Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Radicalism in the English Revolution 1640- 1660 F Dow.

That an inequitable thing it is for one man to have thousands, and another want bread, and that the pleasure of God is, that all men should have enough, and not that one man should abound in this worlds good, spending it upon his lusts, and another man of far better deserts, not be worth two pence, and that it is no such difficulty as men make it to be, to alter the course of the world in this thing, and that a few diligent and valiant spirits may turn the world upside down, if they observe their seasons, and shall with life and courage ingage accordingly.

--- attributed to William Walwyn

As F D Dow says in the preface, his little book is not a narrative of the events of the English civil war. However, he does in such a small book give an excellent introduction to the level of radicalism in the English Revolution. It is clear that outside of the Russian and French revolutions respectively no other revolution has generated such heat historically speaking.

He begins his book with an assessment of current historiography on the subject of the radical groups in the Civil War. The reader should keep in mind that the book was written and published in 1985 when Dow wrote this book the revisionists had already had been going for well over ten years.

The first chapter is well written and informative. He outlines the attack on Marxist historiography especially any understanding of the importance of any long-term causes of the English civil war. As Dow suggests even the use of the word radical to describe groups such as the Levellers had come under attack, according to Glenn Burgess “Conal Condren and Jonathan Clark to name two had said that the term 'radicalism' should not be applied to phenomena that exist before the term itself was coined. Clark has pointed out that it refers "to a doctrine newly invented in England in the 1820s to describe a fusion of universal suffrage, Ricardian economics, and programmatic atheism. To speak of an eighteenth - or a seventeenth-century radicalism is therefore as much of a solecism as to speak of an eighteenth- or a seventeenth-century fascism or Marxism".

One by-product of this turn away from Marxist historiography (that was perhaps best expressed in the writings of Christopher Hill, Brian Manning and the early work of Lawrence Stone) was the increase in some local studies. Studies such as The County Committee of Kent in the Civil War by A M Everitt and more famously John Morrill’s work on the Revolt of the Provinces emphasized short-term explanations. The rise of local studies does not necessary mean that these historians had a right wing agenda. David Underdown Riot, Rebel, and Rebellion are well worth a look at. On the whole local studies are a worthwhile thing, but note should be taken as E H Carr suggests to study the historian before you study the history.

Other revisionists such as John Adamson limited the civil war to a struggle amongst the nobility not a class struggle in his Noble Revolt and his forthcoming Noble Realm. This has led to the muddying or an outright denial of class struggles in the English civil war.

Dow shows that some historians have tended portray the period before the civil war as calm and that the English ruling elite would have never believed that civil war was on the agenda. But relying on Brain Manning’s work Dow paints an alternative picture of life before the war stating that Manning had "forcefully argued that economic discontent and widespread unrest were essential elements in producing an atmosphere of crisis before and after 1640 ... that this eruption of the lower and middling orders into the political arena crucially affected the alignment of political groupings within the elite ... parliament’s appeal to the ‘middling sort of people’ was ... to release one of the most dynamic forces of the decade and substantially promote the cause of popular radicalism”.

On the section called Parliamentarians and Republicans, Dow examines the philosophical basis for the Civil War. He explains that before the Civil War the English ruling elite was mostly content with the divine rule of kings. Society was in order and that everything was ordained by God.

But as the Marxist political writer David  North explains a closer examination brings a different picture “Until the early seventeenth century, even educated people still generally accepted that the ultimate answers to all the mysteries of the universe and the problems of life were to be found in the Old Testament. But its unchallengeable authority had been slowly eroding, especially since the publication of Copernicus's De Revolutionibus in the year of his death in 1543, which dealt the death blow to the Ptolemaic conception of the universe and provided the essential point of departure for the future conquests of Tycho Brahe (1546-1601), Johann Kepler (1571-1630) and, of course, Galileo Galilei (1564-1642). Intellectually, if not yet socially, the liberation of man from the fetters of Medieval superstition and the political structures that rested upon it, was well under way. The discoveries in astronomy profoundly changed the general intellectual environment”.

It would be wrong of course to mechanically apply this type of reason to the thinking of parliamentary opposition to the King. It was after all mostly confused and not coherently thought out. According to Dow (p15) “Four major issues were touched upon by these new writers, the nature, and location of sovereignty, the origins of government in the consent of the people, the welfare of the people as the end or purpose of administration and the role of ordinary people in resisting the king”. Dow attempts in this chapter to establish a link between the new philosophy and the actions of players of the revolution.

Dow correctly spends some time on the theory James Harrington. The importance of Harrington is that his writings are a confirmation of the relationship between political thought and political action. Dow, however, downplays Harrington grasp of the relationship between property and power saying he was not a “proto-Marxist.” While this is true, he was a writer who anticipated a materialist understanding of social and political events.

For Dow, the chief ideologues of the revolution were the radical groups such as the Levellers, Diggers, etc. He states on page 8 that “Ideological and organizational advances were made by rebels who were not matched until the 1760s. Although the Levellers did not achieve power and succeeded more in frightening those who did hold power than in convincing them of the merits of the original case., their beliefs and their program opened up new vistas of political participation, religious toleration, and social equality. If not for all men then at least for very significant sections of the middling classes”.

The Levellers according to Dow were “founding fathers of the working class movement.” Dow claimed the Levellers broke new ground.” They grounded their program of a new ideological basis by developing arguments based on doctrines of natural rights and popular sovereignty. And they mobilized support for their movement by employing sophisticated modern techniques of propaganda and organization”.

I do not agree with Dow on this assessment of the Levellers. As A L Morton says of the Levellers “it was a radical but not a working class party: indeed, how could it be at a time when the working class as we know it was only beginning to exist? Still less was it a ‘socialist’ party in the sense of advocating the type of egalitarian and agrarian communism which was widespread at this time” and to add was not articulately expressed (until) Winstanley and his Diggers or ‘true Levellers.'

Dow admits it is difficult however to paint an exact picture of what constituted the Leveller party and it was as the Baptist Henry Dunne said a “very heterogeneous body.” It is to Dow’s credit he places the rise of the Levellers in a socio-economic context “The social and economic preconditions for the rise of the movement like the Levellers had been created by long-term changes in landholding and in the manufacturing. Those changes which had adversely affected the status and prosperity of the urban and rural ‘middling sort’ of people were especially important in providing potential supporters for the Levellers, who were to become principally the spokesmen for the ‘industrious sort.' Pressure on the smaller peasant farmer who lacked the resources of his larger neighbour to benefit from the expanding market and rising prices: the discontent of the insecure copyholder subject to rack-renting and the fear of the small cottager or husbandman at the prospect of enclosure, produce dissatisfaction which the Levellers could tap and issues on which they could take a stand.

Of even greater significance were the problems of the small craftsmen and tradesmen, particularly in the towns, whose independence seemed threatened by large-scale merchants and entrepreneurs. The existence of such problems in London was vital to the capital was to provide the core of the Leveller movement. Here, a large pool of discontent existed among journeymen unable, because of changes in the structure of manufacturing to find the resources to set up as masters in their own right. Anger smoulder among small tradesmen and merchants chafing at the alleged oppression of the guilds”.

Dow makes the point that the Levellers tapped into a growing hostility from people especially in London towards a deal with the monarchy. An outward display of this came about through the army at Putney. Dow makes a very perceptive point that “The radicalisation of sections of the rank and file did not happen solely, or even directly, because of Leveller influence, it happened because soldiers’ perception of their own ill-treatment at the hands of the Presbyterian majority produced a political consciousness on which the Levellers could capitalize.”

Dow crucially examines the nature of the society, or specifically sections of the society, from which the Leveller movement sprang. Several attempts have been made to explain a class background to the Leveller movement and the people whose support it attracted. While it is prudent to acknowledge David Underdown’s warning that "Class is a concept that can be applied to seventeenth-century English society only with the greatest possible caution."

Dow relies heavily on the work of Professor Brian Manning’s recently revised study, The English People, and the English Revolution. Manning who was a member of the Radical group the SWP tries like Dow to examine the Levellers “from a socialist perspective.” But seems to contradict himself using Manning’s own words "that some of the ‘middling sort’ played a crucial role in the revolution."

The book is an excellent introduction to the subject of Radicalism in the English Revolution. Dow’s work on the Levellers is equally important. To end with I concur with AL Morton who said “A Party that held the centre of the stage for three of the most crucial years in our nation’s history, voiced the aspirations of the unprivileged masses, and was able to express with such force ideas that have been behind every great social advance since their time, cannot be regarded as wholly a failure or deserve to be wholly forgotten”.


Glenn Burgess, "A Matter of Context: 'Radicalism' and the English Revolution," in M. Caricchio, G. Tarantino, eds., Cromohs Virtual Seminars. Recent historiographical trends of the British Studies (17th-18th Centuries), 2006-2007: 1-4

Lecture 7 The English Civil War http://www.historyguide.org/earlymod/lecture7c.html


Brian Manning, "The Levellers and Religion" in J. F. McGregor and Barry Reay (editors), Radical Religion in the English Revolution, Oxford University Press, 1986, page 241.

David Underdown, Revel, Riot, and Rebellion: Popular Politics and Culture in England 1603-60, Oxford University Press, 1987, page 168.

Brian Manning, The English People, and the English Revolution, Bookmarks, London, 1991, page 7.

F. D. Dow, Radicalism in the English Revolution 1640-60, Basil Blackwell, Oxford 1985, chapter 1.

A. L. Morton (editor) Freedom in Arms: A Selection of Leveller Writings, Lawrence, and Wishart, London 1975, page 101.
Conal Condren, The Status and Appraisal of Classic Texts: An Essay on Political Theory, Its Inheritance, and the History of Ideas, Princeton NJ, 1985, ch. 5, especially pp. 138-41.

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