The London Revolution 1640-1643: Class Struggles in 17th Century England-Michael Sturza-The Mad Duck Coalition, New York, 2022. 230 pp., $25

“The ‘great’ national historian Macaulay vulgarises the social drama of the seventeenth century by obscuring the inner struggle of forces with platitudes that are sometimes interesting but always superficial.”

Leon Trotsky

“The dreams of a Milton, a Winstanley, a George Fox, a Bunyan, were not realised; nor indeed were those of Oliver himself: ‘Would that we were all saints’.”[1]

Christopher Hill

“English academics always hated revolutions so that there is an in-built pleasure in being able to get back, as some of them tried to do, to saying nothing important had happened. French, Russian and American historians have accepted revolutions as part of their tradition, whereas we’ve always hushed ours up and transferred it to the Glorious Revolution of 1688.”[2]

Christopher Hill

 The London Revolution 1640-1643 does not contain any new research from previously used new primary archival sources. It, however, stands on the shoulders of previous work and provides the uninitiated with a useful summary of the main points of the English revolution.

Sturza’s defence of the concept of an English revolution is to be welcomed, as is his attempt to explain the English Revolution from the standpoint of a historical materialist outlook. As Frederick Engels so eloquently put it, “The materialist conception of history starts from the proposition that the production of the means to support human life and, next to production, the exchange of things produced, is the basis of all social structure; that in every society that has appeared in history, the manner in which wealth is distributed and society divided into classes or orders is dependent upon what is produced, how it is produced, and how the products are exchanged. From this point of view, the final causes of all social changes and political revolutions are to be sought, not in men’s brains, not in men’s better insights into eternal truth and justice, but changes in the modes of production and exchange.”[3]

The book offers a basic understanding of the main historical events for the reader new to the English revolution. But its main task is to highlight the revolution’s fundamental political and class character. Many of the main revolutionary figures of the English Revolution were moved, as Sturza outlines in the book, by definite social, political and economic ideas. Still, their ideas were often cloaked in religious form. Many varied social currents brought people of diverse social backgrounds into a struggle against the king. They sought to understand the new and revolutionary ideas in the curious and archaic guise in which they appeared. They turned to the only source available to understand these ideas, the Bible.

Sturza’s book pays considerable attention to the works of previous Marxists while also examining current historiography, which has been dominated over the past few decades by revisionist and post-revisionist ideologues. Sturza correctly explains that revisionism was an academic articulation of capitalism’s attack on the working class. Reagan-Thatcher’s right-wing agenda was enforced by a violent assault on the working class. The high point of this assault in the UK was the year-long civil war conducted by the British police against the coal miners’ strike of 1984-85.

The English revolution was not the only revolution under attack from the revisionists. The French, Russian and, very recently, the American Revolution have all come under sustained attack from revisionist historians.

What makes Sturza’s book different from the previous historiography, according to Alan Wallis, professor of history at New Jersey City University, is that “unlike most other writings on the English Revolution, the English Revolution was driven by petty-bourgeois artisans under militant Puritan leadership rather than the moderate gentry in the House of Commons, as is usually claimed by historians who deny or ignore the importance of leadership in carrying out any successful revolution. Sturza illustrates how the protests and street battles in the early 1640s foreshadowed the Civil War, which many historians have presented as an inexplicable bolt from out of the blue.”[4]  

One of those historians who thought the revolution was a bolt from the blue was the dean of revisionism, John Morrill. Morrill’s essay ‘Revisionism’s Wounded Legacies’ neatly encapsulated his opposition to any theory that remotely smacked of revolution or Marxism, prompting one colleague to ask him if there was ever a civil war in the first place. Morrill explained that his Revisionism “was a revolt against materialist or determinist histories and historiographies.”[5].

However, Morrill made one insightful remark in that essay in that he correctly states that every historian writing on the English revolution had to define their attitude to the work of Christopher Hill. The same must be said of Sturza. Christopher Hill, whose astonishing early book, The English Revolution 1640, had defined the English revolution as a bourgeois revolution, has achieved widespread acclaim and, to some extent, has not been bettered.

In it Hill writes, “England in 1640 was still ruled by landlords and the relations of production were still partly feudal, but there was this vast and expanding capitalist sector, whose development the Crown and feudal landlords could not forever hold in check. There were few proletarians (except in London), and most of the producers under the putting-out system being also small peasants. But these peasants and small artisans were losing their independence. They were hit especially hard by the general rise in prices and were brought into ever closer dependence on merchants and squires. A statute of 1563 forbade the poorer 75 per cent of the rural population to go as apprentices into the industry. So there were three classes in conflict. As against the parasitic feudal landowners and speculative financiers, as against the government whose policy was to restrict and control industrial expansion, the interests of the new class of capitalist merchants and farmers were temporarily identical to those of the small peasantry and artisans and journeymen. But the conflict between the two latter classes was bound to develop since the expansion of capitalism involved the dissolution of the old agrarian and industrial relationships and the transformation of independent small masters and peasants into proletarians.”[6]

Hill was extremely sensitive enough to his historical sources to understand and write about the social currents that brought people of different social backgrounds into a struggle against the king. From early in his career, he identified new and revolutionary ideas in the curious and archaic guise in which they appeared. These ideologists of the revolution used the Bible to find a precedent for their actions.

As Ann Talbot explains, “Hill’s achievements were twofold. Firstly he identified the mid-seventeenth century crisis as a revolution which overthrew the rule of one class and brought another to power in the case of Britain. Secondly, he recognised that the mass makes revolutions of the population and that for a revolution to occur, the consciousness of that mass of people must change since a few people at the top do not cause revolutions. However, the character of their leadership is crucial at certain points. These achievements were considerable at the time and are of continuing relevance today when historians increasingly reject any serious economic or social analysis and argue that revolutions are nothing but the work of a tiny group of conspirators.[7]

Sturza spends a lot of this book attacking Hill. In his conclusion, he chides Hill for not taking on the revisionists, but as Ann Talbot points out, Hill was a better historian than a political thinker. Also contained in the book’s conclusion is Sturza’s assertion that the English revolution was a “bourgois revolution from below and that petty-bourgeois artisan craftworkers, shopkeepers, early manufacturers, domestic traders and mariners…provided the horsepower of the revolution.’

Sturza’s formulation is confusing and not an orthodox Marxist position. He would have done well to read and then quote the Russian Marxist Leon Trotsky for a clearer understanding of how the revolution unfolded and how the social forces within it related to each other. Trotsky writes:

“The adherents of the Episcopal or Anglican, semi-Catholic church were the party of the court, the nobility and of course the higher clergy. The Presbyterians were the party of the bourgeoisie, the party of wealth and enlightenment. The Independents, and the Puritans especially, were the party of the petty bourgeoisie, the plebeians. Wrapped up in ecclesiastical controversies, in the form of a struggle over the religious structure of the church, there took place social self-determination of classes and their re-grouping along new, bourgeois lines. Politically the. Presbyterian party stood for a limited monarchy; the Independents, who then were called root and branch men or, in the language of our day, radicals, stood for a republic. The halfway position of the Presbyterians fully corresponded to the contradictory interests of the bourgeoisie — between the nobility and the plebeians. The Independents’ party, which dared to carry its ideas and slogans through to its conclusion, naturally displaced the Presbyterians among the awakening petty-bourgeois masses in the towns and the countryside that formed the main force of the revolution. Events unfolded empirically. In their struggle for power and property interests, both the former and the latter side hid behind a cloak of legitimacy.”[8]

To conclude, The English bourgeois revolution is a complex subject, and one book does not do it justice. However, despite its limitations, Sturza’s book gives the reader a good introduction to the topic. Further criticisms of the book will follow in a postscript to this review. Comments on the text and this review are welcome.


[1] https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2003/03/hill-m25.html

[2]https://www.marxists.org/history/etol/newspape/isj2/1992/isj2-056/hill.html

[3] Socialism: Utopian and Scientific

[4] https://marxandphilosophy.org.uk/reviewer/19991_alan-wallis/

[5]Revisionism’s Wounded Legacies-John Morrill -Huntington Library Quarterly

Vol. 78, No. 4 (Winter 2015), pp. 577-594

[6] The English Revolution 1640- http://www.marxists.org/archive/hill-christopher/english-revolution

[7] “These the times … this the man”: an appraisal of historian Christopher Hill- http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2003/03/hill-m25.html

[8] Two traditions: the seventeenth-century revolution and Chartism- https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/works/britain/ch06.htm

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