Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Does the Work of British Historian John Adamson” Break New Ground”

The purpose of this article is to answer Nick Poyntz assertion that despite significant attacks in the past from historians such as Mark Kishlansky he believes that Adamson’s work does “break new ground”. To recap John Adamson’s main argument in his previous essays and in his huge book the Noble Revolt is that a small group or in his words a Junto made up of nobles led a revolt which caused the overthrow of Charles 1st. Having finally read the book I find it difficult to agree with Nick’s point. The book is well written and extremely well researched. While I agree with Nick that Adamson has uncovered new material and sources I do not believe that he has developed it into a new historiography and therefore break new ground.

A new historiography would in my estimation have to at least take on board previous historiography and would have to be a synthesis of the most important parts of both Whig and Marxist historiography in order to develop a new and improved historiography. Without this Nick’s claim becomes devoid of substance.

Furthermore I am a firm believer that most previous historiography (certainly 20th century) had some kind of material base or at least paid lip service to the relationship between base and superstructure. In other words previous historiography whether it was Whig, Marxist or  Post-Modernist were in some form refractions of what was taking place in society either politically or economically. For example the rise of the revisionists in the early 1970s coincided with a right wing political movement spearheaded by Thatcher and Reagan. This movement gained ground with the final collapse of the USSR which led to numerous theories that the collapse of Communism meant that the socialist project had failed. The most pessimistic expression of these theories came with the End of History by Francis Fukuyama. The English Civil war was not the only subject that had a noticeable revisionist trend during this time. From the 1970s Studies into the Russian Revolution provoked a similar revisionist backlash.

A point of clarification I am not in favour of a crude economic determinism. One of the main attacks on Marxism is that it argues that ideology is just a cover for real economic motivations of social actors. It is said that Marxism does not account for the subjective actions of individuals based on political motivations. I do not deny that people can be motivated by ideological motives and I do not claim some kind of umbilical between the two but I believe that there is a connection which is dialectical in nature between political and economic actions. Adamson while correctly portrays his figures were motivated by ideological concerns he fails to uncover the social interests that were served by those ideologies.

It is true that historians and their historiography do go out of fashion but historiographies that were fashionable two hundred years ago still can contribute to our understanding of the war. Despite Christopher Thompson’s protestation Whig and Marxist historians while thin on the ground still exist today. Tristram Hunt and Simon Sharma are for all intense and purposes Whig historians. In fact large swathes of television historians offer a certain Whig outlook. In fact the BBC is full of them.

To answer another point from Chris Thompson historians such as Christopher Hill when developing his historiography did not reject entirely the work of Whig historians. He took the attitude that they had something to contribute to an understanding of the complex nature of the English Civil War.

Hill did not just offer a critique of Whig history he understood that their historiography belonged to a time in English history that coincided with the heyday of British capitalism. Whig history reflected the position of significant section of the English bourgeoisie. He also recognised that Whig history had some similarities with Marxist history.

In my opinion for a piece of work to break new ground has to be more than a well-reasoned argument or a rather large amount of text or have expensive colour pictures, Adamson refers to the English Gentry but does not really go into any extensive detail as to the class composition of the gentry. What was its economic position towards the king? Adamson maybe a skilled historian but a more detailed description of the class struggle involving his Cabal would have made the book far more precise and concrete.

Adamson’s books on the English Civil war are part of what has become the ‘post revisionist ‘school of history writing. The main characteristic of this school of thought is a rejection of both the Marxist and Whig views English Civil War historiography. From the beginning of his career Adamson sought to distance himself from any form of socio-economic explanations which have largely been championed by ‘Marxist’ historians such as Christopher Hill and Brian Manning.

Before the Post Revisionist era there consisted a group of historians who were for want of a better term simply “revisionists.” From the late seventies onwards a group of mainly but not all right wing historians sought to pour scorn on Marxist theory based largely on socio-economic explanation of historical events. The result of this has been a chaotic mix of differing theories with Adamson’s being one of them. Adamson elaborated his thesis.

As I said at the beginning Adamson’s work has previously come under ferocious attack from the historian Mark Kishlansky. Kishlansky’s first essay Saye What which challenged Adamson’s theory extends to nothing more than a catalogue of Adamson’s errors. Some of his criticisms I agree with. I am not sure Adamson’s cabal of politicians was that influential and I do not agree with his downplaying of Cromwell’s role. Also in some respects does seem to turn events upside down, but having said that I think Kishlansky’s critique of Adamson does border on academic bullying.

Take for instance this quote from Conrad Russell “What makes a historian master of his craft is the discipline of checking findings, to see whether he has said more than his source warrants. A historian with a turn of phrase, when released from this discipline, risks acquiring a dangerously Icarian freedom to make statements which are unscholarly because unverifiable”.

Kishlansky accuses Adamson of “tendentious interpretation”. Well you could accuse every single historian that has written on the English Civil War of this. Historians have the right to interpret the facts or sources the way they feel fit without fear of some form of academic bullying.

Adamson’s new work seems to have taken too much notice of Kishlansky’s remarks. It does contain a large amount of footnotes in fact it is slightly an overkill to publish so many and one reason that has been suggested is that it was a defensive reaction to Kishlansky’s critique. Kishlansky alleged that Adamson was “deliberately abusing and misreading sources”.

What began as a disagreement between two historians soon became a major historical debate. Both sides of the debate took their gripes to the pages of academic journals. Big named historians such as Conrad Russell, Lawrence Stone and Hugh Trevor-Roper took one side or the other without really resolving the issue.

Outside of the academic community these debates which occur frequently might seem like storms in tea cups but in reality particularly when concerning the discussion over the civil war they are expressions of very deep seated divisions over cause and effect. As Lawrence Stone 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.”

You are correct when you stipulate that Adamson concentrates more on superstructure than on base. Having said this I do not believe Adamson’s aversion to base his analysis of the Junto on economic motives does not constitute a new historiography. You also point out that if Adamson had carried out “a sustained analysis of the vertical links between politicians and "people" would be a very different work of history”. In this matter you are correct he choose to concentrate on this class of people because in a distorted way it reflects his politics. In my experience very few historians have been able to abstract themselves away from their political slant. Whether this is a good or bad thing is still open to debate.

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