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

Part One

This book review will be published in two parts. Given that there is a degree of controversy involved in this collection of essays I felt the need to do ample justice to the issues involved.

“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

The above definition of radicalism while not specifically aimed at the radical groups that permeated the English revolution does provide us with a useful guideline when seeking to understand modern day historians understanding of these groups.

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 seeks to clarify 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 the Early Modern historians have used 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[2]. Radicals can also be found on the royalist side as well according to one historian in this book.

It goes without saying that the term radical is a relatively modern concept. According to one reviewer “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’.

In common with other studies, the historians in this book are more adept at telling us what they reject rather than arguing for what they believe. Those readers who are looking for a new historiography from this collection of essays will be 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, adopted by historians Conal Condren and Jonathan Clare to name just two.

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’. I do not believe this approach get us anywhere.

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. Revisionists of one sort or another have sought over the last three decades to eradicate the influence of both Whig and Marxist thought. 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 tract of the various different 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 most important features of their approach was to establish the importance of those radical groups to the English revolution. The fact that the Communist Party historians carried out such a detailed study of these groups and rescued them from obscurity was partially off their own backs but crucially they were in reality following a historical and political line that came from the Stalin led Russian Communist International during the mid1930s.

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

As was said before Hessayon and Finnegan do not agree with the linguistic turn. Also they were 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. Hessayon is also very hostile to “dangerous extremists” hijacking of groups such as the Levellers for their own modern day political agenda.

Hessayon recently leveled this severe charge at Edward Vallance. In a review[3] of his book for the Institute of Historical Research website. Hessayon crossed a line in 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 rigor, 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”.

This is a far-reaching charge and wildly inaccurate. Vallance correctly sought to defend his work, political and historical integrity. It is worth quoting in some detail Vallance’s response. While I have differences with Vallance, I believe Hessayon’s remarks were disrespectful and wide of the mark.

Reply by Edward Vallance

“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 actually 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 bi –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’s the tradition of Levellers, Chartists, and Suffragettes.”

Vallance continues “Overall, this seems an eccentric reading of my book, especially given my own 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 own standards for scholarly debate”.

Chapter One

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 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 characterize 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 Late 1640’s is an indicator of the growing interest in Royalist politics and their use of pamphleting.

To what extent Royalists could be described as radicals would be a good topic for Ph.D. dissertation. Peacey is open to the idea that radical politics permeated into every aspect of everyday life.

According to one reviewer “Peacey stresses that radical ideas, especially in matters of religious, social and political reform, penetrated into 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 actually influenced both sides of the political spectrum.”

Chapter 3 Mario Caricchio 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 his essay in 2006 “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 radicalization 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 to a political doctrine born of experience of Independent churches, all bound together in an innovative natural rights framework”? In this question and in 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]

This leads us on to Chapter 4 Gerrard Winstanley: Radical Reformer Ariel Hessayon. As can be seen from above Hessayon is hostile to left-wing historiography. In an essay in 2006, he attacks hills evaluation of the Digger leader Winstanley[6]

“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 a 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.[77] 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.[78] Indeed, Hill's preoccupation with twentieth-century ideological struggles and his moralizing 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 own 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.

The title of the 2006 essay is provocative and is a bit disrespectful especially to the Communist Party Historians Group. I think Hessayon is sailing a little too close to the wind in his attack on the Communist Party historians.

“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.[1] I do not wish to argue here that there was a single, continuous English radical tradition, but nor would I like to dismiss the notion entirely. Instead what I want to suggest is that though radicalism lacks a connected history the imagined relationship between radicals of the English Revolution and their predecessors and successors has served as a powerful substitute. So much so, that multifaceted traditions have emerged as part of the discourse. Moreover, vestiges of radicalism recovered in manuscripts and rediscovered in printed texts have sometimes intermingled with perceived radical heritages to produce vibrant revolutionary eruptions. This can be seen by tracing the ways through which radicalism in the English Revolution has been successively appropriated and constructed - and how, subject to competing interpretations, these fabrications have disintegrated leaving only shards of radical traditions”.

While he believes he can score a few cheap points the political criticism of these historians is missing. As I said before you cannot approach these radicals and the historians that have written about them from a purely academic and in Hessayon case a very conservative educational approach at that. An attack on these historians would have had to gone into considerable details of the pressure exerted on these historians to toe both politically and historically the line from Moscow in the 1930s.

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.

Hessayon should have invested a little more of his time investigating the political origins of the Communist Party Historians would have improved his evaluation of radicals such as Winstanley.


[2] Country-House Radicals 1590-166o By H. R. Trevor-Roper
[3] A Radical History of Britain. Visionaries, Rebels, and Revolutionaries: the Men and Women who Fought for Our Freedoms Reviewer: Ariel Hessayon
[4] N. McDowell , "Writing the Literary and Cultural History of Radicalism in the English Revolution", in M. Caricchio, G. Tarantino, eds., Cromohs Virtual Seminars. Recent historiographical trends of the British Studies (17th-18th Centuries), 2006-2007:>

[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: 1-5

[6] A. Hessayon, "Fabricating radical traditions", in M. Caricchio, G. Tarantino, eds., Cromohs Virtual Seminars. Recent historiographical trends of the British Studies (17th-18th Centuries), 2006-2007: 1-6