Marxismby Rollison David
Who built Thebes of the seven gates?
In the books you’ll find the names of kings.
Did the kings haul up the lumps of rock?
And Babylon, many times demolished
Who raised it up so many times? In what houses
Of gold-glittering Lima did the builders live?
Where, the evening that the Wall of China was finished
Did the masons go? Great Rome
Is full of triumphal arches. Who erected them? Over whom
Did the Caesars triumph? Had Byzantium, much praised in song
Only palaces for its inhabitants? Even in fabled Atlantis
The night the ocean engulfed it
The drowning still bawled for their slaves …1
Social revolution is the only true revolution …2
What we call the ‘early modern’ period has a central place in Marxism. Karl Marx (1818–83) saw early modern England as the nucleus of capitalism, the place and time of the Big Bang of modernity. In his masterpiece, Capital Volume One (1867), is to be found his account of the English explosion. The three volumes of Capital sketch the dynamics of the global processes unleashed by that explosion. They are not, let it be said, bedtime reading.3
Marx concentrated on the less glamorous aspects of human history that have since become the specialist fields of social, economic and demographic historians. He was interested in politics and ideas, but saw them as contingent outgrowths of the mode and social relations of production.4 ‘Mode of production’ refers to society’s dominant form of economic production and its technical and social organization – in other words, how a society goes about producing goods and services. Within Marxist terminology, a society with simple technology, landowning lords and bonded serfs, for example, is said to have a feudal mode of production, while a society with sophisticated technology, private ownership of capital (which includes raw materials, tools, and so on) and a wage system is said to have a capitalist mode of production. The ‘social relations of production’ are the class relationships that arise from that division of labour. Students who come to history for the lives of kings, queens and heroes will not find Marx congenial. The great political revolutions of 1649 in England and 1789 in France, in Marx’s theory, were dramatic eruptions into the constitutional realm of a deeper and more all pervasive ‘social’ revolution, a more fundamental and consequential change in the mode and social relations of production. They were ‘bourgeois’ revolutions, opportunities for the new capitalist class to wrench control of the state away from feudal aristocracy and monarchy.5 Marx was well aware of the eccentricity and diversity of state-forms that arose out of these bourgeois revolutions. Constitutional forms may retain their names (as Britain has retained monarchy and aristocratic titles), but their content is transformed by social revolution.6 In human history, really fundamental changes develop outside the primary contexts of states and ruling classes. One of the most fruitful approaches that follows from this has been called ‘history from below’.7 Various kinds of ‘bottom-up history’ have been a significant growth area in early modern studies since the early 1970s.
Marx and history
Marx’s essays on the world of primitive accumulation were part of an attempt to see the whole genesis of capitalism, from its origins to his own time.8 He was a powerful scholar. He and Friedrich Engels (1820–95) between them knew as much as anyone alive in 1870 about the economic and social history of early modern England. Keith Wrightson estimates that ‘of historians writing in Britain in the mid-nineteenth century, the one most closely in touch with the older tradition of approaches to the economic and social history of the sixteenth century was … Karl Marx’.9 Marx mined the British Library’s collection of literature relating to English social history and political economy. He discovered, among a vast body of lesser writers, classic earlier anatomies of what Marx’s contemporary, Thomas Carlyle (1795–1881), called ‘the condition of England’. He discovered for himself (as we can still do) influential writers like John Fortescue (c. 1395–1476), Thomas More (1478–1535), Thomas Smith (1513–77), William Harrison (1534–93), Francis Bacon (1561–1626), William Shakespeare (1564–1616), Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679), Edward Misselden (1608–54), William Petty (1623–87), Bernard Mandeville (1670–1733), David Hume (1711–76), Adam Smith (1723–90), William Cobbett (1763–1835), Thomas Robert Malthus (1766–1834), David Ricardo (1772–1823), Carlyle, James Mill (1773–1836) and John Stuart Mill (1806–73).10 Marx took his ‘facts’ from these commentators. As Wrightson concludes, ‘the elements in Marx’s history were familiar enough: its chronology and component themes were to a large extent those of his predecessors’.11 Marx mined what we call ‘secondary sources’ for information about the social revolution his theory predicted.
What we find in the sources depends upon what we are looking for. Marx was interested in what a society produced and how it produced it. The ‘ore’ that caught his attention was information relating to the classes of people involved in production. This implied an attempt literally to construct a picture of society ‘from below’. Where his sources were counsellors to kings and parliaments, who provided information that would help them govern more efficiently, Marx turned the subjects of the data (the ‘commonalty’ or ‘common people’) into a force for change in their own right.
Like the political and social commentator Tom Paine (1737–1809), Marx was a counsellor to the working classes. He taught that for all their contemporary dominance, the worlds of elite ideas and institutions, high art, religion, politics and constitutional forms were less consequential, in the long run, than the ways the work was done. If the higher thought was incompatible with the mode of production, it would become a relic. Forms of government (which Marx saw as instruments of oppression) were the last bastions of outmoded ‘social relations of production’, the last to give way. But give way – by gradual adaptation or violent revolution or both – they would, and to forces ‘from below’. ‘The rise of the industrial capitalists’, he wrote, ‘appears as the fruit of a victorious struggle both against feudal powers …, and against the guilds, and the fetters by which the latter restricted the free development of production and the free exploitation of man by man’.12 ‘Bourgeois society’ was an evolutionary process, the coming into existence of a society in which wealth ‘presents itself as an immense accumulation of commodities’,13 and in which there is ‘a complete separation between the workers and the ownership of the conditions for the realization of their labour’.14 The governments of the advanced capitalist societies of the nineteenth century might retain neo-feudal forms (for example, be manned by hereditary nobles), but in reality they were nothing but committees for managing the affairs of the bourgeoisie.15
Marx identified problems that have continued to concern us, and devised powerful explanations for them. Consider his thoughts about what we call ‘the population explosion’. Mature capitalism, in his view, was a two-cornered class struggle, between Labour (or ‘variable capital’) and Capital.16 One of the most fundamental driving forces in early modern England was the gradual polarization into these two classes. Power, increasingly, lay not with inherited title but with ownership of the means of production. (The French term bourgeois means an urban dweller and is misleading when applied to early modern England, where the masters of ‘proto-industry’ and capitalist farming were mainly country dwellers.17) Research since has confirmed that ‘industries in the countryside’ led to a multiplication of units of production (households dependent on wages in various forms).18 Marx’s ‘absolute general law of capitalist accumulation’ stated that ‘the relative mass of the reserve industrial army increases with the potential energy of wealth’. His aim was to ‘consider the influence of the growth of capital on the fate of the working class’. He offers pages of argument, and references to earlier authorities on the subject, and concludes that ‘accumulation of capital is multiplication of the proletariat’. Marx offers an explanation (not necessarily the right one) for an issue which only really came to the forefront of academic and public debate in the second half of the twentieth century. Capitalism generates population growth, is the law Marx expounded.19
No one today doubts that a global population explosion has taken place, and that it is possible to discern the beginnings of the process in late medieval and early modern Europe. Three hundred and fifty years ago there were maybe five hundred million individuals of the species Homo sapiens. Today there are six billion.20 Marx was in no doubt that this explosion of ‘the dangerous classes’ was intrinsic to the capitalist world-system. This amorphous proletariat was the ‘spectre’ that haunted the nineteenth-century bourgeoisie.21 Research since has confirmed Marx’s assumption that in the country most affected by what he called ‘primitive accumulation’, England, population had been growing for three centuries before the national censuses of the nineteenth century made it an issue of public debate.22 Marx also believed that what was happening in England was the historical nucleus of a global explosion. The practical connection between the local and the global movement was colonialism. The driving force of modern colonialism was capital, which, in his view, was inherently international, expansive.23
How did this process begin? The most influential population theorist of Marx’s day, Thomas Malthus, assumed a biological regime in which the means of production remain the same. In such a system, the only way to increase production is by colonizing additional resources. Eventually population outstrips resources and the ‘preventative check’ (disease, famine, war and death) comes into operation. This is now generally agreed to have happened in north-western Europe in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, when a burst of population growth was sustained by the ‘internal’ colonization of unused land (‘waste’ and forest). By the early fourteenth century this expansion reached the limits of growth, determined by the availability of wasteland and existing levels of technology. Severe famines took place throughout Europe in the first half of the fourteenth century, followed by the catastrophic Black Death, which landed in southern Europe in 1348 and reached Britain in less than a year. This combination of ecological and epidemiological ‘checks’ reduced Europe’s population by at least a third.24
As a result, demand for labour increased. In his chapters on ‘so-called primitive accumulation’, Marx explains the ‘liberation’ of the proletariat from the land in terms of ‘bloody expropriation of the poor’. This has been, and remains, a subject of controversy. The ruling classes of late medieval England routinely passed draconian legislation to control wages and labour mobility. But at the same time, labour was in such shortage that peasants and their children might often have left their boring manors (both Marx and Engels had a cosmopolitan, urban prejudice against ‘rural idiocy’25) because they thought they could do better elsewhere. Whatever legislation they passed, the lords of manors and estates needed labourers. Often, given the hegemony of agrarian cycles, they needed them urgently. To attract labourers they had to pay what was being asked. They did not like the idea of a mobile, ‘free’ labour force, because such workers were very largely freed from the localized social disciplines which were then and were to remain for centuries the basic institutions of settled order. What we see in the statute books with regard to ‘bloody legislation against the poor’ was only one side of the movement, the coercive side. Many thousands of peasants were turfed off the land by enclosures, in a process that began in the late fourteenth century and continued in various forms up to the Parliamentary enclosure movement of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. But many more were never on the land in the first place. Many left it willingly, especially in the century after the Black Death.26 The practical effect of labour legislation from the late Middle Ages to the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution was to enable successive regimes to monitor a movement none of them proved capable of stemming: increasing proletarianization of the workforce.27
Marx thought that ‘in England, serfdom had disappeared in practice by the last part of the fourteenth century’. As with all economic, social and demographic movements, it is dangerous to assign too definite a date, but research since tends to confirm Marx’s general framework. ‘The prelude to the revolution that laid the foundation of the capitalist mode of production was played out in the last third of the fifteenth century and the first few decades of the sixteenth’. The result was a massive social revolution. ‘In the history of primitive accumulation’, he wrote, ‘all revolutions are epoch-making that act as levers for the capitalist class in the course of its formation’.
But this is true above all for those movements when great masses of men are suddenly and forcibly torn from their means of subsistence, and hurled onto the labour market as free, unprotected and rightless proletarians. The expropriation of the agricultural producer, of the peasant, from the soil, is the basis of the whole process.
‘The capitalist era’, he concluded, ‘dates from the sixteenth century’.28 Keith Wrightson sums it up: Marx
described the independent, self-supporting peasantry of the fifteenth century, the long history of its expropriation by ruthless landlords from the sixteenth century onwards and its replacement by a class of large-scale capitalist farmers. Then he traced the consequences. Expropriation created a landless proletariat, harassed by savage vagrancy laws, the poor laws and oppressive labour legislation into ‘the discipline necessary for the wage system’.29
Under the noses of successive monarchical regimes, Plantagenets, Lancastrians, Yorkists, Tudors, Stuarts and Hanoverians, indifferent to constitutional, religious, political and international relations, a great collective revolution was unfolding. It was driven, not by the decisions of kings, ruling classes and states, but by changes at the grass roots, in the mode of production and then, gradually, in the whole of society. Its effects were more massive and enduring than what Marx called the ‘bourgeois’ revolutions in England, the American colonies and France. The politicalrevolutions were symptoms of much more deep-seated revolution in social relations of production. A ‘bigger domestic market’ appeared, as ‘self provisioning gave way to the need to purchase’. ‘Manufacturing industries spread’ and drove the movement for ‘commercial supremacy in overseas markets’. A pattern emerged of ‘aggressive colonialism’ in foreign affairs, ‘protective legislation’ at home.30 The whole movement was driven by changes in the everyday lives of ordinary people, the communities where the work went on. Marx loved to tease scholars who studied the affairs of elites and states with the suggestion that they studied symptoms, not causes.
Marx linked the ‘economic’ details to a dramatic big picture. The capitalist mode of production was destined to change the ways all of us live, everywhere in the world. Just as he was prescient in identifying ‘the population problem’, Marx took ‘globalism’ as his point of departure more than a century before it became a staple of academic and public discourse in the late twentieth century. Marx thought this epochal transformation took off in sixteenth-century England, was manifest in his own day as the ‘first industrial revolution’31 and would continue to spread across and occupy the entire world until there was no one and nowhere left to conquer. The agency that drove this vast social revolution was the quest for what we call ‘economic growth’.
Marx was an authority on the printed sources relating to four centuries of public debate about the condition of England. For him, this debate began in the generationsof ‘Chancellor [Sir John] Fortescue and Thomas More’, who were writing in the later fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. What led him to conclude that ‘the capitalist era dates from the sixteenth century’ was that this was as far as the printed sources would take him. Much research has been done since, not least on manuscript sources, which tell of a slightly longer ‘transition from feudalism to capitalism’ than Marx usually conceived it, beginning perhaps in the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries. We would see it as a more uneven process than Marx’s conception suggests. Some regions and localities were transformed earlier than others, and everywhere changes took time to sink in and take institutional forms. Early experiments in moral regulation and welfare provisions tended to take place first in the new, ‘rural’ manufacturing districts.32 We may wish to adopt different terminology from his, but there can be little doubt that in the long term something very closely resembling what Marx called ‘proletarianization’ was taking place, more or less progressively. Social revolutions take a long time to unfold, but their effects are more sweeping than those of short-term political revolutions and coups d’état.
For all his eagerness to see sudden, ‘revolutionary’ change like 1776, 1789 and 1848 (he was, after all, a revolutionary), Marx understood the history of the capitalist mode and social relations of production as a centuries-old, continuous process of ‘accumulation’, and thus likely to be misconceived if divided up into stages like ‘early modern’, ‘modern’ and now ‘postmodern’. What we call ‘modern’, Marx called ‘bourgeois society’ or ‘the bourgeois mode of production’. If anything, in Marx, the stage of ‘primitive accumulation’, or ‘age of manufactures’ as he sometimes called it, gave way in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries to a clearer or more ‘mature’ type of industrial capitalism.33 It is no accident that Marx never used the term ‘industrial revolution’. For him, it was an evolution, spanning five or six centuries up to his own time. He was mainly concerned with where this system was going in the future, but he devoted a great deal of time to the study of its origins and past development.
We know a lot more about early modern England than Marx did. In no field of historical research has the creation of new knowledge been more spectacular, especially in the last 30 years, than in the fields of demographic, economic and social history. Researchers in these fields today would regard Marx’s work on the fifteenth, sixteenth and seventeenth centuries as excessively dependent upon a limited range of impressionistic, literary sources. Modern demographic, social and economic histories evaluate the old literary traditions in the light of increasingly well-organized (and voluminous) local, regional and central-state manuscript archives. Marx’s account can now be measured against a much richer picture.
The British Marxist historians
Marxism was an exceptionally powerful force in early modern studies for most of the second half of the twentieth century.34 Leaving aside historiographical breezes from abroad (which tended to be less averse to Marxian perspectives, and what the French call the longue durée, than Britain), no group did more than the so-called ‘British Marxist historians’ to provide a rich, detailed and above all exciting historical vision of what E.P. Thompson called the ‘great arch’ of capitalist development. All were thoroughly grounded in Marx’s writing, but tended to treat it as a point of departure. It was rich in hypotheses, pointers to work that needed doing rather than work that had been done. As Rodney Hilton wrote:
Any serious historian has to classify and generalise social phenomena and is not likely to get very far unless he works from a theory of social development which will provide him with hypotheses. These hypotheses have the function of acting as organising principles for the direction of his research. They will naturally have to be checked against the data and if necessary modified’.35
In a series of books and articles, Hilton fleshed out the view that ‘conflict between landlords and peasants, however muted or however intense, over the appropriation of the surplus product of the peasant holding, was a prime mover in the evolution of medieval society’. ‘The social and political crises of the late medieval feudal order cannot be understood if what Marc Bloch called “the crisis of seigneurial fortunes” is not seen as the consequence of a failure by the ruling aristocracies to keep up the level of appropriation’.36
It was not necessary to share Hilton’s desire to confirm Marxist hypotheses to appreciate his use of manorial and taxation records in building a whole series of local and regional studies of late medieval society: history ‘from below’. Hilton drew attention to the importance of the parish in the affections of late medieval peasants, artisans and townspeople. This established an important continuity with a well-known feature of sixteenth- to eighteenth-century popular culture. We need more studies that transcend the ‘great divide’ between the ‘late medieval’ and ‘early modern’ periods. Marxism has always been uncomfortable with the artificial divisions of ‘bourgeois’ historiography.
E.P. Thompson was particularly sensitive to the polemical element in Marx’s work. ‘Marx conceived of himself, pugnaciously, as a materialist’, he wrote. This was partly because he was indeed a materialist by conviction, but he also set out to satirize what he saw as the naïve (‘bourgeois’) idealism of his contemporaries. For Thompson, Capital was primarily concerned to elucidate the ‘logic’, rather than the history of capitalism. The history, he insisted, remained to be written. ‘In Capital ‘, wrote Thompson, ‘Marx repeatedly uses the concept of the circuit of capital to characterise the structure of the capitalist economy – and, more than that, of capitalist society more generally’. However, ‘historical materialism (as assumed as hypothesis by Marx, and as subsequently developed in our practice) must be concerned with other “circuits” also: the circuits of power, of the reproduction of ideology, etc., and these belong to a different logic and to other categories’.37 For Thompson and Christopher Hill, especially, this meant accentuating ‘the enormous importance of that part of the revolutionary inheritance which may be described, in a secular sense, as the tradition of dissent’.38 Both tended to place greater emphasis on what Marx had called ‘superstructural’ elements of social process and revolution, and were sometimes accused of being ‘culturalist’ or (more accurately) ‘humanist’ Marxists.
The ‘hypothetical’ approach was immensely creative. Out of various works by Maurice Dobb (1900–76), R.H. Hilton (1916–2002), Christopher Hill (1912–2003), E.J. Hobsbawm (b. 1917), E.P. Thompson (1924–93), Robert Brenner (b. 1943) and others emerged a whole series of enduring controversies: ‘the crisis of feudalism’, ‘the transition from feudalism to capitalism’,39 ‘the English bourgeois revolution’,40 ‘the seventeenth-century crisis’,41 ‘class-struggle without class’ in eighteenth-century England,42 criminal law and class hegemony,43 ‘moral economy’ versus ‘market economy’44 and, perhaps most notoriously, the whole question of ‘the making of the English working class’ in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. ‘The storm over the gentry’ was not Marxism-inspired, but historians who have read Marx will always be alert to debates about social structure and agency. Few of the social historians now working on one aspect or another of ‘the middle sort’ are in any sense Marxist, but their results play directly on Marx’s ‘hypotheses’.
Through it all, class and class struggle were the pivotal areas of controversy. Although much was made of the fact that the terminology of class only appeared in the early nineteenth century,45 not nearly enough was made of the fact that medieval and early modern writers reflexively thought of society in class-like ways, even if the language they used (‘better sort’, ‘middling sort’, ‘lower ranks’, ‘many-headed multitude’, ‘the multitudes around us’, and so on) was, to put it mildly, prematurely synthetic. Hardly anyone noticed that in his explorations of the British Library sources of his day, Marx had taken no credit ‘for discovering the existence of classes in modern society or the struggle between them. Long before me bourgeois historians had described the historical development of this class struggle and bourgeois economists the economic anatomy of classes. What I did that was new’, he continued,
was to prove: 1) that the existence of classes is only bound up with particular historical phases in the development of production, 2) that the class struggle necessarily leads to the dictatorship of the proletariat, 3) that the dictatorship itself only constitutes the transition to the abolition of all classes and to a classless society.46
Students of early modern society need only concern themselves with the first of these propositions. Was early modern England a class-structured society, and in what sense(s)? And if so, were these classes contingencies of any ‘particular … phases in the development of production’? While the British Marxists certainly explored proposition (1), none of them gave anything like wholehearted assent to Marx’s sense that, if it was true, propositions (2) and (3) necessarily followed.
The British Marxists, collectively, studied the ‘great arch’. Individually, they specialized. It would be unfair to sum up the prolific work of Christopher Hill in a single phrase, but he tended to concentrate on the ‘middling’ or ‘industrious sort’, and for present purposes his chosen area was ‘the English bourgeois revolution’. As with his Marxist colleagues, this meant a much longer period than the civil wars and commonwealth: Hill’s 1967 textbook, Reformation to Industrial Revolution, traced the transition between 1530 and 1780
from a society in which it was taken for granted that a fully human existence was possible only for the narrow landed ruling class to a society in which an ideology of self-help had permeated into the middle ranks. The economists were newly conscious of scarcity because of the new prospects of abundance. In these 250 years we pass from universal belief in original sin to the romanticism of Man is good. We have moved, too, from an England which had virtually no overseas possessions except Ireland to the break-up of the first British Empire and the first stirrings of Irish national ism …47
The Marxists reminded us that some rather epochal things had in fact happened in early modern England. Their perspectives were always, at one and the same time, local, national and global.
After his earliest work, the Marxist framework was usually between the lines of Hill’s work. In some ways everything he wrote can be seen as a critique of Marx’s crude conceptions of the ‘bourgeoisie’. ‘The Industrious Sort of People’, and in fact all the essays in his 1964 Society and Puritanism in Pre-Revolutionary England, are filled with insights into the worlds of what contemporaries were beginning to call ‘the middling sort’, still a growth area in early modern studies.48 While it drew greatly on R.H. Tawney’s (1880–1962) vision of the role of religion in sixteenth and seventeenth-century England, many read Society and Puritanism as a trailblazing collection of penetrating studies of the great social revolution that was taking place in early modern England. Controversy focused at the time on the meaning and validity of the terms ‘Puritan’ and (later) ‘Revolution’, but this great book also pointed firmly towards the local grass roots as the places where the long, revolutionary transformation of England was taking place. Hill has seldom been given the credit he deserves for signposting this enormously important and creative area of early modern studies.
Hill’s work epitomizes the refusal of the best Marxist history to conform to institutionalized periods and disciplines. His interests, developed from incomparable mastery of the printed sources, spanned ‘social’, ‘economic’, ‘literary’, ‘intellectual’ and ‘political’ history. Hill was a great historian of ideas; in a discipline that becomes ever more sub-specialized, this sense of the interconnectedness of every aspect of life in society remains one of the most important, if paradoxical, achievements of Marxist historiography. The book that many consider Hill’s masterpiece, The World Turned Upside Down,49 was criticized for reifying terms of contemporary moral panic (‘Ranters’, for example) into organized sects, but if read sceptically (as all history books should be) it remains the first port of call for anyone interested in the explosion of ideas that occurred in the 1640s and 1650s.50
Thompson and Hill are indispensable historians of ‘the tradition of dissent’.51 They grounded their work in a broadly Marxist framework, but were primarily interested, not so much in the underlying ‘structures’, but in what people alive at various times in their evolution did, what they felt and thought as a result of the circumstances they found themselves in. Both were primarily interested in ideas and ideologies in their social contexts. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class (London, 1963) was very much ‘bottom-up history’ in its concern to ‘rescue’ the working people of the Industrial Revolution ‘from the enormous condescension of posterity’. It was driven by a refusal of determinist conceptions of class formation, in which classes are mechanically brought into existence by forces beyond their comprehension and power to grasp. This was very much a ‘New Left’ reaction against Stalinist/Bolshevik ‘vulgar Marxism’, in which the only changes that are really consequential are economic changes. In this ‘vulgar Marxist’ model, ‘the economy’ is the ‘base’ and everything else (art, politics, culture, thought) is ‘superstructure’. As we have seen, this was pretty much Marx’s view too. The ‘British Marxist historians’ saw Marx’s brilliant sketches as ‘hypotheses’ to be tested, insights to be filled out with new research. Thompson and Hill were profoundly interested in literature and culture. They were ‘humanist Marxists’, and for some of their critics on the Left, the humanism was stronger than the Marxism.52
Thompson’s thesis was that the English working class made itself, in resistance grounded in custom, pre-existing senses of morality and community, intelligence and collective action. His insistence that culture and intelligence were at least as important in class formation as the mode and social relations of production was criticized by Marxists as not being Marxist enough, and by non-Marxists for being too clearly concerned with a central issue of Marxism. It is now generally agreed that Thompson’s masterpiece (a best-seller that greatly influenced a generation of social historians) was as much about the development of older, artisan forms of radical and popular politics as it was about the emergence of a new ‘English working class’. It included a swingeing critique of quantitativehistories of the Industrial Revolution and, as we have seen, Thompson located his work in a ‘bourgeois revolution’ conceived as a ‘great arch’ of English historical development that was pretty much based on Marx’s own periodization. In 1985 two Marxist sociologists filled out this idea in an inspired book entitled The Great Arch: English State Formation as Cultural Revolution.53
The classics of British Marxism are still in print. As Andy Wood commented recently, ‘Marxist historical interpretation has rather more life in it than its critics have supposed’.54 Although Thompson began his study with the 1790s, writes Wood, he ‘recognized the diversity of earlier historical experiences on which the making of the English working class drew’.55 When Thompson wrote, in the early 1960s, there were few really penetrating studies of those ‘earlier historical experiences’ to flesh out his intuition. Several decades later we know a great deal more about the lives of the early modern commonalty. In the light of this developing knowledge, Thompson’s broad sense of the making of a national working class in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries makes more sense. Wood concludes that ‘we need not accept the entirety of Thompson’s account to see a distinct watershed in class politics and social relations as located in the 1780–1832 period’. His crucial point is that ‘the importance of this disjuncture is best discerned from a long view of class formation’.56 A new ‘long view’, based in part on early modern microhistories, is starting to come into focus.
Class, politics and power
Class is the most controversial, bitterly debated and problematical facet of Marx’s theory.57 Marx and Engels were convinced that the whole history of civilization is the history of class struggle, but when Marx finally addressed the specifics of class structure in the notoriously incomplete final section of Capital, he faltered. The British Marxists, especially Hilton and Thompson, recognized the gap and tried to fill it with articulate dissent. The ‘new’ early modern social historiography distanced itself from the topic. Its exponents, dedicated to painstaking research in local, regional and national manuscript archives, saw that to engage with class would arouse violent controversy. It would cloud the vital importance of original work in fields like ‘crime, kinship, social structure, urbanization, literacy, population change, household relations, sexual behaviour, riot, witchcraft and moral regulation’.58 There were entrenched prejudices to consider. A historian of the Leveller Movement Leveller Movement, H.N. Brailsford (1873–1958), wrote that the historical profession of the 1940s and 1950s was ‘as shy in confronting the fact of class as were the novelists of the last century in facing the fact of sex’. In the 1980s, Thompson was otherwise engaged and Christopher Hill and his allies were forced to defend their conception of the 1640s as ‘a revolutionary transformation which established the preconditions for the emergence of industrial capitalism in the following century’ against the ‘short-term causes and consequences’ of triumphant revisionists. In the 1990s, historians influenced by certain aspects of postmodernism and poststructuralism confirmed the enduringly controversial nature of the topic by suggesting that ‘class’, ‘society’ and even ‘history’ were purely linguistic, discursive phenomena.59
Meanwhile, the new social historians patiently built up a more detailed picture, using archives that the British Marxists had not explored. In terms of history from below, the historiography of early modern England began again, virtually from scratch, in the 1970s. The Cambridge Group was in the vanguard; Peter Laslett’s The World We Have Lost was the Group’s manifesto, Wrigley and Schofield’s The Population History of England, 1541–1871 its most monumental product.60 The broader implication was that we have enough knowledge about kings, counsellors and literate ruling elites. It was time to pay attention to the other millions of men, women and children alive at the time, and it seemed possible to begin that larger task, with fresh perspectives and new questions. The shoulders on which this movement stood were not the giants of British historiography, but two or three generations of archivists who had made a new kind of history (‘from below’) possible. These unsung heroes had identified thousands of record collections, in parish churches, manor houses, and so on, all over England, and persuaded their keepers to allow them to be located in central places (usually county archive offices), where they were categorized and classified in ways that, in spite of their volume, made them accessible and usable.
The opening up of academic history to local and regional archives was an opportunity, not to fill gaps or test hypotheses relating to existing theories and paradigms, but to effect a genuine paradigm shift.61 The imperative to approach archives with hypotheses derived from the existing body of historiography, Marxist or otherwise, was bound to militate against such a possibility. The history of women would not have got far if it had relied on historiographical precedent. History had always been patriarchal, and it had always been written (as Marx himself wrote it) from some kind of ‘centre’ (men, a ruling elite, a state, a nation, the Communist Party). Local and regional archives were about the day-to-day administration of the subject population. They created a different sort of opportunity. In those early parish registers, tax lists, vestry minutes, sessions papers, settlement records and ‘bawdy court’ depositions are the names, addresses, actions and words of the characters in a new social history, which begins with the local and proceeds, not by means of hypotheses, but by networking trails of evidence. The spirit of the Cambridge Group was very far from that of Marx, but it was about identifying usable archives and devising methods to answer questions that were highly relevant to the ‘hypotheses’ of Marxism.
One of the ‘unexpected revelations’ that has emerged from this apparently apolitical (and extremely productive) new historiography is that ‘the early modern economy and social structures had gone through rapid, convulsive change’. Whatever it was, early modern England was not a peaceful, harmonious commonwealth. The Peasants’ Revolt (1381) and Cade’s Rebellion (1450), we find, were not isolated eruptions, but peaks of endemic conflict. The English Revolution was only the greatest of a vast, enduring series of conflicts in neighbourhoods, localities, districts and provinces. The events of 1381, 1450 and 1649 stood out because only then did the rebels take London, which meant they had Westminster in their sights. While a few studies felt breezes of ‘class antagonism’, even ‘class hatred’, the dominant view that emerged was that ‘the localism of [most] disturbances meant that they were pre class, even pre-politics’.62 The new social history of late medieval and early modern England ‘reveal[ed] the effectiveness of peasant politics within the more restricted scale of [their] communities’, but left completely untouched a deeper consensus that seems to have passed from generation to generation since the age it purports to describe.63
Shared by Marxists, non-Marxists and anti-Marxists alike, it rests on ‘the conviction that peasants were incapable of political thought, unable to comprehend their political situation in terms of their own experience’.64 To Hilton, ‘the ruling ideas of medieval peasants seem to have been the ideas of the rulers of society’. Hobsbawm was slightly more hesitant:
The great danger … is to equate all behaviour as equally ‘rational’. Some of it is. For instance, the behaviour of the good Soldier Schweik, who had been certified as a bona fide half-wit by the military authorities, was anything but half-witted. It was undoubtedly the most effective form of self-defence for someone in his position. Time and again, in studying the political behaviour of peasants, we discover the practical value of stupidity….65
He then suggests ‘that many of these peasants don’t just play at being dense, they really are dense’. The same, of course, can be said of any class or group. Raftis’s judgement on the politics of the 1381 Peasants’ Revolt has general applicability. Like Hilton, he sees ‘no evidence that [English peasants] had acquired a national or political mentality … it was apparently non-peasants who gave the leadership, the volatile tradespeople in Kent, the disaffected clergy in Essex, the politically wise townsmen in London, burgher against abbey at St Albans and Bury St Edmunds’.66
Wood objects to this legend of the blinkered, parochial plebeian. ‘Studies of class formation have long been hampered by modern social historians’ strange obsession with the nation state’, he writes.
Ever since late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century European socialists linked their political project to the transformed national identities of that period, social historians have been mesmerized by that single definition of class-identity. The assumption that ‘true’ class consciousness can be manifest on the level of the nation-state has led historians to find in the closely felt local and regional plebeian identities of the early modern period one of the main barriers to the operations of class.
As he notes, ‘the reductive connection between nation and class’ lay behind Laslett’s influential argument that class consciousness was thus necessarily limited to the only sections of English society that routinely operated on the national stage: the gentry and up.67 More importantly,
the history of modern European working-class political culture has often been the history of regions and localities. Whether historians are describing the insurrectionists of the Paris Commune, the mining communities of the Rhondda valley or the anarchists of Catalonia, class and local identity have in many contexts been historically inseparable.68
And, we may add, the English communes of 1381 and the households and countries of the commonalty from the fifteenth to the eighteenth centuries. To under stand this long revolution we must begin in the communities.
The most fruitful offshoot of twentieth-century Marxism as far as these issues are concerned is the branch that runs from the Italian communist leader Antonio Gramsci (1891– 1937), through E.P. Thompson and Eugene D. Genovese, historian of the North American South and slavery, to the anthropologist James C. Scott. Its prime assumption is that all human beings are necessarily sapient by virtue of being human. Gramsci contrasted this universal intellect with that of ‘the intellectual’, a person who is trained to think in a specific way, be it traditional, as with the clericaleducation of medieval times, or technical, as with modern doctors, engineers, teachers, lawyers and journalists. Gramsci called these the subalterns of the established order. Their job is to know how to do specialized and necessary jobs, like writing in Latin, using and manipulating the law, building a bridge, identifying a disease, teaching a syllabus or, as politicians, conducting affairs of state; the ‘subalterns’ (or ‘junior officers’) of the ruling class are supposed to know and work within the ‘correct’ or authorized intellectual contexts within which such things are, by pre scribed tradition and custom, supposed to be conceived and done. These are the kind of people ruling classes and states train and employ as counsellors and administrators. To understand their politics, we must understand their perceived interests and the contexts within which they understand themselves to be operating.
If ‘politics’ are understood to be the study and practice of relationships of power, and power relationships are seen as intrinsic to all human contexts, it follows that ‘the questions to be asked about peasants by those in pursuit of their politics are the same questions that have often been asked about non-peasants’. This kind of work rubs the magisterial tradition of constitutional history against the grain of a generation of microstudies and theoretical works like that of Scott and Wood, that ‘reveal the effectiveness of peasant politics within the more restricted scale of the communities’. Given that we can now be reasonably certain that peasants routinely engaged in something closely resembling politics within their communities, ‘there are good reasons for regarding the peasants’ provincial politics as, in some respects, an extension of their family and village strategies’.69 This still leaves us marooned in local communities, but it also alerts us to levels of dissent that are deeper and more ubiquitous than well-documented traditions of articulate dissent and collective protest.
Scott sees tactics of obfuscation and dissemblance as universal features of plebeian communities in oppressive constitutional regimes. Direct, articulate opposition results in immediate, brutal punishment. Resistance is veiled, surreptitious, subtle, restrained and resolutely patient. One of the most effective and frustrating ways in which oppressed people can resist the orders of their masters is to pretend to be too stupid to understand them.70 Scott’s theory, very influential recently among social historians of popular politics,71 began with a study that applied Thompson’s idea of ‘the moral economy’ to ‘everyday forms of resistance’ among Malaysian peasants.72 His fieldwork led him to conclude that ‘the process of domination generates a hegemonic public conduct and a backstage discourse consisting of what cannot be spoken in the face of power’.
Scott notes that ‘even close readings of historical and archival evidence tend to favour a hegemonic account of power relations’. Where the British Marxists had adapted an extremely articulate tradition of dissent to the cause of class struggle, Scott identified a ubiquitous ‘lower’ level of dissent and resistance in the form of a ‘theater of the powerless’. This theatre (a metaphor that Thompson had used to characterize eighteenth-century politics) involved ‘rumours, gossip, folktales, songs, gestures, jokes … poaching, foot-dragging, pilfering, dissimulation [and] flight’. In this way Scott implied a culture of resistance in which ‘peasants disguised their efforts to thwart material appropriation of their labour, their production, and their property’. Despite Scott’s understandable reluctance to introduce a new jargon word into the repertoire of the human sciences, the word ‘infrapolitics’ and the notion of ‘hidden transcripts’ are useful hypotheses that remind us that absence of obvious evidence may not mean absence of the thing itself.73
Class-like features are not the only dimensions of the lives of our ancestors that the new social history has disclosed. Much of the best microhistory has been researched and written by scholars who have no Marxist leanings at all.74 They remain relevant to Marx’s hypotheses because his attempt to make holistic sense of the processes by which humanity has transformed and is transforming itself (‘but never in conditions of our own making’), and his passionate belief that we can build a better future out of the accumulating mistakes of the past, still haunts us. In setting about the reconstruction of the history of what the great Annaliste Fernand Braudel (1902–85) called ‘the civilisation of capitalism’, we are already discovering a much richer, more complex and more interconnected vision than the one we inherited. It has more characters, more communities, more variants and more differences than the trail of kings and queens, parliaments, civil societies, nation states and even classes, modes and social relations of production of the old versions. Marx and Marxism are part of those old versions. What we take from them and find useful is up to us.
Writing Early Modern History - Notes and Bibliography:
2. Engels, Friedrich, "The Position of England." Marx, Karl, ed. Engels, Friedrich, ed. "Articles on Britain." Moscow, 1975 9 p. : ‘Social revolution is the only true revolution, to which philosophical and political revolution must lead’.
3. For a useful overview of the theoretical system that emerged after Marx’s death, see ‘Marxism’, in Bottomore, Tom, ed. "A Dictionary of Marxist Thought." Oxford, 1983 pp. 309–12Hobsbawm E.J., ed. "Revolutionaries." London, 1973 provides an exceptionally readable introduction to the scope and theoretical creativity of twentieth-century Marxism. Wheen, Francis, "Karl Marx." London, 1999 is a readable biography.
4. ‘In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the material development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness’: Marx, "A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy." Moscow, 1970 pp. 20–1.
5. ‘The knights of industry … only succeeded in supplanting the knights of the sword by making use of events in which they had played no part whatsoever’: Capital, vol. 1 (1867; Harmondsworth, 1967), p. 875. As Perry Anderson observes, ‘the notion of “bourgeois revolution” that sub sequent Marxists were to apply to them is scarcely to be found as such … in [Marx’s] writings at all … the upheavals ascribed to it are seen in terms of the economic impact of large capitalist industry and the expanding world market, not in terms of a political assault by the bourgeoisie on the Ancien Régimes of the late feudal order’: Anderson, Perry, "English Questions." London, 1992 p. 107.
9. Wrightson, Keith, "Earthly Necessities : Economic Lives in Early Modern Britain." Yale, 2000 pp. 10–13, in which a non-Marxist social historian writes a balanced epitaph of Marx on early modern England.
15. ‘The executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie’: Marx, Karl, Engels, Friedrich, "Manifesto of the Communist Party." Marx, ed. Engels, ed. "Selected Works." Moscow, 1970 37 p.
21. The ‘spectre’ was communism; but ‘the communists … have no interests separate and apart from the proletariat as a whole’; their theory was ‘abolition of private property’: Marx, Engels, "Manifesto." pp. 35, 46–7
22. Wrigley E.A., Schofield R.S., "The Population History of England, 1541–1871 : A Reconstruction." London, 1981 ; see also the classic line of microhistories, from Wrightson, Keith, Levine, David, "Poverty and Piety in an English Village : Terling, 1525–1700." New York, 1979 to Sharpe, Pamela, "Population and Society : Reproducing Colyton, 1540-1840." Exeter, 2002
23. Eric R. Wolf, "Europe and the People Without History." Berkeley Los Angeles, 1982 is an outstanding and readable Marxist account of the historical process, dynamics and global expansion of the capitalist world-system; Linebaugh, Peter, Rediker, Marcus, "The Many Headed Hydra : Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic." Boston, 2000
24. David Levine, At the Dawn of Modernity: Biology, Culture, and Material Life in Europe After the Year 1000 (Berkeley, 2001) and Levine, David, "Industrialization and the Proletarian Family in England." "Past & Present." 107 1985 168–203 pp.
26. Levine, "Dawn of Modernity." pp. 384–400Fryde E.B., "Peasants and Landlords in Later Medieval England." Stroud, 1996 ; and, for example, Poos L.R., "A Rural Society after the Black Death : Essex, 1350–1525." Cambridge, 1991 Britnell R.H., "Growth and Decline in Colchester, 1300–1525." Cambridge, 1986
39. Hilton R.H., ed. "The Transition from Feudalism to Capitalism." London, 1976 Aston T.H., ed. Philpin C.H.E., ed. "The Brenner Debate : Agrarian Class Structure and Economic Development in Pre-industrial Europe." Cambridge, 1985 Brenner, Robert, ed. "Merchants and Revolution : Commercial Change, Political Conflict and London’s Overseas Traders, 1550–1653." Princeton, 1993
40. Hill, Christopher, "A Bourgeois Revolution’ and Lawrence Stone, ‘The Bourgeois Revolution Revisited." Pocock J.G.A., ed. "Three British Revolutions." Princeton, 1980 . The best general critique of Marxist and marxisant approaches to ‘Hill’s century’ is MacLachlan, Alastair, "The Rise and Fall of Revolutionary England : An Essay on the Fabrication of Seventeenth-Century History." London, 1996 ; MacLachlan’s references (pp. 326–419) cover all angles of the controversy and testify to just how much controversy there was.
42. Thompson E.P., "Patrician Society." "Journal of Social History." 7 4 1974 "Eighteenth-Century English Society." "Social History." 3 2 1978 382–405 pp. ; Thompson, Customs in Common: Studies in Traditional Popular Culture (London, 1991), chs 1 and 2.
48. Hindle, Steve, "The State and Social Change in Early Modern England." Basingstoke, 2000 pp. ix–x, stresses ‘the role played by relatively humble people in governing late sixteenth- and early seventeenth century England’, and ‘emphasizes the extent to which state authority required co-operation at the local level’. Existing orthodoxies of political and constitutional history, he writes, ‘grossly underestimated the breadth and depth of the political nation’.
55. Thompson further described some of these ‘alternative intellectual traditions’, contrasted them with ‘the formal, classical intellectual culture’, and again stressed the importance in these traditions of ‘experience’, in Witness Against the Beast: William Blake and the Moral Law Cambridge 1993 pp. xiv–xv and passim.
56. Wood, Andy, "The Politics of Social Conflict : The Peak Country, 1520–1770." Cambridge, 1999 pp. 322–4; ‘Early modern plebs had been quite capable of conceiving of society in terms of stark class polarities. Class was not made in the Industrial Revolution: but it was given a different expression’, p. 318.
59. Jones, Gareth Stedman, ed. "Languages of Class : Studies in Working Class History." Cambridge, 1983 started the ball rolling; Joyce, Patrick, ed. "Class." Oxford, 1995 includes many readings; the centre of the storm in the 1990s was the journal Social History; see also Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx, trans. Peggy Kamuf (London, 1994).
74. Duffy, Eamon, "The Stripping of the Altars : Traditional Religion in England, c.1400–c.1580." New Haven, 1992 Duffy, Eamon, "The Voices of Morebath : Reformation and Rebellion in an English Village." London, 2001 are outstanding examples.