From International Socialism 2:82, March 1999.
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).
The Causes of the English Civil War
Basil Blackwell 1999, £9.99
Norah Carlin’s new book is designed as an introduction for students. It includes a useful chronological table of events, a glossary of technical terms, and a guide to further reading. It is distinguished from the usual run of such books by its attention to theory in its opening and concluding chapters – the general problem of causation in history, and of the role of individuals, of ideas, and of social conflicts. In successive chapters on politics, religion, and economic and social change, she explains clearly and fairly the ‘Whig’, ‘revisionist’, and ‘post-revisionist’ interpretations of the causes of the English Civil War. For those who have been fed on a diet of revisionism, the book provides an informative and insightful corrective. Norah Carlin steers between the excesses of Whiggism and revisionism and incorporates their researches into a broad and balanced post-revisionist perspective.
Her philosophical approach is perhaps well illustrated by the following passage:
It is as difficult to talk of disproving suggested causes of historical events as it is to talk of proving them. Existing arguments for a theory can be criticised, but it is always possible that better arguments could be put forward, or the theory itself developed and improved. That the testing of a theory may lead to its being modified rather than abandoned is evident from the whole history of natural and social science. That is why it is wrong, for example, to claim that the theory of history as class struggle has been ‘disproved’, though to say that this or any other explanation of the civil war is unproven would merely be stating the obvious.
On this note class and class struggle disappear from the book.
The book is structured on a similar model to Lawrence Stone’s The Causes of the English Revolution (1972), which begins with theory and then proceeds to arrange causes in three categories – ‘preconditions’, ‘precipitants’, and ‘triggers’. Norah Carlin proceeds from a chapter on The Crisis of 1637–42, which approximates to Stone’s ‘triggers’ (it contains a helpful critique of the fashionable ‘three kingdoms’ interpretation – the interrelationships between events in Scotland, Ireland and England). Next there are two chapters on the political and religious tensions since 1603, which are similar to Stone’s ‘precipitants’ (including useful discussions of whether there were conflicts between ‘absolute monarchy’ and ‘limited monarchy’, and whether the Puritans were ‘revolutionaries’ or ‘conservatives’). And then a chapter on long term economic and social changes, which may be likened to Stone’s ‘preconditions’ (it involves a discussion of ‘backwardness’ and ‘modernisation’). Of course, the contents and conclusions of Norah Carlin’s chapters are very different from Stone’s because she is dealing with historical literature written since his account was published.
The revisionists revealed broad similarities of views on the fundamentals of politics and religion across the ruling class but this is not very surprising, because that is what one might expect in a ruling class. Nevertheless, there were divisions in the ruling class, and revisionist explanations in terms of struggles for place, profit and power, intertwined with differences over policies to be pursued in particular and immediate situations – practical and tactical rather than ideological – seem plausible because ruling classes are like that. The basic inadequacy of revisionism is that its preoccupation with the ruling class makes it difficult to explain why there was a civil war.
Two features in Norah Carlin’s account stand out: one is her attention to the ‘middle ground’ and the other is her rejection of ‘baronial revolt’. The somewhat baffling and often neglected period between the flight of the king from London in the face of hostile popular demonstrations in January 1642, and the first battle of the civil war in October 1642, gains sense from being seen in terms of a ‘battle for public opinion’ between the king and the two houses of parliament. Each side sought to mobilise the support of ‘moderates’ and to gain ‘as much of the middle ground as possible’. The ‘tone of moderation and the language of consensus’ in the petitions from counties and towns during 1642 helps to explain the adoption by both royalist and parliamentarian leaders of more moderate and cautious stances. But the pressure to appeal to the moderate middle ground did not prevent the outbreak of civil war, which began with riots in the streets before there were any battles between armies, and the emphasis on the ‘middle ground’ may savour too much of commentaries on present day English politics.
At the heart of Norah Carlin’s interpretation is the view that the civil war is inexplicable as merely a conflict between aristocratic factions. As she explains, ‘Petitions and other forms of popular participation in the crisis of 1640–42 must be taken into account in any explanation of the civil war, which was the first conflict of its kind to involve more than a tiny minority of the population in national issues: this is what made it different from the baronial wars of the late middle ages.’ She notes that when an arch-revisionist, the earl-historian Conrad Russell, announced in 1973 in The Origins of the English Civil War that ‘social change explanation of the English civil war must be regarded as having broken down’, he added that if a new social change explanation did appear, it would be likely to be based, not on the gentry, but on the ‘middling sort’ – larger farmers and more substantial craftsmen. Revisionists adopted the first part of the statement but many, including Russell himself, ignored the second part. However, by getting away from the fruitless disputes about rising and declining gentry, Russell had put his finger on the new social development which made the English Civil War different from medieval baronial conflicts.
Norah Carlin focuses on the ‘village and small town elites’ consisting of big farmers, traders and substantial craftsmen, who dominated local communities as jurymen, constables, churchwardens and overseers of the poor. This ‘middling sort’, as they were called at the time, ‘had become accustomed to regarding themselves as participants in government rather than the dependants of feudal overlords.’ In her conclusion she says that ‘it is no accident – though I have to say it was not fully planned in advance – that each of the preceding chapters of the book tends towards one thesis more than any other, that of the importance of the middling sort as a catalyst which polarised the divisions over religion, politics and government in 1641–42’. The independent role of the middling sort provides the basis for the new social change explanation, but Norah Carlin recognises that the middling sort were themselves divided, that they were not all parliamentarians, that many were royalists or neutrals. And there remain questions about the origins of the class hostility between sections of the middling sort and the aristocracy, and about the causes of the divisions amongst the middling sort when it comes to the parties in the civil war, but that is beyond the scope of this book.
Norah Carlin ends her book as follows:
If explanations of the English Civil War in terms of social change are worth pursuing – even for revisionists – it is not because they can reduce the complex question of causality to a simple, agreed formula of bourgeois revolution ... but because they can still attempt to bring together the different strands of explanation; to mediate, in effect, between long-term changes in the economy and short-term political events, and even to aim at that ‘integrating or totalising role’ towards which social history has frequently aspired, and repair the breach between the history of society and the history of the state.
This is an important statement and should set the agenda for historians of the English Revolution. I would add, however, that it was the Marxist theory of bourgeois revolution that placed the development of the modern economy, society and state at the centre of historical investigation. Revisionism rejects a key role for the English Revolution in the emergence of modern society, but that is a continuation of a debate, and the question remains, although the answer keeps changing: what did the English Revolution contribute to the development of capitalism? Norah Carlin may be right to reject the answers previously suggested by Marxists, but her book clears the ground of much of the triviality and parochialism of revisionism for renewed efforts to find answers to questions about the role of the English Revolution in the development of the modern economy, society and state – questions central not only to the study of English history but also to the study of world history.
Last updated: 30.4.2012