Monday, 13 September 2010

A review of Brian Manning, The Far Left in the English Revolution 1640 to 1660 (Bookmarks, 1999), £7.95

'For lo I come (says the Lord) with a vengeance, to level also...your honour, pomp, greatness, superfluity, and confound it into parity, equality, community; that the neck of horrid pride, murder, malice, and tyranny, etc may be chopped off at one blow.'

Abiezer Coppe

Brian Manning was one of the few historians to use the work of Marxist writers to explain the origins and nature of the English revolution.  It is to his credit that he did so under difficult conditions inside university history departments that were extremely unfavorable to any Marxist historiography.

Being a member of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) he would correctly use certain features of Marxism to elaborate the bourgeois nature of the English revolution. What was not correct was his use of these Marxist writers to say that “people’s history” or” history from below” were products of Marxist historiography. They were in fact products of Stalinism, not Marxism or to be more precise they were in fact by-products of Stalin’s struggle against Trotskyism.

As Ann Talbot succinctly puts it “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 popular 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”.

It is unclear to what extent of the SWP’s input is in the book. Certainly, the title would fit in with the SWP’s word usage. The use of the term Far Left is a contentious one. No other historian including Hill would have used the term Far Left.

Manning was a student under Hill in the early 1950s and clearly admired the great historian. In an obituary he wrote[1] “The undoubted dominance of Christopher Hill in the history of the English Revolution may be attributed to his prolific record of books and articles, and his continuous engagement in debate with other historians; to the breadth of his learning, embracing the history of literature, the law, science, as well as religion and economics; to the fact that his work set the agenda and the standard to which all historians of the period had to address themselves, whether in support of or opposition to his methods and interpretations; but above all to the inspiration he drew from Marxism. The English Revolution took place in a culture dominated by religious ideas and religious language, and Christopher Hill recognized that he had to uncover the social context of religion to find the key to understanding the English Revolution, and as a Marxist to ascertain the interrelationships between the intellectual and social aspects of the period”.

Being influenced by Hill certainly made Manning a better historian.  By all accounts, he was a very good teacher who “urged his students not to take notes, but to listen and think”
While later in life adopting the SWP as his political home his other political influence came from the 1950s New Left movement. This meant adopting the New Left’s appropriation of the genre “People’s History”.

Jim Holstun said “Manning’s work puts English workers at the very center of the English Revolution as innovative political actors and theorists in their own right. His approach contrasts strongly with the usual somnambulistic turn to ruling class initiative and frequently inverts its causal sequence”.

One tendency good or bad stood out and that was Manning ability to adopt political homes very easily. One instance of this was his tenure on the board of the magazine Past and Present which was heavily dominated by the Communist Party and its historians. While adopting the SWP line in opposing “Soviet Communism” he collaborated closely with the British Communists historians and made no criticism of the party.

The SWP have always adopted and very economist approach to historical events. Despite cloaking a lot of their work in Marxism this underlying thread was always apparent in their relationship with Manning. Historically the SWP has held the position “Of fighting for the English revolution” which translated is not a historical materialist approach to the revolution but a conception of revolution as a pure spontaneous action.

Their work with historians who were members of the party or were fellow travelers took on the form of the adoption of the history from below genre.

Perhaps the most open example of this type of relationship was with Neil Faulkner. He was a historian and member of the party until 2010. “Since 2010, I have formed many new and rewarding political friendships, and these have contributed, I believe, to a richer, more nuanced understanding of the Russian Revolution. Not least, the degeneration of the British Left over the last two or three decades- which is a generic process, not something restricted to the SWP-has given me a clearer understanding that the masses build revolutionary parties themselves in struggle; that is, they do not arise from voluntarism, from acts of will by self-appointed revolutionary ‘vanguards’; they do not arise from what has sometimes has been called ‘the primitive accumulation of cadre. revolutionaries should organize, but they should never proclaim themselves to be the party”.[2]

That this kind of rubbish was tolerated inside a party that professed to Marxist was truly unbelievable
The SWP while playing lip service to the Marxist theory of history they would maintain an “enthusiasm for the English Revolution”. As Alex Calinicos would say “there was a plan in 1994, as far as I remember never executed, to take a minibus to the battlefield of Naseby to gloat over the destruction of Stuart power by the New Model Army 350 years earlier”.

Not a serious approach to history never mind politics. In all my time writing history I have never come across someone who would contemplate taking sides with one section of the petty bourgeoisie’s destruction of the Monarchy.

The Far more serious problem was Manning’s attitude towards Cromwell to quote Calinicos “I remember him saying that he had never cared for Oliver Cromwell who reminded him of Stalin. The fact that Calinicos says this in his obituary of Manning without any comment or challenge is astounding. Firstly, the comment which must be true because he put it quotation marks would not look out of place amongst the more conservative historians who have also compared Cromwell to Stalin.

This is not indicative of a Marxist approach to Cromwell. The Marxist Leon Trotsky took a different approach. “The editor of the Daily Herald recently expressed his doubts as to whether Oliver Cromwell could be called a 'pioneer of the labour movement'. One of the newspapers. Collaborators supported the editor's doubts and referred to the severe repressions that Cromwell conducted against the Levellers, the sect of equalitarian of that time (communists). These reflections and questions are extremely typical of the historical thinking of the leaders of the Labour Party. That Oliver Cromwell was a pioneer of bourgeois and not socialist society there would appear to be no need to waste more than two words in proving. The great revolutionary bourgeois was against universal suffrage for he saw in it a danger to private property. It is relevant to note that the Webbs draw from this the conclusion of the 'incompatibility' of democracy and capitalism while closing their eyes to the fact that capitalism has learnt to live on the best possible terms with democracy and to have taken control of the instrument of universal suffrage as an instrument of the stock exchange. [It is curious that, two centuries later, in 1842 in fact, the historian Macaulay as an MP protested universal suffrage for the very same reasons as Cromwell. -- L. D.T.] Nevertheless, British workers can learn incomparably more from Cromwell than from MacDonald, Snowden, Webb, and other such compromising brethren. Cromwell was a great revolutionary of his time, who knew how to uphold the interests of the new, bourgeois social system against the old aristocratic one without holding back at anything. This must be learned from him, and the dead lion of the seventeenth century is in this sense immeasurably greater than many living dogs”.

Chapter One

Much of Manning work concentrated more of the radical groups in the English Revolution such as the Levellers, diggers etc. In fact, Manning’s own obituary carried out by the SWP was called A True Leveller wrote by one of its leading members Alex Calinicos.

The SWP were Manning’s main publisher with 1649: Crisis of the Revolution (1992) and concluded with Revolution and Counter-Revolution in England, Scotland, and Ireland 1658-60 (2003) Being published by them and republishing The English People and the English Revolution.
As Manning brings out in his first chapter the Far Left denotes the various radical groups that sprang to life during the English Revolution. Much of the past historiography examining the Levellers, Diggers etc. has been dominated by the school of historical research called ‘history from below’. Manning’s book is a good attempt to establish the class nature of what Manning calls the Far left.

Most Manning’s work has centered on three major class formations. For Manning, the ‘middling sort’ were key to an understanding of the English Revolution. His book tends to concentrate on this group for which Manning had some characteristics of an embryonic working class.

He was a good enough historian to believe that “not every conflict between groups in society springs from class antagonisms, but when two groups stand in relation of exploiters and exploited it is a class relation: and when one group seeks to exploit another group, and the latter group resists, they become engaged in the class struggle”.

The problem for a Marxist historian in writing on this period of history is that ‘classes, while they existed, were still in embryonic form. But this did not stop Manning from using Marxist theory to denote what was a class struggle.

Manning is correct to warn of the difficulties of an exact definition of the working class. We are talking about the 17th century after all not the 21st when class distinctions are clear. Engel’s pointed out in his Socialism, Utopian and Scientific, 'In every great bourgeois movement there were independent outbursts of that class which was the more or less developed forerunner of the modern proletariat'

Manning's work on the Far Left of the English Revolution has been criticised for concentrating too heavily on the work of other historians. One blogger wrote “This book is a general survey rather than the result of detailed original research. The sources cited are mostly secondary works, along with some contemporary pamphlets. As far as I can tell the footnotes do not mention any manuscripts at all. You don’t have to be a document fetishist to see this as a limitation. The archives are full of unexplored opportunities. Concentrating only on what has been published in print closes an awful lot of possibilities. For example, early-modern court records are full of poor people saying things that they weren’t supposed to say, and the fact that they were punished afterward can’t erase the fact that they said it. The most glaring omission is when Manning mentions that plans for a Fifth Monarchist revolt were carefully recorded in a manuscript journal, but doesn’t cite the manuscript.[3]

Chapter 2

Manning is correct to point out that differing forms of the class struggle were taking place in the 17th century. The second chapter explores the nature of what Manning call dual power.
As Leon Trotsky points out “The conditions are now created for the single rule of the Presbyterian bourgeoisie. But before the royal power could be broken, the parliamentary army has converted itself into an independent political force. It has concentrated in its ranks the Independents, the pious and resolute petty bourgeoisie, the craftsmen and farmers. This army powerfully interferes in the social life, not merely as an armed force, but as a Praetorian Guard, and as the political representative of a new class opposing the prosperous and rich bourgeoisie. Correspondingly the army creates a new state organ rising above the military command: a council of soldiers’ and officers’ deputies (“agitators”). A new period of double sovereignty has thus arrived: that of the Presbyterian Parliament and the Independents’ army. This leads to open conflicts. The bourgeoisie proves Powerless to oppose with its own army the “model army” of Cromwell – that is, the armed plebeians. The conflict ends with a purgation of the Presbyterian Parliament by the sword of the Independents. There remains but the rump of a parliament; the dictatorship of Cromwell is established. The lower ranks of the army, under the leadership of the Levellers the extreme left wing of the revolution – try to oppose to the rule of the upper military levels, the patricians of the army, their own veritable plebeian regime. But this new two-power system fails in developing: The Levellers, the lowest depths of the petty bourgeoisie, have not yet, nor can have their own historic path. Cromwell soon settles accounts with his enemies. A new political equilibrium, and still by no means a stable one, is established for a period of years.[4]

Manning is correct to point out that the poor have received scant attention from historians. To do this he examines the leadership groups such as the radical Levellers, Fifth Monarchists, and Quakers.

As Engels points out in his Socialism, Utopian and Scientific, 'In every great bourgeois movement there were independent outbursts of that class which was the developed forerunner of the modern proletariat'.

Again, his usage of the great Marxist thinkers such as Marx, Engels, Trotsky, Lenin to explain complex political formations is to be commended. This chapter attempts to use previous Marxist Writings on the bourgeois revolution to attempt to answer the question of who were the poor and what class did they belong to.

'The poor' were not one homogenous group. As manning explains the poor were made up of differing class formations. Therefore, to talk of a working class as we know it today would be mistaken. As Marx wrote, 'The expropriation of the great mass of the people from the soil, from the means of subsistence, and from the means of labour, this fearful and painful expropriation of the mass of the people forms the prelude to the history of capital.'

Manning explores the contradiction at the heart of many of the radical groups which despite speaking on behalf of the poor against the rich defended private property to safeguard the small producers' ownership of the means of production. He correctly points out that in the end, these radicals could not develop a consistent revolutionary consciousness and organization. Which in the end led to their downfall?

Chapter 3 is a curiosity in so much as it a lot different from the previous two. The examination of two revolts The Corporals Revolt 1649 and The Coopers Revolt,1657 read like a novel and tend to look out of place with the more theoretical chapters one and two.

The Far Left in the English Revolution is a book with a double edge sword. Firstly, attempts to give an analysis of the revolutionary groups of the 17th century but as I said early Manning had to fight tooth and nail to defend this view from a revisionist historian’s hostility to a Marxist historiography.

Manning had a far clearer understanding of the political nature of revisionism than Hill did. But Jim Holstun warned that “Manning may be too optimistic about the decline of the historical revisionist project, and about the prospect for a revived practice of 'history from below', at least in British history departments. It's true that revisionism has been subject to powerful critiques by, among others, a group of 'post-revisionist' historians who are eager to restore a consideration of ideology and political conflict to 17th-century history. But, of course, that's potentially quite a different thing from a study of class struggle and history from below.

In Ivan Roots's obituary of Brian Manning in The Independent, he states that Manning’s work is not very popular inside British history departments gave its Marxist nature this may be true. But to give Manning his due he was consistent in his theoretical work and deserves a wider audience. Whether it is still too soon to assess his legacy is another matter.

[1] Obituary: Turning Point in History-Brian Manning.
[2] A Peoples History of the Russian Revolution. Neil Faulkner. Pluto 2017
[4] Leon Trotsky-The History of the Russian Revolution-Volume One: The Overthrow of Tzarism-
Chapter 11-Dual Power
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