Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Comment on ‘Conrad Russell and “The Mirage of the English Revolution” ’

By C Thompson

Keith Livesey is a keen commentator on the events of the 1640s and 1650s and a  vigorous defender of Marxist interpretations of the English Revolution. He has recently placed on-line his assessment of an article by Conrad Russell entitled “The Mirage of the English Revolution” published by the popular historical magazine, History Today, in 1990. Russell, who was then Professor of British History at King’s College in the University of London, had been concerned to look back at the assumption prevalent amongst (some) historians in the 1950s that the English Civil War was a “bourgeois revolution”.

He maintained that this view had not stood the test of time, partly because there was no correlation between the class or status of partisans on the two sides and partly because there was little or no sign of the Long Parliament having any bourgeois base of substance. Social changes were not responsible for the collapse of the political process at the centre in 1640 or 1642 or later.

The force of ideas as an independent variable was not recognised in Marxist or quasi-Marxist historiography nor was the fact that religious allegiances were not coterminous with social backgrounds. English government, in any case, depended on consent in the localities. There was certainly no sign of a bourgeois revolution in 1688-1689 either. Marx and his works, he concluded, constituted a colossal wrong-turning.

Russell’s essay was, in many ways, a reflection on the arguments current when he had been an Oxford undergraduate in the 1950s. The quarrels over the fortunes of the gentry had subsided by the end of that decade and had been succeeded by a ferment of research into the significance of county and local history and into the importance of ‘Court’ and ‘Country’ conflicts as potential explanatory mechanisms for the English Civil War.

The researches of Valerie Pearl into the City of London’s politics up to 1643 and those of J.T.Cliffe and Gordon Blackwood on the allegiance and fortunes of the Yorkshire and Lancashire gentry, let alone those of Gerald Aylmer on Charles I’s bureaucracy, had demonstrated how difficult it was to sustain the claims of Tawney, Hill and Stone about the nature of the English Revolution. Long before Russell proclaimed his dissent in the mid-1970s from the economic and social determinism informing Marxist and sub-Marxist explanations, those explanations had been recognised as more than inadequate.

This is why it is so strange to read Keith Livesey’s claim in April, 2013 that the attack on Marxism in English Civil War historiography has been heated and aggressive. This is not the case. This has not been the case since the early-1970s. No academic historian I can think of had had to acknowledge the importance of Marxist historiography and to take on board some of its analysis up to 1990.

Whatever Christopher Hill may have thought, the work of Soviet historians on the English Revolution – which Hill tried to promote – was too far divorced from the sources and too heavily shaped by Leninist preconceptions to be worth attention. Lawrence Stone, moreover, was never a Marxist. Keith Livesey’s comments are thus anachronistic. Russell had been writing about the state of historiography in the 1950s: by the time his article appeared in 1990, Marxism had receded dramatically as an intellectual influence. By then, Russell’s own ‘revisionism’ had reached its peak in his Ford lectures and his work on the fall of the British monarchies. He, too, was about to go out of historiographical fashion.