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You are here: Platypus-/From Habakkuk to Locke: The non-peculiarity of the English Glorious Revolution

From Habakkuk to Locke: The non-peculiarity of the English Glorious Revolution

Book Review: Steve Pincus, 1688: The First Modern Revolution (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009)

David Black

Platypus Review 49 | September 2012

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[Cromwell and the English people] borrowed from the Old Testament the speech, emotions, and illusions for their bourgeois revolution. When the real goal had been achieved and the bourgeois transformation of English society had been accomplished, Locke supplanted Habakkuk. – Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte

T. J. Clark, in “For A Left With No Future,” compares the “immobilized” state of the present-day Left with the impasse of Enlightenment radicals in the years between the Restoration of 1815 and the Revolutions of 1848. He argues that any “reconstruction of the project of the Enlightenment” for today requires a “deeper” look at the history of the Left, and for that, “[t]he book we need to be reading—in preference to The Coming Insurrection, I feel—is Christopher Hill’s The Experience of Defeat.”[1] Quoting from Hill’s book on the English Revolution, Clark refers to a letter from Moses Wall to John Milton, written in 1659 during the last days of the Cromwellian Protectorate, which complains of the betrayal of the “poor people” under the rule of the generals. Clark sees Wall’s “most modest, most moderate of materialisms” as forming the basis of what, in the twenty-first century, he sees as “still a maximalist programme”:

[W]hilst people are not free but straitened in accommodations for life, their Spirits will be dejected and servile: and conducing to [reverse this], there should be an improving of our native commodities, as our Manufactures, our Fishery, our Fens, Forests, and Commons, and our Trade at Sea, &c. which would give the body of the nation a comfortable Subsistence.[2]

There is something ironic about Clark’s appropriation of Moses Wall’s ideas for a critique of Leftist “futurity,” for Wall’s “transitional demand” was a vision of modernization. I would like to suggest that in terms of renovating the Left, a more critical approach to Hill’s work is needed, and that the book we also need to be reading is Steve Pincus’s 1688: The First Modern Revolution. According to Pincus:

Modern revolutions are not struggles to overturn traditional states. They occur only after regimes have determined, for whatever reason, to initiate ambitious modernization programs. Revolutions, then, pit different modernizers against one other. (45)

Pincus’s book forms the basis for challenging the traditional narrative of Hill and most Left historians: that the defeat in the 1640s and 1650s of the proto-democratic Levellers, the communist Diggers and Ranters, and the religious radicals, represented the failure of social-political emancipation tout court, in determining the course of modernity. Pincus considers the results of the Revolution under Cromwell to have been “ephemeral” in comparison to what followed the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Importantly, however, Pincus argues that the radical aspirations of the 1640s and 1650s did not suffer total defeat. Rather, they were transformed in character and achieved a significant victory with the Glorious Revolution. Already in the 1650s, he points out, radical critics, for whom property was “primarily a human creation, not a natural endowment,” were arguing that the potentials for human development and freedom were contained within the rising commercial society, and the freed labor that was its basis (369). This view actually finds support in Hill’s examination of Moses Wall and other modernizers who appear in the pages of The Experience of Defeat. In 1659, accepting that the rule of the Saints was a lost cause, Wall called for measures that Cromwell’s parliaments had failed to carry out, such as abolition of church taxes and of copyhold tenancies which kept farmers economically enslaved to their landlords. Social progress needed real material reforms rather than utopian schemes, millenarian prophecies, or Puritan terror. James Harrington (1611–77), who dedicated his utopian work of 1656, The Commonwealth of Oceana, to Oliver Cromwell, seems to prefigure the insights of historical materialism in his argument that the dissolution of the Stuart monarchy did not come about in 1649 because of the Civil War, but because the war was a result of socioeconomic changes, such as the transfer of lands from the Crown, aristocracy, and the Church to the gentry and yeomanry, and the freeing of tenants from military service to feudal barons. Harrington observed that “industry of all things is most accumulative, and accordingly of all things hates levelling [emphasis added].” Harrington thought that with the establishment of a national Bank of England, the industrious “people” could be trusted with political power in a “new-modeled” government (“the people,” in this seventeenth-century terminology, excludes the “poor”—such as manual laborers, servants, paupers, and women). Harrington saw no problem in having a princely head of state (what else had Cromwell become?) as long as he did not control a standing army capable of imposing absolutism. Harrington was driven into silence by the Restorationist regime of Charles II after 1661, but his ideas spread. Hill points out that his disciples included John Adams, founding father of the United States, who famously said, “[t]he great art of lawgiving consists in balancing the poor against the rich.”[3]

Pincus’s 1688 raises the broad question of the modern Left’s historical relationship to the early-modern bourgeois revolutions and the liberalizing societies that emerged in their wake. Part of the problem here is influence on the Left of the Whig Theory of History which, in the case of the Glorious Revolution of 1688, misreads it as an essentially conservative event, and misjudges English society in the seventeenth century as too backward to have produced a modern revolution. During the non-event of the tercentenary of the Revolution in 1988, Tory Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher said that the Glorious Revolution showed that “[p]olitical change should be sought and advanced through Parliament ... it was this which saved us from the violent revolutions which shook our continental neighbours.” On the Left, Christopher Hill described 1688 as “the restoration to power of the traditional ruling class,” and Tony Benn said it was “not a glorious revolution, [but] a plot by some people” (36). All of them, argues Pincus, have ignored or forgotten what seemed obvious to eighteenth-century Enlightenment commentators such as David Hume, Voltaire, and John Wilkes: that the Glorious Revolution was a transformative event in world history which fulfilled many of the mid-century radicals’ aspirations for political and economic change in England, and on an imperial/world scale.

In the course of the seventeenth century, the proportion of the population engaged in agriculture fell to fifty percent, and the urban population grew from ten to forty percent. Newly navigated rivers teamed with barges; coastal traders shipped coal from Newcastle; and merchants shipped woolen cloths, pottery, and other manufactured goods to faraway markets. The expanding towns and cities were improved with brick houses, paved streets, and workshops. Shops, taverns, and coffee houses serviced the mass addiction to tea, coffee, tobacco, and sugar. The socioeconomic changes of the earlier part of the seventeenth century had made transformative change inevitable; the question was, as James II acceded to the throne in 1685, what form would modernization take, now that England was becoming dependent on global trade and seapower?

In imperial trade, James used his prerogative powers over foreign trade to establish commercial monopolies dependent on the Crown: the Hudson Bay, East India, and Royal African companies. James supported the East India Company’s claim that treaties with “barbarous and heathen” Indians could only be enforced by the company having total power—military, economic and political—over whatever territory it occupied. According to Tory/Jacobite political economy, the source of all property and wealth was land—finite, naturally created, and stationary—and trade was, of necessity, a zero-sum game of vicious competition. This being the case, the sovereign’s prerogative gave him an absolute right to regulate and tax all trade, and thus bypass Parliament’s financial scrutiny of his military and civil projects. According to Whig political economy, on the other hand, wealth and property were mobile, infinite, and based on labor and manufacturing; therefore, the king and his royal trading companies had no business interfering with “the people’s” property. The Whigs claimed that the Tory-owned company deprived a large number of merchants in England from access to trade in the East, sometimes by seizing their property in its territories.

James II, having promised to both uphold the hegemony of the Protestant Church of England and end the persecution of the Quakers and other Dissenters, immediately set about establishing a centralized, absolutist state, policed at all levels by a Jesuit bureaucracy, blessed by a compliant, and thoroughly Tory, Church of England. All criticism of the Catholic religion and Louis XIV’s persecution of French Protestants was suppressed. James’s fourfold expansion of the army without parliamentary approval was an unwelcome burden on townspeople on whom his unruly troops were billeted. Local worthies were outraged by the political purging of magistrates, members of town corporations, and officers of county militias. The surveillance system, which extended to the post office and the coffee houses, imposed a sullen code of silence on a “people” grown accustomed to gossip, news, and debate.

Glorious-Revolution

Depiction of William of Orange as he arrives in England, 1688.

James, in his determination to Catholicize the state, issued a Declaration of Indulgence that suspended the requirement of applicants for government and military office to take oaths affirming the authority of the Church of England. When the Archbishop of Canterbury and six other bishops refused to circulate the Declaration, James put them on trial for seditious libel. Following their acquittal on 29 June 1688, when the masses rejoiced in the streets, leading figures of the opposition decided on a revolutionary course of action. They invited Prince William of Orange to organize an Anglo-Dutch force for the invasion of England. Within weeks of William landing at Torbay on 5 November 1688 with up to 20,000 troops, James’s power collapsed, forcing him to seek refuge in France. In Pincus’s account, the Revolution, like all modern revolutions, was popular, violent, and divisive. The revolutionaries were not a tiny elite; in every major town they had thousands of supporters from all classes who were prepared to—and did—attack the symbols of Catholic power, the property of Jacobite and Tory bureaucrats, and, in many instances, harmless English Catholics (Pope Innocent XI, an enemy of Louis XIV and the Jesuits, actually supported William’s Revolution).

James, with an invasion fleet provided by Louis XIV, tried to fight his way back to power through Ireland and Scotland, but his Catholic army was decisively defeated at the Battle of the Boyne in July 1690. Throughout this period of revolution and revolutionary wars there were deep divisions in the Williamite camp. The Tory anti-Jacobites wanted only to reverse James’s Catholicizing of the state and preserve the hegemony of the Church of England against papists and Dissenters alike. In foreign policy, the Tories favored a blue-water strategy to combat Dutch encroachments on India, whereas William and the Whigs wanted—and got—a continental war in alliance with the Dutch against France (the Nine Years’ War of 1688–97). When the Williamites founded the Bank of England in 1694, with the support of John Locke, Tory and Jacobite-sympathizing landowners founded a rival Land Bank. But the threat of counterrevolution was removed following the failure of the Jacobite Assassination Plot of 1696. The Land Bank collapsed and the Tories were politically routed. The Whigs imposed a heavy land tax advocated by Locke, abolished the right of kings to exclusively manage trade, and ruled that the seizure of English property by the East India Company was unlawful. By the time William was finally confirmed as a de jure as well as de facto constitutional monarch, the program of James Harrington had been largely fulfilled. Left historians’ dismissal of the Glorious Revolution on the grounds that it did not reopen the Leveller debate over extended and universal suffrage misses the point that Commonwealth radicals such as Harrington in the 1650s, much like the radical Whigs of the 1680s and 1690s, saw the popular content of the state as less important than the subjection of the state to civil society and the rule of law. The Glorious Revolution, in Pincus’s view, was not the assertion of power by a self-conscious, cohesive middle class. It was, however, a bourgeois revolution in the cultural and political sense; it represented “the people” of a commercial society, which James II tried to harness to “landed norms” in partnership with imperial trade: “His program was simultaneously modernizing and antibourgeois” (484).

Previous histories have been too narrowly focused on the “event” of 1688–89, whereas its real nature can only be understood as a process, lasting decades. Not until the 1720s, in the troublesome aftermath of the War of the Spanish Succession (1701–1714), did the Whig prime minister, Robert Walpole, establish a post-revolutionary consensus with the Tories by rolling back the land tax and denying civil rights to religious Dissenters. The Whigs ingloriously failed to dismantle the East India and Hudson Bay companies, as some had wished to; they just expanded their joint stocks so that other capitalists got to share in the spoils. Although the monopoly of the Royal African Company over the Atlantic slave trade was abolished, making it just one enterprise among many, it kept its forts on the northwestern coast of Africa. The imperial legacy of the Glorious Revolution was the expansion of the slave trade on an industrialized scale, the destruction of the Indian economy by the policies of the East India Company, and the ravaging of the North American colonies by territorial wars. It took another hundred years and the pandemonium of the Industrial Revolution for a strong democratic movement to emerge in Britain; and when it did—in the 1815–48 period T. J. Clark thinks resembles the post-1989 world—it came out of the anti-slavery campaigns and the British radical movement that supported the American and French revolutions. In the 1830s, it was the proletarian Chartists in the struggle between labor and capital, not the bourgeoisie, who unfurled the banner of democracy.

In terms of the historical imagination of the “progressivist,” leftist version of Whig History, the nineteenth-century Left—particularly the Chartist movement—might be seen as the heir to seventeenth-century religious and communist, or egalitarian radicalism. But when the Chartists entered history nearly two hundred years after the English Commonwealth, the history of the Levellers still remained buried. The Chartists drew their political ideas from Paine, Owen, Spence, Robespierre, and Babeuf, not from Winstanley and the Putney Debaters of 1647. It is true, as Hill points out, that Milton’s status as poet and prophet for nineteenth-century radicals (notably Blake and Shelley) represented a real radical continuity with the struggles of the Commonwealth. But this only strengthens the insight that the Chartists, and their radical working class successors, did not emerge in a society in which revolution and radical thinking was something totally alien.

More generally, Pincus’s suggestion that modern revolutions pit different modernizers against one another challenges the historical imaginations of those on the Left who sloganize political struggles in terms of progressive radicalism versus reactionary traditionalism (“No Return to the 1930s”), or traditional, popular radicalism versus elitist radical conservatism (“Fight For the Right to Work”). As if the purpose of the social market economy of the European Union wasn’t to avoid any such “return” to the protectionism, lawlessness, and slide into war that characterized the nineteen-thirties, and as if the growing ruling class consensus wasn’t to get everyone, apart from small children and geriatrics, “into work.” In the social and economic disorder of the present day it is by no means only the Left that presents “alternatives.” Christopher Hill’s closing sentences in The Experience of Defeat are, “In 1644 Milton saw England as a ‘nation of prophets.’ Where are they now?” If that question were posed in regard to the United States, it might be answered with the trite observation that, in today’s radical “prophet” stakes, the Nietzschean atheist, Ayn Rand, would seem to have more standing than the Hegelian Christian, Martin Luther King. But, given the urgent need for a truly modern, secular, ambitious and revolutionary Left capable of developing a viable alternative to capitalism, the question may no longer be relevant or useful. |P


[1]. T. J. Clark, “For A Left With No Future,” New Left Review 74 (March–April 2012): 53–75.

[2]. Christopher Hill, The Experience of Defeat: Milton and Some Contemporaries (New York: Viking, 1984), 327.

[3]. Ibid., 191–205.

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