Sunday, 23 May 2010

The 350th Anniversary of the Glorious Revolution goes with wimper

This year marks the 350th anniversary since the restoration of the British monarchy. This event has been characterised by a stunning silence in the media, among historians and writer alike. One of the few pieces I have been able to track down is by Antonia Senor.

This article contains no merit and requires commentary only because it epitomises an unserious and flippant approach to historical questions that seem to populate the major quality newspapers. Senor’s article appeared in The Times which is the leading newspaper of the English bourgeoisie and encapsulates the attitude to the Glorious Revolution of 1688 has not changed in over 350 years only the level of historical writing has dropped alarmingly.

“The poorly named English Civil War, which was, in reality, a British and Irish, many-stranded revolution, is unaccountably missing from our traditional historical narrative”. In the above quote, Senor is, in fact, appealing to a reduced level of history. She seems to be under the illusion that if you write history at the degree of a Mills and Boon paperback, this will improve things.

Has she bothered to research her articles or even think about what she writes? Even a cursory look on the internet would show the “poorly named English civil war” has been written about some of the finest national and international historians both on the left and right of historiography. The output of books on the subject is second only to the Second World War.

But this passes over her head she laments “Yet all of this rich and vibrant material has mostly been left to the driest of professional historians and slightly odd re-enactment societies. The historiography of the period is acrimonious. Religious wars or class-led revolt? A problem at the centre or a crisis at the localities? The latest to rewrite the conflict is John Adamson, who argued in The Noble Revolt that the Civil War originated in aristocratic discontent. All these arguments delight the already initiated. This is history as blood sport”.

But we need a new modern appreciation of the era. Maria McCann’s second novel set in the period, The Wilding, is a good start, but she should not be alone popularising voice. Where are the novels and plays? Why has there only ever been one, slightly ropy, the civil war drama on television recently — Channel 4’s The Devil’s Whore? Why the modern obsession with the Tudors, when it is the Stuarts’ rise and fall that tells us most about our island and its story”?

What Senor is bothered about is the fact the Civil War had a revolutionary content to it that according to her is out of character with the English. This thinking happens to also coincide with the thinking of most sections of the British ruling elite along with the parts of the Labour Party and Trade Union bureaucracy and not a few English historians.

The Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky, writing in the 1920s, described this feature of British politics: 'The English bourgeoisie has erased even the memory of the revolution of the 17th century, and recast its entire past in the form of "gradual changes"'. 'Gradualism' permeates the trade union and labour movement, leading to the dominant view that voting is the only way of changing anything and nothing can be done to remove the royal family or lords, whose roots seem to go back for centuries.

To her only foreigners do revolutions “Think of Revolution, and what comes to mind? Bolsheviks rampaging through the Winter Palace, stripping gilt from the walls? A Frenchwoman, drunk with blood lust, screaming for another aristocratic head to hit the bucket? Revolutions are for foreigners. They get all the glamour and all the turmoil of violent regime overthrow. The gutters of Paris and St Petersburg filled with revolutionary blood, not London’s.”

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

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

“The myth of the “Glorious Revolution” was the target of Hill’s first published article, which appeared in the Communist International under the pseudonym E.C. Gore in 1937. It was followed in 1940 by a short essay, The English Revolution 1640, which contained a concise statement of the arguments that Hill was to spend the rest of his life elucidating”.

“Hill never acknowledged having read Trotsky, but there are distinct parallels between his attacks on the Whig interpretation of history and Trotsky’s brief, but the trenchant analysis of Where is Britain Going? In which he identified two revolutionary traditions in British history—that of the Cromwell in the seventeenth century and later of Chartism—both of which were denied by the prevailing conception of gradualism that characterised the Whig view of history. “The ‘great’ national historian Macaulay,” Trotsky wrote, “vulgarises the social drama of the seventeenth century by obscuring the inner struggle of forces with platitudes that are sometimes interesting but always superficial.”

Senor has a weak understanding of historical processes and individuals in that process. According to her, nobody except the Puritans wanted the English Revolution, but the wider population wanted the King restored. “We went through all the tumult of fighting with the King, killing him, mythmaking and blood-shedding, just to reinstate his son voluntarily. In Deal, Pepys reports, Maypoles were set up, the streets were strewn with herbs, and the booze flowed. The people of Britain chose pleasure over godliness; they chose the King whom they understood over the Republic that they didn’t, and all the tumult of the years just gone was lost in pealing bells and a national exhalation of relief.”

A man that knew a thing or two about revolutions would give her an alternative argument “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under the circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like an Alp on the brains of the living...."

Senor goes on “The fabric of Britain had cracked, and sealed over again — with just a scar left from an eruption of radical thoughts about God, gender, marriage, life and class. All men are equal in the sight of God, the Levellers said. If entry to Heaven and Hell is predestined, then we may as well transgress as much as possible, the Ranters said. From the insistence on peace and love of the Quakers to the agrarian, proto-communism of the Diggers, this was an era of big ideas in a political vacuum. God was a player in this revolution; He marched with the New Model Army and sent women into strange frenzies of prophesying”.

While the above quote may seem an appalling historical rant there is a logic to it. In fact, there are parallels with today. When a political vacuum arises radicals step in. There is a very great fear expressed limitedly by Senor that there are growing conditions for a proletarian revolution against the ongoing attempt by the capitalist elites to make working people pay for this economic crisis. The thing Senor wants to avoid is any revolutionary conclusions being drawn from the “bloody civil war” if any conclusions should be drawn it should be from the 1688 revolution. But even this revolution was far from bloody.

According to Wikipedia “The expression "Glorious Revolution" was first used by John Hampden in late 1689, and is an expression that is still utilised by the British Parliament. [The Glorious Revolution is also occasionally termed the Bloodless Revolution, albeit inaccurately. In England, there were two significant clashes between the two armies and anti-Catholic riots in several towns. There was also the Williamite War in Ireland and severe fighting in Scotland (notably the Battles of Killicrankie and the Dunkeld). The revolution also led to the collapse of the Dominion of New England and the overthrow of Maryland's government”.

Senor comforts us with “Despite all the radicalism and the extraordinary act of executing the King, somehow the country drew back from the brink. Somehow, when the body politic lay broken, and Puritanism prevailed, we took back a monarch — and a playboy dilettante at that. We must reclaim our revolution, revel in the Restoration. Break out the Maypoles — the King is back; long live the King!

Today’s body politic is broken, what will replace it maybe a monarchy based on an army dictatorship or a dictatorship of the working class. While the working class can learn from history especially the English revolution and a study of this time is necessary it would be more important to consider a revolution that was made in its interest that of the Russian Revolution. Now that is a revolution that Senor dare not speak its name.
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