Issue 103 of INTERNATIONAL SOCIALISM JOURNAL Published Summer 2004 Copyright © International Socialism
The revisionist historians who dominated study of the English Revolution between 1975 and 2000 rejected any argument tracing political conflict to larger patterns of social change.2 Specifically, they rejected a mechanistic 'rising class' model of the English Revolution, whereby subordinate classes grow more powerful, gaining a unifying sense of their collective revolutionary agency, and overthrow a ruling class: a bourgeoisie overthrowing feudal lords, a progressive gentry overthrowing a regressive one, proletarians attempting to overthrow capitalists. This model, favoured by the young Marx and by some participants in the controversy over the gentry, is to be found most frequently these days among its blood enemies: those anti-communist historians and literary critics who keep hauling it out as that model to which Marxists surely must aspire, and which they will never be able to demonstrate.
In his 1973 manifesto for historical revisionism, Conrad Russell conceded that a new social change explanation for the English Revolution might well focus on the middling sort of people who were rising 'not so much at the expense of the gentry as at the expense of smallholders and the labouring poor', and who played a role in the English Revolution quite distinct from that of Tawney's rising gentry.3 But in the years since, revisionist historians have not seriously pursued alternative social change explanations for revolution, focusing instead on short-term or ideological explanations (John Morrill's 'War of Religion'), or denying any significant causality whatsoever (the appeal to 'contingency'). When not ruling out a social change explanation on a priori grounds, revisionists have tended to ask bemusedly just when one will appear.
But ironically the work Russell prophesied in 1973, and that revisionists claim still to be awaiting, was published in 1976: Brian Manning's The English People and the English Revolution. This book, one of the signal intellectual achievements of British Marxist history, focused on the outbreak of the revolution and the First Civil War. Along with four books by Manning that followed, it was contemporary with the revisionist revolt, but liberal and revisionist historians scanted or ignored it, despite (or, more likely, because of) its skill in integrating a structural analysis of the class conflicts leading up to the outbreak of hostilities with an ideological analysis of the religious and political forms in which the English people became conscious of those conflicts and fought them out. Manning's work forms a remarkably consistent whole, and comprises the most important study of the structure of class conflict in the English Revolution.4
The protest that may leap to mind at that statement is, of course, the enormous body of brilliant writing by Manning's teacher, Christopher Hill, who died little more than a year before Manning did. Hill's work is no less grounded in historical materialism, and Manning's body of work lacks the sheer grandeur and scope of Hill's, with its wealth of reference and fascination with the relation between culture and revolution. Manning veered away from the British Marxist historians not only in declining to join the Communist Party, but in his relative disinterest in culture--for instance, in all of his books, I have found only two brief references to Milton.5 And surprisingly, given Hill's previous affiliation with the Communist Party, and Manning's with the New Left, Hill's masterpiece The World Turned Upside Down reveals a celebratory counter-cultural feel, while Manning's The English People maintains a relatively austere focus on class struggle and the omnipresent possibility of popular defeat.6
Because Hill's work tended toward the topical essay, intellectual history, and biography study, it has proved more susceptible to anti-communist and culturalist misappropriation, particularly in the US. Moreover, Hill retreated from a class struggle analysis into a strangely Weberian understanding of the revolution as a phenomenon with parliamentary and Puritan origins, and unintended class revolutionary effects. For the later Hill, the English bourgeoisie was bourgeois only by virtue of its 'objective position' in the mode of production, and did not truly become a class 'for itself' until late in the revolution, or even later: like all bourgeois revolutions, he says, the English Revolution was bourgeois primarily in its outcome, not its originating intention, for 'bourgeois revolution...does not mean a revolution made by or consciously willed by the bourgeoisie'.7
This argument cedes too much to revisionists criticising the traditional social interpretation, while maintaining a Smithian apriorism in which the final cause of capitalism reaches back into history to snap the fetters preventing it from giving birth to itself. Manning's frequent critiques of Hill, comradely but ferocious, tended to focus on his wandering away from a class struggle analysis.8 Barry Reay argues that the two complement each other, and says that Manning, with his narrative and analytical focus on class struggle, charts 'the dialectics of revolt within the revolution'.9 This seems to me exactly right. In this essay, I'll consider that dialectics in Manning's work: the formation through class struggle of new and sometimes unanticipated groups and ideologies, the complex but determining relationship between political struggle and economic exploitation. I will contrast Manning's genuinely dialectical study with historical revisionism and the mechanistic 'rising class' model. My argument is that Manning's structural history from below offers the best way forward for the historical materialist study of 17th century England, and suggestive analogies for work in other fields.
Manning's work puts English workers at the very centre 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. In their histories of the New Model, both Mark Kishlansky and Ian Gentles trace its foundation to the Self-Denying Ordinance and a parliamentary debate over the military failures of the Earl of Manchester.10 Manning, on the other hand, begins with a London petition of 7 July 1643 encouraging parliament to bypass Essex's defensive military tactics and institute a 10,000-man Puritan army. This petition led to the establishment of a 'Committee for the General Rising' under Henry Marten. When parliament formed the New Model in 1644, it was trying not only to restart the stalled war effort conducted by the aristocratic parliamentary 'right', but also to co-opt and contain this popular, extra-parliamentary 'left'.11 Similarly, in the provinces, 'The risings of the people of the West Riding propelled the Fairfaxes into positive action against the royalists, and the Hothams into royalism'.12 For Manning, even the royalist party in parliament had a popular origin, for it formed as a party of order reacting with abhorrence to the political debut of petitioning crowds from London and the provinces.13
Class struggle for Manning is sometimes a struggle to 'rise' by a revolutionary class for itself, but it is much more than that, too, and his writing is at its richest in showing the sheer formal variety of 17th century class struggle. Class struggle, Manning argues, 'is waged from the top down as well as from the bottom up'.14 The royalist party organising itself in response to the petitioning London crowds struggled not to lose the privilege underwritten by an absolutist class state. Poorer small producers struggled to keep from falling into wage labour. Throughout his career, Manning displayed an unusual interest in the plebeian neutralism as an active and materially self-interested activity. With Christopher Hill as his supervisor, Manning wrote his dissertation on neutralism and the clubmen--a crucial but characteristically irreverent topic for a Marxist to take up.15 He examines the material motivations of plebeian royalists, who entered into battle not simply out of deferential cultural conditioning, but out of fear, constraint and self-interest:
Traditional ties of loyalty and habits of deference were sufficient to account for such success of the royalist nobility and gentry in gathering forces for the king: but these ties and habits were rooted in the self-interest of tenants whose landlords could do them so much good or so much harm... Fear and force lay in the background, if deference failed.16
Manning also shows the compatibility of a class struggle analysis with a failure to struggle. Three of the most important and determining popular political crowds in the English Revolution were dogs that didn't bark in the night: crowds that failed to materialise for eminently material reasons. Though they may have read and heard Eikon Basilike with misty eyes, no crowd of royalist peasants and townsmen rose to save their beloved king from the scaffold, suggesting 'not only acquiescence, but some willingness to give active support to the new regime'.17 No crowd of destitute and starving peasants rose in solidarity with the Diggers and physical force Levellers in the spring of 1649, for most of the poor were pursuing their material reproduction inside a material economy of dependence and deference.18 And no army of poor English copyholders, artisans and wage labourers rose up in 1660 to defend the republic from General Monck and the Restoration, for most of them had experienced the revolution as little more than an increase in excise taxes, enclosure and free quarter, and the maintenance of tithes.19 Manning's recurrent discussion of neutralism from a materialist perspective makes it difficult to understand as anything other than lazy anti-communism Alastair MacLachlan's reference to 'Manning's picture of a class-divided society so polarised as to swallow up any significant neutralism or apathy'.20
For Manning, classes are dynamic relationships, not homogeneous substances, so class struggle occurs within as well as between classes. Manning's work, particularly in The English People, has focused closely on what he calls 'the middling sort of people', that group of rural and urban small producers who still possessed non-market access to the means of production, but who were splitting between those struggling to become capitalist extractors of surplus value, and those struggling against proletarianisation. He sees the course of the English Revolution defined largely by the dynamism of this class: their siding with the anti-monarchist fraction of the ruling class in parliament in 1640-1642; their leadership in the Civil Wars and regicide; and finally, their failure to address the needs of their own increasingly proletarianised fraction. The great strength of this term is its non-anachronistic quality, for it came into common usage during the urban class struggles of the 1640s, when small producers were trying to resist the anti-populist rhetoric of the ruling classes aiming to characterise all parliamentarians as a feckless rabble. Its great weakness is that it adapts too easily to a non-Marxist usage, in which 'class' is a measure of wealth, not a structural relationship to exploitation, other classes, and the mode of production. Thus, non-Marxist social historians frequently acknowledge a role for the 'middling sort' in the revolution, but without the focus on exploitation and the Marxist dynamism always at work in Manning.
Manning's critics sometimes claim to be disappointed that his histories do not reveal a unified revolutionary bourgeoisie, rampant, devouring a feudal ruling class, couchant. But because classes are dynamic ensembles, a class struggle account of revolution need not line up all members of a single class on one side in a political conflict, as we can see in Manning's analysis of the way in which the London crowds split the parliamentary ruling class into royalist and parliamentary fractions. But this does not mean that a class dynamic isn't at work:
Inevitably a wealthy parliamentarian squire and a poor parliamentarian peasant or craftsman would not see the conflict in the same terms: the former took up arms against other squires for political or religious reasons; the latter took up arms against royalist squires because they were squires as well as for political or religious reasons.21
This class struggle dimension may go dormant at times, as multi-class blocs squared off at each other, but it usually reappears. The later schisms within the parliamentary side, and the Restoration itself, become almost unintelligible if we fail to hypothesise significantly divided class motives. Quoting Robin Briggs, Manning notes, 'If vertical solidarities were crucial in starting many revolts, horizontal divisions generally took over later'.22
Manning's structural account of the Civil War breaks with the mechanistic rising class model of class consciousness: first the consciousness, then the revolt as its expression. Instead he examines the mutual dialectical formation of class consciousness and class praxis. His analysis of the outbreak of the revolution in the first half of The English People is one of the virtuoso analytical narratives of British Marxist history. During the Personal Rule, despite the sufferings imposed by Ship Money and other royal attempts to squeeze revenue from the English populace, almost all of Manning's Londoners and provincials remained isolated monarchists. Even if they engaged in isolated acts of resistance, they continued to find their unity in the king or the local guild or the English church. But with the example of parliamentary opposition, particularly its trial and execution of Strafford, and with the fear of Catholic massacres in England following the Irish rebellion, they began fusing into a public, political existence.23 Similarly, when conservative parliamentarians saw their radical fellows join with the crowds in the streets, they found themselves transformed into a monarchist party of order, which found a new unity in itself and a counter-revolutionary project.
Though worlds distant in its critical idiom, Manning's analysis of revolutionary class formation strongly resembles Sartre's analysis of practical ensembles in Critique of Dialectical Reason. In particular, his account of the days of 1640-1642 suggests Sartre's classic account of the storming of the Bastille in 1789, which shows how an isolated and fragmented serial collective with its principle of unity outside itself, changed into a revolutionary fused group with an internal principle of unity. When the Parisian crowd decided to arm itself, the result was what Sartre calls, after Malraux, 'the Apocalypse--that is to say, the dissolution of the series into a fused group'.24 Nobody exactly intended to form this group--neither the individual citizens comprising it, nor the delegates attempting to control it from without, nor the soldiers of the king enclosing, opposing, and planning to annihilate it. Nonetheless the group formed--both as its own product, and as enclosed 'flight' from the group working for its containment or annihilation.25 Both Sartre and Manning describe the formation of revolutionary groups and ideologies through praxis: not the revisionist model of a sheer disconnect of intentional action and effect, with historical actors stumbling in the dark from one act to another; not the ostensibly 'liberal' or 'Marxist' model of fixed revolutionary intention mechanically generating revolutionary action. Rather, both focus on the dialectical process of revolutionary will formation, in which intentional actions produce more or less unintended consequences, which become in turn the means for reflective clarification of those intentions and for forming new ones.
In the 1990s and later, after a long period spent in university administration, Manning returned to his research and produced a series of books that broadened and deepened his arguments in The English People. In 1649: The Crisis of the English Revolution he took up the regicide and the emerging anti-Cromwellian resistance. It includes a powerful critique of historians' chronic confusion of status and class, a strategic effort to undermine class struggle analysis; the best short treatment of the Diggers as a collective, and not just Gerrard Winstanley as a political theorist; and a study of the fate of patriarchy in a revolutionary epoch. In Aristocrats, Plebeians and Revolution in England he wrote a compact survey for general readers of social struggle in the revolutionary decades.
And in The Far Left in the English Revolution, he wrote his shortest but, in some ways, his greatest book.26 In his earlier works, and particularly in The English People, Manning seems to have been addressing British academic historians on their own empiricist terrain, working up a powerful, coherent narrative, rigorously grounded in primary sources, and with little recourse to a specifically Marxist terminology or theoretical apparatus.27 From its title onwards, The Far Left breaks with this approach, and Manning shifts his intended audience from academic historians to a general readership and to fellow Marxists. This book offers Manning's most fully theorised account to date of class struggle in 17th century England, including an engagement with British, Bolshevik and Western Marxist theorists. Its opening pages contain the clearest brief presentation I've ever seen of fundamental Marxist concepts, including exploitation, surplus labour, class and the mode of production. Thankfully, it tends to replace the troublesome term 'middling sort' with the more properly Marxist term 'small producers'.28 And it continues Manning's project of structural analysis from below: its second chapter presents class relations and forms of class struggle in 17th century England, while its third presents the religiously-based ideologies of egalitarian radicalism.
Most impressive, however, is the long third chapter, which focuses on questions of force, and the two most important instances of armed plebeian revolt against the revolutionary capitalist regime of Oliver Cromwell: Corporal William Thompson's Leveller-army revolt of 1649 and Thomas Venner's millenarian Fifth Monarchist 1657 rising against the Protectorate. Manning's argument is a powerful act of historical restoration for these two important figures, both of them frequently denounced as incendiary fanatics and never before analysed adequately as proponents of the physical force wings of Leveller and Fifth Monarchist radicalism. Manning reminds us that 'Thompson and his revolt attracted far more attention than Winstanley and the Diggers'.29 He also notes the importance of studying revolutionary failures: 'Thompson and Winstanley were both typical of the revolutionaries of their time in that they thought the publishing of a manifesto and the example of action by a small group would precipitate a mass movement.'
Theoretically, Manning draws our attention to a crucial theoretical and political topic: ruling class hegemony backed by coercive power must be met not only by counter-hegemony, but also by counter-coercion.30 In concluding with a study of the dynamics of armed resistance and the structural problem of exerting military force, Manning is very much at odds with contemporary historical writing about 17th century England. Manning quotes Lenin, who said, 'Not a single great revolution has ever taken place, or ever will take place, without the "disorganisation" of the army'; and Trotsky, who argued that, 'There is no doubt that the fate of every revolution at a certain point is decided by a break in the disposition of the army. Against a numerous, disciplined, well-armed and ably led military force, unarmed or almost unarmed masses of the people cannot possibly gain a victory'.31 And we might add in Lukács:
The instant this [class] consciousness arises and goes beyond what is immediately given we find in a concentrated form the basic issue of the class struggle: the problem of force. For this is the point where the 'eternal laws' of capitalist economics fail and become dialectical and are thus compelled to yield up decisions regarding the fate of history to the conscious actions of men.32
Here we see something that is, to say the least, notably distinct from economic determinism. One sign of just how far we in the US, at least, lag behind Thompson and Venner, Lenin and Trotsky, is the near-unthinkability of a contemporary communist effort to disorganise the military and turn it against the state, and the slight shiver of fear that an American may feel, in the era of the Patriot Act and Guantanamo Bay, in even suggesting the eventual necessity for such a thing.
In Revolution and Counter-Revolution in England, Ireland and Scotland, 1658-60, published just a few months before his death, Manning brings his analytical narrative of the revolution to a close, with a full-scale materialist analysis of the frantic months leading up to the Restoration. Formally, the book is rather sober, returning to the staid, relatively theory-free historical narrative of The English People and the English Revolution: no Trotsky or Lenin here, no extended theorising about the revisionist revolt, no self-reflexive and clarifying discussion of just what this book adds to the established narrative of the period. But despite this superficial flatness, there is also a sort of Wildean, aphoristic contrariness about the book which turns revisionist method against itself. Tome after revisionist tome turns to 1639-1642, ignores or travesties the arguments of The English People, and denies the social causes of the English Revolution, insisting on its unforeseen and contingent outbreak, attacking any whiggish or progressivist argument for necessity, teleology or a 'whig' history. Manning takes this revisionist argument and applies it to the Restoration, starting with his first sentence: 'No one could have predicted when Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell died in September 1658 the extraordinary course of events over the next two years'.33 Manning notes that the English people's constant refrain through this period was not 'God and the King!' but 'A free parliament!' He takes on the oddly teleological arguments of Austin Woolrych and revisionist John Morrill that the military coup of 21 April 1659 made the Restoration inevitable: 'Reliance on hindsight and imposition of the notion of inevitability do not allow a proper consideration and evaluation of the history of the 12 months from April 1659 to March 1660, and distort the factors and choices influencing the participants at various different points'.34 In this utterly 'revisionist' statement Manning is absolutely serious, but he's also engaging in some deadpan mockery, as he reveals the revisionist fealty to historical contingency and non-teleology for a sort of closeted royalism. To the revisionist refrain, 'Revolution and republicanism were a fluke!' he responds, 'Yes, Restoration and monarchy too!'
But as with most of Wilde's aphorisms, something more than mechanical inversion is at work here. For Manning's narrative of the Restoration offers us not the revisionist triumph of contingency over necessity, but the historical materialist dialectic of material interest, political ideology and the military organisation of force. The dominant explanations for the Restoration tend to be culturalist, assuming for English government a royalist default position. Reaching out to a reactionary form of cultural criticism, revisionist Kevin Sharpe argues that the revolution failed because republicans failed to provide the English working class with adequately inspiring republican iconography.35 Even Barry Reay emphasises ideology--a Quaker scare that cemented the ruling class consensus underlying the Restoration. Manning downplays the ideological fear of the sects, and emphasises the eminently material reasons why the English people resisted the succession of republican juntas and parliamentary stopgaps during these months. Soldiers and sailors resented their lack of pay, and being forced to sell their allotments to their officers at reduced prices. Small producers and domestic labourers resented the maintenance of tithes and the excise, and the government's failure to reform the system of copyhold tenures. The politically active apprentices of these years--the sons of the apprentices whom he examined in the parliamentarian crowds of The English People--sometimes supported relatively conservative governments against the republican juntas, and 'expressed fear of being dismissed from their apprenticeships as the economic depression hit their masters, and anxiety about their prospects of setting up their trades on their own account when their terms of service ended'.36 What turned the tide was the failure of bourgeois republican revolutionaries to unify themselves militarily, and create an interest and stake in the republic among the copyholders, soldiers, sailors and apprentices; and the superior power of General Monck and the forces of Restoration in shaping and controlling the army. The great charge offered by Manning's last two books is his focus on the interrelation of 'moral force' and 'physical force' radicalism--his argument that we need to supplement a study of early modern class determination and cultural hegemony with an analysis of revolutionary and counter-revolutionary force, that 'midwife of every old society pregnant with a new one', which 'is itself an economic power'.37
In 'The English Revolution: The Decline and Fall of Revisionism', I think 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.38 But, of course, that's potentially quite a different thing from a study of class struggle and history from below. In recent years there have been powerful signs of a rapprochement between revisionists and post-revisionists, and of both with literary critics and other cultural historians focused on the discourses of 17th century social conflict and continuity. The product is a sort of post-revisionist culturalism and history of ideas that is as allergic in its way to Marxist models of history as was revisionism itself, or the liberal mainstream of 17th century history before the revisionist revolt. If revisionism was (and is) a sort of Thatcherite historiography, then perhaps post-revisionism suggests New Labour and the New Democrats. To celebrate the arrival of post-revisionism is something like celebrating the arrival of capitalist neo-liberalism triumphant--a celebration that Blair Mach II and Bush Jr have rendered even more difficult. Ivan Roots's obituary for Manning in The Independent suggests that The English People, and indeed all of Manning's work, may remain constitutively unreadable inside British history departments--not because of its recondite self-contradictoriness, but because of its sheer Marxist consistency: 'It all adds up to a body of consistent argument, too consistent perhaps to persuade outside the Marxist milieu. It is too soon to assess his legacy'.39
Aggravating though that is--and whatever Marxism feels like in 2004, it surely isn't a 'milieu'--it may be right on the money for the milieu of academic history departments in Britain and the US. Manning's formidable body of work addresses Marxists and a Marxist revolutionary tradition, asking them to focus on a class struggle model of history from below, the limitations of a culturalist history of ideas, the importance of studying defeats as well as victories, and the necessity for considering physical force resistance to capitalist oppression, both as a historical and a contemporary phenomenon.40