Monday, 16 January 2017

Radicalism in the English Revolution, 1640-60 (Historical Association Studies) Paperback 18 Apr 1985-F.D. Dow

“That an inequitable thing it is for one man to have thousands, and another want bread, and that the pleasure of God is, that all men should have enough, and not that one man should abound in this worlds good, spending it upon his lusts, and another man of far better deserts, not be worth two pence, and that it is no such difficulty as men make it to be, to alter the course of the world in this thing, and that a few diligent and valiant spirits may turn the world upside down, if they observe their seasons, and shall with life and courage ingage accordingly”.
William Walwyn

Given the speed that historiography of the English revolution is moving it is sometimes wise to look at where we have been to find out where we are going. A review of F D Dow’s book would be a good place to start.

Written over thirty years ago, Dow’s book was aimed at students and the public. Her book is of a very good standard and in no way dumbs down her writing. In fact, given that her target audience was pre-degree students it is of a very high academic standard.

It is undeniable that there has been a resurgence of interest in the Levellers both in academic and non-academic publications. It is certainly easier to write on the Levellers today than when Dow wrote her book. Dow’s 1985 book was separated into five chapters with a preface but has no separate concluding chapter.

The Debate on the English Revolution

Chapter 1 begins with a Debate on the English Revolution. F D Dow makes clear that her little book is not a narrative of the events of the English civil war. The first chapter with limited space gives a good introduction to the level of radicalism in the English Revolution.

She is clear that the subject of her book has generated a lot of controversies. Outside of the Russian and French revolutions respectively no other revolution has generated as much.
Her assessment of 1980s radical historiographies is precise and informative. Today’s readers should bear in mind that at the time of Dow’s book revisionist historians had been attacking any historian who sought to place the Levellers in their proper historical context. This had been going for decades.

More specifically Dow believes that most of the revisionist’s fire had been against Marxist historiography especially any understanding of the importance of any long-term causes of the English civil war.

Even the use of the term radical to describe groups such as the Levellers had come under attack by historians as Glenn Burgess points out “it has been suggested - by Conal Condren and Jonathan Clark especially - that the term 'radicalism' should not be applied to phenomena that exist before the term itself was coined. Clark has pointed out that it applies "to a doctrine newly coined in England in the 1820s to describe a fusion of universal suffrage, Ricardian economics and programmatic atheism. To speak of an eighteenth - or a seventeenth-century radicalism is therefore as much of a solecism as to speak of an eighteenth- or a seventeenth-century fascism or Marxism”. His point is essential that in using the term to yoke together disparate phenomena with a common label, we create false or fictional histories and traditions. Condren suggests other objections. First, that 'radical' as a label risks miss-describing the language used by those so labeled. It attributes to them polemical and rhetorical strategies of subversion and opposition without considering whether such strategies were adopted. Secondly, the label risks miss-describing intentionality. Its application suggests an identity - that a person or group is knowingly and consciously 'radical' - whether appropriately or not[1]

It is hard to find Dow’s own historiographical preferences. Given that this book is aimed at students it is not surprising. But her own thoughts on the revolution and its radical participants does get an airing. While not rejecting out of hand both the Marxist and conservative historians she does, however, posit what she calls a third-way argument on the radical groups.

She says “Hill’s picture of a radical plebeian culture cannot be ignored. The significance of his work and of other like-minded historians prompts the question: can radicalism be put into a new perspective which considers the convincing arguments of the conservative ‘revisionists’ but leaves room for the belief that there really was a ‘revolution’ in the 1640s and 1650s[2].
This argument anticipated by well over three decades the current position of the post- revisionist school of historiography.

Dow explains that the turn away from Marxist historiography brought about a plethora of other explanations as to why the radical groups were not really that radical.

Conservative historians such as by A M Everitt and later John Morrill sought to examine local aspects of the revolution while playing down the influence of the radicals.

Studies such as The County Committee of Kent in the Civil War by A M Everitt and more famously John Morrill’s work on the Revolt of the Provinces emphasized short-term explanations. The rise of local studies does not necessary mean all the historians who adopted this approach had a right-wing agenda. David Underdown’s Riot, Rebel, and Rebellion is well worth a look at.

Other revisionist historians such as John Adamson limited the civil war to a struggle amongst the nobility not a class struggle in his Noble Revolt and his forthcoming Noble Realm. This has led to the muddying or an outright denial of class struggles in the English civil war.

Despite agreeing with many conservative historians Dow does not buy into the premise that there were no long-term causes of the revolution or for the rise of radicalism.

Dow leans on the work of Brain Manning who she says “forcefully argued that economic discontent and popular unrest were important elements in producing an atmosphere of crisis before and after 1640 ... that this eruption of the lower and middling orders into the political arena crucially affected the alignment of political groupings within the elite ... parliament’s appeal to the ‘middling sort of people’ was ... to release one of the most dynamic forces of the decade and substantially promote the cause of popular radicalism”[3].

Parliamentarians and Republicans

In Chapter Two Dow examines the philosophical basis for the Civil War. She explains that before the Civil war the English ruling elite was largely content with the divine rule of kings. Society was in order and that God ordained everything.

Dow correctly spends some time on the philosophy James Harrington. The importance of Harrington is that his writings are a confirmation of the relationship between political thought and political action. Dow, however, downplays Harrington grasp of the relationship between property and power saying he was not a “proto-Marxist”. While this is true he was a writer who anticipated a materialist understanding of social and political events
The Levellers

Chapter three Dow examines the complex issue of the Levellers. To what extent were the Levellers able to articulate the political and social needs of large sections of the population.
Dow believes that the Mournful Cries of Many Thousand Poor Tradesmen was a huge issue during the English revolution. “O Parliament men, and Soldiers! Necessity dissolves all Lawes and Government, and Hunger will break: through stone walls, Tender Mothers will sooner devoure You, then the Fruit of their owne wombe, and hunger regards no Swords nor Cannons. It may be some great oppressours intends tumults that they may escape in a croud, but your food may then be wanting as well as ours, and your Armes will bee hard diet. O hearke, hearke at our doores how out children cry Bread, bread, bread, and we now with bleeding hearts, cry, once more to you, pity, pity, an oppressed inslaved people: carry our cries in the large petition to the Parliament, and tell them if they be still &illegible; the Teares of the oppressed will wash away the foundations of their houses. Amen, Amen so be it”[4].

Whether social inequality was to most important factor in leading to revolution is a matter of conjecture. What is clear from Dow’s book is that the Levellers amongst other radical groups exploited this and they politically articulated the wants and needs of a large section of the population.

While how to fill, your belly became a significant social and political question there was also a questioning of people’s place in the grand scheme of things.

As the Marxist political writer, David North explains “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. The discoveries in astronomy profoundly changed the general intellectual environment”[5].

It would be wrong of course to mechanically apply this type of reason to the thinking of parliamentary opposition to the King. People's thinking was mostly confused and not coherently thought out. As Dow mentions on (p15) “Four major issues were touched upon by these new writers, the nature, and location of sovereignty, the origins of government in the consent of the people, the welfare of the people as the end or purpose of government and the role of common people in resisting the king”. Dow attempts in this chapter to establish a link between the new philosophy and the actions of the Levellers revolution.

For Dow, the chief ideologues of the revolution were the radical groups such as the Levellers, Diggers etc. She states on page 8 that “Ideological and organizational advances were made by radicals who were not matched until the 1760s. Although the Levellers did not achieve power and succeeded more in frightening those who did hold power than in convincing them of the merits of the radical case., their beliefs and their program opened new vistas of political participation, religious toleration, and social equality. If not for all men, then at least for very significant sections of the middling classes”.

The Levellers per Dow were “founding fathers of the working-class movement”. Dow claimed the Levellers broke new ground.” They grounded their program of a new ideological basis by developing arguments based on doctrines of natural rights and popular sovereignty. And they mobilized support for their movement by employing sophisticated modern techniques of propaganda and organization”.

Dow’s assertion is tempered by AL Morton who said of the Levellers “it was a radical but not a working-class party: indeed, how could it be at a time when the working class as we know it was only beginning to exist? Still less was it a ‘socialist’ party in the sense of advocating the type of egalitarian and agrarian communism which was widespread now” and to add was not articulately expressed (until) Winstanley and his Diggers or ‘true Levellers’[6].

Dow admits it is difficult however to paint an exact picture of what constituted the Leveller party and it was as the Baptist Henry Dunne said a “very heterogeneous body”. It is to Dow’s credit she places the rise of the Levellers in a socio-economic context. “The socio-economic preconditions for the rise of the movement like the Levellers had been created by long-term changes in landholding and in the manufacturing. Those changes which had adversely affected the status and prosperity of the urban and rural ‘middling sort’ of people were especially important in providing potential supporters for the Levellers, who were to become principally the spokesmen for the ‘industrious sort’. Pressure on the smaller peasant farmer who lacked the resources of his larger neighbour to benefit from the expanding market and rising prices: the discontent of the insecure copyholder subject to rack-renting and the fear of the small cottager or husbandman at the prospect of enclosure, produce dissatisfaction which the Levellers could tap and issues on which they could take a stand”.

Dow makes the strange assertion that the Levellers lacked strong leadership and in the end lost all effectiveness as a group. Dow makes the that some weaknesses of the Leveller program doomed them from their start: Leveller ideology may have frightened the rich, neglected the poor, and been "too innovative in its assumptions to embrace all the godly 'middling sort"' of people.

She believed that their social base was that of the small craftsmen and tradesmen, particularly in the towns, “whose independence seemed threatened by large-scale merchants and entrepreneurs. The existence of such problems in London was crucially important, for the capital was to provide the core of the Leveller movement. Here, a large pool of discontent existed among journeymen unable, because of changes in the structure of manufacturing to find the resources to set up as masters in their own right. Anger smolder among small tradesmen and merchants chafing at the alleged oppression of the guilds”.

Dow makes the point that the Levellers tapped into a growing hostility from people especially in London towards a deal with the monarchy. An outward display of this came about through the army at Putney. Dow makes a very perceptive point that “The radicalisation of sections of the rank and file did not happen solely, or even directly, because of Leveller influence, it happened because soldiers’ perception of their own ill-treatment at the hands of the Presbyterian majority produced a political consciousness on which the Levellers could capitalize”.

Dow crucially examines the nature of the society, or specifically sections of the society, from which the Leveller movement sprang. Several attempts have been made to explain a class background to the Leveller movement and the people whose support it attracted. While it is prudent to acknowledge David Underdown’s warning that "Class is a concept that can be applied to seventeenth-century English society only with the greatest possible caution".

Religious Radicals

I am not sure about the title of this chapter. The groups that Dow mentions are diverse and she is hard pressed to establish a common thread that unites them.

Dow is correct in saying that any study of the group would have to take into consideration the foremost authority on the subject being Capp’s 1972 study.  Capp placed the Fifth Monarchists in their broadest context being principally an urban movement and appealed to people below the gentry. In modern terms, this was a movement of the petty bourgeoisie and its lowest section. Many of the members of the Fifth Monarchists like other radical groups had a real fear that the civil war would reduce them to penury.

One right wing pamphlet at the time wrote of the Fifth Monarchy men “The scum and scouring of the country.... Deduct the weavers, tailors, brewers, cobblers, tinkers, carmen, draymen, broom-men and mat makers and then give me a list of the gentlemen. Their names may be writ in text, within the compass of a single halfpenny.  Mercurius Elencticus (7-14 June I648), British Library, E447/ II, 226.

The Diggers and the Clubmen-A Radical Contrast
Dow’s last chapter is a bit of a theoretical muddle. The Diggers were the extreme left wing of the revolution. The Diggers were part of a group of men that sought to understand the profound political and social changes that were taking place at the beginning of the 17th century. They were the true ‘Ideologues of the revolution’ and had a capacity for abstract thought. While the Diggers were sympathetic to the poor, this stemmed from their religion they had no program to bring about social change; they never advocated a violent overturning of society. Their class outlook, that being of small producers, conditioned their ideology. At no stage did the Diggers or that matter did the larger group the Levellers constitute a mass movement. The contradiction between their concern for the poor and their position of representatives of the small property owners caused some tension. They had no opposition to private property and therefore they accepted that inequalities would always exist, they merely argued for a lot of the poor to be made more equitable.

The lumping of the Diggers in a chapter with the Clubmen seems to be a bit of an afterthought by Dow. Maybe her editor should have intervened to separate the two. The Clubmen were in favor of a return to “ancient ways” and to describe them a radical is stretching it a little. It seems almost to be a concession to the conservative revisionists that she ends the book. The world was not turned upside down.


The book is a very good introduction to the subject of radicalism in the English Revolution. Dow’s work on the Levellers is equally important. Her conclusion is a little disappointing, to say the least. But I concur with A L Morton who said “A Party that held the centre of the stage for three of the most crucial years in our nation’s history, voiced the aspirations of the unprivileged masses, and could express with such force ideas that have been behind every great social advance since their time, cannot be regarded as wholly a failure or deserve to be wholly forgotten”.

[1] Cromohs Virtual Seminars-A Matter of Context: 'Radicalism' and the English Revolution by
Glenn Burgess-
[2] Radicalism in the English Revolution, 1640-60 (Historical Association Studies) Paperback 18 Apr 1985-F.D. Dow
[3] Page 5
[4] The mournful Cries of many thousand Poor Tradesmen, who are ready to famish through decay of Trade.Or, the warning Tears of the Oppressed. (22 Jan 1648)
[5] Equality, the Rights of Man, and the Birth of Socialism by David North-24 October 1996
[6] A. L. Morton Freedom in Arms: A Selection of Leveller Writings, Lawrence and Wishart, London 1975,