Sunday, 26 January 2020

Does the17th Century English Bourgeois Revolution need a reset

"Every sociological definition is at bottom a historical prognosis". Leon Trotsky

A social order that was essentially feudal was destroyed by violence, a new and capitalist social order created in its place" Christopher Hill

'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


The last three decades have witnessed a non-stop onslaught by revisionist historians against the conception that England during the seventeenth- century witnessed a bourgeois revolution. The purpose of this essay is to reset the conception of a bourgeois revolution and reestablish it as part of our understanding of those unprecedented events that took place nearly four hundred years ago.

The historian most connected with the English bourgeois revolution was, of course, Christopher Hill. Hill was a member of the Communist Party until 1956 and was the author of the groundbreaking essay The English Revolution 1640[1].

In his introduction, Hill wrote "the object of this essay is to suggest an interpretation of the events of the seventeenth century different from that which most of us were taught at school. To summarise it briefly, this interpretation is that the English Revolution of 1640-60 was a great social movement like the French Revolution of 1789. The state power protecting an old order that was essentially feudal was violently overthrown, power passed into the hands of a new class, and so the freer development of capitalism was made possible. The Civil War was a class war, in which the despotism of Charles I was defended by the reactionary forces of the established Church and conservative landlords. Parliament beat the King because it could appeal to the enthusiastic support of the trading and industrial classes in town and countryside, to the yeomen and progressive gentry, and to wider masses of the population whenever they were able by free discussion to understand what the struggle was really about. The rest of this essay will try to prove and illustrate these generalisations".

Hill knew that defending and proving his thesis would be easier said than done. He would be attacked both inside and outside the Communist party. He would spend most of his academic career seeking to defend and then re-define what he meant by a bourgeois revolution. 

In his 1940 essay he acknowledges how difficult it was to offer a precise definition of a bourgeois revolution, he writes"The Marxist conception of a bourgeois revolution, which I find the most helpful model for understanding the English Revolution, does not mean a revolution made by the bourgeoisie'. There was no self-conscious bourgeoisie which planned and willed the revolution. However, the English Revolution was a bourgeois revolution because of its outcome, though glimpsed by few of its participants, 'was the establishment of conditions far more favourable to the development of capitalism than those which prevailed before 1640'.[2]

The 1940 essay was a breathtaking piece of work that deserved to be labelled groundbreaking. Although Hill was unsatisfied with what he wrote describing the essay, the work of “a very angry young man, believing he was going to be killed in a world war.”

Hill is correct when he says that the 1640 "bourgeois revolution was not consciously willed by the bourgeoisie", but he was as Ann Talbot explains "sensitive enough to his historical sources to detect the social currents that brought people of diverse social backgrounds into struggle against the king and well-grounded enough in history to identify new and revolutionary ideas in the curious and archaic guise in which they appeared—as the ideologists of the revolution ransacked the Bible and half-understood historical precedent for some theory to explain what they were doing."[3]

Despite Hill's belief that the bourgeoisie did not know what they were doing Talbot believed that Hill was"sufficiently astute to realise that when the people execute their king after a solemn trial and much deliberation, it is not the result of a misunderstanding but has a profound revolutionary significance entailing a complete break with the feudal past. Although the monarchy was later restored and the triumphant bourgeoisie was soon eager to pretend that the whole thing had been a ghastly mistake, no monarch sat quickly on the throne after that event until quite late in Victoria's reign".

Not everyone in the Communist Party welcomed Hill’s groundbreaking work on the English Revolution. The CP's Labour Monthly carried several articles attacking Hill’s conception of the English bourgeois revolution.

A certain P.F wrote "When the king and the bourgeoisie began to realise that the system of government which up to then had worked rather satisfactorily would have to be changed somehow, the king looked for allies. The king was, as we have said, not simply a helpless instrument in the hands of the bourgeoisie but had a certain independent power corresponding to the stage or transition between the classes. In order to keep this power and to extend it, the king turned for support to the feudal remnants and to the reactionary sections of the bourgeoisie. With the help of these groups, he tried to reign against the majority of the bourgeoisie, especially the industrial and merchant bourgeoisie. Out of this conflict developed the Great Rebellion, the Civil War. The Great Rebellion, therefore, is, in my opinion, not the war of liberation of a suppressed bourgeoisie against feudalism - as was the Revolution of 1789. It represents rather a new and very important step forward in the progress of bourgeois society, a fight for the abolition of absolute monarchy, against the remnants of feudalism, against the reactionary sections of the bourgeoisie, against every element which might retard the vigorous development of bourgeois capitalist society”[4].

One staggering point about Hill's original article is the fact that it was allowed to be published by such an ossified Stalinist party. P.F's comment was essentially reformist and was merely trumpeting Joseph Stalin’s Menshevik two-stage political position[5].

Hill's ability to write against the CP'ss party line on historical questions are explained by Talbot who said there was "something Jesuitical about the relationship of these historians to Marxism. They seem to have been capable of partitioning their minds and pursuing a scientific Marxist approach to history up to the point where the Stalinist bureaucracy drew the line, like the Jesuit scientists who would pursue their investigations as far as the Church authorities permitted, but no further. It was an approach that was further encouraged by the extreme specialisation of academic life that enabled them to concentrate on very narrow areas of history that never brought them into direct collision with the bureaucracy on political questions.

It has been said that as Hill began to write on different aspects of the revolution, this meant he had abandoned the concept of the bourgeois revolution. One essay, in particular, has been cited as marking a change in Hill's stance on the revolution. Published in Three British Revolutions, 1641, 1688, 1776 Ed J A Pocock (Princeton U.P 1980) some historians believe it contained a change and repudiated his previous theory of the bourgeois revolution.

While it is correct to say that Hill did in his early career concentrate on economic questions in this 1980s essay: A Bourgeois revolution, he said that" a revolution embraces all social life and activities.

Hill started to pay attention to the radicals of the English revolution. Groups such as the Levellers and Diggers were given far more prominence in his writings. Even his writings on these groups were influenced by his time in the CP. He owes a tremendous debt to the unfortunately underused historians of the former USSR. Hill was constrained to use only the ones cleared by the Russian CP.

One outstanding writer not cleared by the CP was Evgeny Pashukanis. Whether Hill studied Evgeny Pashukanis is an open point. Pashukanis makes this point on the Levellers “Generally, the dissolution of the bases of the feudal order in these two and a half centuries was a great step forward; the contours of the new social relationships appeared much more clearly, and the anti-feudal ideology assumed mature forms. Therefore, in the seventeenth century at the extreme left wing of the revolutionary movement we now find a party (the Levellers) which developed a broad and consistent programme of a bourgeois-democratic nature; the elimination of royal authority and the Upper House, the universal right to vote, the separation of church from state (the abolition of the tithe), the elimination of estate-corporate privileges, freedom of trade, direct income tax, the cessation of the plunder of common lands, and the abolition of all remnants of serfdom in land relations including even copyhold.

He continues"It is particularly important to note the demands of the Levellers concerning the radical restructuring both of judicial establishments and of court procedure. The age of mercantile capital, and the absolutism corresponding to it at the political level, was distinguished in the judicial area by the rule of casuistry, procrastination, bribe-taking and arbitrariness. Mercantile capital, developing on the basis of shackling forms of exploitation, is not only congenial to serf and police arbitrariness but is directly involved in it, for it facilitates the exploitation of the small commodity producers. The major monopolistic trading companies are much more interested in having good ties with the throne than in a fast, impartial and scrupulous court, the more so since in their internal affairs they enjoy broad, and even judicial, autonomy. On the contrary, the Levellers-by virtue of the fact that they acted as champions of the most general conditions of development of bourgeois-capitalist relations-had to turn their attention again to judicial reform. John Lilburne in his work, The Fundamental Laws and Liberties, incidentally formulates two classical principles of the bourgeois doctrine of criminal law: no one may be convicted other than on the basis of a law existing at the moment of commission of the act, and the punishment must correspond to the crime according to the principle an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. Lilburne himself was, of course, the first man in England to succeed in being served with an indictment.

"The Levellers found their support among the peasants, small rentiers, craftsmen and workers. It is enough to recall the influence which they enjoyed in the London suburbs, in particular in Southwark, which was populated by weavers. However, their main support was the army. Here we encounter a fact imposing a characteristic imprint on the whole course of the first English Revolution: it was not accompanied by any significant agrarian movement. Proceeding from the Levellers, the attempt to transform the political structure of England of that day into a consistent bourgeois-democratic condition was never supported by a massive peasant uprising. For this, of course, there were fully sufficient reasons. In the first place, by that time serf dependence no longer existed in England. Almost everywhere, the corvĂ©e had been replaced by money rent. The cause of the greatest discontent had therefore, been eliminated. In the second place, the class divisions of the English peasantry, about which we spoke above, had gone rather far by the time of the Great Revolution. A rich upper stratum, separated from the general mass, tried to improve its farming at the expense of the less wealthy strata. Winstanley, the leader and ideologist of the “Diggers”, who attempted to realize something like agrarian communism, thus draws this contradiction between the rich freeholders and the poor: they (the freeholders) exhaust the common pastures, put an excessive number of sheep and draft animals on them, and as a result the small renter and peasant farmer hardly manage to feed their cows on the grazing ground.” The rich upper strata of the country took an active part in the destruction of the old common system, in particular, the enclosure of the common lands. In this instance, it united with the landowners against the rural poor. Here we see, mutatis mutandis, the same alignment of class forces which Stolypin tried to realize among us with the help of his agrarian legislation. It is clear that this destroyed the political power of the peasant movement against the landowners".[6] Pashukanis was denounced as an "enemy of the people" then denounced as a "Trotskyite saboteur" and was executed in September 1937.

Hill defended his study of the radicals saying that " some will think that I overemphasize the importance of the defeated radicals at the expense of the mainstream achievements of the English revolution. However, without the pressure of the Radicals, the civil war might not have transformed into a revolution: some compromise could have been botched up between the gentry on the two sides- a Prussian path”. Regicide and republic were no part of the intentions of the original leaders of the Long Parliament: they were forced on the men of 1649 by the logic of the revolution which they were trying to control.”[7]

While it is rare for any historian today to come to the defence of Hill’s writing on the radicals of the English Revolution or any subject for that matter covered by Hill, it is to Justin Champion's credit that he did so in his lecture Heaven Taken by Storm. Champion writes “Hill handled ideas in his three significant books Intellectual Origins of the English Revolution, Some Intellectual Consequences of the English Revolution, and The World Turned Upside Down. Alongside those broader historical landscapes, Hill also offered profound studies of significant literary figures such as John Milton and John Bunyan. These works collectively ought to prompt discussion about what type of Marxism Hill subscribed too. His historical writing allowed space to consider the role of ideas, assessments of the individuals who produced them, and the consequent agency or outcomes of those moments of intellectual intervention. Hill did not employ the deterministic treatment of ideas as mere epiphenomena of economic infrastructure or class affiliation so frequently evident in the hostile caricature of his work. Much of the crude assault on the value of Hill’s history has been shaped by the distinct lack of conceptual engagement with the published evidence of his Marxist methodology. The best way to remedy this occlusion is to examine those under-read contributions by the man himself.[8]

As Champion points out in his essay if there was one constant feature of Hill's work, it was that he understood the relationship between base and superstructure. As Karl Marx was the leading proponent of this theory, it is worth seeing what he wrote. If there is one major criticism is that Hill did not quote enough of Marx in his books.

Marx wrote in his 1859 essay[9] "In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely 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”.

It is clear from the Pocock essay that later in his career, Hill concentrated more on superstructure than he did on base. This shift must be said coincided with his leaving of the Communist Party in 1956. Perhaps his last great book on economic questions was Economic Problems of the Church written in 1956 although he would later return to the subject from time to time. The book A Century of Revolution published in 1961 was one such time.

Hill'ss essay The English Revolution was, in many ways, a piece of classical Marxism. Not the last word on the subject but he did defend in the teeth of Stalinist opposition several fundamental Marxist conceptions. It is hard to fathom how much Hill read of the great Russian Marxist Leon Trotsky but his understanding of qualitative changes in history mirrors that of Trotsky.

As Trotsky explains "Quality is an aspect of something by which it is what it is and not something else; quality reflects that which is stable amidst change. Quantity is an aspect of something which may change (become more or less) without the thing thereby becoming something else; quantity reflects that which is constantly changing in the world (“the more things change, the more they remain the same”). The quality of an object pertains to the whole, not one or another part of an object, since without that quality it would not be what it is, whereas an object can lose a “part” and still be what it is, minus the part. Quantity, on the other hand, is an aspect of a thing by which it can (mentally or really) be broken up into its parts (or degrees) and be re-assembled again. Thus, if something changes in such a way that has become something of a different kind, this is a “qualitative change”, whereas a change in something by which it still the same thing, though more or less, bigger or smaller, is a “quantitative change”. In Hegel’s Logic, quantity and quality belong to being”[10]

One unfortunate by-product of Hill concentration on social or political aspects rather than the economics of the revolution was his adoption of the genre “Peoples history”. This particular bad piece of Stalinist baggage was taken by Hill when he left the CP. His approach to this type of history was directly influenced by the politics of the bureaucracy.

As Ann Talbot eloquently states "The Communist Party sponsored a form of People'ss History”, which is typified by A.L. Morton's Peoples 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.
 Stone- Manning

Hill's concept was not without its admirers or supporters. One such supporter in the early days of Hill's career was the American historian Lawrence Stone. Stone it is said 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'.

Stone took a position similar to the Christian Socialist historian R.H. Tawney, which sought to explain the cause of the English Civil War from the standpoint of a growing and politically influential section of the gentry. The growth of this gentry had over the preceding years led to a destabilising of the English State. The historian Hugh Trevor-Roper "inverted this theory, arguing that in fact the Civil War was caused in part by court gentry who had fallen on bad times”.

In his book, The Causes of the English Revolution Stone does present a convincing case for the defence of the English revolution. It is broken down into two parts with four chapters; the fourth is an update on Stone’s previous position written in 1985. Part one is titled Historiography sub titled Theories of revolution. Stone does work through a number of sociological and Marxist theories as to the revolutionary nature of the English Civil war. Stone's enquiry on the nature of the English Revolution was prompted by his time at Princeton University in America. While teaching at Princeton he came under extensive attack by his students for his leanings towards a social/economic read Marxist interpretation of the Civil War.

Stone may have considered himself a young Marxist, but he was nothing of the kind. Stone had a major problem in that he never really understood the difference between genuine Marxism and a crude form of economic determinism.

As Nick Beams points out in his outstanding essay Imperialism and the political economy of the Holocaust “One of the most frequently employed caricatures of Marxism is the claim that it argues that ideology is just a cover for the real economic motivations of social actors. Accordingly, Marxism is disproved by the discovery that individuals act, not according to economic motives but on the basis of powerful ideologies. For example, the right-wing British historian Niall Ferguson maintains that since no business interests on either side of the conflict desired World War I—it served the immediate economic interests of neither—its origins cannot be said to lie within the capitalist economic system. It should be noted, in this regard, that no business or financial interests want recession either. However, recessions nevertheless occur, and they arise from the contradictions of the capitalist economy. Marxism does not deny that historical actors are motivated and driven into action by their ideological conceptions, and it does not claim that these ideologies are simply a rationalisation for the real economic motivations. However, it does insist that it is necessary to examine the motives behind the motives—the real, underlying, driving forces of the historical process—and to make clear the social interests served by a given ideology—a relationship that may or may not is consciously grasped by the individual involved.[11]

Stone, after he wrote this book, moved away from any association with Marxist historiography and in his own words became as he put it in an interview in 1987, "an old Whig.” The problem is that Stone tried to drag Hill into the same pit, stating that “Hill and I are thus now in agreement that the English Revolution was not caused by a clear conflict between feudal and bourgeois ideologies and classes; that the alignment of forces among the rural elites did not correlate with attitudes towards ruthless enclosure; that the Parliamentarian gentry had no conscious intention of destroying feudalism; but that the result, first of the royal defeat and second of the consolidation of that defeat in the Glorious Revolution forty years later, was decisive. Together they made possible the seizure of political power by landed, mercantile and banking elites, which in turn opened the way to England's advance into* the age of the Bank of England, the stock-market, aggressive economic liberalism, economic and affective individualism, and an agricultural entrepreneurship among the landed elite to whose unique characteristics.”.This was Stone's epitaph not Hill's

Brian Manning

Brain Manning was made of sterner stuff. Manning studied under Hill and was profoundly influenced by him. He started his academic career politically tied to the Labour Party later in life he was politically attached to the radical left group the Socialist Workers Party (SWP). This was a handicap that was to hamper his work for the rest of his relatively short life.

To what extent you could call Manning a Marxist historian” is open to debate. Usually, these labels are given by people who are too intellectually lazy to explain what they mean by that term.

In history, accuracy matters. For too long historians have thrown around terms like Marxist without any real understanding of what they mean. Whether conscious or not, they do a disservice to any student studying the English revolution.

Manning first meaningful involvement in politics was through the Labour Party, but it was not until the 1980s that Manning rejected the Labour Party and joined the International Socialists forerunner of the Socialist Workers Party(SWP). The SWP was attractive to Manning as they fitted into his schemer of history from below. The Communist Party historians heavily influenced the SWP.

Manning was a student under Hill in the early 1950s and admired the great historian. In an obituary he wrote “The undoubted dominance of Christopher Hill in the history of the English Revolution may be attributed to his prolific record of books and articles, and his continuous engagement in debate with other historians; to the breadth of his learning, embracing the history of literature, the law, science, as well as religion and economics; to the fact that his work set the agenda and the standard to which all historians of the period had to address themselves, whether in support of or opposition to his methods and interpretations; but above all to the inspiration he drew from Marxism. The English Revolution took place in a culture dominated by religious ideas and religious language, and Christopher Hill recognised that he had to uncover the social context of religion in order to find the key to understanding the English Revolution, and as a Marxist to ascertain the interrelationships between the intellectual and social aspects of the period”.[12]

Manning developed close links with the Communist Party when he left Balliol College, Oxford. Having his first teaching post at Kings College London, then Manchester University finally ending up at University of Ulster. A critical development in Manning's historical trajectory was when he served on the editorial board of the Magazine Past and Present, which was close to the Communist Party Historians. While opposing what he called “Soviet Communism” during his time on the editorial board he was not opposed to collaborating with British Communists historians.

Much of Manning work concentrated more of the radical groups in the English Revolution such as the Levellers, diggers etc. According to Alex Calinicos “At the end of the 1980s, Brian started to attend and speak at the Marxism week of discussion organised by the Socialist Workers Party every July in London. What drew us together was a shared commitment to the Marxist theory of history and an enthusiasm for the English Revolution. (Some of us - John Rees, for example - have always found it hard to distinguish between the two: there was a plan in 1994, as far as I remember never executed, to take a minibus to the battlefield of Naseby to gloat over the destruction of Stuart power by the New Model Army 350 years earlier.) Not the best epitaph a historian would want.

Norah Carlin is a little bit scathing of Manning’s defence of the English revolution, Manning’s work had “alarming absence of explicitly Marxist explanation. 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”.

Revisionist revolt

While the development of revisionist historians attacking Hill and the concept of the English bourgeois revolution was an objective occurrence, it must be said that Hill did very little to counter this phenomenon. He was after all a better historian than he was a political thinker.

Hill'ss complacency was expressed in this statement “we should not take these fashions too seriously: they go in cycles, and it is no doubt my age that makes me a little sceptical of latter-day “revisionist” historians who try to convince us that there was no revolution in 17th century England, or that if there was it had no long-term causes or consequences.’ 

As Norah Carlin explains The New History which has grown up especially in the last twenty years makes no bones about its hostility to Marxism. In the 1950s, the most vicious attacks on the Marxist interpretation of the Civil War (by Hugh Trevor-Roper, as right-wing politically and as nasty personally as you could hope or fear to find) nevertheless offered an alternative explanation in terms of social conflict, namely the struggle of the impoverished gentry against the overgrown Renaissance state. But from the mid-1960s it became right-wing orthodoxy to deny that the Civil War was a class conflict at all. By 1973, the introduction to a widely-used textbook by Conrad Russell could claim that ‘For the time being ... social change explanations of the English Civil War must be regarded as having broken down.’ Lest anyone should think that that places the burden of providing an alternative explanation on the shoulders of right-wing historians, the task of explanation is either postponed until we have enough new biographies of seventeenth-century politicians and studies of day-to-day debates in Parliament; or cynically denied altogether. One historian has even taken Marxists to task for over-explaining the phenomena of the past’. We must allow, he says, for the role of sheer muddle and misunderstanding in history.’13]

Carlin had a far greater understanding of the dangers of revisionism than Hill. You would have thought that her own Party(SWP) would have taken on board her warnings regarding the rise of this anti-Marxism.

While publishing her two significant essays on the English revolution, they nonetheless stayed with Hill baggage and all. Perhaps one day Carlin will write about her time in the SWP and its relationship with Hill. As Carlin states “Ironically, the left organisation I belonged to for many years regarded me as a heretic because I did not agree with every last word written by Christopher Hill, including his claims that the gentry were 'the natural rulers of the English countryside' and that 'the Bible caused the death of Charles I'. As I said in the 2019 memorial lecture, I value Hill's contribution to the historiography of the English Revolution very highly indeed, but his writings are not the last word on everything! It is only when there is no more debate that history ceases to be interesting”.[14] Or as Ann Talbot said of Hill “He may be bettered, but never dismissed, and only bettered by those who have studied him closely.”

[1] The English Revolution 1640-
[2] The English Revolution 1640-
[3] "These the times ... this the man": an appraisal of historian Christopher Hill by Ann Talbot 25 March 
[4] The Peasant's Revolt: A Reply and a Rejoinder-
[5] See- Trotsky, Leon, The Permanent Revolution (1928) and Results and Prospects (1906), New Park Publications, London, (1962)
[6] Evgeny Pashukanis-Revolutionary Elements in the History of the English State and Law
[7] Three British Revolutions: 1641, 1688, 1776-By John Greville Agard Pocock
[8] Heaven Taken by Storm: Christopher Hill, Andrew Marvell and the Dissenting Tradition-
[9] Karl Marx 1859-A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy-
[10] The ABC of Materialist Dialectics-(December 1939)
[11] Imperialism and the political economy of the Holocaust-
[12] Brian Manning-Turning Point in History-(March 2003)
[13] Norah Carlin-Marxism and the English Civil War-(Autumn 1980)
[14]Interview with Historian Norah Carlin-