Monday, 30 August 2010


This a correction to my blog Supplementary Notes for a further Article on the True Levellers Part Two. I have already apologised to him for the error.

Christopher Thompson Wrote:

Keith Livesey has given some details of his ideas for working on the Levellers here. I was surprised to see my 1980 Past and Present article cited as the basis for a claim that Petty had supported a restricted franchise in the Putney debates of October, 1647 on the first Agreement of the People. In fact, I argued that Petty's position had changed: he came to it as a supporter of manhood suffrage but, towards the end of the debate, sought consent on a more restricted franchise excluding Royalists, servants and other dependents.

My argument was a criticism of the claims of C.B.Macpherson that the Levellers were consistent supporters of a restricted franchise. But it must be said that the view held then that the First Agreement of the People was a Leveller document no longer seems tenable. Elliot Vernon and Philip Baker have recently argued in The Historical Journal (Volume 53. No.1 (March, 2010), Pp.39-59) that the document was the product of a group of London radicals, including Maximilian Petty, around Henry Marten and not a Leveller tract at all.

This means that the assumption upon which Macpherson, Keith Thomas, Monk, Aylmer and I worked was wrong. I am grateful for their research on this point.

Friday, 20 August 2010

A reveiw of the Light Shining in Buckinghamshire by Caryl Churchill

The Play Light Shining in Buckinghamshire by Caryl Churchill recently came to an end at the Arcola Theatre in London. The play was generally well received and deservedly so. The Financial Times said, “Churchill shows us an age of unbelievable fluidity in the social order...” The play reminds us sombrely that such moment of potential pass: they either come to nothing in the first place, or the old order is soon restored. Michelle Terry and Helena Lymbery each excel in the Putney sequence”.

The play is set amidst the English Civil war, so knowledge of this event is a must before seeing or reading the play. The blurb for the play by Churchill sets the scene “1649. After years of bloody civil conflict, an exhausted England is in the hands of radical extremists. Turning the country upside down, Parliament’s soldiers kill the King and take power into their own hands. Theirs is a war to establish Heaven on Earth. This is the story of the most terrifying decade in our history. Struggling to find a voice in the face of unspeakable suffering, a group of ordinary men and women cling to the belief that they will be shown a glimpse of unspeakable, transcendent glory”.

Having not been performed for a good while the play marked as one writer put it “a major UK revival of Churchill’s seminal play brought to the stage by Polly Findlay and the stellar creative team behind Thyestes (Arcola) and Eigengrau (Bush)". The play was written in 1976 also marked Churchill’s first collaboration with the Joint Stock Theatre Group.

One word of warning the play as far as I can see does not follow any chronological order. One critic cautioned that audiences may “find themselves disoriented by the swirl of events and even by the style of storytelling. In all productions, it seems that six actresses and actors repeatedly switch roles while playing dozens of characters. Identification is often deliberately blurred.

Churchill throughout her career to date has tackled complex historical questions in a simple but thought provoking way. Earlier plays have included “Fen" which was about farm workers in England and "Mad Forest" during the Romanian revolution. She has also not been scared to use different theatrical techniques such as the use collage form.

The play reflects that much of the writing of the Levellers and the Diggers was couched in the language of religion. Which was to be expected. This taken from the Digger Pamphlet The Light Shining in Buckinghamshire “JEHOVAH ELLOHIM Created Man after his own likenesse and image, which image is his Sonne Jesus, Heb. I. verse 2. who is the image of the Invisible God: now Man being made after Gods image or likenesse, and created by the word of God, which word was made Flesh and dwelt amongst us; which word was life, and that life the light of men, I Joh. 2. this light I take to be that pure spirit in man which we call Reason, which discusseth things right and reflecteth, which we call conscience; from all which there issued out that golden rule or law, which we call equitie: the sum me of which is, saith Jesus, whatsoever yee would that men should doe to you, doe to them, this is the Law and the Prophets; and James cals it the royall Law, and to live from this principle is calld a good conscience: and the creature Man was priviledged with being Lord over other inferior creatures, but not over his own kinde; for all men being a like priviledged by birth, so all men were to enjoy the creatures a like without proprietie one more than the other, all men by the grant of God are a like free, and every man individually, that is to say, no man was to Lord or command over his own kinde: neither to enclose the creatures to his own use, to the impoverishing of his neigh- bours, see the Charter, I. Gen. from 26. vers. to the end of the Chapt. and see the renewing of the Charter to Noah and his Sons, Gen. 9. from the I. vers. to the 18.

That Levellers and Diggers couched their writings in religious flavouring does not detract from the important calls for further democracy and increased social equality. According to Marx, they were not the only ones to do so “Cromwell and the English people had borrowed from the Old Testament the speech, emotions, and illusions for their bourgeois revolution. When the real goal had been achieved, and the bourgeois transformation of English society had been accomplished, Locke supplanted Habakkuk. Thus the awakening of the dead in those revolutions served the purpose of glorifying the new struggles, not of parodying the old; of magnifying the given task in the imagination, not recoiling from its solution in reality; of finding once more the spirit of revolution, not making its ghost walk again”.

The play does have a contemporary feel to it. The questions of democracy and of social inequality, the treatment of women, wars and revolution and the subjugation of Ireland are in many senses still with us. I am not the only one who feels this “The temptation to look for reflections of the present in the past is always strong, and you can find such thoughts in any period if you look hard enough. The historian Barbara Tuchman, in her book A Distant Mirror, saw the 20th century reflected best by the wars, plagues and schisms of the 14th. Watching Caryl Churchill's remarkable 1976 play Light Shining in Buckinghamshire, which revolves around the millenarian hopes and anxieties of the Diggers, Ranters and Levellers of the English Civil War, it's impossible not to hear pre-echoes of our own times, at the end of the millennium. It's impossible, too, not to see some contemporary applications in Churchill's picture of the agonies of a dispossessed, politically excluded class. This was shown by one new radical group such as The Land Is Ours, who occupied the Guinness Brewery site in Wandsworth earlier this year”.

Perhaps the play's greatest service is its attention to history. The title is taken from one of the lesser known Diggers tracts. Churchill manages to accurately weave real events and words spoken at the time. By far the strongest part of the play is the partially verbatim transcript of the Putney Debates of 1647, which saw rank and file soldiers and commoners argued for a broadening of the democratic franchise and an end to social equality which were opposed by Cromwell and Ireton leaders of the Grandees.

The only criticism I have of the play is that it perhaps glorifies the Levellers and Diggers a little too much. Which is perhaps the result of the influence of the SWP whose former member John Rees was an advisor.

In my opinion, a more serious evaluation should be made. The Levellers appeared to take on many of the characteristics of a political party in the years 1645-46. This is a contentious issue and has been disputed. They were the radical wing of the Independent coalition and were responsible for many of modern day political techniques such as mass demonstrations, collecting petitions, leafleting and the lobby of MPs. As an aside William Clarke who provided us with the report of the Putney Debates was an avid collector of books, pamphlets and leaflets found in his collection was over eighty Leveller pamphlets. The Levellers strength mainly lay in London and other towns and had not an insignificant support in the army.

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

The Levellers themselves were part of a group of men that sought to understand the profound political and social changes that were taking place at the beginning of the 17th century. They were the true ‘Ideologues of the revolution’ and had a capacity for abstract thought. Levellers also wished to democratise the gilds and the City of London, a decentralisation of justice and the election of local governors and stability of tenure for copyholders. While the Levellers were sympathetic to the poor, which stemmed from their religion they had no programme to bring about social change, they never advocated a violent overturning of society. Their class outlook, that being of small producers, conditioned their ideology. At no stage did the Levellers constitute a mass movement.

The contradiction between their concern for the poor and their position of representatives of the small property owners caused some tension. They had no opposition to private property and therefore they accepted that inequalities would always exist, they merely argued for the lot of the poor to be made more equitable. One of their members John Cooke explained “I am no advocate for the poore further then to provide bread and necessaries for them, without which, life cannot be maintained, let rich men feast, and the poore make hard meale, but let them have bread sufficient”.

Knowing that they could not come to power through the presently constituted electorate the Levellers attempted to find constitutional ways of getting round it. A draft constitution produced in 1647 called the Agreement of the People declared that the state had broken down in civil war and must be refounded on the basis of certain fundamental “native rights” safeguarded even from a sovereign went against one of the most fundamental reasons for the war in the first place. The Agreement amongst other demands, called for biennial parliaments, franchise reform, only those who contracted into the new state by accepting the agreement were to have the vote.

The one real chance the Levellers had to put their ideas into practice was to gain control of the army. The development of the new model army was central to the outcome of the English Civil war, who controlled the army-controlled state power. The Levellers had agitated for the arrears of wages to be paid and that indemnity for actions committed during the civil war be granted. This agitation had won them considerable support in the army.

At the Army Council debate at Putney held in the October/November of1647 came the Levellers opportunity. The limitations of the Leveller program was cruelly exposed in a very famous exchange between Colonel Rainborowe, leader of the Levellers in Parliament and Henry Ireton, Rainborowe stated that “The poorest he that is in England has 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 the government”.

This seemed all very democratic but ‘free born Englishmen’ excluded servants and the poorer sections that did not constitute ‘the people’. Christopher Hill says “The Leveller conception of free Englishmen was thus restricted, even if much wider than the embodied in the existing franchise. Their proposals would perhaps have doubled the number of men entitled to vote. But manhood suffrage would have quadrupled it. The generals, generally horrified, pretended at Putney that the Levellers were more democratic than they were”. In the end, as Churchill writes in the Play the only thing the Levellers got out of Putney was the promise of Cromwell to take things to a committee.

To put it more simply the generals deliberately exaggerated the radicalism of a majority of the Levellers to label them extremists and to mobilise their own supporters against them. Cromwell correctly recognised that if the franchise were widened, it would threaten his position in parliament. Again Hill explains “Defending the existing franchise Cromwell son in law, Henry Ireton rejected the doctrine ‘that by a man being born here, he shall have a share in that power that shall dispose of the lands here and of all things here’. The vote was rightly restricted to those who ‘had a permanent fixed interest in this kingdom’. Namely, ‘the person in whom all lands lie and that incorporation’s in whom all trading lies”.

Ireton claimed the present House of Commons represented them and went on to ask by what right the vote was demanded all free Englishmen. If by natural right, taking up the Levellers point that they should be free. Who could freely dispose of their own labour? Then Ireton could see no reason why men had as much natural right to property as to the vote. He went on to point out that if you give them the vote, then they will be the majority in parliament and they will give equal property rights to everybody. This argument completely confused Rainborowe and undermined his case.

Cromwell was acutely aware that the ideas of the Levellers and the smaller groups within them such as the Diggers were becoming a dangerous business. Cromwell said of what he called the ‘lunaticks’ “You must break these men, or they will break you” Cromwell declared. By May 1649 the Levellers had been defeated in battle, and their influence in the army and in civilian life disappeared.

In many respects, the true revolutionary of the civil war was Cromwell and his New Model Army. While not agreeing with the revisionists that the Levellers were an insignificant movement, they should not also be hyped into something they were not. They were primarily a movement of the lower middle class that sought to extend the franchise on a limited basis. The reason this failed was that the social and economic basis for their ideas had not yet developed in this sense their egalitarian ideas were a foretaste of future social movements, not communistic but more in the tradition of social democracy.

The play works on many levels. People without a knowledge of the Levellers will get a lot out of it. The more academically minded person will also have their intellect satisfied. I would recommend the play whole heartedly.

Sunday, 15 August 2010

The English Civil War-Essential Readings-Edited by Peter Gaunt. Blackwell 2000

This review is a summary of some of the articles in Peter Gaunt’s The English Civil War: The Essential Readings (2000). The choice of essays by Gaunt is an excellent introduction to the subject. Gaunt starts with a triangle piece from historians John Morrill, Brian Manning, and David Underdown, who attempt to answer ‘What Was The English Revolution?’ the article first being published in History Today,1984.

Gaunt in his introduction acknowledges that he has a problem of explaining what happened in the 1640s and 1650s.The three historians were set a task by History Today to find out if there was a revolution.

John Morrill starts his essay with an explicit rejection that the civil war was the result of any long-term developments. He describes England after 1600 as a peaceful and prosperous place with little or no civil disturbances and certainly no reason to have a civil war.

Morrill mainly presents the development of war as a clash of ideologies and although he never goes as far as some other revisionists to deny the use of the term revolution it is evident he does not subscribe to it in his the Revolt of the Provinces 1976 while he did not completely rule out revolutions as others have he seems to have mellowed admitting that revolution might have occurred writing in 1984.

Morrill is not particularly forthcoming on why he thought it was a revolutionary event as one writer puts it Morrill saw it as “cumulative effects of the experience of civil wars and interregnum which brought about “the modern secular state” after the restoration. As you’d expect he finds religion to be the main thing which motivated militants to fight each other but suggests that this kind of militancy had become irrelevant by 1660”.

In Gaunt’s book, he describes the legacy of the English Revolution as “Religion had been pushed to the edge of life, almost becoming a hobby. Out of England’s wars of religion came the modern secular state”.

Morrill is a bit myopic saying the revolution was in fact just wars of religion. But at least he is consistent with his historical line. Morrill adopted his approach to the complex problem of the English revolution in the early 1970s. In an interview given in 2008, he makes it clear that his approach as opposed to what was the dominant explanation of the English civil war, and that was the ‘Marxist approach led by Christopher Hill, Brian Manning, and to some extent Lawrence Stone among others.

“Of course the whole world was in a loose sense Marxist in the late 60s and early 70s when I was in my formation. When I was first teaching in the late 60s and early 70s, Marxist categories were the ones in which people thought. And his books were definitely the ones everyone started from. But he was certainly the most significant influence, and interestingly the other dominant figure in the field that I came to work in, Lawrence Stone, was someone I always reacted against. I never liked his work; I always thought he was over-schematic. I didn’t think he had the empathy with the mental world of the past that Christopher Hill had”.

Why Morrill reacted against Stone so violently I do not know having not read Stone I cannot offer a reason at the moment but will come back to it at a later stage. One interesting point came out of the interview, and that was how Morrill describes the origins of the revisionist’s of which he is probably the leader.” Well, I think the exciting thing about revisionism was how a whole series of people came to the same conclusions simultaneously without really knowing one another.

I hadn’t met Mark Kishlansky or Conrad Russell or Kevin Sharpe when we all published our 1976 works which were the original canon of revisionism, and that’s one of the most exciting things.
“It’s also worth saying that almost all the revisionists were people who’d studied in Oxford and then been made to leave, for whom jobs couldn’t be found in Oxford. We reacted to some extent against a previous generation of Oxford-trained historians like Stone and Hugh Trevor-Roper and Hill.

So it was a curiously Oxford-dominated thing both in what was being reacted against and in the reaction itself”. This is mostly a cosmetic reason and completely downplays the changes both economically and politically that was taken place outside the halls of academia. The Seventies saw the beginning of a very right-wing shift in global politics; the decade saw the start of the regime changes in Britain and America just to name two that saw a full frontal attack on any form of change through socialism.

Morrill goes on to explain how he began his attitude to the English revolution “I think it was in 1973 in Oxford when I was a young research fellow that I gave a series of lectures called ‘Some Unfashionable Thoughts on English 17th-century History’, and these were extraordinarily crude and unsophisticated revisionism Avant la lettre. But I’m not claiming I’m the progenitor – I’m saying there were a lot of people trying to work out a new position who were dissatisfied with the existing position.

I’ve no doubt at all that Lawrence Stone’s Causes of the English Revolution (1972) were the thing people reacted against, with its rather triumphalism claim that you could now produce a kind of social determinist view of the long-term causes and origins of the English Revolution. It was that I think which some people quite independently reacted against”.

Amongst the revisionist historians, the theme of them separating historical/political thought separated from economic changes is probably the most famous attack they make on historians such as Hill.

“Beyond recognition! I suppose when I came into the profession in the early 1970s – well I studied in the 60s and then entered the business in the 70s – which the overwhelming emphasis was on a positivist approach of extrapolating people’s ideas from the social circumstances and social realities. And there was a very strong view that the English Civil War was the consequence of a long-term process of change. And that was related broadly speaking to a transition from feudalism to capitalism. Not everyone wanted to use that language, but you could say a move from a medieval to a modern world, and this was the hinge period. And that as fundamental changes to the economy and the distribution of social wealth and power were taking place there would be political tensions that could not be resolved without violence. It was simply taken for granted. There were huge disagreements about how you constructed that – I mean the most obvious one was whether you had a rising gentry who were frustrated by the lack of political opportunity, or alternatively whether you had a thrusting successful courtier gentry who were confronted by the resentment of a backwards-looking ‘mere’ group. So you had alternative ways of explaining it but that there was a process of fundamental transformation which wasn’t being achieved without the political stress of a very high order was widely accepted”.

Brian Manning in this essay attempts to answer ‘What was the English revolution’ Manning offers this definition of “revolution”: “A revolution involves the replacement by force or threat of force of one political or social system by another”. He goes on to explain this had not happened by 1642. Manning, it seems to me began his career with a very cautious approach to the subject.
The above quote while correct does appear to offer too much of a concession to the revisionists. Revolutions are usually violent and do overturn governments often replaced by another, but they are also a process. Therefore, it 's hard to precisely say when they began and when they ended therefore to I feel the historian should be under no obligation to be so precise on this matter.
His ending of his essay is a little strange. He described the process whereby the revolution paved the way for the full development of a capitalist economy but would not have happened had the King not called his parliament in 1640.

Manning did not begin his writing on the English revolution with a clear-cut class analysis or Marxist. In his book The English People and the English Revolution he says “I do not see the ‘middle sort of people’ as a capitalist class, but as small independent producers, and I do not see the struggle as being between a declining feudal class and a rising capitalist class, but as a conflict between the aristocracy or governing elites and small independent producers”.
Manning first meaningful involvement in politics was through the Labour Party, but it was not until the 1980s that Manning rejected the Labour Party and joined the International Socialists forerunner of the Socialist Workers Party(SWP).

The SWP were attractive to Manning as they fitted into his schemer of history from below. The SWP historians were heavily influenced by the Communist Party historians and according to Talbot “The Communist Party sponsored a form of “People’s History”, which is typified by A.L. Morton’s People’s History of England in which the class character of earlier rebels, revolutionaries and famous leaders was obscured by regarding them all as representatives of a national revolutionary tradition.

This historical approach reflected the nationalism of the bureaucracy, their hostility to internationalism and their attempts to form an unprincipled alliance with the supposedly democratic capitalists against the fascist Axis countries. People’s history was an attempt to give some historical foundation to the policies of Popular Front—the subordination of the working class to supposedly progressive sections of the bourgeoisie and the limiting of political action to the defence of bourgeois democracy—which provided a democratic facade to the systematic murder of thousands of genuine revolutionaries, including Trotsky. It was the approach that Christopher Hill was trained in, along with E.P. Thompson, Rodney Hilton and Eric Hobsbawm, who were part of the Marxist Historians Group and came under the influence of Maurice Dobb and Dona Torr”.

While not as good a historian as C Hill but still a force to be reckoned with. Manning’s concentration on the “Middling sort” is to be welcomed As Jim Holstun whose essay on Manning is worth a look said “Manning’s work puts English workers at the very centre of the English Revolution as innovative political actors and theorists in their own right. His approach contrasts strongly with the usual somnambulist turn to ruling class initiative and frequently inverts its causal sequence”.

David Underdown does subscribe in his own way to a view that a long-term study of the revolution was necessary but not through any Marxist prism but on the grounds on a moral basis and of cultural differences.

To quote one blogger “David Underdown rejects the English Revolution, finding three revolutions rather than one: a moderate constitutional revolution in 1641, a violent republican revolution in 1648-9, and a failed democratic revolution. This raises the question of whether failed attempts at revolution count as revolutions, something which doesn’t seem to have been discussed very much. Underdown finds that even the violent republican revolution was limited and that the patriarchal order survived. He argues that the revolution was a moral battle between two cultures (something he expanded on in Revel, Riot, and Rebellion, which I haven’t posted about yet). Like Morrill, he sees the ultimate outcome as a more secular society in which religion became more of a personal matter”.

Outside of a study of the Holocaust, no debate has caused such historical heat. “The Debate over the English Revolution” has been transformed out of all recognition during the past thirty years or so,” says Underdown. I would agree with him.Underdown acknowledges that he was writing under difficulty conditions. The assault by the revisionists of in one form or another has “denied that there was no revolution in the 1640s and certainly not one with deep, long-term social and economic causes.”

“In any discussion of a political situation as chaotic as this one, we always need to look at the relative strength of the countervailing forces of tradition and change”. This is what Underdown has attempted to do all his life and has been consistent at it regardless whether you agree with him or not.

Underdown was well respected amongst his colleagues Mark Kishlansky gave this insight into Underdowns method His work displayed two abiding qualities: a mastery of archival sources faithfully reported, and a compelling prose style that carried both story and argument. He was a craftsman’s craftsman, a master of sources, of historiography, and of method which had few equals even among a flashy generation of generalists whose significant theses dominated discussion but faded over time while his firm conclusions persevered.(For the moment I will let the dig at the ‘Marxist historians go for the time being).

Christopher Hill wrote of David Underdown’s Ford Lectures of 1992 that they “make a challenging book. Historians have come to accept that what used to be called ‘the Puritan Revolution’ in England was not, in fact, about theology but was the first of the great political revolutions which ushered in the modern world. It set the example for the American, French and Russian revolutions which followed. Historians have not yet adequately distinguished the social and political causes of the English Revolution, or recognised the precise distinctions to be drawn between ‘the politics of the elite’ and ‘the politics of the people”.

Perhaps Underdown great gift as a historian was his understanding of the “politics of the people” Brian Cowan said “Underdown was perhaps the last of a great generation of English historians of early modern England who were born between the wars. These historians were not afraid to tackle big topics and grand theories and to apply them to deep and careful archival research. Together they transformed our understanding of the period, but few of them could so consistently see the pitfalls and interpretative dead-ends in the reigning orthodoxies of the day as well as Underdown, and even fewer of them could point the way towards fruitful new avenues of research as keenly as he did. Seventeenth-century history was once claimed to be ‘Hill’s century’ in recognition of Hill’s insistence that historians recognise the importance of that revolutionary era. While David would likely have demurred with genuine modesty, today it seems that ‘Underdown’s century’ might be a more appropriate term”.

Mary Fulbrook, the English Revolution and the Revisionist Revolt’, Social History, 1982.One blogger attacked this article as “more proof that revisionists and Marxists will never understand each other because they just don’t want to understand each other”. I don not agree with this. My view is that Fulbrooks article is probably one of the best replies to the revisionist arguments. She criticises revisionists for misrepresented Marxist views.

While writing on another subject but relevant to out topic the Marxist writer Nick Beams makes a valuable point “One of the most frequently employed caricatures of Marxism used by the revisionist historians is that they argue that ideology is just a cover for the real economic motivations of social actors. Accordingly, “Marxism is “disproved” by the discovery that individuals act, not according to economic motives but on the basis of powerful ideologies. Marxism does not deny that historical actors are motivated and driven into action by their ideological conceptions, and it does not claim that these ideologies are simply a rationalisation for the real economic motivations. However, it does insist that it is necessary to examine the motives behind the motives—the real, underlying, driving forces of the historical process—and to make clear the social interests served by a given ideology—a relationship that may or may not be consciously grasped by the individual involved”.

Not having read Fulbrook’s writings which are mainly centred on German history she does seem to take on aboard the underlying theme of historical materialism, her use of the quote from Karl Marx helps us understand the complexities of the English revolution,“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 circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. And just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionizing themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honoured disguise and borrowed language. Thus Luther put on the mask of the Apostle Paul, the Revolution of 1789-1814 draped itself alternately in the guise of the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire, and the Revolution of 1848 knew nothing better to do than to parody, now 1789, now the revolutionary tradition of 1793-95. In like manner, the beginner who has learned a new language always translates it back into his mother tongue, but he assimilates the spirit of the new language and expresses himself freely in it only when he moves in it without recalling the old and when he forgets his native tongue.

“Cromwell and the English people had borrowed from the Old Testament the speech, emotions, and illusions for their bourgeois revolution. When the real goal had been achieved, and the bourgeois transformation of English society had been accomplished, Locke supplanted Habakkuk. Thus the awakening of the dead in those revolutions served the purpose of glorifying the new struggles, not of parodying the old; of magnifying the given task in the imagination, not recoiling from its solution in reality; of finding once more the spirit of revolution, not making its ghost walk again.”

Conrad Russell, ‘Why Did Charles I Fight the Civil War?’ History Today, 1984.Russell does not use the word “revolution” lightly: “Revolutions are thought of as things done to the head of state and not by him”. I have nothing against Russell in this article to concentrate on Charles 1st. While he did not preclude revolution, he is clear that the man who started it was Charles which is correct.

But this is far to one sided analysis. While to the casual observer of historical debate these arguments could be viewed as a storm in a teapot what lay behind them was a systematic attack on any materialist approach to historical understanding, smuggled in under the guise of a revaluation of the king’s role. Speaking of Conrad Russell Jim Holstun described his work as a ‘manifesto for historical revisionism’, Holstun makes the point that Russell sought another way to explain the social changes that were taken place in the English revolution that historians should concentrate on the upper yeomanry, the middling sort of people who were rising according to Russell ‘not so much at the expense of the gentry, as at the expense of small holders and the labouring poor’. Russell would often make the point that he not conversant with the term’s feudalism and capitalism.

Christopher Hill,‘A Bourgeois Revolution?’, (1980). One blogger cites Hill “at least defines what he means by bourgeois revolution (it’s interesting that it’s usually the Marxists who are willing to give an explicit, testable definition of “revolution” while revisionists are notoriously vague about it). He makes it clear that his “bourgeois revolution” does not have to be consciously willed by the bourgeoisie, does not have to be carried out wholly or mainly by the bourgeoisie, and does not have to result in bourgeois capitalists directly taking control of the government. The crucial point is that the revolution created conditions which were more conducive to bourgeois capitalism”.

Hill is correct, the degree of how conscious were the bourgeois representatives was of the revolution they were making is open to debate but according to Ann Talbot.“Hill’s achievements were twofold. Firstly he identified the mid-seventeenth century crisis as a revolution, which in the case of Britain overthrew the rule of one class and brought another to power. Secondly, he recognised that revolutions are made by the mass of the population and that for a revolution to take place the consciousness of that mass of people must change, since revolutions are not made by a few people at the top although the character of their leadership is crucial at certain points. These achievements were considerable at the time and are of continuing relevance today, when historians increasingly reject any serious economic or social analysis and argue that revolutions are nothing but the work of a tiny group of conspirators”.

“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 pure 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. John Morrill The revolt of the Provinces 1976 George Allen Unwin

2. Interview with John Morrill which took place in Selwyn College, Cambridge, and 26 March 2008
3. Brian Manning The English People and the English Revolution 1976

4. Jim Holstun, Brian Manning- Paper Dialectic of Revolt, Conference Making Social Movements June 26-28 2002
5.  Woolrych Chapter 12 Not Mere Mercenary Army The debates from the Perspective of the Army

6. Nick Beams Imperialism and the political economy of the
7. Karl Marx The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte

8. Obituary of David Underdown by Mark Kishlansky.
9. A review of D Underdown, A Freeborn People: Politics and the Nation in 17th Century England (Oxford University Press, 1996) Christopher Hill

10. David Underdown: A Selective Retrospective By Brian Cowan
11. Blog Investigations of the Dog

12. Ann Talbot

Thursday, 5 August 2010

The Spartacus Wars by Barry Strauss

On one level The Spartacus Wars by Barry Strauss is an excellent introduction to understanding Spartacus and the most famous slave revolt in history. The book is well researched and not bogged down with footnotes and is certainly not a dense academic tome. As one reviewer said, “In the Spartacus War, Barry Strauss presents a historical portrait of Spartacus to a mass audience”.

Strauss was not just content with researching his subject from the confines of Cornell University but made numerous trips to Italy and the countryside which saw many of the battles.

He is no tourist historian, and his knowledge of certain areas clearly stands out in the book. Barry Strauss clearly displays an admiration for Spartacus. For Strauss Spartacus was no ordinary Slave but a “murmillo gladiator”. Strauss also describes Spartacus battlefield tactics “not as intuition but reveals that the former slave had served as a Thracian auxiliary to the Roman army where he learned about Roman military tactics”.

Strauss makes a good case for his version of events. I say his version because in this area of historiography information is in very short supply and his book will undoubtedly be challenged. There also are a lot of ifs and maybe again because of the shortage of information on Spartacus and his battles.

Having said this Strauss does make a good account of himself. One writer said in a review “Not content to give the evidence, Strauss usually picks a version of the events and backs it up, or works from multiple hypotheses; for instance, he writes: "As an astute judge of character, Spartacus might have chosen some men without prior military experience to lead units of his army."

Strauss mixes his interpretations with a useful knowledge of the history and background of the period.

Spartacus down the centuries

Unlike many figures from ancient times, Spartacus has a resonance down the centuries even today his name is used by anyone who purports to fight “tyranny and totalitarianism”. Even the most right-wing figures had claimed Spartacus for themselves according to The Sunday Times review by Mary Beard “When Ronald Reagan addressed the British parliament in 1982, he used Spartacus, the Roman rebel slave, as a symbol of the fight against. For Reagan, Spartacus stood for the struggle of western democracy against Soviet oppression.”

However, it is on the left both politically and historically that Spartacus lies. He was principally an egalitarian, all the loot captured from the Romans was shared amongst his troops. Karl Marx said that Spartacus inspired people in the battle against Capitalism in his words he described him as “a great general, a noble character, a genuine representative of the ancient proletariat”. These sentiments were echoed by Vladimir Lenin co-leader of the Russian Revolution. A hundred years earlier the great Voltaire called Spartacus’s rebellion “the only just war in history”.

Spartacus and that Movie

In truth, many people's understanding of Spartacus is coloured by the Hollywood movie starring among others Kirk Douglas. In many ways, the film itself was a struggle against “oppression” not Roman but American Capitalism. The 1960 Kirk Douglas film was in reality based on a struggle against McCarthyism. The film was based on the book by one blacklisted author, and the screenplay was written by another.

According to David Walsh writing in the “Kirk Douglas was impressed with Kubrick and brought him on as director of Spartacus, which Douglas starred in and produced. Kubrick replaced Anthony Mann, who had already shot the beginning and several scenes. Though a cut above the usual big-budget historical films, and with a worthy subject--the massive slave revolt in ancient Rome--it still suffered from the bloatedness and heroics of most Hollywood epics. Kubrick described himself as a "hired hand," and had significant differences with Douglas. It was not a happy time creatively for him. But Spartacus showed the studios that Kubrick could be a responsible Hollywood director, and, conversely, demonstrated to Kubrick that his place was not in Hollywood. His disillusionment with the studio system brought him to England, where he made Lolita (1962) and settled for the rest of his life”.

In an interview given to publicise the book Strauss elaborates further on the movie, Yerxa: Who was the "real" Spartacus, and how does he compare to Kirk Douglas's character in Stanley Kubrick's 1960 film?

Strauss: “Perhaps the most surprising thing is that the Kubrick film isn't complete fiction, but offers some historical truth. The fact is that Spartacus really was a slave and a gladiator in Capua, Italy, and he actually did lead a revolt. As the movie shows, it started in the kitchen of the gladiatorial barracks with the men using basic kitchen utensils to fight the guards and break out. And it's even true that Spartacus had a ladylove as he did in the movie. But there are some real differences as well. The movie Spartacus was born a slave and was the son and grandson of slaves, but the real Spartacus was born free. He came from Thrace, roughly equivalent with today's Bulgaria. And far from being a lifelong opponent of Rome, he started out as an allied soldier in the Roman army. He fought for Rome. His fate, ending up as a slave and gladiator, was quite unexpected and quite unjust. The Romans themselves admitted that Spartacus was forced to become a gladiator even though he was innocent”.

Real Events

Strauss makes clear that there is a problem writing on Spartacus and that is that the majority of evidence of the slave rebellion led by Spartacus 73BC, was written more than 100 years after the event. Most of this was written by Roman historians who were far from objective. Straus also makes clear that political issues were in play. Although that is not to say that some Roman historians were favourable to Spartacus, Strauss says “I was personally struck by the degree to which later Roman writers presented him as a good guy,” .“They respected him and blamed themselves for the war.” The historian Plutarch writes “And seizing upon a defensible place, they chose three captains, of whom Spartacus was chief, a Thracian of one of the nomad tribes, and a man not only of high spirit and valiant, but in understanding, also, and in gentleness superior to his condition, and more of a Grecian than the people of his country usually are.”

In fact, I thought Strauss could have made more use of Plutarch, in his book on Roman History, the Life of Crassus: “The insurrection of the gladiators and the devastation of Italy, commonly called the war of Spartacus, began upon this occasion. One Lentulus Batiatus trained up great many gladiators in Capua, most of them Gauls and Thracians, who, not for any fault by them committed, but simply through the cruelty of their master, were kept in confinement for this object of fighting one with another. Two hundred of these formed a plan to escape, but being discovered, those of them who became aware of it in time to anticipate their master, being seventy-eight, got out of a cook's shop chopping-knives and spits and made their way through the city, and lighting by the way on several wagons that were carrying gladiators' arms to another city, they seized upon them and armed themselves. And seizing upon a defensible place, they chose three captains, of whom Spartacus was chief, a Thracian of one of the nomad tribes, and a man not only of high spirit and valiant, but in understanding, also, and in gentleness superior to his condition, and more of a Grecian than the people of his country usually are.”
Another reviewer also tackled the subject of Roman historians “What preoccupied serious Roman historians, looking back to the rebellion, were two political issues. First, why did it take the Roman forces two years to crush this band of runaways and their hangers-on, as they wandered to and fro around Italy? (The answer must be that, to begin with, the senate underestimated the danger and sent second-rate generals with untrained armies to deal with it.) Second, which Roman commander ultimately gained most, in honour, prestige and career advantage, from finishing off Spartacus’s uprising? Was it Crassus (played by Laurence Olivier in the film), who infamously crucified the defeated rebels, by the thousand, all along the Appian Way? Or was it Pompey the Great, who hurried back from his campaigns in Spain, and tried to rob Crassus of the credit by wiping out a stray group of runaways and claiming the victory for himself”?

In The Spartacus War, Barry Strauss makes the point that it is neither Crassus who led the victorious war against Spartacus or Pompey who came in later came out with any credit or prestige with history both have been largely forgotten yet it is the loser Spartacus who is arguably the more famous and certainly looked up to.

Another reviewer makes the point that “Both Crassus and Pompey, were as doomed as Spartacus: Crassus was soon to be massacred in a battle against the eastern Parthians (a much more formidable enemy than Spartacus), while Pompey was brutally decapitated in his civil war against Julius Caesar. The political future lay elsewhere, with the one-man rule of the first emperor Augustus. Ironically, it was Augustus’s undistinguished father, Octavius, who, 10 years after Spartacus’s death in 71BC, finally crushed the last remnants of his supporters, still living rough (and annoying the local population) in southern Italy”.

The book is not without its weaknesses. Not even a good military historian as Strauss undoubtedly can paper over large gaps that appear in the Spartacus evidence. In fact reading Strauss, you almost get to feel his frustration as well as your own in attempting to understand Spartacus’s motives.

Reviewer Tony Williams also makes this point “of why they revolted in the first place. Strauss is simply not terribly clear. Spartacus was “a man of destiny,” the author tells us. He was a “man of passion, thirsting for freedom.” But the revolt was neither to free slaves generally nor to escape into freedom far from the clutches of the Roman Republic. If we learn little of the why Strauss does not fall short on the how of the Spartacus revolt”.

This frustration was shared by many who reviewed the book in the mainstream press one writer asked “What, for example, were Spartacus’s strategic plans? Once he had broken out of the gladiatorial barracks at Capua, and gathered together a sizeable force of other runaways, why did he march all the way north to the Alps, then all the way back down south again? Was this, as I half-suspect, aimless wandering with no game plan at all? Strauss is more generous, and guesses that Spartacus was let down by his followers: they took one look at the mountains they would have to cross if they were to make their way to freedom in the north, as Spartacus planned, and beat a hasty retreat”.

Clearly, Strauss has his own ideas on what motivated Spartacus. Strauss portrays Spartacus wife as having significant influence on his motives, but little or no evidence exists to back this up. In fact, we do not even know her name. Some things are contradictory in the book. While describing what were revolutionary acts Strauss clearly downplays the revolutionary aspect of Spartacus. Strauss makes no suggestion that Spartacus had any revolutionary plan to abolish slavery as an institution. But that is not really the point. Spartacus was not a conscious Marxist revolutionary wanting overthrow the Roman State.
It was just that objectively Spartacus could not take the revolution further than he did. While you get to learn little of Strauss’s own political leanings he has made some wayward comparisons between the rebellions which he describes as probably the most successful insurgencies in world history. He has also made parallels between the slave revolts American ‘War on Terror’.

“It’s the story of an insurgency like ours in Iraq and Afghanistan,” Strauss says. “The great power can’t fight him, because it’s bogged down in another war. The war is a test of the great power's moral fibre. And a charismatic leader inspires men to fight using liberation theology like jihad. The similarities leap off the page."

While comparisons with the United States imperialism and the Roman Empire are fraught with danger, I would draw the line to say there is any comparison between Spartacus and a bunch of clerical fascists like the Taliban.