Monday, 27 May 2013

Horses, People and Parliament in the English Civil War - Extracting Resources and Constructing Allegiance-ISBN: 978-1-4094-2093-4-Ashgate- Gavin Robinson

It is an undisputed fact that horses albeit unconsciously played a central role in the economic, political, social and cultural history of the English revolution. It is safe to say that they played a bigger role than any other animal. Books on the relationship between horses and people during Early Modern England are certainly rare and have almost become a new historical genre.

The book is based on Robinson extensive knowledge of the subject and is solidly researched. His methodology is document-based and he adopts the attitude of an “empirical historian”.

While claiming to be a book primarily about horses it does examine methodologies, ideologies but does not claim to show the causes of the English Civil war. In the introduction Robinson makes the point that the biggest names in British history have failed to explain why war broke out. This is a pretty big statement to make especially when he fails to back up his assertion. The book really could have done with less rhetorical flourishes and more substantial examination and proof to back up such a claim. This is not the only time the author does this.

Having said that Gavin Robinson’s book is a welcome addition to a very small number of specialized books on the subject. The book is also something of a breakthrough in respect that the writer developed his art through a series of blog articles[1]. It also counteracts the snobbish attitude amongst some not all historians that history blogs are not really of a high standard or worse are actually damaging to historical research.

The book is beautifully presented. It would seem that with the development of rival eBook devices such as Kindle publishers like Ashgate[2]  have raised their game regards the appearance of the books they publish.

Current Historiography

Perhaps the question where does the book fit in with current historiography? is not always the first asked but is nonetheless is the most important. While Robinson’s book is a synthesis of revisionist thought from the last decade it should be categorized more in the school of the post revisionist school of history.

The book rejects any form of determinist or economic schools of thought that have been broadly associated with previous Marxist historiography.  In fact in a small way it is a polemic against both Marxist and Whig historiography.

I would hardly call Robinson’s attack on Marxist historiography a major one simply because he fails to go into any lengthy detail aside a from a few remarks. Robinson does not examine the huge output of major figures such as Christopher Hill or Brian Manning. In fact Robinson sticks well within his comfort zone of horses.

Robinson rejection of the views of Jason Hribal[ is one of only a few comments on Marxist historiography. A cursory view would have the reader believe that Hribal is closer to Robinson’s viewpoint than he is to Marxism.

I am a little concerned that Robinson has not followed through on his research. Hribal’s article raises a number of questions. Firstly his is not as Robinson has lead us to believe an orthodox Marxist position. Unless I can be proved wrong it has never been a Marxist position that horses or animal in general are part of the workers movement. Not only is this viewpoint an attack on Marxism it goes against Darwinism as well.

Admittedly there has not been an outpouring of Marxist writings on the subject which is a shame because it is an important one. One of Hribal’s sources used for justification Joseph Proudhon was not a Marxist but an Anarchist and a leading one at that.

Hribal’s makes this point “when Joseph Proudhon formalized his conception of the working class, this 19th century anarchist did not hinder himself with categories of species. Under the Capitalist system, he witnessed that the exploitation of humans and other animals were interconnected”.

He then quotes from Proudhon’s from What Is Property  “the horse, who draws our coaches, and the ox who draws our carts produce with us, but are not associated with us; we take their product, but do not share it with them.” “The animals and laborers whom we employ hold the same relation to us. Whatever we do for them, we do, not from a sense of justice, but out of pure benevolence.”

What does Robinson share with these separate writers? He does not share their class analysis. Both writers believe from different standpoints that horses should be looked at from a class standpoint in that a horse that belongs to a rich person leads a different life from that belonging to a poor person. Where he does agree is that horses should be seen in the same historical sense as humans.

But again this is not a Marxist position. While it is difficult to pinpoint an orthodox Marxist position some unorthodox Marxists have ventured to write on the subject. Perhaps the most famous being the French Marxist Paul Lafargue  (January 15, 1842 – November 26, 1911) Karl Marx was heavily critical of the work of Lafargue once saying "ce qu'il y a de certain c'est que moi, je ne suis pas Marxiste" ("what is certain to me is that , if they are Marxists, then I am not a Marxist" .

Larfargue  said “Horses are divided into distinct classes. The equine aristocracy enjoys so many and so oppressive privileges, that if the human-faced brutes which serve them as jockeys, trainers, stable valets and grooms were not morally degraded to the point of not feeling their shame, they would have rebelled against their lords and masters, whom they rub down, groom, brush and comb, also making their beds, cleaning up their excrements and receiving bites and kicks by way of thanks”.

Lafargue was close politically to Joseph Proudhon and his articles shares a similar position on horses to the old anarchist. Both writers were the forerunners of the modern animal right movement. Lafargue believed like Hribal that animals should be seen as part of the working class.

In his The Rights of the Horse and the Rights of Man (1900)  he makes this point  “I make you free,” so speak the Rights of Man to the laborer, “free to earn a wretched living and turn your employer into a millionaire; free to sell him your liberty for a mouthful of bread. He will imprison you ten hours or twelve hours in his workshops; he will not let you go till you are wearied to the marrow of your bones, till you have just enough strength left to gulp down your soup and sink into a heavy sleep. You have but one of your rights that you may not sell, and that is the right to pay taxes.”  If you take out the rhetoric and class content this is not a million miles away from Robinson’s position.

What Then Is Robinson’s Viewpoint

According to the jacket notes the “book uses the supply of horses to parliamentary armies during the English Civil War to make two related points. Firstly it shows how control of resources - although vital to success - is contingent upon a variety of logistical and political considerations. It then demonstrates how competition for resources and construction of individuals’ identities and allegiances fed into each other”.

“It argues that allegiance was not a fixed underlying condition, but was something external and changeable. Actions were more important than thoughts and to secure victory, both sides needed people to do things rather than feel vaguely sympathetic. Furthermore, identities were not always self-fashioned but could be imposed on people against their will, making them liable to disarmament, sequestration, fines or imprisonment”. 

The notes were sanctioned by the author and they do fit it in with Robinson’s view regarding the English Civil War. “Actions were more important than thoughts”, while not being the authors actual words do sum up the authors philosophy. The glorification of empiricism is extremely prevalent in current academic circles.

As regards allegiances if you reject the three most important reasons why people took sides namely class, economics and politics and Robinson does then I am afraid what is left is really anything goes. Allegiance according to Robinson has no objective relationship to events surrounding the participants.

Robinson rejects the Marxist concept that social consciousness is determined by social being and adopts a broadly Existentialist[4] outlook. The book is heavily imbued with this viewpoint. According to the publisher’s blurb “this study poses fundamental questions of identity construction, showing how culture and reality influence each other. Through an exploration of Parliament’s interaction with local communities and individuals, it reveals fascinating intersections between military necessity and issues of gender, patriarchy, religion, bureaucracy, nationalism and allegiance “.

Robinson does not like class based terms like Royalist and Parliamentarian. Nick Poyntz[5] explains this in his review. “Parliamentarian’ and ‘Royalist’ are two of those words that it’s easy to throw around unthinkingly. Partly it’s because they are such a convenient shorthand for a set of concepts that are too complicated to express succinctly, that we can forget the nuances that come with them. But as the introduction of Horses, People and Parliament points out, it’s also because they are bound up with the particular way civil war allegiance has been defined in the twentieth century “.

To reject these terms is very bold. However a major failing of the book is that he fails to say what he would replace them with given that his arguments against them are pretty flimsy. He also fails to explain why for the last three hundred years historians of very different political, social and class backgrounds have been extremely comfortable with these common classifications.

Robinson does have the right to question these terms after all they are not fixed concepts to be used for ever. My problem is that not that he questions them but like a lot of current revisionist historians he is heavy on negatives but very light on what terms he would replace them with and more importantly how he would back up his arguments.

He is not the first to challenge old terms. In his essay John White Revisited [6] David Underdown makes this point “there has been a continuing, intimidating, torrent of books and articles on the broader subject of puritanism in the years since Fire From Heaven came out. When I was writing that book some of the trendier members of the historical profession were trying to ditch the terms ‘Puritan’ and ‘Puritanism’ altogether. But a look at any list of recent publications suggest they didn’t have much success. The skeptic’s did make one useful contribution, though in requiring us to be more careful about defining those terms before we use them”.

Poyntz himself recognizes the enormity of challenging such fundamental conceptions “Essentialist assumptions about identity are so deeply embedded in the English language that they are difficult to challenge, or even recognize. It feels perfectly natural to say that a person was royalist, and awkwardly unnatural to say that a person did royalism “.

Robinson’s book has not changed my belief that Marxism still has a major part to play in understanding the events of the English Revolution. 

I still believe that Dialectical thinking still has an important part to play in understanding complex historical problems as the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky explains "The fundamental flaw of vulgar thought lies in the fact that it wishes to content itself with motionless imprints of a reality which consists of eternal motion. Dialectical thinking gives to concepts, by means of closer approximations, corrections, concretization, a richness of content and flexibility; I would even say “a succulence” which to a certain extent brings them closer to living phenomena. Not capitalism in general, but a given capitalism at a given stage of development. Not a workers’ state in general, but a given workers’ state in a backward country in an imperialist encirclement, etc. Dialectical thinking is related to vulgar in the same way that a motion picture is related to a still photograph. The motion picture does not outlaw the still photograph but combines a series of them according to the laws of motion. Dialectics does not deny the syllogism, but teaches us to combine syllogisms in such a way as to bring our understanding closer to the eternally changing reality. Hegel in his Logic established a series of laws: change of quantity into quality, development through contradictions, conflict of content and form, interruption of continuity, change of possibility into inevitability, etc., which are just as important for theoretical thought as is the simple syllogism for more elementary tasks. [7]

And “vulgar thought operates with such concepts as capitalism, morals, freedom, workers’ state, etc. as fixed abstractions, presuming that capitalism is equal to capitalism. Morals are equal to morals, etc. Dialectical thinking analyses all things and phenomena in their continuous change, while determining in the material conditions of those changes that critical limit beyond which ‘A’ ceases to be ‘A’, a workers’ state ceases to be a workers’ state. Nothing is more dangerous in politics, especially in a critical period, than to repeat general formulas without examining their social content.[8]

It is not in the scope of this article to fully answer the most important charge against Marxist’ historiography that the 1640s did not witnessed a bourgeois revolution because there were bourgeois/gentry on both sides and that on numerous occasion people switched allegiances. It is a charge that Robinson agrees with.

The Marxist historian Christopher Hill[9] wrote that “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 any body of thought which plays a major in history – Luther’s, Rousseau’s, Marx’s own-takes on because it meets the needs of significant group in the society in which it comes into prominence”.

From his knowledge of early Soviet historians and his study of the writings of Marx and Engels he never made the assumption that this was a chemically pure revolution. In fact in his major writings he makes the point that large numbers of people fought and took sides outside of purely economic reasons.

According to Ann Talbot[10] (Hill) “he was sensitive enough to his historical sources to detect the social currents that brought people of diverse social backgrounds into struggle against the king and well-grounded enough in history to identify new and revolutionary ideas in the curious and archaic guise in which they appeared—as the ideologists of the revolution ransacked the Bible and half understood historical precedent for some kind of theory to explain what they were doing”.

Anthropocentric history.

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of Robinson book is his attack on anthropocentric historiography. According to Nick Poynzt “Horses had their own temperaments, and did not always respond to human attempts to control them. Given how essential horses were to civil war armies – not just for cavalry, but for supply as well – their willingness or unwillingness to comply could be just as important as human decisions about whether to provide king or Parliament with resources.  There are shades here of ‘for the want of a nail’, not just in terms of how battles were fought but also in terms of how resources were gathered”.

There are parts of the book which I have found hard to digest and they honestly give me some concern. Throughout the book Robinson makes a number references to the assertion that horses should be put on the same level as humans and should even be “seen as agents in the civil wars” or that the horses themselves held allegiances.

For Robinson the war has for too long has been written from an anthropocentric[11] standpoint. The book manages to stand on its head well over three hundred years of Civil war historiography. To say that his viewpoint is controversial would be a gross understatement.

 Gender Studies.

Another challenge to established historiography is his adoption of gender studies. Robinson is heavily influenced by the work of Rachel Weil[12]. According to her Wikipedia page Rachel Judith Weil 1959- is a teacher and scholar, specializing in gender and culture in 17th and 18th century England.

Gender studies forms an important aspect of Robinson book. One task of the book is to establish gender studies as a crucial way of explaining the Civil War. Following the lead set by Rachel Weil, Robinson says “I’m always happy to hear calls for more gender. I made it my third priority after allegiance and resources as Ann Hughes was already doing it, but there’s so much more that could be done. My only criticism of the Hughes book is that it’s very short for such a huge and under-researched aspect of the civil wars. I wasn’t sure if anyone would spot that feminist Easter egg in the index, but it’s what most history books should have if they’re honest.”

Gender or women’s studies is a new type of historiography and has been taught by universities really only in the last two decades.  The recent proliferation of books, articles, etc. has many reasons. One major factor being the growth of women historians who have started to explore this previously under researched subjects. Another no less important reason is that women in general have a much increased degree of political freedom and economic independence than previous generations of women.

Gender historiography is a relatively new concept in which to study women’s role in history. It is largely a by-product of the genre “history from below” instigated by the Communist Party History Group. While producing some extremely valuable research and publications the replacing of gender over class in the study of historical events was a move away from a classical Marxist approach.

Gender studies became especially strong in within the History Workshop movement. The growth was facilitated by such books such as E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class in the early 1960s provided a platform for gender studies to grow. This coincided with the rise of independent women historians and writers who “insisted that women's experience no longer be 'hidden from history'. Sally Alexander and Anna Davin, 'Feminist History', History Workshop Journal, no 1 Spring 1976; Barbara Taylor, Eve and the New Jerusalem: Socialism and Feminism in the 19th Century, 1983.To name just two. According to studies women make up nearly fifty per cent of the English working population. They also have a degree of freedom not heard of in previous generations. In other words the origins of women history studies appeared as a direct result of the struggle for social quality amongst women. Whether one agrees with gender studies or not it stands on its own merit and does play an important role particularly as regards research into the role of women in 17th century English revolution.


As I said in the opening the book is not without merit. The study of horses is an important and under researched aspect of the English Civil war. The book is a bit messy in places and could have done with a firmer editorial hand. I must reject Robinson’s central argument that previous historiography has been too Anthropocentric. As one reviewer put it “as a social and economic historian rather than an anthropologist my approach remains determinedly anthropocentric.”


1.      Gavin Robinson’s blog can be found @
3.      Anthropocentric- regarding man as the most important and central factor in the universe.
4.      Taken from
7.      The ABC of Materialist Dialectics (December 1939) Extract from A Petty-Bourgeois Opposition in the Socialist Workers Party.
8.      Whither France? (1934) Leon Trotsky Pathfinder Press
9.      Introduction to the Intellectual origins of the English Revolution Panther-C Hill
10.  "These the times ... this the man": an appraisal of historian Christopher Hill-By Ann Talbot  25 March 2003
11.  Anthropocentric- regarding man as the most important and central factor in the universe
12.  Sexual Ideology and Political Propaganda in England 1680-1714". Also Sometimes a Scepter is Only a Scepter: Pornography and Politics in Restoration England" (1993).


Horse and Man in Early Modern England by Peter Edwards is published by Hambledon Continuum; Basingstoke 2007. ISBN number 978-1-85285-480-5
The ABC of Materialist Dialectics (December 1939) Extract from A Petty-Bourgeois Opposition in the Socialist Workers Party.
Whither France? (1934) Leon Trotsky Pathfinder Press


Horse Supply and the Development of the New Model Army, 1642-1646  Gavin Robinson War In History April 2008 vol. 15 no. 2 121-140
Social-Political Animals: Humans and Non-Humans in Early-Modern Society Gavin Robinson Presented at FORWARD Symposium, Nottingham Trent University, 28th May 2008.
Animals are part of the working class”: a challenge to labor history- Labor History Volume 44, Issue 4, 2003- Jason Hribal
Thinking about Allegiance in the English Civil War Rachel Judith Weil From: History Workshop Journal Issue 61, Spring 2006 pp. 183-191 |
Beyond Post –Revisionism Andy Wood The Historical Journal 02/1997; 40(01):23 - 40. pp.23 - 40

Monday, 6 May 2013

Conrad Russell and the "Mirage" of the English Revolution

This is the fourth draft of this article countering the arguments of Conrad Russell. This is not my last word on the matter but does supersede all other articles. Again comments are welcome.

The coalition government recently published its changes to the National Curriculum. Aside from the fact that the new changes are way too narrow, parochial and would return the educational system back to the Victorian era they have provoked an ideological battle amongst writers, historians and other academics.

Certainly amongst historians the battle lines are being fought largely between left and right leaning historians. It is perhaps with great irony that Tory government supporters have labelled their opponents Marxists. A recent headline in the Daily Mail was entitled “I refuse to surrender to the Marxist teachers hell-bent on destroying our schools: Education Secretary berates 'the new enemies of promise' for opposing his plan”. [1] The reason I say ironic is that for the last twenty years or so there has been a concerted attempt to downplay and in some cases deny that Marxists or Marxism has any role to play in the understanding of History.

Certainly, in the area of English civil war historiography, the attack on Marxism has been over the years heated, persistent and in some cases aggressive. A small recent example of this can be seen from Christopher Thompson’s reply to this article [2].

The purpose of this essay is not to trawl through the entire history of these attacks of which there are a substantial amount, although having said that it would be a good subject for an essay but to examine one example namely the work of Conrad Russell and expressly his essay The Bourgeois Revolution: A Mirage”.

The essay which was published in History Today in 1990 was more populist in style than academic. Russell’s article was perhaps the most open polemical attack on the method of historical Materialism and was published in what became and still is a substantial house organ for revisionist historians. His article was also one of many similar articles in the field of history and politics that sought to cast doubt on Historical Materialism and Marxism in general as a method of historical analysis. In fact it presaged what has become an anti-intellectual and anti-Marxist counter-revolution in the field of English Civil war studies.

The another high point of this anti-intellectualism was two years after Russell’s article there appeared Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man. Fukuyama’s attack coincided with a systematic attack from revisionist historians across all fields on Marxist historiography that gained substantial momentum after the collapse of the USSR. In many ways his article echoed a school of thought both inside and outside academia which saw the end of the U.S.S.R as signifying the end of Marxism. For a number of academics who were largely out of their depth in this field the USSR equalled Marxism rather than it being a Stalinized distortion.

According to Conrad Russell, the English bourgeois revolution was a mirage something illusory and unattainable or an incorrect conception. Russell’s conclusion was there was no revolution in the 1640s and for that matter, he does not fancy there being one in 1688 either. It should be borne in mind that before Russell wrote his article it was broadly accepted that some kind of revolution had happened. Whether it was a puritan revolution or a bourgeois revolution.

Russell’s framework for answering the question was there a revolution? Is a little ropey to say the least. Relying on Professor Alfred Cobban “Four laws!” was hardly the most objective or for that matter scientific yardstick. Cobban like Russell was opposed to Marxism and held similar views to Russell albeit in a different area of study, Cobban wrote extensively on the French revolution which he believed was not a social revolution.

According his page on Wikipedia “Cobban’s views and works in the macrocosm were to be the inspiration and birthplace of the historical school now known as Revisionism. Along with George V. Taylor, Cobban vehemently attacked the traditional Marxist conception of the past within Marx's dialectic, particularly in his work The Social Interpretation of the French Revolution. His resultant argument was that the Revolution could not be seen as a social revolution exacerbated by economic changes (specifically the development of capitalism and by corollary, class conflict between the bourgeoisie and the nobility). Rather, argued Cobban, the French Revolution should be seen as a political revolution with social consequences”.[3]

Whether Cobban’s writing was the birth place of a new form of revisionism is open to question. In some sense all historians are revisionists but this particular group of historians was united by their hostility to both Whig and Marxist historiography.

It is also strange that Russell who was a very distinguished historian failed in his essay to produce any real detailed examination of Marx’s actual writings on the English bourgeois revolution. Although not prodigious however he did write extensively on the rise of the bourgeoisie.

Look at this beautiful statement from the communist Manifesto. “The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. Conservation of the old modes of production in unaltered form, was, on the contrary, the first condition of existence for all earlier industrial classes. Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind”. Also if Russell had indeed looked at Marx’s writing he would have found that Marx was familiar with people who denied revolutions had taken place.

Russell had an annoying habit in this essay of lumping Whig history together with Marxist. So much so that Russell believed that the Whig version of the origins of the English civil war was a dialectical one. It is not in the realm of this essay to go into any detail suffice to say that Russell really did not know what he was talking about. I am not sure how much Marxist literature he read but it is clearly not enough for such an eminent historian to make such a flippant remark without really backing his argument up.

Russell who would have been fully conversant with the “Whig interpretation of history” and he would have also been aware that Sir Herbert Butterfield’s slim volume of that name was in fact a polemic, directed at economic determinism.

In examining Russell’s theories it should be borne in mind he was not the first to revise Marxist historiography. When this revision started in Britain is open to much debate but for the sake of this essay it would have started with Elton’s High Road to Civil[4] War essay. Elton’s essay is a strange one. Having read it a few times one is struck by the paucity of his argument, which is odd because of the tremendous influence it had on large numbers of revisionist historians. Elton’s essay was an expression of his conception of how to practice history. In an essay of the same name he opposes the conception that every historical event can be rationally explained.

In ‘The Practice of History’, which was written in response to E H Carr's 1961 book What is History? Elton commented “All assessment of evidence must be the work of the intellect, of the reasoning faculty. The historian cannot but work on the assumption that whatever happened is capable of rational explanation and that evidence is the product of an act discoverable by reason. And yet we all know that this is not quite true; that we act, react and reflect on motives which have little to do with reason and under influences--such as ill-health, a quarrel with people not involved in the transaction, whim and lack of thought--that can but rarely appear in the ... evidence”.[5]

Elton’s “empirical or thesis-free” method was clearly attractive to Russell and he adopted some if not all Elton’s love of empirical methodology. For me, Russell is a pivotal link between earlier revisionists such as Elton and their more modern day counterparts.

Russell main argument is that Marxist historiography stood or fell on the theory that the English Civil war was provoked by the rise of the gentry/middle class. Which predicated the rise of the bourgeoisie.[6]

Russell believed “the notion of the rising middle classes is a fallacy” and “together with increasing doubt about the rising middle classes, historians are showing increasing doubt about the dialectical model, in which change comes about by the clash of opposites. This model, as Marx generously admitted, is one we originally owe to Hegel, and its survival has owed as much to Hegelian as to Marxist influence. The Whig version of the origins of the English Civil War, for example, was a clearly dialectical view, and it has come in for heavy criticism in the past fifteen years”[7].

Some things need to be said about the above quote. Firstly to be honest you would be hard pressed to find in Russell’s writing when the bourgeoisie did “rise”. In fact you get the feeling that Russell would like it to be never and certainly it did not arrive through revolution in any century.

 It is true that during the latter part of Russell’s life Marxist historiography and the notion that we witnessed a revolution in the 1640s did come under increasing attack. Russell in his essay never really comes close to answering why before he wrote his essay was there a notion that a revolution of some kind did take place in the 1640s so accepted amongst serious historians for the better part of three centuries

Even during the 17th century some of the more perceptive writers saw that a revolution of some kind had taken place. Vernon F Snow[8] wrote an important essay outlining the use of the word revolution during the 17th century.   Snow says  “One of the first writers-if not the first-to apply the concept specifically to the English political upheaval was Matthew Wren, the son of Dr Matthew Wren, Bishop of Ely. Sometime after the trial and execution of Charles I, this royalist wrote a treatise entitled Of the Origin and Progress of the Revolution in England. 'The world is full', he wrote, 'of both books and pamphlets, who have nothing to do but to teach their readers these events; and the design of writing this was only summarily to treat of the most general causes of those strange revolutions we have seen.”  Russell is strangely silent on this varied historical usage of the word revolution and his essay almost takes the form of a religious exorcism.

According to Russell “historians are showing increasing doubt about the dialectical model. Who are these historians? What are they saying and more importantly what their political bias is?

While there has been an assault on Marxist historiography over the last twenty years the legacy and influence of historians such as Christopher Hill still resonate with us today. A cursory look at a growing number of publications would show us that Russell has not entirely succeeded in extinguishing the word revolution from Early Modern historiography.

The Storm over the Gentry.

When Russell ties the theory of a rising Middle Class or bourgeoisie to the fate of the Marxist historians he is doing a dis-service to his profession. It is very strange that Russell does not elaborate on the “Storm over the Gentry” debate. Because if he did he would have had to tackle what leading Marxist historians such as Hill did actually say on the matter?

Russell mentions nothing in his article about Hill being very wary of the debate over the rise or decline of the gentry. The debates over the gentry which took place in the early 1950s were for Marxists far more complex than just placing their entire historical faith on the rise of the middle class.

Russell’s original point was that Marxism really stood or fell on the basis of a rising gentry. The “Storm over the gentry debate is probably one of the most important in civil war historiography. The original debate was centered on R H Tawney’s thesis of a rising gentry later supported by Lawrence Stone who in 1948, who close to the historical positions of R.H. Tawney published in the Economic History Review entitled "The Anatomy of the Elizabethan Aristocracy". Tawney and Stone’s arguments were countered by historians Hugh Trevor Roper and later by J H Hexter.

It would be a mistake to describe both Tawney or Stone as Marxist and their positions regarding the gentry were not Marxist positions. This is not to say that their work is not without great merit and should be studied at great length. Although Stone himself did describe himself in the early part of his career as being a young Marxist his mistakes were the product of an incomplete assimilation of the Marxist method of Historical Materialism. Stone had a major problem in that he never really understood the difference between genuine Marxism and a crude form of economic determinism. Stone himself soon moved away from any link with Marxist historiography and in his own words he became in 1987, "an old fashioned Whig".

Hill’s positions on the debate are instructive. He was critical of both sides and that the debate was more to do with the developing Cold War anti-communism than merely a debate over civil war historiography. Hill also called for further research into the economic positions of people on both sides who took part in the war/revolution.

Hill was also a good enough Marxist historian to understand that the real target of the debate was not just Tawney or Stone or himself for that matter but of Marxism itself. The question is should Marx and his method of investigating and explaining historical phenomena be held responsible for the implementation of his method by subsequent historians Marxist or otherwise. After all if a patient dies on the operating table should that lead to the questioning and repudiation of the whole history of medical science?

To buttress his claim that middle class did not rise at this time or that there was a revolution Russell uses the ultra-conservative historian J H Hexter. Hexter’s article the Myth of the Middle Class in Tudor England published in 1961. Russell’s use of Hexter is natural to bolster his argument but to use a rebuttal piece by K G Davies called The Mess of the Middle Class in the same paragraph is a little weird.  I am all for historical balance but this seems a little strange. I could be wrong but Russell’s choice of historians to defend his charge are to some extent logical but they also give the appearance that Russell did not give much thought to them. They almost seem to be thrown in as afterthought. He does not detail much about their work and most annoyingly no footnotes are given making research difficult.

Hexter's most important essay entitled "The Storm over the Gentry"  which Russell strangely ignores  was published in a mainstream magazine after it was turned down by a number of leading American historical journals. Hexter’s main argument was to criticize what he believed were left wing historian’s too heavy reliance on social determinism which he believed undermined their arguments.

Hexter who has been described as a Neo Whig and was as William H Dray[9] said “unabashedly, and often polemically Whiggish. For Hexter, the English Civil War was to be seen as the defense of traditional English liberties against an aggressive Crown. This position contrasted in the 1970s with the revisionist views of Conrad Russell and others who disputed both the uniqueness of the English Civil War and its connection with ideas of liberty. However, inasmuch as the revisionists were also explicitly anti-Marxist, their stance owed a great deal to Hexter's critiques. Russell in particular echoed Hexter's emphasis on continuity in English political values, Hexter's distinction between the Civil War and the subsequent Revolution, and Hexter's belief that contingencies better explained the coming of the War, while rejecting Hexter's view that Parliament was acting out of a clear-cut sense of constitutional obligation and embracing instead the view that religious conflicts and practical problems in the composite monarchy were more decisive”.

In Dray’s essay, he attempts to try to define what is to be a Whig historian. For instance, Hexter’s fascination with constitutional matters certainly would put him in the Whig camp.

Economic Determinism

Russell went on “Another flaw in the model is that, in its pure and original form, it does not recognize the power of ideas as an independent variable. Ideas do not simply reflect the economic circumstances of their thinkers. Where they do correlate with the economic circumstances of their thinkers, they do so in a way so various that a much more flexible instrument than that of class is needed to explain it. It might be possible to construct an explanation of why Victorian pollbooks show weavers voting Liberal, and butchers voting Conservative, but if so, it is an explanation which would have more to do with industrial psychology than with class conflict. In the English Civil War, people's allegiance normally correlates with their religion, but their religion does not correlate with their social background. Even in areas which were strongly of one persuasion, such as Northampton, we find people like the man who was recommended for a job on the ground that he was 'of Northampton, but I thank God not of that persuasion'. There is no way the material can be explained unless by admitting the autonomy of the mind”. [10]

Russell’s divorce of ideas from their economic or material base is common to most of the later revisionist historians. Hill disagreed with Russell’s downplaying of the link between ideas and their material basis. In his book The Intellectual Origins of the English Revolution[11], he sought to use the method of Marxism to understand the complex and dialectical relationship between ideas and their origins. In the introduction he states…

“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 any body of thought which plays a major in history – Luther’s, Rousseau’s, Marx’s own-takes on because it meets the needs of significant group in the society in which it comes into prominence”.

Another reason Russell believed that the revolution was a mirage was his point that the gentry or bourgeois fought on both sides so therefore how could you talk of a bourgeois revolution. He made the correct point that the social origins of the civil war bourgeoisie were not clear cut and that capitalists were on both sides. For him the civil war was nothing out of the ordinary and was largely a series of breakdowns or mistakes from leading players such as Charles1.

It is clear that there have been varying degrees of success of how well Marxist historians have applied historical materialism to the study of the English revolution. The historian Robert Ashton in his essay The Civil War and the Class Struggle outlined the pitfalls encountered by Marxists historians. Ashton is correct in his analysis of the tensions between the king and growing section of the bourgeoisie over a number of issues that went back over a few decades at least.

Ashton does not subscribe to the revisionist contention that just because there were bourgeois elements on both sides of the war that it discounts the Marxist theory of a bourgeois revolution. Ashton points out that this makes it harder for a clear cut analysis but does not rule out the possibly of doing one.

For Ashton the makeup of the 17th century was complex and varied. In his article On Charles and the City of London contained in Essays in the Economic and social History of Tudor and Stuart England; he believes the monarchy had the support of a small but significant section of the bourgeoisie who stood to gain if Charles won the war. On parliaments side stood varying different sections of the bourgeoisie. While this scenario does make it difficult to make generalizations it does not as Russell believes make a Marxist analysis null and void.

Having read enough of Hill I am clear that he accepted that there were gentlemen and landowners on the Parliamentary side in the civil war and small farmers and artisans on the Royalist side i.e. different sections of the bourgeoisie and Aristocracy.

From his knowledge of early Soviet historians and his study of the writings of Marx and Engels he never made the assumption that this was a chemically pure revolution. In fact in his major writings he makes the point that large numbers of people fought and took sides outside of purely economic reasons. According to Ann Talbot[12] “he was sensitive enough to his historical sources to detect the social currents that brought people of diverse social backgrounds into struggle against the king and well-grounded enough in history to identify new and revolutionary ideas in the curious and archaic guise in which they appeared—as the ideologists of the revolution ransacked the Bible and half understood historical precedent for some kind of theory to explain what they were doing”.

Russell rejected this analysis and reiterated that “historians are showing increasing doubt about the dialectical model, in which change comes about by the clash of opposites. This model, as Marx generously admitted, is one we originally owe to Hegel, and its survival has owed as much to Hegelian as to Marxist influence. The Whig version of the origins of the English Civil War, for example, was a clearly dialectical view, and it has come in for heavy criticism in the past fifteen years”.

It is true that Marx did owe a debt to Hegel. Marxism was a development on from Hegel’s philosophy. Russell is correct that one of the basic components of Marxism is the conception of the unity of opposites. Marx took what was the best or materialist from Hegel and discarded his idealist component.

Ilya Stavinsky[13] explains this well “any development, in wide sense of this word, consists of the birth of the event, its development, in narrow sense of this word, and its death. So with time the birth of the event transforms into its opposition, the death of the event. Consequently, the birth and the death are opposite meanings and for this reason they constitutes dialectical contradiction. The essence of the dialectical logic consists in the fact that it describes the development of this contradiction i.e. it shows the transition of the event from one stage, the birth, to its opposite stage, death. For this purpose dialectical logic possesses by its system of category and by its abstract laws. By using them dialectical logic can grasp in detail the process of any development independent of its character whether it is social or natural event. Such categories are form, content, and essence, quality, quantity, elementary form, particular form, universal form, and opposites, real and formal contradiction and so on. Examples of laws: the transformation of content into forms, the transformation of quantity into quality, unity of opposites and so on”.

Marx clearly tied the study of history with the study of society itself.  If Russell had probed a little further in his research he would have found that the main writers and philosophers during the 17th century attempted to understand their revolution along those similar lines.

On this matter, Russell could have done no worse than consulted a number of articles written by a number of the Soviet historians who wrote on this matter. It would have perhaps given his arguments a more objective tone.

One such writer  [14]Evgeny Pashukanis said “ The English Revolution of the seventeenth century gave birth to the basic directions of bourgeois social thought, and forcibly advanced the scientific, i.e. materialist, understanding of social phenomena. “It suffices to mention such a work as Oceana – by the English writer Harrington, and which appeared soon after the English Revolution of the seventeenth century – in which changes in political structure are related to the changing distribution of landed property. It suffices to mention the work of Barnave – one of the architects of the great French Revolution – who in the same way sought explanations of political struggle and the political order in property relations. In studying bourgeois revolutions, French restorationist historians – Guizot, Mineaux and Thierry – concluded that the leitmotif of these revolutions was the class struggle between the third estate (i.e. the bourgeoisie) and the privileged estates of feudalism and their monarch. This is why Marx, in his well-known [15]letter to Weydemeyer, indicates that the theory of the class struggle was known before him".

I believe that unlike Russell the war was a qualitative turning point and I attach an importance to an investigation into the growing capitalistic nature of agriculture key to understanding who fought and why they did. I am not downplaying the importance of investigating the role played by an increasing industrial and commercial class but they were a small minority of the bourgeoisie and did punch above their weight this was in reality a pre-industrial society and therefore as Harrington wrote land and property were the key to understanding the revolutionary nature of the period.

If it is correct to say that we are dealing with a class of land owners who held sway before and after 1642 what was the material or economic basis of this power and how did it reflect in the political superstructure.

Another aspect of Marxist analysis that was attacked by Russell and a whole host of subsequent revisionist historians has been the development of the Base and superstructure argument.

As Marx pointed out  “In the social production of their life, men enter into definite relations that are indispensable and independent of their will, relations of production which correspond to a definite stage of development of their material productive forces. The sum total of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which rises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the social, political and intellectual life process in general. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness.

“At a certain stage of their development, the material productive forces of society come in conflict with the existing relations of production, or — what is but a legal expression for the same thing — with the property relations within which they have been at work hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an epoch of social revolution. With the change of the economic foundation the entire immense superstructure is more or less rapidly transformed. In considering such transformations a distinction should always be made between the material transformation of the economic conditions of production, which can be determined with the precision of natural science, and the legal, political, religious, aesthetic or philosophic — in short, ideological forms in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out. Just as our opinion of an individual is not based on what he thinks of himself, so can we not judge of such a period of transformation by its own consciousness; on the contrary, this consciousness must be explained rather from the contradictions of material life, from the existing conflict between the social productive forces and the relations of production. No social order ever perishes before all the productive forces for which there is room in it have developed; and new, higher relations of production never appear before the material conditions of their existence have matured in the womb of the old society itself. Therefore mankind always sets itself only such tasks as it can solve; since, looking at the matter more closely, it will always be found that the tasks itself arises only when the material conditions of its solution already exist or are at least in the process of formation”.

But it is clear that no all historians rejected the base and superstructure argument. Robert Ashton writing on the English Revolution makes an interesting point on some historians while not being Marxist did use some use of Marxist ideas. Ashton said “The idea of religious, political and constitutional issues as an ideological superstructure based on foundations of material and class interests has been influential far beyond the ranks of Marxist historians. It has indeed been adopted, in part at least and with a radically different emphasis, by some of their more formidable and determined opponents.

While to the casual observer of historical debate these arguments could be viewed as storm in a teapot what lay behind them was Russell’s systematic attack on any materialist approach to historical understanding, smuggled in under the guise of a revaluation of the English revolution or in Russell’s case no revolution. Speaking of Russell Jim Holstun described his work as a ‘manifesto for historical revisionism’, Holstun makes the point that Russell sought another way to explain the social changes that were taken place in the English revolution that historians should concentrate on the upper yeomanry, the middling sort of people who were rising according to Russell ‘not so much at the expense of the gentry, as at the expense of small holders and the laboring poor’. Russell would often make the point that he not conversant with the term’s feudalism and capitalism.

Russell’s essay is heavy on what was negative about Marxist historiography but is extremely poor when it comes to an alternative thesis. This negativity was picked up upon Mary Fullbrook[16] who said “The negative emphasis of much of revisionist work so far has quite understandably provoked the sort of reaction quoted by John Morrill in the preface to the new edition of his book, The Revolt of the Provinces: 'One colleague and friend wryly accused me of "explaining why no civil war broke out in England in 1642"... '. But revisionists feel no great compulsion to develop a comprehensive explanation since they consider that the object of explanation has itself been misinterpreted: the English Revolution was not a world-historically important event requiring a commensurate scale of explanation, but rather represents, at least in origins, a somewhat bloody tiff between a specific monarch and certain factions among his subjects”


Where does this debate over an essay written over twenty years ago leave us? Whether Russell knew how much damage his and other attacks on the Marxist historiography of the civil war would do is a moot point. I believe he was acting very consciously when writing his essay and was genuinely hostile to Marxism. While better writers than me have been able to refute the main thrust of his arguments this debate does not take place in a vacuum and there are consequences that flow from his ideas.

There has been a definite shift away from studies that have been commonly associated with Marxism or “history from below” to a more right wing “History from above” over the last 20 years. This is confirmed in a recent article in the New York Times[17], “In History Departments, It’s Up With Capitalism, it goes on A spectre is haunting university history departments: the spectre of capitalism. After decades of “history from below,” focusing on women, minorities and other marginalized people seizing their destiny, a new generation of scholars is increasingly turning to what, strangely, risked becoming the most marginalized group of all: the bosses, bankers and brokers who run the economy”.

What damage this shift away has done would need a Ph.D. thesis and some. One thing is clear that the paucity of research into the economic changes taking place in the 17th century will badly limit our knowledge of the English revolution. I am not saying that Russell is solely responsible for the shift in academic circles both here and America. But his essay did play a small part in creating this atmosphere.


[1] I refuse to surrender to the Marxist teachers hell-bent on destroying our schools: Education Secretary berates 'the new enemies of promise' for opposing his plan-By Michael Gove  23 March 2013

[2] Comment on ‘Conrad Russell and “The Mirage of the English Revolution” ’



[5] Defender of the Faith: Geoffrey Elton and the Philosophy of History- Geoffrey Roberts

[6] (For more detail on this debate see Causes of the English Revolution. Lawrence Stone;postID=372003558176245437)

[7] The Bourgeois Revolution: A Mirage? Conrad Russell, History Today Volume: 40 Issue: 9 1990.

[8] The Concept of Revolution in 17th Century England The Historical Journal V2 1962

[9] J H Hexter Neo Whiggism and Early Stuart Historiography History and Theory Vol26 No 2 May 1987 pp133-149 by William H Dray

[10] The Bourgeois Revolution: A Mirage? Conrad Russell, History Today Volume: 40 Issue: 9 1990.

[11] Introduction to the Intellectual origins of the English Revolution Panther-C Hill

[12] "These the times ... this the man": an appraisal of historian Christopher Hill-By Ann Talbot  25 March 2003

[13] Formal and Dialectical Logic as Unity of Opposites or Development of Classical Philosophy. By Ilya Stavinsky

[14] Evgeny Pashukanis The Marxist Theory of State and Law (1932)

[15] K. Marx, Letter to Weydemeyer (March 5, 1852), MESW, vol.1, p.528.

[16] The English Revolution and the Revisionist Revolt Mary Fulbrook Social History

Vol. 7, No. 3 (Oct., 1982), pp. 249-264  Published by: Taylor & Francis, Ltd.

[17] In History Departments, It’s Up With Capitalism-