Tuesday, October 05, 2021

Brian Manning - The Far Left in the English Revolution: 1640 - 1660

Brian Manning explains in the introduction to this short book that it is an attempt to remedy an omission. At the time of the Revolution, he says, it was common to "make a tripartite division of society" into the gentry, the middling sort and the poor. The roles of the first two have been amply discussed, but the poor have been "largely neglected". Manning explores the role of this section of society by looking at those who "attempted to speak for the poor", which he admits begs the question of "how far they reflected attitudes and aspiration". 

Manning is at pains to show how the Revolution was a period when different forces vied for position, but influenced and shaped wider political movements. So he says

It was from amongst the class of independent small producers that the main driving force of the revolution probably came, and amongst whom the radical certainly found their chief strength. But revolutions commonly begin with alliances between diverse social groups against an existing regime, and as the revolution develops the different and conflicting interests of these groups emerge.

We certainly see this with the far left. The Levellers, for instance, whom Manning discusses in details, emerge as the radical edge of Cromwell's coalition, but eventually become opposed to his class, and are destroyed by Cromwell in turn. Manning continues:

it was with the progress of the revolution that class differences and class conflicts emerged, shaping the course and the outcome of the revolution.
But in exploring the exact nature of the classes involved in the revolution, Manning draws out real tensions. 

It is a decisive factor in the English Revolution that the 'middle sort' was divided between elements that favoured developments which we see now as facilitating the growth of capitalism and elements hostile towards those developments. The revolution was a crucial phase in crystallising a proto-bourgeoisie and a proto-proletariat.

Within these mass movements and the political ferment that arose, the ideas of small groups and radical individuals could take significant hold. Manning explores some of these, though sadly this book is short so this is necessarily done briefly. Manning looks at the Levellers and the Diggers, showing how their ideas arose in, sometimes, contradictory ways. Opposing the rise of capitalism and the same time as hating the old feudal order. In some areas where wage labour was coming to dominate production, eg large farms, "an approach t consciousness of themselves as a distinct class... created a potential for class conflict in those areas where capitalism was taking control".

Frequently drawing on the work of Marxists, Manning demonstrates the importance of Marxism for understanding these dialectical conflicts. Explaining the way that revolutionaries used religious ideas, Manning quotes Engels: "Each of the different classes uses its own appropriate religion". But then he continues by criticising Engels' chosen language, saying it "missed the close integration of class interests and class struggles with religious language and religious beliefs".

Returning to Manning's far-left and revolutionaries, he makes some interesting points about the nature of their radicalism. Talking about the Leveller William Thompson and the Digger Gerrard Winstanley he writes that they

were both typical of the revolutionaries of their time in that they thought the publishing of a manifesto and the example of action by a small group would precipitate a mass movement. But neither was backed by any widespread or nationwide organisation for promoting their ideas, attaching supporters and mobilising mass actions, and in the circumstances of the time that was probably impossible... the Levellers had no clear conception of a revolutionary seizure of power and taking control of the government.

Manning continues however by pointing out that had they taken control the Levellers would have had "to maintain a strong central government backed by armed force". Which is why the one other factor that must not be ignored is the army. Manning describes the army as having a "microcosm" of the "class conflict in society at large at the time of the English Revolution". This was why their had to be a clamping down on radical ideas for fear of losing control of the armed force that would have allowed radicals to maintain power, just as it enabled Cromwell to maintain control.

Manning nots an additional problem of the English Revolution. The development of capitalism was transforming social and economic relations in the countryside. Crucially this was seeing the beginnings of a mass process of enclosure. Manning argues that the struggles of the peasants, whom he emphasises were the majority of the English population, against enclosure were "disconnected from the revolution". The peasants would rise against anyone enclosing land - Royalist or Parliamentarian. But as a class they "lacked the political consciousness to rise in a new revolution" and "relapsed from the parliamentarian cause or rebounded into royalism". Manning concludes by arguing that while the English Revolution placed a revolution against capitalism and feudalism on the agenda, the emerging proletariat was not strong or distinct enough to take that forward. It was however powerful and radical enough to scare the bourgeoise who allowed the "return to political power of the old ruling class" within a new capitalist society, in order to keep down the masses.

While a short work of barely 130 pages, this is a remarkable read. A lucid account of the social forces at the bottom of English society and their radical wings, who were trying to understand the present and shape the future. Manning uses the tools and key concepts of Marxism to understand the social basis of the Revolution and the dynamic of the social forces within society. Its a breath-taking work of history, and those interested in the period, or radical ideas in general or those who want to see how Marxism can be used as a powerful tool to explore history, should grab this book.

Related Reviews

Manning - Aristocrats, Plebeians & Revolution in England 1640-1660
Hill - God's Englishman: Oliver Cromwell and the English Revolution
Hill - The World Turned Upsidedown: Radical Ideas During the English Revolution
Carlin - The Causes of the English Civil War

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