Commentary on The London Revolution Review

I am afraid that Sturza’s account of the events of the 1640s and your analysis of its merits (and faults) is not correct, Keith. First of all, the historiography of this period is wrong. The problems with a materialist or Marxist explanation were apparent well before the rise of so-called ‘Revisionism’ in the mid-1970s. The debates over the fortunes of the gentry between Tawney and Stone on one side and Trevor-Roper and J.P.Cooper on the other had stimulated a raft of research into the condition of landowners In many counties across England but also the growth of county studies and the hypothesis first advanced by Alan Everitt about the importance of localism in the ensuing conflicts.

John Morrill cut his historical teeth in this area and has never, to my knowledge, subscribed to the view that the English Civil War or Revolution came as a bolt from the blue.) In Cambridge, the work of Peter Laslett and the CAMPOP group called into very serious question whether any classes in the Marxist sense existed at all.

The idea that capitalist merchants and farmers had come by 1640 to find themselves temporarily aligned with the interests of artisans and peasants against the Caroline regime, which was Christopher Hill’s view in 1940, does not hold water if only because the early Stuart monarchs were keen on promoting economic innovation, new industrial inventions and overseas trade: if you look at the papers of Lionel Cranfield or Arthur Ingram (or those of Sir John Bankes in the Bodleian Library), you will see what I mean.

There is certainly no evidence whatsoever that, as a result of the events of the 1640s and 1650s, the rule of one class was replaced by that of another, whatever Ann Talbot claimed. The larger landowners were predominant after 1660 as they had been before 1640. (W.R.Emerson’s account of the growth of large landowners’ fortunes is better than that of Lawrence Stone in 1965 or 1972.) Nor should it be forgotten that Valerie Pearl and Keith Lindley have shown how closely aligned the groups in the Long Parliament were to their allies in the urban area of London: mob activities and riots were much less important than figures like Hill or Manning, or Sturza supposed.

Furthermore, London was not the entire kingdom: beyond its bounds, there were important groups of supporters of the Long Parliament in counties, towns and villages, just as there were neutrals and supporters of the Royalist cause. The links between landowners, their tenants, allies and supporters in the countryside were critical too in the Long Parliament’s military victories by 1646 and the period between 1648 and 1651.

I should add that Christopher Hill did not fail to take on the ‘Revisionists’. If you look at his Open University A203 course, England: A Changing Culture 1618-1689 (Block 3, Pp.72-78), you will see one of his attempts to reply to Conrad Russell’s post-1975  work. In fact, ‘revisionism’ had a long pre-history stretching back into the 1960s and was over by the early-1990s. It was not the product of a capitalist attack on the working class, nor did it have any links with Margaret Thatcher or Ronald Reagan’s political views. This contention is completely untenable. 

Similarly, the grounds for thinking that what happened in the British Isles or in England in the 1640s was a ‘bourgeois revolution’ are not tenable. Those events can be more clearly seen as comparable to the revolt of the Low Countries or the French Wars of Religion in the second half of the sixteenth century, the revolts of Portugal and Catalonia in 1640 or the Frondes in France in the years between 1648 and 1653. ‘Les grand soulevements’ in these places and times never fitted into the framework postulated by Marx, Engels and their successors. Marx et al. asked interesting questions but their answers were never convinced.

C Thompson

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