Thursday, 29 November 2012

Comrade Jacob [Paperback] David Caute Panther Books; New edition (Dec 1973).

Paul Lay writing in the December issue of History Today makes some very good points regarding historical novel writing. I was particularly struck by this comment regarding the book The Daughter of Time by Josephine Yey “The historical novel, when it is this good, this thoroughly researched, has become a means of legitimate historical enquiry”. David Caute’s book should be seen in this light.

Caute has the reputation of being a novelist, playwright and a historian. He is also a noted journalist and essay writer. He clearly uses the techniques of novel writing well and imbues his subject matter with his strong left wing feelings, one writer said he “ brings a wide knowledge of European (particularly French) intellectual traditions into English fiction, he is one of the most intellectually stimulating novelists of recent decades in England--a "public" rather than a "private “writer”.

Caute’s novel is set in the high point of the English Civil War. A group of disaffected ex New Model Army soldiers and others along with wives and children, led by Gerard Winstanley have become disillusioned by the course of the civil war under the leadership of Oliver Cromwell. The group decide to take over some land at St Georges Hill in Surrey. They plant crops and graze cattle in order to survive.

Their mission was to develop and practice a primitive form of Communism. The settlement expressed in simple terms a growing disgust and protest by sections of both the lower middle class and sections of an embryonic working class at the rapidly growing social inequality that existed during the civil war. Their commune was met with swift and violent punishment and eventually they were defeated.

The fact that although written in 1965 the book and the subject matter still resonate today is that the issues that appear in the book such as the nature of democracy, social inequality and the rapacious nature of  private property are still topics that provoke debate and civil unrest today.

How else would you explain that despite the passage of nearly four hundred years people are still being violently evicted from land for protesting at social injustice?

In an article which could have described a scene 400 hundred years ago the Guardian writer George Monbiot says this “Hounded by police and bailiffs, evicted wherever they stopped, they did not mean to settle here. They had walked out of London to occupy disused farmland on the Queen’s estates surrounding Windsor Castle. Perhaps unsurprisingly, that didn’t work out very well. But after several days of pursuit, they landed two fields away from the place where modern democracy is commonly supposed to have been born.

At first this group of mostly young, dispossessed people, who (after the 17th century revolutionaries) call themselves Diggers 2012(1), camped on the old rugby pitch of Brunel University’s Runnymede campus. It’s a weed-choked complex of grand old buildings and modern halls of residence, whose mildewed curtains flap in the wind behind open windows, all mysteriously abandoned as if struck by a plague or a neutron bomb. The diggers were evicted again, and moved down the hill into the woods behind the campus: pressed, as if by the ineluctable force of history, ever closer to the symbolic spot. From the meeting house they have built and their cluster of tents, you can see across the meadows to where the Magna Carta was sealed almost 800 years ago”.

As David Caute recently pointed out St George's Hill in Surrey is now home to some the most expensive real estate in England “Here opulent private properties sit untouchable behind security gates and surveillance cameras. It was not always so. In 1649, as the civil war drew to a close and Charles I stepped out on to a Whitehall balcony to face the executioner, the landowners of St George's Hill were confronted by an influx of nightmare neighbors, the so-called Diggers”.

While on the surface of things these people seemed to be a bunch crackpots, they were in fact the early forebears of the communist movement. Their actions were very revolutionary, the leader of this group Gerrard Winstanley, advanced their claims in the name of social justice. He also called for the end to "Norman yoke" which he blamed for all of England's troubles

The novel is largely told through words and eyes of Winstanley, part academic book part novel. While the novel unfortunately has been left a little on the shelf the subject matter has seen a significant renaissance. It is only recently that a systematic study of Winstanley has started to emerge. The recent publication of his collected works is one indication of the trend to restore Winstanley to his place as one of the most important figures of the English civil war.

He is certainly a figure that according to Christopher Hill who turned the world upside down. His form of utopian communism was influenced by John Lilburne and his fellow Levellers. But in ideological terms he went further than the Levellers in both actions and words. The egalitarian nature of his philosophy was captured in his pamphlet “The New Law of Righteousness”, written in 1648. “Selfish imaginations”, he said had lead one man to rule over another. “But everyone shall put their hands to till the earth and bring up cattle, and the blessing of the earth shall be common to all,” “When a man hath need of any corn or cattle, take from the next store-house he meets with. There shall be no buying and selling, no fairs or markets, but the whole earth shall be the common Treasury for every man.”

The Diggers and Levellers 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, which stemmed from their religion they had no programme 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 the lot of the poor to be made more equitable.

Caute as was said earlier a man of the left and the novel reflects Caute’s academic upbringing as a student of Christopher Hill, as Caute says “I became acquainted with the Diggers in Oxford University tutorials with the great historian of our 17th-century upheavals, Christopher Hill, who at that juncture was severing his links with the Communist party in the wake of the Hungarian revolution. Out of this came a novel, Comrade Jacob, published in the spring of 1961. But how to climb into the heads of Fifth Monarchists, Quakers, Ranters and the other mushrooming sects? We find it easier, surely, to understand the strictly secular doctrines of Jacobins and Bolsheviks. I divided the storytelling between Winstanley's own self-righteous narrative and scenes in which his actions and personality are viewed through a more skeptical authorial lens. Much of it was mere conjecture - the evidence is hazy. But this haze, which became the oxygen of the novel, was later lost in the film version”.

After writing the book Caute says he was approached by a number of people offering to make the book into film But Caute said that “The recurrent problem in these adaptations during the 1960s and 70s was the erosion of two central themes of the novel by the partisan passions of the New Left. Winstanley's mystical religious fervour went out of the window – he was always found on his feet rather than his knees. Also defenestrated was the rising personal power this opinionated prophet exercised among his poor followers, and how his "moral parsonage" may have entered his soul. In the stage and screen adaptations he was to be found striding out of a socialist realist manual, a clear-headed tribune of the people, a steadfast hero unburdened by the shadow of Esau. The lessons of Orwell's Animal Farm did not surface”.

Perhaps the most famous “use “of Caute’s book is the film Winstanley by Kevin Brownlow and Andrew Mollo. Caute is heavily critical of a number of short comings in the film.

Having seen the film and read the book I am in agreement with Caute. I like the film it has great merit and is stunningly photographed but as Caute said the religious/political aspects of Winstanley are heavily downplayed.

When asked by Kevin Brownlow and Andrew Mollo, to use the book Caute said yes but only if he could write the film script myself. Caute bitterly regretted it and “discovered that screenwriters do not count for much. Not until I was shown the final product did I realise what had been going on. I duly withdrew my screenwriting credit”. 

Caute criticism were that Winstanley while being a “vivid commentary on the physical condition of 17th century rural England”, it was “reluctant to penetrate the intense religious motivations of the time. Winstanley believed that to know the secrets of nature is to know the works of God within the creation. This extends to the characters. I make no great claims for my novel in this regard but it did attempt to convey individuals' sometimes perverse changes of mood and motivation. This is certainly retained in the person of the army commander, Lord General Fairfax, but Winstanley, the eponymous hero of the film, remains from start to finish a decent, upstanding, strangely well-spoken Left Book Club idealist. The rough edges of a Lancastrian, the religious torment, the mood swings between pride and humility, Winstanley's mounting confusions about God and Reason, have utterly gone”.

The book also has its weaknesses. It should not be seen as a verbatim account of the role of the Diggers in the English revolution. Caute only touches upon a number of important events that could have been expanded without ruining the book. More could have been made of the Putney debates which are very briefly mentioned in the book. A detailed look at these debates would have given a far broader and objective assessment of Winstanley’s role in the debate over the franchise.

Caute could have also developed more the religious and more importantly political divide between the Presbyterian and Independents.  It should not be lost that the people that sought the Diggers eviction were largely Presbyterians; Lord Fairfax was after all heavily on the side of the Independents. But these are small points and should not detract from what is a fine example of the historical novel genre.

 Notes

1.      Looking back in regret at Winstanley David Caute guardian.co.uk, Friday 17 October 2008

2.      The Promised Land July 16, 2012 This is the fate of young people today: excluded, but forbidden to opt out. By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 17th July 2012

3.      The New Levellers 2012 from http://leejohnbarnes.blogspot.co.uk/2010/09/new-levellers-update.html (21st Century British Nationalism -Cognitive Dissidence, The mechanism of warfare and subversion for intellectual revolutionaries.) This is a very right wing article and should be read with some care.

4.      http://www.opendemocracy.net/blog/ourkingdom-theme/melissa-lane/2009/03/11/liberty-as-a-social-value-lessons-from-the-levellers

5.      My review of the film  Winstanley can be found @ http://keith-perspective.blogspot.co.uk/2012/04/winstanley-dvd-1975-director-kevin.html