Tuesday, 24 May 2011

The English Revolution in its International Context.

I have been meaning to write something on this subject for a long time in fact since I first started writing this blog. Researching this topic was a challenge in itself in the sense that little of note has been written on the international character of the English revolution probably since Eric Hobsbawm wrote his Crisis of the 17th Century essay. With the posible exception of David Parker Europe’s Seventeenth Century Crisis and a few other books. In fact the only dissertation I found was called the Scottish Revolution in its International Context.

The first part of this draft essay will deal with the two theories of the “general crisis of the 17th Century” and the response of historians today. The second part will place the English revolution in its broader international context more specifically events on the European continent including the beginnings of the Enlightenment influencing the philosophy of Thomas Hobbes who for me was one of the chief philosophers of the English revolution.

While I generally agree with Eric Hobsbawm’s essay the general crisis of the 17th century, it should not be treated as the last word on the subject. It is a useful as a guide to deepen our understanding to the 17th century, which contained a large number of revolutions. It is important to bear in mind one piece of advice on this subject “the order and connection of ideas is the same as the order and connection of things”. While the revolutions in Europe had many differences, they also had some important similarities.

Hobsbawm’s The “general crisis” thesis like many ground-breaking essays provoked significant controversy from a number of historians who opposed the emphasis on the social and economic origins of the revolutions that were carried out throughout Europe. Also a number of historians refused to believe that there was any “general crisis” at all such as the Dutch historian Ivo Schöffer, the Danish historian Niels Steengsgaard,

Eric J. Hobsbawm's essay, which was printed in two parts in 1954, as "The General Crisis of the European Economy in the Seventeenth Century" and "The Crisis of the Seventeenth Century, II") sought to present a Marxist analysis of the transformation from a feudal society to a capitalist one in the 17th century. This transformation was held responsible for the revolutions, wars and social unrest that took place. Hobsbawm put forward that most of the social and economic structures associated with capitalism had grown and developed during "long sixteenth century." He believed that feudal “elements fatally obstructed growth” of capitalism He clearly believed that a revolution was needed to clear away the feudal rubbish in order for a new capitalist system to develop. The most pronounced expression of this process of was to be found in England.

Hobsbawm writes, “It will be generally agreed that the I7th century was one of social revolt both in Western and Eastern Europe. This clustering of revolutions, has led some historians to see something like a general social-revolutionary crisis in the middle of the century. France had its Frondes, which were important social movements; Catalan, Neapolitan and Portuguese revolutions marked the crisis of the Spanish Empire in the I64os; the Swiss peasant war of I653 expressed both the post-war crisis and the increasing exploitation of peasant by town, while in England revolution triumphed with portentous results. Though peasant unrest did not cease in the West - the “stamped paper " rising which combined middle class, maritime and peasant unrest in Bordeaux and Brittany occurred in 1675, the Camisard wars even later- those of Eastern Europe were more significant. In the i6th century there had been few revolts against the growing enserfment of peasants. The Ukrainian revolution of I648-54 may be regarded as a major servile upheaval. So must the various " Kurucz " movements in Hungary, their very name harking back to Dozsa's peasant rebels of I5I4, their memory enshrined in folksongs about Rakoczy as that of the Russian revolt of I672 is in the song about Stenka Razin. A major Bohemian peasant rising in i68o opened a period of endemic serf unrest there. It would be easy to lengthen this catalogue of major social upheavals - for instance by including the revolts of the Irish in 164I and 1689”

Another exponent of the “general crisis” theory was Hugh Trevor-Roper who opposed Hobsbawm Marxist approach for a theory that sought to explain the crisis from a Court versus Country standpoint. This also provoked heated discussion. Historians such as Roland Mousnier, J. H. Elliott, Lawrence Stone, E. H. Kossmann and J. H. Hexter in papers expressed all sorts of differences with Roper. An example of the heat generated came from the Italian Marxist historian Rosario Villari, "The hypothesis of imbalance between bureaucratic expansion and the needs of the state is too vague to be plausible, and rests on inflated rhetoric, typical of a certain type of political conservative, rather than on effective analysis.” He also accused Trevor-Roper of denying the importance of English Revolution. Villari believed that "general crisis" was part of an Europe-wide revolutionary movement. Along similar lines propounded by Hobsbawm.

One writer took Ropers theory further when he explained, “The General Crisis of the Seventeenth Century" instead focused on confrontations that pitted the Renaissance fiscal, political, intellectual, and moral system ("court") against reform-minded opponents ("country"). This "crisis in the relations between society and the State" eventually spawned the Enlightenment and a range of radical, stabilizing, and indecisive political initiatives.

Roper wrote not from the standpoint of a Marxist but he agreed with Hobsbawm that in the early part of the 17th century in Western Europe there was a substantial number revolutions which led to numerous break-down of monarchies and governments the cause was “a complex series of demographic, social, religious, economic and political problems “English Civil War, the Fronde in France, the Thirty Years' War in Germany and the disputes in the Netherlands, and revolts against the Spanish Crown in Portugal, Naples and Catalonia, were all expression of the same problems. Roper rejected the Marxist analysis of the crisis as a struggle of a rising capitalist class, which sought to replace the outmoded Feudal system.

A significant number of English based historians I have to be honest completely ignored both Hobsbawm’s and Trevor Ropers theory of the “general crisis” and have a tendency towards” compartmentalisation" history of the English Civil war. With the exception of a few works, to the contrary this tendency has increased over the last few decades. It is tempting to blame solely revisionist historians over the last thirty years but that would be wrong because even among Marxist historians such as Christopher Hill who often apologized for not putting the English revolution in a European context. In fact, Ann Talbot was strident in her views of Hill’s weakness “that he always maintains an essentially national approach to the English revolution, which he does not place in an international context. In addition, that he has a tendency to romanticise the religious movements of the period and to be too dismissive of their rational intellectual descendants such as Newton and Locke. In part, these characteristics arise from the national orientation of his social class and reflect even in Hill vestiges of the Whig outlook that imagined a peculiarly English political tradition rooted in millennial seventeenth century visionaries like Bunyan that was entirely separate from Enlightenment thought. More significantly, it reflects the influence of the popular front politics and national outlook of Stalinism. With Hill, this is evident more in what he does not write than in what he does write“.

Another writer compared the “English” approach with that of leading German historians who “rarely focus on England only“. These historians favour a comparative approach to seventeenth-century English history for example Roland Asch's work on the European aristocracy between 1550 and 1700, and work by Wolfgang Reinhard on Power Elites and State Building. For the majority of German historians certainly since Ranke have understood “that seventeenth-century English history has to be seen in a European context“

In fact for well over three decades historiography on the English civil war or English revolution has a definite nationally centred approach. Books published in the last few years bear this out. Most recently Michael Braddick's book title God's Fury, England's Fire: A New History of the English Civil Wars, Barbara Donagan's War in England 1642–1649 (2008). Ian Gentles (The English Revolution and the Wars in the Three Kingdoms, 1638–52 [2007]), all three books according to one writer “explicitly in its title sought to unite disparate approaches to the Englishness of the revolution and the British and Irishness of the wars as a whole“. Most of English historiography has concentrated on either regional conflicts as advocated by John Morrill or that the war was a” multiple kingdoms” conflagration. The war was solely a British affair. Other historians have concentrated on the role of religion in the Revolution but have a tendency to miss out on the role of the flood of refugees from the continent into London especially Protestants, puritans and most importantly Anabaptists who in no small way contributed especially to the growth of radical sect sects such as the Levellers and Diggers just to name two. Simply these have been a tendency to downplay to import of ideas from the continent.

In fact, if historian or writer had an interest to centre the English revolution in any sort of international context he or she would come up against a coterie of publishers opposing this.

There appears to be a marked “reluctance on the part of publishers to use any words other than a very familiar combination of English, civil and war. In addition, even the word revolution hardly ever appears now.

The problem confronting historians who write on the civil war is if they view the English revolution from a purely national standpoint or framework it becomes very difficult to see the connection between the revolution in Britain and the growth of scientific and philosophical ideas and the political, social and economic upheavals of the mid-seventeenth century Europe that played no small part in the outbreak of revolution

Most of the current English historians have a tendency to down play the wider international context and the English revolution within which the political ideas associated with this intellectual and political movement developed and have a tendency concentrate heavily on their national expression.

Not all English historians are little Englanders I must point to counter works Quentin Skinner, Martin van Gelderen and others have sought to place the English revolution in a more European centric mode although whether I agree that “scholars within the Anglo-American tradition now begin to see that the execution of Charles I was not just the starting point for the English Revolution but also the "last act of the Thirty Years War” is another matter and would be the setting for different essay.

This brings me to the second part of this essay. Thomas Hobbes I believe was very much a child of the Enlightenment and played a key role in the development of a materialist philosophy. Hobbes was a writer clearly influenced by European political and philosophical developments and they in turn influenced his philosophy it was a dialectical arrangement.

The writer Jonathan Israel has also suggested that the Fronde in France and the Masaniello rising in Naples were just as important in terms of their impact on Hobbes as the English Civil War. The international character of the English revolutionary movement was the product of processes. Which can be traced to the beginnings of the Enlightenment, which according to Israel was “the unprecedented intellectual turmoil which commenced in the mid-seventeenth century,” and was associated with the scientific advances of the early seventeenth century, especially those of Galileo. These scientific advances gave rise to “powerful new philosophical systems” producing a profound struggle between “traditional, theologically sanctioned ideas about Man, God, and the universe and secular, mechanistic conceptions which stood independently of any theological sanction.”

While Israel is no Marxist it would be advantageous to quote probably the foremost Marxist today. While David North has said, it is a matter of contention as to when it began and even what it consisted “the Enlightenment proper refers to a period of several decades in the eighteenth century, approximately from the 1710s to the 1780s. However, historical periods do not always lend themselves to such simple chronological classification. The Enlightenment, conceived of as the expression of a profound broadening of man's intellectual horizons, must certainly be seen as the extension and outcome of the extraordinary advances in science that had, over the previous two centuries, fundamentally altered man's conception of the universe, the place of the planet Earth in the universe, and the place and role of human beings on that planet.

“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“.

He continues, “The discoveries in astronomy profoundly changed the general intellectual environment. Above all, there was a new sense of the power of thought and what it could achieve if allowed to operate without the artificial restraints of untested and unverifiable dogmas. Religion began to encounter the type of disrespect it deserved, and the gradual decline of its authority introduced a new optimism. All human misery, the Bible had taught for centuries, was the inescapable product of the Fall of Man. However, the invigorating scepticism encouraged by science in the absolute validity of the Book of Genesis led thinking people to wonder whether it was not possible for man to change the conditions of his existence and enjoy a better world. The prestige of thought was raised to new heights by the extraordinary achievements of Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727) who, while by no means seeking to undermine the authority of God, certainly demonstrated that the Almighty could not have accomplished his aims without the aid of extraordinarily complex mathematics“.

As was said earlier one the most important English philosopher to be influenced by continental ideas was Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679). Hobbes perhaps the main philosopher of the English revolution was found on the Royalist side that put forward a materialist philosophy, supported Charles 1st and was a supporter of absolute monarchy.

The Thirty Years War dominated most of his adult life, which was the bloodiest European war until the twentieth century. An estimated 30 percent of the population of what is now Germany was killed. He grew up in a world that that was truly being turned upside down. France was being ripped apart by the Fronde.In England 1640s; two civil wars consumed England, Scotland and Ireland.

The Thirty Years War certainly influenced Hobbes view of the nature of the state of in chapter 13 of Leviathan according to Ann Talbot “he describes the life of man in a state of nature as “solitary, poore, nasty, brutish and short.” The state of nature was the condition into which human society fell when civil society broke down. For Hobbes, the state of nature was not an abstract, theoretical construct, it was something that existed in large parts of Europe and could cause him to alter his travel plans“.

The Thirty Years War affected the area where Hobbes grew up. According to Ann Talbot “Most of the Cotswolds cloth went to London from where it was exported. The Thirty Years War produced a crisis for this trade as markets on the continent were disrupted and many clothiers went out of business. The Civil War disrupted the cloth trade even further with Malmesbury sitting uncomfortably between Royalist Oxford and Parliamentarian Bristol. What Hobsbawm described as the general crisis of the seventeenth century hit Hobbes’s hometown hard. [8] Hobbes’s view of the state reflects the unsettled conditions in which he lived. He thought the state should protect its citizens from foreign invasion and ensure civil harmony so that its citizens could go about their business in peace.”

It would be wrong however to perceive Hobbes as an isolated individual philosopher who was rejected by his contemporaries and who was without influence even during his own time. It is true that his writings came under fire precisely because they were regarded as not only dangerous but as in the introduction to the pelican version of Leviathan edited by C B Macpherson “they thought it dangerous because of the widespread acceptance it was attaining amongst the reading classes”.

One biographer asserted in 1691 that Leviathan had “corrupted half the gentry of the nation”. He was also widely read abroad especially in France where his ideas were to influence French enlightenment thinkers. Pierre Bayle in his Dictionary was to describe Hobbes as “one of the greatest minds of the Seventeenth century”. While in France Hobbes met the physician Sorbiere who did the first French translation of De Cive.

Hobbes played an important part in laying to foundation of the Enlightenment his most important work Leviathan written in 1651 was one the first study of what the early modern bourgeois state should look like. He sought to lay down a set of scientific principles on which to base that state. Hobbes was no democrat. His kind of state would be an absolute monarchy. He recognised that man had basic desires, to live and to avoid pain. Perhaps his most famous of phrases was that the life of man is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short. In order to overcome this “war against all”, he put forward that men must give up their freedom to pursue any goal they wish and form some kind of compact with the state. That they accept a common power, which enforces laws. This would be government or as Hobbes wished a monarch. To many these ideas were new and somewhat dangerous.

Important to Hobbes was the idea of an absolute form of authority and along with his ideas on religion faced its most criticism. Hobbes saw that at the heart of most problems in England was religion. He proposed that there would be a national religion in which the sovereign was head. Hobbes was against the Roman church and he saw all independent churches as an obstacle to his goal of a national church. According to G A J Rogers ” Hobbes materialism everything is either body or it is nothing and his mechanical determinism soon brought a charge of atheism. Although it would be wrong to regard him as strongly religious there is, no reason to doubt his claim that he was an Anglican, albeit with Calvinist leanings. He is often regarded as sanctioning absolutism, but he would reply that all he had done was to describe the way in which societies actually work and that unless was recognised the outcome would be disorder and social disaster.

While his philosophical writings were more important that his religious leanings. Their impact was to be momentous. His thoughts and emotions were product of his environment. Ideas remained in his brain long after they had been first stimulated. According to Hobbes, words are wise men’s counters, they do but reckon by them but they are the mony of fools. He believed that words must never be allowed to take a life of their own. The universe is corporal, body…. And that which is not body, is no part of the universe according to #Roy Porter the implications were momentous, no spirit, no lords spiritual.

It is hard to separate Hobbes political views from his philosophical ideas. He drew definite conclusions from the civil war. In many ways, he saw that the war, which ripped England apart, was very much down to the spread of ideas embodied in enthusiasm. He likened their ideas to a kind of madness that emanates when passions like vainglory or melancholy. His abhorrence of the puritans is clear from his writings particularly his Leviathan#. According to #Frederick C Beiser “the ultimate source of enthusiasm, Hobbes is convinced, is the same as that for all human actions, the desire for power. Whether he is aware of it or not the enthusiast attempts to dominate people. He claims divine inspiration to win the allegiance of a superstitious multitude: and then he promises them eternal happiness if they obey his dictates”.

It is certainly true that Thomas Hobbes’s approach to the matter was a mirror reflection of the fact that the growing English bourgeoisie still required the services of a strong monarchy. The simple reason for being capitalist social relations were not yet the dominant feature of English society “ As Marx and Engel’s put it in the Communist Manifesto, the bourgeoisie of the manufacturing period were a class that served “the semi-feudal or the absolute monarchy as a counterpoise against the nobility, and, in fact, cornerstone of the great monarchies in general”. [9] Men such as Thomas Wolsey, Thomas Cromwell and Thomas More, played that role for Henry VIII, as Nicholas Bacon was to do for Elizabeth and Francis Bacon for James I“.

It is also worth quoting the 1892 introduction to the English edition of Socialism: Utopian and Scientific; Engels adds, “Thus Karl Marx wrote about the British origin of modern materialism. If Englishmen nowadays do not exactly relish the compliment he paid their ancestors, more's the pity. It is none the less undeniable that Bacon, Hobbes, and Locke are the fathers of that brilliant school of French materialism which made the eighteenth century, in spite of all battles on land and sea won over Frenchmen by Germans and Englishmen, a pre-eminently French century, even before that crowning French Revolution, the results of which we outsiders, in England as well as Germany, are still trying to acclimatize.”

Hegel writing in one of his lectures said that Hobbes maintained, "The origin of all society is to be found in the mutual fear of all its members;" it is hence a phenomenon in consciousness. "Each association is thus formed in its own interest or for its own renown, that is, from selfish motives." All such matters as security of life, property, and enjoyment, are not to be found outside it. "But men have in all dissimilarity of strength a natural similarity as well." This Hobbes proves by a characteristic reason, viz. that "each individual can make away with the other," each is the ultimate power over the others. "Each can be supreme. Thus their similarity is not derived from the greatest strength; it is not, as in modern times, founded on the freedom of the spirit, or on an equality of merit and independence, but on the equal weakness of mankind; each man is weak as regards others“.

He believed that psychology was the source of knowledge rather than epistemology. He was interested in the problem of sense perception and developed Galileo’s mechanical physics into an explanation of human cognition. Hobbes was certainly connected profoundly with what was to be a massive leap in political and scientific knowledge, which in a matter of decades would see the dissolution of the medieval worldview to be replaced by one based on science and reason. The previous one having given humankind somewhat limited understanding of his place in the universe.


·        The Scottish Revolution in its International Context,1639-1640 A Senior Honors Thesis by Leanna Packard https://kb.osu.edu/dspace/bitstream/handle/1811/36441/Leanna.Packard.pdf?sequence=1

·        Equality, the Rights of Man and the Birth of Socialism by David North 24 October 1996 www.wsws.org

·        CromohsVirtual Seminars : German Historians and the English Revolution: 17th and 20th Century Gaby Mahlberg University of East Anglia in M. Caricchio, G. Tarantino, eds., historiographical trends of the British Studies (17th-18th Centuries), 2006-07 http://www.cromohs.unifi.it/seminari/mahlberg_german_historians.

·        Hiram Morgan, review of England's Troubles: Seventeenth-century English political instability in European context, (review no. 187) URL: http://www.history.ac.uk/reviews/review/187

·        AHR Forum The General Crisis of the Seventeenth Century Revisited http://www.sgtbkhalsadu.ac.in/colleges/tutorial/112718122009232817.113.4.pdf

·        Hobbism In The Later1660s Daniel Scargill and Samuel Parker

·        G AJ Rogers www.bbc.uk/history


·        Braddick Michael, God's Fury, England's Fire: A New History of the English Civil Wars,               (London: Allen Lane, 2008; pp. xxvi + 758. £30).

·        Engels F, English edition of Socialism: Utopian and Scientific,

·        Hegel G. W. F. Hegel: Lectures on the History of Philosophy. Thomas Hobbes.

·        Israel Jonathan, Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity 1650-              1750 Oxford University Press

·        Marx Karl, The Holy Family, p. 201 - 204

·        Scott Jonathan, England’s Troubles: Seventeenth-century English political instability in                European context Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2000

·        Roy Porter Enlightenment Britain and the Creation of the Modern world

·        Leviathan Thomas Hobbes- Pelican C A B Macpherson

·        The Sovereign of Reason F C Beiser page 207

·        Quentin Skinner The Ideological context of Hobbes Political Thought

·        Anti Duhring Frederick Engels Foreign Language Press 1976

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