Friday, 20 April 2018

Marxism and the English Revolution

(I have just received Chris Thompson’s email regarding my article Norah Carlin, The Socialist Workers Party and the First English Revolution posted on the 15th April. At this moment I cannot reply to Chris at length as I would like to. This will be done at a later date. I would, however, invite more debate on the subject.  I do stand by my interpretation of Carlin’s work which in my view despite having substantial political differences with Carlin her two essays are an important contribution to the development of a orthodox Marxist historiography on the English revolution).

I read your latest post with great interest and considerable surprise, surprise because it is wrong not just in a factual sense but also interpretatively. All of the historians you mentioned with the exception of Tawney have been personally known to me including Norah Carlin who was a colleague of mine at the Enfield College of Technology in 1971-72 and the Middlesex Polytechnic in 1972-73. She now lives in Scotland and can be tracked down via Twitter. Let me deal with your points in a little more detail.

1. Hugh Trevor-Roper. He was not a Tory in the modern sense at all but, as he himself stated and Adam Sisman's biography confirmed, "an eighteenth-century Whig". He had an exceptional range of knowledge and a wonderful command of the English language. He was a generous supervisor of postgraduates and critical only of those whose arguments he found unsound or whose pretensions - e.g. Lawrence Stone - he thought unfounded. His objections to Tawney's arguments in favour of the "rise of the gentry" and his alternative hypothesis proved immensely stimulating to early modern historians of England (and Wales) in the 1950s and 1960s. The debates over Court and Country in that period testify to that too.

2. Christopher Hill. It is quite wrong to suppose that Hill failed to object strongly enough to Trevor-Roper's arguments about the significance of the 'mere' or 'lesser' gentry in the period up to and during the English Revolution. On the contrary, as the comments of mine that you published not long ago showed, he was a vigorous and public critic of Trevor-Roper's case in the journal Annales and in History in the 1950s. Brian Manning was one of his pupils. Both men were severe critics in Past and Present of the analysis of the membership of the Long Parliament offered by Brunton and Pennington in 1954. Non-Marxist analyses were the subject of vituperative attacks from members of the historians' group of the Communist Party of Great Britain.

3. There were and are many different strands in Marxism and Marxist historiography. It was, however, evident no later than 1960 that attempts to classify the English Revolution as the product of a transition to capitalism or as a 'bourgeois' revolution could not be sustained. If you look, for example, at Valerie Pearl's study of London, the connections between the leaders of the Long Parliament, whether peers or gentry, and the radicals who captured control of the city are obvious even if one does not have to accept them in the form later advanced by Robert Brenner. The sects and groupings that emerged later in the course of the 1640s were neither bourgeois nor petty bourgeois nor simply representative of artisanal or peasant groups.  There was, in any case, a well-developed tradition long before the rise of the Levellers and Diggers that English people had rights protected by common law that could not and should not be overridden by arbitrary actions by the sovereign. The entire effort to apply procrustean Marxist terminology to the analysis of the period had failed.

4. The revolt against economic and social determinism had begun long before the rise of 'revisionism' in the mid-1970s. Conrad's Russell's work reflects his, no one else's, belated emancipation from the dogmas of his time as an undergraduate. John Morrill's interest at that time in the politics and religious tensions in the provincial communities of England and Wales was more influential in the long run as, indeed, was the interest Kevin Sharpe took in the imagery, self-representation and values of the Stuart Courts. I should add that Trevor-Roper was the first to point to the issues raised by the problems of ruling over multiple kingdoms in 1968, a subject about which figures like Koenigsberger wrote well before Russell took up the subject. Marxists like Hill and Manning never addressed the difficulties the hypothesis about the role of multiple kingdoms posed for their interpretations of the English Revolution in a full sense nor have their putative successors done so effectively since then.

5. The entire debate about the causes, course and significance of the English Revolution has moved on a long way since Norah Carlin's comments in and after 1980. The public sphere and the significance of news, the importance of the Atlantic archipelago, the interrelationships between the peoples of the British Isles, are all vital topics for current investigation. I should add that important research is currently being carried out into the bargaining mechanisms that operated in English and Welsh societies to ensure that people of differing social ranks could live peacefully together and to trace how those at the bottom were linked those higher up the social hierarchy. The one aspect that no longer carries much interest is the revival of the Marxist approach. It is dead and cannot be resuscitated.