Sunday, 17 July 2011

The English Bourgeois Revolution and Some Marxist Historians

Lawrence Stone I believe once described the history of the 17th century as 'a battleground which has been heavily fought over...beset with mines, booby-traps and ambushes manned by ferocious scholars prepared to fight every inch of the way'. Anyone studying the subject of this article will know what I mean.

Up until the 1970s, it was standard practice with few a dissenting historians to describe the events that took place in England between 1640 and 1660 as the English Revolution. Also, a significant section of English historians grudgingly accepted that some kind of bourgeois revolution had taken place and this was reflected in a distorted way in their own work.

The historian and member of the Communist Party Historians Group, Eric Hobsbawm went so far as to correctly place the English revolution in a broader international context by saying that it was part of a general crisis of the 17th century and was one of many revolutions that took place.

It has however over the last quarter of a century has been highly fashionable to question the revolutionary nature of the civil war. In her book, Ann Hughes shows that this changing historical fashion can be illustrated from the titles of two collections of sources covering early modern social history. In 1965 Lawrence Stone published Social Change and Revolution in England 1540-1640, whereas Barry Coward produced Social Change and Continuity in Early Modern England 1550-1750. The coupling of continuity rather than revolution with social changes in the latter work reveals a more qualified assessment of the extent of transformation in early modern England.

This latter more qualified approach has been taken by G E Aylmer who posed the question Rebellion or Revolution. Aylmer in his chapter on the Quality of Life states there was no shift in the economy or a radical alteration of the social structure. While he concedes that England after the 1640s and 1650s was more conducive for business development, he says that this would have been the case if Charles 1”s Personal rule had continued indefinitely, or if the royalists had won the civil war.

So was there a bourgeois revolution in England. My easy answer to this question is yes, but the major difficulty is proving it. Like many aspects of the history of the English Civil War whether a revolution took place has caused serious disagreements among historians. The purpose of this essay is to examine the validity of the theory of a bourgeois revolution as explained by leading Marxists and how this has been applied by two leading Marxist historians of the 20th century Christopher Hill and Brian Manning.

It is useful, to begin with what the orthodox Marxist movement has written on the bourgeois nature of the English Revolution. All who have written on it agree it was bourgeois in character. This cannot be said of the considerable differences over the class nature of the Levellers. I cannot say that the English revolution produced volumes of work from the major Marxist leaders but what they did write explained in one form or another the basic premise this period witnessed a transition from a mainly feudal economy into a significant capitalist economy.

For Marx” the victory of the bourgeoisie was at that time the victory of a new social order, the victory of bourgeois property over feudal property, of nationality over provincialism, of competition over the guild, of the partition of estates over primogeniture, of the owner’s mastery of the land over the land’s mastery of its owner, of enlightenment over superstition, of the family over the family name, of industry over heroic laziness, of civil law over privileges of medieval origin.

He went on “however, it is certainly true that feudal relations were not delivered one concentrated blow. Feudalism [in England – eds.] was destroyed but disappeared only gradually. This process extended over many centuries during which certain aspects of the feudal order displayed surprising adaptability and vitality”.

Marx did not write extensively on the English Revolution, but then he did not need to. He gave us a method i.e. Historical Materialism in which to examine complex historical problems such as the transition from one economic system to another, in our case the transition from Feudalism to Capitalism. Although even a cursory study of the historiography of the English Revolution will tell you that this is far from an easy task. It must be said that Marx was well aware that when using the method of Historical Materialism in examining complex historical issues he made clear that it should be utilized as a guideline to historical research (Leitfaden or Auffassung) not a replacement for serious research. He also warned that he was not giving a theory of history, a grand philosophy of history or a master-key to history. He certainly did not advocate having a materialist outlook that was a substitute for not studying history.

In the next paragraph below Marx gives us an insight how revolutions come about and the role that individuals play in transformations such as the English Revolution he said “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”.

While Marx talks about the “era of Social Revolution” his method can be applied to the 17th-century English bourgeois revolution. Although it has been challenged the revolution did eventually usher in a qualitative change in England’s political and economic structure. The method of examining the change from a quantitative development (the reason for Marxists heavy emphasis on long-term causes of any given event) into a qualitative development has long been a valuable weapon in the Marxist armoury in examining complex historical events. While this method cannot be mechanically applied to this period, it does provide the user with unparalleled insight into the revolution in England.

The Russian Marxist Leon Trotsky explains Quality and Quantity: “Quality is an aspect of something by which it is what it is and not something else; quality reflects that which is stable amidst change. Quantity is an aspect of something which may change (become more or less) without the thing thereby becoming something else; quantity reflects that which is constantly changing in the world (“the more things change, the more they remain the same”). The quality of an object pertains to the whole, not one or another part of an object, since without that quality it would not be what it is, whereas an object can lose a “part” and still be what it is, minus the part. Quantity on the other hand is aspect of a thing by which it can (mentally or really) be broken up into its parts (or degrees) and be re-assembled again. Thus, if something changes in such a way that has become something of a different kind, this is a “qualitative change”, whereas a change in something by which it still the same thing, though more or less, bigger or smaller, is a “quantitative change”. In Hegel’s Logic, quantity and quality belong to being”

How did Trotsky apply this method to the 17th century English Revolution and give a more precise explanation of the revolutionary events and contending class forces contained in the explosive events?

“A study of the revolutionary era in Britain's development, which lasted approximately from the enforced summoning of parliament by Charles Stuart until the death of Oliver Cromwell, is necessary above all to understand the place of parliamentarian and of 'law' in general in a living and not an imaginary history. The 'great' national historian Macaulay vulgarised the social drama of the seventeenth century by obscuring the inner struggle of forces with platitudes that are sometimes interesting but always superficial. The French conservative Guizot approaches events more profoundly. But either way, whichever account is taken, the man who knows how to read and is capable of discovering under the shadows of history real living bodies, classes and factions, will be convinced from this very experience of the English revolution how subsidiary, subordinate and qualified a role is played by law in the mechanics of social struggle and especially in a revolutionary era, that is to say, when the fundamental interests of the basic classes in society come to the fore. In the England of the 1640s we see a parliament based on the most whimsical franchise, which at the same time regarded itself as the representative organ of the people”.

The next part of this essay is to examine how well historical materialism has been applied in studying the 17th century from the 20th and 21st century by two Marxist’ historians Christopher Hill and Brian Manning.

The central theme of Hill’s work was the premise that the war represented a beginning of the transition from a Feudal society to a capitalist society. For the sake of clarity (as one historian did have trouble with words feudalism and capitalism) it is worth quoting Hill “I use the word feudal in the Marxist sense, and not in the more restricted sense adopted by most academic historians to describe narrowly military and legal relations. By “feudalism” I mean a form of society in which agriculture is the basis of economy and in which political power is monopolised by a class of landowners. The mass of the population consists of dependent peasants subsisting on the produce of their family holdings. The landowners are maintained by the rent paid by the peasants, which might be in the form of food or labour, as in early days, or (by the sixteenth century) in money. In such a society there is room for small handicraft production, exchange of products, internal and overseas trade; but commerce and industry are subordinated to and plundered’ by the landowners and their State. Merchant capital can develop within feudalism without changing the mode of production; a challenge to the old ruling class and its state comes only with the development of the capitalist mode of production in industry and agriculture”.

Hill was probably the most well-known of the Marxist historians to come out of the Communist Party Historians Group to adhere to the theory of the bourgeois revolution although not all around the group tried to use historical Materialism to explain the events of a revolutionary nature.

Hill asserted that profound economic and social changes took place and he states that “historians are coming more and more to recognise the decisive significance of these decades in the economic history of England. “After the civil wars,” writes Dr Corfield, “successive governments from the Rump onwards, whatever their political complexion, gave much more attention to the interests of trade and colonial development in their foreign policies”. Restrictions which had hampered the growth of capitalist economic activity were removed, never to the restored. “The first condition of healthy industrial growth,” wrote Professor Hughes apropos the salt industry, “was the exclusion of the parasitic entourage of the court”.

Right up until his death Christopher Hill had been the leading proponent of the opinion that the social, economic, and political changes that took place in the civil war were the by-product of a bourgeois revolution. Hill argues that the seventieth century saw a turning point in English and world history. This view of trying to understand the social processes at work in the English revolution has been fiercely attacked by numerous historians. P Lassett said “the English Revolution ought to be entombed. It is a term made out of our own social and political discourse…. It gets in the way of enquiry and understanding, if only because it requires that change of all these different types go forward at the same pace, the political pace… There never was such a set of events as the English Revolution”.

This attack on Hill is inaccurate and somewhat shallow. Hill never put forward that the events that characterised the English Civil War proceeded at the same pace. His point is that it helps to understand very complex developments if they are firstly set to the social and economic frame work. What conclusions can be drawn? Firstly through the sheer weight of empirical evidence, it is clear that the war had a significant impact on the social and political fabric of England. About whether this was a world turned upside down will be hotly debated for another 25 years.

In Hill’s book The Intellectual Origins of the English Revolution, he sought to use the method of Marxism to outline the objective basis for revolution. If the reader bears with me, I shall use two quotes firstly from the introduction “Revolutions are not made without an idea, but they are not made by intellectuals. Steam is essential to driving a railway engine, but neither a locomotive nor a permanent way can be built out of steam. In this book I shall be dealing with the steam” and secondly “Marx himself did not fall into the error of thinking that men’s idea were merely a pale reflection of their economic needs, with no history of their own: but some of his successors, including many who would not call themselves Marxist, have been far more economic-determinist than Marx. It seems to me that anybody of thought which plays a major in history – Luther’s, Rousseau’s, Marx’s own-takes on because it meets the needs of the significant group in the society in which it comes into prominence”. Whether this group was the Gentry has been called into question. But regardless of this Hill’s point and method of arriving at his conclusions is completely lost not only by Hexter but also Hill’s modern day detractors.

Hill application of Historical materialism enabled him in the words of Ann Talbot identify “the mid-seventeenth century crisis as a revolution, which in the case of Britain overthrew the rule of one class and brought another to power. Secondly, he recognised that revolutions are made by the mass of the population and that for a revolution to take place the consciousness of that mass of people must change since revolutions are not made by a few individuals at the top although the character of their leadership is crucial at certain points. These achievements were considerable at the time and are of continuing relevance today when historians increasingly reject any severe economic or social analysis and argue that revolutions are nothing but the work of a tiny group of conspirators”.

Brain Manning studied under Hill and was profoundly influenced by him. While Manning started his academic career political tied to the Labour Party later in life he was politically attached to the radical left group the Socialist Workers Party (SWP). This was a handicap that was to hamper his work for whenever the SWP review any book by the members of the Communist Party Historians Group there was and is a tendency to glorify the attachment these historians had to Marxism. This aside Manning was a serious historian and did outstanding work in upholding what he believed was a Marxist approach to the Civil War.

In addition to his own work, Manning went out of his way to praise and evaluate other historians who carried important task in examining the transition of Feudalism to Capitalism. Manning attached great importance to the work of Robert Brenner and reviewed his book for the SWP.

Manning correctly centres the first debate over whether there was a transition from Feudalism to Capitalism came about when in 1946 of Maurice Dobb's Studies in the Development of Capitalism, was published. Manning somewhat generously makes the claim that the second great debate came about when Robert Brenner's article on 'Agrarian Class Structure and Economic Development in Pre-Industrial Europe' in Past and Present (1976). Having only just started to read Brenner I can only comment at a later date as to the validity of this claim.

Manning is also correct when he says that like all great controversies they provide not just Marxists or for that matter Marxist historians a “framework within which to interpret the English Revolution of 1640 to 1660.”

Brenner’s book primarily concentrates on the role of the London merchants in the English revolution. Strangely though only in the Postscript does Brenner put his chosen subject in the context of a general understanding of the revolution.

While I would recommend Brenner’s book any reader interested in his subject matter would do well to first read Valerie Pearl 1961 book. Pearl was perhaps the first major historian to attempt a detailed look at the political allegiances of the London merchants. Having said that I do not agree with all her conclusion. Brenner in the past has pointed out that out of the largest merchants who controlled the great chartered overseas trading companies and the government of the city were royalists, while the parliamentarians were 'merchants of the middle rank', '...wealthy, but not the wealthiest men in the city...', '...important traders but not directors of the chartered companies...'

While Manning is largely in favour of Brenner’s conclusions he does issue this warning “a serious problem in analysing the parties is that even among well-documented groups like gentry and merchants there are substantial numbers of whom no information can be found of their allegiances in the civil war. Brenner has examined 274 of the London merchant elite, but for about half of them there is no evidence about which side they supported, and this must be borne in mind when drawing conclusions. Of 130 merchants who can be allocated to the parties, 78 were royalists, 43 were parliamentarians, and nine were side changers. Breaking these figures down, he finds that the leading merchants of the Levant and the East India companies, which controlled the city government before the revolution, were overwhelmingly royalists, while the Merchant Adventurers, who were now less dominant than they had been in the 16th century, were more evenly divided”

Brenner makes some interesting points as regards the political allegiances of some London merchants “shows that the royalist citizens were 'the men of wealth and superior standing, the city's traditional rulers...' Twice as many overseas merchants were royalists as were parliamentarians. The typical parliamentarian 'was the more modestly prosperous domestic tradesman with his own house and shop, and sometimes other city property, who was engaged in the retailing of textile and other goods'. He was a citizen of substance but 'generally less prosperous, well-connected and powerful' than the typical royalist. 'It was this kind of London citizen, working with fellow militants in his parish, ward and livery company, and ready to exert a radical influence in the city's and kingdom's affairs, who provided much of the dynamism in the English Revolution.'

Since I have only started to read Brenner’s book, I will reserve judgement on this next statement from Manning who says “It is thus now well established that the merchant elite of London--the richest and most powerful citizens--were mostly royalists in the civil war. This substantiates the Marxist thesis, as advanced by Dobb that the great merchants were tied into feudal society, their wealth and power were derived from royal and aristocratic grants and favours, and they were not agents of the transition from feudalism to capitalism.7 Brenner notes that the ability of these merchants to make a profit depended on buying cheap and selling dear, and so on their power to prevent over trading in their markets and to restrict the number of traders, which could be achieved only by political assistance from the feudal monarchy and aristocracy in granting them monopolies, such as those of the Levant and the East India companies”

Manning then quotes Brenner from Merchants and Revolution “Far from transforming the old system economically or subverting it politically, the merchant class thus tended to live in the old socioeconomic order and to constitute one of its main bulwarks. As Marx concluded, 'commerce imparts to production a character directed more and more towards exchange value', nevertheless, 'its development [and that of merchant's capital] incapable by itself of promoting and explaining the transition from one mode of production to another.

One warning about the book although not a weakness it must said that as Manning points out that merchants were only a part of the bourgeoisie and, there is much more work to do on identifying the revolutionary forces in the industrial districts and the relations between various elements in those districts--gentry, yeomen farmers, and merchants, landholding and landless artisans, proto-capitalists and proto-proletarians”. On this, I concur.

Further Studies

From A Petit-bourgeois Opposition in the Socialist Workers Party, by Leon Trotsky, December 15, 1939.

The English Revolution and the transition from feudalism to capitalism. A review of R Brenner, Merchants and Revolution: Commercial Change, Political Conflict and London's Overseas Traders, 1550-1653 (Cambridge University Press, 1993) £40

'Science and Society' (Spring 1950, Fall 1952, Spring 1953, Fall 1953) reprinted with additional essays in R Hilton (ed), The Transition from Feudalism to Capitalism (London, 197 T H Aston and C H E Philpin (eds), The Brenner Debate: Agrarian Class Structure and Economic Development in Pre-Industrial Europe (Cambridge, 1985).

R Brenner, 'Bourgeois Revolution and Transition to Capitalism', in A L Beier, D Cannadine and J M Rosenheim (eds), The First Modern Society (Cambridge, 1989) pp291-292; Merchants and Revolution, pp668-670.

C Mooers, The Making of Bourgeois Europe: Absolutism, Revolution, and the Rise of Capitalism in England, France and Germany (London, 1991), pp36-37.

The General Crisis of the European Economy in the 17th Century-Eric Hobsbawm Past and Present (1954) 33-53.


K. Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1977, with some notes by R. Rojas

Ann Hughes, The Causes of the English Civil War p117

G E Aylmer Rebellion or Revolution Opus 1986

C Hill in the Century of Revolution Open University Set Book 1961

C Hill The English Revolution 1640 Lawrence and Wishart 1940

Maurice Dobb Studies in the Development of Capitalism Routledge 1946

D C Coleman The Economy of England Oxford 1971

R Brenner, Merchants and Revolution, pp375-388.

K Lindley, 'London's Citizenry in the English Revolution', in R C Richardson (ed), Town and Countryside in the English Revolution (Manchester 1992).

M Dobb, Studies in the Development of Capitalism (London 1946), pp86-89,120-122,168-169.

R Brenner, 'The Civil War Politics of London's Merchant Community', op cit, p65.

B Manning, The English People and the English Revolution (Bookmarks, London, 1991).

V Pearl, London and the Outbreak of the Puritan Revolution (Oxford, 1961)

R Brenner, 'The Civil War Politics of London's Merchant Community', Past & Present, No 58 (1973).

Friday, 8 July 2011

Two Posts from Christopher Thompson

(I am reprinting two articles from Chris Thompson Blog. His blog can be accessed at

The Kishlansky Case

Earlier this week, I noted the publication of Ian Gentles's new book, Oliver Cromwell. God's Warrior and the English Revolution, and of the festschrift for John Morrill edited by Michael J.Braddick and David L.Smith, The Experience of Revolution in Stuart Britain and Ireland. The former arrived on Tuesday and the latter today. I have been leafing through both. Ian Gentles's work is, as one would expect, clearly written and a persuasive work of scholarship. I have not had the time to read the Morrill festschrift in detail but I have looked at Mark Kishlansky's tribute in detail.

 It is a warm piece testifying to a friendship that has lasted for almost forty years. I was, however, particularly struck by Kishlansky's account (ibid., of the controversy into which he entered in the pages of The Historical Journal in 1990-1991 and subsequently in The Journal of British Studies. The target of his criticism is not named at all but is simply described first of all as someone "who happened to hold a junior position at Cambridge" and then as a person who "held only a position as a College fellow" when everyone interested in the period knows exactly who he means. He also claims that, following comments from the Historical Journal's two readers of his original draft article and from John Morrill himself, "the amended essay would then be submitted [to his target]... for response".

I do know a little about this episode. Kishlansky's prospective attack was revealed by a very senior American historian from a university on that country's eastern seaboard on a visit to London in the summer of 1990. He described how he had learnt from Kishlansky himself, then holding a post at the University of Chicago, of the planned publication of this article in the Historical Journal. News of this inevitably spread and came to the ears of Kishlansky's intended victim who knew nothing of this manoeuvre and who had not been supplied with a copy. He naturally learnt of its contents and details about those to whom it had already been circulated. No less naturally, he began preparing his response. Soon the whole matter became widely known and entangled in intellectual politics in Cambridge and elsewhere.

I do not know who the "senior member of the field" was who sent John Morrill "a menacing missive" demanding that Kishlansky's essay should not appear and asserting that Morrill's own career would be damaged if it did. G.R.Elton is a possibility but Conrad Russell seems a much more likely candidate. Either way, Kishlansky's essay did appear in the Historical Journal late in 1990 to be followed in the next edition by a far-reaching rebuttal. In my view, Kishlansky had much the worse of this exchange but others will, no doubt, have their own opinions.

Nostalgia Marxist style

When James Holstun, the literary scholar and Marxist polemicist, wrote his appreciation of the career and works of the late Brian Manning in 2004, he observed with a degree of regret that Marxism was hardly to be found amongst academic historians studying the English Revolution but could only be discovered in the ranks of tutors for the Workers' Educational Association and amongst political scientists and sociologists. I was reminded of this observation when reading the essay by Geoff Kennedy, a political scientist at Durham University, on Radicalism and Revisionism in the English Revolution (in Mike Haynes and Jim Wolfreys, ed., History and Revolution. Refuting Revisionism, Verso Press 2007).

His picture of the historiography of the pre-1970s was predicated on belief in a traditional social interpretation of the events of the 1640s and 1650s deriving from the works of Christopher Hill, R.H.Tawney and Lawrence Stone later rejected at the behest of G.R.Elton and under the stimulation of the works of Conrad Russell. Revisionists apparently denied the importance of historical materialism and adopted a form of static traditionalism that was itself a form of reductionism. Long-term causes, especially the importance of the development of capitalism, had been abandoned to Dr Kennedy's regret. Political history had been denied its social context and isolated from it by this regrettable process.

I am afraid that the pillars underpinning this argument will not bear such weight. The arguments advanced by Hill in 1940 and by Tawney in 1941 had become fiercely contested in little over a decade: the criticisms of Hugh Trevor-Roper and J.P.Cooper inspired a vast range of Ph.D.theses and books on the fortunes of the gentry and peerage that would not have been composed had there been such a "social interpretation" in place. 'Revisionism', to use Ted Rabb's phrase, was itself a protest against the kind of reductionism advocated by Hill, Tawney and Stone and was, in any case, principally, an Oxford rather than a Cambridge phenomenon. Kennedy's appeal to Bob Brenner's case developed in the festschrift for Lawrence Stone that the 1590s saw a shift to economic rents on large estates is very fragile: Stone had not, in truth, examined leasing practices in any detail on any aristocratic estate: where this has been done, e.g. on the estate of the Rich family in Essex, the length of leases (at 21 years) and the high proportion going to former tenants suggests that there was little, if any, such competition and certainly no development of agricultural capitalism in this period.

Geoff Kennedy's view that the Levellers in the 1640s represented a petit-bourgeois group carries little conviction. Of course, there are those who would still like to adhere to the views of Hill or Tawney in 1940-1941 but those views have long ceased to have any purchase in serious historical study. 'Revisionism' has been dead for twenty years. Neither Marxism or Revisionism is relevant to serious historical research in this period any longer. The clock cannot be turned back whatever Geoff Kennedy might hope for.

Sunday, 3 July 2011

Radicalism in the English Revolution, 1640-60 (Historical Association Studies) Paperback 18 Apr 1985-F.D. 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”.
William Walwyn

Given the speed that historiography of the English revolution is moving it is sometimes wise to look at where we have been to find out where we are going.A review of F D Dow’s book would be a good place to start.

Written over thirty years ago, Dow’s book was aimed at students and the public. Her book is of a very good standard and in no way dumbs down her writing. In fact, given that her target audience was pre-degree students it is of a very high academic standard.

It is undeniable that there has been a resurgence of interest in the Levellers both in academic and non-academic publications. It is certainly easier to write on the Levellers today than when Dow wrote her book.

Dow’s 1985 book was separated into five chapters with a preface but has no separate concluding chapter.

The Debate on the English Revolution

Chapter 1 begins with a Debate on the English Revolution. F D Dow makes clear that her little book is not a narrative of the events of the English civil war. The first chapter with limited space gives a good introduction to the level of radicalism in the English Revolution.

She is clear that the subject of her book has generated a lot of controversies. Outside of the Russian and French revolutions respectively no other revolution has generated as much.
Her assessment of 1980s radical historiographies is precise and informative. Today’s readers should bear in mind that at the time of Dow’s book revisionist historians had been attacking any historian who sought to place the Levellers in their proper historical context. This had been going for decades.

More specifically Dow believes that most of the revisionist’s fire had been against Marxist historiography especially any understanding of the importance of any long-term causes of the English civil war.

Even the use of the term radical to describe groups such as the Levellers had come under attack by historians as Glenn Burgess points out “it has been suggested - by Conal Condren and Jonathan Clark especially - 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”. His point is essential that in using the term to yoke together disparate phenomena with a common label, we create false or fictional histories and traditions. Condren suggests other objections. First, that 'radical' as a label risks miss-describing the language used by those so labeled. It attributes to them polemical and rhetorical strategies of subversion and opposition without considering whether such strategies were adopted. Secondly, the label risks miss-describing intentionality. Its application suggests an identity - that a person or group is knowingly and consciously 'radical' - whether appropriately or not[1]

It is hard to find Dow’s own historiographical preferences. Given that this book is aimed at students it is not surprising. But her own thoughts on the revolution and its radical participants does get an airing. While not rejecting out of hand both the Marxist and conservative historians she does, however, posit what she calls a third-way argument on the radical groups.

She says “Hill’s picture of a radical plebeian culture cannot be ignored. The significance of his work and of other like-minded historians prompts the question: can radicalism be put into a new perspective which considers the convincing arguments of the conservative ‘revisionists’ but leaves room for the belief that there really was a ‘revolution’ in the 1640s and 1650s[2].
This argument anticipated by well over three decades the current position of the post- revisionist school of historiography.

Dow explains that the turn away from Marxist historiography brought about a plethora of other explanations as to why the radical groups were not really that radical.

Conservative historians such as by A M Everitt and later John Morrill sought to examine local aspects of the revolution while playing down the influence of the radicals.

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 emphasized short-term explanations. The rise of local studies does not necessary mean all the historians who adopted this approach had a right-wing agenda. David Underdown’s Riot, Rebel, and Rebellion is well worth a look at.

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

Despite agreeing with many conservative historians Dow does not buy into the premise that there were no long-term causes of the revolution or for the rise of radicalism.

Dow leans on the work of Brain Manning who she says “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”[3].

Parliamentarians and Republicans

In Chapter Two Dow examines the philosophical basis for the Civil War. She 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 God ordained everything.

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
The Levellers

Chapter three Dow examines the complex issue of the Levellers. To what extent were the Levellers able to articulate the political and social needs of large sections of the population.
Dow believes that the Mournful Cries of Many Thousand Poor Tradesmen was a huge issue during the English revolution. “O Parliament men, and Soldiers! Necessity dissolves all Lawes and Government, and Hunger will break: through stone walls, Tender Mothers will sooner devoure You, then the Fruit of their owne wombe, and hunger regards no Swords nor Cannons. It may be some great oppressours intends tumults that they may escape in a croud, but your food may then be wanting as well as ours, and your Armes will bee hard diet. O hearke, hearke at our doores how out children cry Bread, bread, bread, and we now with bleeding hearts, cry, once more to you, pity, pity, an oppressed inslaved people: carry our cries in the large petition to the Parliament, and tell them if they be still &illegible; the Teares of the oppressed will wash away the foundations of their houses. Amen, Amen so be it”[4].

Whether social inequality was to most important factor in leading to revolution is a matter of conjecture. What is clear from Dow’s book is that the Levellers amongst other radical groups exploited this and they politically articulated the wants and needs of a large section of the population.

While how to fill, your belly became a significant social and political question there was also a questioning of people’s place in the grand scheme of things.

As the Marxist political writer, David North explains “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”[5].

It would be wrong of course to mechanically apply this type of reason to the thinking of parliamentary opposition to the King. People's thinking was mostly confused and not coherently thought out. As Dow mentions on (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 the Levellers revolution.

For Dow, the chief ideologues of the revolution were the radical groups such as the Levellers, Diggers etc. She 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 program opened 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 per Dow were “founding fathers of the working-class movement”. Dow claimed the Levellers broke new ground.” They grounded their program of a new 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”.

Dow’s assertion is tempered by AL Morton who said 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 now” and to add was not articulately expressed (until) Winstanley and his Diggers or ‘true Levellers’[6].

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 she 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”.

Dow makes the strange assertion that the Levellers lacked strong leadership and in the end lost all effectiveness as a group. Dow makes the that some weaknesses of the Leveller program doomed them from their start: Leveller ideology may have frightened the rich, neglected the poor, and been "too innovative in its assumptions to embrace all the godly 'middling sort"' of people.

She believed that their social base was that 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 smolder 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".

Religious Radicals

I am not sure about the title of this chapter. The groups that Dow mentions are diverse and she is hard pressed to establish a common thread that unites them.

Dow is correct in saying that any study of the group would have to take into consideration the foremost authority on the subject being Capp’s 1972 study.  Capp placed the Fifth Monarchists in their broadest context being principally an urban movement and appealed to people below the gentry. In modern terms, this was a movement of the petty bourgeoisie and its lowest section. Many of the members of the Fifth Monarchists like other radical groups had a real fear that the civil war would reduce them to penury.

One right wing pamphlet at the time wrote of the Fifth Monarchy men “The scum and scouring of the country.... Deduct the weavers, tailors, brewers, cobblers, tinkers, carmen, draymen, broom-men and mat makers and then give me a list of the gentlemen. Their names may be writ in text, within the compass of a single halfpenny.  Mercurius Elencticus (7-14 June I648), British Library, E447/ II, 226.

The Diggers and the Clubmen-A Radical Contrast
Dow’s last chapter is a bit of a theoretical muddle. The Diggers were the extreme left wing of the revolution. The Diggers were part of a group of men that sought to understand the profound political and social changes that were taking place at the beginning of the 17th century. They were the true ‘Ideologues of the revolution’ and had a capacity for abstract thought. While the Diggers were sympathetic to the poor, this stemmed from their religion they had no program to bring about social change; they never advocated a violent overturning of society. Their class outlook, that being of small producers, conditioned their ideology. At no stage did the Diggers or that matter did the larger group the Levellers constitute a mass movement. The contradiction between their concern for the poor and their position of representatives of the small property owners caused some tension. They had no opposition to private property and therefore they accepted that inequalities would always exist, they merely argued for a lot of the poor to be made more equitable.

The lumping of the Diggers in a chapter with the Clubmen seems to be a bit of an afterthought by Dow. Maybe her editor should have intervened to separate the two. The Clubmen were in favor of a return to “ancient ways” and to describe them a radical is stretching it a little. It seems almost to be a concession to the conservative revisionists that she ends the book. The world was not turned upside down.


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. Her conclusion is a little disappointing, to say the least. But 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 could 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”.

[1] Cromohs Virtual Seminars-A Matter of Context: 'Radicalism' and the English Revolution by
Glenn Burgess-
[2] Radicalism in the English Revolution, 1640-60 (Historical Association Studies) Paperback 18 Apr 1985-F.D. Dow
[3] Page 5
[4] The mournful Cries of many thousand Poor Tradesmen, who are ready to famish through decay of Trade.Or, the warning Tears of the Oppressed. (22 Jan 1648)
[5] Equality, the Rights of Man, and the Birth of Socialism by David North-24 October 1996
[6] A. L. Morton Freedom in Arms: A Selection of Leveller Writings, Lawrence and Wishart, London 1975,