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


"But an animal only produces what it immediately needs for itself or its young. It produces one-sidedly, whilst man produces universally. It produces only under the dominion of immediate physical need, whilst man produces even when he is free from physical need and only truly produces in freedom therefrom. An animal produces only itself, whilst man reproduces the whole of nature. An animal's product belongs immediately to its physical body, whilst man freely confronts his product. An animal forms objects only in accordance with the standard and the need of the species to which it belongs, whilst man knows how to produce in accordance with the standard of every species, and knows how to apply everywhere the inherent standard to the object. Man therefore also forms objects in accordance with the laws of beauty-  Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts-(Marx, 1975: 276)

"all creatures have been turned into property, the fishes in the water, the birds in the air, the plants on the earth; the creatures, too, must become free.

Thomas Munzer

Horses played a significant economic, political, social and cultural role in 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's extensive knowledge of the subject and is solidly researched. While claiming to be a book primarily about horses, it does examine methodologies and 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.

Despite this annoying habit, 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 the respect that the writer developed his art through a series of blog articles[1]. It also counteracts the snobbish attitude amongst some historians that history blogs are not really of a high standard or worse are 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 have raised their game regards the appearance of the books they publish.

Where does the book fit in with current historiography?. Robinson's book is a synthesis of revisionist thought from the last decade and should be categorized more in the school of the post revisionist school of history. The book rejects any form of determinist or economic methodology broadly associated with Marxist historiography. It is a polemic against both Marxist and Whig historiography.

I would hardly call Robinson's attack on Marxist historiography major simply because he fails to go into any lengthy detail aside from a few remarks. Robinson does not examine the huge output of major figures such as Christopher Hill or Brian Manning.

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.

It is concerning that Robinson has not followed through on his research. Hribal's article raises several questions. Hribal is not an orthodox Marxist, and it has never been a Marxist position that horses or animals, in general, are part of the worker's movement.
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 is Joseph Proudhon, who was not a Marxist but an Anarchist.

Hribal's notes "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".

Proudhon concluded that "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 labourers 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."[2]

What does Robinson share with these two writers? While it is true 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. As Paul Larfargue noted "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". [3]

Lafargue was close politically to Joseph Proudhon and his articles share 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 labourer, "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.

No Marxist would advocate horses being seen in the same historical sense as humans. It is certainly not Marx's position in his Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, "an animal only produces what it immediately needs for itself or its young. It produces one-sidedly, whilst man produces universally. It produces only under the dominion of immediate physical need, whilst man produces even when he is free from physical need and only truly produces in freedom therefrom. An animal produces only itself, whilst man reproduces the whole of nature. An animal's product belongs immediately to its physical body, whilst man freely confronts his product. An animal forms objects only in accordance with the standard and the need of the species to which it belongs, whilst man knows how to produce in accordance with the standard of every species, and knows how to apply everywhere the inherent standard to the object. Man therefore also forms objects in accordance with the laws of beauty.[4]

How does this compare with Robinson's Viewpoint?. According to the writer of the books, 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 fashioned by an unidentifiable writer but must have been sanctioned by the author because they fit it in with Robinson's view regarding the English Civil War that "Actions were more important than thoughts".

Robinson's book personifies the glorification of empiricism that is extremely prevalent in current academic circles. He rejects the three most important reasons why people took sides, namely class, economics and politics. What is left after that is a philosophy of anything goes.

Robinson rejects the Marxist concept that social consciousness is determined by social being and adopts a broadly Existentialist outlook. The book is heavily imbued with this viewpoint. Again according to the 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. As Nick Poyntzconcurs in his review of the book, "Parliamentarian' and 'Royalist' are two of those words that it is easy to throw around unthinkingly. Partly it is 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 is also because they are bound up with the particular way civil war allegiance has been defined in the twentieth century ".[5]

Robinson's rejection of basic class terms is very bold. He never really outlines 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.

He is not the first to challenge old terms. But as David Underdown correctly points out, it has been difficult to do so.

As Underdown notes "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 suggests they did not have much success. The sceptics did make one useful contribution, though in requiring us to be more careful about defining those terms before we use them".[6]

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 ".

Despite Robinson's revisionist outlook Marxism still has a major part to play in our understanding the English Revolution. Dialectical thinking still has an important part to play in understanding complex historical problems.

As the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky notes  "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]

One of the major charges against Marxist' historiography is that it puts forward a view that England witnessed a bourgeois revolution in the 1640s. Revsionists counter this by saying that the bourgeoisie was on both sides and that on numerous occasion, people switched allegiances. It is a charge that Robinson agrees with.

The Marxist historian Christopher Hill counters this viewpoint saying "Marx himself did not fall into the error of thinking that men's idea was 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 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 a significant group in the society in which it comes into prominence". Hill never assumed 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.

As Ann Talbot points out Hill "was sensitive enough to his historical sources to detect the social currents that brought people of diverse social backgrounds into a 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".[8]

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of Robinson book is the attack on anthropocentric historiography. According to Nick Poynzt "Horses had their 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 of 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 standpoint. [9]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.

Another challenge to established historiography is his adoption of gender studies. Robinson is heavily influenced by the work of Rachel Weil.[10] 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 form an important aspect of the 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 am 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 is so much more that could be done. My only criticism of the Hughes book is that it is very short for such a huge and under-researched aspect of the civil wars. I was not sure if anyone would spot that feminist Easter egg in the index, but it is what most history books should have if they are honest."

Gender or women's studies is a new type of historiography. The recent proliferation of books and articles 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 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.
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.

To conclude. The study of horses is 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 reject Robinson's central argument that previous historiography has been too Anthropocentric. My approach remains determinedly anthropocentric.





[2] What is Property? By P. J. Proudhon
[3] https://www.gutenberg.org/files/52984/52984-h/52984-h.htm
[4] Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts-(Marx, 1975: 276).
[5] mercuriuspoliticus.wordpress.com/2012/07/29/horses-people-and-parliament/
[6]See-www.dorchesteranglican.info/stpeters/johnwhite/jww/JWRevisited.p
[7] The ABC of Materialist Dialectics (December 1939) Extract from A Petty-Bourgeois Opposition in the Socialist Workers Party.
[8] These the times ... this the man": an appraisal of historian Christopher Hill-By Ann Talbot  25 March 2003 https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2003/03/hill-m25.html
[9] Anthropocentric- regarding man as the most important and central factor in the universe
[10] Sexual Ideology and Political Propaganda in England 1680-1714". Also Sometimes a Scepter is Only a Scepter: Pornography and Politics in Restoration England" (1993).


Monday, 6 May 2013

Conrad Russell and the "Mirage" of the English Revolution

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 to the Victorian era, they have provoked an ideological battle amongst writers, historians and other academics.

Amongst historians, the battle lines are being drawn 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. The purpose of this essay is not to trawl through the entire history of these attacks except one of them caught my attention, Conrad Russell's essay The Bourgeois Revolution: A Mirage".[2]

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 historical materialism and was published in what has become a house organ for revisionist historians. His article was also one of many types of 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.

One such article was Francis Fukuyama's The End of History and the Last Man. In that article Fukuyama wrote: "All countries un­dergoing economic modernization must increasingly resemble one another: they must unify nationally on the basis of a central­ized state, urbanize, replace traditional forms of social organiza­tion like tribe, sect, and family with economically rational ones based on function and efficiency, and provide for the universal education of their citizens. Such societies have become increas­ingly linked with one another through global markets and the spread of a universal consumer culture. Moreover, the logic of modern natural science would seem to dictate a universal evolu­tion in the direction of capitalism."

As David Walsh noted "It is painful to read the gloating stupidities that were churned out by Western academics in the wake of the demise of the Soviet Union. Seemingly every journal devoted to politics, current affairs or culture felt obliged to publish a special issue devoted to the supposed rout of socialism. The word "End" or "Death" or "Fall" or a synonym had to be included somewhere in the title."[3]

Fukuyama's attack coincided with a systematic attack from revisionist historians on Marxist historiography in the field of history. This gained added momentum in the aftermath of the collapse of the U.S.S.R. 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. Several academics wrongly saw the collapse of Stalinism as the collapse of Marxism.

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. Cobban did not believe it was a social revolution.

According to 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".[4]

Whether Cobban's work, the birthplace 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.

In his book, the Communist Manifesto. He notes "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 the 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". 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 did not know what he was talking about. I am not sure how much Marxist literature he read, but it is 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 noted that he was not the first to revise Marxist historiography. When this revision started in Britain is open to much debate. I guess that it started with G.R Elton's High Road to Civil 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 the essay, 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 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 predicted 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 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.  Russell, in his essay never really comes close to answering why before he wrote his essay that it was generally accepted that a revolution of some kind did take place in the 1640s. This was accepted by 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 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." [8]

Russell is strangely silent on this varied historical usage of the word revolution. 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 is their political?.

When Russell ties the theory of a rising Middle Class or bourgeoisie to the fate of the Marxist historians he is doing a disservice to his profession. Strangely, 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 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.

As Norah Carlin notes in her excellent essay "The gentry were, in origin, simply the mass of the feudal landowning class in England, where only the upper crust of this class had distinctive 'noble' titles. Both Marx and Engels suggested that the development of commodity production in agriculture in sixteenth-century England and the two-way social mobility between the gentry and the bourgeoisie made the gentry natural allies of the bourgeoisie in the revolution. Tawney's thesis went much further than this. According to Tawney, the gentry were a revolutionary social class in themselves: a distinct social class, fundamentally opposed to the old 'aristocratic' ruling class; the revolution was made by and for them.

But it is in fact very hard to separate 'gentry' from 'aristocracy' as distinct social classes. Their sources of wealth were the same – land, with an admixture of trade and office-holding. 'Traditional' and 'commercial' attitudes to wealth (which Tawney proposes as an essential difference between the two) are found equally on both sides of the barrier of noble title. In terms of power, noble and gentle landowners shared the ruling positions in provincial society, both had access to positions at court, and they even (as Lords and Commons, both in opposition to Charles I in 1640) shared Parliament. Mobility between the two groups was very common, for a gentleman could easily be made a lord (under James I, he could even directly buy the title), while a lord's younger sons were automatically mere gentlemen. The gentry were, it seems, born and bred members of the existing ruling class under the Stuart monarchy.

The 'rise of the gentry' thus becomes a gaping trap for Marxists into which perhaps only Perry Anderson of New Left Review has jumped with both feet. For Anderson, the English Civil War was 'a "bourgeois revolution" only by proxy', because it was made by a section of the ruling class. [6] But if a bourgeois revolution can be made by proxy from above, can a proletarian revolution? If a section of the ruling class could break the last bonds of feudalism on behalf of the bourgeoisie, could not a section of the bourgeoisie set up socialism on behalf of the working class?. The way out of this situation lies in a re-examination of the actual role of the gentry in the English Civil War – the very task at which the New Historians have been beavering away in the belief that they were destroying Marxism.[9]

Russell's original point was that Marxism stood or fell based on a rising gentry. The "Storm over the gentry debate is probably one of the most important in civil war historiography. The original debate was centred on R H Tawney's thesis of a rising gentry later supported by Lawrence Stone who in 1948, who was 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 Marxists, 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 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 the middle class did not rise at this time or that there was a revolution, Russell leans on 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 gives the appearance that Russell did not give much thought to them. They almost seem to be thrown in as an afterthought. He does not detail much about their work, and most annoyingly no footnotes are used, 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 several leading American historical journals. Hexter's main criticism was that left-wing historians relied too heavily on a social determinist argument.

Hexter who has been described as a Neo Whig and was as William H Dray said "unabashedly, and often polemically Whiggish. For Hexter, the English Civil War was to be seen as the defence 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, since 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".[10]

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.

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 poll books 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". [11]

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, 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 was 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 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 a significant group in the society in which it comes into prominence".[12]

Another reason Russell believed that the revolution was a mirage is 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 Charles Ist.

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 several issues that went back over a few decades at least.

Ashton does not subscribe to the revisionist argument 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 possibility 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 assumed 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 Hill was "sensitive enough to his historical sources to detect the social currents that brought people of diverse social backgrounds into the 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".[13]

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 dialectical view, and it has come in for heavy criticism in the past fifteen years".

Marx did indeed 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 explains this well "any development, in a wide sense of this word, consists of the birth of the event, its development, in the 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, birth and death are opposite meanings, and for this reason, they constitute a 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 a 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".[14]

Marx 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 albeit gingerly to understand their revolution along those similar lines.

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

One such writer 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".[15]

The war was a qualitative turning point. One cannot underestimate the importance of an investigation into the growing capitalistic nature of agriculture which is key to understand who fought and why they did.

If it is correct to say that we are dealing with a class of landowners 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".[16]

But 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.

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 smallholders and the labouring 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 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."[17]

To conclude, 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 some consequences 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.

As confirmed by this article in the New York Times "In History Departments, It is 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".[18]

What damage this shift away from Marxist historiography has done would need a PhD thesis. 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 hostility to Marxism.



[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
[2] https://www.historytoday.com/archive/bourgeois-revolution-mirage
[3] https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2019/09/17/dwle-s17.html
[4] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alfred_Cobban
[5] Defender of the Faith: Geoffrey Elton and the Philosophy of History- Geoffrey Roberts http://www.ucc.ie/chronicon/elton.htm
[6] For more detail on this debate see Causes of the English Revolution. Lawrence Stone
[7] The Bourgeois Revolution: A Mirage? Conrad Russell, History Today Volume: 40 Issue: 9 1990. http://www.historytoday.com/conrad-russell/bourgeois-revolution-mirage
[8] The Concept of Revolution in 17th Century England The Historical Journal V2 1962
[9] Norah Carlin-Marxism and the English Civil War-(Autumn 1980) https://www.marxists.org/history/etol/writers/carlin/1980/xx/civilwar.html
[10] ] J H Hexter Neo Whiggism and Early Stuart Historiography History and Theory Vol26 No 2 May 1987 pp133-149 by William H Dray
[11] The Bourgeois Revolution: A Mirage? Conrad Russell, History Today Volume: 40 Issue: 9 1990. http://www.historytoday.com/conrad-russell/bourgeois-revolution-mirage
[12] Intellectual origins of the English Revolution Panther-C Hill
[13] "These the times ... this the man": an appraisal of historian Christopher Hill-By Ann Talbot  25 March 2003 https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2003/03/hill-m25.html
[14] Formal and Dialectical Logic as Unity of Opposites or Development of Classical Philosophy. By Ilya Stavinsky
[15] Evgeny Pashukanis The Marxist Theory of State and Law (1932)
[16] Evgeny Pashukanis The Marxist Theory of State and Law (1932)
[17] The English Revolution and the Revisionist Revolt Mary Fulbrook Social History
[18] In History Departments, It's Up With Capitalism- http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/07/education/in-history-departments-its-up-with-capitalism.html?_r=0