Wednesday, 2 December 2009

The London History Festival - Kensington Central Library 3 November 2009

The London History Festival - Kensington Central Library 3 November 2009

I recently went to this event where Paul Lay, editor of History Today held a discussion with historian John Adamson about his prize-winning book The Noble Revolt.

The conference title was “Charles I and the origins of the English Civil War. Political ideology, hubris, loyalty and treachery”.

According to the introductory material, John Adamson is a fellow of Peterhouse College, Cambridge and The Noble Revolt has been described as "a work of great style and imagination as well as scholarship... As with a great 19thcentury novel, the story and the characters will become your friends for life." (Ed Smith, The Times).

However, Adamson has courted controversy and not all historians are so flattering about his work, according to Roger Richardson in his review of the Noble Revolt " In the early 1990s John Adamson found himself at the centre of a major historical controversy about his bold re-interpretation of the English Civil War as the "last baronial revolt".

Mark Kishlansky of Harvard University led the attack, accusing Adamson of slipshod work, misleading handling of the evidence and weakly supported conclusions. The dispute spilled out from the academic journals in which it had originated to the newspaper press and many of the big names of the historical profession at that time - Conrad Russell, Lawrence Stone and Hugh Trevor-Roper among them - weighed in on one side or the other”.

The History Today discussion began with elaboration by Adamson on why he began his book The Noble Revolt in 1640. From the beginning, Adamson sought to distance himself from any form of the socio-economic history of the civil war. A view primarily championed by Marxist’ historians such as Christopher Hill and Brian Manning.

He accused some historians of relying too much on large abstract forces, and the role of 
the individual had been underestimated. He said he did not agree with long term views, these got us nowhere, and he certainly did not agree that there was a bourgeois revolution. He felt that an “economic determinist” viewpoint did not explain too much.

At the event, Adamson echoed the prevailing academic orthodoxy that there was no bourgeois revolution mainly because he felt there was no rising bourgeoisie and that people from all social classes can be found on either side of the struggle.

Adamson concurs with an increasingly large number of historians who see Cromwell, as a representative of the declining gentry rather than a rising bourgeoisie.

Adamson believes that Cromwell never intended a revolution. For too long this viewpoint has been left unchallenged. In fact, it has only been challenged outside academia.

In her obituary of Christopher Hill Ann Talbot, states that “Hill, of course, was well aware that there were gentlemen and landowners on the Parliamentary side in the Civil war and small farmers and artisans on the Royalist side. He had read enough Marx and Lenin to know that one could not expect a chemically real revolution in which the members of one social class lined up one side of the barricades and those of the other on the opposite side. However, he was sensitive enough to his historical sources to detect the social currents that brought people of diverse social backgrounds into struggle against the king and well-grounded enough in history to identify new and revolutionary ideas in the curious and archaic guise in which they appeared—as the ideologists of the revolution ransacked the Bible and half understood historical precedent for some kind of theory to explain what they were doing”.[1]

Adamson explained his reasoning behind his rejection of a Marxist understanding of history. He believed that socialism had collapsed with the coming down of the Berlin Wall in 1989. And incorrectly stated that no one had anticipated the fall of the wall and communism, which is not true. He went on to say that there has been in the past too much emphasis on social classes in the civil war but in reality, the war was much more about personal allegiances and decisions.

According to Adamson, the war was caused by Charles 1 and his inexperience and vanity. There is no doubting Adamson’s work rate or ability to carry out prodigious research his current book’s weight, and I don’t mean academic but physical is a testimony to that. It also has 200 pages of notes, but this alone is not enough to give it a multi rather than unique dimension to understanding the complexity and magnitude of the Civil War.
You get the feeling that he has a lot of sympathy for Charles 1st. You can see this in his book titled The Noble Revolt. For Adamson, it is not a revolution from below but a revolt from above. You can see this from any section of his book, this for instance "From the cabin at the stern of the barge, Charles caught a glimpse of the gilded weather-vanes of Whitehall Palace before the boat turned westwards, past the Abbey, and under the great east window of St Stephen’s Chapel – the Commons’ chamber, and the scene of his most recent political debacle. It would be seven years before Charles saw his palace again”.

Adamson also seems to revel in the idea that the main players in the revolution were mainly reacting blindly to events. One reviewer of Adamson’s book picked up on this by saying “Unlike hindsight historians, they stumbled forward, seeking peace if possible and war if necessary. Like Oliver Cromwell, in 1640 an obscure farmer on the fringes of Warwick's circle, once said, 'no one travels so high as he who knows not where he is going.'

Whether Cromwell was conscious of what he was doing misses the point as Leon Trotsky put it “Different classes in various conditions and for various tasks find themselves compelled in particular and indeed, the acutest and critical, periods in their history, to vest an extraordinary power and authority in such of their leaders as can carry forward their fundamental interests most sharply and comprehensively. When we speak of dictatorship, we must in the first place be clear as to what interest of what particular classes find their historical expression through the dictatorship. For one era Oliver Cromwell, and for another, Robespierre expressed the historically progressive tendencies of development of bourgeois society.”[2]

[1] "These the times ... this the man": an appraisal of historian Christopher Hill by Ann Talbot 25 March

[2] Leon Trotsky's Writings on Britain Ch 2 Two traditions: the seventeenth-century revolution and Chartism

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