Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Radicalism in the English Revolution 1640- 1660 F Dow.

That an inequitable thing it is for one man to have thousands, and another want bread, and that the pleasure of God is, that all men should have enough, and not that one man should abound in this worlds good, spending it upon his lusts, and another man of far better deserts, not be worth two pence, and that it is no such difficulty as men make it to be, to alter the course of the world in this thing, and that a few diligent and valiant spirits may turn the world upside down, if they observe their seasons, and shall with life and courage ingage accordingly.

--- attributed to William Walwyn

As F D Dow says in the preface, his little book is not a narrative of the events of the English civil war. However he does in such a small book give a good introduction to the level of radicalism in the English Revolution. It is clear that outside of the Russian and French revolutions respectively no other revolution has generated such heat historically speaking.

He begins his book with an assessment of current historiography on the subject of the radical groups in the Civil war. The reader should keep in mind that the book was written and published in 1985 when Dow wrote this book the revisionists had already had been going for well over ten years.

The first chapter is well written and informative. He outlines the attack on Marxist historiography especially any understanding of the importance of any long term causes of the English civil war. As Dow suggests even the use of the term radical to describe groups such as the Levellers has come under attack, according to Glenn Burgess “Conal Condren and Jonathan Clark to name two have said that the term 'radicalism' should not be applied to phenomena that exist before the term itself was coined. Clark has pointed out that it applies "to a doctrine newly coined in England in the 1820s to describe a fusion of universal suffrage, Ricardian economics and programmatic atheism. To speak of an eighteenth - or a seventeenth-century radicalism is therefore as much of a solecism as to speak of an eighteenth- or a seventeenth-century fascism or Marxism".

One by product of this turn away from Marxist historiography (that was perhaps best expressed in the writings of Christopher Hill, Brian Manning and the early work of Lawrence Stone) was the increase in number of local studies. Studies such as The County Committee of Kent in the Civil War by A M Everitt and more famously John Morrill’s work on the Revolt of the Provinces emphasised short term explanations. The rise of local studies does not necessary mean that these historians had a right wing agenda. David Underdown Riot, Rebel and Rebellion is well worth a look at. On the whole local studies are a worthwhile thing but note should be taken as E H Carr suggests to study the historian before you study the history.

Other revisionists such as John Adamson limited the civil war to a struggle amongst the nobility not a class struggle in his Noble Revolt and his forth coming Noble Realm. This has led to the muddying or an outright denial of class struggles in the English civil war.

Dow shows that a number of historians have tended portray the period before the civil war as calm and that the English ruling elite would have never believed that civil war was on the agenda. But relying on Brain Manning’s work Dow paints an alternative picture of life before the war stating that Manning had "forcefully argued that economic discontent and popular unrest were important elements in producing an atmosphere of crisis before and after 1640 ... that this eruption of the lower and middling orders into the political arena crucially affected the alignment of political groupings within the elite ... parliament’s appeal to the ‘middling sort of people’ was ... to release one of the most dynamic forces of the decade and substantially promote the cause of popular radicalism”.

On the section called Parliamentarians and Republicans Dow examines the philosophical basis for the Civil War. He explains that before the Civil war the English ruling elite was largely content with the divine rule of kings. Society was in order and that everything was ordained by God.

But as the Marxist political writer D North explains a closer examination brings a different picture “Until the early seventeenth century, even educated people still generally accepted that the ultimate answers to all the mysteries of the universe and the problems of life were to be found in the Old Testament. But its unchallengeable authority had been slowly eroding, especially since the publication of Copernicus's De Revolutionibus in the year of his death in 1543, which dealt the death blow to the Ptolemaic conception of the universe and provided the essential point of departure for the future conquests of Tycho Brahe (1546-1601), Johann Kepler (1571-1630) and, of course, Galileo Galilei (1564-1642). Intellectually, if not yet socially, the liberation of man from the fetters of Medieval superstition and the political structures that rested upon it, was well under way. The discoveries in astronomy profoundly changed the general intellectual environment”.

It would be wrong of course to mechanically apply this type of reason to the thinking of parliamentary opposition to the King. It was after all mostly confused and not coherently thought out. According to Dow (p15) “Four major issues were touched upon by these new writers, the nature and location of sovereignty, the origins of government in the consent of the people, the welfare of the people as the end or purpose of government and the role of common people in resisting the king”. Dow attempts in this chapter to establish a link between the new philosophy and the actions of players of the revolution.

Dow correctly spends some time on the philosophy James Harrington. The importance of Harrington is that his writings are a confirmation of the relationship between political thought and political action. Dow however downplays Harrington grasp of the relationship between property and power saying he was not a “proto Marxist”. While this is true he was a writer who anticipated a materialist understanding of social and political events.

For Dow the chief ideologues of the revolution were the radical groups such as the Levellers, Diggers etc. He states on page 8 that “Ideological and organizational advances were made by radicals who were not matched until the 1760s. Although the Levellers did not achieve power, and succeeded more in frightening those who did hold power than in convincing them of the merits of the radical case., their beliefs and their programme opened up new vistas of political participation, religious toleration and social equality. If not for all men then at least for very significant sections of the middling classes”.

The Levellers according to Dow were “founding fathers of the working class movement”. Dow claimed the Levellers broke new ground.” They grounded their programme of anew ideological basis by developing arguments based on doctrines of natural rights and popular sovereignty. And they mobilized support for their movement by employing sophisticated modern techniques of propaganda and organization”.

I do not agree with Dow on this assessment of the Levellers. As A L Morton says of the Levellers “it was a radical but not a working class party: indeed, how could it be at a time when the working class as we know it was only beginning to exist? Still less was it a ‘socialist’ party in the sense of advocating the type of egalitarian and agrarian communism which was widespread at this time” and to add was not articulately expressed (until) Winstanley and his Diggers or ‘true Levellers’.

Dow admits it is difficult however to paint an exact picture of what constituted the Leveller party and it was as the Baptist Henry Dunne said a “very heterogeneous body”. It is to Dow’s credit he places the rise of the Levellers in a socio-economic context “The socio economic preconditions for the rise of the movement like the Levellers had been created by long term changes in landholding and in the manufacturing. Those changes which had adversely affected the status and prosperity of the urban and rural ‘middling sort’ of people were especially important in providing potential supporters for the Levellers, who were to become principally the spokesmen for the ‘industrious sort’. Pressure on the smaller peasant farmer who lacked the resources of his larger neighbour to benefit from the expanding market and rising prices: the discontent of the insecure copyholder subject to rack-renting and the fear of the small cottager or husbandman at the prospect of enclosure, produce dissatisfaction which the Levellers could tap and issues on which they could take a stand.

Of even greater significance were the problems of the small craftsmen and tradesmen, particularly in the towns, whose independence seemed threatened by large scale merchants and entrepreneurs. The existence of such problems in London was crucially important, for the capital was to provide the core of the Leveller movement. Here, a large pool of discontent existed among journeymen unable, because of changes in the structure of manufacturing to find the resources to set up as masters in their own right. Anger smoulder among small tradesmen and merchants chafing at the alleged oppression of the guilds”.

Dow makes the point that the Levellers tapped into a growing hostility from people especially in London towards a deal with the monarchy. An outward display of this came about through the army at Putney. Dow makes a very perceptive point that “The radicalisation of sections of the rank and file did not happen solely, or even directly, because of Leveller influence, it happened because soldiers’ perception of their own ill treatment at the hands of the Presbyterian majority produced a political consciousness on which the Levellers could capitalize”.

Dow crucially examines the nature of the society, or specifically sections of the society, from which the Leveller movement sprang. Several attempts have been made to explain a class background to the Leveller movement and the people whose support it attracted. While it is prudent to acknowledge David Underdown’s warning that "Class is a concept that can be applied to seventeenth-century English society only with the greatest possible caution".

Dow relies heavily on the work of Professor Brian Manning’s recently revised study, The English People and the English Revolution. Manning who was a member of the Radical group the SWP tries like Dow to examine the Levellers “from a socialist perspective”. But seems to contradict himself using Manning’s own words "that some of the ‘middling sort’ played a crucial role in the revolution".

The book is a very good introduction to the subject of radicalism in the English Revolution. Dow’s work on the Levellers is equally important. To end with I concur with A L Morton who said “A Party that held the centre of the stage for three of the most crucial years in our nation’s history, voiced the aspirations of the unprivileged masses, and was able to express with such force ideas that have been behind every great social advance since their time, cannot be regarded as wholly a failure or deserve to be wholly forgotten”.


Glenn Burgess, "A Matter of Context: 'Radicalism' and the English Revolution", in M. Caricchio, G. Tarantino, eds., Cromohs Virtual Seminars. Recent historiographical trends of the British Studies (17th-18th Centuries), 2006-2007: 1-4

Lecture 7 The English Civil War http://www.historyguide.org/earlymod/lecture7c.html


Brian Manning, "The Levellers and Religion" in J. F. McGregor and Barry Reay (editors), Radical Religion in the English Revolution, Oxford University Press, 1986, page 241.

David Underdown, Revel, Riot and Rebellion: Popular Politics and Culture in England 1603-60, Oxford University Press, 1987, page 168.

Brian Manning, The English People and the English Revolution, Bookmarks, London, 1991, page 7.

F. D. Dow, Radicalism in the English Revolution 1640-60, Basil Blackwell, Oxford 1985, chapter 1.

A. L. Morton (editor) Freedom in Arms: A Selection of Leveller Writings, Lawrence and Wishart, London 1975, page 101.
Conal Condren, The Status and Appraisal of Classic Texts: An Essay on Political Theory, Its Inheritance, and the History of Ideas, Princeton NJ, 1985, ch. 5, especially pp. 138-41.

Thursday, 11 March 2010

Must you Go by Antonia Fraser

This is at times a beautiful, moving and intimate account of the private lives of two very famous people. I must admit I have not enjoyed a book so much in a long time.

Antonia Fraser is a gifted writer and historian of note. I have made a mental record to read at least her biography of Oliver Cromwell. Fraser is the widow of playwright Harold Pinter. Although Pinter’s death was over a year ago her love is still clearly alive.

The title of the book comes from the words that Harold Pinter first spoke to her — at the end of a dinner party in 1975 — were: “Must you go?” “I do remember weighing it up,” she says now. “I often think what would have happened if I had said, ‘No, I must go home and take the children to school.’ I will never know.”

In an interview with Tatler Magazine she recounts why published her diary

“It was, she says, never intended for publication. Then, a month after Pinter’s death, she was in the midst of “the terrible administration that death brings ... it was dark and the whole world was black and I thought, ‘No, I’ve changed my mind. I’m going to do it’.”

The love and mutual respect they had for each other clearly had a way of mitigating their obvious differing political backgrounds. I love Fraser’s loyalty in defending Pinter and her standing by him through very difficult times is inspiring

The book is not heavily laden with humour but when it comes it is very funny in a telephone exchange with Steve McQueen ("Don't shout at me, Harold, I'm not your butler." "I don't shout at my butler.

Perhaps the hardest part of the book is her dealing with Pinter’s many illnesses. She shows them both fought them with courage and much love. Speaking of love one of my favourite parts of the book is the poetry from Pinter I did not know too much about his poems but they are so touching you wished you could have thought of them but I will use them on my own wife.

My favourite is

To My Wife

I was dead and now I live

You took my hand

I blindly died

You took my hand

You watched me die

And found my life

You were my life

When I was dead

You are my life

And so I live

Harold Pinter

June 2004

Reading her diaries has pushed me into start reading her historical books. Her diaries do reveal some of her methods of research. Perhaps the most important is to visit places of importance in the lives of the person she is writing about.

Perhaps of all the books I have read in the last few years this one really touched something inside. It may well be strange to quote my favourite football manager but in an interview in the Times he said

"I believe the target of anything in life should be to do it so well that it becomes an art. When you read some books they are fantastic, the writer touches something in you that you know you would not have brought out of yourself. He makes you discover something interesting in your life. If you are living like an animal, what is the point of living? What makes daily life interesting is that we try to transform it to something that is close to art. And football is like that. When I watch Barcelona, it is art." This sentiment echoes my thoughts on this book.

Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Correspondence on notes for Biography of Oliver Cromwell


I don't see how the profoundly Biblical Puritan English revolution can be made to fit a Marxist/materialist explanation.

You need to look at how the role of the Bible's teaching on social justice led to the revolution. Israel got its first king against God's will, so as to be like other nations. The Puritans knew that God did not sanction a monarchy.

Leviticus 25 is very important here.

Dear Mike.

At the moment your email does not warrant a long reply. What I will say is that I am not trying to fit a Marxist/Materialist viewpoint into the English Revolution. The point of Marxism is it is a method in which to understand the past, present and a guide to future action.

I do not subscribe to the view that the revolution was a chemically pure one. Marx never said it was. Also I do not downplay the religious aspect to it,how can I. Its main protagonists were deeply imbued with it. However to say that God caused it or that he was on the side of the Roundheads is absurd. How do you explain that Charles 1 refused to accept parliaments and Cromwell’s authority because he was the sole interpreter of ‘Gods Will’?

To finish I do not say that the role of the individual is unimportant at certain times it is critical. But the revolution was the product not of Gods will but powerful socio economic changes that that were pulsing through Britain and come to think of it Europe at the time.. Man makes history but not as freely as he would like.

Thursday, 4 March 2010

Notes for an Essay on the First World War and the Breakdown of Capitalism

1. In his book War and the International Leon Trotsky makes two interrelated points. First point is he relates the origins of the war to the historical development of capitalism. Second point is to outline the development of a strategy for the international working class in the face of the betrayals by the leaders of the Second International especially that of the SPD e.g. German Social Democracy.

2. The SPD repudiated the decisions of its own congress to provide support for their own ruling elite’s support of the war. Recently orthodox Marxist positions on the war have come under attack from a number of high profile historians. Later on in the article these positions will be discussed.

3. The war exposed somewhat cruelly the conception that capitalism had somehow overcome its contradictions and that all governments could settle their differences by negotiation and diplomacy. The breakdown was anticipated by Karl Marx when he wrote.

4. “In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness. At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or – this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms – with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution. The changes in the economic foundation lead sooner or later to the transformation of the whole immense superstructure.

5. In studying such transformations it is always necessary to distinguish between the material transformation of the economic conditions of production, which can be determined with the precision of natural science, and the legal, political, religious, artistic or philosophic – in short, ideological forms in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out. Just as one does not judge an individual by what he thinks about himself, so one cannot judge such a period of transformation by its consciousness, but, on the contrary, this consciousness must be explained from the contradictions of material life, from the conflict existing between the social forces of production and the relations of production. No social order is ever destroyed before all the productive forces for which it is sufficient have been developed, and new superior relations of production never replace older ones before the material conditions for their existence have matured within the framework of the old society”.

6. In his book The War and the International Leon Trotsky makes a similar point “The forces of production which capitalism has evolved have outgrown the limits of nation and state,” Trotsky wrote in the very first sentence of his analysis. “The national state, the present political form, is too narrow for the exploitation of these productive forces. The natural tendency of our economic system, therefore, is to seek to break through the state boundaries. The whole globe, the land and the sea, the surface as well as the interior have become one economic workshop, the different parts of which are inseparably connected with each other.”

7. If you analyse the proceeding thirty years before the First World Warsaw the emergence of Imperialism. The handful of few industrialized capitalist nations domination of the world. At the head of these countries stood huge corporate and banking conglomerates who were exporting capital on a global scale. These rival powers battled for the control of markets and sought even cheaper labour in Africa and Asia.

8. Under these conditions there arose conflict between Germany and Britain. Some historians have put this down to the personality of Kaiser Wilhelm 11. This was not the case. It was the product of the rise of German capitalism and its challenge to the previously dominant Great Britian.More than a decade before the 1st World War the conflicts between the major imperialist powers had culminated in the formation of an alliance which pitted the Triple Entente against the Triple Alliance.

9. Trotsky again “The future development of world economy on the capitalistic basis means a ceaseless struggle for new and ever new fields of capitalist exploitation, which must be obtained from one and the same source, the earth. The economic rivalry under the banner of militarism is accompanied by robbery and destruction which violate the elementary principles of human economy. World production revolts not only against the confusion produced by national and state divisions, but also against the capitalist economic organisation, which has now turned into barbarous disorganisation and chaos. The war of 1914 is the most colossal breakdown in history of an economic system destroyed by its own inherent contradictions.”

10. For Trotsky the war not only signalled the downfall of the nation state but it ended the historical role of capitalism. This analysis came under sustain attack from many quarters. Figures such as Woodrow Wilson said this was not a breakdown of capitalism and hence no need for socialism. A large amount of the historiography written on the First World War has occurred after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Much of this has sought to deny the revolutionary implications of the war. One such historian had no such opinion Elie Halevy (1870-1937) “In his lectures of 1929, revised in 1936 (published in 1938; The Era of Tyrannies), Halévy argued that the world war had increased national control over individual activities and opened the way for de facto socialism. In opposition to those who saw socialism as the last step in the French Revolution, he saw it as a new organization of constraint replacing those that the Revolution had destroyed”.

11. Many of today’s historians have sought to overturn this type of socio-economic or ‘Marxist’ historiography. One thing comes to mind is that if Marxism is dead then why some much literature is being written to disprove it.In many ways the First World War is still a contemporary issue and defines our epoch.

12. Right Wing historians such as Niall Fergusson have utilised the collapse of the Soviet Union to justify their right wing theories. For most of the twentieth century, even right-wing historians have had to adapt themselves to the political and ideological consequences of the Russian Revolution—how the world’s first successful socialist revolution inspired millions in a belief that there was an alternative to imperialist brutality, a belief that survived even after the bureaucratic degeneration of the Soviet Union under Stalin. It was de rigueur to deplore the slaughter of the First World War, but now there is a generation of historians who are increasingly eager to revise the judgement of earlier researchers. They can do so without doing obvious violence to evidence and principles of historical methodology. At a cursory glance all the apparatus of a history book is present in The Pity of War. There are extracts from contemporary accounts by statesmen, generals and ordinary soldiers from all sides; there are statistics, economic, military and sociological; there are contemporary photographs showing scenes of carnage and men relaxing behind the lines. There are, of course, extensive footnotes. The immediate impression is of a book at once scholarly yet sensitive. On closer inspection, however, a very different book emerges. It is a carefully camouflaged glorification of war.

13. Another point about Ferguson is his attempt to individualise the war. To do so he concentrates on the motives of business to the exclusiveness of objective developments. Nick Beams argue “Ferguson adopts the crude method deployed by so many in the past. According to his view, for the analysis of Marxism to be valid we must be able to show that political leaders made their decisions on the basis of a kind of profit-and-loss calculus of economic interests, or that there was a secret cabal of businessmen and financiers operating behind the scenes and pulling the strings of government. Failure to find either, he maintains, cuts the ground from under the feet of the Marxist argument”.

14. The rise of German imperialism coincided with the struggle for geo-political interests of the great powers. The fact that the great powers could not come to an agreement over carving up the world disproved Karl Kautsky’s theory of ultra-imperialism. It is clear that Britain and no less Germany were motivated by long term interests.

15. “You are the clearing-house of the world,” he told them. “Why? Why is banking prosperous among you? Why is a bill of exchange on London the standard currency of all commercial transactions? Is it not because of the productive energy and capacity which is behind it? Is it not because we have hitherto, at any rate, been constantly creating new wealth? Is it not because of the multiplicity, the variety, and the extent of our transactions? If any one of these things suffers even a check, do you suppose that you will not feel it? Do you imagine that you can in that case sustain the position of which you are justly proud? Suppose—if such a supposition is permissible—you no longer had the relations which you have at present with our great Colonies and dependencies, with India, with the neutral countries of the world, would you then be its clearing-house? No, gentlemen. At least we can recognize this—that the prosperity of London is intimately connected with the prosperity and greatness of the Empire of which it is the centre.” [32] Cain and Hopkins, British Imperialism (London: 2002), pp. 195-196.

16. The conflict between Lenin and Karl Kautsky over the possibility of ‘ultra imperialism’ has a great deal of resonance today.Kautsky was the most finished example of the attack on Marxism. Kautsky’s main point was that Capitalism had not exhausted itself and that the war did not represent the death agony of capitalism. He believed that the working class was in no position to launch an offensive against capitalism.

17. “There is no economic necessity for continuing the arms race after the World War, even from the standpoint of the capitalist class itself, with the exception of at most certain armaments interests. On the contrary, the capitalist economy is seriously threatened precisely by the contradictions between its states. Every far-sighted capitalist today must call on his fellows: capitalists of all countries, unite!”

18. This was refuted by Lenin who said “Socialism,” Lenin wrote, “is now gazing at us through all the windows of modern capitalism.” [47] It was necessary, he insisted, to examine the significance of the changes in the relations of production that were being effected by the development of monopoly capitalism. There was not just mere interlocking of ownership. A vast global socialisation of production was taking place at the base of monopoly capitalism.

Tuesday, 2 March 2010

Comments From Christopher Thompson

I have just received these comments on my Essay Oliver Cromwell, the Levellers and the Putney Debates. While it is important to correct factual errors which I will do one does not have to agree with his more theoretical summaries in the second part of the email. In fact I will begin to reply to his assertions regarding Hill and Manning in particular shortly. I am publishing his remarks in full.

1) If you look at Past and Present (Number 88. August, 1980), you will see, for example, that the Levellers did argue for manhood suffrage at the Putney debates. C.B.Macpherson's interpretation is based on a misreading of the text preserved amongst the Clarke Mss. There was no Digger group in existence in the autumn of 1647. I could continue with the errors of fact in this piece.

2) Many thanks for your e-mail. This would be a sizeable job. For example, you claim that the Levellers pioneered the use of petitioning, large-scale demonstrations, etc., as devices for exerting political pressure in the mid-1640s but, as Valerie Pearl showed back in 1961 in her book on London and the Puritan Revolution, these measures were first used in 1640-42 by Pym's Junto: John Adamson's recent book on The Noble Revolt leads to the same conclusion.

There were a number of elements within the Leveller movement but none, in the light of Rachel Foxley's work or that of Philip Baker that can justifiably be described as 'bourgeois'. Most academic historians, of whom I am one, do not accept or endorse a 'class explanation' of the struggles of the 1640s in England or the British Isles.

This is why figures like Christopher Hill (my old doctoral supervisor), Brian Manning, etc., are rarely cited in the literature nowadays. It would take me a significant amount of time to go through all of these matters in detail but I will consider your request.

Christopher Thompson