Chris Harman


Town and country

(July 1995)

Reviews, Socialist Review, No.188, July/August 1995.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive at
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Merchants and RevolutionMerchants and Revolution
Robert Brenner
Cambridge University Press £40

Academic historians have been perplexed for more than half a century on how to link two key developments in English history in the 17th and 18th centuries.

On the one hand there was the world’s first ‘modern’ revolution, with the king’s head cut off by those who proclaimed themselves representatives of the people. On the other, there was the establishment by the end of the 18th century of the world’s first industrial capitalism.

Historians influenced by Marxism argued that what happened was a bourgeois revolution wrapped up in religious garb, and that this cleared the way for further capitalist development. But they had difficulties when it came to describing the revolutionary events as a clash between ‘feudal’ and ‘bourgeois’ sides. Both sides were made up in the main of landowners (‘gentry’), and attempts to differentiate between ‘rising’ and ‘declining’ fractions of the gentry could not be sustained in the face of further research. What is more, the richest merchant capitalists of the City of London were actually on the king’s side.

All this has encouraged the rise of a school of ‘revisionist’ historians who deny any connection between the revolution and the rise of capitalism. They argue the clash between the king and parliament was simply a matter of misunderstandings on both sides, exacerbated by the purely personal ambitions of different figures.

Such conclusions are completely unsatisfactory. They ignore the massive circumstantial evidence for a link between the outcome of the revolution and the rise of the world’s first bourgeois state. They also turn their back on the insights by thinkers as varied as Marx and Trotsky, Weber and Tawney, into the way puritan Christianity contained a characteristically capitalist view of the individual’s place in the scheme of things (what Weber called ‘the spirit of capitalism’).

Brenner’s book is one of a number of recent attempts to refute the ‘revisionist’ view by reasserting the importance of social factors in the revolution.

The bulk of the book is concerned with showing how there was a group of merchants who did play a key revolutionary role. These were the ‘new interloping’ merchants, who were excluded from the monopoly privileges which bound older and wealthier groups to the kings.

The ‘new merchants’ were able to mobilise action from the mass of smaller traders and artisans in the City of London to beat back royalist offensives and to support the revolutionary army at key moments of political crisis. As a result, they exerted enormous influence on the policies pursued by the revolutionary government after the execution of the king in 1648.

There are a number of problems with Brenner’s overall argument. First he repeatedly mentions the lesser traders, shopkeepers and artisans who acted along with the ‘new merchants’. But nowhere does he analyse who they were or what their ideas were – although many of them would have been just as ‘bourgeois’ as the ‘new merchants’ and, from his own figure, often outnumbered the merchants on key revolutionary bodies.

Second, he never really succeeds in tying in his picture of what was happening in London with another well known contention of his – that the transition to capitalism in Britain involved, centrally, the establishment of capitalist relations in agriculture from the 14th century onwards, with towns playing little or no role.

He argues in his concluding chapter that the landowners were uniformly capitalist before the revolutionary years, and were united at first in challenging a monarchy that embodied non-capitalist, absolutist principles. When they split into opposed pro-royalist and radical wings it was not because they rested on different social bases or even held different socio-religious views, but because many came to see the monarchy as indispensable if they were to prevent disaffection from below damaging their own position. The ‘new merchants’ then played the role of the revolutionary Seventh Cavalry, mobilising the City masses just as the splits within the ‘capitalist’ gentry threatened to doom the revolution.

But this seems to me to overstate the degree of capitalist development in the countryside, and to underestimate the importance of ideological battles in periods of great social transformation.

It is true that by the 1640s most agriculture in England was no longer ‘feudal’ in any real sense. Much production was for the market, rents were paid in cash and landlords did not personally subjugate tenants. But this certainly did not mean that the landowners were unambiguously capitalist in their behaviour. ‘Traditional’, non-capitalist ties still had their effects, blunting the pure cash nexus. Such a contradictory reality produced a contradictory consciousness that pulled the gentry in opposite directions when faced with a great political crisis.

It was this which explained the vital role of the towns. For they stood at the centre of the market networks binding the more capitalist elements of the country as a whole together.

And within them, the ‘middling’ urban groups of non-monopolistic tradesmen and handicraft producers provided the basis for religious ideologies which saw the whole world recast along the lines of the lives they led – that is, along bourgeois lines.

Finally, in failing to see the interconnection of the urban and rural classes in this way, Brenner also fails to see the parallels between developments in Britain and those elsewhere in Europe. His stress is always on how different things were in Britain. But, as Marx noted, there had already been similar clashes between forces pushing towards capitalism and forces preserving the old feudal order in places like northern Italy with the first great crisis of feudalism in the 14th century. There were further and larger clashes, not just in Britain but also in France and Germany with the second great crisis of the 16th and 17th century. It was this which lay behind the huge ideological turmoil of the time, even if the undeveloped character of the forces pushing towards capitalism meant they were mixed in with all sorts of other forces, some of quite a conservative character. And it was this which encouraged the English combatants to see themselves taking part in a struggle of epochal importance.

By not making such connections, Brenner narrows the focus of his work far too much and gets trapped in a level of detail which, besides often getting tedious, misses out on the real importance of what was happening.

Last updated on 21 December 2009