Saturday, 22 April 2017

Roger Morrice and the Puritan Whigs: The Entring Book, 1677-1691 - Mark Goldie Boydell Press 2016

"Pepys's ebullience matched the heady early years of the restored monarchy under King Charles II. But Morrice describes the dark days of political crisis, show trials, religious persecution, and the fear of 'popery and arbitrary power' that gripped the nation in the 1680s, and culminated in the second overthrow of Stuart monarchy,"

 Dr Mark Goldie.

'If Samuel Pepys's is the best-known diary in English history, then Roger Morrice's is perhaps the least known”.

Given the wealth of material and the insight this book provides into the political life of the second half of the 17th century, it is very strange that the work of Roger Morrice is not that well known or that his fame is not that of Samuel Pepys.

This book should go some way to rectify this anomaly. It has has been adapted, with a new substantial introduction and updated bibliography, from the first volume of the Entring Book of Roger Morrice. If you look at the task involved, then it is not that difficult to understand why this great diary laid dormant and virtually untouched.

While some historians have known of Morrice’s work for years it was unknown to the wider public and getting it to a wider audience took seven years, the original target was five.
It has made the collaboration of six leading international academics to bring these stories to life. The research team, led by Mark Goldie, of Cambridge University, has worked through 1,500 pages, which amounts to nearly one million words of 17th-century English. It includes 40,000 words written in an old shorthand, all of which had to be decoded by a specialist. 

The collection has 319-page introduction by Mark Goldie and 250 pages of appendices
There have been two previous attempts to publish a full transcript. But a project of this size could have only come about with the development of computers.

As John Morrill said “even with these advantages its completion required the tireless work of six major scholars (or seven if we include Frances Henderson, who teased out the shorthand passage and a large number of “postdoctoral galley slaves transcribing and editing”.

Morrice clearly understood he was writing in dangerous times and used shorthand to disguise what he was writing. He also knew that if caught he would be accused of sedition. He would disguise some of the names of people he was writing on.

Who Was Roger Morrice

To answer this question as Mark Goldie found out is a difficult one. A swift look at Mark Goldie’s biography of Morrice for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography(ODNB)will not tell you very much.  Given the huge amount, he wrote of other people, this is a contradiction, to say the least.

We do not have an accurate birth date 1628/9 is as close as we can get, he died in 1702. From a class standpoint, he was probably from the yeomanry. At birth, he was a registered as ‘plebeian’.

A young man when the English revolution took place. We know little about his attitude towards it. He studied at Magdalen Hall, Oxford in the early 1650s. At St Catharine's College, Cambridge, in 1654 he graduated BA in 1656 and proceeded to get an MA in 1659.

Later in life, he became closely connected with a large number of Puritan elites who had taken part in the English Civil War. He friendly with the likes of Baron Holles of Ifield and the eminent lawyer Sir John Maynard. Both were parliamentarian veterans of Puritan persuasion.

Morrice started writing at a dangerous time, and his personal experiences certainly shaped his writing. It was really in London where Morrice became what today would be an investigative journalist. He would frequent coffee houses which unlike today were hotbeds of political gossip. His notes would have been done in his secret handwriting to avoid being caught.

According to Goldie "Like all journalists, Morrice needed good sources, and he was lucky to have a very leaky secretary on the privy council called Richard Collings,".

Morrice became a commentator and collector of manuscripts. As a by-product of his journalism, he became well connected in Presbyterian circles.  It was rumoured that he was supplying newsletters to a group of Presbyterian Whig politicians.

So trusted politically he was given responsibility for the distribution of the will of Richard Baxter. He also was responsible, for distributing Baxter's library and publishing future works. A young John Toland was the eager recipient of some of Baxter’s library.

Morrice was clearly very conscious of what he was doing in aiding the Puritan cause so much so that he wanted to write a history of Puritanism and even and even drafted an outline in the 1690s.

Politically Morrice was a conservative Puritan and was not afraid to publish his thoughts in the in the ‘Ent'ring book’ he hated what he called the ‘hierarchists’ and ‘fanatics’, While applauding the ‘sober churchmen’ and ‘old Puritans’. He was also scared of the London Mobs.

In a diary entry dated December 1688 he states "The Mob was up in most parts of the Town all Tuesday night and committed many tumultuous insolencies, and made an invasion upon Liberty and Property to the great grief of all Wise men, and to the great Scandall of the City. They gathered together in the evening about most of the known Masshouses in Town (the Ambassadors Chappells that were open and publick not escaping) and particularly about the Masshouse in Lyncolns Inn Fields. They tooke out of those Mass-Chappells all the furniture, Utensills, and combustable materialls and brought them into the Streete and there burnt them. They have since pulled down, burnt and carryed away all the Timber in most of them and the Girders and Joysts. They were pulling up the ground Joysts on Tuesday night about midnight and multitudes were carrying away Bricks in baskets so that they have left scarce any thing but the bare Walls. They have seized upon and exposed to Rapine all the rich furniture and Plate in the Spanish Ambassadors house, and the Treasures of severall Papists that were deposited with him."

It is evident from Morrice’s diary that Puritanism was not dead and buried during the latter half of the 17th century.Puritans according to one writer “worked through parliament, the royal court, and the households of gentry, merchants, lawyers, and clergy. Setting out to galvanise civil society, they mobilised public opinion, organised electorates, and deployed the arts of journalism, influence, and persuasion”.

Morrice's diary began 1677 and ended in 1691 During that time he wrote about the reigns the reigns of Charles II, James II, and William III and Mary II.  Despite what some historians have written this England and to be more precise the English bourgeoisie was in a constant state of crisis. Much of what we know about this period has been dominated by the Whig interpretation of history which as deep roots in the consciousness of the British political class.

As Ann  Talbot states “The visitor to Chatsworth House in Derbyshire can still see in the grand entrance hall a fireplace inscribed with the legend “1688 The year of our liberty.” It refers to the “Glorious Revolution” when James II quit his throne and his kingdom overnight, and William of Orange was installed as king. This was the kind of palace revolution that the British ruling class increasingly preferred to look back on rather than the revolution in the 1640s when they had executed the king, conveniently overlooking the fact that James would not have run if he had not remembered the fate of his father—Charles I[1].

Morrice lived in this period political and social reaction. On the continent, absolutist monarchies were securing their powerful grip on trade.The English ruling class did not want to return to the instability of the English revolution and sought a period of political and social stability to achieve economic growth to compete with its rival mercantile powers. From 1660 to 1688 they tried to reach a political compromise that would at once secure them the gains of the revolution while establishing a stable form of government.

Morrice documented any threat to this stability In the diary, he wrote of the persecution of those he were a danger to the ruling elite, their laws and their established Church, such as the Quakers and Puritans.

"Eleven young men and women were seized at a chapel and convicted, fined and jailed, where they are put to hard labour," he wrote.

"The government has violated the fundamental laws of the kingdom and advanced arbitrary power and infringed liberty and property… and judges convict offenders… without any trial by juries," he wrote on January 23, 1679.

He described suspects being tortured for plotting against the king, on October 16, 1684, one victim was to  "keep him from sleeping, which they did without intermission for nine or 10 days. When he was ready to die … the balls of his eyes swollen as big as tennis balls … they tormented him by the thumbs".


"It is a huge source of material that will play a very significant role in helping historians and students understand the period,"  "It shows England in a very different mood to the Pepys diary, which was celebrating getting rid of the Puritans." Goldie is correct, and he and his team have done a tremendous service to make the study of this period easier and more rewarding.

It would be a mistake, however, to just see Morrice’s work as a historical relic or curiosity they have a contemporary ring to them. A serious study of them will give the dedicated reader a deeper insight into the problems we face today. The Entring Book should help us to ask questions about nature of modern day communication and who controls the information. To what extent does gossip, rumour and the advent of fake news guide our political views. If Morrice were  alive today, he would have a field day

[1]   "These the times ... this the man": an appraisal of historian Christopher Hill By Ann Talbot
25 March 2003 

Sunday, 16 April 2017

A review of Brian Manning, The Far Left in the English Revolution 1640 to 1660 (Bookmarks, 1999), £7.95

'For lo I come (says the Lord) with a vengeance, to level also...your honor, pomp, greatness, superfluity, and confound it into parity, equality, community; that the neck of horrid pride, murder, malice, and tyranny, etc. may be chopped off at one blow.'

Abiezer Coppe

Brian Manning was one of the few historians to use the work of Marxist writers to explain the origins and nature of the English Revolution.  It is to his credit that he did so under severe conditions inside university history departments that were extremely unfavorable to any Marxist historiography.

Being a member of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), he would correctly use certain features of Marxism to elaborate the bourgeois nature of the English Revolution. What was not correct was his use of these Marxist writers to say that “people’s history” or” history from below” were products of Marxist historiography. They were in fact products of Stalinism, not Marxism or to be more precise they were, in fact, by-products of Stalin’s struggle against Trotskyism.

As Ann Talbot succinctly puts it “the Communist Party sponsored a form of “People’s History, which is typified by A.L. Morton’s People’s History of England in which the class character of earlier rebels, revolutionaries and famous 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. 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”.

It is unclear to what extent of the SWP’s input is in the book. Certainly, the title would fit in with the SWP’s word usage. The use of the term Far Left is a contentious one. No other historian including Hill would have used the term Far Left.

Manning was a student under Hill in the early 1950s and apparently admired the great historian. In an obituary he wrote[1] “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 recognized that he had to uncover the social context of religion 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”.

Being influenced by Hill certainly made Manning a better historian.  By all accounts, he was an excellent teacher who “urged his students not to take notes, but to listen and think.”

While later in life adopting the SWP as his political home his other political influence came from the 1950s New Left movement. This meant taking the New Left’s appropriation of the genre “People’s History.”

Jim Holstun said “Manning’s work puts English workers at the very center of the English Revolution as innovative political actors and theorists in their own right. His approach contrasts strongly with the usual somnambulistic turn to ruling class initiative and frequently inverts its causal sequence”.

One tendency right or wrong stood out, and that was Manning ability to adopt political homes very quickly. One instance of this was his tenure on the board of the magazine Past and Present which was heavily dominated by the Communist Party and its historians. While adopting the SWP line in opposing “Soviet Communism,” he collaborated closely with the British Communists historians and made no criticism of the party.

The SWP have always adopted and very economist approach to historical events. Despite covering their work Marxist, phrases, this underlying thread was always apparent in their relationship with Manning. Historically the SWP has held the position “Of fighting for the English revolution” which translated is not a historical materialist approach to the revolution but a conception of revolution as a pure spontaneous action.

Their work with historians who were members of the party or were fellow travelers took on the form of the adoption of the history from below genre.

Perhaps the clearest example of this type of relationship was with Neil Faulkner. He was a historian and member of the party until 2010. “Since 2010, I have formed many new and rewarding political friendships, and these have contributed, I believe, to a richer, more nuanced understanding of the Russian Revolution. Not least, the degeneration of the British Left over the last two or three decades- which is a generic process, not something restricted to the SWP-has given me a clearer understanding that the masses build revolutionary parties themselves in struggle; that is, they do not arise from voluntarism, from acts of will by self-appointed revolutionary ‘vanguards’; they do not arise from what has sometimes has been called ‘the primitive accumulation of cadre. Revolutionaries should organise, but they should never proclaim themselves to be the party”.[2]

That this kind of rubbish was tolerated inside a party that professed to Marxist was truly unbelievable.

The SWP while playing lip service to the Marxist theory of history they would maintain an “enthusiasm for the English Revolution.” As Alex Calinicos would say “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 a serious approach to history never mind politics. In all my time writing history I have never come across someone who would contemplate taking sides with one section of the petty bourgeoisie’s destruction of the Monarchy.

The Far more severe problem was Manning’s attitude towards Cromwell to quote Calinicos “I remember him saying that he had never cared for Oliver Cromwell who reminded him of Stalin. The fact that Calinicos says this in his obituary of Manning without any comment or challenge is astounding. Firstly, the comment which must be true because he put it quotation marks would not look out of place amongst the more conservative historians who have also compared Cromwell to Stalin.

This is not indicative of a Marxist approach to Cromwell. The Marxist Leon Trotsky took a different approach. “The editor of the Daily Herald recently expressed his doubts as to whether Oliver Cromwell could be called a 'pioneer of the labour movement.' One of the newspapers. Collaborators supported the editor's doubts and referred to the severe repressions that Cromwell conducted against the Levellers, the sect of equalitarian of that time (communists). These reflections and questions are extremely typical of the historical thinking of the leaders of the Labour Party. That Oliver Cromwell was a pioneer of bourgeois and not socialist society there would appear to be no need to waste more than two words in proving. The great revolutionary bourgeois was against universal suffrage for he saw in it a danger to private property. It is relevant to note that the Webbs draw from this the conclusion of the 'incompatibility' of democracy and capitalism while closing their eyes to the fact that capitalism has learnt to live on the best possible terms with democracy and to have taken control of the instrument of universal suffrage as an instrument of the stock exchange. [It is curious that, two centuries later, in 1842 in fact, the historian Macaulay as an MP protested universal suffrage for the very same reasons as Cromwell. -- L. D.T.] Nevertheless, British workers can learn incomparably more from Cromwell than from MacDonald, Snowden, Webb, and other such compromising brethren. Cromwell was a great revolutionary of his time, who knew how to uphold the interests of the new, bourgeois social system against the old aristocratic one without holding back at anything. This must be learned from him, and the dead lion of the seventeenth century is in this sense immeasurably greater than many living dogs”.

Chapter One

Much of Manning work concentrated more of the radical groups in the English Revolution such as the Levellers, Diggers, etc. In fact, Manning’s own obituary carried out by the SWP was called A True Leveller wrote by one of its leading members Alex Calinicos.

The SWP were Manning’s primary publisher with 1649: Crisis of the Revolution (1992) and concluded with Revolution and Counter-Revolution in England, Scotland, and Ireland 1658-60 (2003) Being published by them and republishing The English People and the English Revolution.
As Manning brings out in his first chapter, the Far Left denotes the various radical groups that sprang to life during the English Revolution. Much of the past historiography examining the Levellers, Diggers, etc. has been dominated by the school of historical research called ‘history from below.' Manning’s book is a good attempt to establish the class nature of what Manning calls the Far left.

Manning’s work has centered on three major class formations. For Manning, the ‘middling sort’ were key to an understanding of the English Revolution. His book tends to concentrate on this group for which Manning had some characteristics of an early working class.

He was a good enough historian to believe that “not every conflict between groups in society springs from class antagonisms, but when two groups stood in relation of exploiters and exploited it is a class relation: and when one group seeks to use another group, and the latter group resists, they become engaged in the class struggle”.

The problem for a Marxist historian in writing on this period of history is that ‘classes, while they existed, were still in embryonic form. But this did not stop Manning from using Marxist theory to denote what was a class struggle.

Manning is correct to warn of the difficulties of an exact definition of the working class. We are talking about the 17th century after all not the 21st when class distinctions are evident. Engel’s pointed out in his Socialism, Utopian and Scientific, 'In every great bourgeois movement there were independent outbursts of that class which was the more or less developed forerunner of the modern proletariat.'

Manning's work on the Far Left of the English Revolution has been criticised for concentrating too heavily on the work of other historians. One blogger wrote “This book is a general survey rather than the result of detailed original research. The sources cited are mostly secondary works, along with some contemporary pamphlets. As far as I can tell the footnotes do not mention any manuscripts at all. You don’t have to be a document fetishist to see this as a limitation. The archives are full of unexplored opportunities. Concentrating only on what has been published in print closes an awful lot of possibilities. For example, early-modern court records are full of poor people saying things that they weren’t supposed to say, and the fact that they were punished afterward can’t erase the fact that they said it. The most glaring omission is when Manning mentions that plans for a Fifth Monarchist revolt were carefully recorded in a manuscript journal, but doesn’t cite the manuscript.[3]

Chapter 2

Manning points out that differing forms of the class struggle were taking place in the 17th century. The second chapter explores the nature of what Manning call dual power.
As Leon Trotsky points out “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 the social life, not merely as an armed force, but as a Praetorian Guard, and as the political representative of a new class opposing the wealthy 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 dual 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 veritable plebeian regime. But this new two-power system fails 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 years.[4]

It is correct to point out that the poor have received scant attention from historians. To do this, he examines the leadership groups such as the radical Levellers, Fifth Monarchists, and Quakers.

As Engels points out in his Socialism, Utopian and Scientific, 'In every great bourgeois movement there were independent outbursts of that class which was the developed forerunner of the modern proletariat.'

Again, his usage of the great Marxist thinkers such as Marx, Engels, Trotsky, Lenin to explain complex political formations is to be commended. This chapter attempts to use previous Marxist Writings on the bourgeois revolution to try to answer the question of who were the poor and what class did they belong to.

'The poor' were not one homogenous group. As Manning explains, the poor were made up of differing class formations. Therefore, to talk of a working class as we know it today would be mistaken. As Marx wrote, 'The expropriation of the great mass of the people from the soil, from the means of subsistence, and from the means of labour, this fearful and painful expropriation of the mass of the people forms the prelude to the history of capital.'

Manning explores the contradiction at the heart of many of the radical groups which despite speaking on behalf of the poor against the rich defended private property to safeguard the small producers' ownership of the means of production. He correctly points that that in the end, these radicals could not develop a consistent revolutionary consciousness and organisation. Which in the end led to their downfall?

Chapter 3 is a curiosity in so much as it a lot different from the previous two. The examination of two revolts The Corporals Revolt 1649 and The Coopers Revolt,1657 read like a novel and tend to look out of place with the more general chapters one and two.

The Far Left in the English Revolution is a book with a double edge sword. Firstly, attempts to give an analysis of the revolutionary groups of the 17th century but as I said early Manning had to fight tooth and nail to defend this view from a revisionist historian’s hostility to a Marxist historiography.

Manning had a far clearer understanding of the political nature of revisionism than Hill did. But Jim Holstun warned that “Manning may be too optimistic about the decline of the historical revisionist project, and about the prospect for a revived practice of 'history from below,' at least in British history departments. It's true that revisionism has been subject to powerful critiques by, among others, a group of 'post-revisionist' historians who are eager to restore a consideration of ideology and political conflict to 17th-century history. But, of course, that's potentially quite a different thing from a study of class struggle and history from below.

In Ivan Roots's obituary of Brian Manning in The Independent, he states that Manning’s work is not very attractive inside British history departments gave its Marxist nature this may be true. But to give Manning his due, he was consistent in his theoretical work and deserves a wider audience. Whether it is still too soon to assess his legacy is another matter.

[1] Obituary: Turning Point in History-Brian Manning.
[2] A Peoples History of the Russian Revolution. Neil Faulkner. Pluto 2017
[4] Leon Trotsky-The History of the Russian Revolution-Volume One: The Overthrow of Tzarism-
Chapter 11-Dual Power

Monday, 3 April 2017

Oliver Cromwell (Penguin Monarchs): England's Protector Hardcover – 23 Feb 2017 by David Horspool

I am all for swimming against the historical tide and do so on many occasions. But then I am not a professional historian, and I do not have an editor that tells me when I should leave some things well alone.

So why did no one tell David Horspool that arguing Oliver Cromwell was a monarch is not the cleverest thing to do. And swim alone he does. 

It is not as though we have hundreds of historians who favor this type of historiography. What was the nature of the discussion at Penguin? I would have paid money to hear it. Maybe If he had done it in the form of a counterfactual argument, then this is a different matter. It is a little strange that the book does not actually present an argument for Cromwell inclusion as a monarch.

It is no secret that Cromwell took on some of the trappings of a king including 'His Highness,' took on some of the rituals of court and lived in palaces of Whitehall and Hampton Court.

But Oliver Cromwell was not a king, and therefore it is no accident that some of the greatest historians of the subject refused to label him that.

So why does a giant publishing firm ask a historian to argue the opposite? One answer would be the type of series that Penguin wants to have. The last ten years or so have seen an increase in studies that concentrate on Royalism. While there is nothing wrong with that, unfortunately, most of these studies have attempted to rehabilitate the monarchy (see my review of Charles I: An Abbreviated Life by Mark Kishlansky[1].

David Horspool book is a well-written introduction to the life of Cromwell. I had expected at least a defense of why Cromwell was listed in a series on monarchy, but this does not happen.
I am also a little disturbed that no historian so far has attacked this mild falsification of history. I may be old fashioned, but if this book appeared twenty years ago, there would have been a historian’s fight.

So far, the only review of this book has been in the Guardian[2]. Which unsurprisingly decides to take a somewhat cynical view. The reviewer tells us “the controversial inclusion of Oliver Cromwell in the Penguin Monarchs series will doubtless elicit a few tuts of disapproval from royalists. Well, it should elicit a few from left minded historians.

You get the feeling that David Horspool was not entirely happy with the prospect of defending the impossible conceding that the inclusion of Cromwell in the list of monarchs should be “in square brackets”. However, Horspool as the Guardian review says, “reminds pedants, monarchy means a sole ruler, not necessarily the holder of a royal title.”

This really is stretching things a bit, and it is not something a serious historian should or would stoop to.

This brings me to my main critique of the book. In some ways, the book the book expresses a growing problem modern historiography of the English Revolution in that the issue of class is not actually discussed.

As Horspool brings out Cromwell was a member of the gentry.  If the reader is concentrating whether Cromwell was a king, then Cromwell’s connection with the revolution is entirely submerged.

As the Historian, Brian Manning brings out in his review[3] of Oliver Cromwell by Roy Sherwood “Charles was a hereditary monarch. Sherwood shows that Cromwell became a ‘king in all but name’, but he does not consider that before the civil war, despite his aristocratic connections and his status as a ‘gentleman’, his economic position, as John Morrill shows the English Revolution[4], ‘was essentially that of a yeoman, a working farmer’: ‘Cromwell’s economic status was much closer to that of the "middling sort" and urban merchants than to that of the county gentry and governors. He always lived in towns, not in a country manor house; and he worked for his living. He held no significant local offices and had no tenants or others dependent upon him beyond a few household servants.’

He continues, “Karl Kautsky pointed out that the role of ‘great men’ in history should be related to the group or class which they represented or symbolized. In the English Civil War Charles, I defended aristocracy and episcopacy, and his strength came from his party. Sherwood should have asked who made Cromwell ‘king in all but name’. He should have considered the power-hungry politicians, the seedy financiers, and the sycophantic journalists who pushed him forward and, more broadly, the lords of manors who rightly trusted him to defend their rank and property, the clergy who successfully pressed him not to abolish their tithes (the tax which supported them), and the lawyers who managed to keep him from reforms of the legal system that would have reduced their profits”.

The other aspect of Cromwell is that in the last resort his power rested on the New Model Army. He apparently took into consideration that it would not sit well with the army if he became king. I mean they had just fought two bloody civil wars and killed a king. Cromwell knew full well that to take the crown would be political as well as military suicide.

To conclude the book is well written, it does not offer a new perspective on the life of Cromwell. If Horspool is looking for a debate then hopefully a few historians will come out of their comfort zone and give him one.


[3] Brian Manning-The monarchy and the military-(September 1999) Socialist Review 233.
[4] John Morrill is the author of The Nature of the English Revolution (Longman, 1994)

Sunday, 26 March 2017

The Leveller Revolution: Radical Political Organisation in England, 1640–1650, by John Rees - published by Verso Books, price £25.

It is hard to believe as Michael Braddick points out in his excellent review[1] that this book is the first full-length study of the Levellers since 1961. Having said that John Rees new book more than makes up for that. The Leveller Revolution is a tremendous advance in our understanding of the Leveller movement and its place in the English revolution.

Over the last five years or so interest in the Levellers both mainstream and in academia has grown significantly. The Leveller Revolution follows on from a growing number of studies such as Rachel Foxley’s book The Levellers: Radical Political Thought in the English Revolution. The Agreements of the People, the Levellers, and the Constitutional Crisis of the English Revolution, Vernon, Elliot, Baker, P to name just two.

Media Interest

This interest has been reflected in response to Rees’s book from mainstream and academic media with reviews in the Financial Times, TLS, and The Spectator magazine just to name a few. Why the interest as Braddick poses? One reason being is that the left learning sections of the media inside and outside academia have always had a fascination with the Levellers. The right seeks to tie the Levellers to the Labour Party and dampen any talk of revolution[2].

Another reason is that the problems that the Levellers grappled with in the 17th century are unfortunately are alive and kicking in our own century. A third reason for such interest in the book and this is not to denigrate the book which is to a very high standard or the integrity of the author but the book does appear at a very precipitous time in so much that capitalism is going through a great crisis and what usually happens is that  working people start looking for answers to today’s problems in the past. It is, therefore, important for a historian to present and objective account of any subject they write about. Rees manages a pretty good job.

Much of the groundwork for this new book was done in Rees’s own Ph.D. thesis[3] Unfortunately his new book is only partially based on that, but nonetheless it deepens our understanding of these revolutionaries and most importantly counters decades of traditional revisionist historiography. The book works well on several levels. It does not give a general history of the English revolution, but it does give a significant understanding of the revolution that coursed through 17th century England. It reads like a novel but maintains a very high academic standard.

Second, only to the Russian Revolution, I doubt there has been a decade of revolutionary struggle that equals 1640-1650 of the English revolution. This decade produced a revolutionary army the likes the world had not seen. An entire army had, in another historical first, elected its own representatives from every regiment, challenged their commanders and altered the whole political direction of the revolution.

A Republic was fought for and established. The House of Lords was abolished. A king was executed by his people for the first time in history. As for the national church, it was reorganized, and its leader the Archbishop of Canterbury tried and executed.

As the regicide, Thomas Harrison said, “It was not, a thing done in a corner.” A group of revolutionaries was born that sought to establish a society based on communistic lines, and their theoretical writings and perspectives proceeded the development of Marxism by some 250 years.

The Levellers

The political movement known as the Levellers appeared in the early days of the revolution. Despite small in numbers, they played a pivotal role in the character and direction of the Revolution.

While it is correct to say, the Levellers appeared during the revolutionary decade 1640-1650 Rees has opposed the prevailing view that they had no history before that. This point has proved most controversial because up and till mow there has been little evidence to counter this view. And it is not just conservative historians that have this view.

The book challenges historians to study more of how the Levellers organized. While acknowledging the difficulty researching underground activity from this far in the past Rees believes it is still possible and backs this assumption up with evidence and presents it in a very convincing way.

Rees’s book also counters some historians who have tried to present the Levellers as just a free collection of radicals. Rees provides extensive evidence to the contrary. While not being a party in the modern sense they nonetheless were a well organized and strongly coherent group. One strength of the book is how Rees traces how the Levellers used secret printing presses and how they utilized churches as bases for their political activity.The congregation of these churches were not passive bystanders but circulated radical Leveller pamphlets and books.

As Rees puts “by 1646, the group ‘both in the eyes of their opponents and in the internal ideological support they deliver to each other, is a functioning collective organization’ (pp.142-4).

Rees correctly centers the activity of the Levellers around its leader John Lilburne. From a very early stage in the revolution, Lilburne saw the importance of underground printing [4].

In a few short years, Lilburne had become widely known especially in London as a radical against the king. He was imprisoned by Charles I for distributing illegal pamphlets in the late 1630s.

Perhaps the most important aspect of the book is Rees’s uncovering of the vast amount of material that was printed illegally by the Levellers. Rees is convinced that these radical pamphlets pushed the revolution in a leftward direction. The early part of the revolution saw the growth of a republican movement with Henry Marten who was a Leveller sympathizer being the first MP to advocate a republic.

To describe the movement as a party is perhaps premature but nonetheless, they took on many characteristics of a party that would not look out of place today. As Rees says, there was then a ‘dense fabric of political opposition in the capital during the early days of the Revolution, and in some cases from before that, from which the Levellers emerged as an organized current. Underground activity in churches and taverns, combined with the secret printing and petitioning activity … provided a schooling in organized politics which would feed into the foundations of the Leveller movement. The point where meetings in churches and taverns spill over into mass street demonstrations is possibly an early decisive moment of transition. This is the point where clandestine or semi-clandestine activity becomes irrefutably public opposition to established authority’ (p.65).

Rees’s research has given us a far closer approximation as to the class character of the Levellers. While it is correct to characterize them as revolutionaries, they were a movement of the petit bourgeoisie and not the what could be loosely termed at the time the working class.

For the Russian Marxist Evgeny Pashukanis “the Levellers undoubtedly were a petit-bourgeois party. While some historians protest that capitalist relations were not that developed to describe them as such, I believe that there were sufficient bourgeois-capitalist relationships, at the 1640s to warrant such a claim[5]
Their call for suffrage was not universal although even their call for a wider franchise was a revolutionary demand. The Levellers were a minority and could not mobilize the one class that would have given the poorer sections of society against Cromwell and his bourgeois allies. Much of their social composition was made up of the “middling sort” of lesser gentry, merchants, and craftsmen that made up the same social base as Cromwell.

Historiography and Revisionism

It would not be too controversial to say that Historians over an extended period of time have underestimated the size and importance of the Levellers and other radical groups to the English revolution.

The nineteenth-century Whig historians such as Thomas Babington Macaulay was deeply hostile to any revolutionary movement. This conservative historian had profound difficulty in understanding the revolutionary actions of Oliver Cromwell or for that matter the class forces he represented. He could only offer the ‘incurable duplicity’ of the latter of Charles 1st.

Macaulay reason for the radicalism in the army as ‘the refractory temper of the soldiers’, who were ‘for the most part composed of zealous Republicans.'
Many historians followed Macaulay’s lead into the 20th century in dismissing the Levellers. Probably the most important aspect of this book is to challenge this revisionist onslaught.

Current historiography has indeed carried over much of the worst traits of Whig attitudes towards the Levellers. Some have ignored them completely such as John Adamson others have portrayed them as having little or no influence on the outcome of the war. John Morrill mentioned them twice in his book The Revolt of the Provinces.

There have been oppositional voices. Edward Vallance has uncovered a persistent influence of John Lilburne’s politics on radicals in the 1700s. He concludes ‘historians have undervalued the degree of intellectual sympathy and continuity between the radicalism of the seventeenth century and that of the eighteenth.'[6]

The Conservative orientated revisionist’s downplaying of the significance of the Levellers was really a by-product of their assault on Marxist historiography. It is a shame that Rees does not go into greater detail the political basis of such revisionism. In his Ph.D. thesis, he believes “the revisionist challenge to liberal and left interpretations of the English Revolution synchronized with almost suspicious exactitude with the end of the post-war boom and the abandonment of the welfare state consensus. This change, beginning in the mid-1970s, achieved its electoral representation when Margaret Thatcher became prime minister of Britain in 1979 and Ronald Reagan president of the US in 1980[7]

He continues “In a way, revisionism was never only about the English Revolution. Very similar arguments were deployed at much the same time about the French and the Russian Revolutions. Moreover, the revisionists depended on a wider conservative turn in social theory. The Althusserian school of the 1970s, which became the post-structuralist school, which became the post-modernist school which fed the ‘linguistic turn,' provided an analytical tool-box for the revisionists and those that came after them.

Perhaps the most often cited attack on the Levellers is that they had no representation in the army. 
This downplaying of the military radicalism was led by Mark Kishlansky, Rees answers this “In my opinion, the revisionist insistence that the Levellers were exterior to the army is overstated.  Many Levellers were of the Army themselves. Lilburne had an exemplary and widely publicized military record. But Lilburne was not alone in this. Leveller William Allen served in Holles’ regiment. Leveller printer William Larner served as a sutler in Lord Robartes’ regiment. Thomas Prince fought in the London Trained Bands until he was injured at Newbury in 1643. John Harris ran an Army printing press. Leveller ally Henry Marten had a close engagement in military affairs in London and eventually raised his own regiment in Berkshire. Thomas Rainsborough and his brother William were Leveller sympathizers. Edward Sexby was a central figure in the actions of the Agitators. Army chaplains Jeremiah Ives and Edward Harrison supported the Levellers. This list is indicative but far from exhaustive. It does not include most of the figures directly involved in the mutinies at Ware in 1647, and at Bishopsgate and Burford, both in 1649. These connections add weight to Foxley’s observation that the Putney debates ‘marked not the end but the beginning of a potentially fertile alliance between civilian Levellers and army radicals’ and that this ‘reverses the picture painted by the standard revisionist historiography’ “(p. 158)[8].

Roll of Women

I am glad that Rees spends some time on the role of Leveller women during the English revolution. Rees explains that not only ‘mechanicals’ could be found preaching but a significant number women (p.63).
History and for that matter, historians have not been kind to women who took part in political activity on both sides of the English Civil War. There is a dearth of material on women’s struggle now. As far as I can ascertain no major biography exists of two of the most famous Leveller women Katherine Chidley and Elizabeth Lilburne.

Women Levellers mounted large-scale demonstrations and organized petitions for social equality. They were met with differing levels of brutality depending on which class they belonged to. Overall middle-class women were treated with derision, but mostly no violence was committed against them. This is not the case with the poorer sections of the women’s movement who were often treated severely by MP’s and soldiers alike.” Many were thrown into prison, mental institutions, or workhouses. Middle-class women were quietly escorted away by soldiers and told to 'go back to women's work”. One MP told them to go home and wash their dishes, to which one of the petitioners replied, “Sir, we scarce have any dishes left to wash”’ (pp.290-1).

Leveller women did not fight just as individuals. According to historian Gaby Malhberg the wives of leading figures of the English revolution “formed their own networks, discussing political issues in the absence of their husbands. Edmund Ludlow recorded, for instance, that he had little hope of a pardon from the King because the wife of his fellow Republican Sir Henry Vane had informed Elizabeth ‘that she was assured [General George] Monke’s wife had sayd she would seeke to the King, upon her knees, that Sir Henry Vane, Major Generall [John] Lambert and myself should be hanged.”

This extraordinary revolution radicalized many women into political action. As Rees points out one of John Lilburne’s most famous collaborators, Katherine Chidley, also emerged from the context of the gathered churches. She published a remarkable defense of independent congregations, and religious leadership by the socially inferior, including women, becoming a key figure in Leveller publishing and organizing (pp.38-40).


It is not an accident that Rees who is a radical today has donated so much of his time to the Leveller movement. In his latest book, he states “I have tried to…examine the Levellers as a political movement integrating activists from different constituencies, and creating still broader alliances with other political currents, for the joint pursuance of revolutionary ends. (Rees, The Leveller Revolution, p. xx)

In many ways, this is the perspective of the current SWP. Rees who is an ex-member of the Socialist Workers Party SWP) still observes its attitude towards historical events. The SWP from the very beginning of their development adopted the British Communist Party approach to historical events. The English Labour history industry has presented several books and essays that see an unbroken historical line of English radicalism.

As Ann Talbot succinctly put it “the Communist Party sponsored a form of “People’s History, which is typified by A.L. Morton’s People’s 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”.

This viewpoint has even been adopted by historians who have no attachment to the SWP, Ed Vallance’s book A Radical History of Britain and David Horspool’s The English Rebel are two that come to mind. It is a perspective that says the English working class is inherently radical and revolutionary and does not need a Marxist scientific world outlook.

John and I have clear and unbridgeable differences both politically and historically, but this does not stop me recommending his book to the widest audience possible. I Hope it starts a much-needed reinvestigation into this most important political tendency. It is expected that Rees’s book is translated into many languages and published in many countries as possible. Differences aside it is a vital book.

[1] Mike Braddick-Times Literary Supplement-March 24th, 2017
[2] Jeremy Corbyn is taking Labour back to the 1640s-David Horspool-The Spectator-Jan 2017.
[4] See Secret Printing, the Crisis of 1640, and the Origins of Civil War-David R Como, Past and Present 2007
[5] Evgeny Pashukanis Revolutionary Elements in the History of the English State and Law (1927)
[6] E Vallance, ‘Reborn John? p. 21
[7] Leveller organization and the dynamic of the English Revolution John Rees Doctoral thesis, Goldsmiths, University of London, 2014.
[8] Review of The Levellers: Radical Political Thought in the English Revolution
Rachel Foxley by John Rees-
Manchester, Manchester University Press, 2013, ISBN: 9780719089367; 304pp.; Price: £70.00