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International Socialism, December 1996


Mark O’Brien

The class conflicts which shaped British history


From International Socialism 2:73, December 1996.
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Brian Manning
Aristocrats, Plebeians and Revolution in England 1640–1660
Pluto 1996, £8.99

John Saville
The Consolidation of the Capitalist State 1800–1850
Pluto 1996, £8.99

John Newsinger
Fenianism in mid-Victorian Britain
Pluto 1996, £8.99

The Northern Marxist Historians group has brought together some of the best historians on the British left in this welcome Socialist History of Britain series. All the authors champion the cause of the oppressed against the oppressors, the cause of the working class against the capitalists. The three editions reviewed here all stress the centrality of class to our understanding of history. They each acknowledge the role of mass movements emerging at the base of society in shaping that society. Each book also illuminates the interconnectedness of Irish history and British history through the imposition of colonial rule and the struggle for national liberation.

In his book Aristocrats, Plebeians and Revolution in England 1640–1660, Brian Manning gives a brilliant summary of the main themes of one of the most contested areas of academic historical debate – the English Civil War. The major theme in Manning’s book is a defence of class as being the key historical tool in understanding the dynamic of the revolutionary process. The defence of a Marxist account of the civil war was the project begun by Christopher Hill in 1940 in The English Revolution 1640. The debate, however, has continued. On the one hand, it is now widely accepted that the revolution was more than a war between the ruling elites. However, the activity of the masses, the middle layers of society and of the poor, are portrayed as having been determined by the the protagonists of the ruling groups. In such accounts the masses are never seen as having been a driving force of events in themselves. The complexities of the events, we are told, defy sharply focused Marxist categories. It is Manning’s achievement that he employs the category of class and a Marxist approach to both deal with the complex realities of the civil war and at the same time cut through surface detail to expose the essential social process of the revolution. The story he gives us is one of popular intervention in the war by the poor, unlikely alliances and the contest between rival visions of the future.

Manning’s view is one in which popular activity is crucial at the most significant turning points in the revolution. Indeed we see the revolution beginning with rioting in Essex. In August of 1642 the Colchester Royalist, Sir John Lucas, had aroused popular resentment because of his vigorous collection of the ship money – an inequitable naval tax imposed by Charles I. Led by John Langley, a grocer, and Henry Barrington, a brewer, at least 2,000 of the ‘rude sort of people’ smashed their way into the Lucas house and set about its destruction after having sacked the property down to its last metal plates and woollens. In particular they seized ‘much armour and many new pistols and carbines ready charged, new great saddles and other warlike furniture’. [1] The accumulated resentments of the area were even visited upon the deceased of the house of Lucas. Contemporary witnesses explained, ‘The corpses were dismembered and the rioters paraded through the town with the hair of the dead in their caps’. [2]

Against the background of the depression in the cloth trade, riots involving men and women spread through Suffolk and into Hertfordshire. Such riots pepper the further course of the civil war. As to the social character of such rebellions, we are given some insight from the fragmentary evidence available that ‘weavers and rural artisans seem to have predominated … with a sprinkling of husbandmen and yeomen.’ But also we learn that ‘this fury was not only in the rabble, but many of the better sort behaved themselves as if there had been a dissolution of all government’. [3] And here we have a clue as to the real social dynamic of the revolution. For whilst Manning stresses the role of spontaneous uprisings, the real ideological and organisational engine of the revolution was a socially and economically heterogenous grouping that Manning calls the ‘middling sort’.

The vagueness of the definition of the ‘middling sort’ is a necessary historical function of the social reality of the time. The rise of trade and commerce had led to the emergence of a proto-capitalist commercial class, with interests different from those of the dominant Catholic landowners. The ‘middling sort’, then, began with the upper layers of the peasant class whose horizons were more and more fixed upon the expanding London market. Alongside these were the traders and monopolists who were now detached from the immediate production of goods and who craved control of the urban centres and trade routes. Rising through the social hierarchy there were the merchants whose world encompassed markets and power beyond the coastline of Britain and whose domestic loyalties were both ambivalent and pragmatic. Finally there were the lower reaches of the gentry whose social insulation within the old aristocracy had worn thin and whose interests had become more and more allied with those of the rising commercial class. Manning himself is appropriately tentative about his terminology:

The term ‘middle sort’, however, is vague ... A bourgeoisie is in the process of formation and the appearance of the term ‘middle sort’ prefigures this, but without divorcing them from the general body of small property holders ... [4]

But taking class as his starting point enables Manning to fully analyse the profoundly significant class struggle which occurred. Defending the existing order were the representatives of an ancient social order – a ‘semi-Catholic’ aristocracy whose wealth was based on the land. This old ruling class now also had the allegiance of the richest merchants. This elite social layer owed their wealth and privilege to the charters and trade monopolies granted them by monarchical decree. The great trading houses such as the Levant and the East India Company expanded their activities around the world. They were merchant capitalists but they were not instrumental in the development of capitalism in agricultural or industrial production. [5]

Bourgeois historians have made play of the heterogeneity of the opposing social forces of the revolution. The wealthiest of the merchant capitalists did side with the Royalists. There were members of the gentry who took the parliamentary side and even led the anti-Royalist forces. But, as Manning explains, this view operates with a superficial grasp of the historical process. For what was at stake in the English Civil War was the question of whether a new social order, one that favoured the growth and expansion of commerce, enterprise and industry, would overthrow and and replace an old and decaying order that was tearing under the strain of change and which had held back the progress of culture, trade and innovation for more than a century. The fact that in the real historical process of the revolution contradictory elements appeared in both camps should not be allowed to obscure its essential character:

In no conflict in history do all, or even a majority, of one class line up on one side and all, or even a majority, of another class on the other ... Whether or not a conflict is a class conflict depends on the extent to which it involves class issues. In the English Civil War the reality behind the social diversity of each party was revealed by differences of ethos: an aristocratic ethos dominated the Royalist party however many plebians it contained, and a ‘middle sort’ ethos began to drive forward the parliamentarian party, even though it contained some aristocrats, and indeed was led by them nationally. The parliamentarian party was suffused with anti-aristocratic feelings even though it was led by aristocrats, and indeed partly against their leadership. [6]

The war between the classes was also being waged at the ideological level. On the throne sat a king who many saw as having Catholic sympathies and who, at any rate, was trying to impose a strict obedience to high church principles. The banner of the civil war under which the parliamentarians marched was that of the destruction of popery and for a more egalitarian church structure. And here again the role of popular intervention was apparent. Bishops in particular became a focus of hatred and mobilisation. At one stage, in 1641, the Archbishop of York was forced to barricade himself into Westminster Abbey as parliamentarians clashed with his armed guard. On this occasion the demonstrations against the bishops went on for three days.

The strong puritan aspect of the revolution was also clear in the passions aroused by the question of where the communion table and the pulpit should be located in the churches and in the opposition to the presence of the altar rail and to the wearing of the surplice by the priest. The communion table, it was said, should be among the people, not on the high alter. The pulpit too should not be raised, separate from the congregation. The altar rail also divided the clergy from the people and the surplice was considered ‘popish’. Such issues led to physical attacks on churches and church leaders, the destruction of altar rails and the smashing of stained glass windows.

In the England of the 17th century there was no fully developed secular ideology such as that which was developed in France, partly influenced by the ideas of the English Revolution, before the French Revolution of 1789. It was religion which provided the ideological vehicle for the violent contest of world views at the heart of the civil war. It was within the parliamentarian army, however, that the importance of religion, as well as the profound democratic instinct of the soldiers, is most forcefully displayed. Within Cromwell’s New Model Army suspicion of officers as being Catholics, or sympathetic to Rome, led to killings and mutiny.

In this last example Manning points to an important aspect of the attitude of the soldiers. They belonged to a revolutionary army, only recently organised as such by Cromwell. These soldiers, drawn from the ranks of the smallholders and lesser yeomanry, were acutely aware of the issues involved in the revolution. When Cornet George Joyce met with the king, he was asked from where he received his commission. He waved his sword towards his troops and replied, ‘Here is my commission’:

Historians have taken this, as Charles did, as a confession that his only sanction was the sword, but Joyce surely meant just what he said: he derived his authority from the collective soldiery of the army, and exercised it by the advice and consent of those actually present. It is the most striking of the many examples of the egalitarian camaraderie of the agitator movement, especially in its earlier phases. [7]

The English Civil war ushered in a new capitalist order based on class, albeit in a very different manner than that of the society it had replaced. What was to develop was a system based on the exploitation of an industrial working class, a proletariat, by a new industrial ruling class, a bourgeoisie. A new barbarism reigned as the urban centres developed, and a new and cruel coercion was required by the ruling class. In his book The Consolidation of the Capitalist State 1800–1850 John Saville charts the rise of the capitalist state in Britain, and how it responded and moulded itself under the onslaught of working class revolt and became adapted to the requirements of the now established capitalist class.

Saville has made a distinctive mark in history debates on the left. He is particularly keen to emphasise the activity of all layers of society in the historical process. It is not enough, in Saville’s view, to talk only of ‘history from below’. In the capitalist era the activity of the capitalist class must also be considered to give us a complete account. The strength of this perspective is that Saville brings out in clear relief the capitalist nature of the state and its essential hostility to the working class. But perhaps it places too great an emphasis on the power of the state in defeating the working class in the middle of the 19th century. In so doing Saville understates the subjective political weaknesses of the working class itself in this period.

Saville begins his account of the development of the state with a discussion of the way in which the capitalist economy developed in the decades after the civil war. The British state was linked to international trade. In 1700 four fifths of British exports went to markets in Europe. A century later this had fallen to only one quarter. The bulk of the rest of British trade by this point was to markets in North America and the Caribbean. Central to this expansion was the involvement of the state. The great ports in London, Bristol and Liverpool had to be expanded. Credit had to be made available for trading operations and exploration. Insurance for the high risks of sea travel also had to be available. Directly and indirectly the involvement of a state that was increasingly orientated on capitalist activity was required.

This world expansion inevitably generated friction with other powers which sought similarly to expand. This frequently resulted in war.

The capitalist state of the 17th and 18th centuries was above all a military state. Between 1688, the year of the Glorious Revolution, and the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 Britain had been at war for 70 out of 127 years. Between 1689 and 1697, 74 percent of government expenditure was for military purposes. This figure did not drop below 60 percent throughout the 18th century. The result was that by the end of the seven years war in 1763 Britain was in effective control of large regions overseas and many of the most important sea trading highways.

The growing military and mercantile activities of the state in Britain put an increasingly heavy burden on the national purse. The collection of such taxes as the Land Tax, customs duties on imported goods and excise taxes on home produced commodities became a more and more rigorous exercise. The expansion of world markets for British produce provided a strong stimulus to domestic production and the development of industry. Coal and iron output expanded massively. New industries emerged, such as mechanical engineering and machine tool making, but they led to the perpetuation of much more primitive methods of production overseas. Saville explains, ‘The remarkable expansion of the British cotton industry – representing the most modern factory production in the first half of the 19th century – had the paradoxical result of sustaining and extending one of the most primitive and certainly degrading forms of economic exploitation in the modern “advanced” world: the slave economy of the American South’. [8]

Along with this growth of industry went the growth of the working class both in numbers and in social density. The industrial proletariat displayed a particular energy and cohesiveness. Strikes became increasingly recurrent in the urban centres and workers began to show a greater potential in periodic waves of generalised activity which united the different trades. The repressive character of the capitalist state was turned more and more against this new social class.

Throughout the 18th and into the 19th century legislation designed to discipline labour and repress ‘combination’ came into force. Often such legislation was aimed at particular groups of workers such as that against the tailors in 1721, against the hatters in 1777 and against the paper makers in 1794. The Master and Servants Act of 1823 was the culmination of a series of laws which had regulated the relations of exploitation between workers and their employers entirely on the latters’ terms. Between 1858 and 1875 on average 10,000 prosecutions a year took place under the act. [9]

But it was not just a restive British working class which the newly empowered bourgeoisie had to contend with. Over the Irish sea powerful stirrings of national rebellion frequently brought upon themselves the attentions of the state. After the English Civil War the suppression of the Irish had been an integral and crucial part of the capitalist ascendancy. On one level the control of Ireland contributed to the growth of the economic base of developing capitalism. But a far deeper ideological and strategic significance underlay the need of the British bourgeoisie to oppress the Irish. Firstly the religion of the Irish was the very same Catholicism against which the parliamentarian armies had marched. More than this, Britain’s main enemies and competitors on the high seas, France and Spain, were also Catholic countries. If Ireland were to fall to Britain’s rivals, and its population would have readily welcomed them, Britain’s trade to the West and to the all important markets in the Americas would have been cut off. The oppression of the Irish then was not some by-product of the Civil War, or an expansion for its own sake. It was an absolutely necessary element in the triumph of capital in Britain and ensured its continued rule.

The key problem for the British ruling class in Ireland was simply that of trying to keep down a volatile and rebellious population who refused to accept their oppression without conspiracy, assassination and uprising. By the middle of the 19th century Ireland was more heavily policed than any other part of Britain or its empire. Visitors were struck by the omnipresence of the police. [10] It was not just that the police were a heavily armed body which made them an oppressive force. Orangeism, the ideology of the Protestant ascendancy in Ireland, was rife in the constabulary.

Saville brings our attention back to England with a discussion of the events of 1848. In Ireland this was a year of great unrest. In Europe it was a year of revolutions. In England 1848 was the year in which the British ruling class escaped the consequences of working class revolution by the skin of its teeth. On 10 October the third great Chartist petition was presented to parliament calling for workers to be given the vote. The lead up to the day was heralded by arming and military style drilling in the working class districts. The ruling class anticipated a revolutionary outburst by putting London under the command of the Duke of Wellington and fortifying every strategic centre lest they fall to the Chartists. The crucial weeks leading up to the day saw the melting away of any sentiments of sympathy for working class demands on the part of the more liberal sections of the establishment. [11]

But 1848 was not to be a year of revolution in Britain. The leadership of the Chartist movement stepped back from the brink and the moment passed. This failure of leadership is an element which Saville fails to emphasise in this account. The Chartist leaders did not realise the strength of their position. But the very scale of the mobilisation which occurred against the Chartists in 1848 was an indication of this strength. In France the demand for universal suffrage could be raised by sections of the middle class and small bourgeoisie because it did not represent a threat to their position in society given the much smaller size of the working class. In England, with the largest working class in the world at that time, a country in which more than half of the population lived in the urban areas, the possibility of the working class achieving the vote appeared as a much more profound threat to the establishment.

Saville is correct to point out the extraordinary lengths the ruling class went to to prevent the Chartist movement breaking through, but wrong not to convey the terror in which they were gripped. Certainly workers in every town and city in the country were prepared for serious confrontation. Stories also circulated of soldiers expressing sympathy with the Chartists. But in the minds of the leaders of Chartism, the first mass working class movement, the question of whether a mere demonstration of strength was sufficient or whether, on the other hand, an actual physical struggle was required to achieve its aims, was never resolved. The result was that the moment of decisive confrontation was lost. The failure was the result of a political crisis within the leadership of the working class. Seen in this light, it is a moment from which we can learn.

In 1848 the British ruling class learned a lesson it would never forget. For all its heterogeneity and the internal friction between Whig and Tory, industrialist and landowner, in the working class the rulers of Britain saw an enemy which united them.

In his book Fenianism in mid-Victorian Britain, John Newsinger identifies a tradition of rebellion against the national oppression of the Irish which is inspiring for the way in which it connects the struggles for emancipation with others on the English side of the Irish Sea. The Fenian movement was a mass, predominantly working class, movement which dominated Irish politics in the 1860s. Newsinger is careful to distinguish the Fenians from national liberation movements which came before and after. He is rightly wary of the tendency within Irish nationalist writing to portray the struggle against British rule as being one long mystical tradition running back into the mists of time. The many struggles against British rule have varied in terms of historical context, class composition and political aspirations. In Newsinger’s treatment the Fenians stand out as the most politically advanced of the movements against the imperialist control of Ireland.

The great fact which dominated the century in Irish society was the famine which began in 1845 and lasted into the 1850s and which destroyed 40 percent of the potato crop. In these years the population of Ireland fell by 2.5 million. English Protestant landlordism had already impoverished Irish tenants with high rents and had forced a near national dependence on the cheapest and hardiest of crops – the potato. John Mitchell, the Irish nationalist, described what this meant for families in the poorest rural regions: ‘... how families, when all was eaten and no hope left, took their last look at the sun, built up their cottage doors that none might see them die nor hear their groans, and were found weeks afterwards skeletons on their own hearth; how the “law” was vindicated all this while; how the Arms Bills were diligently put in force, and many examples were made; how the starving were transported for stealing vegetables’. [12]

Famine relief was provided by the British. Around £7 million was spent – compared to £20 million paid in compensation to the slave owners of the West Indies after the emancipation of the slaves and £70 million spent on the Crimean War. But any sort of relief was denied to those owning more than a quarter of an acre of land. This forced thousands off their land to the benefit of the landlords. In the years of the famine perhaps 500,000 tenants were evicted.

It was not only the English landlords who benefited from the famine, however. In the middle of the century nationalism in Ireland was dominated by the moderate politics of Daniel O’Connell who adopted a conciliatory posture towards the British and whose base was firmly within the middle class. After the famine a new generation of ‘Young Irelanders’, as the new Irish Confederates became known, broke from O’Connell and looked instead to insurrection and alliance with the English working class. The Chartists in Britain rallied to the cause with demonstrations and rallies.

The founding of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, to become known as the Fenians, took place in Dublin on St Patrick’s Day, 1858. The most prominent figure in the movement was James Stephens. Stephens had spent time in exile in France. There he made the transition from being an Irish nationalist to being a socialist and an internationalist. He was later to become a member of the International Working Men’s Association of Marx and Engels. The IRB tried to organise along semi-clandestine lines. [13]

By 1865 the Fenians certainly had more than 50,000 members and may have had as many as 80,000 in their ranks, as well as 15,000 members in the British army. There was no doubting the scale and the seriousness of the Fenian threat to British rule. The internationalism of the leadership was crucial to their strategy. They looked to the national revolutionary movements in Europe and, especially, towards the United States.

As the American Civil War came to an end in 1865 Stephens’s plans began to materialise. By the end of the year £250,000 had been raised. Some 120 American officers had joined the Fenians and preparations were under way to send boatloads of munitions to Ireland. However, the British had struck first with the suppression of a nationalist newspaper, the Irish People. Stephens suspected infiltration by the British and called the uprising off. The failure sprang from an insistence on secrecy and a form of organisation which placed more emphasis on conspiracy than open agitation. Stephens also attached too much importance to the role of the United States in his strategy for the liberation of Ireland. It was one thing to raise funds and material support from wherever it could be found, quite another to expect the government of a rising capitalist power to support an insurrectionist movement against the oppression of the Irish.

In 1867 there were preparations for a new rising in Ireland. Some indication of the seriousness of the plans under way is given by the fact that Stephens managed to recruit the experienced military adventurer Gustave Cluseret to become the commander of the Fenian forces:

After the Fenian episode he was to take part in Bakunin’s abortive rising in Lyons and his career as a revolutionary soldier-of-fortune culminated with the command of the army of the Paris Commune of 1871. He brought with him into the Fenian movement two other European revolutionaries, both veterans of the American Civil War; Octave Farolia and Victor Vifquain. Together with the Irish American Civil War veterans, these men constituted an experienced military leadership that was easily a match for the British army command in Ireland. [14]

The involvement of a figure such as Cluseret also places the Fenians clearly in the European tradition of 19th century social and nationalist revolutionary movements. In the event the rising was ignominiously defeated. The numbers brought into the field were disappointing and they were inadequately armed. The British often knew of Fenian movements in advance. Newsinger’s account of the failure, however, could be developed further as there were more fundamental reasons for the failure.

One of the most remarkable aspects of the Fenians’ preparations for their rising was the importance they attached to the role of the radical movement in Britain and of the British working class. Active, and successful, attempts were made to bring their struggle to workers in Britain. The workers’ movement in 1866, however, was not the same as that of the Chartists of the 1840s. The mid-1860s marked the beginning of the era of Victorian reform. The dominant position of British capitalism in the world was secure. British colonies around the globe established markets for British produce at the expense of the decimated domestic industries of oppressed countries. Profits were high and workers in Britain discovered that if they pushed with their trade union strength they could not only improve the conditions of their exploitation but also win concessions at the political level.

The predominant mood of the working class of the 1860s, unlike that of the 1840s, was reformist not revolutionary. Both Stephens and Cluseret hugely overestimated the possibilities of a revolutionary alliance between the Fenians and the gradualist Reform League. Outside some individual members of the League support was not really forthcoming and and this helped erode confidence in the rising in Ireland.

Despite this the appeal to British workers remains one of the most distinctive and important parts of the story of Fenianism. The Fenians were strong in Britain – strong enough, for example, to attempt to take the Chester castle by force of arms. But, more than this, they saw English workers not as their enemies but as their allies. Newsinger gives eloquent testimony to their clarity on this question. [15] Newsinger’s understanding of the natural solidarity of interest between workers on both sides of the Irish Sea puts his account of Fenianism in a different league to many other republican accounts of the period.

In this collection of three books, telling stories from quite different periods in British and Irish history, we find a common thread. The books tell of both victories and defeats for common people, yet what shines through in each is the importance of our history for the struggle today. We see lessons to be learned and mistakes that should never be repeated. Above all we see a commitment to the rediscovery of a history which has been hidden from our view. It is a history which equips us well for the battles ahead.


1. B. Manning, Aristocrats, Plebeians and Revolution in England 1640–1660 (Pluto 1996), p. 45.

2. Ibid., pp. 45-46.

3. Ibid., p. 49.

4. Ibid., pp. 10-11.

5. Ibid., p. 63.

6. Ibid., p. 71.

7. Ibid., quoted by B. Manning, op. cit., p. 94.

8. J. Saville, The Consolidation of the Capitalist State 1800–1850 (Pluto 1996), p. 12.

9. Ibid., p. 22.

10. Ibid., p. 57.

11. Ibid., p. 75.

12. J. Newsinger, Fenianism in mid-Victorian Britain (Pluto 1996), p. 4.

13. Ibid., p. 25.

14. Ibid., p. 51.

15. Ibid., p. 55.

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