Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 6 No. 4


Rise and Fall of Revolutionary England

Alastair MacLachlan
The Rise and Fall of Revolutionary England
Macmillan, Basingstoke 1996, pp. 431

DOES ENGLAND have a revolutionary tradition? MacLachlan thinks not. He argues that the radical left of the 1930s and 1940s merely tried to reinvent a tradition of an English revolution in their analyses of seventeenth century history, and especially the period of Cromwell and Charles I.

This book is centred on an assessment of the influence of the Communist Party’s Historians’ Group. MacLachlan contrasts the early Marxist interpretations of Christopher Hill and others with their later works. It is a periodised review which assesses the ‘battle of ideas’ for a revolutionary past in the Communist Party between Marxist theory and peoples’ history. He traces the shifting ground on which the Marxist historians have rethought their positions in a post-Stalinist era. MacLachlan dovetails the historical analyses of the period with the contemporary political developments in the Communist Party and the New Left.

MacLachlan begins with an overview of the earlier historical studies which ‘rediscovered’ the Radical, Leveller and Ranter movements. Historians such as Guizot wrote convincingly of the similarities between the English and French Revolutions. The traditionalist Whig view of England’s ‘Great Rebellion’, as a defence of ancient rights against the alien innovations of the Stuarts, came under increasing attack. The Marxist model of structural contradiction, class conflict and revolution became more influential. The Civil War became a bourgeois class struggle involving a transition from a feudal mode of production to a capitalist one. The Victorian period saw Cromwell resurrected in Carlyle’s Letters and Speeches. Even the definitive works of Whig narrative written by Gardiner recognised a ‘Puritan revolution’ in the events of the seventeenth century. The stage was set for the Marxists to ‘reclaim the revolution’ for history.

MacLachlan’s chapter Reclaiming the Revolution explores the high profile given to the Leveller and Digger movements and the figure of Winstanley in the works of the 1930s and 1940s. The Putney Debates of Cromwell’s Army were compared with the Eighth Army ‘parliament’ of 1941. The development of a ‘Peoples History of England’ is traced, in which Hill’s work explained the Civil War as a class conflict involving a bourgeois attack on the hierarchical order. The chapter is also of interest for giving examples of the bitter doctrinal disputes for which the Communist Party was justly infamous, as Robin Page Arnott, Rajani Palme Dutt and others strove to impose a party line on the work of the Historians’ Group. The chapter on Marxist history in a Cold War era reveals how Stalin’s Cominform led to greater central control over the meetings of the Historians’ Group. Despite the Cold War polemics, the Group’s work was not deformed beyond recovery. Historians like Hill and Eric Hobsbawm were felt to be able to take an ‘intellectual disengagement from Stalinism’. MacLachlan believes the Marxist model was beginning to come apart just as their political decay accelerated.

The Twentieth Congress of the CPSU and the failure of the leadership of the Communist Party to admit the faults of the Stalinist era created a party crisis in 1956–57. This had a devastating effect on the Historians’ Group. Over half of its membership, including Hill, resigned from the Communist Party.

The analysis of the period of the 1950s to the 1970s is viewed as one in which Hill, Lawrence Stone and others tried to ‘save appearances’ in a retreat from the earlier position of class struggle and bourgeois revolution to one of a more ideological revolution. The change of approach was consistent with the contemporary movement away from an authoritative Soviet model of change to one in which Britain would reach Socialism by its own road. The revolutionary struggle of the 1640s was progressively broadened out by Hill into a longer process, as evidenced in the title of his book A Century of Revolution.

Hill’s book The World Turned Upside Down showed his increasing interest in the history of the ‘common people’. The revolution was redefined through its radical legacy – a process MacLachlan labels as ‘levelling out the revolution’. Hill’s book became a radical text – a map of past experiences which broadened the scope of the English Revolution.

Hill’s work increasingly focused on ‘what went wrong’ with the English Revolution. Hill wrote in his book God’s Englishmen of the contradiction of Cromwell’s quest for a settlement after 1649, but he continued to defend the revolutionary consolidation achieved by the Protectorate.

MacLachlan explores the debate between E.P. Thompson and Perry Anderson on the place of the seventeenth century revolution within England’s past, and the more overtly revisionist studies popularised in the 1970s and 1980s. He traces the developments in the New Left and its treatment of history in a period of its own political disarray. During the 1980s history departments all over the country witnessed the retreat of the revolutionary version of England’s history. MacLachlan argues that the Marxists’ inability to come to terms with the normative features of most societies critically weakened their credibility. Yet the new revisionism didn’t resolve issues, and by 1993 Hill wrote of a return to a more social interpretation of the period. In the chapter entitled Revolution as Text and Discourse, MacLachlan shows how Hill’s works on the life of Milton reasserted that the key to his life was to be found in his revolutionary politics and radical religious ideas. Hill’s work on Milton helped to ‘hold the line’ against the general move to the right.

The concluding chapter, The End of the Line, provides an historical retrospect on the Marxist historians’ views in modern Britain. MacLachlan claims to balance a critical analysis with a sympathetic reappraisal of their rhetorical worth. He briefly refers to the Socialist Workers Party’s analyses in International Socialism, and particularly their criticism of Hill, Hobsbawm, et al. for failing to identify a revolutionary bourgeoisie and for defending the rôle of Cromwell, the ‘revolutionary Stalin’. The final chapter is anecdotal, with references to the implosion of the Soviet Union, and to Hobsbawm’s latter-day description of the October Revolution as a ‘vast detour in world history’.

MacLachlan concludes that Isaac Deutscher’s perception of an academic ‘red decade’ of the 1960s declined rapidly into revisionism in a period of political conservatism. He argues that the enlightened and grand narrative approach of Marxism in seeking to explain events in seventeenth century England has failed. Yet he argues that the New Right has not succeeded in imposing itself on social and historical thinking. Against this background, MacLachlan believes that Hill’s work in particular will remain of interest, despite his failure to fashion an indigenous revolutionary past.

Those on the left will find some uncomfortable reminders of their own decline in contemporary influence mirrored in the modern ‘non-revolutionary’ interpretations of seventeenth century English history. Yet the failure of the New Right’s approach provides the left with an opportunity for recovery. MacLachlan’s book reminds us that for long periods of history the progressive rôle played by Cromwell, the Protectorate and the various radical and revolutionary groups of the period was hidden from view. In more auspicious times, the importance of their contribution becomes more accepted. With this in mind, the work of Hill and others of the Historians’ Group should retain their central place on the bookshelves of those interested in understanding English history, and particularly the Civil War period.

Peter Swingler

Updated by ETOL: 29.9.2011