Monday, 22 November 2010

Whither History

Tristram Hunt makes the following point “This could be no more than a passing literary fad, but it also points to a broader truth about how we now approach the past: less concerned with learning from our forebears and more interested in feeling their pain. Today, we want empathy, not inspiration”.

There appears to be a general theme running through a growing number of articles on history appearing in newspapers recently. A number of well-paid historians such as Nial Ferguson ,Simon Schama and more recently Tristram Hunt to name just a few of the more high profile historians have written articles along similar lines bemoaning the type of history being study in schools and by the general public.

Hunt’s latest article is in many ways typical. Titled “History used to be the study of great men. Now it's of Everyman” he expresses a common trait amongst some academic historians that the study of history should really be the preserve of the selective few and when the public do get involved it should be under strict control of the same academics.

Hunt’s article was a response to a recent spate of articles that have suggested that publishers are no longer interested in serious biographies. One such article appeared in the Observer which reported “that leading biographer Victoria Glendinning was having trouble finding a publisher for her new life of East Indies explorer and Singapore founder, Sir Stamford Raffles. Then came the news that the Costa book awards couldn't fill its biography shortlist”.

There seems to be a touch of historical snobbery involved here. The reading of a great biography such as Christopher Hill’s biography of Oliver Cromwell uncovers a great deal not just about Cromwell but Hill places him firmly in his own time. But to counter pose one form of historical study against what Hunt obviously feels is inferior form of study such as the learning about your family’s place in history is just wrong. People who look for their family history do so not just out interest for their own sake but do so to understand their place in society now.

In what way should we understand the study of the lives of ‘great men’? The Russian Marxist G Plekhanov in his ground breaking essay said “It follows, then, that by virtue of particular traits of their character individuals can influence the fate of society. Sometimes this influence is very considerable; but the possibility of exercising this influence, and its extent, are determined by the form of organization of society, by the relation of forces within it. The character of an individual is a "factor" in social development only where, when, and to the extent that social relations permit it to be such.

We may be told that the extent of personal influence may also be determined by the talents of the individual. We agree. But the individual can display his talents only when he occupies the position in society necessary for this. Why was the fate of France in the hands of a man who lacked totally the ability and desire to serve society? Because such was the form of organization of that society. It is the form of organization that in any given period determines the role and, consequently, the social significance that may fall to the lot of talented or incompetent individuals. But if the role of individuals is determined by the form of organization of society, how can their social influence, which is determined by the role they play, contradict the conception of social development as a process expressing laws? It does not contradict it; on the contrary, it serves as one of its most vivid illustrations “.

In general to back up his arguments Hunt has a habit of quoting Marx. It must be said that Hunt empty’s Marx of his revolutionary content. In this article he quotes Marx from the Communist manifesto "The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles, “It is man, real, living man who does all that." And history should be the story of the masses and their record of struggle. As such, it needed to appreciate the economic realities, the social contexts and power relations in which each epoch stood. For: "Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly found, given and transmitted from the past."

So Hunt uses twists Marx to justify his point that history should left to historians and the general public should just sit back and watch and more importantly not get involved. In his position as house historian to the Labour Party Hunt is totally opposed to the masses getting involved in history and let alone changing it.

Hunt then goes on to vent his spleen at the fact that “Britain nurtured Christopher Hill, EP Thompson and Eric Hobsbawm. History from below stood alongside biographies of great men. Whole new realms of understanding – from gender to race to cultural studies – were opened up as scholars unpicked the multiplicity of lost societies. And it transformed public history too: downstairs became just as fascinating as upstairs”. Increasingly, the public spurned the lives of great men to trace their personal lineages through local archives, genealogy websites and Who Do You Think You Are? formats. As social class, organised religion and traditional labour markets decline, leaving people devoid of clear identity, history offers relief. In this season's TV hits of The High Street and Edwardian Farm, the people's past has been brought back to life. As historian J├╝rgen Kocka has put it: "It seems fair to say that a generation ago many people studied history in order to learn from it… nowadays, many people deal with history in order to find out where they come from and who they are or with the aim of discovering and observing alternative ways of life." The quest for identity and empathy has taken over: explanation has become less desirable; understanding has assumed centre-stage.

As regards the historians who wrote about “history from below” as A Talbot said “they were responding not to clamour from the public to express their need for family history they were responding to the needs of the Stalinist bureaucracy to justify the policy of the popular Front. Ann Talbot writes “For 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”.

I therefore do not agree with Hunt’s point that “The only problem is that such a retreat into the warm, fuzzy embrace of the past can serve to undermine history as a discipline worthy of proper study. It is history as entertainment, without the capacity to teach about the past or shed light on the present. So perhaps it is no surprise historical biography is on the way out. In its place come ever more volumes of "everyday" letters, journals and diaries. We are no longer interested in the difficult questions of the past and what it poses for the present”.

I do not see the point of counter posing one form of historical debate with another. Under conditions of the enormous collapse of world capitalism system huge historical issues are arising and we will see a return to serious study of history and the various theoretical issues arising from such a study will take different forms. Vive la Difference as the French might say.


This Cosy Portrayal of the Past is no Way to Learn the Lesson of History. T Hunt

Observer 21/11/2010

The role of the individual in History G Plekhanov.

Ideology, Absolutism and the English Revolution David Parker

Sunday, 21 November 2010

The Poor and the English Revolution- Part Two

In doing research for this essay it was interesting to find a significant number of papers on the poor in the 17th century were conducted in the 1950s and 60s. A large number of these still upheld the view that a study of the poor had to be linked with socio economic changes that were taken place in the 17th Century. It is also fact that apart from the contribution of Hill and Manning and a few others over last forty years this tradition of historiography has largely been dismissed.

D C Coleman study argues that there was a significant commonality among writers in the 17th century as to society’s attitude towards the poor. He correctly states that “there was a general fear of the unstable nature of the labouring poor, secondly that they should be employed to stop them rioting or worse and all agree that poor relief should be kept to minimum in order that they stay poor ‘Everyone but an idiot knows that the lower classes must be kept poor or they will never “be industrious', Arthur Young, Farmer's Tour through the East of England (1 771), IV, 36i.

His article is very useful in that it provides important information as to the economic changes that were taking place in England. Sections of the bourgeoisie, the merchant capitalists saw the poor as a growing and rich source of profit.

Coleman was not close Marxism but there is little doubt in my mind that historians of his like were partly influenced by Marxism’s heavy emphasis on economic determinism in their study of history. According to an obituary in the Independent “He was sceptical about politics, and thought religion was largely nonsense. He realised that people were subject to motivation of a variety of sorts, and that economic rationality could provide only a partial explanation. He made use, therefore, of economic theory, but did not regard it as the be-all and end-all in the attempt to explain human social behaviour over time, the essence of what he thought economic history should be about”.

He postulated “What was the nature of the economy in which this situation existed? The first and obvious point of departure in answering this question is to stress that we are dealing with the pre-industrialized, pre-mechanized, predominantly agriculture economy. It is of the type which is today called backward or, more politely, under-developed. It is to economies of this sort that we should look in order to see the reflexions of many, though obviously not all, of the economic features of seventeenth-century England”.

Coleman cites many sources to put forward the point that early capitalists were conscious that profit could be made by exploiting the large and growing working class. Coleman’s quotes J Pollexfen who put it, 'The more are maintained by Laborious Profitable Trades, the richer the Nation will be both in People and Stock and ... Commodities the cheaper”.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of Coleman’s research was his publishing figures on the levels of poverty which are stunning. The levels of child labour would make a third world country blush. The following example may serve to illustrate this: Percentages of population under 15 -1) England and Wales 1695- 38.4 2) .India I95I 38.3 3) .England 1951 2'3

To back these figures up Coleman states “If the economists and social pamphleteers wanted a larger body of labouring poor, there is no lack of evidence that in mere numbers the poor already formed a very substantial part of the total population. Contemporary comment upon the numbers of poor stretches back into the sixteenth century, at least, and forward into the eighteenth. To Bacon, labourers and cottagers were 'but house beggars'; to a writer of the 1640's it. Seemed reasonable to suppose that 'the fourth part of the inhabitants of most of the parishes of England are miserable poor people, and (harvest time excepted) without any subsistence', the comprehensive and well-known investigations of Gregory King in the 168o's and 1690's tell an even grimmer tale. He classed 23 per cent of the national population as 'labouring people and out servants' and a further 24 per cent as 'cottagers and paupers', estimating that both groups had annual family expenditures greater than income.”

Dearth and the English revolution

This essay by Steve Hindle is a rare bird indeed. Firstly it has become exceedingly rare for any Leveller to be quoted these days. Secondly in many ways Hindle’s essay is a back handed compliment to the work of Hill and Manning.

‘The price of food [is] excessive’, wrote the Leveller John Wildman from London in 1648, ‘and Trading [is] decayed’. It would, he thought, ‘rend any pitifull heart to heare andsee the cryes and teares of the poore, who professe they are almost ready to famish’. ‘While our divisions continue, and there be no settlement of the principles of freedom and justice’, he

insisted: trading will but more decay every day: Rumours and feares of Warre, and the Army coming now into the City, makes Merchants unwilling to trust their goods in the City,and exchange beyond sea falles, and there will be no importing of goods, and then there will be no exporting and so the staple commodities of the kingdom which maintains theconstant trade, will not tend to the advantage of the labourers, and then most of the poore in the kingdom which live by spinning, carding, & will be ready to perish by famine”.

Wildman was echoing a common fear and worry amongst sections of the lower middle class of the impact of the failed harvests of 1647-1650. According to Hindle “Wildman was accordingly convinced that ‘a suddain confusion would follow if a speedie settlement were not procured’. Wildman of course was a Leveller but Hindle’s use of him is legitimate and long overdue. One price of the over three decades long domination of the revisionist historians has been the chronic lack of use of sources that considerably question their historiographical take on things.

One example of these revisionist historians John Adamson has accused some historians of relying too much on large abstract forces and opposed a downplaying the role of the individual. He said he did not agree that long term views got us anywhere or that it was a bourgeois revolution. He felt that this “economic determinist” viewpoint did not explain too much.

Adamson echoes the prevailing academic orthodoxy that there was no bourgeois revolution largely because he felt there was no rising bourgeoisie and that people from all social classes can be found on either side of the struggle.

According to a number of historians and I would include Adamson in them even Cromwell, it can be argued could be better understood as a representative of the declining gentry rather than the rising bourgeois. Adamson believes that Cromwell never intended a revolution and come to think of it neither did those around him but according to Ann Talbot “wished merely to restore what they believed to be the ancient constitution of the kingdom. The whole unpleasant episode could have been avoided if only Charles II had been a little wiser”.

She further elaborates that (Christopher) “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”.

Adamson centred this distancing away from the Marxist viewpoint on the civil war with the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989. He somewhat smugly said that no one had anticipated the collapse of the wall and communism, which is not true. He went on to say that there has been in the past too much emphasis on social classes in the civil war but in reality the war was much more about individual allegiances and decisions.

Essentially according to Adamson the war was caused by Charles the 1st and his inexperience and vanity. There is no doubting Adamson’s work rate or ability to carry out prodigious research his current book’s weight and I don’t mean academic but physical is testimony to that. It also has 200 pages of notes, but this is not alone enough to give a multi rather than singular dimension to understanding the complexity and magnitude of the Civil war.

Without knowing Adamson’s politics you get the feeling that he has a lot of sympathy for Charles the 1st. You can see this in his book title the Noble Revolt (notice this is not a revolution from below but a revolt from above) One reviewer quoted these somewhat gilded words from the book "From the cabin at the stern of the barge, Charles caught a glimpse of the gilded weather-vanes of Whitehall Palace before the boat turned westwards, past the Abbey, and under the great east window of St Stephen’s Chapel – the Commons’ chamber, and the scene of his most recent political debacle. It would be seven years before Charles saw his palace again”.

Adamson also seems the revel in his idea that the main players in the revolution were largely reacting somewhat blindly to events. One reviewer of Adamson’s book can be quoted “Unlike hindsighted historians, they stumbled forward, seeking peace if possible and war if necessary. As Oliver Cromwell, in 1640 an obscure farmer on the fringes of Warwick's circle, once said, 'no one travels as high as he who knows not where he is going'.

John Morrill starts his essay with a clear rejection that the civil war was the result of any long term developments. He describes England after 1600 as peaceful and prosperous place with little or no civil disturbances and certainly no reason to have a civil war.Sorry for the digression but it does tend to put Hindle’s work into some kind of focus.

Hindle goes on “Wildman’s vivid analysis of the relationship between harvest failure, economic slump, political crisis and popular protest is proof enough that those who lived through the distracted times of the late 1640s were well aware of the interpenetration of economic and constitutional dislocation. It is surprising, therefore, that historians have made so little attempt to take seriously the harvest crisis of the late 1640s”.

One critical point I have with Hindle lack of interest in pursuing this major point. The fact that Historians have made recently so little use of these sources is down to the growth of revisionist studies which in itself is result of the decade’s long attack on any form of Marxist interpretation of the English revolution. This subject has also moved from the realms of history to politics. Clearly historians do not live in a vacuum. Many of the leading historians on the subject were clearly responding in a distorted form to the ‘Death of Marxism campaign’.

It is commendable of Windle to try and attempt to redress a balance. He says that the “consequences of these historiographical conventions (revisionists) for our understanding of the mid-seventeenth-century crisis have been profound. First, although the period 1647-50 is

familiar as one kind of turning point—the failure to achieve settlement with the king; renewed civil war; military coup d’etat; regicide; the abolition of the monarchy and of the House of Lords; campaigning in Ireland and Scotland—it is not generally appreciated that those events occurred against a backdrop of profound economic and social dislocation which resulted in appalling distress.” Hindle makes the point that the Levellers were conscious of the fact that the poor threatened both petty and big capitalists.

“In March 1649, The Moderate was voicing more sinister anxieties: ‘either take some care to ease, or relieve’ the poor, it warned, ‘else their necessities will enforce them to be rich and level what they never intended’. That this was not wishful thinking by the editor of the Leveller newspaper is confirmed by the subsequent comment of The kingdomes faithful and impartiall scout that ‘if the Lord puts it not into the hearts of the Parliament to take some speedy course for the care of the people’, ‘we shall then fear nothing but confusion, and many will turn Levellers upon necessity’. One of the most significant distinguishing features of the rhetoric of despair in these years, therefore, was the identification of an alternative political order to which the hungry might subscribe. In 1649, the regime was new and insecure, facing threats from both right and left, and was confronted with the very real possibility that hunger might be a factor in determining political allegiance”.

One by product of the revisionists attempt to downplay socio economic factors in understanding the poor’s role in the English Revolution has been carry out a series of studies that try to compartmentalized the revolution.

Hindle is critical of the “periodization of seventeenth-century English history, in which the historiographies of politics and of the economy are kept at arm’s length and 1640 has generally been regarded as a watershed in the landscape of social and political change, beyond which lies a valley settled by another community of scholars exploring alien historical problems and working on unfamiliar sources.”

Perhaps the most famous of the historians to regionalise the war is John Morrill. 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 clear 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 being a bit myopic saying the revolution was in fact just wars of religion. But at least he is being 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 was 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 important 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 very 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 interesting thing about revisionism was how a whole series of people came to the same conclusions simultaneously without really knowing one another.

Another famous exponent of this regional studies of the poor is A L Beier. One of his study was of Poor relief in Warwickshire 1630-16601 –A L Beier Past and Present 1966. Beier to his credit has presented in this essay that agrees with what some “historians of the English poor laws have generally viewed the years of the Civil War and Interregnum as signalling a turning point in its history”.

While Beier warned about trying to read too much into these local studies he said that a study of such areas as Warwickshire was legitimate “It would, of course, be dangerous to generalize from the example of one county to the whole of England, but the degree of typicality of Warwickshire and Professor Jordan's findings are encouraging. To study other counties from this point of view may yield interesting comparisons and the discovery of new variables, particularly if areas are found where relief administration in fact collapsed. More generally, however, and assuming that poor relief did not collapse in England during the Interregnum, of what significance was its continued functioning? First, it is clear that the devolution towards local control which took place in this period did not mean collapse or even falling efficiency in administration. Whether the sort of zealous efficiency characteristic of Puritan rule was continued after I660 is another question deserving of study. If it was not, it still seems doubtful whether the JPs of I645-60 can be blamed for the complacency frequently assumed of the eighteenth-century squirearchy. Regarding the political and economic crises of the late I640s, it could be argued that the existence of a functioning system for the relief of distress and for containing it on the local level allowed England to avoid the sort of social upheaval which the conjuncture of political and economic crises was to produce in France in I789 - an upheaval that threw both the urban and rural lower classes into the political arena.74 Conversely, the emphasis of the Puritan gentry on order and discipline, together with their apparent desire to work within and maintain the traditional structure of society, made them neither constitution-makers nor spellbinders. Their injection of godly activism into the traditional channels of political behaviour - so evident in the question of poor relief - kept society from falling into chaos, but it was not sufficient (or even perhaps designed) to change that society through violent revolution.”

The next study called Wage labour in seventeenth-century by J Boulton is again a valuable study but should be linked to a wider understanding of the growth of the working class at this time. A study of wage labourers in London is important as this was the centre of economic and political activity during the civil war.

Again Boulter makes the point that “It is remarkable how little work has been done until recently on the wage rates paid to early modern workers. Unless we understand fully how such workmen were paid, and have adequate empirical data to chart changes over time, we will not know how much weight to place on indices of real wages based on the movement of daily wage rates paid to a variety of building craftsmen. The fragility of the best known series that constructed by Phelps Brown and Hopkins from data compiled by Thorold Rogers, is especially worrying, given the weight placed on it by later authors. For the early modern period some 40-50 per cent of the entries were taken from builders' wages in Oxford down to i620; thereafter the series was based mainly on those in Cambridge and Eton. There were relatively few entries for each year: building craftsmen rates ran at about I5 per year for most of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but those for labourers numbered just three per year.

Phelps Brown and Hopkins reported that the data collected by Thorold Rogers diminished still further after 1660. They pointed out that only for Oxford did they have a 'reasonably continuous' wage rate series for their whole period, and noted that wage rates in Oxford did not necessarily move in line with those found elsewhere in southern England”.


D C Coleman Labour in the Seventeenth Century Vol 8 No 3 1956 The Economic History Review.
Obituary: Professor D. C. Coleman Egley Harte Saturday, 9 September 1995. Donald Cuthbert Coleman, economic historian: born 21 January 1920; Lecturer in Industrial History, London School of Economics 1951-58, Reader in Economic History 1958-69, Professor of Economic History 1969-71, Honorary Fellow 1984-95; Editor, Economic History Review 1967-72; Professor of Economic History, Cambridge University 1971-81 (Emeritus), Fellow of Pembroke College 1971-95; FBA 1972; married 1954 Ann Child (nee Stevens); died Cambridge 3 September 1995.
Dearth and the English revolution: the harvest crisis of 1647–50By Steve Hindle
Economic History Review, 61, S1 (2008), pp. 64–98
A L Beier Poor relief in Warwickshire 1630-16601 – Past and Present 1966

Wage Labour in Seventeenth-Century Jeremy Boulton Source: The Economic History Review, New Series, Vol. 49, No. 2 (May, 1996), pp. 268-290

Saturday, 13 November 2010

The Poor And The English Revolution- Part One

“For really I think that the poorest he that is in England bath a life to live, as the greatest he; and therefore, truly, Sir, I think it’s clear that every man that is to live under a government ought first by his own consent to put himself under that government. “

Colonel Rainborowe – New Model Army Soldier

“the necessitous people [the poor] of the whole kingdom will presently rise in mighty numbers; and whosoever they pretend for at first, within a while they will set up for themselves, to the utter ruin of all the nobility and gentry of the kingdom.”

C Hill The English Revolution 1640

When it comes to the poor in the English Revolution there have largely been two trends in English Revolution historiography. The first is either to ignore them completely or to downplay any form of politicisation or radicalization.

The second in its worse form has been to exaggerate their role and in some cases equate them with a 20th/21st century proletariat. This is not to say that there was no “revel, riot and rebellion” during the English Revolution but it was not on the scale of the French or Russian Revolution after all the 17th Century revolution was a bourgeois revolution not a proletarian revolution.

Having said this it would be foolish to ignore the significant radicalization of the poor during this time. While the quote from a seventeenth century country parson’s should be used with some caution (I found it on a radical left website but so far have been unable to trace its source) it nonetheless expresses a general heightened class consciousness amongst a growing section of the population that was quite clear as to the polarizing nature of the civil war.

“Against the king, the laws and religion, were a company of poor tradesmen, broken and decayed citizens, deluded and priest-ridden women, . . . there rode rabble that knew not wherefore they were got together, . . . tailors, shoemakers, linkboys , etc.; . . . on the king’s side. . .all the bishops of the land, all the deans, prebends and learned men; both the universities; all the princes, dukes, marquises; all the earls and lords except two or three; . . . all the knights and gentlemen in the three nations, except a score of sectaries and atheists. “

The first part of this essay will examine the poor and its leadership. The second part will examine the significant studies on the poor by historians and the third part the rise of Mercantilism in the context of the significant economic and political changes in Europe.

It would be correct to say that there was a genuine fear that the 17th century civil war would provoke the poor into the realms of social revolution. Now in many cases this fear was misplaced and exaggerated for political gain. I am however a firm believer of the old adage that there is no historical smoke without historical fire.

This essay will examine both primary and secondary published sources. While I would love to conduct some original research this would extremely difficult given the fact that most of the sources so to speak have been tapped and my time is somewhat limited. What will be original will be that the essay will seek to restore some aspects of a historical materialist approach to the subject of the poor.

This approach has been under systematic attack for well over three decades from a number of revisionist historians enough to make Lawrence Stone’ describe the history of the 17th century as “a battleground which has been heavily fought over…beset with mines, booby-traps and ambushes manned by ferocious scholars prepared to fight every inch of the way”.

These ferocious scholars have largely caricatured Marxism and according to Nick Beams “One of the most frequently employed caricatures of Marxism is the claim that it argues 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”.

In many ways in order to know what the poor were thinking it is important to examine their relationship with the Levellers. The Russian Revolutionary Leon Trotsky essay on the question of leadership can help in this.

“In reality leadership is not at all a mere “reflection” of a class or the product of its own free creativeness. A leadership is shaped in the process of clashes between the different classes or the friction between the different layers within a given class. Having once arisen, the leadership invariably arises above its class and thereby becomes predisposed to the pressure and influence of other classes. The proletariat may “tolerate” for a long time a leadership that has already suffered a complete inner degeneration but has not as yet had the opportunity to express this degeneration amid great events. A great historic shock is necessary to reveal sharply the contradiction between the leadership and the class. The mightiest historical shocks are wars and revolutions. Precisely for this reason the working class is often caught unawares by war and revolution. But even in cases where the old leadership has revealed its internal corruption, the class cannot improvise immediately a new leadership, especially if it has not inherited from the previous period strong revolutionary cadres capable of utilizing the collapse of the old leading party. The Marxist, i.e. dialectic and not scholastic interpretation of the inter-relationship between a class and its leadership does not leave a single stone unturned of our author’s legalistic sophistry”.

G W F Hegel was fond of saying “all that is rational is real”. As Trotsky explained “this means that every idea that corresponds to objective needs of development attains triumph and victory. In the final analysis Cromwell’s ideas were more attune to societies needs than the Levellers.

Having said this Leveller ideas were able to influence significant minority of poor people. How conscious were the poor of fighting for social change is up for grabs but Cromwell was very clear when he said what kind of soldier he was looking for “I had rather have a plain, russet-coated Captain, that knows what he fights for, and loves what he knows, than that you call a Gentleman and is nothing else. Letter to Sir William Spring (September 1643)

While the Levellers were sympathetic to the poor, which stemmed from their religion which essentially was not that different from that of Cromwell 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.

This contradiction caused some tension between their concern for the poor and their position of representatives of the small property owners. 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 reformed on the basis of certain fundamental ‘native rights’ safeguarded even from a sovereign parliament: religious toleration, no tithes. The attack on parliament as 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 limitations of the Leveller program was cruelly exposed in a very famous exchange between Colonel Rainborowe, leader of the Levellers in parliament and H. Ireton, Cromwell’s son in law. 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 ‘freeborn 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 that 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’.

To put it more simply the generals deliberately exaggerated the radicalism of the Levellers in order to label them extremists and to mobilise their own supporters against them. Cromwell correctly recognised that if the franchise was widened it would threaten his majority in parliament. Again Hill explains ‘Defending the existing franchise 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 persons in whom all lands lies and those 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 for 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 argument.

Cromwell was acutely aware that the ideas of the Levellers and other smaller groups such as the Diggers were becoming a dangerous business. Cromwell said of what he call the “lunatics”, “you must break these men or they will break you”

The importance of the Levellers and to some extent the Diggers that they represented the aspirations of the poorest section of society. They were not a mass movement of the poor. While their ideas had very explosive social implications, the necessary objective conditions did not exist at the time.


1 The Clarke Papers –William Clarke Royal Historical Society.

2 Mark Kishlanksy’s Ideology and politics in the parliamentary Armies 1645-49

3 Carlton p199 Ch9

4 S Porter the Destruction in the Civil War

5 G M Trevelyan Social History of Britain

6 C Hill in the Century of Revolution