Sunday, 13 April 2014

Major-General Thomas Harrison: Millenarianism, Fifth Monarchism and the English Revolution 1616-1660 by David Farr Ashgate Publishing, Limited ISBN-13: 9781409465546

‘Religious misery is at the same time the expression of real misery and the protest against that real misery.”  - Cliff Slaughter

‘That man of blood” Major General Thomas Harrison

“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

That Major General Thomas Harrison lacks a full modern academic study is a bit of historical anomaly given that he played such a fundamental role in the English revolution and dare I say  English History. It is to David Farr and Ashgate publishers credit that this poor oversight has been largely rectified. 

In the past the absence of such a biography has been “due to the apparent limitations of the source material”. These limitations were exposed by historian C H Simpkinson who in his review Thomas Harrison- Regicide and Major General in the American Historical Review Vol 11 No 1 1905 said “it would be interesting to know what induced the publishers of the Temple Biographies to include in their list Thomas Harrison. It is impossible to make out of him a popular subject. Moreover, the facts in his life are too little known to make it possible to write a successful popular biography. Consequently, it would be better to have attempted a life based strictly upon thorough research”.[1]

Farr’s biography is based on very thorough research.  It is certainly is the most subtle view of Harrison than has previously has been portrayed. “Unlike the only two previous full length studies of Harrison the present work makes use of a full range of manuscript, primary and secondary sources, including the huge range of new material that has fundamentally changed how the early modern period is now understood. Fully footnoted and referenced, this study provides the first modern academic study of Harrison”.  

One difficulty Farr sought to overcome was that rightly or wrongly Thomas Harrison is best known for his role in the regicide of Charles 1st. Harrison was one of the foremost republican leaders during the English revolution. He was never forgiven by later Monarchists for this role and his death was a brutal and bloody affair. He was after all he was hanged, drawn and quartered by the Restoration government in 1660. Harrison’s gruesome fate was witnessed by Samuel Pepys who wrote of him “To my Lord’s in the morning, where I met with Captain Cuttance, but my Lord not being up I went out to Charing Cross, to see Major-general Harrison hanged, drawn, and quartered; which was done there, he looking as cheerful as any man could do in that condition. He was presently cut down, and his head and heart shown to the people, at which there was great shouts of joy. It is said, that he said that he was sure to come shortly at the right hand of Christ to judge them that now had judged him; and that his wife do expect his coming again”.[2]

Given that Harrison’s later life is better documented than his earlier work it is understandable that Farr in his book employs a thematic, rather than chronological approach, as the introduction says “to illustrate the role of millenarianism and providence in the English Revolution, religion within the new model army, literature, image and reputation, and Harrison’s relationship with key individuals like Ireton and Cromwell as well as groups, most notably the Fifth Monarchists”.

The book is sub divided into three main parts. The first part starts with an analysis of Harrison’s last years of life. Farr seeks in this part of the book to explain Harrison’s problem in coming to terms with the political collapse of the Interregnum regimes. A collapse he had no social, political or military answer to. It must be said that he was not the only radical figure to fail to understand his and many others fall from influence and power. Harrison’s only answer was to put his faith in God believing that his fall from power had been pre-ordained.

This answer may have suited people living in the 17th century but I am afraid people living in the 21st century need a little more. One of the few historians to examine the defeat of the radical groups was Christopher Hill. In his the Experience of Defeat- Milton and Some Contemporaries Hill somewhat controversially sought to understand how the radical groups fell from providence so easily. He believed that Milton’s Paradise lost was a “mediation on the reasons for the revolution failure”. It is not really the place to dwell on Hill’s book but suffice to say his conclusions were a little pessimistic especially when he drew incorrect comparisons with ‘other failed revolutions’

Part two examines “Harrison’s years of ‘power”.  Farr spends a significant amount of space in this part of book evaluating Harrison’s political activities and how they impacted on his role in the New Model Army and his major part in the trial and regicide of the king.

Farr’s research into the regicide is a welcome change from modern historiography. Geoffrey Robertson correctly said that “historians rarely have a good word to say about the trial This downplaying of the importance of the trial of Charles l is another annoying trait of numerous revisionist historians. 


Harrison was one of the first regicides to be put on trial and publicly executed. Leading Monarchists and the king saw Harrison as an important figure both politically and militarily in which to act out their very public revenge on a leading Puritan revolutionary. After all out of the 59 regicides, Harrison was third only to Cromwell and Henry Ireton in the leadership of the revolution, also he was a key individual in the process that brought Charles to his execution. A swift show trail and execution was meant to show the population that revolutionary action should be discouraged.

Harrison was proceeded against because he was seen as a personification of the revolutionary republicanism that had seen the first and only republic in English history. The aim of the show trial was to make the regicide illegitimate in the eyes of the population. It must said that it did not work too well. So much so that the bourgeoisie has for centuries sought to remove from history this and other events of the English Revolution. According to the article in February 2014 issue of History Today even the new immigration test has removed the entire period of the civil war on the grounds that “the wounds are still too fresh”.[3] Conservative historians have in the last analysis sought to deny that “all of modern England grew up out of the revolution in the seventeenth century”.

Textual Turn

Chapter 3 is certainly the most problematical in the sense that Farr’s use of words such as “textual” is a little ambiguous. Take for instance this quote “ in October 1660, the restoration regime staged show trials of the men it regarded as either the greatest immediate threat, the most culpable for the regicide, or most responsible for the subsequent non-monarchical regimes. Harrison’s execution was also reinforced in text to disseminate the example as widely as possible. Harrison had felt impelled to act in 1642 and, in 1660, the dynamic of religion still prompted him to make a final protest. Harrison, by the unrepentant stand he took at his trial and the courageous manner in which he met his death, and also the textual representations of his actions, also provided a contrasting example of protest and continued allegiance to what he regarded as a godly cause. The contradictory messages from the same events can be seen in the differing textual responses they provoked and how they were read. Harrison’s stance and the responses to it, whether textual or ‘real’, can also be seen as partly responsible for the limits of the overt restoration repression”.

I do not like Farr’s use of the word “textual” it tend s to give far to much credence to the work of historians such as the late Stuart Hall who were in or around the Communist Party of Britain. Hall advocated cultural studies as a way of analyzing past and present historical and political problems. As was pointed out in a recent obituary of hall “Cultural Studies originated as part of an attack on revolutionary Marxism, directed above all against its contemporary expression, Trotskyism. The academic field sought to shift the focus of social criticism away from class and onto other social formations, thus promoting the development of identity politics. Its establishment, in the final analysis, was a hostile response to the gains made by the Trotskyist movement in Britain from the 1950s onwards.[4]

Moving on, the trial was considerably risky and in some cases bordered on the reckless action for the ruling elite at the time. Harrison still had considerable if passive support amongst sections of the lower middle classes.  

To his supporters he was an example that despite coming from a poor and “relatively obscure background” a man could rise to the highest positions in the state. While not being openly in favour of Harrison’s revolutionary politics i.e. his republicanism Farr does a very good job of restoring Harrison’s reputation. Unlike many modern day historians he believes that Harrison’s behaviour during and after the war was significantly influenced by his earlier life and economic position. Farr describes him being on the “fringes of merchant and lawyer networks”.

As Farr suggests Harrison was “radicalized by his experience in the armies of the Eastern Association and new Model to emerge as an extreme millenarian at the centre of the army’s revolution of 1647–49 and the developing Fifth Monarchist movement to late 1653”. That Harrison was radicalized during the civil war is without doubt however I believe that his strong republicanism and his support for the Fifth Monarchists was also a product of radical ideas that were developing prior to the outbreak of the Civil war. London Pre civil war was an attraction for any radical group or individual to express their beliefs and to win new supporters.

‘That man of blood”

It is to Harrison’s eternal credit that he very publicly denounced the king as ‘that man of blood’ in early November 1647. A full two years before the king was due to be executed. On this particular issue Harrison had considerable support inside the New Model Army for this action. Also on this point the fifth Monarchist’ were to the left of other radical groups such as the Levellers who opposed the execution.

While Harrison sought through prayer meetings to seek God’s answer to complex political, social and even military problems again to 21st century eyes this is clearly not enough.  Harrison was clearly not a great theoretician despite being a substantial letter writer he published no substantial body work of his own and nothing in his papers show a clear theoretical understanding of republicanism, despite this handicap it must be said he was a little more farsighted than Cromwell.  But on most other things at this point in time “Harrison stood at Cromwell’s shoulder in April 1653 as a fellow millenarian, perhaps a reminder to Cromwell of, in his most providential moments, his own desire for a hagiocracy. The calling of the nominated assembly, more commonly known as the ‘Barebones Parliament’, in July 1653 was, perhaps, the closest Britain came to a theocracy and, on the surface, at its heart appeared to be Harrison and the millenarian Fifth Monarchists”. [5]

Previous Historiography

It must be said that previous historiography leaves a lot to be desired and that is putting it mildly. The last book length study of Thomas Harrison came out in 1939. Varley’s account of Harrison in the ‘highgate worthies’ series is difficult to access.  The best of a bad bunch is C H Simpkinson’s a series of lectures which were made into a biography. Again not a standard biography. This is available on Amazon or as a free eBook. Harrison is given a brief comment in M Ashley’s 1954 Cromwell’s Generals. Harrison’s New Oxford Dictionary of National Biography is by Ian Gentles in 2004. One minor criticism of Farr is he does not really analysis in any great depth why such an important figure in 17th century England has been given such scant treatment.

Harrison, Fifth Monarchists and historiography

One way around this problem is to examine as Farr has done is to place Harrison in the context of his membership of the Fifth Monarchist movement.  The Marxist Cliff Slaughter once said ‘Religious misery is at the same time the expression of real misery and the protest against that real misery.” [6] This phrase taken from his essay Religion and Social Revolt Cliff Slaughter Labor Review Vol 3 No 3 June 1958 aptly expresses the Fifth Monarchists or any other radical group. In Marxist terms they represented the “sigh of the oppressed”.

It is very surprising that the foremost work and I am talking about Christopher Hill's The World Turned Upside Down on the radical groups of the 1640s contains next to nothing on the fifth Monarchy group. It was by far the largest group with upwards of 40,000 supporters and achieved a level of state power that the Levelers and Diggers could only have dreamed of. Therefore I find it a little strange that David Renton would say this about them “In comparison to the Fifth Monarchy men, the Diggers, the Levellers and Agitators who had successfully led a revolution, culminating in the removal of King Charles's head.[7] If I am correct the Levellers actually opposed the king’s execution.

A cursory look at previous historiography on the movement would uncover a degree of confusion as to exactly what the origins of the group. A study undertaken in 1912 has the Fifth Monarchists alongside the Baptists.

As C. Eden Quainton said” he Quakers and Fifth Monarchy men, for example, were certainly entitled to be called Anabaptists, but the label meant nothing except dislike, when applied to the Presbyterians.  Anything, however, in the nature of millennial belief or hope was certain to be called Anabaptist, as was the case with Fifth Monarchy opinions, which were adopted by many Anabaptists, especially in the army”.[8]

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 had 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

It is hard not to agree with Capp’s assertion that Harrison and his Fifth Monarchy friends did not have a coherent set of beliefs and should not be seen as a political party. While this is true if you examine them from the standpoint of the 21st century but if you examine them in sense of the 17th century the fact that 40,000 people had similar beliefs and were prepared to fight and die for their beliefs then a much clearer and precise picture of them can be got.

They faced the same problem as other radical groups such and the Levelers and Diggers in that they came from relatively similar class background as the leaders of the revolution Ireton and Cromwell. While political differences were apparent especially regard equality and the franchise.
The fifth Monarchist’s 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 certain capacity for abstract thought. To a certain extent I agree with Perez Zagorin that there were similarities with other radical groups such as the Levellers, Diggers etc.

In other areas they were radically different, sections did advocate a violent overthrow of society so much so that they were persecuted and were spied upon by Cromwell’s spymaster general John Thurloe. In the end they had no program to bring about social change. Sections of the group were in favour of bringing in a Mosaic code. This collection of religious edicts were extremely authoritarian bordering on a form of clerical fascism.

Their class outlook, that being of small producers, conditioned their ideology. 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 the lot of the poor to be made more equitable.
Ivan Roots- C Hill -

Ivan Roots’ dismissive review of Capp’s work ignored the broader importance of the movement. According to one writer “Capp presented Harrison as someone who held millenarian views by 1649. He commented on him being regarded by contemporaries as the ‘hero of the preachers and the most violent critic of the rump’. With regard to the removal of the rump, Capp argued that Harrison’s differences with Cromwell were ‘over methods rather than objectives’, but that later Harrison had no qualms in declaring the Protectorate as illegal. Capp believed that in 1660 Harrison presented himself as a martyr for the Fifth Monarchist cause”.

It is quite surprising that Hill did so little work on the Fifth Monarchists. His ground breaking book The World Turned Upside Down largely passes them by. His review of Capp’s book praises him for his research that opposes the general view from conservative historians that they and other radicals were a “lunatic fringe”. While having similarities with the Leveller’s a major difference was their opposition to the extension of the franchise. Also unlike the Levelers the Fifth Monarchists were far more interested in extending the revolution abroad. John Roger’s argued “how dust our Army to be still, now the work is to do abroad”  


Farr’s book pays considerable attention despite a paucity of information to the pre-1642 Harrison. Farr correctly states that Harrison’s “millenarian outlook” was shaped by a developing religious ferment, his meeting of like- minded military people in the Eastern Association and his economic position in society “. Farr provides considerable evidence that Harrison was not great shakes as a politician it is common knowledge that he “was a failure as a political leader, primarily due to his being ‘sadly wanting in the arts of political strategy’ or because of his ‘lack of patience for administrative routine’ by considering in detail Harrison’s engagement with the daily parliamentary routine in his time as an MP”.

Harrison and the New Model army

Part 3 examines Harrison’s time in the New Model Army and the link between his socio-economic status and his political and military actions. He was a loyal and important member of the army.  Farr does attempt in his book to examine to what extent Harrison’s political and military activities were influenced by socio-economic factors. Farr draws upon the work of Ian Gentles who has written extensively on the Political, social and economic makeup of the New Model Army participants. In an essay called The New Model Officer Corps in 1647- Gentles is one of the few historians who have bothered to analyze who did the fighting in the civil war.

“As absorbing as this debate continues to be, it is noteworthy that few historians in the twentieth century have had anything to say about those who did the actual fighting. Over 100,000 men put their lives at risk on behalf of king or parliament. While many of them had been pressed into service, thousands of others, mostly cavalry, took up arms voluntarily. Why were so many ready to kill and to risk being killed? Is there any correlation between their social origins or their economic interests, and their allegiance in the civil war? This study attempts an answer to this question in relation to the revolutionary army. It was the New Model more than any other body of men that forced the pace of revolutionary events between I645, the year of its founding, and i653, when its leader Oliver Cromwell expelled the remnant of the Long Parliament. Can anything be discovered about their socio-economic profile? Is there any link between the sociology of the army and its political radicalism”?

It is with this spirit of inquiry that Farr examines the link between Harrison’s socio-economic background and his military and political actions. As is stated in the introduction “Harrison’s background in his native Staffordshire, particularly the economic, political and religious circumstances of the Harrison family in Newcastle-under-Lyme. Harrison’s roots are then further developed by illustrating how important his move to London was in shaping why he became a parliamentary activist at such an early stage, as well as laying the foundations for some of the key political, economic and religious connections of his later life. it enables the text to finish on a rounded picture of the trajectory of his life from 1616 to his execution in 1660, rooted in the personal and economic factors that have been overlooked in light of his high-profile religious and political radicalism but were very much part of who he was”.

Some objective problems do come up when examining soldier’s beliefs in the New Model Army. The main one being a lack of historical data especially for rank and file soldiers. Gentles therefore concentrates his research on the upper sections of the army’s hierarchy.

Social mobility in the army was very fluid according to Gentles “we would expect men who did not enter the army as commissioned officers to come from humbler backgrounds than those who did. At least thirty-seven, or nearly a sixth of the 238 officers, are known to have risen from the rank of private, corporal, sergeant or quartermaster. This is in striking contrast to the royalist armies, where the policy was never to promote non-commissioned officers to commissioned rank. Data about social status are available for only fifteen of the thirty-seven, and not surprisingly they were mostly merchants, tradesmen and small yeomen. The other twenty-two, about whom nothing has been uncovered, are unlikely to have been more exalted in their status”.

Gentles concludes with point  “The radical dynamic which was unleashed by the potent brew of anti-popery, antinomianism and Puritan egalitarianism was accentuated by the youthfulness and the low social status of the New Model officers who articulated it”. It is a shame that there is little of this kind of research into socio-economic influences on political or military decisions. After all it was Cromwell who knew the importance of socio-economic status, the man about whom Cromwell said he would 'rather have a plain, russet-coated captain that knows what he fights for and loves what he knows than that which you call a gentleman and is nothing else'.

Farr’s book is an extremely enjoyable read. More importantly it has shone a bright light on a person that deserves far more research. Also he has shown the Fifth Monarchists to be an important part of the English Revolution. While far more needs to be researched on the republicanism expressed by the group. Farr’s book should be read straight after Capp’s work. The book deserves a wide audience and would be a comfortable read for a general reader as well as the more academic one. Hopefully it will be placed on university reading lists in the future. Hopeful the paperback version will be a little cheaper.


1   1 Cromwell and the Anabaptists during 1653 Author(s): C. Eden Quainton Source: Pacific Historical Review, Vol. 1, No. 2 (Jun., 1932), pp. 164-178 Published by: University of California Press
2.    Thomas Carlyle, Oliver Cromwell’s Letters, Speeches  London 1905 86-87
3.    The New Model Officer Corps in 1647: A Collective Portrait Author(s): Ian Gentles   Social History, Vol. 22, No. 2 (May, 1997), pp. 127-144 Published by: Taylor & Francis, Ltd.
4.    Thomas Harrison- Regicide and Major General by C H Simpkinson-American Historical Review Vol 11 No 1 1905
5.    'The Fifth Monarchists and Popular Millenarianism; in J. F. McGregor and B. Reay, eds., Radical Religion in the English Revolution (OUP 1984; paperback edn., 1986), 165-89.
6.    The Diary of Samuel Pepys-13th October 1660.
7.    The Experience of Defeat- Milton and Some Contemporaries Christopher Hill Faber and Faber
8.    Alex Callinicos -The Rule of the Saints Socialist Worker Review, No. 69, October 1984.Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.(ETOL).
9.    The Experience of Defeat: Milton and Some Contemporaries Christopher Hill Faber and Faber £12.50
10.  The Fifth Monarchy Men. Review of B S Capp the Fifth Monarchy Men. Cambridge Review 20 October 1972.
11.   Rogers, John (b. 1627), Fifth Monarchist writer- Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
12.  Reluctant Regicides, Toby Haggith and Richard Weight, History Today February 2014
13.  The Fifth Monarchy Insurrections : Champlin Burrage The English Historical Review, Vol. 25, No. 100 (Oct., 1910), pp. 722-747
14.  The Fifth Monarchy Men: Politics and the Millennium Leo F. Solt Church History, Vol. 30, No. 3 (Sep., 1961), pp. 314-324
15.  Mercurius Elencticus (7-14 June I648), British Library, E447/ II, 226
16.  "Charles Stuart, That Man of Blood" Patricia Crawford Journal of British Studies, Vol. 16, No. 2 (Spring, 1977), pp. 41-61
17.  The Fifth Monarchy Men: A Study in Seventeenth-Century English Millenarianism by B. S. Capp Leo F. Solt The American Historical Review, Vol. 78, No. 4 (Oct., 1973),
18.  Millennium and Revolution: Two Themes In Seventeenth Century British Utopianism Lyman Tower Sargent Utopian Studies, No. 2 (1989), pp. 38-49
19.  John Bunyan and the Fifth Monarchists : Richard L. Greaves Albion: A Quarterly Journal Concerned with British Studies, Vol. 13, No. 2 (Summer, 1981), pp. 83-95
20.  John Rogers: A Disillusioned Fifth Monarchy Man : Suellen M. Hoy Albion: A Quarterly Journal Concerned with British Studies, Vol. 4, No. 3 (Autumn, 1972), pp. 125-146
21.  A History of Political Thought in the English Revolution (1954). Perez Zagorin
22. Cultural theorist Stuart Hall (1932-2014): A political career dedicated to opposing Marxism By Paul Bond


[1] 4.Thomas Harrison- Regicide and Major General by C H Simpkinson-American Historical Review Vol 11 No 1 1905
[2] The Diary of Samuel Pepys-13th October 1660.
[3] Reluctant Regicides, Toby Haggith and Richard Weight, History Today February 2014
[4] Cultural theorist Stuart Hall (1932-2014): A political career dedicated to opposing Marxism
By Paul Bond  5 March 2014
[5] Introduction Major General Thomas Harrison David Farr- Ashgate 2014
[6] Religion and Social Revolt Cliff Slaughter Labor Review Vol 3 No 3 June 1958
[7] Marxists and historical writing in Britain Dave Renton
[8] Cromwell and the Anabaptists during 1653 Author(s): C. Eden Quainton Source: Pacific Historical Review, Vol. 1, No. 2 (Jun., 1932), pp. 164-178

Saturday, 1 March 2014

To Have no Newes is good Newes

1 E. P. Thompson and English Radicalism- edited by Roger Fieldhouse and Richard Taylor. As part of the anniversary of Thompson’s ground breaking work The making of the English Working Class Manchester University Press have released this collection of essays. They have kindly given me a review copy and this book will be reviewed on this blog in the not too distant future.

2 Warwick University Ltd- a book written by E P Thompson in 1970 written in a week Thompson sought to expose the fact that universities like Warwick had not only been spying on its students but had developed increasingly incestuous relations with big business. As Thompson said the “Is it inevitable that the university will be reduced to the function of providing, with increasingly authoritarian efficiency, pre-packed intellectual commodities which meet the requirements of management? Or can we by our efforts transform it into a center of free discussion and action, tolerating and even encouraging “subversive” thought and activity, for a dynamic renewal of the whole society in which it operates? “Page (166) Spokesman books have sent me a review copy. A critical review will be posted on this blog.

The Levellers- Radical political thought in the English Revolution. By Rachel Foxley.  Manchester University again have been kind enough to send me review copy .I have begun research for a review of this major book.. John Rees’s review can be found @

4. John Adamson’s review of Rebellion: Britain’s First Stuart Kings 1567-1642. By Tim Harris Oxford University Press. Published in Literary Review Febuary 2014

5. Lesley Mitchell’s review of One Hundred Letters from Hugh Trevor Roper edited by Richard Davenport –Hines and Adam Sisman. Published by Oxford University Press. Can be found at Literary Review Feb 2014.

6. The Online Library Of Liberty plan to put online a seven volume collection of Leveller tracts from the English Revolution. 1638-1659 There website can be found at

Saturday, 11 January 2014

How revolutionary were the Bourgeois Revolutions? Author: Neil Davidson ISBN: 9781608460670 Price: £22.99Pages: 840pp.

Neil Davidson’s How revolutionary were the Bourgeois Revolutions is a welcome addition to a very small number of books that deal with the veritable minefield that is the study of these revolutions. Whether you agree or not with his politics or historical partisanship his latest book is extremely impressive but also extremely flawed.

The book is the product of decades reading and research. He puts to good use his archival expertise on 18th-century Scotland, The subject matter is complex but the book is written with a simple clarity without lowering academic standards. The book deserves to be put on university book lists in the future. It remains to be seen if this will happen.

The concept of the bourgeois revolution is perhaps one of the most contentious subjects in modern day historiography. For well over thirty years large numbers of revisionist historians have sought to downplay or even eliminate the fact that these revolutions ever took place.  Bourgeois revolution’ is a term that a lot of historians and politicians would like to bury under a lot of dead dogs. In this context it is to the popular History Today magazine’s credit that its February issue will contain a lead article called Don’t Mention the Civil War. Why is Britain Embarrassed by its Revolutionary Past?

One such sceptic is academic researcher Chris Thompson who says “the prolific use of terms like ‘bourgeoisie’, ‘feudal’ and ‘modern’ aristocracy, ‘proletariat’ and ‘non-bourgeois strata of the middle class’ invites comparison with the debates of the Communist Party of Great Britain’s historians’ group in the late-1940s and early-1950s recently edited by David Parker. Antique concepts like the claim that a class of urban capitalists were developing in the sixteenth century with feudalism or that these people were held to be socially inferior and were excluded from power by Absolute States are given vigorous exercise. ‘Bourgeois’ revolutions inevitably occurred and, in their outcomes, promoted capitalism. There is also an undertow of historiographical controversy: Callinicos’s protest against the revisionist historians of the 1970s is linked to an attack on ‘Political Marxists’ like Robert Brenner and Ellen Meiksins Wood for their assistance in undermining a more authentically Socialist interpretation”.

It is perhaps a concession to these historians that Davidson’s book title tilts towards an accommodation with this prevalent view that these revolutions were not that revolutionary. Having said that Neil Davidson’s new book is an important and welcome contribution to the debate.

Davidson is a political historian who incorporates his politics into his historiography.  He is a leading member of the Socialist Workers Party which broke from orthodox Marxism in the early 1940’s.

Davidson’s Philosophical Conceptions or world view is moulded to a significant degree by the Socialist Workers Party’s troika of theories that were a departure from classical Marxism. The Deflected Permanent Revolution, the Permanent Arms Economy and lastly the theory of State Capitalism.

Both the first and the last of these theories are the most relevant to our subject and Davidson’s adoption of these two theories underpin his understanding of the bourgeois revolutions.  A fact that Davidson himself recognizes in his preface when he says that how one defines the bourgeois revolution and capitalism in general defines you view of the proletarian revolution.

In this instance a correct understanding of say the first proletarian revolution the 1917 Bolshevik revolution is a prerequisite for an understanding of proceeding and contemporary revolutions. Unfortunately Davidson’s understanding of the 1917 proletarian revolution is not one of an orthodox Marxist.

His agreement with the theory of the USSR being State Capitalist has it’s origins from a one Bruno Rizzi who in his book The Bureaucratization of the World: said “In the USSR, in our view, it is the bureaucrats who are the owners, for it is they who hold power in their hands. It is they who manage the economy, just as was normal with the bourgeoisie. It is they who take the profits, just as do all exploiting classes, who fix wages and prices. I repeat—it is the bureaucrats. The workers count for nothing in the governing of society. What is more, they receive no share in the surplus value… The reality is that collective property is not in the hands of the proletariat; but in the hands of a new class: a class which, in the USSR, is already an accomplished fact, whereas in the totalitarian states this class is still in the process of formation” .

The Russian Marxist Leon Trotsky who was acutely aware of this belief that the USSR was “state capitalist,” or some other form of exploitative society rejected this theory and did not attach great significance to it.

According to D North “In the state capitalist “theory,” the categories of Marxian political economy were abandoned and replaced with an unscientific descriptive terminology. It was a theory in which the element of economic necessity was replaced entirely with an extreme form of political subjectivism”.   Again according to North “at the heart of the Rizzi positions was the repudiation of the Marxist appraisal of the revolutionary role of the working class.

To highlight his claim North quoted Trotsky “All the various types of disillusioned and frightened representatives of pseudo-Marxism proceed… from the assumption that the bankruptcy of the leadership only “reflects” the incapacity of the proletariat to fulfil its revolutionary mission. Not all our opponents express this thought clearly, but all of them—ultra-lefts, centrists, anarchists, not to mention Stalinists and social-democrats—shift the responsibility for the defeats from themselves to the shoulders of the proletariat. None of them indicate under precisely what conditions the proletariat will be capable of accomplishing the socialist overturn.  If we grant as true that the cause of the defeats is rooted in the social qualities of the proletariat itself, then the position of modern society will have to be acknowledged as hopeless.
How does Davidson’s agreement with the theory of State Capitalism colour his attitude towards the bourgeois revolutions. Well a constant theme of his book is the underestimation of the role subjective i.e. political and social consciousness plays in revolutions runs through the entire book.

The SWP’ s rejection of the revolutionary nature of the working class which is implicit in the theory of State capitalism leads them into all sorts of alliances with forces hostile to socialism such the Labour party, trade unions and even the Stalinist of all shapes and sizes.

So what Is Davidson’s conception of bourgeois revolution? Despite the book being 0ver 800 pages long it is little difficult to get a coherent picture of Davidson’s theory of the bourgeois revolution. He does state on page 420:

“The theory of bourgeois revolution is not … about the origins and development of capitalism as a socioeconomic system but the removal of backward looking threats to its continued existence and the overthrow of restrictions to its further development. The source of these threats and restrictions has, historically, been the pre-capitalist state, whether estates-monarchy, absolutist, or tributary in nature”.

An  again from his book “In no bourgeois revolution did the revolutionaries ever seek to rally popular forces by proclaiming their intention to establish a new form of exploitative society … but did so by variously raising demands for religious freedom, representative democracy, national independence, and, ultimately, socialist reconstruction …(p. 510)

Davidson’s point that is not necessary for there to be a bourgeoisie that is active in the revolution for that revolution to be bourgeois while being true I think his thinking on this matter is a little formal and tends to see historical processes as fixed rather than fluid categories. There is a tendency in Davidson’s thinking to lean towards the vulgar. As the Russian Marxist Leon Trotsky noted

“Vulgar thought operates with such concepts as capitalism, morals, freedom, workers’ state, etc as fixed abstractions, presuming that capitalism is equal to capitalism. Morals are equal to morals, etc. Dialectical thinking analyses all things and phenomena in their continuous change, while determining in the material conditions of those changes that critical limit beyond which ‘A’ ceases to be ‘A’, a workers’ state ceases to be a workers’ state. The fundamental flaw of vulgar thought lies in the fact that it wishes to content itself with motionless imprints of a reality which consists of eternal motion. Dialectical thinking gives to concepts, by means of closer approximations, corrections, concretisation, a richness of content and flexibility; I would even say “a succulence” which to a certain extent brings them closer to living phenomena. Not capitalism in general, but a given capitalism at a given stage of development. Not a workers’ state in general, but a given workers’ state in a backward country in an imperialist encirclement, etc. Dialectical thinking is related to vulgar in the same way that a motion picture is related to a still photograph.

A classical Marxist view is that social classes are not fixed concepts or as one writer put it “exist in a single, positivist forms across centuries “.  The bourgeois has existed in different forms as a class over time and has mutated according to how capitalism itself has developed Davidson’s downplaying the study of socio economic forces diminishes ones understanding of the development of capitalism and its bourgeois revolutions.

While is perfectly natural to concentrate on key players in the bourgeois revolutions the downplaying of other social and political figures tends to lead Davidson in dismissing elements that made the bourgeois revolution more than just an objective occurrence. As one writer said “Davidson’s concentration on the analysis of key thinkers as such tends to downplay the extent to which revolution was a social and conceptual reality; that is to say, the analysis tends to emphasise the conservative aspects of leading thinkers’ ideas against the revolutionary context from which they emerged”.

Take for instance the English revolution. In his book Milton and The English Revolution, Faber and Faber Christopher Hill makes reference to a ‘third culture’ that was separate from the Royalist and Puritan world views of the seventeenth century. In his The English Bible and the Seventeenth Century Revolution (London, 1993), pp436-437. he states that “The historian should not stay on the surface of events; his or her interest should not be limited to State Papers, Acts and Ordinances, decisions of judges and local magistrates... He or she should listen--carefully and critically--to ballads, plays, pamphlets, newspapers, every source that can help him or her to get the feel of how people lived and in what ways their sensitivity differed from ours... The historian must listen to alchemists and astrologers no less than to bishops, to demands of London crowds; and he or she must try to understand the motivation of rioters, whether they are labelled anti-Catholic or anti-enclosure rioters or simply food rioters”.

A more detailed examination of forces such as the Levellers in the English revolution for instance would have given the book a much more balanced and nuance understanding of that revolution. In his essay Revolutionary Elements in the History of the English State and Law Evgeny Pashukanis (1927) expands this point up saying “The democratic movement of the Levellers; could be victorious only in connection with a peasant war, i.e. with the same “communist and anarchist” movements whose weakness in England was the basic cause of the preservation of all possible feudal remnants. The socio-political ideals of the Levellers by no means were a utopia from the point of view, say, of comparing them with the level of development of productive forces at that time; but they could only serve as the basis of a state and social order beyond the ocean where there was no basic impediment, where there was no class in whose interest it was to preserve as many feudal privileges as possible. Therefore, the task of truly materialist Marxist research must be to explain by which classes and by which methods the struggle was conducted. Mere references to the inevitable course of historical development are entirely insufficient.

Another aspect that colours Davidson’s understanding of the bourgeois revolution is his use of the SWP’s theory of The Deflected Permanent Revolution. The most important aspect in the development of Marx’s concept of permanent revolution was the experience of the 1848 revolutions.

Marx correctly stated that the bourgeoisie could not be trusted with the future development of humanity and that responsibity had passed to the revolutionary working class “hence the new era was one of permanent revolution”. For decades Socialists have approached the experiences and lessons of 1848 in order to understand their own revolutions. The greatest being the theoreticians of the Russian Social Democratic Party.

Davidson’s approach as regards the deflected permanent revolution is similar to the State capitalist theory. It is not in the realm of this review to examine the SWP’s approach sufficed to say that again this theory sees the working class reformist and non revolutionary.  “The theory supplants non-revolutionary petty-bourgeois intellectuals and other bourgeois forces that presided over a “deflected permanent revolution”, consolidating state capitalist formations in one country after another”.

In his introduction Davidson believes that the 1949 Chinese revolution was a bourgeois revolution which led to a state capitalist formation. Again to repeat Davidson’s words “how one defines the bourgeois revolution and capitalism impacts in fundamental ways on how one defines proletarian revolution and socialism”. My main problem with the book is that because Davidson is wrong in his analysis of modern day revolutions how do we trust his evaluation of the Bourgeois revolution.

This point aside the book does provide us with very useful reference point for a study of the bourgeois revolutions. Readers should acquaint themselves with a thorough study of Davidson’s and the SWP’s positions of defected permanent revolution and state capitalism and their critics within the classical Marxist movement. With these stipulations I would recommend a wide readership of this book.


1. Bruno Rizzi The Bureaucratization of the World .

2. Report to the Second National Congress of the Socialist Equality Party By David North 27 November 2012

3. In Defence of Marxism, (London: 1966),  Leon Trotsky

4. Revolutionary Elements in the History of the English State and Law Evgeny Pashukanis  (1927)

5. The ABC of Materialist Dialectics' by Leon Trotsky (December 1939).

6. The Revolutions of 1848 and the Historical Foundations of Marxist Strategy
              By David North 16 August 2013

7. A Comment on Alex Calinicos Review- Chris Thompson-

Further Reading

1. May 15, 2013

2. Discovering the Scottish Revolution, 1692-1746, London: Pluto Press, 2003.

3. The Origins of Scottish Nationhood, London: Pluto Press, 2000.

Sunday, 15 December 2013

The English Revolution c.1590–1720: Politics, Religion and Communities, ed. Nicholas Tyacke. ( Manchester U.P., 2007; pp. 212. £55).

This collection of essays edited by Nicholas Tyacke are a bold attempt at placing the English revolution as an important part of long term political and social changes in England that started in the late 1590s and went on well into 1720s hence the title of the book.

It a little strange but entirely understandable that the guest essayists concentrate on the most interesting period or as the jacket notes say ‘focusing on the crisis of transition by the English Revolution (1640–60).

It is a big ask to cover 120 years of very complex changes in England which saw the country transform from a relatively back wood feudal economy into the early beginnings of a capitalist country, saw the execution of a king and the establishment of a republic. Whether this book succeeds is open to debate.

The date span c.1590–1720 places the book in the context of a long seventeenth century’. From a historiographical standpoint this theoretically at least places this collection of essays  not so firmly in the school of thought belonging a number of left wing historians most famously Eric Hobsbawm, whose seminal essay "The Crisis of the Seventeenth Century" published in Past and Present, The term was coined by English Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm in his pair of 1954 articles and complimented by his contemporary, Hugh Trevor-Roper, in a 1959 article entitled "The General Crisis of the Seventeenth Century" published in the same journal. According to Wikipedia "Hobsbawm discussed an economic crisis in Europe;  "Trevor-Roper saw a wider crisis, "a crisis in the relations between society and the State".

It would be wrong to think that this collection of historians would like to return to a more left wing historiography. While paying lip service to some conceptions normally associated with the left historians, for example the continued use of the phrase “English revolution”. The book contains ten essays from a mostly post revisionist historiography. Some of these essay came from a 2004 colloquium on ‘The English Revolution and its legacies’.

One aspect of this lip service to a left wing historiography is the books adoption of a premise that the origins of and to some extent the causes of the English revolution can be found in a long-term viewpoint.

In his introduction Tyacke tries to reevaluate the revolutionary nature of the revolutionary events of 1640 to 1660. In doing so he seeks to place this collection firmly in the camp of what has been labelled the ‘post revisionist school of historiography. It should be made clear that this collection of essays are not the final word on this type of historiography.

It hard to understand what audience this collection of historians is appealing to. Having said that Tyacke does provide a very good introduction to the subject. In his ‘locating the ‘English Revolution’ his analysis of Whig and Marxist historiography does give the reader a good insight into two major interpretations of the English revolution. His analysis of the revisionist interpretation of this period is a little weak. Perhaps the reason being that Tyacke and the most of the other historians in this collection are too close to revisionist positions.

As one reviewer put it “Few revisionists will be won over at this stage, but some may find themselves mobilizing in anticipation of a wider onslaught”.[i]

The book is not a point scoring exercise against previous revisionist positions, there is however an attempt to provide an alternative viewpoint of a very complex subject.

The book as I said earlier is broad in its scope. Some of the strongest chapters are ones that deal with aftermath of the 1640 to 1660 time period. While purporting to be about moving on from revisionist historiography the subjects chosen in this collection are all ones that most revisionist historians are comfortable with the exception being John Walters’s essay.

Sean Kelsey’s very well argued and well researched chapter called The King’s Book. Eikon Basilike and the English Revolution of 1649 covers some ground that John Adamson has tread and will tread in his forthcoming book. Kelsey without intention highlights that despite what revisionists say there actually was class differences amongst even the Royalists. I hope Kelsey continues this work because a lot of this kind of research has been abandoned by revisionist historians.

This collection of essays sits very easily with the reader and they do provide a wide ranging analysis but whether they form a groundbreaking development of a post-revisionist agenda I am not entirely sure.

Perhaps the two historians that are readily identifiable as ‘post-revisionist’ are Richard Cust and Ann Hughes, their previous work[ii] has built up a body of historiography that has emphasized the ideological struggle that went on before, during and after the revolution.

Michael Braddick's essay, The English Revolution and its legacies is in keeping with Hughes and Cust in that they all use the term The English Revolution. Braddick believes that ‘the energies unleashed in the 1640s provided the dynamic for a long revolution, encompassing the exclusion crisis and the “Glorious Revolution”. It is important that Braddick couples the English Revolution with the 1688 revolution. This is an area that does need further research.

My own favourite essay is John Walter's Politicizing the popular? The ‘tradition of riot’ and popular political culture in the English Revolution. While holding some similar positions to a number of Marxist historians, his research into popular riots and disturbances upholds a tradition of “history from below” school of historiography. Walter does subscribe to the revolutionary nature of the period, and that that there was a clash of ideologies he does not subscribe the belief that the lower sections of society were major players in the drama.In conclusion this collection of essays sets itself very difficult tasks. I am not sure it completes those tasks.

To be in favour the conception of a long 17th century is a difficult enough ,it is nearly impossible when most of the essay writers reject any Marxist conceptions that would have given the book a much better analysis. The fact that none of the essays tackle deep seated changes in the English economy is a glaring absence. The growing distaste amongst revisionist and post revisionist historians for economic historiography is damaging and short sighted.

All in all I would recommend the book for students of the subject and for the general public. The book is well written and researched. Although a read around the subject is a must

[i] English Historical Review (2010) Ian Warren  doi: 10.1093/ehr/ceq085 First published online: April 19, 2010
[ii] , Conflict in Early Stuart England (1989; rev. ante, cv [1990], 966–8)

Further reviews

The English Revolution, c.1590–1720: Politics, Religion and Communities – Edited by Nicholas Tyacke Lloyd Bowen Parliamentary History Oct 17, 2011

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Film Review: A Field in England - Ben Wheatley's Civil War drama , 90mins. Starring: Reece Shearsmith, Richard Glover, Michael Smiley (15) Geoffrey Macnab

“The condition of man... is a condition of war of everyone against everyone” 

“Life is nasty, brutish, and short” 

― Thomas Hobbes.

Given that there is a paucity of worthwhile films on the English Civil War it is perhaps understandable that Ben Wheatley’s new film has received significant interest from the historians and mainstream newspapers.After all it is common knowledge that this period to quote one reviewer “is one of the most exciting and tumultuous periods in English and British history”. While film goers might or might not like the film, students of history in particularly the English revolution will feel short changed. I am unsure why Wheatley chose the setting of the Civil War he could have really put the setting anywhere he wanted within his limited budget.

The film pays so many homages to different film genres it is sometimes a little hard to keep up. The film is beautifully shot in black and white and clearly is influenced by the 1975 film Winstanley. Winstanley had as one writer put it a “stark monochrome beauty” to it. The film style pays homage to the Russian film maker Sergei Eisenstein. It was clearly a labour of love for Brownlow and Mollo with a large degree of perfection for detail and costume. Winstanley was produced on an extremely small budget £24,000 with a volunteer cast apart from one professional actor, first shown in 1975. This review is of the digital re-mastering carried out by the British Film Institute. Like Winstanley A Field in England has a resonance with the German expressionist films of the 1920s and 1930s,

While the style of the two films are similar the substance is entirely different. A Field in Britain offers no real insight into the ideological differences that arose during the Civil war. However, if you wish to see a film that beautifully photographed, funny in parts, disturbing and in many places violent and crude film, then this is it. 

It would be mistaken to believe that the film has no philosophical basis. Wheatley’s apparent limited understanding of the Civil war does not stop him portraying his characters coming straight out of Thomas Hobbes book Leviathan. In other words, ‘nasty, poor, brutish, and short’. 

The film has a very basic plot line. Shot on a very small budget and is only 90 minutes long. Following the life four deserters. While it is unclear which side the deserters came from I would hazard a guess that three came from Parliaments side and one Whitehead was a Royalist sympathizer. Little is seen of the battle that our ‘heroes’ flee from they stumble into a field which is entirely where the film is set.

After eating some magic mushrooms, the group comes under control of what seems a devil like figure O’Neil played very well by Michael Smiley.

O’ Neil has been has been pursued by our anti- hero Whitehead. What plays out is largely a battle between good and evil.  

Is A field in England a fair reflection of the times we live in. One perceptive reviewer Ms. Annette Bullen attempted to answer this question

 “In fact I think that both these films reflect their times and the concerns of the day. Winstanley began shooting in the late 1960s at the end of the period where Marxist historians’ interpreted the English Civil War as a revolution. It was released in 1975 and this, rather neatly, coincided with a shift in the interpretation of these events in favour of new revisionist interpretations. So the earnest and urgent call for revolution which began in the 1960s had, by the time of the film’s release, been taken over by a reinterpretation of the Civil War as being more evolutionary, stressing the importance of attempting to understand events and evidence in context rather than as a stage in a Marxist interpretation of history.

A Field in England, too, reflects our current times. Religion, a fundamental part of society during the 17th century, hardly features, with only one of the five characters being in anyway religious and the others sneering or indifferent to his prayers and his god. They would rather go to the pub to have a beer and a good stew than go to church. Nor are any of the characters interested in politics or the huge events taking place around them. Cromwell and the King are mentioned but these soldiers are self-interested and self-absorbed, fighting for an unknown cause with little conviction. They make a total contrast to Winstanley’s New Model Army, who carry copies of ‘The Case of the Armie’ in their hats and debate at Putney their rights within the society for which they have fought”. (

The fact that A Field in England has no Marxist revolutionary ideology, indeed no ideology of any kind is sad reflection of the state of current historiography.  While the film does have merit it would appear to me a wasted opportunity.


Further Reading