24 July 2019 — In Defence of Marxism
By Alan Woods
I did not believe that it was possible for the low esteem in which I hold modern academics in general, and bourgeois historians in particular, to sink any lower than it already was. But that belief was misplaced. I have just had the misfortune to watch a three-part series put out by BBC Channel Four with the title: ‘Charles I, Downfall of a King’. I now hold the intellectual qualities of our modern historians at a slightly lower level than those of Mr Bean. At least Mr Bean can be mildly amusing at times, but our self-appointed intellectuals lack even that redeeming virtue.
If these opening lines appear to reflect a certain level of disappointment on my part, I can quite understand. I must confess that, when I saw this series advertised, my interest was immediately aroused. To the best of my memory the BBC has never carried a serious documentary about that colossal turning point in our history, a moment that dealt a mortal blow to the old feudal autocracy and thus laid the basis for the democratic rights that we enjoy today.
In the past, we have had television series about Danes and Saxons, Normans and Plantagenets, Louis XIV and his court at Versailles, and of course the Tudors – the many wives of Henry VIII, and other subjects that are intended purely for our entertainment. It has to be said, moreover, that the BBC in general has a decent record in dealing with such historical subjects in a reasonably accurate manner. In my naivety, I was expecting something similar this time. But my hopes were quickly dashed – in fact, within the space of the first five minutes of the first programme.
The fault here was entirely my own. The first question I should have asked myself is as follows: why is it that our television producers feel able to put out historical programmes on practically any subject, but have remained stubbornly silent on one of the most important periods in British history? Why the reluctance to mention the Civil War, or, to use its correct description, the English Revolution? This strange silence can easily be explained and understood.
We have always been given to understand that the people of Britain, unlike the fiery Spaniards, the revolutionary French and other more combustible nations, are not revolutionary by nature. We are, after all, moderate, reasonable, pleasant people who are naturally inclined to achieve progress through small steps, reforms, and above all, by compromise. Revolution is something that has never happened in this green and pleasant land, and could never happen because we are genetically disinclined to put up with it.
A very comforting myth – but a myth, nonetheless. What our intellectual friends are not prepared to admit is that modern democracy was born out of a violent revolution that cut off the King’s head, and a bloody Civil War. There are no verified figures for how many lives were lost during those nine years. Historical records count over 84,000 people killed in conflict, with over 100,000 more killed by disease in England alone. No records were kept of Scottish soldiers killed in the wars, but estimates suggest another 60,000 people may have died in Scotland. And in Ireland, where plague, famine and another Civil War added to the death toll from the English Civil War, it is estimated over 600,000 people died – 40 percent of the pre-war population.
Our historians do not like to talk about this because it contradicts everything we have been led to believe for decades, and indeed centuries. Now at last, they finally decided to talk about it because the present crisis in Britain has upset all the old comforting illusions. We are living in the most turbulent period probably in the whole history of Britain – certainly for a very long time. And if we are to seek some point of reference in history for events that are unfolding before our eyes, it is impossible to ignore what occurred in this country in the stormy years of the 17th century.
The Times suspects (with good reason) that the production of this series had more to do with the present political turmoil in Britain than a genuine interest in what occurred in this country four centuries ago. In a scathing review on 10 January it asked:
“Why would BBC One suddenly be offering a three-part primetime history of Charles I’s constitutional crisis? The mind strains to wonder, but when the presenter Lisa Hilton introduced the series as ‘how the country could fall apart and become bitterly divided in just a few weeks’, you felt that she was just stopping short of adding: ‘Wink wink, nudge nudge, say no more.’”
When they finally made up their mind to mention the English Revolution, they went to extraordinary lengths to present it in a disfigured, distorted, false and misleading way. Let me be frank. Nobody who watched this appallingly bad series could ever form the slightest idea of what occurred, or why it occurred.
In order to add the necessary note of academic gravitas to the series, we were presented with a panel of ‘experts’, which, however, proved to be somewhat lacking in weight, and was in some cases, downright surprising. Leanda de Lisle, the author of The White King, makes no attempt to conceal her reactionary monarchist views. Naturally, her book has received rave reviews in the bourgeois press.
Another ‘expert’ who appeared on the programme to give us the benefit of their profound knowledge of English history was the right-wing Tory MP, John Redwood. As a notorious Brexiteer and Thatcherite, he was presumably picked in order to provide a balanced view of the English Revolution – that is to say, balanced towards the right.
Last but not least, we had Earl Charles Spencer, the brother of the late Lady Diana. Clearly, one’s knowledge of the English Revolution would not be complete without the views of a representative of the aristocracy (even a minor one). Furthermore, Earl Spencer has the advantage of being rather close to the present royal family, as the uncle of Prince William, although his relations with the Queen were rather strained in the past.
The one person who attempted to introduce a serious note to the entire series was John Rees, the author of The Leveller Revolution. He was the only one who rose above the level of gossip historians and gave due weight to the key role of the masses. No doubt for that reason, he was given very little time, and his arguments were immediately contradicted by all the other ‘experts’ who saw the ‘mob’ as a purely destructive force whose only aim was to murder poor unfortunate bishops, disturb the peace, offend the poor, unfortunate King and Queen and generally make nuisances of themselves.
Post-modernism and gossip historians
This series was an excellent example of the kind of superficial idiocy that flows from the modern fad (I cannot bring myself to describe it as a ‘philosophy’) known as post-modernism. According to this theory, it is impossible to find any rational cause that determines historical development. History is reduced to a mere series of accidents, chance events, which reflect only the personal caprice, ignorance, stupidity, or, for that matter, heroism and intelligence of individual actors.
Of course, it is impossible to deny the role of the individual in history. History is made by men and women, and their personal characters, psychology and capacity or incapacity, have a direct bearing on the course of events. To say that, is frankly rather childish, since it is to state the obvious. But to draw the conclusion that great historical events are determined exclusively by accidents and the peculiarities of individual actors is a statement that flies in the face of the whole of science and effectively renders any rational explanation of historical events impossible.
Let me put it this way. Everybody accepts that the whole of nature, the universe, the evolution of species, including our own, is determined by definite laws. It is the task of science precisely to discover these laws. By what right do we assume that everything takes place according to laws, with the exception of human history? That would mean that we have not advanced any further than the first book of Genesis, which informs us that men and women are the exclusive creation of God, and are the supreme rulers of the Earth, and all that is in it.
As a Marxist, I find this assumption frankly astonishing. It seems that we can understand everything under the sun – except our own social evolution! Such a view of history is actually not even particularly new. It was Henry Ford who uttered the immortal words: “history is just one damn thing after another”. That is precisely the position of our post-modernist historians. We might add that Henry Ford also said: “history is bunk.” Indeed, that penetrating observation can well be applied to this new TV series.
Demonology instead of history
The series immediately starts on the wrong foot. The presenter informs us that she is going to “explore Charles’s mind”. This would seem to be a somewhat daring assertion, considering that Charles Stuart has been dead and buried for approximately four centuries, and therefore, one assumes that his mind is somewhat out of reach. It is certainly impossible to put him on a psychiatrist’s couch at present. But such trivial problems do not deter our intrepid post-modernists in the slightest degree. What biology cannot provide can easily be substituted by the infinite force of the human imagination, of which we have here in plenty.
We are told that “nine years of Civil War and regicide were all decided by a period of 50 days”. This is a gross oversimplification of complex processes, which actually unfolded over a period of more than a decade. But let that rest. We can accept for the sake of argument that the winter of 1641-42 did represent a tipping point that led inexorably to Civil War. But what were the causes of the Civil War? To this question, no serious answers are ever given.The thesis put forward by the series is spelt out very clearly in the first episode: the whole thing is reduced to a personal conflict between two men: King Charles, who was very arrogant and believed he was answerable only to God, and John Pym, “who will stop at nothing to curb the King’s power.” So there you have it: the whole wretched business was caused by two unreasonable people who could not get on. “Two men dragged the whole country into crisis,” we are told – no ifs or buts!
The first problem, it appears, was precisely the mind of Charles. We are informed he was: “an arrogant, aloof King, who was out of contact with his people.” He was “domineering and overweening.” He was not prepared to listen or make compromises. Now, if he had not been so unreasonable, everything could have been different. The Civil War could have been avoided. Charles could have kept his throne and his head, the whole of British history would have taken a different course, and everyone would have lived happily ever after. Ah, how nice it would have been if our post-modern historians could only have made history, instead of merely writing about it!
The new post-modernist school of history tries to steer a “middle way”, avoiding all ideological explanations and extremes. It presents a more “nuanced” picture of the Civil War, bewildering in its complexity, serving us a confusing mass of detail – this little incident and that fascinating little bit of gossip, and above all, little bits of individual psychology (“exploring the mind of Charles” etc.). Thus, the whole thing is reduced to the personal quirks of Charles I, and the stubbornness of John Pym.
This leads us into a tangled forest from which there is no way out. It is what Engels used to call a “pauper’s broth of eclecticism.” It is incapable of explaining anything about the English Revolution – or anything else for that matter. The main ingredients in this insipid broth are – plots and conspiracies. These words are invariably associated in the series with the name of the wicked Pym. His Majesty is portrayed as a fundamentally decent man who was just a bit too arrogant for his own good, whereas that awful Pym is portrayed as a complete scoundrel: “His methods were repulsive” … and so on and so forth.
We leave aside the fact that, in warfare and diplomacy, deceit plays an important role. It is called tactics. But when it comes to deceitfulness, cunning and dishonesty, it is surely Charles Stuart, not Pym, who must be given pride of place. This so-called method is in fact a kind of demonology, that seeks to explain history in terms of the evil machinations of ambitious men. This reminds me of the lines that Byron devoted to the poet Coleridge:
“explaining metaphysics to the nation,
I wish he would explain his explanation.”
Let us call this so-called method by its proper name: it is the conspiracy theory of history. It is an explanation that, like the philosophical meanderings of Coleridge, explains nothing at all.
Our modern (or rather, post-modern) academics take great pride in their rigorous methods of analysis, and their painstaking attitude towards the facts. Unfortunately, the facts in this series have been taken in a very cavalier fashion (excuse the pun). In a word, these ‘experts’ have simply not done their homework. The first episode, to look no further, begins with a blatant falsehood.
The date is 20 November 1641. We are informed that King Charles is returning from Edinburgh, “where he has suppressed a rebellion.” As a result of this alleged victory over the Scots, the King is returning to Westminster “full of confidence.” These are the precise words of the script. What are the facts? The exact opposite was the case. The rebellion in Scotland actually took place, not in 1641, but in 1639 when Charles, in an act of supreme folly, attempted to impose the English Book of Common Prayer on the Scots. This led to a national uprising. Far from suppressing the rebellion, it spread like wild fire, leading to what became known as the Bishops’ Wars, in which Charles suffered two shattering military defeats.
At the time under consideration by the programme, the Scottish army had actually advanced into England and occupied Newcastle. Charles had been forced to sign the humiliating Treaty of Ripon. The treasury was empty, and every expedient for supply had been exhausted. But the King had suffered a far more serious loss: the complete collapse of his authority both north and south of the border. He was now morally and financially bankrupt.
In fact, Charles was forced to go cap in hand to ask parialment for money to pay the Scots for the expenses of the war and the wages of the occupying forces, as a prior condition for their evacuation of Newcastle. He assumed that parliament would vote to approve the necessary cash on patriotic grounds. That was a bad mistake. The wealthy merchants in parliament were actually more sympathetic to the Scottish Presbyterians than to Charles who had dissolved parliament 11 years earlier and ruled by illegal and arbitrary means.
During that eleven year period Charles ruled on his own (with the assistance of advisers, Archbishop Laud, the Earl of Strafford and the Queen). Summary justice meted out by the notorious Court of Star Chamber, which raised money for the King by imposing heavy fines on those who refused to pay his illegal taxes. Rich men were tempted with the offer to purchase titles. If that did not work, they were fined the very same sum of money.
The programme mentions in passing the case of William Prynne, the outspoken Puritan who was sentenced to have both ears cut off. But this was not at all unusual. For refusing to accept the religion of the King and his agent Archbishop Laud, men were imprisoned without trial, flogged, branded on the face, or like Prynne, had their ears sliced off and their tongue bored with a hot iron.
A rebellious young man called John Lilburne was punished for distributing illegal literature in the streets. By order of the Star Chamber he was whipped through the streets of London from the Fleet prison to Westminster until the blood flowed down his back. He was accompanied throughout by sympathetic crowds.
As he sat on the pavement covered in dust and blood, a gentleman approached him in the name of the Star Chamber, offering to spare him the pillory if he would humbly beg pardon – an offer he firmly refused. When he was made to stand in the pillory he continued to preach and shout his defiance until a gag was stuffed into his mouth. Even when dragged off to prison, he continued to harangue his captors.
In reprisal, the Star Chamber condemned him to be thrown into a dungeon, and loaded with irons. Lilburne, who later became one of the leaders of the Levellers, described the indescribably bad conditions in his filthy and dark dungeon as the worst possible torture he had to endure. But he steadfastly refused to repent or ask for forgiveness. By that time the damage had been done. The tide was now turning. The arrest and ill-treatment of John Lilburne in 1638 provoked a furious popular outcry against Laud and his bishops.
Charles’s repressive measures only served to fuel the fires of resentment and encourage the rise of a powerful mass protest movement known as the Puritans. Prynne became a great hero among them. This movement, beginning with religious ideas, soon acquired a political and subversive character. Given the close relationship between Church and state, this was absolutely inevitable.
We are told that, when Charles returned “full of confidence” following his humiliating defeat at the hands of the Scots, he was met on his return by a conspiracy, cooked up by a “sinister faction”. But far from being full of confidence, as the series claims, Charles was in such a tight corner that he was compelled, much against his will, to call Parliament. Seizing their opportunity, the parliamentarians pressed their demands. A leading role in this was indeed played by Pym, but he was not the only one. Another leading parliamentarian, John Hampden, played an equally significant role, but is barely mentioned.
What was this sinister faction? At this point, we take leave of rationality altogether and enter the misty realm of children’s fairy stories. And in every fairy story there is a good man and the bad man. The bad man here is not King Charles, of course, as our objective historians all rush to point out. “Charles was not really a bad man,” just a bit unreasonable. Why could he not be reasonable, as we modern historians all are? If only everybody was like us, how much more pleasant history could have been!
Unfortunately, in this fairy story, the good man was defeated by the bad man, who, we are left in absolutely no doubt, was John Pym, the leader of the opposition in Parliament. While making a few gestures to create the impression of impartiality, most of those interviewed cannot conceal their hatred of Pym and his party, “the fanatical minority known as Puritans.” Right from the word go, we are insistently told that Pym was an intriguer, constantly engaged in plots and conspiracies against the poor unfortunate King. This is, in fact, the main, if not the only, explanation for the English Revolution that is put forward.
Parliament pressed home its advantage by demanding the trial of the King’s favourite, Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Strafford. This was a direct challenge to the King’s power. But there is no mention of this in the programme. Fearing that Strafford might yet escape justice, the populace began to mobilise. Many mass demonstrations were held to demand the trial and punishment of the man who many people saw as the chief villain in a villainous government. About 6,000 men armed with swords and clubs marched from the City to Westminster and surrounded the Houses of Parliament.
The anger of the masses against Charles was reflected in a campaign of agitation on the streets of London aimed at preventing the release of Strafford. There was an ugly mood on the streets of London, which caused panic in the ranks of the parliamentarians. In the end, the King betrayed his friend and handed him over to the executioner’s axe. Here we see Charles as he really was: a cowardly, weak and treacherous man for whom the word loyalty had no meaning. To great popular rejoicing, Strafford was beheaded on Tower Hill on 12 May 1641.
Lisa Hilton does not approve of the Puritans because they were against people having a good time. It is clear from the programme that she herself is very much in favour of having a good time, and what reasonable person can blame her for that? She appears to be most at home when lying on the floor of the extravagantly decorated Banqueting House in central London, admiring the Baroque ceiling and the adoration of absolute monarchy conveyed by the huge painting by Rubens.
In order, one assumes, to enter into the mind of Charles I, the BBC kindly paid for the carriage and horses to carry her on a round tour of our capital city. Giving full rein to her fertile imagination, Lisa informs us that the experience has convinced her that there was something to be said for the lifestyle of absolute monarchs, after all. She could even happily imagine herself transported back into those happy times (as a member of the Royal family, of course, not as a London apprentice, or a skivvy in the kitchens of Hampton Court).
In this state of bliss, she even delivers a royal wave to an imaginary crowd, in imitation of our dear Queen. “Riding in a carriage like this, it is easy to imagine …” etc., etc. Whenever she appears in these scenes, her face radiates nostalgia for happy times past. By contrast, whenever she speaks of those nasty Puritans, she scowls and makes no attempt to conceal her distaste for their boring black and white dress and their bad habit of smashing up churches and destroying works of art, including that most splendid work of art: the monarchy itself. This is what is called historical objectivity in academic circles.
Lisa Hilton refers to “sinister forces” and the “fanatical minority” who, it seems, dragged the nation into Civil War because they hated Catholics and wanted to stop people having a good time. We are informed that: “the Puritans didn’t really go in for joy.” And what reasonable person does not like to be joyful? Charles, on the other hand, was a very joyful person who enjoyed parties, picnics and balls. He was, we are told, particularly fond of masques, an extravagant form of entertainment involving music, dancing and scantily dressed young ladies. Ms. Hilton positively gushes with enthusiasm in describing the royal couple: “Charles and his wife were a shimmering and radiantly colourful van Dyck in an England of black ink woodcuts.”
But how does one explain the dour asceticism of the Puritans? Was this the product of a genetic aberration, a psychological quirk, or simply bad taste? No matter how much time and effort we spend trying to find a psychological explanation, we will fail. As a matter of fact, asceticism plays a role in every revolution in history. Deprived of the material means for obtaining a comfortable existence, let alone a luxurious one, the masses naturally have an attitude of hatred towards the extravagant and ostentatious luxury of the ruling class.
Asceticism and revolution
The obscene wealth of a small minority of idle parasites is itself a powerful contributing factor for revolution. This is just as true today as it was in the 17th century. But in the 16th century, asceticism was also a typical feature of the early period of capitalism, which Marx calls the period of the primitive accumulation of capital. The obsession with thrift and saving was one of the chief characteristics of the bourgeois in that period.
Let us not forget that the spiritual ancestor of the bourgeois is the medieval miser, and the embryo of primitive accumulation is the miser’s hoard. The stinginess of the bourgeois, especially in the early period, flows from the demands of primitive accumulation. Every penny must be saved for the purpose of accumulation. Precious money must not be wasted on frivolities like expensive clothes, theatres, extravagant feasting and drinking.
The morality and religion of feudalism rested on entirely different foundations. Since feudalism is based on agriculture, and moreover on a labour-intensive form of agriculture, society was conservative and as unchanging as the seasons – the owners of land did not need to bother their heads about money. They had no need to reinvest the surplus that they extracted from the peasantry. Consequently, the very idea of frugality, thrift and saving would have struck them as peculiar. On the contrary, the only purpose of wealth was to flaunt it.
The feudal lord had no other idea of money than to spend it on feasting and drinking, on lavish clothes and other outward displays of splendour. He could be generous on occasions, at least to his friends, relations and clients. Above all, he could be generous to the Church. After a lifetime of sin, he would leave huge amounts of money to the monks to say prayers for his soul for the next hundred years, or to contribute to the building of a cathedral. Not for nothing did the art of cathedral building flourish in this period like no other.
The asceticism of the monks and nuns, their utter renunciation of all human enjoyment, was supposed to compensate for the extravagances of the ruling class, the members of which could rest easy in the sure knowledge that they had God (or at least the Church) on their side. Even the most sinful soul could be sent straight to Paradise, (or at least get time off for good behaviour in Purgatory) upon the payment of a sufficient sum of money to the appropriate ecclesiastic authority.
The fundamental doctrinal difference between Catholicism and Protestantism is the difference between salvation through Works (which can work out as expensive) and salvation through Faith (which is highly economical). The devout Protestant could be sure of salvation by the mere act of believing that Jesus saves. On the other hand, by the late Middle Ages, the Catholic Church was becoming an increasingly expensive operation. To finance the numerous wars and lavish lifestyle of the Papacy, ever-increasing sums of money were required. This was extracted by a number of means – all of them unpopular. The tithes were a burdensome taxation imposed on all classes. Then there were all kinds of supplementary taxes and impositions. Finally, there were the notorious indulgences: bits of paper, the purchase of which was supposed to guarantee remission of sins. The revolt against this was one of the main forces that impelled the Reformation, which in turn opened the door to the first bourgeois revolutions, first in Holland, then in England.
To the mind of a Puritan, the very idea of a hierarchical church structure with priests and bishops was contrary to the letter and the spirit of the Gospels. The only authority they recognised was the Bible itself, which they regarded as the revealed word of God. This was a direct link between the individual man and woman with the Almighty, and nothing and nobody should be allowed to interpose themselves between the individual and the deity.
The Puritans were in favour of the abolition of sports on Sunday, not because they “did not do joy” but because they wanted men and women to attend prayer meetings. These religious gatherings were in fact hotbeds of subversion. The preachers, who were usually common workingmen or artisans, did not confine themselves to religious texts but launched into fierce denunciations of the injustices of the present order of things.
The royalists were extremely suspicious about this. The Duke of Newcastle said that there “should be more praying and less preaching.” (Christopher Hill, The Century of Revolution, p. 83)
He later told Charles II that traditional sports “will amuse the people’s thoughts and keep them in harmless action, which will free your Majesty from faction and rebellion.” (Christopher Hill, The Century of Revolution: 1603-1714, p.84)
The reason why the ruling class favoured sports on Sunday was not because they were in favour of ‘joy’, but because they wanted to steer the common people away from politics. There is nothing new in this. The Roman slave owners offered the masses bread and circuses. Their modern equivalent offers us football. Joyfulness simply doesn’t enter into it. The ostentatious display of riches was not confined to jewellery, expensive dresses and lavish parties and balls. It was also extended into the realm of religion. The innovations brought about by Charles’s henchman archbishop Laud made Anglican churches increasingly similar to Roman Catholic ones.
For the Puritans, who wanted to return to the simpler and purer forms of worship of the early Christians, the elaborate rituals and ornaments introduced by Archbishop Laud were complete anathema (Laud, a key figure in these events, is not even mentioned once in the series). They believed that men and women should have direct contact with God, with only the Bible between them. Luther spoke of “the priesthood of all believers”. That suggests that there should be no priesthood: if every man and woman was a priest, then nobody was a priest. This was a democratic and revolutionary idea, and a threat not only to the hierarchy of the Church but of the state itself.
Development of capitalism in England
This was an age when the bourgeoisie was struggling to emerge from the fetters of feudalism. In an economic sense, capitalism had already made gigantic strides forward in England from the 14th century onwards. By the early part of the 17th century, it was already firmly entrenched both in agriculture and in trade, and also to some extent in the nascent development of industry in the towns. It is no accident that in the struggle between King and Parliament, the revolutionary bourgeois found its main support in the towns, especially in London, but also in Bristol, Portsmouth, Hull, and all the other important commercial centres.
A lot of confusion has been caused by academics who tried to show that the English Revolution was not a bourgeois revolution, because the nobility was fighting on both sides. This shows a complete misunderstanding of the class nature of society at this time. The decay of feudalism, proceeding side-by-side with the rise of capitalism and bourgeois property relations in agriculture, produced a gradual fusion between sections of the old aristocracy and the rising bourgeois class.
CV Wedgwood writes:
“England had long since accepted the fusion of the feudal landowner with the industrialist and the merchant. The Squire’s younger sons were, in the order of things, apprenticed to traders and unless their abilities suited them for the law or for the Church. Only the ardently adventurous or irredeemably stupid were sent abroad with horse and arms to become soldiers in foreign service.” (CV Wedgwood, The King’s Peace and the King’s War, volume 1, p. 49)
RH Tawney makes the same point even more clearly:
“The landowner living on the profits and rights of commercial farming and the merchant or banker who was also a landowner represented not two classes but one. Patrician and parvenu both owed their ascent to causes of the same order. Judged by the source of their incomes, they were equally bourgeois.” (Quoted in Christopher Hill, op. cit., p. 102)
But the economic power of the rising bourgeoisie was not accompanied by corresponding growth in political power, which remained firmly in the hands of the monarchy and the nobility. In the previous century, the Tudors balanced between the classes while concentrating power in the hands of the absolute monarch. By degrees, the nascent bourgeoisie conquered positions of influence, but still remained politically in a subordinate position.
Puritanism was strongest in the most economically developed areas: London, the Home Counties, the South-East and East Anglia. It also had a strong following in the seaports, especially Bristol. With its insistence upon sobriety and hard work, it fitted in perfectly with the capitalist mode of production. Puritans were fervently attached to their religion and prepared to fight for it, and if necessary, die for it.