Thursday, 18 May 2017

The Causes of the English Revolution 1529-1642 - By Lawrence Stone - Foreword by Clare Jackson – Routledge-202 pages – 2017.

“A battleground which has been heavily fought over...beset with mines, booby-traps, and ambushes manned by ferocious scholars prepared to fight every inch of the way.”

Lawrence Stone

“An erring colleague is not an Amalekite to be smitten hip and thigh.'

R H Tawney

Lawrence Stone first published his book The Causes of the English Revolution 1529-1642 in 1972. The book provoked significant controversy and was subjected to some hostile reviews from mainly conservative revisionist historians. It is safe to say that Routledge's new publication as part of their Classics series will not cause the same vitriol. Stone who died in 1999 has become something of a forgotten historian. This new publication should at least elicit a reappraisal of his work.

Stone was optimistic about this book. “The moment seems right, therefore to stand back and try to see the forest rather than the individual trees[1].” Stone recognised that the area of history he was writing about had been fought over many times. He famously described the history of the 17th century as 'a battleground which has been heavily fought over...beset with mines, booby-traps, and ambushes manned by ferocious scholars prepared to fight every inch of the way.'
Lawrence Stone was many things to many people.

To some, he was a Marxist historian, to others a social historian or as he later in life called himself an "an old-fashioned Whig.” While it is true that he seemed to shift his position to fit in with ever-changing historiography, he was nonetheless a first-rate historian "making sure that history is never boring."

History and for that matter, politics were not dull when he published this book. From 1968-1975 the world witnessed wave after wave of crises and revolutionary upheavals. The early seventies saw the collapse of the Bretton Woods system on August 15, 1971. President Nixon suspended the convertibility of the dollar into gold. In the aftermath of August 1971, world capitalism became increasingly susceptible to destabilising shocks. The crisis was in the words of one writer was ‘the culmination of the process of disequilibrium that had been under way for the previous 37 years.

I would like to say that Stone’s book reflected those times but that would not be the case. When Stone wrote this book, he had long ago abandoned any pretence of being close to a Marxist position on the English revolution.

Storm Over the Gentry

Even from a brief look at Stone’s career, the Storm over the Gentry debate had a profound effect on how he interpreted historical events.

Stone’s original theory to explain the English Revolution was that the aristocracy was on the verge of bankruptcy. Which was not a bad theory however it rested upon “hastily gathered and imperfectly understood the evidence.” It received criticism “for its use of sociological jargon.”
In 1948 he wrote the article “The Anatomy of the Elizabethan Aristocracy." that argued that revolution was the product of the rise of the gentry and decline of the aristocracy. A similar position to that of R.H. Tawney in 1941. Unlike Tawney Stone made some methodological mistakes which were jumped upon by Hugh Trevor-Roper and Christopher Thompson[2]

Thompson would say of Stone “he was not, in the strict sense, a scholar at all and was perfectly prepared to lie about his critics. It is no surprise that both have ceased to be relevant to the historiography of the early modern period[3].”

It must be said that the criticism was out of proportion to Stone’s purported crime and was politically motivated. The Storm over the Gentry debate exposed more importantly that a significant group of historians was prepared to take on any historian who even remotely espoused Marxist historiography.

It was Stone’s misfortune that fell under the influence of R H Tawney in 1947 and was labelled a liberal historian. This was widely inaccurate but served the purpose of some right-wing conservative historians.

Stone met Tawney during the war. Tawney was the leading social historian of Tudor and Stuart England. It was during this period they discussed research projects. According to the National Oxford Biography of Stone “His impatience to get on with ‘real’ history earned him a reputation for arrogance during his post-war undergraduate year; on one occasion he stormed out of a revision class conducted by a newly appointed Christ Church tutor, Hugh Trevor-Roper.Roper never forgave him for this [4].“

Roper was also apparently angry that after he had given Stone the transcripts from the Recognisances for Debt in the Public Record Office in Chancery Lane Stone used, without Trevor-Roper’s advance knowledge or permission, in his 1948 article in The Economic History Review. It was this action – this “act of thievery” as Menna Prestwich described it – that provoked Trevor-Roper’s strong language in his immediate response.

While these two incidents may have turned up the heat they did not cause the Fire. Political motivations were involved, and the debate was fought along class lines.

Stone had a major problem in that he never really understood the difference between genuine Marxism and a crude form of economic determinism. He also never really grasped the political nature of the conservative historian's attack.

Stone never really deepened the reader's knowledge of the political persuasion of Roper or other historians such as J H Hexter who Stone describes as a Liberal. Hexter’s close links along with Roper to the American Encounter magazine which had close ties to the CIA could have been exposed to Stone.

In the 1950s Hugh Trevor-Roper went to a conference in Berlin which was mostly made up of anti-communist. Among the other guests were Stalinist intellectuals such as Sidney Hook, Melvin J. Lasky, Ignazio Silone, and Arthur Koestler.

The conclusion of the conference was the founding of the Congress for Cultural Freedom and its magazine Encounter. Trevor-Roper wrote extensively for the magazine Encounter, is it any wonder that Stone who was mistakenly described as a Marxist historian would feel the brunt of Roper’s tongue.

The Cause of the English Revolution

The writing of the Cause of the English Revolution confirmed that that Stone had abandoned any link to a Marxist analysis of the English Revolution.

Despite Stone’s shift to a more conservative historiography, the Causes of the English Revolution is nonetheless an enjoyable read at over 177 pages.

As Stone explains his take on the revolution; to concentrate upon Clarendon's 'Great Rebellion' or Miss Wedgwood's 'Civil War' is to miss the essential problem. The outbreak of war itself is relatively easy to explain; what is hard is to puzzle out why most of the established institutions of State and Church - Crown, Court, central administration, army, and episcopacy - collapsed so ignominiously two years before”.

The book divided into two parts with four chapters; the last is an update on Stone’s previous position written in 1985.

Part one is titled Historiography Subtitled Theories of revolution. Stone’s use of sociological jargon can be off-putting at first. Stone cites his students questioning of the Marxist explanation of the English civil as his reasoning behind the book. His students attacked the Marxist interpretation of the Civil War.

According to Robert Darnton “When Lawrence Stone arrived in Princeton and unpacked his intellectual baggage, he released a fresh set of ideas, which are still buzzing in the air, not merely here but everywhere in the country. Is it any wonder that Stone does not do a magnificent job of defending Marx and Engel’s historical materialism?.

Stone never really understood the political nature of the attacks upon him. Outside of academia, Stone was always seen as a Marxist historian even when his later work had no connection with Marxist historiography.

This did not stop the attacks on Stone. Even as late as 1985 Stone was on the receiving end of a bitter and unprovoked attack in the pages of the Conservative Arts Magazine The New Criterion. Under the headline, Lawrence Stone, and Marxism, Norman Cantor, a New York University historian, In the June issue asserts “Stone was—and is—an English Marxist.” He implies that Lawrence Stone used his “extensive patronage powers” as director of the Shelby Cullom Davis Centre at Princeton University to promote Marxism.

Cantor was answered not by Stone but by Robert Darnton who wrote “I find those statements distressing. I have known Lawrence Stone for seventeen years and consider him an old-fashioned liberal. Although he is a great admirer of Tawney’s, he is not and never being a Marxist. He is indeed the director of the Davis Centre, but he does not rule over it with absolute or even partial sovereignty. A committee, of which I have twice been a member, makes every decision on the election of fellows and the selection of seminar topics. The history department approves those decisions and passes on the Centre’s budget. And aside from its mode of operation, the Centre has never favoured Marxism or any of the other ideologies that Cantor names. His way of calling names strikes me less as a defence of liberalism than as a revival of McCarthyism. It discredits him and the liberalism he purports to defend. I think he should make a public apology.

Cantor did not and in fact reiterated his previous charge “I did say that Stone was and is an English Marxist and I do not retract this statement. On the contrary, I confirm it. Stone’s first publication, in 1948, was an article in support of a thesis propounded in 1940 by the famous Marxist historian, R. H. Tawney. This thesis attributed the cause of the English Civil War of the 1640s to class conflict, to the “rise of the [bourgeois] gentry.” Stone explicitly supported Tawney’s Marxist model: “Confronted with the rise of the gentry, merchants, and lawyers, a new class whose political aspirations and whose views on foreign policy differed fundamentally from those of the aristocracy, the hold of the latter upon the springs of political power were bound to be loosened.” Lest it is thought that this was a juvenile work that Stone later repudiated, we find him even in 1985 still insisting the Tawney class-conflict rise of the gentry thesis “to be largely true.” One of the amazing things about Stone’s career as a historian has been the remarkable consistency of his devotion to Tawney, the leading English Marxist scholar of the first half of the twentieth century. In 1965 Stone published a very long volume on the crisis of the English aristocracy in the seventeenth century. Here the Marxist model tricked out with various social and cultural aspects, was repeated, except that the emphasis was now on the aristocracy falling to make way for the gentry. In a book, I published in 1968—The English: A History of Politics and Society to 1760—I pointed out that this was essentially a variant of the same tired Marxist Tawney model of the origins of the English Civil War.[5]

Stone did not answer this mean spirited and anti-communist attack. The problem is that with all these hostile attacks on Stone is that not only has his reputation has been dragged through the mud but that revisionist and in some cases anti-communist historians have not been answered and refuted.

Despite having political differences with Stone, I agree with David Cannadine when he said “Lawrence Stone belonged to a remarkable generation of British historians who dominated and defined their subject for nearly half a century, and which included Christopher Hill, G.R. Elton, Asa Briggs, J.H. Plumb, Eric Hobsbawm and Edward Thompson. They all wrote widely and well, and reached a large audience in universities and far beyond. But in many ways, Stone was the most creative - and the most controversial - of them all.”

For Christopher echoed those sentiments when he wrote “Lawrence Stone’s deep curiosity, his enthusiastic if critical appreciation of what is novel, and his courteous and tolerant if a trenchant statement of disagreements makes him and a good reviewer. He has a gift for summing up epigrammatically what most of us would say in several laborious pages”.



[1] The Causes of the English Revolution- 1529-1642: By Lawrence Stone-A Book Review- James Capps
[2] See-http://keith-perspective.blogspot.co.uk/2011/05/christopher-thompson-on-lawrence-stone.html
[3]  A Comment on Goldman on Tawney, Stone, and Trevor-Roper-C Thompson
[4] Oxford Dictionary of National Biography- http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/72453
[5]  Lawrence Stone and Marxism-http://www.newcriterion.com/articles.cfm/Lawrence-Stone-and-Marxism-6637