Aristocrats, Plebeians and Revolution in England 1640-1660

By Duncan, Colin A. M. | Capital & Class, Spring 1998 | Go to article overview

Aristocrats, Plebeians and Revolution in England 1640-1660


Duncan, Colin A. M., Capital & Class


Pluto Press, London, 1996, pp.128. ISBN 0-7453-0940-2 (hbk) 30.00 ISBN 0-7453-0939-9 (pbk) 9.99 Reviewed by Colin A.M. Duncan 17th century radicalism in England continues to amaze non-historians and also continues to encourage socialists, both its extent and its style. Here is Colonel Thomas Rainborough reflecting in 1647: '...I would fain know what the soldier has fought for all this while? He has fought to enslave himself, to give power to men of riches, men of estates, to make him a perpetual slave.' (p.137). Here are some watermen of London voicing political complaints in 1659: '...neither king nor Lords being chosen or representing either county, city, or borough, but merely as unnatural wens and bunches upon that authority, the evils whereof this nation had felt through all succession of times, the over-balance of those families proving fatal to the whole, multiplying miseries and calamities upon us at mere will and pleasure,...'(p.120). Undeniably rousing stuff, to this day, but perhaps reading such word will produce nothing other than a shock, rather like, say, reading about the criminal prosecution of animals in late medieval France.

What can it all mean to us now? For Emeritus Professor Manning's admirably clear and short (indeed, fast-paced) book surveying the context of events and structures in which many persons like that colonel and those watermen came to be so free-spoken raises some very disturbing questions about the relation of radicalism to social change. Are we likely to hear expressions of such intense political focus again? Published in Pluto's series, Socialist History of Britain, this book is clearly not intended to instil pessimism, but the fact remains that after the Revolution Britain became a powerful aristocracy and remained one until the 1914-18 war. Since then it has rapidly degenerated into a plutocracy, somewhat less powerful, not obviously less vicious. Surely the watermen would be disappointed. Many of us are disappointed. The successful taming of monarchy which is what the Revolution achieved hardly begins to get at the inequalities the watermen were pointing at.

What I want to raise in this review is the difficult problem of relating the complex of shifting socio-economic vectors at work in 17th century England to the uncompromising religious radicalism which clearly underlay the egalitarian and democratic impulses. Professor Manning studiously avoids any hint of mechanical economic determinism but neither can he quite believe that the radical political movements were wholly unconnected to the manifold socio-economic changes also afoot at the time. I cannot quarrel with his sense of where the balance of explanation must ultimately lie, but the very zeal of the revolutionaries seems to me to be an independent variable. Paradoxically the matter was put clearly by the Leveller leader William Bray in 1659: `Where civil liberty is entire, it includes liberty of conscience and where liberty of conscience is entire, it includes civil liberty.' (p.123). It seems to me that the uncompromising pursuit of religious freedom on the part of so many of the `middling sort' was aimed only at such liberties, and so was satisfied when only they were attained. …

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