Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Causes of the English Revolution. Lawrence Stone

The first thing that strikes you upon reading this book is that it despite its size, just over 177 pages Stone in a roundabout way does present a convincing case on the causes of the English Revolution.

After the book was published in 1972 it encountered heavy criticism “for its use of sociological jargon”, but it was also praised because it “presents a praiseworthy attempt to differentiate the layers of causation in complex events“. Stone admitted later that he would no longer use ambiguous words such as “multiple Dysfunction.” That said it would be correct to say the book is a minor classic and has impacted on students regardless of the controversy.

The book is a defence of Stone’s old line on the Civil War. It is broken down into two parts with four chapters; the fourth is an update on Stone’s previous position written in 1985. Part one is titled Historiography subtitled Theories of revolution. Stone works through some sociological and Marxist theories as to the revolutionary nature of the English Civil War. Stone’s enquiry on the nature of the English Revolution was prompted by his time at Princeton University in America. While teaching at Princeton, he came under great attack by his students for his leanings towards a social/economic read Marxist interpretation of the Civil War. My own criticism of him is that he never actually says what he thinks at this time and his definition of what a Marxist theory of the English Revolution should look like. Much of his defence of Marx and Engel’s is limited and opens the door to attack from the revisionists.

Stone admits himself that he enjoyed his work at Princeton and one writer describes this impact “ When Lawrence Stone arrived in Princeton and unpacked his intellectual baggage, he released a fresh set of ideas, which are still buzzing in the air, not merely here but everywhere in the country," said his colleague at Princeton, Robert Darnton. "History, as he presented it to rapt audiences of students and colleagues, cannot be confined to the tiny elite who dominate events. It involves entire populations. To be understood adequately, it requires some mastery of demography, economics, and political science. To be brought alive, it should be narrated in a lively style, seasoned with amusing anecdotes and provocative arguments -- the more heretical, the better. Lawrence was always in a scrap, always making the fur fly and the ideas soar. He set the pace in what emerged in the 1960s as the new social history, and he remained our pre-eminent historian until the day of his death."

Lawrence Stone’s main argument in his 1972 Causes of the English Revolution is that “the dissolution of the Government caused the War, not the War the dissolution of the Government.” Stone in the book outlined certain “pre-conditions for revolution” in the period from 1529 to 1629. This long view of the English revolution came under sustained attack during his lifetime and unfortunately remains so today. It doubtful that during the last ten years any book on the subject of the English revolution has contained any analysis of long-term causes of the revolution.

It has been eleven years since the death of Stone and it must be said that his historical reputation has suffered by the continued onslaught on his work but I agree with David Cannadine when he said “Lawrence Stone belonged to a remarkable generation of British historians who dominated and defined their subject for nearly half a century, and which included Christopher Hill, G.R. Elton, Asa Briggs, J.H. Plumb, Eric Hobsbawm and Edward Thompson. They all wrote widely and well, and reached a large audience in universities and far beyond. But in many ways, Stone was the most creative - and the most controversial - of them all.”

Cannadine goes on to describe Stone’s approach to historical research “the last thing Stone could ever have been called (and he was called many things) was a cautious or pedantic or inhibited historian, mouldering away obscurely or ineffectually into dry-as-dust. Known to his graduate students at Princeton as "Il Magnifico", he was as unlike Casaubon as it was possible for a scholar to be. Instead of confining himself to one of the history's increasingly ring-fenced sub-specialisms, he moved back and forth from political to economic, to social, to cultural, to family, to educational, to architectural history. And, along the way, he ruthlessly ransacked other disciplines for their ideas and insights: sociology, statistics, economics, anthropology and psychology. For Stone was passionately curious about the past, was insatiably open to new ideas and approaches, had an unerring instinct for raising large questions, and took a robustly mischievous delight in controversy which was an example and inspiration to many, and a reproach and a provocation to many more.”

While his book retains an excellent academic level, his writing is clearly meant for a wider audience. He communicates this to his audience within the words of Christopher Hill’s “with gusto”. In many ways, this best show the best and the worst of Stone. His best is a passion for trying new things and methods. He had a knack for finding which things were real and therefore rational and those which were passing fads.

For Hill “Lawrence Stone’s deep curiosity, his enthusiastic if critical appreciation of what is novel, and his courteous and tolerant if a trenchant statement of disagreements makes him and good reviewer. He has a gift for summing up epigrammatically what most of us would say in several laborious pages”.

In Stone’s Causes of the English Revolution, he admitted that using this approach sometimes caused him to make mistakes. The mark of a good historian is first to limit as much as possible their mistakes but once made to admit them and they attempt to correct them. Stone did both of them. But this did not stop the unwarranted and downright vicious attacks on him and his work.

Perhaps the most public historical spat occurred when he became embroiled in the controversy the "Storm Over the Gentry". In 1948, became close to the historical positions of R.H. Tawney who in turn encouraged Stone to publish the article in the Economic History Review entitled "The Anatomy of the Elizabethan Aristocracy."

Stone met Tawney during the war who was the leading social historian of Tudor and Stuart England. It was during this period he discussed research projects. It was also during this time that according to the National Oxford Biography of Stone “His impatience to get on with ‘real’ history earned him a reputation for arrogance during his post-war undergraduate year; on one occasion he stormed out of a revision class conducted by a newly appointed Christ Church tutor, Hugh Trevor-Roper. It would appear that Roper never forgave him for this but does not explain Roper's vitriolic attack.

Trevor-Roper accused Stone of failing to understand the technological nature of the documents he studied and had substantially exaggerated the level of indebtedness of the Aristocracy. See also C Thompson Critic of Stone’s work) This ‘mistake’ did not warrant Roper’s “academic vituperation”. Tawney was moved to defend Stone saying that ‘an erring colleague is not an Amalakite to be smitten hip and thigh’.

The problem with the paper was that it was too hastily written and contained some inaccurate information.

On a broader point while Stone himself described his early career as being a young Marxist perhaps his mistakes were the product of an incomplete assimilation of the Marxist method of Historical Materialism. Stone had a major problem in that he never really understood the difference between genuine Marxism and a crude form of economic determinism.

In fact, Stone himself soon moved away from any link with Marxist historiography and in his own words became as he put it in an interview in 1987, "an old-fashioned Whig".

While Stone repulsed this attack from Roper the feeling I get reading this book is that he really never understood the political nature of Ropers and other conservative historians attack his work. While it is true that Stone acknowledged the historian E H Carr "Study the historian before you begin to study the facts, and what bees he has in his bonnet. When you read a work of history, always listen out for the buzzing. If you can detect none, either you are tone deaf, or your historian is a dull dog.

Stone never really deepens the reader's knowledge of the political persuasion of Roper or other historians such as J H Dexter who Stone describes as a Liberal. While Hexter’s work is very readable here is not the place to evaluate its merit, but it does warrant me to say that Hexter’s close links along with Roper to the American Encounter magazine which had close ties to the CIA could have been exposed to Stone. In the 1950s Hugh Trevor-Roper went to a conference in Berlin which was mostly made up of anti-communists, I am not sure if J H Hexter went to as well but writer and some Stalinist intellectuals such as Sidney Hook, Melvin J. Lasky, Ignazio Silone, and Arthur Koestler. The result of this conference was the founding of the Congress for Cultural Freedom and its magazine Encounter. Trevor-Roper wrote extensively for the magazine Encounter, is it any wonder that Stone who was mistakenly described as a Marxist historian would feel the brunt of Roper’s tongue.

This would in my opinion armed his readers with an understanding of the fact that attacks on Stone’s work were not just motivated by historical accuracy but had a very right wing political undertone.

The attack on Stone was unwarranted for some reasons. The main one being that after writing the Cause of the English Revolution he was moving away from any link to a Marxist analysis of the English Revolution.

Whether Stone was ultimately influenced by his detractors and therefore changed his theory of the revolution cannot be determined, but he quite profoundly moved away from a semi-Marxist standpoint adopted the French concept of history totale, ’. (I have put a link in my sources from Wikipedia on the French School.) According to one writer “It was during this period “Stone was part of a group of young historians who prised the infant journal Past and Present loose from its Marxist origins to become the flagship in Britain of the new social history“ In 1979 he astonished readers of Past and Present with an article, ‘The revival of narrative’ (reprinted in The Past and the Present Revisited, 1987), which sharply attacked the dehumanization implicit in much quantitative or ‘theoretical’ history, advocating instead the accumulation of masses of small-scale anecdotal material. Interspersed with this work was a steady stream of serious journalism, analysing and frequently finding wanting current historical scholarship.



David Cannadine’s Obituary: Professor Laurence Stone Saturday, 26 June 1999 Guardian

Guardian Obituary

E H Carr What Is History


Lawrence Stone’s Manorial Samples and their implications for the landed income of the peerage between 1534 and 1641 by C Thompson

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