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 Holocaust.www.wsws.org
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 http://www.investigations.4-lom.com/2007/10/17/more-civil-war-historiography/
12. Ann Talbot www.wsws.org