Wednesday, December 21, 2011

An emergence of freedom

Victor Kiernan

Century of Revolution

The Century of Revolution 1603—1714, by Christopher Hill: Nelson, 1961. 25s.

the volume is the fifth in a series by different experts on English history, and wears the modest guise of a book for sixth forms and first-year college classes. As such it needs scarcely anything to make it perfect, except intelligence and curiosity among readers in these walks of life. The type is large and clear. There is a set of excellent illustrations, and a helpful classified reading-list. A good deal of humour, and a strong sense of the dramatic in history, blow away any dry-as-dust flavour that may hang about the notion of a text-book. But a survey of the whole 17th century (of his 17th century, it is a temptation to say) by Christopher Hill is bound to be a good deal more than even an ideal book for the classroom. It will come still more as a blessing to the general reader interested in knowing how modern England, with all its oddities good and bad, has evolved. No scholar could have written a more lucid or penetrating study of this crowded and chaotic epoch.

How to prune and arrange the vast bulk of what is known, so as to combine fact with comment and interpretation, is the first problem in any general work of history. The plan followed here has many advantages. It breaks the period up into its four natural divisions: 1603–40 (growth of opposition to the monarchy), 1640–60 (civil war and republic), 1660–88 (restoration of the monarchy in a cut-down form), 1688–1713 (full establishment of parliamentary control over it). Each section opens with a brief, bare narrative, to refresh the reader’s memory; then follow discussions of the three main spheres of national life in turn—economic, political and constitutional, religious and cultural. Supplementary tables of dates, and also of wages and price-movements, help to make up for the brevity of the narrative. In little more than three hundred pages Hill’s talent for making the important things stand out, with the greatest economy of detail, enables him to cover an astonishing range of topics. So much is brought in that it would be ungrateful to complain of anything being left out; of the military side of the civil wars, for instance, not getting much of a look-in. Music and herrings, Dryden and Dissent, all find room, and not as mere odds and ends thrown into a rag-bag. Their relative positions and interactions are pointed out, or at least stimulatingly suggested. For a good specimen of this fitting together of complicated jigsaw puzzles the reader may turn to the account in Part 3 of the effects of the Restoration in 1660 on life and literature, industry and science, politics and political philosophy. Few will read the book without gaining from it a stronger feeling of the wholeness of life, of the fact that politics, painting, and potatoes all belong to one world. In our age when specialisation is shutting us up into smaller and smaller compartments, this is a very tangible service for a historian to perform. Marxists will hail the book as a vindication of their method. All historians ought to welcome it as a vindication of their subject, struggling nowadays to hang on to its small place in the educational timetable in competition with book-keeping or electronics.

In 17th century England there was, above all, an emergence of freedom. Hill’s great concern from first to last is to show realistically what this much-used and misused word means in that age. English freedom then was spacious for those who shared in it, but it was shared by very few. It gave the majority nothing, except the incentive to try and broaden it by democratic movements, whose work even now is only half finished. In constitutional terms it meant the rise of Parliament, a Parliament elected by only a handful of voters, to supremacy over the Crown. This happened when in most other countries representative institutions were decaying or being suppressed by allpowerful monarchies. On the economic side the coming of freedom meant the rise of a system which we have known since Karl Marx’s day as capitalism, though Wall Street would prefer us to call it “free enterprise”. By 1700 this system of production was in the ascendant in England; whereas in England in 1600, as in most of Europe till much later and in most of Asia till today or yesterday, economic life was still fixed in the much older, traditional grooves that the Marxist refers to as “feudal”. Both politically and economically the freedom achieved in 17th century England was the right of the property-owning classes to do as they pleased, without interference from any power above them. After overthrowing Charles I in the civil war they abolished the feudal land-laws which allowed the Crown to fleece the landowner; they kept intact the feudal laws which allowed the landowner to fleece the peasant.

On the religious issues that intertwine with all others in the 17th century Hill is particularly an authority. He has long been a keen and subtle advocate of the view that Calvinist theology helped to inspire the capitalist spirit, and the progress away from mediaeval stagnation which this made possible. There is occasionally a risk here of losing sight of the broad, basic fact that what started the liberation of the human mind and human society was Protestantism as a whole: the break-away of half Europe, by whatever precise theological pathways, from the stupefying inertia of Catholic incense and saint-worship and priestly domination. To the founders of Marxism the starting-point of the grand revolution that separates modern from mediaeval was the Reformation. Hill’s treatment of constitutional matters too carries conviction nearly all the time. A simple point that might have been included among the causes of the opposition to the first Stuarts is that they were foreigners. The Tudors, who were their own public-relations officers, had always rubbed it into the public that they were English born and bred. People always grumble more at their government when it is in the hands of outsiders. The only attempt at revolution in three centuries of Spanish history was touched off by the advent in 1518 of a foreign king surrounded by foreign favourites. One reason why Parliament came out on top in modern England was that this country (unlike France) was blessed at various times with foreign monarchs, whose outlandishness made them unpopular or ineffective.

In the economic sphere Hill may seem now and then by comparison to move a little less sure-footedly. This is partly due to the many gaps in the evidence that has survived, all the more regrettable because for a Marxist historian like him economic facts are the fundamental ones. How far if at all it is due to uncertainties of interpretation will be a question of special interest for the eagerest of all his readers, those who share his belief in the Marxist theory of history and have followed the many contributions that he has made to it in his previous studies.

His framework or scaffolding was first put together a good many years ago in his long essay on The English Revolution. That essay was an epoch-making one in its field, and it fitted so many of the facts so convincingly that its ideas can fairly be taken as in a good measure true. It was a pioneer work however, and under close scrutiny, by the test of its own theories and rules, it reveals in a good many places some degree of inconsistency, or blurring of lines, or unconscious substitution of one piece on the chessboard for another. In a work of the character of the present book there is naturally no room for technical discussion of Marxist problems, and some of the difficulties are unavoidably left on one side. To take an example, Marxists including Hill have drawn a sharp—probably a good deal too sharp—distinction between “merchant capital” and “industrial (or productive) capital”, and insisted that only the second of these, which comes later in history, is a dynamic force capable of revolutionising society and taking over political power. In practice the essay failed to keep the two things as distinct as they were supposed to be in theory; and the book is open to the same objection, for it ends with the great merchants of London in control of both the national economy and the State.

Non-Marxist historians have treated the civil war of 1642–49 as a religious conflict, or as a struggle between opposing political ideals. Hill sees it as a “bourgeois revolution”, like the great French Revolution of 1789: that is, an overthrow by capitalism of a pre-capitalist economy and ruling class. In a nutshell his argument is this. Tudor and early Stuart England was governed by a form of absolute monarchy, on behalf of a class of landlords who skimmed the cream off an economy and a society still essentially (in the broad Marxist sense) feudal. Inside this set-up a new mode of production, capitalism, was taking shape, and along with it new social classes and interests. As time went on the further expansion of these capitalist interests was increasingly hampered by the still feudal and now obsolete structure of administration and law. Eventually the new forces exploded, blew the old order to pieces, and proceeded to build a new one suited to their own requirements. Both wings of the property-owning minority then joined hands against the dissatisfied common people, and compromised by restoring the monarchy; but when the monarchy tried to turn the clock back too far they expelled James II and inaugurated a definitely capitalist order which set England free to expand in wealth, and march towards world power. This whole transformation was painful, but “progressive” and good in the long run because capitalism was then the only force capable of developing technique, enlarging national production, and eluding the mass unemployment of Tudor days.

Not all economic historians might agree that industrial activity was either so big before 1640, or so much bigger after 1640, as Hill believes. But leaving this aside, it is vital to his case to be able to show that the obstacles put in the way of economic development by the old government were serious enough to require a revolution to sweep them away. His original essay, in my opinion, did not altogether succeed in doing this. Does his new book? He has enlarged and strengthened his evidence, but there still appear to me to be loop-holes in it. Businessmen’s grumbles always have to be taken with pinches of salt. To hear them talk today you might think they were panting for another revolution to sweep away the frightful tangle of red tape and officialdom that frustrates all their efforts to make Britain prosperous. Hill makes a good deal of the antiquated guild system as a clog on production; but he acknowledges that despite official support the system was no longer really working. He makes still more of the long list of monopolies granted by the Crown. It may be suspected that a good many of these were more painful to the consumer than to the capitalist. Coal was one of the biggest capitalist industries, and coal-owners found the Stuart government a convenient ally in establishing a price-ring—the happy haven of all free enterprise. One of Hill’s examples of the evil results of intervention in business by a non-business government is the failure of the Cokayne scheme of 1616 to promote cloth exports. James I’s ghost might point to the South Sea Bubble of a century later as an example of what happens when businessmen are left to their own devices.

In any case manufacturing interests were not big enough by themselves to take the lead. Hill gives the leading part in the anti-Stuart movement to a section of the landowning class: the “progressive gentry”, those who were up-to-date enough to think of “improving” their estates and increasing their incomes. They were discontented, he argues, at bottom—religious shapes—because they too found themselves hampered and thwarted by an unsympathetic administration. Here again his catalogue of grievances does not seem to me quite to clinch the argument. It is true no doubt that landowners disliked the bankrupt monarchy’s use of feudal law for the purpose of levying spasmodic taxes on them. But as Hill recognises, they were on the whole very lightly taxed before the revolution, and very much more heavily taxed after it. A good deal of his case rests on the fact that landowners were trying to grab and enclose common lands belonging to the villages, and bring them under cultivation for their own profit, and that the government sometimes tried to interfere because of the popular resentment that enclosures stirred up. Yet he has to admit that such interference was neither persistent nor effective. Stuart rule, he makes it plain, did not protect the poor, as it pretended off and on to be doing.

Another query arises: what makes a “progressive” or “improving” landowner? Hill lumps all who were not too foolish or too old-fashioned to want to get more money out of their estates. Now they could do this by two very different methods. One was to rackrent their tenants. The other was to invest capital in agricultural improvements, such as land reclamation or better farm-equipment. The first method was quick, safe, and easy. The second was slow, risky, and laborious. In theory they might be combined: money squeezed out of tenants could be ploughed back into the estate as productive capital. Did this happen nearly as often as Hill seems to assume, or was most of the extra income squeezed out of the poor spent on luxuries for the rich? If there were anything “progressive” about rack-renting in itself, the most progressive country imaginable would be 19th century Ireland, bled half to death by absentee landlords. In reality such a situation is more characteristic of Asia than of Europe, and in Europe it is characteristic of backward regions like Spain. It was by using the machinery of feudal land-law, moreover, that these “progressive landlords” were screwing rents up and grinding tenants down.

It must be said positively, it seems to me, that rackrenting in itself (like bloodsucking village usury) is not a form or stage of modern capitalism, and does not grow into it by any natural evolution. Something genuinely new, and economically progressive, did evolve in 17th century England; but it was not growing in a logical straight line out of what came before it. This was the modern English system of capitalist farming. It rests on a three-fold division of rural society. There is the landlord, who may invest capital but essentially is a consumer of profit or rake-off; the ploughman, who does the manual work; and, in between, the “farmer”, a small but genuine capitalist who uses his capital to rent land from the owner and to employ landless labourers to work it under his direction. Like all systems, this can be traced back to much earlier beginnings, but on the scale it reached by 1700 it was something startingly novel and revolutionary. As the dominant agricultural pattern over a wide area it existed practically nowhere in the world in 1700 except in south and east England, and since then it has spread to practically no other country (except Scotland) in any continent. To explain the emergence of something so rare and exceptional in world history, we must surely look for a very exceptional combination of historical factors.

Among these factors was the commercialising pressure of London, whose overwhelming size and weight in the country Hill emphasises. But another, it may be, was the readiness of some of the English peasants or yeomen to defend themselves sword in hand, as they did when they fought and won the civil war. The class of men from whom the Ironsides were recruited could not be treated like so many Irish or Bengali peasants. What happened in effect was that they were taken into partnership, as “farmers”, by the landlords, at the expense it is true of the poorest countryfolk reduced to the status of landless labourers. In other words the gentry had to be compelled, against their natural animal instincts, to realise that they could make more money by leasing their land to a respectable, businesslike rural middle-class, than to a swarm of Irish-type peasants all equally pauperised and demoralised. Once they were made to grasp this they could not go on screwing rents up unreasonably, for fear of killing their golden goose.

Capitalism, I think, Hill is altogether too much inclined to see as a thing already fully formed, before 1640, in the minds and habits of men. Really it was still vague and amorphous, needing the furnace-heat of a many-sided social conflict to crystallise it. Let us recall Engels’ saying that in history millions of opposing wills cancel one another out, and what results is something that no one willed. No Englishman willed a capitalist economy. Capitalism was more the consequence of civil war than its cause. This applies especially to production in agriculture, which was to be capitalism’s chief domain for a hundred years. Popular resistance to landlord tyranny failed, but not altogether; it could not stop, but it could deflect the line of development. In many other parts of 17th century Europe the line of development went on straight to its logical conclusion, the reduction of the mass of the people to serfdom: the middle ages came came back.

My feeling at any rate is that Hill, through keeping his eye too closely on his landlords, has not taken sufficient notice of the new-style farmer, as the humble but really “progressive” and transforming agent in English agriculture. I feel too that this is connected with a touch of indistinctness in the book as a whole about the part played by the common people. Admittedly it is the hardest thing of all in this period (or any other before the 19th century) to make out what the “lower classes” were thinking or doing. As Hill points out in his final summing-up, the poor and their lives have for the most part vanished without trace. However, in his survey of the scene before 1640 he does seem to leave the mass of the people somewhat too much in the background, or to look on them as hapless, more or less passive victims of oppression. Then in with the outbreak of civil war, the commoners of England seem to start to life abruptly, angry and clamorous. One of the most fascinating passages of the book tells us how the Restoration was brought about by panic fear of social revolution gripping the propertied classes; a fear that by falling out with one another the Haves had put themselves at the mercy of the Have-nots. If the Have-nots were so formidable before 1660, can they have been insignificant before 1640?

This is not a mere sentimental question of doing justice to the nameless heroes of a hopeless struggle for popular rights. It is a practical question of trying to explain the dynamics of the bourgeois revolution; and the more closely this is examined in England, and compared with similar events in other countries, the more infinitely complicated it appears. We might get a fuller understanding of the political scrimmage before 1640 if we thought of it as in some ways a competition among different groups of profiteers to throw the blame on one another for the hardships that were stirring up discontent among the poor. We might see the civil war in clearer focus if we gave it, more than Hill does, the character of a rising of the poor against the rich, even though a section of the rich or would-be rich succeeded in bringing it under their control and turning it to their own advantage. The French Revolution would be a trivial affair if we left this element of it out of account. All history has a quality of paradox; but the idea of rackrenting landlords as champions of the popular side in a civil war is more paradoxical than Hill allows for. It was the landlords after all, much more directly than the Stuarts, who had been oppressing the people, and those landlords above all whom Hill classifies as “progressive”.

One more point about capitalism. Just as Hill sees it a little too much as a juggernaut rolling deliberately onward in a straight line from 1600 to 1700, so he also, I think, takes it too much for granted that the route it took was the only possible one. He feels obliged therefore to endorse indiscriminately, as “progressive”, all the demands of the 17th century business interests: wars with Spain, wars with Holland, seizure of colonies, markets for slavedealers. But history shows that there are at least as many roads to capitalism as to socialism, and as many variant forms of it. Like the new order in the English countryside, England’s pattern of commercialindustrial capitalism by 1700 was a special and exceptional one. It was heavily tilted towards imperialism, not from any pure economic law or necessity, but as a result of the state of affairs produced by a revolution partially strangled. In this situation industry lagged behind commerce and finance; the Industrial Revolution was put off by many decades; English cloth had to grope about in the Far East for customers because English workers were too poor to buy it. England’s rulers were deeply infected by envy of the parasite empires of Spain and Portugal, and greed for the same easy gains out of exploitation of colonial labour, cheaper and more defenceless than labour at home. If Poland was relapsing into mediaeval serfdom, England’s heavy investment in slave-trading meant a relapse into something much older and worse. English capitalism was growing up with one foot embedded in the slave-plantations of Jamaica and one eye squinting at the plunder of India. To this day our national brand of capitalism has not got rid altogether of the resulting taint of primitiveness and inefficiency. The truly “progressive” or constructive capitalists of the 18th century were not the bloated merchants of London, but those descendants of the defeated Levellers—the Quakers.

This is too carping a note to end on. At least nine tenths of any review of the book ought properly to be devoted to praising it. Nothing would be easier than to fill a long review by going through it and picking out one excellent passage after another for praise. Instead I have preferred to believe that everyone capable of being interested in the 17th century—historian or layman, youth or greybeard—will enrich his mind by reading and re-reading this book for himself. He will be well advised to buy a copy instead of borrowing one. At twenty-five shillings it is extraordinary value for money.

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