Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Gender and the English Revolution- Ann Hughes - 192 pages : Routledge 2011 ISBN-13: 978-0415214902

"The women of the property-owning class will always fanatically defend the exploitation and enslavement of the working people, by which they indirectly receive the means for their socially useless existence."

Rosa Luxemburg

"The English Civil War broke out over issues; both political and religious Gender was not among them."

Bernard Capp

Ann Hughes is Professor of Early Modern History at Keele University; she has published widely on mid-seventeenth Century English history. Her specialities are the study of Gender, print culture and religion. She is undoubtedly one of the foremost authorities on the English Revolution.

In this slim volume, Hughes attempts "to discuss all the ways in which the political upheavals of the mid-seventeenth century interacted with, were affected by and had an impact on gendered roles and relationships."

After a dearth of studies of women and the English revolution, the recent spate of publications examining women and the English revolution, including Hughes's book is to be welcomed up to a point. There is still no of the biography of two of the most famous Leveller women Katherine Chidley and Elizabeth Lilburne.

While one book cannot make up for a few centuries of neglect Hughes's book is an important contribution to our understanding of the role women played in the English revolution.

Hughes's book is part of a proliferation of Gender orientated books that have been published over the last few decades. This relatively new type of historiography has been promoted heavily by universities and publishers alike. The recent proliferation of books, articles, etc. has many reasons. One major factor being the growth of women historians who have started to explore this previously under-researched subjects. Another reason is that women, in general, have a much-increased degree of political freedom and economic independence than previous generations of women.

One of the major problems with this type of politically motivated historical study is the evisceration of class. There cannot be a genuine struggle for women's emancipation without an examination of the class nature of female exploitation. As this article points out  "There is more talk of gender in the American and global media than perhaps at any previous moment in history. The #MeToo campaign in the US has supposedly brought the conditions of women to the fore like never before. The US media and Hollywood are animated by hardly anything else.

"But this is a fraud. The women are getting nearly all the coverage belonging to the upper echelons of society, the richest five or ten per cent. Working-class women are nowhere to be seen in all this, except for a few token exceptions that prove the rule. This skewed class lineup in the media coverage reflects a greater social reality: the gap between affluent women and working-class women has widened dramatically in the past several decades. On International Women's Day in 2018, what are the conditions of the great majority of women in the world, those who are ignored by the media, those who do not get their faces and their complaints on the evening news? Today, of the 1.3 billion of the planet's 7.6 billion inhabitants living in extreme poverty, 70 per cent are women or girls, according to Project Concern International."[1]

The striking feature about the subject matter of Hughes's book is that many of the problems faced by 17th Century women are unfortunately still with us in the 21st Century. As I said earlier, there is a dearth of material written on the plight of women in the 17th Century.It is over eighty years since Alice Clark wrote a major work analysing the working life of women in the 17th Century. Sharon  Howard, in an article about Clark wrote, "I have a soft spot for Alice Clark (not least for her maxim that "those who do not make mistakes do not make anything"). This was her only book. She was not a well-known academic historian; rather, a feminist and businesswoman whose life encompassed many other activities and who only began historical research at the age of 38. She was a member of the Clark family, who were Quakers, of shoemaking fame (you know, those horrible sensible shoes you wore as a kid because your mum made you, except they recently got all trendy and cute).Born in 1874, she was firmly influenced by the 'first wave' of feminism, particularly by debates about female economic dependence and 'parasitism' on men and its adverse effects on women and society as a whole. She also needs to be understood in the context of early 20th-century concerns about the social consequences of industrialisation and pioneering sociological investigations into contemporary conditions of the poor, and increasing interest in what was then called 'economic history' (it would now be termed social history). The contribution made to that historiography by women was subsequently ignored by many historians; feminist historians have in more recent decades worked to reconsider their significance ".[2]

Gender historiography is a relatively new concept in which to study women's role in history. The systematic study of women in history is largely a by-product of the genre "History from below" instigated by the Communist Party History Group. While producing some important research and publications, the replacing of gender over class in the study of historical events is a move away from a classical or orthodox Marxist approach.

Gender studies were heavily promoted by journals such as History Workshop. The growth in gender studies was also facilitated by books like The Making of the English Working Class by Edward P Thompson. Independent women historians and writers started to insist that "women's experience no longer is 'hidden from history.[3]

Books that started to examine women's role in history were not always met with support. When the outstanding historian Keith Thomas who taught history at Oxford in the 1950s decided to set up a series of lectures on Women and the 17th Century his attempt was met with at best indifference and worse outright hostility.

The period that Hughes writes about was truly a world turned upside down, where traditional family roles were coming under high pressure.  As Alison Jones points out "The Civil War of 1642-1646 and its aftermath constituted a time of great turmoil, turning people's everyday lives upside down. It not only affected the men in the armies, but it also touched the lives of countless ordinary individuals. It is well known that women played a significant role in the Civil War, for example, defending their communities from attack and nursing wounded soldiers. What is often forgotten, however, is that some women took advantage of the havoc wrought by the conflict to dissent from conventional positions in society.The slightest deviation by women from their traditional roles as wives and mothers was condemned by this patriarchal society. Therefore dissent could take many forms that today do not appear particularly extreme – for example, choosing to participate in emerging radical religious sects, having greater sexual freedom, fighting as soldiers and practising witchcraft".[4]

It took much courage to take part in the struggles of the day. The punishment for doing was swift and brutal. Heavy punishment was meted out to those women who rebelled against the prevailing orthodoxy. One such 'rebel' was Margaret Cavendish who wrote in a tract  We become like worms that only live in the dull earth of ignorance, winding ourselves sometimes out by the help of some refreshing rain of good educations, which seldom is given us; for we are kept like birds in cages to hop up and down in our houses, not suffered from flying abroad to see the several changes of fortune, and the various humour, ordained and created by nature; thus wanting the experiences of nature, we must need to want the understanding and knowledge so consequently prudence, and invention of men: thus by an opinion, which I hope is but an erroneous one in men, we are shut out of all power and authority, despised, and laughed at, the best of our actions are trodden down with scorn, by the overweening conceit men have of themselves and through despisement of us".[5]

According to Hughes, society's problem was not the result of a class struggle but was because England was a patriarchal society.  While Hughes acknowledges the fact that political and economic differences did occur among men and women, these are mostly ignored. She contends that the primary motivating factor for pursuing civil war was the struggle of women versus men.

Hughes states that "neither women nor men form a homogeneous category, and in this book, their experiences during the English revolution are structured by age, social and marital status, religion, and political allegiance, and sometimes by national or ethnic identity, as well as by Gender. One category missing from this list is class.

I must admit I have problem historians who advocate the theory of patriarchy. Under the guise of investigating all women's history, there has developed a tendency to reduce all women's struggle to a fight against repression regardless of what class they belonged.

The promotion of women's studies came at the same time number of revisionist started to attack previous whig and Marxist historiography.Hughes promotion of Gender studies is in direct opposition to a class-based study of history.

To conclude Hughes book is not without merit as Gaby Mahlberg says
 "The power of Hughes's book, and what makes it so valuable to both specialist scholars in the field and their students, is the great wealth of primary source material on which it is based and the ease with which the author moves between the micro-stories of early modern men and women, their wider context, and ongoing historiographical debates. Gender and the English Revolution are likely to join The Causes of the English Civil War (London, 1991) as staple reading for students of the mid-seventeenth century".[6] Despite the criticisms and caveats, which include Hughes abandonment of any class-based analysis of the English revolution the book is worth reading.

[1] The condition of working-class women on International Women’s Day-
[2] Early Modern Notes by Sharon Howard entitled Alice Clark, working women's historian.
[3] Reviewed Works: Hidden from History. Rediscovering Women in History from the 17th Century to the Present by Sheila Rowbotham; Woman's Work. The Housewife, Past and Present by Ann Oakley-Review by: Susan J. Kleinberg-Journal of Social History
Vol. 10, No. 1 (Autumn, 1976), pp. 99-103
[4] Dissent and Debauchery: Women and the English Civil War- Alison Jones
[5] Philosophical and Physical Opinions (1655)
[6] Gaby Mahlberg's Review 12th July 2012

Saturday, 21 July 2012

A Short Q&A with Historian Catherine Fletcher

Catherine Fletcher latest book is called Our Man in Rome is set in the six-year period of Henry VIII’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon. It's the story of Gregorio Casali, Henry VIII’s ambassador in Rome from 1525 to 1533, but also the first book-length account of the diplomatic intrigues behind the divorce for several decades.

Q. What made you tackle an already crowded field of historical study of the Tudor's especially Henry viii? My interest was originally focused on Renaissance Italy and the way today’s diplomatic system grew up there. I started looking at Henry VIII’s ‘divorce’ from Catherine of Aragon as a case-study of how monarchs negotiated in Rome, and realised that the Italian side of the story really hadn’t been told before in any detail. I found so much fascinating material that I thought it would be worth writing up.

Q How would you described your historiographical style. Who were your mainly influenced as a younger historian/writer.?

Writing The Divorce of Henry VIII I was influenced by microhistories that take one small example – in my case the ambassador in Rome – and use it to tell a bigger story. Carlo Ginzburg’s The Cheese and the Worms and Natalie Zemon Davis’s The Return of Martin Guerre are a couple of the classics. Microhistories tend to focus on people lower down the social scale, but I don’t see why they can’t be used to look at the experience of elite figures like ambassadors too. I also had Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana at the back of my mind (my book was first published as Our Man in Rome). That’s a great book about diplomatic duplicity – and makes an important point for historians that you can never be quite sure that envoys’ letters are telling the truth.

Q What advice would you give to an upcoming historian.

First, I’d say go and explore the archives. There’s a huge quantity of documentation out there – in local record offices, family holdings, and the like – that’s never been properly sorted through. Find a story that interests you and follow it through. And second, I’d say that it’s well worth taking the time to learn languages other than your own. Being able to read material in other languages can give you a very different perspective on historical issues.

Q How do you view the development of history blogs and other internet based historical resources.

History blogs are a great way for historians to discuss work in an informal way – and to find out what’s going on in the world of history. I wish I had more time to read them! They can make for much wider interaction between members of the public and academic historians than would otherwise be possible. The internet has also allowed the creation of some great digital databases of original source material. The Medici Archive Project in Florence has put thousands of letters online, and the Old Bailey Online site is a brilliant resource for anyone researching English legal and social history. My only concern is that we may now see a bias towards research on those themes that have good online resources at the expense of areas which don’t.

Q What are you working on now.

I’m trying to finish an academic book about the development of diplomacy in Renaissance Rome. After that, my plan is to write another book based in Renaissance Italy, and I’m working through the options for that now. There are so many good stories to tell about the great dynasties: the Borgias and the Medici, for example. I’m trying to make up my mind which one to write first!


Monday, 2 July 2012

Leveller Women and the English Revolution

"Have we not an equal interest with the men of this Nation, in those liberties and securities contained in the Petition of Right, and the other good laws of the land? Are any of our lives, limbs, liberties or goods to be taken from us more than from men, but by due process of law and conviction of twelve sworn men of the neighbourhood”?[1]

"That since we are assured of our creation in the image of God, and of an interest in Christ equal unto men, as also of a proportional share in the freedoms of this commonwealth, we cannot but wonder and grieve that we should appear so despicable in your eyes as to be thought unworthy to petition or represent our grievances to this honourable House. Have we not an equal interest with the men of this nation in those liberties and securities contained in the Petition of Right, and other the good laws of the land? Are any of our lives, limbs, liberties, or goods to be taken from us more than from men, but by due process of law and conviction of twelve sworn men of the neighbourhood? Would you have us keep at home in our houses, when men of such faithfulness and integrity as the four prisoners, our friends in the Tower, are fetched out of their beds and forced from their houses by soldiers, to the affrighting and undoing of themselves, their wives, children, and families?" [2]

History and Historians in general have not been kind to Leveller women who were radicalised during the English Revolution. There is a dearth of material on women’s struggle during this time. No major biography exists of two of the most important Leveller women Katherine Chidley and Elizabeth Lilburne.

As Christopher Hill observed the English revolution: "helped many women both to establish their own independence and to visualise a total escape for the poorer classes”.It was the poorer classes that suffered the greatest degradation regularly through jail, torture, war and disease.

Women who joined the Levellers joined a"party" that took on many of the characteristics of a modern political party. Placing the Leveller’s in the political spectrum of the 1640s has been a contentious issue. Some historians have placed them as part of the radical wing of an Independent coalition.

I tend to side with John Rees[3], who believed the levellers were a stand-alone organisation. The levellers were responsible for using for many of modern-day political techniques such as mass demonstrations, collecting petitions, leafleting and the lobby of MPs.  William Clarke, who provided us with the report of the Putney Debates was an avid collector of books, pamphlets and leaflets. Over eighty Leveller pamphlets were found in his collection. The Levellers strength mainly lay in London and other towns and had significant support in the army.

The main plank of its manifesto was the call for a democratic republic in which the House of Commons would be more important than the House of Lords. A Leveller would have a wanted redistribution and extension of the franchise, legal and economic reform on behalf of men of small property, artisans, yeoman, small merchants, and the very layers which made up the composition of the Levellers themselves.

The Levellers were the pioneers of modern democracy, but radical as they were in the 17th century they were in favour of an extension of the voting franchise only for men and to the exclusion of women. They also refuted"childish fears" that their object was to"make all men's estates equal and to decide laws by telling noses”.

When women joined the Levellers, they had two major fights on their hands. The first being a struggle against social inequality and secondly a struggle to have equal rights as men. It is a contradiction that they joined an organisation that wanted to extend the franchise except for women.

For many women, the fight for social and political equality would be their first involvement in any kind of political work. It can be said without contradiction that women like Katherine Chidley and Elizabeth Lilburne laid the basis for future struggles of working-class women such as the suffragettes.

Women Levellers mounted large scale demonstrations and organised petitions in favour of social equality. They were met with differing levels of brutality depending on which class they belonged to. On the whole middle-class women were treated with derision, but largely no violence was committed against them. This is not the case with the poorer sections of the women's movement who were often treated severely by MP's and soldiers alike. Many were thrown into prison, mental institutions or workhouses. Middle-class women were simply escorted away by soldiers and told to 'go back to women's work”.

A typical response to the women's demonstrations on 26 May 1647 can be seen by Thomas Case who warned the House of Commons that if they allowed "liberty of conscience," then "see ... how long your civil peace will secure you when religion is destroyed. . . . Liberty of conscience may in time improve itself into the liberty of estates and . . . houses and ... wives, and in a word liberty of perdition of souls and bodies”[4]

Sir Simonds D'Ewes[5], who was in attendance at parliament when the first women's protest took place on Tuesday, 8 August 1643, said in his diary “a multitude of women described elsewhere" as two to three hundred oyster-wives, 'taking example by the unlawful and tumultuary proceedings of the former faction. . - came to the very doore of the House and there cryed . . . Peace, Peace, and interrupted divers of the members both as they went in and as they came out of the House,' and threatened violence to those members who were enemies to peace”.[6]

Women in the 17th century had little or no rights at all, and according to The Lawes Resolutions of Woman’s Rights, 1632 women’s legal position depended solely on their husband’s goodwill. The husband had complete control “over an unmarried daughter and a similar husband authority over his wife. Married women were not considered legal persons. An independent woman was viewed suspiciously”. [7]

What moved women to go into a struggle. According to Christopher Durston, not a lot up until the outbreak of the Civil War. It is true to some extent that radical activity amongst men and women was low at the beginning of the 17th century. The English Revolution changed all that. The struggle for equal rights inside and outside the family was a powerful motivating force. Most of the women’s protest from an ideological standpoint was cloaked in religious phraseology.

Significantly recent historiography has downplayed the role of economic factors in motivating people. Historian Soma Marik asked the question “What kind of economic pressure was brought to bear on the labouring poor in this age of transition”. The impact of these economic crises, as well as of political crises, could be contradictory. Women were paid less than men, who in turn were ill-paid. So they were certainly greatly burdened. But women were often hired as domestic servants, which reduced family/husband's control. During the civil war, the absence of husbands due to exile or military service also proved to be a two-edged sword. Women faced greater hardship”.[8]

This "poverty" was questioned by Ian Gentles, who thought that "Chidley’s’ uncompromising radicalism did not prevent them from prospering under the Commonwealth and Protectorate. An examination of their financial and administrative careers shows that they may be counted among the tangible beneficiaries of the English revolution. Katherine won at least two substantial contracts to supply stockings to the army in Ireland, while Samuel obtained a job in the State's service. He was appointed in 1649 to Worcester House where he took up lodgings as registrar of the debentures used to purchase crown fee farm rents. How he landed this appointment is unknown, though his fellow saint, David Brown, asserted that it was thanks to his influence in high places”.[9]

It is to Gentles credit that he is one of the few historians that establishes a link between Chidley’s economic position and her political activity. What kind of political activity did women take part in? As with their male counterparts, it is difficult to match Leveller women’s petitions to their authors and far more research is needed but the women Levellers did release a substantial number of petitions to parliament on a number of issues. They demanded the release of the Leveller leaders, redress from high taxes, and lack of work, dictatorial government and opposition to meddling in Irish affairs.

While some historians have disputed the figures it is believed that in 1649 ten thousand Leveller women signed a second women's petition to parliament. The significance of this document is that regardless of class background the petitioners called for equal rights for all women and equality with men. “Since we are assured of our creation in the image of God, and of an interest in Christ equal unto men, as also of a proportionable share in the freedoms of this commonwealth, we cannot but wonder and grieve that we should appear so despicable in your eyes as to be thought unworthy to petition or represent our grievances to this honorable House. Have we not an equal interest with the men of this nation in those liberties and securities contained in the Petition of Right, and other the good laws of the land? Are any of our lives, limbs, liberties, or goods to be taken from us more than from men, but by due process of law and conviction of twelve sworn men of the neighborhood? And can you imagine us to be so sottish or stupid as not to perceive, or not to be sensible when daily those strong defenses of our peace and welfare are broken down and trod underfoot by force and arbitrary power?

“Would you have us keep at home in our houses, when men of such faithfulness and integrity as the four prisoners, our friends, in the Tower, are fetched out of their beds and forced from their houses by soldiers, to the affrighting and undoing of themselves, their wives, children , and families? Are not our husbands, o[u]r selves, our children and families, by the same rule as liable to the like unjust cruelties as they? And are we Christians, and shall we sit still and keep at home, while such men as have borne continual testimony against the injustice of all times and unrighteousness of men, be picked out and be delivered up to the slaughter? And yet must we show no sense of their sufferings, no tenderness of affections, no bowels of compassion, nor bear any testimony against so abominable cruelty and injustice?”[10]

The petition written by Katherine Chidley (though this has been disputed) is beautifully written and shows the writer was well educated with a substantial political acumen. Little is known of Chidley's origins or social background. Given the level of education needed to write highly political tracts, it must be assumed she came from a reasonably well off family. Katherine married Daniel Chidley who by profession was a tailor from Shrewsbury, Shropshire.

Before the revolution, Chidley had a stable family environment. She gave birth to seven children. Given her family commitments, it is nothing short of staggering that she was able to combine a busy family life with no help from modern equipment with an extremely active and brave political life. While it is clear that outbreak of the civil war fired Chidley's radicalism she was politically active in the early 1620s. Along with her husband she was according to Ian Gentles “active in a Shrewsbury conventicle which carried on a running quarrel with the rector of St Chad's, Peter Studley. In 1626 she and Daniel were among twenty people presented to the consistory court for non-attendance at church”.[11]

The amount of irreligion in the English revolution has been contested by numerous historians. Christopher Hill in his pamphlet Irreligion in the Puritan Revolution quoted Richard Baxter who believed that those who rejected mainstream religion were ‘a rable“ if any would raise an army to extirpate knowledge and religion, the tinkers and sow-gelders and crate-carriers and beggars and bargemen and all the rable that cannot read…. Will be the forwardest to come in to such a militia” It goes without saying Baxter argued for their suppression with violence if necessary.

Gentles says that Chidley was reported for refusing ‘to come to be churched after childbirth’.  It would appear that this brush with authority was an early marker for her later radicalism. If she had remained in Shrewsbury it is open to debate whether she would have had the opportunity to express her radical beliefs further. But as fate would have it her hounding by the religious authorities forced her to go to London were she had the luck to join up with other Levellers such as john Lilburne and John Duppa.

Chidley’s first pamphlet was published in 1641 by the printer William Larner. It was called The Justification of the Independant Churches of Christ (1641). It was a reply to the right wing fanatic Thomas Edwards, a London preacher. Chidley readily admitted that it was ‘not laid down in a schollerlik way’, she defended her actions saying they were the plaine truth of holy Scripture’. She believed  according to Gentles that "churches ought to be exclusive in their membership, because as Chidley puts it, when God brought his people into the promised land, he commanded them to be separated from the idolater”

Edwards countered with an attack in Gangraenah by saying “There is, one Katherine Chidley an old Brownist, and her sonne a young Brownist. who not content with spreading  their poyson in and about London, goes down into the Country to gather people to them”.

Edwards attack on Chidley in his book Gangraena for separatist “errors “could be dismissed as nothing more than an aberration if it were not for the fact that it expressed in general terms a widespread fear in ruling circles of a growing radicalism amongst the more educated sections of the population. The other fear was that these educated radicals would spread their ideas of equality and democracy to the poorer sections of society. Chidley believed that even the poorest sections of society ‘whether they be Taylors, Felt-makers, Button-makers, Tent-makers, shepherds or ploughmen, or what honest trade soever’, were better qualified to create churches than ‘ill-meaning priests’.

Elizabeth Lilburne, a Leveller, was the daughter of Henry Dewell a London merchant. Like Chidley next to nothing is known of her origins and social background. She shared a similar background with that of Chidley in so much as she was involved in irreligious circles. She shared her husband's  politics. Her life with John Lilburne was in many ways dominated by his persecution at the hands of parliament and later on by Cromwell.

John Lilburne was frequently jailed and exiled. Far from cowering Elizabeth she tirelessly lobbed for his release. According to Ann Hughes when “John, a captain in Lord Brooke's regiment, was captured by royalists at Brentford and sentenced to death it was Elizabeth's determined petitioning that persuaded parliament to threaten retaliation on royalist prisoners if Lilburne was hanged. It was a pregnant Elizabeth who carried to Oxford the life-saving letter from the speaker of the Commons”.

Leveller women did not fight just as individuals. According to the historian Gaby Malhberg the wives of leading figures of the English revolution “formed their own networks, discussing political issues in the absence of their husbands. Edmund Ludlow recorded, for instance, that he had little hope of a pardon from the King because the wife of his fellow republican Sir Henry Vane had informed Elizabeth ‘that she was assured [General George] Monke’s wife had sayd she would seeke to the King, upon her knees, that Sir Henry Vane, Major Generall [John] Lambert and myself should be hanged.”[12]

The civil war put tremendous strain on the Lilburne’s marriage so much so that John Lilburne's writings in exile are full of attacks on his wife's “mournfull arguments”. John was critical of his wife’s persistence in asking him to “make peace with Cromwell”.

Ann Hughes presents another picture of Elizabeth saying “Almost everything known about Elizabeth Lilburne comes from the writings of her self-regarding husband—and his presentations of his suffering wife may well owe as much to the demands of particular polemical situations as they do to the reality of her personality or their life together. The impression is left of a brave and realistic radical woman, determined to preserve herself and her children in the most difficult public circumstances”.

On the political side, it must also be said that while the Leveller women were the left-wing of the English revolution, they were not the only women in a society that led struggles against the King. In some sense, these women were lucky in that they had access to printing materials and presses.[13]

Women that were even luckier in their access to print because of their class background were women of the Aristocracy that were opposed to the king.
One such woman was the formidable and extremely intelligent Lady Eleanor Davies. For criticising Charles 1st she was imprisoned four times. Her most important trial was in 1633 when she was found guilty of publishing unlicensed books and “of circulating false prophecies".

The fact that an increasing number of women had access to licensed and unlicensed printing presses is significant because it tells us that the radicalisation of society went much deeper than had originally been thought. Secret printing allowed popular ideas and protests to develop. In Davies's case she was fined £3,000 which a significant sum in those days and sent to prison. If that was not all her books were burnt by Archbishop Laud. Laud was not the only person to burn her books. Both her husbands took delight in burning her books.  
Davies was an aggressive anti-papist. Her aggressiveness sometimes spilt into vandalism. In one instance in 1636 along with people went to Lichfield Cathedral, damaged its altar and sat on the bishop's throne. For her trouble, she was sentenced to sixteen months in prison. One problem for modern-day researchers is that in Seventeenth-century England, according to one writer “very few women, compared with men, wrote for publication their works form less than one per cent of the total number of texts published in the period.”

To conclude the study of these women would not only be fascinating but would provide the brave historian with a rich vein of historical study. A systematic study would deeply enrich our understanding of the radical women of the 17th century and their role in the English revolution. As a wise man once said it was a man’s world, but it would be nothing without a radical woman.

[1] Women's Petition (1649)-From J. O'Faolain and L Martines, Not in God's Image (New York: Harper and Row, 1973), pp. 266-267.
[2][2] Elizabeth Lilburne, A Petition of Women (5th May, 1649)
[3] The Leveller Revolution: Radical Political Organisation in England, 1640-1650
[4] Source: Puritanism and Liberty, being the Army Debates (1647-9) from the Clarke Manuscripts with Supplementary Documents, selected and edited with an Introduction A.S.P. Woodhouse, foreword by A.D. Lindsay (University of Chicago Press, 1951).
[6] Women Petitioners and the Long Parliament-Ellen A. M'Arthur-The English Historical Review-Vol. 24, No. 96 (Oct., 1909), pp. 698-709
[7] See- The Family in the English Revolution Christopher Durston-Basil Blackwell 1989.
[8] Christopher Hill -Women turning the World Upside Down-Soma Marik Social Scientist vol 32 2004 pp. 50-70
[9] Ian Gentles, ‘London Levellers in the English revolution: the Chidley's and their circle’, Journal of Ecclesiastical History, 29 (1978), 281–309
[10] Quoted in Renaissance Woman: A Sourcebook: Constructions of Femininity in England
edited by Kate Aughterson
[11] Ian Gentles, ‘London Levellers in the English revolution: the Chidley's and their circle’, Journal of Ecclesiastical History, 29 (1978), 281–309
[12] )  Gaby Malhberg’s blog
[13] Hughes, Ann. "Gender and Politics in Leveller Literature." In Political Culture and Cultural Politics in England: Essays Presented to David Underdown, edited by Susan Amussen and Mark Kishlansky, 162-188. Manchester: Manchester University Press; New York: St Martins, 1995.

Sunday, 1 July 2012

The Birth of Capitalism- A 21st Century Perspective- Henry Heller -Pluto Press 2012

In the preface to this book, Henry Heller describes the aim of the book is to lay the foundations for a better understanding of the world we live in so that we can "shape the future." I am not very sure he succeeds.

The book's subject matter has contemporary importance, given that 21st-century capitalism faces one of the biggest crisis in its relatively short existence. It should be warned that the subject of the book is complicated and requires a lot of background reading. For someone new to the subject, this is advisable.

In chapter one called the Decline of Feudalism, Heller discusses one of the most critical topics in the Marxist lexicon. The debate over the transition from feudalism to capitalism has been raging since the early part of the twentieth century. Perhaps the most famous exchange over the decline of feudalism and the origins of capitalism was between the Stalinist Maurice Dobb and fellow traveller Paul Sweezy.

The two differed amongst many things, including whether the development of commerce with the Mediterranean and the Middle East, caused the decline of feudalism. Both were confirmed Stalinists and both hostile to contemporary Marxism, Trotskyism.

In his article Marxism and the political economy of Paul Sweezy, the Marxist economist Nick Beams describes Sweezey's early origins Paul Sweezy's views on political economy were to become central to what might be called the Monthly Review school. They were initially formed in the latter part of the 1930s, as he began to come to grips with Marx's analysis. Sweezy's first and, in many ways, most important work, The Theory of Capitalist Development, arose largely out of a process of self-clarification. It had its origins in classes he conducted on the economics of socialism, which included an examination of the theories of various socialist writers. As Sweezy later recounted, in the course of the graduate seminars he sought to raise the level of treatment of Marx, discovering that it involved a "long hard struggle to overcome the traditions and inhibitions of a neoclassical training... It took me a long, long time before I could accept the Marxist labour value theory because I was totally accustomed to the type of thinking of marginal utility price theory, and so on. And ... for a long time, I couldn't see how there could be another kind of value theory with totally different purposes.” But The Theory of Capitalist Development was not simply a presentation of Marx’s ideas. In it, Sweezy was to sharply differ with Marx's analysis of the law of the falling tendency of the rate of profit. Since his treatment of this question is intimately bound up with his political orientation and his analysis of American capitalism in Monopoly Capital—a work that was widely read during the political radicalisation of the late 1960s and early 1970s.[1]

Sweezey's debate with Dobbs coincided with the beginning of a systematic attack on the Marxist conception of a transition from feudalism to capitalism. As the radical writer, Dominic Alexander outlines"The origins of the capitalist system in a series of revolutionary transformations, political, industrial and even scientific was once broadly accepted, sometimes celebrated, by mainstream history. For over thirty years now, however, the relevance of the very concept of revolution to social change has been under systematic attack. One choice means of neutralising the idea of revolution is to posit the problem of continuity and change in history. Approached with suitably myopic terms of reference, it is always possible to eliminate the discontinuities across time and to find that revolutionary phases, in fact, changed little. It is now possible to reject the very notion of a capitalist mode of production and any transition from feudalism to capitalism, by claiming, for example, the long existence of a single world system of trade".[2]

Most of the chapter and for that matter, most of the book is spent attacking the political and historical conceptions of the pseudo-left writer and historian Robert Brenner. Heller incorrectly labels Brenner a Trotskyist and predictably but no less criminal he uses other pseudo-left writers namely the SWP(Socialist Workers Party) member Chris Harman to refute Brenner.

While from an editorial point of view, there is nothing wrong in placing Brenner at the heart of this very contemporary debate over the emergence of capitalism. From a political or historical viewpoint, Brenner is not that important.

Like many historians close to the pseudo-left groups, Heller has a tendency to throw the words Trotskyist and Marxist around with gay abandon. Regarding the feudalism/capitalism debate, Heller's approach has been described as “separating the decline of feudalism from the emergence of capitalism" which is countered by Brenner who favours a "conceptual and chronological divide" between feudalism and capitalism. Heller believes Brenner has an Anglo-centrist viewpoint. In that Brenner ignores the fact that early capitalism did not occur solely in Britain

For someone who has been labelled a Marxist historian Heller barely mentions one of the most critical Marxists produced by the 20th century Leon Trotsky. Even a cursory look at Trotsky's work which Heller devoted only three mentions in the whole book would throw a tremendous amount of light on the positions of Heller and Brenner. As Trotsky explains "the entire history of mankind is governed by the law of uneven development. Capitalism finds various sections of humanity at different stages of development, each with its profound internal contradictions. The extreme diversity in the levels attained, and the extraordinary unevenness in the rate of development of the different sections of mankind during the various epochs serves as the starting point of capitalism. Capitalism gains mastery only gradually over the inherited unevenness, breaking and altering it, employing therein its own means and methods. In contrast to the economic systems which preceded it, capitalism inherently and consistently aims at the economic expansion, at the penetration of new territories, the surmounting of economic differences, the conversion of self-sufficient provincial and national economies into a system of financial interrelationships.

He continues "thereby it brings about their rapprochement and equalizes the economic and cultural levels of the most progressive and the most backward countries. Without this primary process, it would be impossible to conceive of the relative levelling out, first, of Europe with Great Britain, and then, of America with Europe; the industrialization of the colonies, the diminishing gap between India and Great Britain, and all the consequences arising from the enumerated processes upon which is based not only the program of the Communist International but also its very existence. By drawing the countries economically closer to one another and levelling out their stages of development, capitalism, however, operates by methods of its own, that is to say, by anarchistic methods which constantly undermine its own work, set one country against another, and one branch of industry against another, developing some parts of world economy while hampering and throwing back the development of others." 

As regards Brenner, there is a dialectical relationship between his politics and his historicism which the reader should be aware of. To paraphrase the great historian E. H.Carr one should know how many bees are buzzing around in a historians head.

One of Brenner's most important article regarding the transition debate was the  'Agrarian Class Structure and Economic Development in Pre-Industrial Europe' in Past and Present (1976). The article was described as a framework within which to interpret the English Revolution of 1640 to 1660.

Brenner carried this framework into his most important book that centred on the English revolution, which mainly concentrated on the rise of the merchants and particularly the role of the London merchants in the English revolution.[4]

Brenner is heavily criticised in Heller's book for his heavy emphasis on this group of capitalists. Brenner was not the first historian to concentrate on this group. Although not a Marxist, the historian Valerie Pearl in her book[5] provides us with one the first and substantial look into the allegiances of London merchants in the civil war.

Her research leads her to show that the majority of the biggest merchants who controlled the large chartered overseas trading companies and the government of the city were royalists, while the parliamentarians were 'merchants of the middle rank',. They were undoubtedly wealthy, but not the richest men in the city. They were important traders but not directors of the chartered companies.”

Brian Manning also draws attention to the mix of the bourgeoisie on both sides saying that "a serious problem in analyzing the parties is that even among well-documented groups like gentry and merchants there are substantial numbers of whom no information can be found of their allegiances in the civil war. Brenner has examined 274 of the London merchant elite, but for about half of them, there is no evidence about which side they supported, and this must be borne in mind when drawing conclusions. Of 130 merchants who can be allocated to the parties, 78 were royalists, 43 were parliamentarians, and nine were side changers. Breaking these figures down, he finds that the leading merchants of the Levant and the East India companies, which controlled the city government before the revolution, were overwhelmingly royalists, while the Merchant Adventurers, who were now less dominant than they had been in the 16th century, were more evenly divided”.

The fact that there was bourgeois on both sides has been used by revisionist historians to deny the premise of an English bourgeois revolution. This viewpoint was refuted by the Marxist writer Ann Talbot who said "there were gentlemen and landowners on the Parliamentary side in the civil war and small farmers and artisans on the Royalist side. One could not expect a chemically pure revolution in which the members of one social class lined up one side of the barricades and those of the other on the opposite side. However. According to Talbot, the revolution pushed"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 kind of theory to explain what they were doing.

The problem with Heller's critique of Robert Brenner's so-called Political Marxist tradition is that aside from a few disagreements, he shares many of Brenner's pseudo-left positions. The fact that Heller fails to point out that Brenner's brand of Political Marxism is widely accepted in academia is deeply disturbing.

Brenner is part of an informal collection of left-wing academics called the "No Bullshit Marxism Group.” This extremely disparate group, many of whom, do not even claim to be Marxists like Philippe Van Parijs, have one thing in common which is their opposition to classical Marxism and would like to replace it with "Analytic Marxism.”

The main problem with Brenner’s work is its dangerous concentration on the national over the international form when it comes to the English revolution. The fact that the English bourgeois was far more advanced than its European counterparts does not separate it from the development of capitalism in Europe which was also developing albeit at a slower pace as Leon Trotsky pointed out earlier in this essay.

Marx saw the development of capitalism as global not national as he explained in Capital "the discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins, signalised the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production. These idyllic proceedings are the chief momenta of primitive accumulation. On their heels treads the commercial war of the European nations, with the globe for a theatre. It begins with the revolt of the Netherlands from Spain, assumes giant dimensions in England's Anti-Jacobin War, and is still going on in the opium wars against China. The different momenta of primitive accumulation distribute themselves now, more or less in chronological order, particularly over Spain, Portugal, Holland, France, and England. In England at the end of the 17th century, they arrive at a systematical combination, embracing the colonies, the national debt, the modern mode of taxation, and the protectionist system. These methods depend in part on brute force, e.g., the colonial system. But, they all employ the power of the State, the concentrated and organised force of society, to hasten, hot-house fashion, the process of transformation of the feudal mode of production into the capitalist mode, and to shorten the transition. Force is the midwife of every old society pregnant with a new one. It is itself an economic power”[6].

To conclude, to tackle all the theoretical problems coming out of Heller's book would take another book to answer. Perhaps the most dangerous part of his philosophy is his solution to the crisis of capitalism today and the prospects for socialism.

Despite capitalism's crisis, Heller believes that socialism is off the agenda for hundreds of years. Heller believes that the working class will have to go through "experiments in socialism" before it can overthrow the system.

Heller regurgitates all the old discredited and failed theories that have led to countless betrayals of the working. Heller rejects the need to build a Bolshevik type party but insists that all sorts of socialists need to get together in a non-sectarian way to build a movement to overthrow capitalism.

[3] Leon Trotsky, The Third International after Lenin, part 1, section 4
[4] Merchants and Revolution-Commercial Change, Political Conflict, and London's Overseas Traders, 1550-1653-by Robert Brenner-Verso
[5] London and the Outbreak of the Puritan Revolution: City government and national politics, 1625–43. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1961.
[6] Karl Marx. Capital Volume One-Chapter Thirty-One: Genesis of the Industrial Capitalist-