Sunday, 8 November 2015

A Comment on Goldman on Tawney, Stone and Trevor-Roper

Your remarks on Goldman’s study of Tawney’s career are important and deserve a considered response. It is true that Tawney was a Christian Socialist and that his historical works were informed by his profound moral convictions.

He preferred the more collective society of the late-medieval English peasantry to what he took to be the increasingly market-orientated economy of the post-Reformation period. Similarly, he was even more critical of the capitalist economy and society that existed after the Industrial Revolution and throughout his lifetime.

It was for these reasons that he thought the comments of critics of the societies of these post-1540 periods compelling and valuable. It is, however, also true that his economic analysis of these societies owed a large debt to Marx’s class analysis and could not have been expressed without using Marxist terminology

Valerie Pearl, who knew Tawney, once remarked to me that he had an “aura of sanctity”. By 1940, he was widely regarded in left-wing circles as an oracle of wisdom and, as Christopher Hill’s obituary tributes showed, a person not to be criticised. I very much doubt whether this was a desirable position for an historian, however distinguished, to be in.

I am also doubtful whether much of Tawney’s corpus of works really qualifies as “history” since its subscription to Marxist tenets and the moral condemnation of social changes in the past lies outside the proper remit of the discipline. What the “storm over the gentry” from c.1948 to c.1958 did was to expose Tawney’s contentions about the rise of the gentry as a cause of the English Revolution to long overdue examination and critical evaluation.

The controversy stimulated an immense raft of research in the succeeding period, little of which supported the contentions of the participants. That is something for which Trevor-Roper and J.P.Cooper.

Lawrence Stone’s case was rather different. He had indeed been Trevor-Roper’s pupil. In fact, it was Trevor-Roper who had lent Stone the transcripts from the Recognisances for Debt in the Public Record Office in Chancery Lane which Stone used, without Trevor-Roper’s advance knowledge or permission, in his 1948 article in The Economic History Review.

 It was this action – this “act of thievery” as Menna Prestwich described it – that prompted Trevor-Roper’s ferocious language in his immediate response and later comments.

Reading the works of Tawney and Stone is an enjoyable experience. Both were consummate writers and had exciting propositions to put to their readers. But Tawney’s moral approach to the past was underpinned by a crude economic determinism and entailed an overtly political analysis of the past. Stone, by contrast, was an adventurer at large in the past, always seeking to be the focus of attention and at the forefront of historiographical fashion.

 He was not, in the strict sense, a scholar at all and was perfectly prepared to lie about his critics. It is no surprise that both have ceased to be relevant to the historiography of the early modern period.

Saturday, 7 November 2015

The Life of R. H. Tawney: Socialism and History- Lawrence Goldman-Bloomsbury 2013

The fact that Lawrence Goldman’s biography is the first for well over half a century is an indication of how far R H Tawney’s reputation and influence has declined. It is hoped that this book is the start of a revival of an interest in Tawney’s writings. The book is almost entirely drawn from the archive based at the London School of Economics(LSE) and from personal material from his family. Goldman takes a basic broadly chronological approach, and tries but does not always succeed to work in the more serious political and history issues that arose during his lifetime. The book delves heavily into Tawney’s life to the detriment of a more in-depth study of his politics and historiography.

Perhaps the most striking thought when reading the book is the fact that Tawney’s archive has hardly been touched. Goldman does not attempt to answer this conundrum but I believe that despite Tawney being a Christian Socialist not a Marxist his work has falling victim to the onslaught in academia led by large numbers of revisionist historians who have sought to bury Marxist historiography under a large number of dead dogs.

Early Life

Tawney came from a family that was academic and comfortably well off. Like large numbers of his class he was privately educated in Tawney’s case at Rugby and later went on to Balliol. It is without doubt Tawney’s social background that heavily influenced his political and historical writings. As one writer pointed out he  “ brought a late Victorian and Edwardian ethical sensibility to the economic and industrial troubles of the 1920s and 30s,”[1]

It is clear that it was his “ethical sensibility” that drove him to give something back to society in the form of educating the working class. Tawney clearly had an empathy with the poor. While rejecting Marxist theory he started the first Workers’ Educational Association courses in Lancashire and the Black Country.

The education of workers and the unemployed through Workers Educational Associations in one form or another was an international phenomenon. The German Workers’ Educational Society in London was started in 1840 by a group of political refugees, who were members of the League of the Just.

When the Communist League was founded in 1847, its members played leading roles in the society. Creating branches in many workings areas of London. The importance of the society attracted Marx and Engels in 1849-50 who took more responsibility for the political direction of the society.  

The Society unfortunately was closed 1918, by the British Government.
Goldman believes that Tawney choose his field of study carefully. His study of economics was clearly motivated by his attempt to understand the origins of capitalism.  Unfortunately, not by using Marxist methodology, rejecting using historical materialism as a method of examining capitalism.

Goldman is not really interested in looking into Tawney’s philosophy of history. While rejecting Marxism, Tawney adopted an essentially utopian approach to politics and for that matter history.

This approach can be seen in one of his most important and famous books. He states “The distinction made by the philosophers of classical antiquity between liberal and servile occupations, the medieval insistence that riches exist for man, not man for riches, Ruskin’s famous outburst, “there is no wealth but life”, the argument of the Socialist who urges that production be organized for service not for profit, are but different attempts to emphasize the instrumental character of economic activities, by reference to an ideal which is held to express the true nature of man.”[2]

Compare this to Marx “In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely [the] relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure, and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness”[3]

Tawney rejected Marx’s linking of base and superstructure. Tawney never believed that socialism should have a material base. While he believed that working men and women should have strong convictions his appeal was to the heart and not the head.

He was fond of quoting Oliver Cromwell who during the English revolution commented on the type of person he wanted in the New Model Army a “plain russet-coated Captain that knows what he fights for and loves what he knows”.

Tawney’s socialism was suffused with Christian morality. According to Goldman Tawney gave out good will and expected in return. Declaring that “no political creed will ever capture their hearts which begins by saying simply ‘we will give you a little more money’”. It is quite striking that Tawney had a very low goal for socialism.

Would he have been a better historian if he had embraced Marxist methodology I believe he would have been. But despite this handicap so great was his influence at the time that his study of the period 1540-1640 became known as “Tawney’s century”.


Probably the weakest part of the book is the treatment or lack of it of the furious battles Tawney had with predominately right wing historians. While it would have clear to even an O Level history or politics student that Tawney was not a Marxist this did not stop him being attacked for his perceived Marxist orientation.

He was involved in certainly the biggest and nastiest discussion of the 20th century. While some of today’s historians have treated this debate as arcane they are wrong and do so for mainly ideological reasons.

The start of the battle occurred when in The Economic History Review of 1941, Tawney published ‘The Rise of the Gentry’ as Goldman puts it he “argued that a change occurred in the ownership of property in the century before the Civil War, with a new class of gentry replacing the old land-owing classes. Tawney’s most important piece of empirical evidence was what later came to be referred to as the ‘counting of manors’ – between 1561 and 1680 ‘the number of landholders owning more than 10 manors fell from 612 to 347. Impressionistically, the number of lesser landholders grew but the wealthiest landholders were losing their grip and declining in numbers and wealth’ (p. 234).

While Goldman is light on historiography the book would have been greatly improved if he devoted more time and space to this debate, which he did not see as an objective exchange of opinions. Personal prejudice and petty jealousy was to intercede. American historian Lawrence Stone became involved in the debate. Stone visited Tawney during the second world war.
The story goes that Hugh Trevor-Roper, who was covering the same ground as Tawney gave Stone some papers on the subject. Whether Stone deliberately gave Tawney papers to further his research is open to conjecture. Trevor Roper saw this as a slight and decided to ‘smash’ Stone.

According to the National Oxford Biography Stone had an “impatience to get on with ‘real’ history earned him a reputation for arrogance during his post-war undergraduate year; on one occasion he stormed out of a revision class conducted by a newly appointed Christ Church tutor, Hugh Trevor-Roper”.

It would appear that Roper never forgave him for this but does not explain Ropers vitriolic attack. Trevor-Roper accused Stone of failing to understand the technological nature of the documents he studied and had substantially exaggerated the level of indebtedness of the Aristocracy. See also C Thompson Critic of Stone’s work) This ‘mistake’ did not warrant Roper’s “academic vituperation”. Tawney was moved to defend Stone saying that ‘an erring colleague is not an Amalakite to be smitten hip and thigh’.

On a broader point while Stone himself described his early career as being a young Marxist perhaps his mistakes were the product of an incomplete assimilation of the Marxist method of Historical Materialism. Stone had a major problem in that he never really understood the difference between genuine Marxism and a crude form of economic determinism.

In fact, Stone himself soon moved away from any link with Marxist historiography and in his own words became as he put it in an interview in 1987, "an old fashioned Whig".
Stone never really deepens the reader’s knowledge of the political persuasion of Roper or other historians such as J H Dexter who also weighted in heavily to the debate with Tawney. Stone mistakenly described him as a Liberal.

Hexter’s work is very readable but here is not the place to evaluate its merit but it does warrant me to say that Hexter’s close links to the American Encounter magazine which in turn had close links to the CIA could have been exposed by Stone.

In the 1950s Hugh Trevor-Roper went to a conference in Berlin which was largely made up of anti-communists, I am not sure if J H Hexter went to as well but writer and some Stalinist intellectuals such as Sidney Hook, Melvin J. Lasky, Ignazio Silone, and Arthur Koestler. The result of this conference was the founding of the Congress for Cultural Freedom and its magazine Encounter. Trevor Roper wrote extensively for the magazine Encounter, is it any wonder that Stone who was mistakenly described as a Marxist historian would get such a hostile treatment

This would in my opinion armed his readers with an understanding of the fact that attacks on Stone’s and Tawney’s work were not just motivated by historical accuracy but had a very right wing political undertone.

The attack on Stone was unwarranted for a number of reasons. The main one being that after writing the Cause of the English Revolution he was moving away from any link to a Marxist analysis of the English Revolution.

But it became clear that roper’s real target was Tawney. Goldman to his credit does question whether Trevor-Roper was justified in attacking both in this manner– ‘why, if he had killed the child, did Trevor-Roper go on to kill the father?’ (p. 237). He chides Roper ‘for all the huffing and puffing Trevor-Roper had merely offered an alternative and admittedly better model of social structures in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries … Trevor-Roper had not vanquished Tawney, merely corrected him … The judgement that he had delivered an ‘annihilating oposculum’ to Tawney’s article is in need of revision. Trevor-Roper’s motivation was clearly ideological driven. He saw Tawney as a Marxist that must be vanquished.


It is impossible in the space of this review to sum up the importance of Tawney’s work or his legacy. To the modern reader Tawney was clearly the archetypal absent-minded scholar, As Goldman points out he lived in chaos. Goldman recounts a story that when Tawney invited William Temple (a future archbishop of Canterbury) for a meal “and removed three musty volumes from his bookshelf to reveal two cold chops on a plate” (p. 139).

A L Rowse also recounts a visit to Tawney ‘When I penetrated his study in Mecklenburg Square I was amazed: not only the litter of books and papers on every chair, table or ledge, but trays with scraps of food, unwashed teacups etc. …Tawney sat imperturbably in the midst of the mess, he didn’t seem to notice the squalor’, Historians I Have Known, pp. 93–4.

These anecdotes while amusing should not be an excuse for ignoring an important historian. The least he deserves is a proper re-evaluation of his work.  Certainly the “Storm Over the Gentry” debate needs to be put in a more appropriate context. Hopefully Goldman’s book will rekindle not just an interest but provokes other historians into doing some long overdue work on Tawney.

[1]   For the Common Good-Stefan Collini
[2]  Religion and the Rise of Capitalism (1926),
[3]K. Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1977, with some notes by R. Rojas. 

Monday, 5 October 2015

The Election of Jeremy Corbyn and “The rebirth of the Levellers”

It would not be an overstatement to say that the election to the leadership of the Labour party of Jeremy Corbyn is an event of some significance. Corbyn has been the unwitting benefactor of the enormous social hostility aimed at the  growing enrichment at the expense of millions of working people by a handful of super elite. There is without doubt something rotten in the state of Britain.

A tremendous amount of newspaper columns, most of it pretty puerile has drawn attention to Corbyn’s left wing politics.  As Julie Hyland correctly points out “Corbyn’s own history is steeped in opportunist petty-bourgeois politics. For all his votes against aspects of Labour policy, he has been a loyal defender of the party throughout his 32 years on Labour’s backbenches. No one can seriously propose that this party—which, in its politics and organisation and the social composition of its apparatus, is Tory in all but name—can be transformed into an instrument of working class struggle. The British Labour Party did not begin with Blair. It is a bourgeois party of more than a century’s standing and a tried and tested instrument of British imperialism and its state machine. Whether led by Clement Attlee, James Callaghan or Jeremy Corbyn, its essence remains unaltered”.[1]

One of the more interesting articles which appeared as a by product of Corbyn’s election victory was by the historian Edward Vallance in the Guardian newspaper[2]. The purpose of my article is to tackle the issues raised by Vallance’s article rather than a polemic against Corbyn’s politics.  
As in politics so in history it is important for “principled considerations” to guide any  analysis.
I was not surprised by the content of Vallance’s article but I was a little perturbed. 

His article took note of an interview with the New Statesman in which Corbyn sought to trace his radicalism back to the mid-17th-century England.  The interviewer asked Corbyn what historical figure he most identified with. It was not really surprising that he named John Lilburne.

Firstly I am not against modern day political figures identifying with historical figures or having a good grasp of history but firstly a lot of historical water has passed under the bridge since 1640 and secondly to compare Corbyn’s opportunist petty-bourgeois politics with the revolutionary Levellers and their leader John Lilburne is a little disingenuous to say the least. 

Who was john Lilburne

Lilburne was the de facto leader of the Levellers who appeared in the mid 1640s and were England’s first radical political party. They were responsible for many of modern day political techniques such as mass demonstrations, collecting petitions, leafleting and the lobby of MPs. Their strength mainly lay in London and other towns and had quite considerable support in the army. The MP Henry Marten described Lilburne saying “If the world was emptied of all but John Lilburne, Lilburne would quarrel with John and John with Lilburne.”

The ‘movement’ contained other smaller  groups of radicals such as the Diggers known as the True Levellers and Ranters who were on the extreme left wing of the Leveller movement.
As Valance correctly points out “Lilburne would forge a career as one of the most prominent radical figures of the period. Along with the works of other writers, notably Richard Overton, William Walwyn and John Wildman, Lilburne’s ideas formed the intellectual basis for what came to be known as the Leveller movement”.[3]

How radical were the Leveller’s has preoccupied historians and some politicians for over a century and some.  This task has been some what muddied recently with the Leveller’s legacy being claimed by the right wing including fascists such as the BNP[4] and the semi fascist UKIP[5] have adopted them as their own.  Ukip MP Douglas Carswell  wrote on his blog that he thought the Levellers were proto-Conservatives who favoured small government, low taxes and free trade. Would for instance Mr Carswell really agree with the egalitarian sentiment of Thomas Rainborowe a leading Leveller at the Putney debates who said "I think that the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live, as the greatest he, and therefore ... every man that is to live under a government ought first, by his own consent, to put himself under that government; and I do think that the poorest man in England is not at all bound in a strict sense to that government that he hath not had a voice to put himself under." Lest it be forgotten the Levellers also took part in a successful revolution and fought a successful civil war and cut off a kings head.

It was correct for the early Marxists to look at the early plebeian movements as precursors of modern socialist movement. What needs to be clarified is what a modern socialist movement looks like. The communist party Historians group (CPHG) alongside numerous radical groups such as the SWP have a tendency to glorify the spontaneous movement of the “middling sort” and to link it to working class struggles today as if there was some unbroken radical and democratic thread that would supersede the need for a scientifically grounded Marxist revolutionary party.

If there is to be a “rebirth of the Leveller” historiography it must be done with a substantial appreciation of the historians and political figures that flowered during the Russian revolution. One such figure was Evgeny Pashukanis[6]. His area of expertise was legal history. His writings on the radical movements of the 17th century are perceptive and well worth a study but have been neglected  by even todays left leaning historians. He rejected crude historicism and opposed historians who saw the Levellers democratic demands as utopian.

Pashukanis saw the English Levellers and Diggers as “primitive precursors of Bolshevism”. In the introduction to his Revolutionary Elements in the History of the English State and Law one writer said  “These movements were primitive because they articulated their demands chiefly in terms of bourgeois notions of distributive justice, yet they were also precursors of Bolshevism because they attacked existing property relations and recognized the necessity of forging political alliances with the urban workers and rank and file soldiers. In praising the informal nature of the Levellers’ demands, and the democratic nature of their organizations, Pashukanis is drawing an explicit parallel between the Levellers’ organization and the structure of the Soviets of Soldiers’ and Workers’ Deputies of 1917. The Levellers’ failure lay in the fact that they were betrayed by the upper strata of the peasantry, and that they were insufficiently prepared to resist the authoritarian opportunism of Cromwell and his generals”.[7]

What is any serious student of the subject of the Levellers to make of all this. Anyone who knows the history of the Levellers this is not a simple question in fact it is very complex. You would search in vain amongst the MPs mentioned including Corbyn of any sense of the revolutionary process (which the Levellers took part in) that brought Oliver Cromwell to power as England’s first non-royal head of state. Many MPs would lack any kind of historical knowledge on this matter and they would certainly downplay the revolutionary nature of the Levellers.   And more importantly they would stay deathly silent on their social writings.

Fabians and Tony Benn

Another thing a serious student of the Levellers would have to contend with is the fact that modern day historiography is still partially dominated by Fabianism.  In Putney there is an exhibition on the Putney Debates of 1647. The information on Leveller involvement in the debates (which was considerable) was largely dominated by politicians and historians with close association with the British Labour Party and more precisely the Fabians .

Any debate over the Levellers has been dominated certainly over the last century by figures in or around Social Democracy. Perhaps the most important figure has been Tony Benn. Who before his death spoke at a commeration of  Lilburne’s birth.
As Julie Hyland wrote in 1999 “Benn prides himself on his “historical viewpoint”. Through his father, the experiences of the 1930s became a formative influence on him politically. From this tumultuous decade of fascism, defeated revolutions, depression and war, he developed a loathing for class conflict. This reinforced his belief that parliamentary democracy and social reform were all that stood between Britain and chaos.[8]

Fabians such as Benn present the English revolution not as a revolution and the Levellers are not seen as revolutionaries but mere radicals. Speaking about British Fabianism, Leon Trotsky wrote: “Throughout the whole history of the British Labour movement there has been pressure by the bourgeoisie upon the proletariat through the agency of radicals, intellectuals, drawing-room and church socialists and Owenites who reject the class struggle and advocate the principle of social solidarity, preach collaboration with the bourgeoisie, bridle, enfeeble and politically debase the proletariat.”
 “The interest in the radicalism of the English revolution is indicative of the current crisis in British political life “. This is certainly the most interesting and accurate sentence in the whole of Vallance's article. Can a study of the Levellers tell us anything about politics today. Firstly the fact that we are talking about the 17th century English revolution and it radical wing at all is due to the fact that the issues like what kind of democracy do we want, the rise of social inequality and how to tackle it and in general what kind of society do we want are contemporary issues. Given the explosive political situation today it is understandable that the bourgeoisie is a little nervous over a discussion of the revolution of 1640.

In many ways the answer given to all these questions in a lot of ways mirror the answers given by Cromwell and other bourgeois leaders of his day are similar to  todays politicians both Labour and conservative. Cromwell opposed the abolition of private property and had no solution to the rise in social inequality other than to send his army against any one that proposed it. For example  on May 17th, 1649, Cornet Thompson, Corporal Perkins and Private Church rank and file Levellers were shoot at the hands of Oliver Cromwell troops.  Like in the 17th century real wealth and the power that goes with it are still in the hands of a tiny extremely wealthy elite who call the shots.

Further reading

1)     The Last of the Leveller’s - Paul Lay-
2)     The political issues posed by Corbyn’s election as UK Labour Party leader14 September 2015

[1] The political issues posed by Corbyn’s election as UK Labour Party leader14 September
[4] See Edward Vallance’s book-A Radical History Of Britain: Visionaries, Rebels and Revolutionaries - the men and women who fought for our freedoms

[8] The end of Fabianism in Britain-

Saturday, 3 October 2015

Professor Ann Hughes ‘Preachers and hearers in revolutionary London’.

RHS Ann Hughes Lecture from Jane on Vimeo.

Reprinted from

RHS Lecture, Gustave Tuck Lecture Theatre, UCL, 27 September 2013

Ann Hughes has been Professor of Early Modern History at Keele University since 1995. She served as Head of the School of History and Classics, 2000 -2003, and currently acts as Director of Research in the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences.

She won the Alexander Prize of the Royal Historical Society in 1980 and her major publications include Politics, Society and Civil War in Warwickshire 1620-1660 (1987),
 The Causes of the English Civil War ( 2nd edition, 1998), Gangraena and the Struggle for the English Revolution (2004), Gender and the English Revolution (2011).

 She has edited (with Richard Cust) Conflict in Early Stuart England (1989), and (with Tom Corns and David Loewenstein) The Complete Works of Gerrard Winstanley (2009). She is now working principally on a reassessment of the impact of parliamentarian preaching during the English.

Sunday, 30 August 2015

The Adventures of Sir Thomas Browne in the 21st Century by Hugh Aldersey William 352 pages Granta (7 May 2015) ISBN-10: 1847089003

The Adventures of Sir Thomas Browne in the 21st Century is not an orthodox biography of the 17th century scientist, antiquarian and prose writer. In many ways this book is more a comment on everyday life the 21st century than on the 17th century. To say that the science writer Hugh Aldersey-Williams has an obsession regarding Browne would be an understatement. The author who lives in Browne’s home town of Norwich is aggrieved how  few people recognize Browne’s name  and reacts with unrestrained anger at the fact that Browne’s private meadow, where he studied wild plants, is now a car park. Browne’s former house is now a Pret a Manger.

The book is a required taste but is not without merit and readers who brave the book to the end will be well out of their comfort zone. The book has been generally well received except perhaps by the Spectator Magazine[1]. Given the fact that nearly every major newspaper and magazine in Britain has carried a review of the book Granta must have an exceptional publicity department. The book would have been something of a gamble for Granta given Aldersey-Williams constant comparing the debates over political and religious differences of the 17th century with similar phenomena from our own times.

As one reviewer put it “It’s a high-risk strategy to segue from the Civil War and the Restoration of Charles II to Jimmy Savile and Richard Dawkins, the MMR vaccine and the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Morgellons and the Mass Extinction Monitoring Organization, George Monbiot and Amanda Knox, Mercedes hubcaps and the IgNobel Awards[2].

I have not seen any sales figures for the book but it has elicited a significant interest in its subject matter. While it is difficult to say for sure why it must have someone to do with the fact that the scientific and philosophical questions that Browne grappled with in the seventeenth century are still with us today. William’s to his credit has recognized this.
Thomas Browne was born in London in 1605. He studied medicine in three different places starting at Oxford then Padua and Leiden. When he finished these studies he moved to Norwich in 1637, where opened a practice and was a physician until his death in 1682.
Before moving to Norwich Browne started to put his thinking on scientific matters down on paper his published work, Religio Medici was written around 1635 but not printed until 1642.

The book sought to reconcile Browne’s belief in scientific reason with his religious belief. He did not see science as a barrier to belief it “is no vulgar part of faith to believe a thing not only above, but contrary to reason, and against the arguments of our proper senses”[3].
This contradiction between scientific objectivity and religious would be a recurring theme throughout Browne’s work. The writer E J Merton says of this contradiction "Here is Browne's scientific point of view in a nutshell. One lobe of his brain wants to study facts and test hypotheses on the basis of them, the other is fascinated by mystic symbols and analogies." “The eclecticism so characteristic of Browne... Browne does not cry from the house tops, as did Francis Bacon, the liberating power of experience in opposition to the sterilizing influence of reason. Nor does he guarantee as did Descartes, the intuitive truth of reason as opposed to the falsity of the senses. Unlike either, he follows both sense experience and a priori reason in his quest for truth. He uses what comes to him from tradition and from contemporary Science, often perhaps without too precise a formulation”.

With his next book Pseudodoxia Epidemica (1646) Browne went on an offensive. It challenges what Browne called “vulgar errors”.  Browne challenged false belief and superstition. As the reviewer in the Guardian points out “That combination of curious learning, reserved judgment, credulity and proto-scientific method runs through his other major works. Hydriotaphia, Urn-Burial (1658) meditates on death and cremation in the light of an archaeological discovery of a cluster of urns containing burned bones in a field near Walsingham. “Who knows the fate of his bones?” Browne reflects. The Garden of Cyrus (1658) explores the benefits of planting trees in a lattice-like arrangement, and muses on the “mystical mathematics” of the number five. Browne also wrote a glorious inventory of a fictional museum (Musaeum Clausum) full of lost and impossible objects, such as “The Skin of a Snake bred out of the Spinal Marrow of a Man” and a letter from Cicero’s brother describing Britain in the age of Julius Caesar”.


Among a number of surprising things that Aldersey-Williams’s extremely detailed book digs up is that Browne was an extraordinary inventor of new words. The editors of the Oxford English Dictionary have him as the first person to use the word “electricity”. It is a pity that the modern day new words such as “selfie” are not a patch on the words invented by Browne. Browne’s new words show a preciseness and beauty missing in today‘s new additions to the English language. But before we get carried away he did invent words such as “alliciency”or “zodiographer” which are not so catchy. It is also disputed how many new words can be attributed to Browne.

I am not sure that I agree with Aldersey-Williams who believes that Browne’s “tolerant and forgiving” style provides a model for writing and thinking about science today. Both Browne and Aldersey-Williams are Deists in their philosophical outlooks. A strange omission from the book is the belief that Browne was an early member of the Enlightenment.

The Enlightenment according Jonathan Israel was “the unprecedented intellectual turmoil which commenced in the mid-seventeenth century, “and was closely linked with the scientific discoveries of people like Galileo. Whose scientific innovations paved the way for “powerful new philosophical systems” producing a profound struggle between “traditional, theologically sanctioned ideas about Man, God, and the universe and secular, mechanistic conceptions which stood independently of any theological sanction?”[5]
Aldersey-Williams also tends to view Browne and his thought in a very national framework.  While it would have been next to impossible for someone like Browne to see the connection between his scientific and philosophical ideas and the political upheavals of the mid-seventeenth century. Someone from the 21st century should have. Aldersey-Williams has like Browne very little to say on the English Civil war.

According to the ODNB (Oxford Dictionary of National Biography) “Little trace remains of Browne's life, during the civil war and the interregnum, other than as author and family man. His post-Restoration letters to his sons show awareness of public events and strong opinions about the killing of Charles I, but the only political act during the civil war and the interregnum of which evidence survives is his refusal in 1643 (along with 431 other members of the gentry and professions) to subscribe money to parliament for the recapture of royalist-held Newcastle. After 1660, however, he played a more open role in the establishment. In Religio medici (I.30) he had declared: ‘I have ever beleeved, and doe now know, that there are Witches’ (a belief shared by Bacon, Harvey, and Boyle). The anonymous account of A tryal of witches, at the assizes held at Bury St. Edmonds for the county of Suffolk; on the tenth day of March, 1664 (1682, 41–2), ‘in the sixteenth year of … Charles II’, reports that Browne was: clearly of Opinion, that [the seven alleged child-victims] were Bewitched; … he conceived, that these swouning Fits were Natural, and nothing else but that they call the Mother, but only heightned to a great excess by the subtilty of the Devil, co-operating with the Malice of these which we term Witches, at whose Instance he doth these Villanies.[6]

The English revolution which largely passed Browne by was a world event and should be seen in broad international context within which the political ideas associated with this war developed. According to C Talbot “Israel in his book Radical Enlightenment suggests that the Fronde in France and the Masaniello rising in Naples were just as important in terms of their influence on European consciousness as the English Civil War”.

Aldersey-Williams philosophical prejudices tend him to attack anyone who seeks to go further than him in his scientific understanding. For him modern writers such as Richard Dawkins are too dogmatic in their insistence of a separation between science and religious mysticism. Aldersey-Williams tends to gloss over s Browne’s views on depression which are far from helpful. Browne believed that periodical periods of melancholia “are to be cherished as a proper response to the way we find the world”.

Having said that Browne’s dabbling with alchemy should be explained after all a much more famous scientist of the time delved into it.  Sir Isaac Newton[7] it is true did devote more of his time to the subject than he did writing the Principia. As Chris Talbot points out “Newton did not succeed in turning lead into gold, but he did succeed in discovering the law of gravity. The project of the alchemists was to discover the natural process that had created the elements such as lead and gold, to reproduce that process and to harness it for the benefit of mankind. Given the technology available to Newton, this was an impractical objective, but it took him two decades to find that out. There was, however, nothing "unscientific" or "mystical" about the objective. Alchemy was no more inherently mystical than algebra, which, as its name suggests, came from the same Arabic source”.[8]


This book is a curious read, it is an unorthodox book but it is a very good read. Not all of Aldersey-Williams comparisons of the 17th century with 21st century come off but it is a legitimate literary exececise. I would like to recommend the book. It is not for everyone’s taste if it sparks an interest in the extraordinary political, scientific events of the 17th century then it deserves the wide audience it looks to have achieved.                              

[3]  Religio Medici
[6]  Sir Thomas Browne 1605–1682 R. H. Robbins -
[7] Newton, Sir Isaac (1642–1727)
[8] Marxism and Science: An addendum to “The Frankfurt School vs. Marxism”

Wednesday, 15 July 2015

God, Duty and Community in English Economic Life, 1660–1720, by Brodie Waddell. The Boydell Press. 2012; pp. 273. £60.

Even after a cursory look at the work of Brodie Waddell it becomes clear that he holds an empathy with the oppressed and working people both past and present. He delivers his history with a passion that is all too absent
His particular brand of people’s history is heavily influenced by historians who came from the Communist Party Historians Group. One of their many contributions to the study of Early Modern England was the historiographical genre “history from below” or ‘people’s history’. His new book is heavily influenced by E P Thompson especially his Making of the English Working Class.

Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class and his other major works have a common theme in that they have a tendency to obscure the class character of rebels, revolutionaries and popular leaders by regarding them all as representatives of a national revolutionary tradition
As Ann Talbot writes “This historical approach reflected the nationalism of the Soviet bureaucracy, their hostility to internationalism and their attempts to form an unprincipled alliance with the supposedly democratic capitalists against the fascist Axis countries during the 1940s. People’s history was an attempt to give some historical foundation to the policies of Popular Front”
The historian David Parker[1] has played down the influence of the Soviet CP on the historians inside the CPHG. According to Parker the British Marxists were not “imprisoned in a straight jacket –either economistic or Stalinist-from which they later escape”. This is a very generous evaluation. This political blindness appears to be a problem amongst modern historians.

This is Waddell’s first book but he has a significant body of work inside and outside academia. His blog contains numerous articles based on people’s history genre. In 2013 along with other likeminded historians they held an Online Symposium titled “The Future of History from Below”: Waddell along with over twenty likeminded historians recently announced on the blog a follow up online symposium, ‘The Voices of the People’. The series of articles will further examine the history from below genre. While this is an extremely useful exercise I have a number of reservations. Number one being that at no time has an orthodox Marxist historian been invited to contribute to the subject and secondly none of the essays examine the political origins of the genre in any great detail
The revival of the history from below genre seems to coincide with a growing dissatisfaction amongst some historians and the wider public with capitalism. It cannot be a coincidence that we have over the last six years witnessed the near collapse of the capitalist system and growth of social inequality unprecedented in over a century and seen the rise of a new form of history from below historiography.

Like a large number of revisionist historians today Waddell sets out in his introduction the quite considerable task of seeking to overturn large swathes of previous historiography on his chosen subject. However his criticism previous Marxist and Whig historiography gives succour to more conservative revisionist historians

Waddell admits that for a substantial part of the twentieth century early modern historiography in Britain and internationally has been dominated by a disparate number of historians who in one way or another profess to be Marxist or Marxist influenced. As one writer put it that “notions of early modern social change have been informed by a series of teleological transitions–from feudalism to capitalism, community to society, and so on”.

I am unable to tell how much Marx and Engels Waddell has read but his book does not present their writings in any great detail. It is clear that he does not agree with their politics or historiography. In his book and to a certain extent his blog [2] he rejects the notion that early modern society can be best understood when one accepts that it undertook a transition from feudalism to capitalism.

I believe the book would have benefited from a closer study of Marxist methodology. In fact like most modern history books Waddell’s is very light on methodology. While not directly concerning the material in the book  Engels work on the family would have given us a deeper insight into the lives of “ ordinary  17th century people, “According to the materialistic conception, the determining factor in history is, in the final instance, the production and reproduction of the immediate essentials of life. This, again, is of a twofold character. On the one side, the production of the means of existence, of articles of food and clothing, dwellings, and of the tools necessary for that production; on the other side, the production of human beings themselves, the propagation of the species. The social organization under which the people of a particular historical epoch and a particular country live is determined by both kinds of production: by the stage of development of labor on the one hand and of the family on the other”[3].

Waddell rejects Engel’s historical materialistic outlook. He instead leans heavily on the work of E. P. Thompson whose work for too long has been described as Marxist. Despite borrowing a few phrases or quotes from Marx or Engels Thompson’s work is really a negation of orthodox Marxism
His use of the term “moral economy” has been presented as a sort of Marxist analysis. The concept of a “moral economy” is usually attributed to Thompson it was in fact the Russian economist Alexander Chayanov who first expounded on this idea in the 1920s,

Despite making a few carefully worded criticisms of Thompson’s “moral economy” he largely accepts his premise. What is the moral economy according to Lancaster University “the Moral economy' might be defined as a kind of enquiry focusing on how economic activities of all kinds are influenced, structured and legitimized by moral sentiments, values and norms, and how in turn those are reinforced, compromised, or overridden by political economic pressures”.

No matter how you try you wrap it up this theses have nothing to do with any Marxist concepts or methodology. Waddell has a tendency to separate what people thought about religion, duty and community from the significant economic changes that took place in the seventeenth century. Waddell like Thompson rejects the relationship between Base and superstructure.

As one reviewer put it “Waddell does not claim to be an expert on new forms of economic development that came about during the later Stuart period. In the latter half of the book Waddell details activity of the people. He cites numerous strikes, protests, and communal actions that took place across England between 1660 and 1720. Due to his political blindness these events cannot be placed in relation to their political or social context. His tendency to separate base and superstructure means his observations are superficial at best and are “treated only as manifestations of a more general sense of collective identity and agency”

This separation between base and superstructure has become the hallmark of a number of historians that write on the history from below genre. Despite being labelled as out of date and unfashionable what Marx wrote in A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy is still a valuable guide to understanding the changes that took place in people’s lives in the seventeenth century “In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely [the] relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure, and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political, and intellectual life
 "It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness. At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or — this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms — with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces, these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution. The changes in the economic foundation lead, sooner or later, to the transformation of the whole, immense, superstructure. In studying such transformations, it is always necessary to distinguish between the material transformation of the economic conditions of production, which can be determined with the precision of natural science, and the legal, political, religious, artistic, or philosophic — in short, ideological forms in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out. Just as one does not judge an individual by what he thinks about himself, so one cannot judge such a period of transformation by its consciousness, but, on the contrary, this consciousness must be explained from the contradictions of material life, from the conflict existing between the social forces of production and the relations of production”.[4]

While Waddell correctly points out in the book that the lives of working people in early modern England, were to a degree influenced by the economic changes taking place after the revolution. But he rejects the premise that their social being determined their consciousness. Again the book would have benefited from Marx’s analysis in The German Ideology: “The production of ideas, of conceptions, of consciousness, is at first directly interwoven with the material activity and the material intercourse of men, the language of real life. Conceiving, thinking, the mental intercourse of men, appear at this stage as the direct afflux from their material behaviour. The same applies to mental production as expressed in the language of the politics, laws, morality, religion, and metaphysics of a people. Men are the producers of their conceptions, ideas, etc. Real, active men, as they are conditioned by the definite development of their productive forces and of the intercourse corresponding to these, up to its furthest forms. Consciousness can never be anything else than conscious existence, and the existence of men in their actual life process. If in all ideology men and their circumstances appear upside down as in a camera obscura, this phenomenon arises just as much from their historical life process as the inversion of objects on the retina does from their physical life-process." [5]

Despite its shortcoming on methodology the book does have merit. It is to Waddell’s credit that in order to present his ideas he uses a wide range of sources, low priced pamphlets, Sermons, songs, broadsides. The books shows his extensive use of archival sources such as court records, guild and company records, and parish registers
The book is divided into three sections, each examine the concepts in the title, God, duty, and community. One problem encountered by Waddell is the paucity of records that enable us to have a good idea of how “ordinary” people viewed the religious developments and how they impacted on economic life.

It is clear that during the English revolution traditional religious beliefs started to receive a beating as David north points out “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[6]
Waddell can reject Marx ,Tawney and even Weber all he likes but evidence points to large sections of society both poor and rich alike sharing similar if not the same attitude towards God and to some extent property.

Despite calling for a new approach to historical research much of Waddell’s ideas have been developed already by a body of writers and historians who advocated a “cultural turn”. Like many “new” approaches Cultural Studies started life as an attack on revolutionary Marxism, It is hoped that Waddell’s future work does not too far down this road.

Other reviews

[1] David Parker Ideology, Absolutism and the English Revolution –Debates on the British Communist Historians-1940-1956.
[3] The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State: in the Light of the Researches of Lewis H. Morgan preface to the First Edition, 1884
[4] Marx, Karl (1977). A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy. Moscow: Progress Publishers: Notes by R. Rojas.
[5] German Ideology, 1.c. p. 13-4.
[6] Equality, the Rights of Man and the Birth of Socialism By David North 24 October 1996