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.

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