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).

Post a Comment