Thursday, 16 September 2010

British Historian John Adamson Finally Finds a Revolution

After spending the whole of his academic life trying to avoid finding a revolution in the Seventeenth Century it is ironic that John Adamson has found one in the 21st century. In an article in May in the Right Wing newspaper the Daily Mail for whom he is a regular writer, Adamson wrote an article entitled Clegg and Cameron are more Torvill and Dean than Lenin and Trotsky, but make no mistake, this is a serious revolution.

Adamson then continues a mantra used by numerous right wing historians, commentators and one prime minister that Britain does not do violent revolutions Adamson says “Unlike our Continental neighbours, British revolutions have tended to be relatively polite and orderly affairs. Not for us the tumbrels and tanks in the streets, the giddy cycles of massacre”.

According to Ann Talbot “The sense that in Britain things were done differently and without continental excess is 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 great 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”.

Adamson Continues “Apart from the rumpus in the 1640s, when the Roundheads set to with the Cavaliers, Britain’s great constitutional changes - the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688-89, the Reform Acts of 1832 and 1867, the creation of the Welfare State in 1945 - have mostly been bloodless and well-mannered”.

To answer the above paragraph you would have to write a book. To describe the 17th century English revolution as a “rumpus” is not really a serious comment from a Cambridge historian. “The Glorious Revolution of 1688-89“was the product of a coup de etat by sections of the English bourgeoisie and aristocracy. To mention the Reform acts without mentioning the role of the Chartists is ridiculous. Lastly the Welfare State came about as a by-product of the Second World War to head off a revolution after the Second World War when returning workers refused to go back to the conditions of the 1930s depression.

But according to Adamson “Prime Minister David Cameron and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg are fronting a serious revolution”. He goes on “Revolution - a sudden and long-lasting transformation of the constitutional and political order - is exactly what Cameron and Clegg seem determined to bring about”. A man that also knew a thing or two about revolutions would I think disagree with Adamson “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 an Alp on the brains of the living...."

In many ways Adamson is seeking to transport his analysis of the English Civil war as a fight between differing sections of the nobility into the 21st Century. For him it is the ruling elite that bring about revolutions that have nothing to do with changes in economic and social conditions and certainly have nothing to do with an intervention by the Working Class.

However Adamson is none too clear on the movement of social classes and how they relate to a revolutionary situation. I am not seeking to belittle the changes that the Thatcherite Conservative-Liberal coalition government is seeking to bring about. The new government has made full use of public media to manipulate public opinion on their side. Their mantra is that we are all in this together and that all parts of society must “share the pain” of the recession.

According to Dave Hyland “The full effects of the coalition’s first budget containing £11 billion in cuts are yet to be felt. They have been deliberately introduced in a staggered, piecemeal fashion in an attempt to divide the working class’s response. On October 20, the second round of £4 billion in cuts will be introduced just as the initial cuts make their full impact felt. There are widespread fears within ruling circles that this will unleash a mass movement in opposition”.

In this context, Adamson’s remark that Clegg and Cameron “ look less like Lenin and Trotsky and more like a political Torvill and Dean: all niceness and Colgate smiles, gliding round the political arena in improbable unison, applauded by a crowd still marvelling that their act can be done at all” are significant.

Adamson is also echoing the fears of leading members of the Ruling elite that these deep seated cuts will provoke a mass response.

Adamson offers a prognosis on how this might come about “We should not mistake what is required for a revolution. Of course, revolutions sometimes have their iconic moments - the public executions of Charles I and Louis XVI, the storming of the Bastille and the Winter Palace. These incidents inspire or appal according to taste, but they are rarely what actually brings about the revolution’s transformative effect. This may just as likely stem from the cumulative effect of a number of smaller shifts of power in systems and institutions, often incremental changes that amount to more than the sum of their parts”.

I tend to feel that the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky who knew a few things about revolutions tends to put it far better than Adamson “Different classes in different conditions and for different tasks find themselves compelled in particular and indeed, the most acute 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 fully. 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. William Pitt, likewise extremely close to a personal dictatorship, defended the interests of the monarchy, the privileged classes and the top bourgeois against a revolution of the petty bourgeoisie that found its highest expression in the dictatorship of Robespierre.

“The liberal vulgarians customarily say that they are against a dictatorship from the left just as much as from the right, although in practice they do not let slip any opportunity of supporting a dictatorship of the right. But for us the question is determined by the fact that one dictatorship moves society forward while another drags it back. Mussolini's dictatorship is a dictatorship of the prematurely decayed, impotent, thoroughly contaminated Italian bourgeoisie: it is a dictatorship with a broken nose. The 'dictatorship of Lenin' expresses the mighty pressure of the new historical class and its superhuman struggle against all the forces of the old society. If Lenin can be juxtaposed to anyone then it is not to Napoleon nor even less to Mussolini but to Cromwell and Robespierre. It can be with some justice said that Lenin is the proletarian twentieth-century Cromwell. Such a definition would at the same time be the highest compliment to the petty-bourgeois seventeenth-century Cromwell”.

I feel Adamson is investing two mediocre politicians far too much credit. I am not against historians writing on political developments. Political commentary is enhanced by a deep seated knowledge of history. But in many ways Adamson has become way out of his depth.


1. Clegg and Cameron are more Torvill and Dean than Lenin and Trotsky, but make no mistake, this is a serious revolution Dr John Adamson 22nd May 2010 Daily Mail

2. John Adamson is the author of The Noble Revolt: The Overthrow Of Charles I (Orion,

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

4. Britain: Labour’s leadership contest enters final weeks By Dave Hyland 16 September

Post a Comment