Friday, 31 January 2020

The Peculiar History Of The Sect Known As The Quakers (Bristol radical Pamphleteers) Pamphlet – 2011-by Jim McNeill

"..yet my mind was not at rest, because nothing was acted, and thoughts run in me that words and writings were all nothing, and must die, for action is the life of all, and if thou dost not act, thou dost nothing,"

Gerrard Winstanley

Where is the good old cause now?...and what is become of it? In whose hands does it lie?

Edward Burrough, To the Whole English Army(1659)

Friends, Meddle Not with the Powers of the Earth,

George Fox

Despite being only sixteen pages long, The Peculiar History Of The Sect Known as the Quakers poses a number of questions, who were the Quakers? Why were they persecuted? Why did they stop being radical? How did some of Bristol's Quakers become so rich?

Jim McNeill's excellent pamphlet give partial answers to the above questions and encourages the reader to read around the subject. Even a cursory look at the early history of the Quakers tell us that they were a mass of contradictions. During the English Revolution, the Quakers were closely aligned with other radical groups such as the Levellers and Diggers.

As Alan Cole explains "for nearly thirty years after the defeat of the Levellers at Burford, no political party emerged which could claim the effective support of the English radicals. Throughout this period the main centres of resistance were the Puritan sects and the history of the radical movement of the time, therefore, is closely bound up with the history of religious dissent. It is this fact which lends peculiar interest to the history of the early Quakers. For the rise of the Quakers spans the period from the breach between Cromwell and the radical movement to the emergence of the new Country Party at the end of the 1670's; and conversely, the decline of Quakerism in England may be traced back to the final defeat of the popular movement and the political compromise of 1688. Moreover, the first Quakers had had close connections with the earlier radical movement. Like the Levellers, most of them came from the class of petty traders and handicraftsmen, although it is worth noting that the movement made more headway among the peasantry than the Levellers had done. Over half the early Quaker leaders were directly connected with the land, and throughout the century the movement remained strong in the rural districts of the north and west"[1].

McNeil is one of only a handful of left-wing historians who have examined the Quakers in the context of their role in the English revolution. Christopher Hill’s output on the Quakers was reduced amounted to a lecture at Friends House in London in 1993 and his book The World Turned Upside Down he devoted one chapter which included the Ranters alongside the Quakers. This is not down to a lack of resources. Hill’s limited work on the Quakers contained very little original research.

In many ways, the Quakers are the forgotten radicals of the English revolution. As Jean Hatton[2] points out in her excellent biography, the Quaker leader George Fox is hardly known outside the Quaker movement. If ever a person needed rescuing from the condescension of history, Fox is it.

Mcneill poses an interesting question in his pamphlet? How did an early movement that expressed egalitarian strivings of the poorer sections of society end up playing such a crucial role in the early development of capitalism? As McNeill points, it was Quakers that founded most of the big banks that now operate like a colossus over the world.

One answer not really explored by McNeill lies in the class nature of the Quakers. While containing some plebian elements, this was essentially a movement in modern terms of what would be the lower middle class. If truth be told, it was mainly the plebian elements that gave the movement its radical edge.

As McNeill points out the early Quaker movement exploded during the English revolution alongside side other radical groups, Seekers, Ranters, Antinomians, Seventh Day Baptists, Soul sleepers, Adamites, Diggers, Levellers, Anabaptists, Mennonites, Behmenists, Muggletonians to name but a few.

In Christopher Hill's The World Turned Upside Down[3] he explains the reasoning behind this explosion of radicalism and a world that was turned upside down, Hill writes: “From, say, 1645 to 1653, there was a great overturning, questioning, revaluing, of everything in England. Old institutions, old beliefs, old values came into question. Men moved easily from one critical group to another, and a Quaker of the early 1650s had far more in common with a Leveller, a Digger, or a Ranter than with a modern member of the Society of Friends”.

It is interesting that Hill's in the book puts the Quakers with the Ranters in his only stand-alone chapter in the book. As Hill points out that Ranters were often confused with Ranters. George Fox leader of the Quakers would spend a large amount of his time trying to distance his movement away from the Ranters.

In 1652 Quakerism was at the height of its power, but from then onwards its radicalism started to wane very badly. As Hill explains the ebbing of the Quaker movement "In time of defeat when the wave of revolution was ebbing, the inner voice became quietist, pacifist. This voice only was recognized by others as God's. God was no longer served by the extravagant gesture, whether Nayler's entry into Bristol or the blasphemy of the Ranters. Once the group decided this way, all the pressures were in the direction of accepting modes of expression not too shocking to the society in which men had to live and earn their living. The radicals were so effectively silenced that we do not know whether many held out in isolation with Milton. We do not even know about Winstanley. But what looked in the Ranter heyday as though it might become a counter-culture became a corner of the bourgeois culture whose occupants asked only to be left alone."

It is no coincidence that its move away from its early radicalism coincided with the rise of capitalism which it played an extremely important part. During the early part of the 18th century and 9th century, Quakers went on to be an indispensable tool in the development of capitalism. They were especially important in the field of technological innovations.  Industrial capitalism would rely heavily on Quaker's inventions. 

As Steven Davison points out "They build many of the key industries, establish many of the most important companies, build its financial infrastructure, develop new modes of organization, and pioneer humane treatment of workers. At the same time that they are engaging the world of business, industry and commerce with incredible energy and invention, they are withdrawing from engagement with the world in virtually every other area of life. Friends maintain this double culture for two hundred years. In England, they become fabulously wealthy; in America, they do pretty well[4].

[1] The Quakers and the English Revolution: Alan Cole -Past & Present, No. 10 (Nov. 1956), pp. 39-54
[2] George Fox: A Biography of the Founder of the Quakers Paperback – 1 Sep 2007-by Jean Hatton
[3] The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas During the English Revolution (Penguin History) Paperback – 12 Dec 1991
[4] Quakers & Capitalism: A Brief Recap-

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.

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".(1)

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 that 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 corvée 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 of 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 that 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)

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.”

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 to. 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. (7)

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.

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's 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.(8)

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's 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".(9)

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".(10)

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 the 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 an “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 that 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's 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 politicians 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.(11)

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”(12)

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
7Heaven Taken by Storm: Christopher Hill, Andrew Marvell and the Dissenting Tradition-
8.The ABC of Materialist Dialectics-(December 1939)
9.Imperialism and the political economy of the Holocaust-
10.Brian Manning-Turning Point in History-(March 2003)
11.Norah Carlin-Marxism and the English Civil War-(Autumn 1980)
12,Interview with Historian Norah Carlin-

Monday, 20 January 2020

In a Post-Truth World, How do we Study History-Suzannah Lipscomb-A Reply

In the February issue of History Today, the popular historian Suzannah Lipscomb wrote the article entitled In a Post-Truth World, How do we Study History.  In the opening paragraph, she all but calls the left-wing film director Ken Loach a holocaust denier.

Despite saying that Loach had denied the claim and had answered the charge in  Guardian Lipscomb refused to retract her claim. The fact that the Guardian refused to publish Loach's full reply to his detractors is not mentioned by Lipscomb.

Lipscomb along with 12 other high profile Historians and writers have led a campaign that has accused the Labour Party of being antisemitic and therefore they refused to vote for it during the general election.

Their campaign is fully supported by the Guardian which published a wretched piece by  Jonathan Freedland[1]. In his article, Freedland wrote "It means that a man such as Ken Loach – an artist so sensitive he is capable of making the film I, Daniel Blake – ends up lending a spurious legitimacy to Holocaust denial. Asked to react to a speaker at a Brighton fringe meeting who had said Labour supporters should feel free to debate any topic, including the veracity of the Holocaust – “did it happen or didn’t it happen”, as the BBC interviewer put it – Loach could not give a simple, unequivocal denunciation of Holocaust denial. “I think history is for all of us to discuss. Loach had not been asked whether there should be a discussion of the meaning of the Nazi slaughter of the Jews. He had been asked about the fact of it happening. And on that, he said there should be discussion – the same apparently innocuous formulation routinely advanced by hardcore Holocaust deniers".

Loach sought a reply to this slander but was only given a small section in the Guardian's Comment is Free section. In a further response carried by the letters section of the New York Times, Loach wrote to the Editor saying ”Howard Jacobson alleges that I defended questioning the Holocaust. I did not and do not. In a confused BBC interview, where question and answer overlapped, my words were twisted to give a meaning contrary to that intended. The Holocaust is as real a historical event as World War II itself and not to be challenged. In Primo Levi's words: “Those who deny Auschwitz would be ready to remake it".[2]

Whether she is conscious or not Lipscomb's comments add to an already growing witch hunt in the service of Britains ruling elite. As Jean Shaouls article points out “the aim of this political destabilization operation has been to prevent an election victory that would take him to Number 10 and to then engineer his subsequent removal. It followed a relentless campaign that started as soon as Corbyn became a leader in 2015 when the Blairites—acting with the Conservative Party, the media, the military and intelligence establishment and the Israel lobby—denounced not only Corbyn’s but all left-wing opposition to Israel's brutal suppression of the Palestinians as anti-Semitic”. The witch-hunt centres on a concerted attempt to equate opposition to Zionism and the colonial policies of the Israeli state with hatred of the Jewish people in general and the infamous and reactionary anti-Semitism of the Nazis in particular.[3]

Lipscomb's concludes her deeply disturbing article attempting to cover up her lazy sleight of hand journalism with a cloak of orthodoxy by attacking the postmodernist’s attempt to deny historical facts. In fact, it is Lipscomb who is playing fast and loose with historical facts. She should retract her comments and History Today should give Loach the right to reply.

[1] Labour’s denial of antisemitism in its ranks leaves the party in a dark place
Jonathan Freedland- 27 Sep 2017
[3] The anti-Semitism accusations against Corbyn: A witch-hunt in the service of imperialism-By Jean Shaoul13 December 2019-

Thursday, 2 January 2020

Hill and Timofeeva

By Christopher Thompson

Marina Valerevna Timofeeva’s 2009 thesis on Christopher Hill’s analysis of the 17th-Century English Bourgeois Revolution is another matter. It was submitted to the Ural State University at that time and appears not to be available on-line or in print at present. An abstract of the thesis can, however, be found and seems to be the prelude to an analysis of his writings from the start of the Second World War until he stopped writing in the 1990s. To the best of my knowledge, its existence and apparently formidable length have not been known hitherto. Dr Timofeeva’s objective was to emphasise the significant contribution Christopher Hill had made to the development of Marxist historiography in the West drawing on his published works, the tributes of friends and colleagues in the 1978 and 1988 festschrifts dedicated to him and on appreciations that appeared in newspapers and periodical publications. Hill’s own papers now held in the library of Balliol College, Oxford do not appear to have been used.

On the other hand, she does deploy material from authors in the former Soviet Union and its successor states to support her analysis. Until reading her abstract, I was unaware of the works of Pavlova, Sharifzhanov and Meshcheryakova on the historiography of the ‘bourgeois revolution’. Nor did I know about the analysis of Repina on the ambiguities of the Marxist concept of the English Revolution of the seventeenth-century. It is clear that large sections of Hill’s corpus of works had been translated into Russian, Polish and other eastern European languages with official sanction and that they had and still have a measure of influence in those countries that they have lost in the U.K. and other English-speaking countries.

There are also indications that Dr Timofeeva’s sympathies lie with Christopher Hill’s evolving approach to the English Revolution, to issues of class and cultural and intellectual changes up to and after 1640. His reaction to the rise of ‘revisionism’ in the mid-1970s also appears to have elicited her approval. His concept of a ‘revolution from below’ built of social and economic transformations is one she accepted. And she was able to draw upon methodological studies of British and Western historiography, some of them her own, equally unfamiliar to British scholars and historians in North America and elsewhere.

It would be altogether wrong in my view to disregard such a study which, in its full form, must be a work of formidable length. It would be a mistake too to dismiss the other sources upon which she has drawn as misguided or not as well-informed as they might have been. But Dr Timofeeva like her fellow historians in Russia is clearly a person of intelligence and with an admirable degree of diligence. What she appears, prima facie, to have lacked is the contact with academic historians of the period in Britain and elsewhere whose work has taken the study of mid-Stuart England and Wales, Ireland and Scotland along way forward since Christopher Hill was in his prime. She does not seem to have heard of the problems of multiple kingdoms or, if she has, it does not figure in the abstract of her thesis. There have been major historians in the field since the days of Conrad Russell. Inevitably, the influence of historians fades after their deaths. This is what has happened to Christopher Hill. But attempts to preserve his memory and to acknowledge his contribution have begun here in the U.K. Perhaps, her work will come to be acknowledged here too. 

Wednesday, 1 January 2020

Regicide or Revolution? What Petitioners Wanted, September 1648 - February 1649-Norah Carlin- £18.50-Publisher Breviary Stuff

'Popular petitions were at the very heart of the revolutionary crisis of 1648-1649, and this book is unique in recovering their meaning, the context in which they were issued, and the people who wrote and supported them. Essential reading.'

John Rees-The Leveller Revolution

'The petitions Norah Carlin has transcribed and carefully contextualized in Regicide or Revolution? represent an incredibly important cache of materials for understanding the crisis of the English Revolution, the trial and execution of Charles I. Carlin convincingly demonstrate that these petitions were not straightforward demands for bloody retribution. Rather, their content varied considerably, incorporating radical demands for legal, social and constitutional reform, giving historians a highly important window into the ideals and aspirations of the 'well affected' both within and outside the army. The collection should be required reading for scholars and students of the English Revolution, and the general reader alike.'

Ted Vallance, University of Roehampton, London

There are two types of historians. The first type is the historian that spends a tremendous number of hours deep mining archives to produce a book. The second type is the historian that writes about the former.

Norah Carlin has produced a book that firmly places her in the first type of historian. It takes a skilful historian like Carlin to produce a book out of such a large and significant number of texts. The English revolution is one of the most worked-over topics in English history, and rivals only the American, French and Russian revolution in books produced. It is to Carlin’s credit that she has created something new and highly interesting.

It is widely accepted amongst historians of the English revolution that the many petitions addressed to Parliament and the army in the five months before Charles I’s execution influenced the events that led to his trial and death.

However, more Conservative historians have argued that the petitions had little effect and represented little more than a propaganda campaign by a small number of political and military leaders.

It is to her eternal credit that Carlin has undertaken the task to carry out a wide-ranging examination of over sixty texts. As Carlin has said, the book has been nearly twenty years in the making. The sheer number and diversity of the texts in the book indicate a tremendous politicisation of a significant layer of the population. It would not be an overstatement to say this is a groundbreaking book. Every text begins with a context and ends with a background analysis. It is clear that a lot of work and time went into this book.

In a recent interview, Carlin described this process, “this involved trawling the contemporary printed material in the British Library's Thomason Tracts (now available online), which is a sheer pleasure to me, and printed record sources like the Commons Journal. From there, I moved on to whatever manuscripts related to the petitions survive. I also researched each regiment, county and town involved as far as I could without greater specialisation, mainly in secondary sources (some of the Victoria County Histories are a good starting point) but sometimes going back to the national or local archives when I felt existing literature didn't deal satisfactorily with a particular issue”[1].

Dual Power

Carlin clearly believes that the majority of the texts came from plebeian elements in other words, from the rank and file activists. These texts then gained a wider audience. They also testify to the dual nature of power during this short period as Leon Trotsky describes so well: “the English Revolution of the seventeenth century, exactly because it was a great revolution shattering the nation to the bottom, affords a clear example of this alternating dual power, with sharp transitions in the form of civil war.

At first, the royal power, resting upon the privileged classes or the upper circles of these classes – the aristocrats and bishops – is opposed by the bourgeoisie and the circles of the squirearchy that are close to it. The government of the bourgeoisie is the Presbyterian Parliament supported by the City of London. The protracted conflict between these two regimes is finally settled in open civil war. The two governmental centres – London and Oxford – create their own armies. Here the dual power takes a territorial form, although, as always in a civil war, the boundaries are very shifting. Parliament conquers. The king is captured and awaits his fate.

It would seem that the conditions are now created for the single rule of the Presbyterian bourgeoisie. But before the royal power could be broken, the parliamentary army has converted itself into an independent political force. It has concentrated in its ranks the Independents the pious and resolute petty bourgeoisie, the craftsmen and farmers. This army powerfully interferes in social life, not merely as an armed force, but as a Praetorian Guard, and as the political representative of a new class opposing the prosperous and rich bourgeoisie. Correspondingly the army creates a new state organ rising above the military command: a council of soldiers’ and officers’ deputies (“agitators”). A new period of double sovereignty has thus arrived: that of the Presbyterian Parliament and the Independents’ army. This leads to open conflicts. The bourgeoisie proves powerless to oppose with its own army the “model army” of Cromwell – that is, the armed plebeians. The conflict ends with a purgation of the Presbyterian Parliament by the sword of the Independents. There remains but the rump of a parliament; the dictatorship of Cromwell is established. The lower ranks of the army, under the leadership of the Levellers – the extreme left wing of the revolution – try to oppose to the rule of the upper military levels, the patricians of the army, their own veritably plebeian regime. But this new two-power system does not succeed in developing: the Levellers, the lowest depths of the petty bourgeoisie have not yet, nor can have their own historic path. Cromwell soon settles accounts with his enemies. A new political equilibrium, and still by no means a stable one, is established for a period of years[2].

Carlin tackles a number of important issues in the book. One of the most important issues is to what extent were the authors of the various texts merely responding to political events or were the cause by their actions of subsequent events.

She writes “The petitions were responding to events as they occurred, and we must avoid the temptation to see them as causing the events that followed – especially the king’s execution, which has been a focus for hindsight almost since it happened. None of them calls openly for the king’s death, and even among those that call for vengeance for the blood spilt in the civil wars, only a few name him directly. Much express concern for the common people’s rights and liberties, and a substantial minority call for a radical redefinition of the English constitution, with the House of Commons at its centre as representative of the people. Some list reforms in the law and society that reveal a wider vision of revolution for England, and very many expand on their own interpretation of the civil wars and more recent events”.[3]

The texts in Carlin’s book clearly show that England was going through a profound transformation. The debate about whether to kill the king was unprecedented and had its roots in objective processes. Carlin is enough of a Marxist to believe that such events are not merely spontaneous occurrences but are decades if not centuries in the making. Whether the participants are conscious of what they are doing is not the most important point. To be more precise during the English bourgeois revolution some of its actors were to a certain extent semi-conscious of what they were doing it is a different matter during a socialist revolution such as the Russian revolution where the actors were entirely conscious of what was needed to be done.

This does not undermine the English Revolution’s lasting historical significance. As Karl  Marx wrote in the 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under the circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.”


It is a pity that Carlin has not written more on the English revolution. Her first book Causes of the English Civil War (Historical Association Studies) was written in 1998 and gave a very good introduction to the English revolution. It introduces the reader to the various strands of historiography. During her time in the Socialist Workers Party(SWP), she produced two groundbreaking essays that should have prompted the State Capitalist organisation to produce more work on the subject and challenge the growing threat of a number of revisionist historians that were seeking to denigrate any Marxist understanding of the revolution.

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

Of the CP Carlin makes this point “Hill left the Communist Party in 1957 after playing a not very memorable role on the Commission for Inner-Party Democracy and ended up as Master of Balliol College, Oxford. Given the nasty and personalised tone of the right-wing attack, it is hardly surprising that defending Hill should come to be almost a significant activity in itself, yet the striking fact is that when a collection of essays by former pupils of his was got together to mark his retirement at the end of the 1970s, not one article made any explicit reference to Marxism, only one contributor (Brian Manning) could be regarded as in any sense a Marxist, and several (including the advocate of muddle quoted above) were openly anti-Marxist. There is something slightly odd about ‘Britain’s greatest Marxist historian’ (as he is described continuously in journals such as New Left Review and History Workshop) raising no successors”.[4]

She recently elaborated more on her time inside the SWP when she challenged the almost religiously orthodox position of the SWP towards Hill. She states “Most left political tendencies have recognised the importance of the subject to some extent in recent times, though some have got bogged down by making a shibboleth of some over-simplified interpretation. Ironically, the left organisation I belonged to for many years regarded me as a heretic because I didn't 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's only when there is no more debate that history ceases to be interesting”[5].


Carlin should be congratulated for producing a marvellous book that deserves to be in every university library. The ideals and principles emanating from the texts were the mainstays of the revolution. But in the final analysis, the English revolution was a bourgeois revolution, and there existed, inevitably, a gap between the ideals its participants proclaimed and their real social-economic and political purpose. However, the revolution did pave the way for the vast expansion of capitalism and produced the first capitalist nation-state.

About the author

Before retirement, Norah Carlin was a Principal Lecturer in History at Middlesex University (London). She is also the author of The Causes of the English Revolution (Oxford, Blackwell for the Historical Association, 1999) and a number of articles on aspects of the seventeenth-century English revolution. Having moved back to her native Edinburgh some years ago, she is currently pursuing research on the kirk and rural society in Scotland in the century after the Reformation.

The book can be purchased directly from Breviary Stuff-

or from Amazon-

[2] The Seventeenth-Century revolution- Leon Trotsky’s Writings on Britain-
[3] Review : Regicide or Revolution? What Petitioners Wanted, September 1648 - February 1649-Norah Carlin £18.50 358pp / 156x234mm / paperback ISBN 978-1-9161586-0-3