Sunday, 15 April 2018

Norah Carlin, The Socialist Workers Party and the First English Revolution.


In 1980 Norah Carlin, historian and member of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) published her essay Marxism and the English Civil War[1]. In 1983 she released a second called the First English Revolution. Both articles were of a polemical nature. They exuded the need for a complete change in how we saw the English revolution. While Carlin did not express it the most important conclusion to be drawn from them was the need for new Marxist historiography based on the work of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels. This need was palpable.

Carlin in both compositions makes some critical points worthy of much further study, three of which stand out. She believed that England witnessed a bourgeois revolution, that so-called Marxist historians have not done enough to stem the tide of revisionism that undermined both Whig and Marxist historiography and the need for a more precise understanding of the class nature of the radical groups like the Levellers and how they fit into the concept of a Bourgeois revolution. Carlins work did not sit very well with the SWP’s orientation to Historians like Hill and Manning.The SWP rejected Carlin’s historiography and adopted of the genre of “Peoples History”  which was developed by the Communist Party Historians Group (CPHG). This essay will examine the SWP’s refusal to pursue Carlin’s call to action and why it instead collaborated with historians that were associated with the Stalinist Communist Party of Britain.


If Carlin thought defending a Marxist theory of the English Revolution was hard in the 1980s, she should try doing it now. For nearly four decades any historian who sought to favour Marxist historiography has come up against a battery of revisionist historians with their heavy weapons of anti-marxism. When challenged, the revisionists have been able to hide behind an academic establishment whose anti-Marxism has become legendary.

Given this near-unanimous global academic hostility to Marxism, it is surprising that Carlin fails to place this anti-Marxism within the context of the broader “Marxism is Dead” campaign.In the field of study of the English revolution, Carlin traces the beginning of this anti-Marxism to the 1950s. Perhaps the most famous and nastiest attack on the Marxist conception of the English Bourgois revolution came from the typewriter of Hugh Trevor-Roper. Roper was a very right-wing historian and politician. He had a habit of being an offensive, personally abusing any historian he did not agree with, especially if that historian had any connection with Marxism.

Another titan of revisionism was Conrad Russell who in the introduction to a widely-used textbook[2] said “for the time being ... social change explanations of the English Civil War must be regarded as having broken down.’ Also during the 1970s, John Morrill put forward his theory that war was precipitated in 1642 by local interests and local rivalries in particular provincial areas. Morrill’s work was useful to a point but said nothing about why such conflicts developed.

Carlin cites another historian who went even further complaining that Marxist historians have over explained the past and that ‘We must allow,’ he says, ‘for the role of sheer muddle and misunderstanding in history[3].’  Unfortunately, this muddle and misunderstanding have followed us right up to the present day. Today’s revisionists are clear what they are against but have nothing to replace Whig or Marxist historiography except what Carlin calls “craftism”.

In both essays, Carlin spends some time trying to understand why it has been difficult to defend and expand Marxist historiography as regards the concept of the English Bourgeois revolution. She is correct to say that outside of the CPHG very few “Marxists” have written on the subject. This goes for the Trotskyist movement as well. Outside of Leon Trotsky himself and a small contribution from C.L James nothing much substantial has been written.

If a significant new Marxist historiography is to be developed, then it must take on board the best of the old work. This work must have as its foundation a solid exposition of Marx and Engels writing on Historical materialism. After that, the best is undoubtedly from a Marxist standpoint the work of Christopher Hill. His most outstanding work was the seminal essay written in 1940 The English Revolution, 1640 (part of a Communist Party education pamphlet. It was reissued in 1955. Apart from this work how much has been written from an orthodox Marxist position.Carlin believes far too little. Despite Hill’s significant contribution, the fact that no other historian has even come close to developing orthodox Marxist historiography is troubling.

On this Carlin makes this point “Hill left the Communist Party in 1957 after playing a not very memorable role on the Commission for Inner-Party Democracy and ended up as Master of Balliol College, Oxford. Given the nasty and personalised tone of the right-wing attack, it is hardly surprising that defending Hill should come to be almost a significant activity in itself, yet the striking fact is that when a collection of essays by former pupils of his was got together to mark his retirement at the end of the 1970s, not one article made any explicit reference to Marxism, only one contributor (Brian Manning) could be regarded as in any sense a Marxist, and several (including the advocate of muddle quoted above) were openly anti-Marxist. There is something slightly odd about ‘Britain’s greatest Marxist historian’ (as he is described continuously in journals such as New Left Review and History Workshop) raising no successors”.

Carlin believed it became easy for revisionist historians to mislabel other historians as Marxist even though they were patently not. One glaring example is that of R H Tawney. Tawney it must be said is well worth reading and was a historian of note.It has however been effortless to attack his work on the gentry. As Carlin notes “The other major influence on the Marxist orthodoxy of the last forty years has been R.H. Tawney’s work on the rise of the gentry. Though Tawney did not see himself as a Marxist, he identified the English Civil War as a bourgeois revolution; but in his version, the bourgeois revolution was made by and for the landed gentry. Whatever the precedents for this view in passing remarks by Marx or Engels, Tawney’s treatment of the question has caused utter havoc for the class interpretation of the English Civil War. It has shaped the development of right-wing history, in the concern to deny it, as well as the stagnation of Marxist history in the concern to defend it”.

The mistake made by Tawney was to see the gentry as a class in itself. If the matter of class was so clear cut then why were there gentry on both sides of the civil war? For that matter why was the bourgeoisie on both sides.This stagnation of Marxist historiography had some consequences. Firstly it allowed the revisionist's historians to consolidate and develop their arguments. Secondly, the historians that came out of the Communist Party instead of deepening the study of the common nature of the revolution started to do work around the radical groups of the revolution such groups as the Levellers, Diggers and to a lesser extent the Ranters at the expense of a more orthodox Marxist historiography.

This type of history appealed to the SWP who promoted it at every opportunity especially when one of its most capable exponents Brian Manning came into their party. While much of Mannings work is worth reading, it is not explicitly Marxist.  As Carlin points out “Manning, for example, states his position on the nature of the class struggle in the Civil War in nine lines of his preface, and in a form which makes it almost impossible to recognise it as Marxist. Left-wing historians seem more concerned to establish their fair use of evidence than to engage in the development of a Marxist understanding of the class struggle”.

The Bourgeois Revolution

Carlin correctly states that “The ‘rise of the gentry’ thus becomes a gaping trap for Marxists into which perhaps only Perry Anderson of New Left Review has jumped with both feet. For Anderson, the English Civil War was ‘a “bourgeois revolution” only by proxy’, because it was made by a section of the ruling class. But if a bourgeois revolution can be made by proxy from above, can a proletarian revolution? If a section of the ruling class could break the last bonds of feudalism on behalf of the bourgeoisie, could not a part of the bourgeoisie set up socialism on behalf of the working class?”.

How do we get out of this trap?. As Carlin states a Marxist analysis of the gentry and for that matter, the bourgeoisie has to be made not via Tawney but Marx and Engels. Also at some point, an orthodox Marxist appreciation of Hill must also be made. After all, he was the only historian that consistently made a defence of the notion of a bourgeois revolution.

Hill like Marx was clear that the revolution paved the way for a victorious bourgeoisie and we witnessed the rise a new social order. This was a victory over feudal property relations. Marx correctly states “it is certainly true that feudal relations were not delivered one concentrated blow. Feudalism [in England – eds.] was destroyed but disappeared only gradually. This process extended over many centuries during which certain aspects of the feudal order displayed surprising adaptability and vitality”. This approach was indeed taken on board by Hill and to a lesser extent Manning.

Carlin in her essay elaborates that the "new class of merchants and manufacturers played a crucial role in the development of the revolution.They represented new wealth and wanted political power to go with it. They made their money not out of old feudal rights of land and peasants but out of the profits from goods produced by the growing wage workers. Carlin correctly believed that this process of reducing all the workforce to the level of wage-labourers began at least two centuries before the industrial revolution and Marx called it the ‘primitive accumulation of capital".

Who was the leader of this new class and the revolution? Carlin was in no doubt that without Cromwell and his New Model Army the revolution would not have been the same. Carlin believed that Cromwell made England safe for capitalism. The Russian Marxist Leon Trotsky was very clear on this point “At a certain moment in political history the fate of 'democracy' hung not upon parliament but -- however terrible this might be to scrofulous pacifists! -- upon the cavalry, Cromwell very quickly realised that the fate of his class would be decided by cavalry. He said to Hampden: “I will raise such men as have a fear of God before them and make some conscience of that.”

The Left and Revisionism

According to Carlin, Hill and Manning must take some blame for the rise of revisionism. On the surface of things, it would seem that Carlin had a contradictory attitude towards Hill and Manning. This not the case. Carlin praises Hill and Manning for their work on the English bourgeois revolution and that any new historiography should incorporate much of their best writings.

However, when it comes to taking on the revisionists attack Marxist historiography, their contribution does leave a lot to be desired.  It is clear that the SWP saw these two as bulwarks against the revisionist onslaught. At best this a was lousy piece of judgement at worse they sacrificed a struggle against revisionism over a closer relationship with these two historians who were in one way or another closely tied to the apron strings of the Communist Party.

If you examine Hill’s role, to his credit he did albeit in a lesser extent play a role in the “storm over the Gentry” debate. His defence of Tawney is still worth reading today. In many senses, this was a missed opportunity to do some severe damage to the anti-Marxists. The fact that Roper was able to walk away from this debate mostly unscathed merely emboldened further hostile attacks of Marxist historiography.

Gifted as a historian as Hill was he did not understand the need for a consistent struggle against revisionism. This stems not from his understanding of history but his complete lack of Marxist political consciousness. When the SWP did try to prompt Hill into a more active role in the struggle the results were not good. In an interview with John Rees and Lee Humber, this question was asked, How do you see the development of the debate around the English Revolution over recent years? Would you agree that the revisionists have taken some ground?

Hill’s answer was “they have made a lot of useful points, but their more extreme views are now being attacked by the younger generation of historians. Although the revisionists had all sorts of useful ideas, they had a narrow political approach in that they tried to find the causes of the English Revolution solely in the years 1639–41. This simply assumes what you are setting out to prove. If you look just at those years then, of course, it’s a matter of political intrigue and not long-term causes. I think people are reacting against that now. The better of the revisionists are themselves switching around a bit. John Morrill, for instance, who thought everything depended on the county community and localism, is now taking a much broader point of view. And Conrad Russell has become aware that long-term factors have to be taken into account – he doesn’t like it, but he recognises that religion has some long-term effects on what happened in 1640, a rather elementary point but he left religion out altogether in the early days. Now he’s bought it in. He still leaves out the cultural breakdown in society of that period, but he is moving a bit. I think a consensus will arise and then there will be another explosion in 20 years or so. These debates occur regularly – ever since 1640 people have been arguing about what it was all about”.

Not a bad answer but when asked about dropping some of his earlier jargon. And how important is the Marxist approach in studying history? Again his answer gave too many concessions to the revisionists, he said “I took a conscious decision in the 1950s to guard against political jargon after a lovely young woman from the Communist Party told me she thought my book on 1640 had done more harm than good because of the language I used. I’ve striven not to use sectarian language since. Some words can have an amazing effect on people. Using the word ‘bourgeoisie’ is a red rag to most academics. Even the most intelligent of them, Lawrence Stone, for example, believe that the bourgeoisie must have something to do with the towns and that if you can prove that the gentry were the main capitalists in England in the 17th century, you’ve disproved the idea of a bourgeois revolution. But to have to explain this every time you use the word bourgeois is a bore. It’s much easier just to leave out the word bourgeois – but of course, it’s very easy to slide from dropping the word to dropping the idea. Initially, I thought I had to drop the jargon to get people to take me seriously. I have changed some of my ideas, naturally, but not I hope my basic approach”[4].

Carlin took exception to Hill’s approach inside the SWP. To what extent this was discussed inside their party I cannot tell at this moment, but as will be brought out in the third part of this essay it cut across their overtures to Hill and Manning.

Radicalism and the English revolution

Carlin also calls for a class analysis of the radical groups that formed the left wing of the revolution.One gaping hole in the historiography of these groups has been the failure to examine what Russian historians wrote on these groups. To be more precise those historians who opposed the Stalinist bureaucracy and paid for it with their lives.

Hill to his credit at the beginning of his career started to examine Russian historians. As early as 1938 he wrote Soviet Interpretations of the English Interregnum published in The Economic History Review. Hill took a big chance with this article in the sense that he quotes the brilliant Soviet Writer Evengy Pashukanis who in 1937 was denounced as a “Trotskyite saboteur in 1937 executed by Stalin.

It goes without saying that any starting point when dealing with the radical groups should be Hill’s early work on the bourgeois revolution and the Soviet historians. Caution should be taken with Hill’s early work as he was still a member of a party that supported the mass extermination of the best elements of the October revolution.

Carlin correctly states that the vanguard of the revolution in 1642 was the radical groups that carried out political work in the early party the revolution. To what extent these groups were organised as a party has been open to fierce debate only recently a new revisionist work by Gary De Krey denies they were assembled as a party but were one element in a broad independent movement.

Another matter that needs to be solved is the correct terminology when describing the class nature of the radical groups. So far they have been variously described by Marxists as ‘the petty bourgeoisie’, ‘the middling sort of people’, ‘small independent producers’ and ‘plebeian elements.’
While Carlin does not like the term petty bourgeois to describe the class base of the say the Levellers in this paragraph, she describes precisely this class,

“Many of those who took part in the revolt of 1640–42, in the New Model Army during the war and in radical movements later, were indeed small independent producers. In feudal society, the small producer enjoyed ownership or possession of the means of production, and wage-labour was typically a temporary or supplementary source of livelihood – for the near-landless peasant family, for the journeyman on his way to being an independent master craftsman, and even for domestic servants, who saved their wages for marriage and a household of their own. Under capitalism, wage-labour has become the norm, and the small independent producer exists only in competition with large-scale capitalist production.

“England in the seventeenth century was in transition from feudalism to capitalism, and the separation of the labourer from the means of production was the crucial issue for the development of the capitalist mode of production. As Marx recognised, this proletarianisation of the labour force preceded the accumulation of capital on a large scale: it was the essence of ‘so-called primary accumulation’ or ‘the first revolutionising period of feudal production”.

Another contentious subject raised by Carlin is the extent there was a working class involved in the revolution. It should be pointed out that this was a working class at the beginning of its existence and bore no relation to the working class today. According to Carlin, there was a substantial number of proletarians. But how you quantify what part they play is difficult.
It is clear that further research is needed. But Carlin insists that “ large numbers of wage-earners must have taken part in the riots and demonstrations of the period. Unfortunately, the bias of contemporary propaganda is compounded by that of recent historians, both Marxist and non-Marxist, who seem determined to belittle working-class participation.”

She continues “he reputation of the Levellers has fallen low in the ‘orthodox’ Marxist version in the last twenty years. The view that they were not such radical democrats after all, that they would have denied the vote to the whole of the working class, and that their political theory foreshadows bourgeois rather than socialist thought, originated with C.P. Macpherson in 1962. It is still propagated by Christopher Hill among others. Coupled with this is the idea that Leveller democracy was premature because the potential electorate was backward and even reactionary”.

When she says it is wrong to see the Levellers as merely the most revolutionary section of the bourgeoisie, I cannot agree with it. They were precisely that. That does not mean that we should not recognise their struggle and deepen our understanding of the class nature of all these radical groups

The Diggers, or True Leveller according to Carlin were a far more revolutionary outfit. According to her they “went further than the Levellers in identifying the fact that private property was at the heart of their problems. She believes that “it is wrong to dismiss the Diggers as backwards-looking ‘agrarian communists’. Their great achievement was to go beyond medieval ideas of the redistribution of wealth to propose the continuing creation of wealth by collective production

Carlin, The SWP and History from Below.

To what extent Carlin’s substantial essays were discussed inside the SWP is open to conjecture. In my opinion, her essays should have been given far more attention that they were. If that were to happen, they would have had to tone down their overtures towards the Stalinist Communist Party and its “Peoples History.”

As Ann Talbot succinctly puts it “ the Communist Party sponsored a form of “People’s History”, which is typified by A.L. Morton’s People’s History of England in which the class character of earlier rebels, revolutionaries and popular leaders was obscured by regarding them all as representatives of a national revolutionary tradition. This historical approach reflected the nationalism of the bureaucracy, their hostility to internationalism and their attempts to form an unprincipled alliance with the supposedly democratic capitalists against the fascist Axis countries. People’s history was an attempt to give some historical foundation to the policies of Popular Front—the subordination of the working class to supposedly progressive sections of the bourgeoisie and the limiting of political action to the defence of bourgeois democracy—which provided a democratic facade to the systematic murder of thousands of genuine revolutionaries, including Trotsky. It was the approach that Christopher Hill was trained in, along with E.P. Thompson, Rodney Hilton and Eric Hobsbawm, who were part of the Marxist Historians Group and came under the influence of Maurice Dobb and Dona Torr”.

This turn towards the Peoples History also fitted in with the SWP’s political perspective at the beginning of the 1980s. The SWP leadership drew some pretty negative conclusions from the series of defeats suffered by the working class in the 1970s. The downturn in the class struggle which saw the victory of Thatcher meant for the SWP that for the task was not to build a revolutionary leadership, but to develop "a broader radical left that can begin to present a credible and principled alternative to capitalism."

Tony Cliff wrote in an infamously pessimistic article. So, the downturn continues. There are not going to be set-piece confrontations. The question of intervention means individual intervention in individual disputes. In ninety cases out of a hundred, we will do it from outside. In ninety-nine cases out of a hundred, we’ll do it in a very low key[5]Two years after he wrote this piece the biggest strike in working-class history outside of the 1926 General strike broke out in 1985-86.

In the field of history, this took the form of a closer relationship with Hill and Manning with the SWP publishing some of his books and him speaking at their Marxism conferences. Manning Joined the SWP from the Labour Party, and the majority of his work was published by the SWP.
Other radical groups also opposed Carlin's attack on Hill and to a lesser extent Manning. Workers Liberty sprang to Hill’s defence “the SWP's Norah Carlin, herself a gifted historian of the 17th century, is surely wrong and sectarian to say flatly that Hill was "not a Marxist". I think we might, instead, read Hill's oeuvre as a rather heroic example of the development of a Marxist research with Hill constantly seeking to renovate theory in the light of new empirical evidence and critique, developing falsifiable hypotheses on the foundation of the "hardcore" of the research programme”[6].

Carlin remained unrepentant and in a further attack on the genre of Peoples History. In a review of People’s History and Socialist Theory-History Workshop Series.Carlin writes.
“Many contributors do regard themselves as committed Marxists, and explicitly discuss the relationship between Marxist history and political activity. But the conclusions they come to (except feminist ‘fragmentism’) are always negative. ‘Given the political formlessness and difficulties of our times,’ says Ken Worpole, it is better to concentrate on the ‘long-revolution’ which seems to be composed of working-class autobiographies. Robert Colls regards the History Workshop forum as ‘a surrogate politics for those depressed by the dismal political options of a country which no longer has a radical movement worthy of the name.’ Bob Scribner, though he admires the ‘People’s History’ work of the German Communist Party in the early 1920s, thinks that ‘In so far as ... the historian is actively involved in politics, there is a problem of time and resources to carry out historical investigations with the necessary rigour.’

What the high point of Carlin’s defence of her political position came with the joint article was written with Ian Birchall called Kinnock’s favourite Marxist-Eric Hobsbawm and the working class-(Autumn 1983)[7].

Carlin writes of Hobsbawm “the working class that Hobsbawm now sees vanishing never really existed; it was a myth of the Stalinist era. For Hobsbawm is not so much a prophet as a casualty, the product of an age which distorted Marxism until it became unrecognisable. From Hobsbawm the historian we can still learn much, though his work needs a more critical assessment than it has yet received. But we should be extremely unwise to take him as a guide in the present struggle”.


In summing up, her work Carlin is correct to say that we are no nearer an answer to the development of genuine Marxist historiography on many historical topics, not just the English revolution.It is also correct to say that for too long The struggle for Marxism inside academia has taken a defensive position.

Carlin concludes “the reflexes of the siege mentality – uncritical defence of ideas or personalities because of their long-standing identification with the Marxist cause, and the refusal to even examine anything new revealed by a hostile source – have not helped our understanding of class struggle in the past or the present. “The restoration of Marxist theory to the history of the revolution is an essential requirement. This is a historical field in which theory has disappeared perhaps more thoroughly than in any other. The mechanical orthodoxy of the Stalinist period was followed by a period of adaptation to bourgeois academic ‘standards’ in which theory was apparently regarded as too provocative to mention. This has now been overtaken by the ‘poverty of theory’ debate in which some Marxist historians are claiming lack of a theoretical perspective as a positive virtue. A full and free discussion in explicitly Marxist terms is the touchstone by which both old ideas and new ones must be measured”.

Further Reading.

Kinnock’s favourite Marxist-Eric Hobsbawm and the working class- Norah Carlin & Ian

The Levellers and the Conquest of Ireland in 1649-Norah Carlin-The Historical Journal
Vol. 30, No. 2 (Jun. 1987), pp. 269-288

2.C. Russell, (ed.) The Origins of the English Civil War (1973)
3. C. Russell, (ed.) The Origins of the English Civil War (1973)
4.John Rees and Lee Humber-The good old cause-An interview with Christopher Hill-From International Socialism 2 : 56, Autumn 1992, pp. 125–34.Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
5.Building in the downturn-(April 1983)-Tony Cliff