Thursday, 27 November 2014

Varieties of Seventeenth- and Early Eighteenth-Century English Radicalism in Context 2011 Ariel Hessayon-David Finnegan Editors- Ashgate Publishers ISBN: 9780754669050

 "The term political radicalism (or simply, in political science, radicalism) denotes political principles focused on altering social structures through revolutionary means and changing value systems in fundamental ways."[1]

To Be Radical is to Grasp Things by the Root-
 Karl Marx- The German Ideology

"It is a commonplace that the past is at the mercy of the present and that in every generation there are those who deliberately distort aspects of it to reflect a vision of their own or another's making. Most historical writing about radicalism and the English Revolution can be considered fabrication - in the sense of both manufacture and invention. There have been several critical studies documenting this process, including recent work by Mario Caricchio."  Ariel Hessayon

This collection of essays explore the terms 'radical' and 'radicalism' in the Early Modern English context. The term radical or radicalism has like all things connected with the English Revolution in the seventeenth century or political struggles in the eighteenth century come under attack by a coterie of revisionist historians.

As Edward Vallance points out in his essay Reborn John?: The Eighteenth-century The afterlife of John Lilburne:" this is a persuasive presentation of the historical influence of the radicalism of the civil war and one which reflects a broader scholarly unease with the conception of a 'radical tradition'. The notion of a tradition of radical thought was powerfully evoked in the classic works of British Marxist historians such as Christopher Hill and Edward Thompson. It retained some importance in the popular historical imagination.5 Academics have become increasingly critical, however, both of the use of the term 'radical' to describe pre-modern politics and of the idea of a continuum of radical ideas and movements. Scholars have pointed out that the term 'radical' – not in common political use until the early nineteenth century anyway – had a very different meaning in the seventeenth century, indicating not ideas that would dramatically transform the status quo but instead a return to fundamentals or the root. Using the term 'radical' in its modern sense then risks distorting the political outlook of historic individuals who did not necessarily view themselves as advocating anything new or novel. The notion of a radical tradition is now seen as equally problematic, as it implies both a similarity in radical thought over the ages and a degree of influence from one radical group to the next which often cannot be supported with empirical evidence.6 At best, the idea of a radical tradition is seen as a poor way of thinking about intellectual influence. At worst, the concept is seen as a historical fabrication, little more than an exercise in wish-fulfilment on the part of modern left-wing academics and journalists.[2]

Varieties of Seventeenth- and Early Eighteenth-Century English Radicalism in Context is an ambitious book which attempts to go beyond the conceptual categories which permeate the study of The English Revolution. The book is one of many recent studies that seek to clarify but ultimately fails what is meant by many of the concepts used in the Revolution. The 12 essays in this book are the product of the work presented at a conference held at Goldsmiths, University of London, in 2006.

Understanding radicalism is not an easy task as it is clear the term means many things to many people. Historically some early modern historians have used the term radical or radicalism to describe the plethora of groups that took part in the English Revolution. However, even conservative historians such as Hugh Trevor-Roper had adopted the term. Radicals can also be found on the royalist side as well according to one historian in this book.

The term radical is a relatively modern concept. According to Professor Diego Lucci, "the historian Conal Condren has written that it was not until the late 18th century that 'radical' became a political term associated with extensive political and social reform, and it was not until 1819 that Jeremy Bentham coined the word 'radicalism'.[3]

One problem with several essays written by historians who are largely revisionists in nature is that they are more adept at telling us what they reject rather than arguing for what they believe. Readers who are looking for new historiography from this collection of essays will be brutally disappointed.

In the introduction, Ariel Hessayon and David Finnegan make it clear that these articles do not identify with the "linguistic turn "school of historiography or otherwise known as the nominalist approach.

These historians in order to remove "anachronism" from historical study believe it is best to remove terms like radicalism from early modern historiography. In its most extreme form nominalist historians would also like to remove words such as 'puritan', 'royalist'  'antiquity', 'medieval', and 'modern'. In other words, formalism went mad.

The second approach, identified in the introduction, is called 'substantive' and is the polar opposite of nominalist. The functional approach favoured by two divergent schools of historiography Whig and Marxist. These two trends have towered over the study of the English Revolution.

The authors in this collection of essays have rejected both Whig and Marxist historiography and have adopted a semi functionalist approach to the study of English radicalism.

Revisionists of one sort or another have sought over the last three decades to eradicate the influence of both Whig and Marxist historiography. As Hessayon and Finnegan observe correctly that even the use of the word radical has come under attack from a coterie of revisionist historians. So much so it has become increasingly difficult to keep track of the various strands of thought as regards the English Revolution.

A distorted defence of Marxist historiography was carried out by historians in and around the Communist Party of Great Britain.  They sought with varying degrees of success to apply a historical materialist method when writing and studying the various radical groups. Historians which included the likes of Christopher Hill, Rodney Hilton, A. L. Morton and E. P. Thompson developed the 'history from below' genre,

One of the essential features of their approach was to establish the importance of radical groups in the English Revolution. The Communist Party historians rescued them from obscurity. However, they could not escape the influence of the Stalinist controlled party of the USSR. They were  following a historical and political line that came from the Stalin led Russian Communist International during the mid1930s.

As was said before, Hessayon and Finnegan do not support the linguistic but are   hostile to a Marxist interpretation. They treat the matter of radicalism from a purely academic standpoint. However, such a topic such as the level of radicalism in the English Revolution requires a political understanding. That is why Hessayon is hostile to "dangerous extremists" hijacking of groups such as the Levellers for their modern-day political agenda.

Hessayon levelled this very same charge at the historian Edward Vallance in a review of Vallance's A Radical History of Britain for the Institute of Historical Research website. The review crossed a line in that it was a nasty and inaccurate attack.

On Vallance's book, he said "there is another purpose to Vallance's book: a political agenda. Located somewhere to the left of New Labour in Guardian, New Statesman and John Pilger reading territory (pp. 11, 38, 40–2, 430–1, 531, 551), displaying an evident if understandable distaste for Thatcherism (pp. 52, 228, 260), A Radical History of Britain is intended as a celebration of the British people's capacity for dissent and, when necessary, recourse to direct action in defending their liberties and securing new rights (pp. 11, 13, 18, 38–9, 119–21, 181, 201, 526–7). Nor to Vallance's mind is his narrative a record of heroic failure, but rather a testament to the achievements of British radicals and revolutionary movements".

He continues "As historians, we have a collective responsibility to maintain the highest standards of scholarly rigour, especially when undertaking the challenging yet rewarding business of educating non-specialists. Furthermore, shaping aspects of the past to advance present-day political goals is a practice almost as old as the discipline itself. Anyone engaged in this enterprise, however, must take the greatest care not to legitimise the indefensible or give ammunition to dangerous extremist".

Vallance correctly sought to defend his the integrity of his work. "It is rather difficult for me to respond to Dr Hessayon's review, not least because he appears to be offering a critique of quite a different book from the one that I have written. In particular, I am baffled by his repeated references to the British National Party (eight in all) within his review, where he refers to the BNP twice as many times as I do within the whole 600 + pages of my A Radical History of Britain. To put this in perspective, there are almost as many references to him within my book as there are to that far-right party.

" So it is with some puzzlement that I met Dr Hessayon's suggestions that my book may provide 'ammunition to dangerous extremists'. I realise that many readers of Reviews in History will not have looked at my work, so I provide here a key passage from p. 549: This yoking together of freedom and Britishness has continued, through the writing of George Orwell in The Lion and the Unicorn, to the present day, with Gordon Brown's calls for a new sense of national identity constructed around British values of 'liberty, tolerance and fair play'. The BNP would certainly struggle to live up to the second of those values. It is hard to see how British radical movements such as the Chartists, which included prominent black members and supported the abolition of the slave-trade, or the suffragettes, who included leading anti-colonialists such as Sylvia Pankhurst, can fit into the BNP's bleached-white vision of Britain. Yet, in the radical tradition's appropriation by the far-right, we can nonetheless see some of the dangers in claiming universal values such as tolerance, fairness and liberty as peculiarly British. More recently another right-wing group has claimed allegiance to the radicals throughout history. During the recent by-election victory of the UKIP at Rochester the newly elected MP Mark Reckless believed that his party stood in the "radical tradition," one that historically "took power away from the elites and spread it to the people. It is the tradition of Levellers, Chartists, and Suffragettes."

Vallance continues "Overall, this seems an eccentric reading of my book, especially given my left-leaning politics which will be evident to anyone who has read my New Statesman articles or heard my talks at Demos or Republic: The Campaign for an Elected Head of State. His points concerning Dr. Dunn and Dr. Harvey's works aside, Dr. Hessayon's review offers little serious engagement with my work and, in my view, breaches the IHR's standards for scholarly debate".

If Hessayon wanted to attack Vallance properly, he could have pointed out that while Britain did have a radical tradition, this was not somehow unbroken. The theory of an unbroken radical tradition largely stems from the Communist Party Historians Group.

As Philip Bounds pointed out in his outstanding essay Orwell and Englishness: in the section titled The Dialogue with British Marxism "British Communism and the "English Radical Tradition"  he states "The idea of Englishness became an obsession for British communists after the Seventh Congress of the Communist International in 1935. (The Communist International or "Comintern" had been established in Moscow in 1919. Its function was to determine the policies of the various pro-Soviet Communist Parties which came into existence in the wake of the October Revolution.) Meeting at a time when Hitler's Germany and Mussolini's Italy posed an increasingly evident threat to international order, the Seventh Congress was primarily important for determining communist strategy towards the growth of fascism. The most famous speech was delivered by the Bulgarian communist Georgi Dimitrov, newly appointed President of the Comintern, who had become a hero throughout the world movement after being acquitted by a Nazi court on charges of burning down the Reichstag (Germany's parliament) in 1933. After defining fascism as "the open, terrorist dictatorship of the most reactionary, most chauvinistic and most imperialist elements of finance capital," 5 Dimitrov insisted that communists should now give priority to defending established democratic institutions against the fascist attempt to overthrow them. This could best be done by uniting all anti-fascists, including those whom the communists had previously dismissed as "bourgeois" (e.g. liberals and even progressive conservatives), into nationally based "People's Fronts."

This political line was catastrophic and paved the way for numerous defeats of the working class. It did, however, provide the historians of the Communist Party the possibility of examining subjects such as the English Revolution and the in particular radicals without coming into conflict with the leadership in Moscow.
As Bounds continues from 1935 onwards, in a flurry of intellectual activity, many of the CPGB's leading writers made a sustained effort to excavate the history of what was usually called the "English radical tradition." The body of work which they produced can broadly be divided into two categories. On the one hand, there was a series of writings which traced the history of plebeian revolt in Britain since the Peasants' Rising of 1381. These were supplemented by a more extensive (though perhaps not so influential) group of works which explored the influence of radical ideas on a selection of Britain's most famous writers — Shakespeare, Milton and Dickens among them.”

The Beauty of Holiness

The book opens with the chapter The Beauty of Holiness and the Poetics of Antinomianism Richard Crashaw, John Saltmarsh and the Language of Religious Radicalism in the 1640s. Nicholas McDowell essay examines the language of religious radicalism in the 1640s, with a special focus on the poems of Richard Crashaw and John Saltmarsh.

McDowell adopts a reformist rather than a revolutionary position as regards the radical groups as seen in this quote. "The most sensible discussion of radicalism in the English Revolution is the third of G. E. Aylmer's four presidential addresses to the Royal Historical Society on 'Collective Mentalities in Mid-Seventeenth-Century England'. In his paper on 'Varieties of Radicalism', delivered in 1987, Aylmer quickly dispenses with the nominalist wrangling that continues to obsess historians. I quote his opening two sentences: 'Since the terms radical and radicalism were not in use before the nineteenth century, it may reasonably be asked what they signify when applied to the mid-seventeenth century. The answer is a pragmatic one: by radical I mean anyone advocating changes in state, church and society which would have gone beyond the official programme of the mainstream Puritan-Parliamentarians in the Long Parliament and the Assembly of Divines.'[1] Aylmer immediately and with a minimum of fuss defines the context for discussing radicalism in the English Revolution. Having dispensed with the circular debate over naming, Aylmer proceeds to get on with trying to characterise the distinguishing features of mid-seventeenth-century radicalism.[4]

McDowell follows Hessayon lead in opposing historians who have adopted the linguistic turn. He writes If we are not to call 'radical' the writers I discuss at length in the book - the 'Ranter' Coppe, the Levellers Walwyn and Richard Overton, the Quaker Samuel Fisher, the Fifth Monarchist John Rogers - then what exactly are we to call them? 'Sectarian' will hardly do".

Jason Peacey's chapter Radicalism Relocated: Royalist Politics and Pamphleting of the Late 1640s is an indicator of the growing interest in Royalist politics and their use of pamphleting. Peacey is open to the idea that radical politics permeated into every aspect of everyday life.

According to Diego Lucci, "Peacey stresses that radical ideas, especially in matters of religious, social and political reform, penetrated various areas of English politics and, therefore, were shared by different, and sometimes clashing, milieus. Therefore, Peacey argues that radicalism was a phenomenon largely independent from the distinctions between Royalists and Parliamentarians, and influenced both sides of the political spectrum."

Mario Caricchio's News from the New Jerusalem; Giles Calvert and the Radical experience Mario Caricchio's section concentrates on the how bookselling and pamphleteering influenced political and religious debates of the English Revolution. Caricchio focuses on Giles Calvert, one of the main publishers and booksellers in England between 1641 and 1660. Caricchio maintains that Calvert's bookshop was part of a broader network of social networks.

As Caricchio said, in a 2006 essay "Radicalism and English revolution are not on a high road but at a crossroads. Historians seem to place them where a number of contexts intersect. This could be an answer to the question of the "nature of the English revolution", which, as John Morrill put it by citing Hill, required attention to be paid more to "environment" than to "heredity".[36] This is a two-sided issue. On the one hand, there is the radicalisation of conflict that shattered the unity of the "political nation" at the beginning of the 1640s and precipitated England into the civil war. On the other hand, there is the problem of late 1640s radicalism, which Morrill, envisaging a comparison between the Levellers and the Clubmen, raised in a stimulating question: how "Leveller pamphlets and petitions combined deeply regressive economic and social ideas with a core commitment to religious liberty and a political doctrine born of the experience of Independent churches, all bound together in an innovative natural rights framework"? In this question and its possible answer, popular participation and radical ideas still stand at the heart of the matter. The varieties of the English religious experience together with the widening or thickening publicity of discourses seem to be the decisive turning on the map: where the last war of religion becomes a revolution".[5]

Gerrard Winstanley: Radical Reformerby  Ariel Hessayon is a continuation of Hessayon's attack on left-wing historians. In an essay in 2006, he attacks Christopher Hills evaluation of the Digger leader Winstanley."In 1973 Hill's edition of Winstanley's selected writings was published by Penguin. His introduction portrayed Winstanley in modern dress as an advocate of 'human progress', 'reason' and 'international brotherhood'; an author whose insights 'may be of interest to those in the Third World today who face the transition from an agrarian to an industrial society'. Here again was a radical, mostly secular Winstanley whose biblical language and 'high-flown metaphorical style' was worth penetrating in the same way that readers had to get through the 'Hegelian jargon' to understand the early Marx. [76] In a subsequent essay 'From Lollards to Levellers' (1978) Hill attempted to provide both genealogy and ecology for 'lower-class' radicalism by exploring the continuity of radical ideas within an orally transmitted 'underground tradition'. His focus was on doctrinal and geographical continuities, particularly in pastoral, forest, moorland and fen areas where ecclesiastical control was less tight. But if in retrospect the 1970s represented a pinnacle in Hill's writing on radicalism, it was also during this decade that his work was most severely attacked. Indeed, Hill's preoccupation with twentieth-century ideological struggles and his moralising tone made his work vulnerable to charges of being obsessively present-centred, of putting theory above facts. And it must be said that he used evidence inaccurately and selectively, depending almost entirely on printed sources. Ultimately Hill's vision of the past is largely unconvincing, revealing much about his agenda while misleading readers unfamiliar with the evidence. To quote Montaigne: People are prone to apply the meaning of other men's writings to suit opinions that they have previously determined in their minds."

Hill, as far as I can make out, did not reply directly to any of these attacks. But I will. Attacking a historian for his politics is one thing, but accusing a historian of fabricating history is another and has no place in any historians debate. The attack on Hill and the CPHG is reminiscent of J .C. Davis in the 1980s. Davis's great theory was that most of the radical groups that existed during the English Revolution were figments of the imagination of left-wing historians such as Hill. A similar line of attack was taken by historian Alastair MacLachlan in his extraordinarily provocative book The Rise and Fall of Revolutionary England: Essay on the Fabrication of Seventeenth-Century History. MacLachlan should be made to retract his accusations and issue an apology.

To conclude, this collection of essays continues a revisionist trend to downplay the radicals in the English Revolution. There are some worthwhile essays, but overall the book disappoints.











[1]  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Political_radicalism
[2] Reborn John?: The Eighteenth-century Afterlife of John Lilburne
Edward Vallance- https://academic.oup.com/hwj/article/74/1/1/825488
[3] https://reviews.history.ac.uk/review/1157
[4] N. McDowell , "Writing the Literary and Cultural History of Radicalism in the English Revolution", www.cromohs.unifi.it/seminari/mcdowell.html> 
[5]  M. Caricchio, "Radicalism and the English Revolution", in M. Caricchio, G. Tarantino, eds., Cromohs Virtual Seminars. Recent historiographical trends of the British Studies (17th-18th Centuries), 2006-2007