Wednesday, 15 July 2015

God, Duty and Community in English Economic Life, 1660–1720, by Brodie Waddell. The Boydell Press. 2012; pp. 273. £60.

In his first book, God, Duty and Community in English Economic Life, Brodie Waddell uses a combination of genre, "cultural turn" and "history from below" to explain the complex changes in the economy and politics of late Stuart England. However, the book offers a much watered-down version of both. Suffice to say Waddell rejects previous Whig And orthodox Marxist teleologies.  

Waddell's particular brand of people's history historiography is heavily influenced by historians who came from the Communist Party Historians Group. One of their many contributions to the study of Early Modern England was the historiographical genre "history from below" or 'people's history'. The influence of  E P Thompson's book the Making of the English Working Class is palpable.

Thompson's book and his other major works have a common theme in that they tend to obscure the class character of rebels, revolutionaries and popular leaders by regarding them all as representatives of a national revolutionary tradition.

Whether Waddell understands or cares where his influences come from is open to question, but as Ann Talbot writes, People's history was an attempt to give some historical foundation to the policies of Popular Front.

The historians inside the CPHG were guilty in one form or another of this political crime. Historians like David Parker have played down the influence of the Soviet Communist Party on the historians inside the CPHG. According to Parker the British Marxists were not "imprisoned in a straight jacket –either economistic or Stalinist-from which they later escape". This is a very generous evaluation. Parker would appear to operate a form of political blindness on this matter.

Despite being Waddell's first book, he has a significant body of work inside and outside academia. His blog contains numerous articles based on people's history genre. In 2013 along with other likeminded historians they held an Online Symposium titled "The Future of History from Below": Waddell along with over twenty like-minded historians recently announced on the blog[1] a follow up the online symposium, 'The Voices of the People'. The series of articles will further examine the history from below genre.

While this is an extremely useful exercise, I have several reservations. One is that at no time has an orthodox Marxist historian been invited to contribute to the subject and secondly none of the essays examine the political origins of the genre in any great detail.

The revival of the history from below genre seems to coincide with a growing dissatisfaction amongst some historians and the wider public with capitalism. It cannot be a coincidence that we have over the last six years witnessed the near-collapse of the capitalist system and growth of social inequality unprecedented in over a century and seen the rise of a new form of history from below historiography.

Like a large number of revisionist historians today Waddell sets out in his introduction a quite considerable task of seeking to overturn large swathes of the previous historiography on his chosen subject. However, his criticism of previous Marxist and Whig historiography gives succour to more conservative revisionist historians.

Waddell concedes that for a substantial part of the twentieth century early modern historiography in Britain and internationally has been dominated by a disparate number of historians who in one way or another profess to be Marxist or Marxist influenced. As Tom Leng points out "notions of early modern social change have been informed by a series of teleological transitions–from feudalism to capitalism, community to society, and so on".[2]

It is debatable how much Marx and Engels Waddell has read, but his book does not present their writings in any great detail. He does not agree with their politics or historiography. In his book and his blog, he rejects the notion that early modern society can be best understood as a transition from feudalism to capitalism.

I believe the book would have benefited from a closer study of Marxist methodology. In fact, like most modern history books Waddell's is very light on methodology. While not directly concerning the material in the book Engels work on the family would have given us a deeper insight into the lives of "ordinary  17th-century people, as Engels noted "According to the materialistic conception, the determining factor in history is, in the final instance, the production and reproduction of the immediate essentials of life. This, again, is twofold. On the one side, the production of the means of existence, of articles of food and clothing, dwellings, and of the tools necessary for that production; on the other side, the production of human beings themselves, the propagation of the species. The social organization under which the people of a particular historical epoch and a particular country live is determined by both kinds of production: by the stage of development of labour on the one hand and of the family on the other".[3]

Waddell rejects Engel's historical materialistic outlook. He instead leans heavily on the work of E. P. Thompson whose work for too long has been described as Marxist. Despite borrowing a few phrases or quotes from Marx or Engels Thompson's work is a negation of orthodox Marxism.

Terms like "moral economy" have been presented as a sort of Marxist analysis. The term "moral economy" has usually been attributed to Thompson. However, it was the Russian economist Alexander Chayanov who first expounded on this idea in the 1920s.

Waddell's book relies heavily on Thompson's "moral economy", but no matter how you try you wrap it up Thompson's theoretical mess, it has nothing to do with any Marxist concepts or methodology. Waddell tends to separate what people thought about religion, duty and community from the significant economic changes that took place in the seventeenth century. Waddell like Thompson rejects the relationship between base and superstructure.

As one reviewer put it "Waddell does not claim to be an expert on new forms of economic development that came about during the later Stuart period. In the latter half of the book, Waddell details the activity of the people. He cites numerous strikes, protests, and communal actions that took place across England between 1660 and 1720. Due to his political blindness, these events cannot be placed in relation to their political or social context. His tendency to separate base and superstructure means his observations are superficial at best and are treated only as manifestations of a more general sense of collective identity and agency."

This separation between base and superstructure has become the hallmark of several historians that write on the history from below genre. Despite being labelled as out of date and unfashionable what Marx wrote on base and superstructure is as relevant today as when it was written :"In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely [the] 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. In studying such transformations, it is always necessary to distinguish between the material transformation of the economic conditions of production, which can be determined with the precision of natural science, and the legal, political, religious, artistic, or philosophic — in short, ideological forms in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out. Just as one does not judge an individual by what he thinks about himself, so one cannot judge such a period of transformation by its consciousness, but, on the contrary, this consciousness must be explained from the contradictions of material life, from the conflict existing between the social forces of production and the relations of production".[4]

While Waddell correctly points out in the book that the lives of working people in early modern England, were to a degree influenced by the economic changes taking place after the revolution. But he rejects the premise that their social being determined their consciousness.

Again the book would have benefited from Marx's analysis in The German Ideology: "The production of ideas, of conceptions, of consciousness, is at first directly interwoven with the material activity and the material intercourse of men, the language of real life. Conceiving, thinking, the mental intercourse of men, appear at this stage as the direct afflux from their material behaviour. The same applies to mental production as expressed in the language of the politics, laws, morality, religion, and metaphysics of a people. Men are the producers of their conceptions, ideas". [5]

Despite its shortcoming on the methodology, the book does have merit. It is to Waddell's credit that in order to present his ideas, he uses a wide range of sources, low priced pamphlets, Sermons, songs, broadsides. The books show his extensive use of archival sources such as court records, guild and company records, and parish registers.

The book is divided into three sections, and each examines the concepts in the title, God, duty, and community. One problem encountered by Waddell is the paucity of records that enable us to have a good idea of how "ordinary" people viewed the religious developments and how they impacted on economic life.

It is clear that during the English revolution traditional religious beliefs started to receive a beating as David north points out "Until the early seventeenth century, even educated people still generally accepted that the ultimate answers to all the mysteries of the universe and the problems of life were to be found in the Old Testament. But its unchallengeable authority had been slowly eroding, especially since the publication of Copernicus's De Revolutionibus in the year of his death in 1543, which dealt a death blow to the Ptolemaic conception of the universe and provided the essential point of departure for the future conquests of Tycho Brahe (1546-1601), Johann Kepler (1571-1630) and, of course, Galileo Galilei (1564-1642). Intellectually, if not yet socially, the liberation of man from the fetters of Medieval superstition and the political structures that rested upon it, was well underway.[6]

Waddell can reject Marx, Tawney and even Weber all he likes but evidence point to large sections of society both poor and rich alike sharing similar if not the same attitude towards God and to some extent property.

To conclude, despite calling for a new approach to historical research, much of Waddell's ideas have been developed already by a body of writers and historians who advocated a "cultural turn". Like many "new" approaches Cultural Studies started life as an attack on revolutionary Marxism, It is hoped that Waddell's future work does not too far down this road.

[3] The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State: in the Light of the Researches of Lewis H. Morgan preface to the First Edition, 1884
[4] Marx, Karl (1977). A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy. Moscow: Progress Publishers: Notes by R. Rojas.
[5] German Ideology, 1.c. p. 13-4.
[6] Equality, the Rights of Man and the Birth of Socialism By David North 24