revolution in sentiments, manners, and moral opinions”.[2]

The French revolution was the catalyst for national revolutions to follow. The 18th century was a century of crises for various European regimes. The French revolution was not the only one to take place, i.e. the French heavily influenced the American Revolution. Therefore, it is not surprising that this time was called “The age of democratic revolutions”.

Having said this the bourgeoisie in France and in Europe for that matter were not opposed to scupper democratic norms when they got in the way of making money.

As the Marxist writer, Ann Talbot shows us “The imperatives of private property and profit were not about to stand still, and the Jacobins had no alternative form of social organization to offer. Robespierre did not need to imagine conspiracies. They arose in plenty. Just across the Channel, the emerging capitalist power of Britain could afford to finance the armies of the surviving ancien regimes and uprisings such as that in the province of La Vendée. The domestic opposition was produced by the war profiteers and grain merchants, who exploited the continuing shortages of grain”.

Jaures was clear that this most dramatic of revolution was certainly the most politically significant within Europe. While there are some parallels with the English revolution this was unlike any other previous revolution.

In Britain and America Tom Paine was an extremist in France he was a moderate. Per Ann Talbot “Paine’s life story reflects the experience of a new social type: self-educated men from poor backgrounds who were making their way in industry, science and, in Paine’s case, politics. He was the most brilliant example of this new phenomenon.

The country of which he had become a citizen was menaced from within by aristocratic conspiracies and from without by aggressive neighbors, as intent on furthering their own interests as restoring the ancient regime. France was isolated; its economy and currency were collapsing. These facts colored the history of the revolution. The French revolutionaries were increasingly forced to create an emergency wartime regime and take drastic measures. The Great Terror grew out of the Great Fear".[3]

Reasons for revolution

Like many things regarding the French revolution, the reason for its outbreak has little or no agreement amongst historians.

The crisis began in 1787 the trigger being the king's attempt to stop state bankruptcy. Coupled with this was the fact that France had been involved in a significant number of wars on an international scale.

Deregulation of agriculture began to hit the poor the most. Hostility against the excess of the clergy and the nobility who had creamed off most of the money. The advent of the humanist and scientific development produced the ground for the philosophers to challenge the monarchy. Many thinkers came from the bourgeoisie who sought to undermine the aristocracy.

The position of the peasantry had been growing worse for over 20 years. France had run up huge debts during the war in America. The Revolution was started by the assembly of notables demanded an extension of their privileges. The revolution was not led by a formal political party with a systematic program. The revolution did have a striking consensus amongst its leader’s. At its heart was a new capitalist class, who had enlightened thinkers who were confident of their ideas. Although the revolution would have happened without them. They made sure that when the regime broke down something could replace it.

Their demands were laid down in the declaration of the rights of man, men are born equal but some are more equal to paraphrase George Orwell. Their regime would, however, constitute the will of the people and to represent the French nation. A national assembly was constituted to enshrine the power of this new class. Absolutism was at an end, Mirabeau was to declare to the king “sire, you are a stranger in this assembly, you have not the right to speak here”[4]. The new assembly had a broad base and represented the laboring masses and peasantry.

A Bad harvest had turned things nasty and open revolt occurred. The king refused to accept the status quo’ the next stage of the revolution saw the storming of the Bastille. July 14. What began as peasant uprising sparked a wider movement? Feudalism was abolished in1793; the middle class finally consolidated its regime.

The middle class had to deal with both the conservative right and left-wing who were determined to pursue their own agenda? This brought two groups to the fore, the Jacobeans and the Sansculottes both represented the small middle class. Small farmer’s artisans whom were being squeezed by the new larger middle class. The sharp changes brought about in France stirred fervent actions outside its borders, as monarchies grew fearful that it could be repeated elsewhere. The purpose of the revolution was to usher in a new class.

The bourgeoisie, however, unstable this was to be the subsequent revolutions were an attempt by the various contending factions to gain power at this the working class did not constitute and independent class yet sided and was led by one section of the middle class. In much respect, the history of this revolution determined the history of Europe.

HISTORIOGRAPHY – Classical and revisionists

It is not within the realm of this review to discuss every single revisionist trend about the revolution. There is a similar theme amongst all of them in that the French revolution was not a bourgeois revolution.

Eric Hazan, author of numerous books of the revolutions in France claims that Marxist historians have exaggerated the presence of the bourgeoisie in France “In their struggle against the bourgeoisie, the revolutionary peasants and sans-culottes were working against the grain of history as they opposed the establishment of capitalism.”

Hazan continues “that the words “bourgeois” and “bourgeoisie” were rare in late-18th-century France: “I have found ‘the rich’, ‘hoarders’, ‘aristocrats’, ‘plotters’, ‘mono­polists’, ‘rogues’, ‘rentiers’, but scarcely a single ‘bourgeois’.” He concludes that the question “Was the revolution bourgeois or not?” does not mean anything.[5]

Amongst the more classically minded historians was Alfred Cobban (24 May 1901-1 April 1968) also opposed a historical materialist understanding of the French revolution. Amongst the historians of the French classical school like Cobban wrote an article entitled the Myth of the French revolution Basic premise was to deny the anti-feudal and bourgeoisie nature of revolution. the Revolution saw the revolution as the high point of the Enlightenment.

Albert Soboul sought to defend a materialist method of understanding the cause of the French revolution. He believed that even within the liberal school of historians the revolution was a social act that paved the way for the bourgeoisie to come to power. That the revolution had been prepared ideologically had prepared its ideas, which undermined the existing feudal regime.


Per Lefebvre “Without scholarship there is no history”. It is clear the revolution itself was the result of complex changes in inside France and Europe. Each generation of historians has added immense understanding to this event.

It also must be stated that the attack on a historical materialist understanding of the revolution has done great damage. Despite this, there will be a thirst in the coming period for a materialist understanding of past revolutionary events.

In this context, the work by translator Mitchell Abidor should be a tremendous service to increasing one’s knowledge of the complex historical event. While the problem with any abridgment is that it must m choose what to leave out, it will hopefully push readers into reading far more on the subject than they had intended which mean that some readers might want to read further on the Revolution.

Jaurès “We will not mock the men of the Revolution who read Plutarch’s Lives. It’s certain that the great burst of inner energy Plutarch inspired in them did little to change the march of events, but at least the men of the Revolution remained upright in the storm.” To judge them as if they should have brought the drama to a close as if history was not going to continue after them, is both childish and unjust. Their work was necessarily limited, but it was great.”

This book deserves a wide readership. Hopefully, it gets the readers it deserves.

2.       Jean Léon Jaurès (full name Auguste Marie Joseph Jean Léon Jaurès; 3 September 1859 – 31 July 1914) was a French Socialist leader.
3.       Citizen of the world: a brief survey of the life and times of Thomas Paine (1737-1809) By Ann Talbot30 September 2004
4.       “Edmund Burke was a Whig politician and political propagandist. He was a friend of Paine’s. Paine had often dined with him and wrote to him enthusiastically while on a brief trip to France. Burke had spent most of his political life on what would be thought of, in modern terms, as the left of politics. If he had died at 60, history would have remembered him as a radical who supported enfranchising Catholics and dissenters, wanted home rule for Ireland, opposed slavery, impeached Warren Hastings for plundering India, favoured Parliamentary reform, attacked governmental corruption, tried to curb the power of the monarchy, and backed the American Revolution. But during his 61st year, Burke wrote Reflections on the French Revolution, the book on which his reputation rests, and in which he denounced every principle of the revolution and the Enlightenment, especially social equality. He particularly feared its internationalism. He would, he said, “abandon his best friends and join with his worst enemies,” to prevent the contagion of French ideas spreading to Britain. And this was exactly what he did. He split the Whigs and broke with the friends of a lifetime who continued to support the French Revolution. Paine was one of them”.
6.       J. Meyer, Colbert (1981)
7.       “In 1954, Alfred Cobban used his inaugural lecture as Professor of French History at the University of London to attack what he called the "social interpretation" of the French Revolution. The lecture was later published as "The Myth of the French Revolution", but his seminal work arguing this point was The Social Interpretation of the French Revolution (1963). The main point he made was that feudalism had long since disappeared in France; that the Revolution did not transform French society, and that it was principally a political revolution, not a social one as Lefebvre and others” insisted

[1] Jean Jaurès, History of the French Revolution. 1901-
[2] Reflections on the Revolution in France-Burke
[3] [1] Citizen of the world: a brief survey of the life and times of Thomas Paine (1737-1809)
By Ann Talbot -8 June 2009-
[4] Age of Revolution: 1789-1848- By Eric Hobsbawm
[5] France's left will never accept the revolution is over-Ruth Scurr-

Sunday, 25 September 2016

The Nature of the English Revolution Revisited: Essays in Honor of John Morrill, edited by Stephen Taylor and Grant Tapsell. Boydell Press, 2013. 296 pp

This collection of essays is a reply albeit late to the publication, twenty years ago, of John Morrill’s significant collection of essays The Nature of the English Revolution (1993).

The Russian Marxist Leon Trotsky was fond of saying that "every sociological definition is at bottom a historical prognosis." When John Morrill stated that “the English civil war was not the first European revolution but the last of the wars of religion[1] he was in this statement forming a historical prognosis of the English revolution that has stayed with him all his life.

This current volume of essays was written by former students, colleagues and historians who have collaborated with Morrill and broadly support Morrill’s historical viewpoint.

While not all essays break new ground some like John Walter’s and Phillip Baker do. It is also clear that this volume of essays will provoke further work on their related topics.

There have been two interrelated developments that have characterised the historiography of the English revolution over the last few decades. The first one has been the systematic and protracted attack on Marxism in the form of a hostility to the method of historical materialism.

The second one and a by-product of the first has seen the demise of a “grand narrative” as regards the English revolution. The theory that England passed through a bourgeois revolution during the seventeenth century was largely championed by historians Christopher Hill and to a certain extent Brian Manning.
The rejection of this theory has led to an increasingly specialised field of study and with it the adoption of a lower narrative. An approach led by John Morrill and his book Revolt in the Provinces: The People of England and the Tragedies of War, 1630-48. The current essays lay the groundwork for a further continuation of Morrill’s life work.

Early on in his career, Morrill opposed the Marxist approach to the English revolution. He rejected the “rather triumphalist claim that you could now produce a kind of social determinist view of the long-term causes and origins of the English revolution. It was that I think, which a number of people quite independently reacted against”[2]. In his lower narrative, Morrill characterised the Civil Wars as England’s ‘Wars of Religion’.

This recent collection of essays gives us an excellent opportunity to examine the state of seventeenth-century English historiography, especially the current post-revisionist historians.

The first thing that strikes you about these essays is the title. Why bother with the English revolution since very few of the contributing writers including Morrill believed that one took place. And as one reviewer pointed out the “global dimensions of the Revolution are barely acknowledged”.

Charles I and Public Opinion on the Eve of the English Civil War (pp. 1-26) by -Tim Harris.

Harris, who is perhaps best known for his work on the Post-Restoration period examines the formation of a Royalist Party.

When we talk about a party we cannot compare a 17th-century formation of today’s political parties but nonetheless the Royalist party did begin to take on certain characteristics that we are familiar with.

One of these being the use of propaganda which the king saw as an important tool against his enemies. As Harris points out the early use of this against the Scots did not work out too well.

Harris’s chapter is something of an attempt to reevaluate and rehabilitate Charles. There is a view among current post-revisionist historians that it is important to concentrate on the king’s strengths as opposed to his weakness of character.

I am not sufficiently convinced that you could say the Royalist forged a coherent ideology. But if they did Harris tends to divorce it from its economic base. Harris also does not investigate what social forces the disparate groups who fought for the king represent.

Harris also rejects the conception of a long-term cause of the war. The attack on this conception was begun by G R Elton has led to some historians believing that things went disastrously wrong for Charles by no fault of his own. Harris belongs to the camp of historians who include Kevin Sharpe who regard the personal rule as a period of constructive and welcome reform in England.

Chapter 2 Rethinking Moderation in the English Revolution: (pp. 27-52)-Ethan H. Shagan.

Ethan Shagan, in an article closely related to his recent book[3] admits that it does seem paradoxical that in the midst of the bloodiest and revolutionary conflict England had ever seen all parties both left and right sought the mantle of moderation.

Much of this moderation was a smokescreen to hide very contentious political opinions. Take for instance the Levellers. Their main publication was called the Moderate but in reality, their political program called for a wider franchise, a revolutionary act if there ever was one.

Summed up by the outlook of Col Thomas Rainsborough “I think that the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live, as the greatest he “; is an extraordinary call for social equality, given that the only people who could vote were an extremely small section of the population.

In many ways this chapter more than most reflects current historiography to downplay the revolutionary actions of the leading participates of the revolution.
The killing of a king, the establishment of a republic and to top it all a coup d'état by the New Model Army are not the actions of moderate men.

Chapter 3 The Parish and the Poor in the English Revolution (pp. 53-80) Tim Wales

Wales essay is firmly in the spirit of John Morrill. He examines the bitter political and religious conflicts within Norwich in the middle 1640s.

There is nothing wrong in examining local political events as long as they reflect wider socio-political goings-on. Wales chapter does not really examine the connection between politics and economy.

Wales correctly states that the English revolution was a pivotal moment of how the poor were treated in England. This period saw the escalation of taxes to fund poor relief that lasted well into the restoration period.

While focusing on Norfolk Wales study could a template for other areas of the country. Amongst conservative historians, there have been two trends when it comes to the poor in the English Revolution The first is either to ignore them completely or to downplay any form of politicisation or radicalization.

On the other side of the coin there has been a tendency amongst the more radically minded historians to exaggerate their role and in some cases equate them with a 20th-century proletariat. This is not to say that there was no “revel, riot and rebellion” during the English Revolution but it was not on the scale of the French or Russian Revolution after all the 17th Century revolution was a bourgeois revolution, not a proletarian revolution.

On the other hand, it would be foolish to ignore the significant radicalization of the poor during this time. There was a general heightened class consciousness amongst a growing section of the population and for a while, this alarmed the authorities.

This quote taken from Christopher Hill’s famous essay backs this up, “Against the king, the laws and religion, were a company of poor tradesmen, broken and decayed citizens, deluded and priest-ridden women, . . . there rode rabble that knew not wherefore they were got together, . . . tailors, shoemakers, linkboys , etc.; . . . on the king’s side. . .all the bishops of the land, all the deans, prebends and learned men; both the universities; all the princes, dukes, marquises; all the earls and lords except two or three; . . . all the knights and gentlemen in the three nations, except a score of sectaries and atheists[4].“
Most of the historians who have written essays in this book would reject the quote used by Hill as a too social determinist. In fact, the main characteristic of the modern conservative historians has been there almost Jesuitical separation of politics from economics.

As the Marxist economist, Nick Beams eloquently states “One of the most frequently employed caricatures of Marxism is the claim that it argues that ideology is just a cover for the real economic motivations of social actors. Accordingly, Marxism is “disproved” by the discovery that individuals act, not according to economic motives but on the basis of powerful ideologies. Marxism does not deny that historical actors are motivated and driven into action by their ideological conceptions, and it does not claim that these ideologies are simply a rationalisation for the real economic motivations. However, it does insist that it is necessary to examine the motives behind the motives—the real, underlying, driving forces of the historical process—and to make clear the social interests served by a given ideology—a relationship that may or may not be consciously grasped by the individual involved”[5].

Chapter 4 Body Politics in the English Revolution (pp. 81-102) John Walter
John Walter’s essay is a useful barometer of class relations during the English revolution. His examination of the use of gestures indicates a growing radicalism amongst the middling sort and sections of the poor. The question of ‘‘hat honour’’ is important in that the refusal to take one's hat off in the presence of a superior person was seen as the height of political opposition.

I agree with one writer who said this is a “very penetrating essay, John Walter discusses the body language that reflected the lack of deference paid to figures of authority and status during this period. I think this an extremely important point, as it struck at the very heart of traditional English society. Turning one’s back or refusing to doff one’s cap were tremendously symbolic actions. Walter does an excellent job in calling attention to this relatively unexplored subject. One is reminded of the story that King Charles II took his hat off in a conversation with the Quaker, William Penn, saying that someone had to doff their hat in the presence of a king”.

Chapter 5 The Franchise debate revisited: Philip Baker

The question of the Levellers is one of the most contentious issues arising out of the English revolution. Morrill wrote little on them and his views on the Putney debates are well known in that he thought that no Levellers were there.

Morrill argues that Leveller rhetoric was fundamentally opposed to a standing army and that Lillburne’s own experience made him suspicious and out of touch with its rank and file. While Baker sees the Levellers as radicals not revolutionary his work is important in so much that it contributes significantly to our further understanding this group.

The main plank of the Levellers manifesto was the call for a democratic republic in which the House of Commons would be more important than the House of Lords. A Leveller would have a wanted redistribution and extension of the franchise, legal and economic reform on behalf of men of small property, artisans, yeoman, small merchants, and the very layers, which made up the composition of the Levellers themselves.

But as Baker points out there was a limit to the extension of the franchise. The poor in the 17th century and this contains a large section of the population would not be given the vote. This does not undermine the revolutionary implications of the call by the Levellers to widen the franchise.

As regards the Putney debates as John Rees points out many “Levellers were of the Army themselves. Lilburne had an exemplary and widely publicised military record. But Lilburne was not alone in this. Leveller William Allen served in Holles’ regiment. Leveller printer William Larner served as a sutler in Lord Robartes’ regiment. Thomas Prince fought in the London Trained Bands until he was injured at Newbury in 1643. John Harris ran an Army printing press. Leveller ally Henry Marten had a close engagement in military affairs in London and eventually raised his own regiment in Berkshire. Thomas Rainsborough and his brother William were Leveller sympathisers. Edward Sexby was a central figure in the actions of the Agitators. Army chaplains Jeremiah Ives and Edward Harrison supported the Levellers “[6]


In total, there are eleven essays in this book. The ones missed in this review will examine at a later date. The essays are well written and researched and some do break new ground and examine new trends in post-revisionist historiography.The one area that certainly does need far more extensive research is the debates at Putney.

It is clear that despite his hostility to a Marxist Historiography Professor Morrill has produced a distinguished body of work. Despite having broad disagreements with the essays they are a fitting tribute to an outstanding historian. They will be of interest to specialists and students and are written in a style that would be acceptable to the general reading public interested in this period.

[1] The Religious Context of the English Civil War. John Morrill
[2] Interview with John
[3] The Rule of Moderation: Violence, Religion and the Politics of Restraint in Early Modern England Paperback – 29 Sep 2011-by Ethan H. Shagan
[4] The English Revolution 1640-C Hill-
[5] Imperialism and the political economy of the Holocaust-By Nick Beams-
12 May 2010-
[6] John Rees, review of The Levellers: Radical Political Thought in the English Revolution, (review no. 1519)