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The London Revolution 1640-1643
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“Feisty, fearless and fascinating: this book spotlights London’s revolutionary upheavals at the start of Britain’s seventeenth-century Civil War; it shows how London’s revolutionary role has been too often downplayed; and it explains its long-term significance for later generations. Michael Sturza will provoke many debates – and a good thing too!”
— Penelope J. Corfield, Emeritus Prof. London University; Fellow of the Royal Historical Society (UK); and President of the International Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies
Nominated for the Deutscher Memorial Prize.
The London Revolution 1640 – 1643: Class Struggles in 17th Century England chronicles England’s history through the revolution in 1641 – 1642, which toppled the feudal political system, and its aftermath. It explores how the growing capitalist economy fundamentally conflicted with decaying feudal society, causing tensions and dislocations that affected all social classes in the early modern period. In contrast with most other works, this book posits that the fundamental driving force of the revolution was the militant Puritan movement supported by the class of petty-bourgeois artisan craftworkers, instead of the moderate gentry in the House of Commons.
The London Revolution 1640 – 1643 further traces the detrimental effects of the political alliance between the free-trade Atlantic merchants and the gentry for the revolution. Despite the conservative and contradictory nature of the English bourgeois revolution, the experience in London is the original source for democratic ideas that were codified in the 1689 Bill of Rights and the U.S. Bill of Rights a century later.
Taken in its entirety, The London Revolution 1640 – 1643 refutes the virulent attacks on Marxist social class analysis spearheaded by revisionist historians who would rather write the concept of revolution out of history.
Peer Reviewed By
Penelope J. Corfield, Fellow of the Royal Historical Society (UK); and President of the International Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies
Feisty, fearless and fascinating: this book spotlights London’s revolutionary upheavals at the start of Britain’s seventeenth-century Civil War; it shows how London’s revolutionary role has been too often downplayed; and it explains its long-term significance for later generations. Michael Sturza will provoke many debates – and a good thing too!
Marvin Surkin, specialist in comparative urban politics and social change and co-author of Detroit: I Do Mind Dying
Michael Sturza brings The London Revolution 1640-1643 to life in a fresh summary. He has crafted a welcome tonic for tough times; a refresher course drumming up heady reminders of our revolutionary heritage. On reading The London Revolution one is reminded of the complexities of social change and the essential role of class struggle, organization and strategy. 17th century England has much to teach us relevant to the 21st century. Sturza is a vital addition to the canon. An excellent reader for students and the general public alike.
Burton Lee Artz, director of the Center for Global Studies at Purdue University Northwest
A richly detailed and documented contribution! Michael Sturza not only refutes the recent attempts by conservative revisionist historians to deny that popular classes make social change, but provides significant evidence of how organized and militant social forces of gentry, artisans, Puritans, and the urban middle classes played a decisive role in the end of British feudalism. Beyond recounting the revolution of 1640, Sturza demonstrates the value and efficacy of historical materialism for understanding the economic, political, and cultural dimensions of social change and revolution.
Tim Harris, editor of Studies in Early Modern Cultural, Political and Social History series and The European Legacy journal
The London Revolution 1640-1643 is a passionate restatement of the Marxist bourgeois revolution thesis. It is a work of synthesis rather than original research, drawing on classic studies by Christopher Hill, Brian Manning, Valerie Pearl, and Robert Brenner, as well as more recent scholarship. Sturza admits that, as a non-academic, he did not have access to all the relevant materials, and he tends to argue by quoting historians rather drawing on the primary sources. What he offers is thus “essentially an elaborated outline”, as he puts it, which would need to be fleshed out and refined by further research. (p. xviii.) The strength of this book lies in the connections Sturza seeks to draw between the longer-term structural problems facing the Stuart monarchy, ongoing economic transformations (especially the rise of the Atlantic economy), and political dynamics in London, in order to explain how certain groups – the free-trade Atlantic merchants, Puritan gentry, City elite, and London middling and lower sorts – came to be radicalized on the eve of the English civil war. Dealing with high and low politics (Sturza has much to say about the activities of the London crowd), as well as economic and religious issues, The London Revolution operates on a number of analytical and interpretive levels. Written in an engaging though provocative style – Sturza makes no secret of his dislike of Revisionism – the aim is to stimulate debate. Doubtless not all will agree with Sturza’s conclusions. Some might feel his arguments could have been pushed further with deeper research. Yet the questions Sturza raises are important ones for historians to grapple with, and his study certainly serves to remind us just how revolutionary the English revolution was and that it was – at least in part – a class struggle.
Robert Ovetz, editor of Workers' Inquiry and Global Class Struggle: Strategies, Tactics, Objectives and author of When Workers Shot Back: Class Conflict from 1877 to 1921
The London Revolution opens critically important new ground for understanding the English Revolution as a bottom up bourgeois revolution. Sturza picks up where Christopher Hill left off.
Michael Roberts, author of The Great Recession – a Marxist view; The Long Depression; Marx 200: a review of Marx’s economics; and co-editor of World in Crisis
Michael Sturza’s book is an important contribution to correcting the distortions of modern historians about the nature of the English Civil War of 1641-49. Sturza concentrates on the events and movements in England’s capital, London, and delivers a compelling analysis from a Marxist perspective.
While previous socialist historians such as Christopher Hill and Richard Tawney made pioneering studies of the Civil War and its causes, they tended to be somewhat schematic. Sturza instead drills down further to expose the complexities of the various strata in London from a Marxist view of class struggle.
The English civil war has often been considered as a religious war between the official church with its conservative and Catholic leanings promoted by the feudal aristocracy, and the radical Puritanism of the middle and lower orders of the gentry. But Sturza in his analysis of the economic changes in London shows that feudalism was already being superseded by capitalist economic relations. London had become the centre of an alliance between the gentry and a rapidly developing capitalist class, acting in concert for social revolution in London and across England. Sturza reveals the contradictions of the class struggle in London during the Civil War: between the reforming gentry in the House of Commons and the free-trading bourgeois Atlantic-oriented merchants. Capitalism had already started to emerge in the English economy decades before and the Civil War became necessary so that the emerging bourgeois class, dominant in London in particular, could gain state power. Sturza’s book shows how those class forces played out in the capital of the English revolution.
Steve Keen, recipient of the Revere Award from RWER, co-author of "The Incoherent Emperor: A Heterodox Critique of Neoclassical Microeconomic Theory", and author of Debunking Economics
No-one doubts the French Revolution, but the English Revolution remains contentious. Sturza shows that, though the English was as messy as the Guillotine was precise, capitalism’s rise resulted in feudalism’s beheading in the tumultuous days of the 1640s.
Joseph Varga, president of the Working Class Studies Association
There is no more important question for historians and social theorists than determining the driving force behind modern social change. Michael Sturza’s delightful and concise work, The London Revolution, delivers a resounding answer regarding the roots of the English Glorious Revolution. His insightful examination of the various histories of the crucial period 1640-43 puts to rest once and for all the “outlandish and frivolous” theories that discount and downplay the role of class conflict and class cooperation, and shows definitively that class was the driving force setting the stage for 1689. Sturza’s deft and comprehensive study of the post-war historiography of the events in London between 1640-43 demonstrates conclusively that the events of that period were a class-driven revolution that “shattered the fabulously wealthy oligarchs” of London, and brought an end to the feudal order. This is gripping history, fast-paced, well-written, and solidly based in theory and evidence.
Alan Wallis, reviewer for Marx and Philosophy Review of Books
The London Revolution 1640-1643, though not derived from any new primary sources, offers a fresh and well-documented perspective on existing scholarship, bringing its portrait of the English Revolution sharply to life. While its overview of historical events in England in the 1640s is accessible enough to be informative even to the uninitiated, its fight for a historical-materialist conception of the revolution makes the book far more than just a summary. It will be useful to many historians because it illuminates the fundamental political and class character of a revolution whose stated objectives were largely religious, but whose real aims and consequences were far more profound, and would soon accelerate the rise of the British Empire. As Leon Trotsky put it almost 300 years later, commenting on the execution of king Charles I, ‘[t]he axe of revolution was bizarrely intertwined with psalms. But the axe was more persuasive.’ Trotsky, and also Marx and Engels, discussed the English Revolution in some depth, emphasizing its continued importance to class struggle in Britain in their own respective eras. Sturza’s book builds on these previous contributions by revolutionary Marxists, but also examines various different ideological currents within today’s world of academic scholarship, with a polemical historiography that comes more or less up to the present day.
The point of departure of The London Revolution 1640-1643, unlike most other writings on the English Revolution, is that the English Revolution was driven by petty-bourgeois artisans under militant Puritan leadership, rather than the moderate gentry in the House of Commons, as is usually claimed by historians who deny or ignore the importance of leadership in carrying out any successful revolution. Sturza illustrates how the protests and street battles in the early 1640s foreshadowed the Civil War, which many historians have presented as a somehow inexplicable bolt from out of the blue. Sturza quotes David Underdown’s appraisal of these historians: ‘the earlier revisionists were able to depict a political nation that until 1640 was almost universally deferential and harmonious, and then suddenly exploded in rebellion. We might perhaps call this the big bang theory of the Civil War.’ (xiii)
Sturza’s polemic against the Revisionists is firmly rooted not only in quotes from historians of other tendencies, but also in quotes from the Revisionists themselves, one of whom acknowledges the relevance of questions raised by the Revolution even today: ‘We are all at heart either Royalists or Roundheads.’ (iii) Another, John Morrill, admits in ‘Revisionism’s Wounded Legacies’ that he was once congratulated by a sarcastic colleague for ‘explaining why no civil war broke out in England in 1642.’ (x) Revisionism, Morrill explains many years later, seemingly after having abandoned it, was ‘a revolt against materialist or determinist histories and historiographies […] a rejection of the social history of politics, but also a rejection of the relevance of social change.’ (ix) Sturza explains that Revisionism was an academic expression of capitalism’s push to take back what the working class had just won through the struggles of the 1960s and earlier, and this push by the ruling class gathered more steam in the age of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. More specifically, Sturza says, Revisionism’s mission in the field of research on the English Revolution appears to have been largely to counter the influence of Christopher Hill, whose acclaimed early book, The English Revolution 1640, had led most scholars, after its publication in 1940, to present the revolution as a struggle between social classes, rather than as an aberration born out of religious fanaticism, as their predecessors had claimed.
Sturza does not limit the scope of his polemical attacks to low-hanging fruit like the Revisionists, however, and he even targets Christopher Hill himself, though only after acknowledging a debt to this renowned historian, whom he quotes extensively throughout the book: ‘All attempts to study this period must begin with Hill’s work,’ Sturza says, but then notes that Hill was a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain from 1935 to 1957, when, under Stalin’s disastrous mis-leadership, it embraced the strategy of the popular front, supporting a liberal capitalist government in Spain instead of calling for revolutionary struggle against it. George Orwell, a British veteran of a POUM militia who was wounded in a battle against Franco’s forces, explained:
It is nonsense to talk of opposing Fascism by bourgeois “democracy”. Bourgeois “democracy” is only another name for capitalism, and so is Fascism; to fight against Fascism on behalf of “democracy” is to fight against one form of capitalism on behalf of a second which is liable to turn into the first at any moment. (Orwell 1954: 60)
This ‘nonsense,’ which paved the way for Franco’s eventual victory, was endorsed and promoted by the Stalinist communist party to which Christopher Hill belonged, which, Sturza argues, inevitably pushed Hill in a conservative direction, leading his portrayals of the seventeenth century’s English Revolution to sometimes drift toward an emphasis on the role of Parliament, rather than the revolutionary leadership that seized power in London, leading to the English Civil War. Part of Sturza’s argument is his description of the ‘bourgeois vanguard of the English Revolution’ (76):
The new Atlantic merchants, arrivistes from the middling class, wasted no time in seeking their fortunes, and making alliances with Puritan holy men and aristocrats. As open opposition to Charles’ reign grew, they were increasingly in the forefront, the most dedicated supporters and influencers of the House of Commons, boldly transgressing feudal social and political relations. Their vanguard role in commerce and military adventures abroad, and politics and religion at home, provided the English Revolution with the bourgeois leadership which Christopher Hill appears to have had such trouble identifying. (200)
This portrayal of the class of people who led the revolution is supported with many concrete examples that reveal the interplay between economics, religion and class struggle, clarifying that at the time of the revolution, feudal society had become, in the words of the Communist Manifesto, ‘so many fetters’ on the already developed productive forces. Sturza’s discussion of the monarchy’s interference in the economy ‘to arrest the destabilizing growth of capitalism’ (62) notes that Charles I prohibited the use of windmills for sawing wood! (63) This ban, enacted in 1635, was part of a more general scheme of assigning hundreds of monopolies by royal decree, governing who would produce everything from bricks to vinegar to gunpowder. These monopolies were handed out with little or no regard for any individual aristocrat’s aptitude or ability to out-compete with other manufacturers. Sturza explains: ‘Monopolies retarded production, inflated prices to consumers and wage workers, and provided only a minimum of funds to the government. These feudal patents drove already existing small craftsmen out of business to the benefit of upper class gentlemen.’ (113)
These economic constraints were enabled, supported and promoted by the Church of England, and one of the most powerful features of Sturza’s book is its success at illustrating this dialectical interplay between economics and culture, and how the economic struggle against feudalism in England was inseparable from the ideological struggle against elements within English Protestantism that tended toward reconciliation with Catholicism. In other words, Sturza’s treatment of the religious dimension of the English Revolution reads somewhat like a British corollary to what Engels wrote in Socialism: Utopian and Scientific:
But the great international centre of feudalism was the Roman Catholic Church. It united the whole of feudalized Western Europe, in spite of all internal wars, into one grand political system, opposed as much to the schismatic Greeks as to the Mohammedan countries. It had organized its own hierarchy on the feudal model, and, lastly, it was itself by far the most powerful feudal lord, holding, as it did, fully 1/3rd of the soil of the Catholic world. Before profane feudalism could be successfully attacked in each country and in detail, this, its sacred central organization, had to be destroyed. (Engels 1892)
Charles I was married to a Catholic queen, and pushed England in a less staunchly Protestant direction than what was demanded by the Puritans. In 1640, in the midst of deepening political crisis, he ordered that every church preach the divine right of kings four times a year (77). Sturza’s exploration of the struggle against feudalism goes deeper, illuminating the great ideological utility of the Protestant work ethic for the fledgling bourgeoisie:
This individualistic theology was an outgrowth of early capitalist economic activity. Free choice in religion flowed from free industry and free trade. It was by design perfectly suited to the transformation of servile peasants into wage workers, ‘free’ to be exploited by any employer who would have them, that capitalism requires. (25)
‘Ambitiously,’ Sturza adds, ‘[the Puritans] proclaimed that it was better to increase one’s knowledge and worth “to be ready for every man’s service.” This contrasted with the Catholic view that work was punishment for sin.’ (26)
Sturza is also careful to warn, however, that there were clear limits to how much the bourgeoisie’s struggle for freedom could liberate the rest of humanity, and to the ultimate outcome of the Puritan struggle against the Catholic Church. In the US, which was founded by Puritan colonists seeking religious freedom, anti-Catholic bigotry would one day come into frequent use for persecution of various immigrant groups. As Sturza notes in his conclusion, ‘[t]he virulent antipathy to Catholicism by Puritans and active Protestants of all stripes must not be seen as equivalent to the dead end inter-ethnic and religious wars so prevalent in our contemporary, decaying era, particularly since the collapse of the Soviet Union.’ (201) He also notes that the English Revolution, unlike the French Revolution about 140 years later, did not include a revolutionary terror, and so, though it led to the Industrial Revolution and to the British Empire dominating a large part of the globe for a while, it also permitted the restoration of the monarchy. Charles II had Oliver Cromwell posthumously executed, and his head mounted on a pike for decades to come!
In other words, this portrait of a revolution allows the reader to connect the English Revolution with more recent ones, and also to the present day and to the class struggles just over the horizon. As Henry Heller says in The Birth of Capitalism, ‘[t]he responsibility of the historian is to elicit as well as possible what concrete and determinate lines of causation contributed to the emergence of capitalism.’ (Heller 2011: 3) Sturza’s new look at the world’s first bourgeois revolution and its historiography has accomplished this task in a way that will make it enjoyable and useful to an impressively wide range of different readers.
25 February 2022
- 1892 1892 English Edition Introduction [History (the role of Religion) in the English middle-class] Socialism: Utopian and Scientific https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1880/soc-utop/int-hist.htm
- 2011 The Birth of Capitalism (London: Pluto Press).
- 1954 Homage to Catalonia (San Diego, CA: Harcourt).
Andrew Hartman, author of A War for the Soul of America: A History of the Culture Wars, and Karl Marx in America
In a refreshingly polemical call to arms for Marxist historiography, Michael Sturza convincingly argues that mid-seventeenth century class struggle in London decisively shaped the English Revolution. Whereas various Whiggish and right-wing revisionist historians have focused on the role of so-called great men, or have concentrated on religious conflict in a vacuum, often for explicitly anti-Marxist reasons, The London Revolution shows that Marx was right. Class struggle is the dynamic force of history. Only through the prism of class struggle can we correctly understand the great historical transformation from feudalism to capitalism that first took place in England and that reshaped the world.
Jemahl Evans, reviewer at The Historian Circle
It is over thirty years since I sat in a cold lecture hall as a schoolboy, and listened to Christopher Hill deliver a lecture on the English Revolution as a guest speaker. Despite Hill’s stellar reputation, Marxism was unsurprisingly frowned upon as an ideology at my small public school (public schools are very old private schools in the UK for any international readers), an attitude I was acutely aware of as a scholarship boy from a coal mining family during the Miners Strike. It was the mid 1980s and greed was good; Marx was out and Hayek was in. The currents of historical thought were drifting away from the grand old man as Reganomics shattered the post-war settlement in the UK and US.
Michael Sturza’s The London Revolution, 1640-43: Class Struggles in Seventeenth Century England, seeks to redress that right-wing revisionism of the 70s and 80s, and emphasise the English Revolution’s roots in the artisan, bourgeoisie, classes that forced a conflict with the fading feudal state. Sturza targets the post-1960s revisionists with a laser-like focus and is caustic in his mostly valid criticism. The early chapters give a well written outline of the background to the conflict and the short and long-term sociological changes that sparked the revolution, whilst addressing the emergence of Marxist thought in historiography in post-WW2 academia, its failings, and the revisionism that followed.
The central premise that the revolution was driven from below, particularly in London, by artisans, tradesmen, and apprentices, allied with the puritan movement, is intriguing but not wholly convincing and certainly not new. Whilst I found little to disagree with in the analysis, there was a feeling that Pym and Hampden were being reduced to a Kerensky or Lafayette, and the agency of the House of Commons a mere sideshow compared to the power of macro-historical processes. The crossover between the Commons and the Puritan movement meant that the early leaders of the revolution in Westminster were very much a part of the revolutionary discourse. This is mostly downplayed, but not ignored by Sturza, in favour of class conflict as the prime mover in London.
Sturza’s work obviously owes a great deal to Christopher Hill et al, but this is not a mere rehashing of Hill’s ideas and conclusions. It is very much a modern study and Hill’s own political positions in the cold war divisions are addressed and challenged as well as the right-wing revisionists. Sturza does not shy away from smashing the idols of left wing history in his polemic. He lays out a coherent and articulate reassertion of an English Revolution driven by class conflict, caused by the rise of capital in a failing feudal system. London is recognised as the engine of the revolution, and the difference in social and political development, particularly after the reformation, well demonstrated.
Nevertheless, it is the conservative histories and right wing historians that are Sturza’s main target. In a sense, he perhaps goes too far here. The limitations of a purely right wing approach to the period were apparent even at the height of ‘end of history’ political revisionism and the triumph of neoliberal orthodoxy. However, there were still valid insights about the personal and individual, and as Sturza acknowledges, in local research that all builds our understanding of the period.
By the end I was struck most by E.H Carr’s assertion that we as historians, and our histories, are products of our own times as much as constructs of the past. Sturza’s work, whilst relying heavily on the research of the 1960s marxists, is part of the 2008 post financial crash environment, and fits with a growing trend of reappraising left wing historiography since that shock to the modern capitalist system. The London Revolution sits comfortably alongside works like Pickety’s Capital in the 21st Century in that respect, although much less voluminous. This in itself is no surprise, as the neoliberal orthodoxy crumbled after 2008, genuine reappraisals of left wing ideas in history, economics, and sociology were inevitable and welcome.
Sturza’s The London Revolution, 1640-43: Class Struggles in Seventeenth Century England is available from the Mad Duck Coalition. It is vital reading for any student of the period, giving a valid and often overlooked approach a fresh perspective that is both interesting and challenging, but also accessible enough to anyone with a general interest in the period.
Andrew Stone, reviewer at rs21: revolutionary socialism in the 21st century
London may not have the same revolutionary reputation of Paris or St Petersburg, but in this new account of the outbreak of the English Civil Wars, The London Revolution, Michael Sturza reminds us of its radical heritage. Those deluging us with myths about uncritical British deference to the monarchy in this Jubilee year should remember that in 1649 these battles between King and Parliament concluded with King Charles I’s trial and decapitation.
Retrieving the English Revolution from under the detritus of revisionist historiography, Sturza provides a convincing Marxist polemic underscored by a confident grasp of detail. His starting point is to acknowledge a debt to Christopher Hill, whose pioneering 1940 work The English Revolution 1640 initially established the case for the conflict as one between social classes, as opposed to one based primarily on religion – though it was often articulated by its protagonists in those terms. He argued that this was a bourgeois revolution, one led by a progressive section of the gentry (the landowning class below the nobility) against the reactionary feudal legacy that dominated the court and neutered parliament (which in the early modern period played a largely secondary and sometimes infrequent legislative role, and could be dismissed at the monarch’s pleasure, as it was by Charles between 1629 and 1640).
While Hill was right to give primacy to social and economic causes, Sturza argues, he found it hard to defend this version of it. Revisionists were able to point to a large swathe of the gentry who supported Charles and his pretensions to an absolutist version of monarchy. This was far beyond the ‘feudal remnants’ that Hill, inspired by RH Tawney, saw as the exceptions to a general trend. Indeed, if they had been so inconsequential then the civil wars would have been very short-lived.
As a result of such critiques, Hill began to retreat towards a much less strident view, arguing by 1980 that “the phrase [bourgeois revolution] in Marxist usage does not mean a revolution made by or consciously willed by the bourgeoisie…”[i] He maintained instead somewhat vaguely that social contradictions led to a breakdown of the old society that ultimately the bourgeoisie were the beneficiaries of. That it was a bourgeois revolution in its results, if not its agency.
Sturza follows a slightly later generation of Marxists, including Perry Anderson and Brian Manning, in seeking to refocus Hill’s initial insights. Firstly, Sturza argues that to find the revolutionary bourgeoisie we must be less fixated on the landed gentry who, even in their more radical aspects, represented a contradictory social position. Instead, we should be more aware of the leading role of the free-trading bourgeois Atlantic merchants, among whom parliamentary leaders John Pym and John Hampden were two notables. One of their foremost complaints was the stifling of their exploits by royal-sanctioned monopolies. For example, the Duke of Buckingham, James I’s lover and his son’s leading courtier, was one beneficiary of this system, and was assassinated to widespread popular acclaim in 1628.
Secondly, Sturza shows that this capitalistic Puritan leadership required mass participation from below – that ‘petty bourgeois artisan craftworkers, shopkeepers, early manufacturers, domestic traders and mariners…provided the horsepower of the revolution.’(xv) So while he certainly doesn’t ignore the manoeuvres of parliament (which Charles was forced to recall after twice provoking war with his Scottish kingdom while trying to assert religious uniformity) Sturza sees it as a site of conflict profoundly affected by the political and physical battles being waged on London’s streets.
A short review cannot do justice to the narrative of this developing street movement, but some key features are particularly worthy of note. For one, the breakdown of censorship in spring 1640 was both the result of and quickened the popular movement against absolutism and episcopacy (rule by bishops). Historians are lucky to have extensive archives of the explosion of pamphlets produced as a result, which provide ample evidence of the audience for a radical rethinking of society.
This radical literature fed into the growth of petitioning, not as a tame alternative to confrontational protests, as they can sometimes be today, but as a complement to it. Collecting signatures involved street meetings and political arguments, often from far beyond the official ‘political nation’ of the roughly 25% of adult men entitled to vote. Presenting them was generally a rowdy and intimidating affair, with large crowds of apprentices to the forefront. Women also began to take a visible and active role. Part of the outrage felt by the Royalists at John Pym’s Grand Remonstrance, a manifesto of complaints and demands narrowly passed in the Commons in November 1641, was that it was published for ‘the mob’ to read, the perceived insult of which occasioned the last time that swords were drawn in parliament.
What is often missed in orthodox accounts of the unfolding of the civil wars is the level of mobilisation that followed in what Sturza calls ‘the December days’. This was when Charles appointed a violent reactionary, Colonel Thomas Lunsford, as Lieutenant of the Tower of London and gathered armed men at Whitehall and Westminster Abbey. In response the streets were filled with armed citizens, parliamentary leaders were protected from the King’s attempt to arrest them, the gates of the city were closed, and a Committee of Public Safety elected.
Sturza carefully delineates the tensions at the heart of the parliamentary alliance, and the methods used by Pym and other leaders to keep both conciliators, such as the Earl of Essex, and radical popular forces on board. He recognises that there was a degree of alternative leadership ‘from below’, though readers would benefit from consulting The Leveller Revolution by John Rees to explore this further. While it is certainly true that this democratic movement only fully crystallised in the New Model Army created by parliament in 1645 to win the civil war, Rees adds depth to our understanding of the extent to which the radical networks were built within the civilian movement in the preceding years.
While The London Revolution is a work of synthesis rather than original research, it is one of the most impressive and readable exemplars of its kind in recent years. It provides an accessible introduction to the interested general reader, while its historiographical polemic poses difficult questions for revisionist academics set on denying the social roots and processes of the English revolution.
[i] Christopher Hill, ‘A Bourgeois Revolution?’ in Three British Revolutions:1641, 1688, 1766, ed JGA Pocock (Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1980), 110.
Dominic Alexander, Book Reviewer at Counterfire and Author of The Limits of Keynesianism and Trotsky in the Bronze Age
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.
Published : March 30, 2022
Pages : 256
Complexity : Above Average
ISBN : 978-1-956389-03-6 / 978-1-956389-04-3 / 978-1-956389-05-0
BISAC : POL010000 / HIS015040 / HIS031000
LCCN : 2021946942
Size : US Trade (6×9)