Sturza’s The London Revolution demonstrates the power and coherence of Marxist approaches to the seventeenth century, finds Dominic Alexander

The English Revolution of the seventeenth century was one of the major bourgeois revolutions that brought an end to feudal power, and allowed capitalism to begin its ascendancy towards being the world system it is today. That, at least, has been the position of socialist historians since Marx and Engels. While this interpretation was never accepted generally, and often bitterly opposed, there was at least fairly widespread acknowledgment by the 1960s that the English civil war of the 1640s amounted to a revolution, that it had serious social and political causes, and was of lasting significance.

Alongside the right’s counterattack across the political, economic and social spheres in the 1970s came a revisionist historical trend that in Britain focused notably on dismantling any and all left-wing views of the seventeenth century. These historians did not just deny that the crisis of the monarchy had anything to do with the growth of capitalism in England, but, in some cases, rejected the validity of long-term economic and social causes altogether. That there was a revolution during the 1640s was contradicted, and events were reduced to being squabbles among the powerful, even without lasting significance. Michael Sturza in his preface to The London Revolution is quite right to argue that the revisionists’ position is ‘one that is simply unable to explain how or why societies change over time’ (p.xiii). Sometimes the arguments were pushed to the point of absurdity; one of the revisionists even confessed to being congratulated by a colleague for ‘explaining why no civil war broke out in England in 1642’ (p.viii).

The history and all the disagreements, even those between historians of the left, are complex and even daunting, so Michael Sturza has done an excellent service for socialists in producing a concise, readable and, above all, convincing account that defends a Marxist understanding of the revolution in the early phase in London. The book rests upon the work of other historians, but synthesising all of that into a clear argument is no mean feat, and it is certainly to be recommended as an introduction to the whole subject.

Sturza is critical of the most famous of the Marxist historians of the seventeenth century, Christopher Hill, without discounting the tremendous importance of his work. It is true that some of Hill’s positions did represent an unnecessary retreat from the position that the civil war was a bourgeois revolution, and opened the way for the revisionist counterattack. Since then other Marxists have abandoned key aspects of the original conception of bourgeois revolution. It is therefore crucially important to conceptualise the class structure of Stuart England, and the impact of developing capitalist social relations in a way that makes clear the nature of the conflict. Sturza’s explanation of these issues brings out many of the strongest sides of the available Marxist arguments.

Classes on the eve of the revolution

Among the objections revisionists make to the argument that the 1640s saw a social revolution is that social groups were divided by the conflict, that it was led by members of the gentry, and that either no bourgeoisie existed at the time, or that leading members of it, the oligarchic merchants of the City of London, were largely royalists. However, these objections tend to attack a straw-man version of the Marxist interpretation, and in critiquing a reductive caricature, tend themselves to adopt highly simplistic models of how social change works.

The place of the gentry in these events, both on the side of the king and on that of parliament, is an important demonstration of the contradictory impacts that the development of capitalist social relations had on this section of the landowning ruling class. The fact that the gentry was split in this way is a sign of the acidic effect economic change was having upon the old regime, and not at all an argument against the relevance of social change. What has been known for a very long time is that the more economically advanced regions were where support for the parliamentary cause was the strongest, and the less developed parts of the kingdom, much of the west including Wales, were the strongholds of Royalist support.

London dominated the whole country’s economy, and was the centre of trade and merchant wealth. It was not just the political centre, but had a high concentration of the craftsmen and workers most inclined to religious and political dissent, and radicalism. Here also there was a core of the ‘Atlantic merchants’; those who had made their wealth in colonial trade (and all its horrors) as ‘capitalist entrepreneurs’ (pp.63-4), and were outside the privileged oligarchy of City merchants. Sturza, following Robert Brenner’s work on this group, shows that they were a key factor in the events which drove the House of Commons towards confrontation with the king in the years 1640-3. Notably, they were the ones who raised the funds for parliament’s initial war effort (p.126).

This standard attack on the Marxist view can therefore be refuted: that there was no ‘bourgeoisie’ to lead the revolution against the monarchy. The charge that it could not have been a bourgeois revolution, as the merchant oligarchy largely supported the king, once again ignores how power and social relations actually work. Of course those City merchants who benefitted from the king’s power to grant monopolies would support the old regime, but those outside those privileged circles resented the restrictions on free trade, and the threat of royal interference. These outsiders were the products of the newly developing capitalist relations of production.

The revolutionary role of popular forces

In addition to the wealthy free-trader merchants, there was a much larger class of petty-bourgeois craftsmen who shared similar economic ideas, Puritan religious leanings, and political objections to royal power. Sturza’s narrative shows how consistently the intervention of the popular movement in London pushed the gentry in the House of Commons further at every stage. Without that movement, the revolution and the civil war would not have taken place at all. There were numerous mass demonstrations and disruptions at key moments that effectively robbed the king of control of the city, and isolated his adherents. To pick one pivotal moment, on 3 January 1642, Charles I, with a force of royal officers, attempted to arrest five leading members of the reform party in the Commons. Forewarned, Pym and the others had already gone into hiding among radical Londoners. Subsequently, the Commons as a body moved to the Guildhall in the City, ‘thereby throwing themselves on the mercy of ordinary citizens’ (p.114).

What was true of London, was also true, if usually less dramatically, elsewhere in the country. In pockets of industrial activity, support for radical ideas and anti-royalism was strong, and was often able to push members of the local elites into opposition to the king. Not just in London but generally, the ‘middling sort’ of craftsmen, shopkeepers and traders, and yeomen farmers constituted a social class that fuelled the parliamentary cause, and later became the main source of recruits to the New Model Army. These were the people most involved in the expanding market economy, and were most committed to thoroughgoing changes to England’s social and political structure.

There was no lack of a revolutionary class in England of the 1640s, as has long been demonstrated by historians such as Brian Manning, whose very important The English People and The English Revolution (1976) has been all but ignored by establishment academic history. However, the work of Manning and other historians on the role of London citizens serves, despite the revisionists, to ‘demonstrate beyond any doubt the existence of a pro-democratic social movement composed of tens of thousands who were neither rich nor poor, though some portion of the poor also followed it some of the time’ (p.180).

It is true that the parliamentary leadership of the revolution was composed of landowning gentry, but here Sturza correctly puts much emphasis on the contradictory position of this group of the ruling class. Many were pulled towards the king to preserve their traditional social power, but some of them were enmeshed in the developing capitalist social relations, and resentful of the arbitrary power the monarchy could still exercise over property. Landowners in the more advanced regions ‘invested in trade or manufacture’, which ‘did not make them bourgeois’, but it did ‘substantially align their economic and political interests with those of the bourgeoisie, especially its well-to-do middle layers who favoured free trade and opposed arbitrary government’ (p.48). The revisionists who refuse to see the significance of the contradictions in the gentry’s social position are themselves guilty of the reductive analysis of which they accuse the Marxists.

The absolutist monarchy and feudalism

It was not only the nature of the movement from below that revisionists challenged, but also the character of the Stuart state. Here the Marxist definition of ‘feudal’ and the mainstream one are at odds, since the standard notion of what constitutes feudal relations rests upon a very narrow conception of lord and vassal relationships. Marxists, however, consider it not in terms of limited legal conditions, but as a particular system of class domination by landowning lords.

It is certainly true that the decay of the feudal system in the latter sense was far more obviously advanced in seventeenth-century England than even in France at the time of their bourgeois revolution in 1789. However, important aspects of it remained, including monopoly restrictions on trade, insecure and arbitrary forms of land tenancy, and the social and political privileges of the landowning class. It was the monarchy that tied together and maintained the remaining forms of feudal social power. Struza provides a useful summary of the background to the Revolution in royal attempts to develop state power into an absolutist monarchy. These had roots in the sixteenth century, but were greatly accelerated under Charles I.

In France, of course, that process succeeded, despite its own crisis of rebellion, known as the Fronde, from 1648 to 1653, whose defeat produced a calcified absolutism that was effectively unchallenged until revolution exploded in 1789. Revisionists prefer to focus on Charles I’s personality flaws and political mistakes, as if to demonstrate that the revolution was merely a circumstantial accident. Yet, there were structural problems at work which drove those circumstances into being, and not the other way around. Charles I’s attempts to override parliament, and impose the notorious ‘ship money’ as a means of avoiding having to cajole parliamentary consent for taxation, was an outcome of long-term conflicts. It was also one of the issues which drove a wedge between him and many of the landowning class, who, often torn both ways by social forces, could start to consider risking a confrontation with the monarchy.

Religion and political consciousness

For all the economic and social discontents in seventeenth-century England, there was a great deal of disparity between different sections of the titled aristocracy, the greater and lesser gentry, merchants, and the ‘middling people’. What gave galvanising force to an anti-royalist coalition was ideology, and that came from the Puritan religious movement. Once again, anti-Marxists have wished to wall off the issue of religion from other aspects of society, or even claim the civil war was really a war of religion, rather than accept that religious ideas were shot through with issues of class struggle.

Puritanism was a very broad religious tendency, and one which even a few peers were attracted to, as well as many of the gentry. Nevertheless, it was most strongly rooted in the outlook of the middling strata. ‘The Puritans’ severe attitude towards idleness flowed’ from an individualist outlook born of the growing capitalist social conditions, while also fulfilling ‘the need to instil labor discipline on a population that … was unprepared to participate in a competitive money economy’ (p.25). The Puritans despised both the wastefulness of the wealthy aristocracy and the king’s court above them, as well as the undisciplined and ungodly poor beneath them.

Questions of church organisation, such as the place of bishops, which might seem relatively abstract to many today, were not just vital because of a different past mentality, but because the Church really was a structure which preserved and enforced the existing social order. The demand for freedom of conscience in religious matters not only reflected new economic relations, but religious debate was the way through which society was understood and discussed. Dissenting religious groups also provided the essential basis for revolutionary organisation, as John Rees has shown in his study of the Levellers from later on in the revolution. This was true of the 1640-2 period as well:

‘The heterogeneity of conflicting claims bubbling among the London Puritan clergy, closely attended by the lay populace, was the background to the spread of more radical religion during the 1630s persecution. In 1640 these radical ideas exploded into the open’ (p.23).

The ‘gathered churches’ of London, that is the unofficial ones that people voluntarily and illegally attended, provided a means for spreading news of political events, and then points of mobilisation for popular forces during the key moments of the struggle between the king and the Commons. One of the signs of the breakdown of the old order was precisely the way the structures of the official church began to collapse.

Church courts, to which everyone was subject and which could intervene to regulate all kinds of behaviour, ‘were no longer able to function’ after the arrest of Archbishop Laud in 1640. This relieved ‘the populace from prosecution for sin’ and unleashed ‘a flood of cheap pamphlets for people to read and discuss’ (p.107). The arrest of the archbishop was followed by demonstrations against the bishops which could not be restrained: ‘A contemporary lamented “that the power of the City magnates was already broken”’ (p.107). The social power of the Church was essential for the general social order, and a challenge to one was a challenge to the other.

The course and outcome of the revolution

The London Revolution follows the events from the beginning of the Long Parliament to the first stage of the civil war, so the full course of the revolution is not covered. Nonetheless, the early years of the 1640s are essential to showing the role of the middling people, greater and lesser, in forcing tensions within the ruling class into outright conflict and revolution. The contradictory ways in which the revolutionary process would unfold are also signposted. Leadership always remained in the hands of members of the landowning gentry, even though it passed from moderates like Pym, to more radical figures like Oliver Cromwell. The defeat of the popular democratic forces of the Leveller movement in 1647-9 meant that the extent of the revolution would be limited, and that the final settlement would enshrine the dominance of the landowner class for the future. Yet, the carapace of feudal power would be gone, and the supremacy of capitalist private property would be ensured.   

Marxist historians are regularly accused of reductionism and determinism, but it is in fact the ideological revisionists who are most guilty of reifying particular categories, the political, economic, religious, while refusing to admit the organic connections and dialectical causative links between them. If you want histories of the seventeenth century that attempt to make sense out of the complexity of historical change, without in fact reducing it to a mechanical sketch, it is the Marxists to whom you should turn. Michael Sturza has neatly and convincingly demonstrated that this is the case.

Dominic Alexander

Dominic Alexander is a member of Counterfire, for which he is the book review editor. He is a longstanding activist in north London. He is a historian whose work includes the book Saints and Animals in the Middle Ages (2008), a social history of medieval wonder tales, and articles on London’s first revolutionary, William Longbeard, and the revolt of 1196, in Viator 48:3 (2017), and Science and Society 84:3 (July 2020). He is also the author of the Counterfire books, The Limits of Keynesianism (2018) and Trotsky in the Bronze Age (2020).

Tagged under: