Wednesday, 15 July 2015

God, Duty and Community in English Economic Life, 1660–1720, by Brodie Waddell. The Boydell Press. 2012; pp. 273. £60.

Even after a cursory look at the work of Brodie Waddell it becomes clear that he holds an empathy with the oppressed and working people both past and present. He delivers his history with a passion that is all too absent.

His particular brand of people’s history is heavily influenced by historians who came from the Communist Party Historians Group. One of their many contributions to the study of Early Modern England was the historiographical genre “history from below” or ‘people’s history’. His new book is heavily influenced by E P Thompson especially his Making of the English Working Class.

Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class and his other major works have a common theme in that they have a tendency to obscure the class character of rebels, revolutionaries and popular leaders by regarding them all as representatives of a national revolutionary tradition.

As Ann Talbot writes “This historical approach reflected the nationalism of the Soviet bureaucracy, their hostility to internationalism and their attempts to form an unprincipled alliance with the supposedly democratic capitalists against the fascist Axis countries during the 1940s. People’s history was an attempt to give some historical foundation to the policies of Popular Front”.

The historian David Parker[1] has played down the influence of the Soviet CP on the historians inside the CPHG. According to Parker the British Marxists were not “imprisoned in a straight jacket –either economistic or Stalinist-from which they later escape”. This is a very generous evaluation. This political blindness appears to be a problem amongst modern historians.

This is Waddell’s first book but he has a significant body of work inside and outside academia. His blog contains numerous articles based on people’s history genre. In 2013 along with other likeminded historians they held an Online Symposium titled “The Future of History from Below”: Waddell along with over twenty likeminded historians recently announced on the blog a follow up online symposium, ‘The Voices of the People’. The series of articles will further examine the history from below genre. While this is an extremely useful exercise I have a number of reservations. Number one being that at no time has an orthodox Marxist historian been invited to contribute to the subject and secondly none of the essays examine the political origins of the genre in any great detail.

The revival of the history from below genre seems to coincide with a growing dissatisfaction amongst some historians and the wider public with capitalism. It cannot be a coincidence that we have over the last six years witnessed the near collapse of the capitalist system and growth of social inequality unprecedented in over a century and seen the rise of a new form of history from below historiography.

Like a large number of revisionist historians today Waddell sets out in his introduction the quite considerable task of seeking to overturn large swathes of previous historiography on his chosen subject. However his criticism previous Marxist and Whig historiography gives succour to more conservative revisionist historians.

Waddell admits that for a substantial part of the twentieth century early modern historiography in Britain and internationally has been dominated by a disparate number of historians who in one way or another profess to be Marxist or Marxist influenced. As one writer put it that “notions of early modern social change have been informed by a series of teleological transitions–from feudalism to capitalism, community to society, and so on”.

I am unable to tell how much Marx and Engels Waddell has read but his book does not present their writings in any great detail. It is clear that he does not agree with their politics or historiography. In his book and to a certain extent his blog [2] he rejects the notion that early modern society can be best understood when one accepts that it undertook a transition from feudalism to capitalism.

I believe the book would have benefited from a closer study of Marxist methodology. In fact like most modern history books Waddell’s is very light on methodology. While not directly concerning the material in the book  Engels work on the family would have given us a deeper insight into the lives of “ ordinary  17th century people, “According to the materialistic conception, the determining factor in history is, in the final instance, the production and reproduction of the immediate essentials of life. This, again, is of a twofold character. On the one side, the production of the means of existence, of articles of food and clothing, dwellings, and of the tools necessary for that production; on the other side, the production of human beings themselves, the propagation of the species. The social organization under which the people of a particular historical epoch and a particular country live is determined by both kinds of production: by the stage of development of labor on the one hand and of the family on the other”[3].

Waddell rejects Engel’s historical materialistic outlook. He instead leans heavily on the work of E. P. Thompson whose work for too long has been described as Marxist. Despite borrowing a few phrases or quotes from Marx or Engels Thompson’s work is really a negation of orthodox Marxism.

His use of the term “moral economy” has been presented as a sort of Marxist analysis. The concept of a “moral economy” is usually attributed to Thompson it was in fact the Russian economist Alexander Chayanov who first expounded on this idea in the 1920s, despite making a few carefully worded criticisms of Thompson’s “moral economy” he largely accepts his premise. What is the moral economy according to Lancaster University “the Moral economy' might be defined as a kind of enquiry focusing on how economic activities of all kinds are influenced, structured and legitimized by moral sentiments, values and norms, and how in turn those are reinforced, compromised, or overridden by political economic pressures”.

No matter how you try you wrap it up this theses have nothing to do with any Marxist concepts or methodology. Waddell has a tendency to separate what people thought about religion, duty and community from the significant economic changes that took place in the seventeenth century. Waddell like Thompson rejects the relationship between Base and superstructure.

As one reviewer put it “Waddell does not claim to be an expert on new forms of economic development that came about during the later Stuart period. In the latter half of the book Waddell details activity of the people. He cites numerous strikes, protests, and communal actions that took place across England between 1660 and 1720. Due to his political blindness these events cannot be placed in relation to their political or social context. His tendency to separate base and superstructure means his observations are superficial at best and are “treated only as manifestations of a more general sense of collective identity and agency”

This separation between base and superstructure has become the hallmark of a number of historians that write on the history from below genre. Despite being labelled as out of date and unfashionable what Marx wrote in A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy is still a valuable guide to understanding the changes that took place in people’s lives in the seventeenth century “In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely [the] relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure, and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political, and intellectual life".

 "It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness. At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or — this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms — with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces, these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution. The changes in the economic foundation lead, sooner or later, to the transformation of the whole, immense, superstructure. In studying such transformations, it is always necessary to distinguish 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, artistic, or philosophic — in short, ideological forms in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out. Just as one does not judge an individual by what he thinks about himself, so one cannot judge such a period of transformation by its consciousness, but, on the contrary, this consciousness must be explained from the contradictions of material life, from the conflict existing between the social forces of production and the relations of production”.[4]

While Waddell correctly points out in the book that the lives of working people in early modern England, were to a degree influenced by the economic changes taking place after the revolution. But he rejects the premise that their social being determined their consciousness. Again the book would have benefited from Marx’s analysis in The German Ideology: “The production of ideas, of conceptions, of consciousness, is at first directly interwoven with the material activity and the material intercourse of men, the language of real life. Conceiving, thinking, the mental intercourse of men, appear at this stage as the direct afflux from their material behaviour. The same applies to mental production as expressed in the language of the politics, laws, morality, religion, and metaphysics of a people. Men are the producers of their conceptions, ideas, etc. Real, active men, as they are conditioned by the definite development of their productive forces and of the intercourse corresponding to these, up to its furthest forms. Consciousness can never be anything else than conscious existence, and the existence of men in their actual life process. If in all ideology men and their circumstances appear upside down as in a camera obscura, this phenomenon arises just as much from their historical life process as the inversion of objects on the retina does from their physical life-process." [5]

Despite its shortcoming on methodology the book does have merit. It is to Waddell’s credit that in order to present his ideas he uses a wide range of sources, low priced pamphlets, Sermons, songs, broadsides. The books shows his extensive use of archival sources such as court records, guild and company records, and parish registers.

The book is divided into three sections, each examine the concepts in the title, God, duty, and community. One problem encountered by Waddell is the paucity of records that enable us to have a good idea of how “ordinary” people viewed the religious developments and how they impacted on economic life.

It is clear that during the English revolution traditional religious beliefs started to receive a beating as David north points out “Until the early seventeenth century, even educated people still generally accepted that the ultimate answers to all the mysteries of the universe and the problems of life were to be found in the Old Testament. But its unchallengeable authority had been slowly eroding, especially since the publication of Copernicus's De Revolutionibus in the year of his death in 1543, which dealt the death blow to the Ptolemaic conception of the universe and provided the essential point of departure for the future conquests of Tycho Brahe (1546-1601), Johann Kepler (1571-1630) and, of course, Galileo Galilei (1564-1642). Intellectually, if not yet socially, the liberation of man from the fetters of Medieval superstition and the political structures that rested upon it, was well under way[6]
Waddell can reject Marx ,Tawney and even Weber all he likes but evidence points to large sections of society both poor and rich alike sharing similar if not the same attitude towards God and to some extent property.

Despite calling for a new approach to historical research much of Waddell’s ideas have been developed already by a body of writers and historians who advocated a “cultural turn”. Like many “new” approaches Cultural Studies started life as an attack on revolutionary Marxism, It is hoped that Waddell’s future work does not too far down this road.

Other reviews

[1] David Parker Ideology, Absolutism and the English Revolution –Debates on the British Communist Historians-1940-1956.
[3] The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State: in the Light of the Researches of Lewis H. Morgan preface to the First Edition, 1884
[4] Marx, Karl (1977). A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy. Moscow: Progress Publishers: Notes by R. Rojas.
[5] German Ideology, 1.c. p. 13-4.

[6] Equality, the Rights of Man and the Birth of Socialism By David North 24