Monday, 20 September 2010
Ann Talbot has misled you. Luddism was a phenomenon of the late stages of the war against Napoleonic France, which ended in 1815. Chartism and opposition to the new Poor Law came after the Great Reform Act of 1832. The People's Charter was published in 1837 and Chartism itself lasted until c.1850. The New Poor Law creating Unions of parishes was passed in 1834.
Thursday, 16 September 2010
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 2010.www.wsws.org
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.'
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 “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”.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
 Obituary: Turning Point in History-Brian Manning. http://socialistreview.org.uk/272/obituary-turning-point-history
 A Peoples History of the Russian Revolution. Neil Faulkner. Pluto 2017
 Leon Trotsky-The History of the Russian Revolution-Volume One: The Overthrow of Tzarism-
Chapter 11-Dual Power
Friday, 10 September 2010
1. This is a curious biography in the sense that it is the most openly pro Cromwell biography I have come across so far. I think I lost count the number of times she calls Cromwell by his first name.
2. I have tried to find biographical details on her but so far I only know she wrote a biography of Queen Elizabeth I. Professor Thompson if you read this blog please send me any details you have.
3. From a political standpoint she seems conservative with a small c, although having seen the chapter on England’s Greatness perhaps she is a conservative with a big C
4. The book is well written and follows a standard biographical path. It is not very analytical and contains very few gems of insight into Cromwell. Having said that some of her research is not without merit. Muir’s writing on Ireland is interesting and balanced in the sense she does not downplay the violence employed by Cromwell which was in keeping with the time.
More importantly she puts great emphasis on Cromwell’s economic policy towards Ireland. This was extremely significant in so much as Cromwell gave her equal trading rights as the colonies and other European countries and engineered free trade between the two countries. I would like to do more research on this matter. I do not intend to get into the political/military side of the relationship at least not at this stage of my education on the English revolution.
5. Her analysis of the Levellers, Diggers etc. is ok but the title of the chapter Puritan Communists is not really helpful. She falls into the trap that a few better historians have fell into labelling the Diggers as Communists. While the Levellers and Diggers in their writings contained elements of communist tendencies a number of the more radical and by radical I mean those around the Communist Party historians group and the SWP (Socialist Workers Party) have a tendency to exaggerate their importance and give the impression that the objective forces for the party and programme existed.
6. The Communist Party historian group while doing important work on the Levellers and Diggers they have a tendency to as Dave Hyland said in his lecture have a tendency at a “glorification of an unbroken historical line of English radicalism.
7. I have just received a copy of David Parkers book Ideology Absolutism and the English Revolution-Debates of the British Communist Historian’s 1940-1958. Will post some notes for a major essay soon.
This from Professor Thompson
This work belongs in the Nonconformist/Whig tradition of hero-worshipping Oliver Cromwell. After Thomas Carlyle, he came to be seen as embodying the values of religious and political freedom for which he was taken, like later Nonconformists, as standing. There was and is a strong hagiographical element in this line of analysis just as there is in Marxist/Socialist works on the Levellers and Diggers. Christopher Hill once compared early modern Puritanism and later Nonconformity to wine and vinegar. He was right.
Wednesday, 8 September 2010
(Due to working on some other work this is a shorter article than I intended. Having only just received the book of the play I will return to do a further piece in the near future)
I went to see Danton’s Death at the National Theatre in London. The play has generally been well received and reviews have been favorable although some of the more right wing press have been critical. Not really a surprise there.
Buchner was only 21 when he wrote Danton’s Death. He wrote it in 1835 in under five weeks. Being a revolutionary himself he was in constant fear of arrest. The play is all the more significant for the fact that it was written by one so tender an age and in revolutionary terms still a baby.
One word of warning is that you need as one critic put it “you need to do a bit of homework if your knowledge of the French Revolution is as patchy as mine, He was also critical which I agree with him in that “far too many of the dramatis personae fail to come to satisfyingly rounded dramatic life” Also in the book of the play the cast lists Thomas Paine as a Deputy of the National Convention yet unless I am mistaken nothing was heard from him in this production. Please someone correct me if I am wrong.
Büchner's original play is a rarity these days in the sense that even at the tender age of 21 his grasp of the complex history of the French revolution is very striking. The play focuses on the French Revolution's year of terror, 1794. The central theme of the play “is the art of Insurrection” and the use of terror in a revolutionary situation. The plays director tries hard to show this but there a very serious weaknesses in this production as Billington said cutting two scenes which showed the scope of the revolution, the scenes cut for instance showed crowd scenes and even the national convention was sparsely populated.
Another reviewer also picked up on this Ann Talbot said in her review “the immediate problem is that Brenton has removed two small scenes from the original play. Both of them are crowd scenes. They are very short scenes in an already short play and it is difficult to see that there was any good reason for dropping them. Running time is hardly a question. The play gains nothing in clarity without them. In fact it loses something crucial. The effect of taking them out is to unbalance the whole work because omitting them removes a character that has a vital role to play in the conflict between Danton and Robespierre. That character is not an individual, or rather it is the many individuals who make up the crowd, the mass of the population, the sans culottes, the poor who must get their living by selling their labour and their bodies on the streets of Paris. Once this element is removed from the play we are left with a largely personal drama in which two individuals are pitted against one another in a conflict that lacks any substantial basis in the wider framework of social relations. Danton without the crowd is not really Danton. He is left as a rather effete, weary man who simply cannot be bothered to take the necessary action to defend himself. What brought Danton to the head of the revolution was his relationship with the sans culottes. He expressed their material interest in overthrowing the unequal state of affairs that existed in France under the ancien regime and establishing a more just society. Robespierre was able to defeat him because he still reflected the interests of that social layer. If that relationship is left out of the play then Robespierre loses his historical stature and is reduced to a rather dogmatic man”
And again commentating on Buchner’s method “The fact that such a small piece of editing can have such a major effect on the play points to the masterly precision of Büchner’s technique. He was by training a scientist and doctor. When he died in 1837 he had just won a teaching position at the University of Zurich. The play was written on his dissection table and it has something of the character of a dissection about it in which each organ, each social element, is laid out before us in an entirely objective manner. Büchner is offering us an autopsy of the French Revolution performed at the moment when it reaches its fatal impasse. He allows us to examine his meticulously prepared specimens and draw our own conclusions rather than beating us over the head with his message. It is a powerful dramatic technique so long as all the parts are present. Those two missing scenes, small though they are, are essential to the play”.
I am not saying that the play is not worth seeing and lacks dramatic tension but by cutting out the people scenes according to one review it “thins the dramatic texture and turns the play into a character study: one in which the sensual, death-haunted, strangely passive Danton confronts the repressed, life-fearing, remorselessly active Robespierre. That is a vital part of Büchner's play; but to focus so exclusively on that element is to miss the larger point that they are also history's puppets”.
The question of Danton and Robespierre being “history’s puppets” is a piece of crude determinist verbiage. I prefer Engels description.
Engels beautifully describes how the laws of a revolutionary insurrection intersects with its human participants. “Insurrection is an art quite as much as war or any other, and subject to certain rules of proceeding, which, when neglected, will produce the ruin of the party neglecting them. Those rules, logical deductions from the nature of the parties and the circumstances one has to deal with in such a case, are so plain and simple that the short experience of 1848 had made the Germans pretty well acquainted with them. Firstly, never play with insurrection unless you are fully prepared to face the consequences of your play. Insurrection is a calculus with very indefinite magnitudes, the value of which may change every day; the forces opposed to you have all the advantage of organization, discipline, and habitual authority: unless you bring strong odds against them you are defeated and ruined. Secondly, the insurrectionary career once entered upon, act with the greatest determination, and on the offensive. The defensive is the death of every armed rising; it is lost before it measures itself with its enemies. Surprise your antagonists while their forces are scattering, prepare new successes, however small, but daily; keep up the moral ascendancy which the first successful rising has given to you; rally those vacillating elements to your side which always follow the strongest impulse, and which always look out for the safer side; force your enemies to a retreat before they can collect their strength against you; in the words of Danton, the greatest master of revolutionary policy yet known, de l'audace, de l'audace, encore de l'audace!
Although only two hours in length this production still has enough in it to show some psychological insights into the minds and action of the two leaders of the revolution. It would be useful to record some insights gained from the Wikipedia article on the play. To explain Buchner’s method “
“Its use of numerous historical sources and extensive quotations from original political speeches meant that the play was seen in the 20th century as the precursor to documentary theatre. Until 1979 no one had explored the themes and inner connections within Buchner's work between Eros and Violence systematically - that year saw Reinhold Grimm treat it in text und kritik, Georg Büchner, and it was continued in the present Georg Büchner Jahrbuch 11 (2005–2008)”.
I will agree with a number of critics who have described the design of the stage the fantastic, the use of lighting gives the play a stunning look. Perhaps the most gripping scene was the technically astute use of the guillotine, with one critic remarking “with executions so convincing that you are surprised that several prominent members of the cast don’t take the curtain call with their heads neatly tucked beneath their arms”
Clearly from the audience’s reaction the play has still a very contemporary feel to it. At the end when the actors took a bow some members of the audience hissed at Robespierre and applauded more when Danton and his supporters appeared. It is clear that the play deals with all the range of themes that are around us today. Danton’s Death looks at the dialectic of revolution, the relationship between men and women, friendship, class, determinism, materialism and the role of theatre itself.
But am I the only one who left the theatre feeling that a lot was missing was this really just a debate between Danton and Robespierre. Did Danton really resign himself so pathetically to his death? Why did Brenton refuse to elaborate on Danton’s relationship with the Sans Culottes? Because in the end were left with a somewhat disappointing debate over morality.
Ann Talbot has this answer on Brenton’s idea or none idea of revolution “It is an interpretation that says more about the outlook of the current intellectual world and one time left-wing playwright Brenton than it does about Büchner. In the wake of the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the decline in trade union activity in the West, it has become extremely difficult for writers to imagine a revolution in anything other than the most disastrous terms. There is a sharp contrast here between Brenton’s foray into the 18th century and Trevor Griffiths’ A New World: A Life of Thomas Paine. The American and French Revolutions provide Griffiths with a context in which revolution can still be imaginatively recreated and a connection made with contemporary class concerns. But for Brenton, the French Revolution only offers further confirmation of the hopelessness of the entire revolutionary project whether in the 18th century or the 21st
1. Michael Billington The Guardian, Friday 23 July 2010
2. Ann Talbot Danton’s Death www.wsws.org.
3. Marx and Engels Collected Works XI 85-86
4. The Revolutionary Ideas of Karl Marx Alex Calinicos Bookmarks.
6. Ian Shuttleworth July 25 2010