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Brian Manning

Caught by the Middle

(March 2001)

From Socialist Review 250, March 2001.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Ehud’s Dagger
James Holstun
Verso £25.00

Basing his book on wide reading and deep thought, James Holstun has produced a comprehensive critical analysis of historical and literary theories relating to the English Revolution. He demonstrates the weaknesses of revisionism and mounts one of the best Marxist accounts to have appeared since Maurice Dobb’s Studies in the Development of Capitalism (1946). The differences between Dobb’s work and Holstun’s show many of the creative advances of Marxism.

This book links literature, history and theory with a series of empirical studies which illustrate that Marxism is well able to combine a focus on autonomous individuals with associative collectives. These studies include John Felton, who assassinated the Duke of Buckingham; Edward Sexby, who sought the assassination of Cromwell; and reflections on political violence and terrorism. A chapter on Anna Trapnel, the prophetess, embraces an excellent account of the Fifth Monarchists as radical small producers.

There are important chapters on the New Model Army in 1647 and the Diggers in 1649. The former finds the root of the differences between the soldiers in the acceptance by the chief officers of a hierarchical order in the army and the state, and the strivings of the rank and file for participation in the governing of the army and the state. This was in the context of the efforts of military and civilian radicals ‘to preserve small property and the democracy it underwrites against capitalist engrossment’. The background to the Digger movement illuminates an issue which lay at the heart of the revolution – the struggle in agrarian relations ‘between a rights-based model that gave the direct producers some measure of immediate access to the agrarian means of production, and a model of absolute property that gave them such access only through the mediation of the capitalist wage form’. Holstun relates the struggle of the Diggers to the Zapatista Army of National Liberation in Chiapas, Mexico, and the resistance of small producers in Amazonia to capitalism.

He explores the notion of ‘the containment of subversion’, in which revisionists maintain that opposition cannot surmount the ideology of the dominant ruling class culture but in the end reinforces it rather than subverts it. He proceeds to an interesting analysis of how radicals do not start from an attempt to subvert the dominant culture or produce a counter-culture, but come to recognise the hypocrisy of the ruling class in betraying or abandoning the principles which the people themselves hold and thought that their rulers did also.

Holstun places his interpretations in the context of revolutionary actions emerging from the class of small producers – peasants and artisans. He associates small producers with wage labourers and the poor in general under the category of the ‘labouring classes’. This serves his purpose of putting the focus of the revolution on the struggle against developing capitalism. This is an important element, but it shifts attention from the ‘middling sort’ – the propertied peasants and artisans – who provided the main force of revolution in the 1640s. In the end they sided with economic ‘improvement’, enclosures and the expropriation of direct producers, and the imposition of wage labour and the ideology of absolute property, against the radicals who are the chief concern of Holstun’s book. Looking beyond the scope of his work, the ‘middling sort’ who made the revolution in the 1640s were also the people who ended the revolution in the 1650s. It was not foreign invasion, or royalist insurrection, or a coup by big landowners and city financiers, but the swing of the ‘middling sort’ to conservatism that brought about the restoration of the monarch and old institutions in 1660 – a swing paralleled in most modern revolutions.

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