Category Archives: Capitalism

Reappropriating the Bourgeois Revolutions

“We have it in our power to begin the world over again.” -Tom Paine, Common Sense

here is a rather unfortunately amusing predicament a student of bourgeois revolutions will notice upon first foraying into online research databases for primary documents. The databases you frequent, and are in many cases forced to use, hold  a noticeable connection to modern libertarianism and whig liberalism. Revolutions of peasants and merchants are now revolutions of only ingenious merchants; of Locke and Hobbes, and not Lilburne or Winstanley. A professor and I were in one particularly odious case forced to print off John Milton’s Eikonoklastes (in which Milton defends tyrannicide and lampoons the historically stagnant) from the “Online Library of Liberty” (a collection of scholarly works on individual liberty and free markets, as the header proudly proclaims), much to our own perturbation.

One finds this elsewhere, as the popularly published and circulated history of the American revolution is extraordinarily conservative and deterministic with some notable exceptions such as Zinn and Linnbaugh, amongst others. A statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest (the first grand wizard of the Klu Klux Klan) stands proudly in Memphis, but there is only one statue of Tom Paine (author and catalyst of American revolutionary nationalism) in the United States in a small New Jersey town. The peasant rebellions subsequent to the American victory are a mere footnote in history textbooks, only glossed over in most junior high and high school level history courses while the story of George Washington and an unlucky cherry tree endures in cultural memory (in spite of its relationship with truth).

Consistent with the bourgeoisie’s own narrative of its historical finality, the fire of the 17th and 18th centuries has been turned into a stone buttress holding up modern capitalist mythos of free enterprise and personal liberty. To such gentrified narratives, Milton’s Areopagitica is a treatise exclusively on modern freedom of speech and the press, the Leveller’s Agreement of the People is merely anticipatory of american radicalism, the Diggers are an insignificant minority, the English Revolution (sorry, the English Civil War) a battle to get rid of an ineffective and catalytic king (Russel), and the Ranters didn’t even exist at all!

The gentrification, or revision as author James Holstun calls it, of the bourgeois revolutions is a two-way street, however, with many leftists rejecting the revolutionary legacy of the English Revolution (for Cromwell and Ireland), the American Revolution (for slavery) and the French Revolution (for  the “Reign of Terror” and Napoleon). Such an ideological decision plays into the hands of modern counterrevolutionaries who endeavor to appropriate revolutionary history.  The history of class struggle and warfare, even if the victors are the left’s contemporary enemies, is by right (not divine, of course) the area of Marxists and Marxist critics. There is no doubt that the bourgeois revolutions advanced through crippling dialectical contradictions (between liberty and slavery, for example), and Marxists must never let bourgeois theory escape from these historically objective contradictions. Such an activity, however, requires an appreciation of the movement of these revolutions down class lines and their ultimate failure to fufill their most radical goals; requiring mass repressions of radical peasants and workers in each case.

At the heart of historically highlighting the bourgeois revolutions is the central thesis of a modern Marxist approach – revolutions are what change history. Mass movements of people, not singular heads of government, forge in the fire of violent upheaval the existing social order. The Bourgeois revolutions do not suggest the eternal triumph of the bourgeoisie, as many mainstream critics and historians have sought to prove through historical revision and post-modern diffusion, it is, instead, proof of the universality of class struggle; the power of the working classes, and the greater trend of humanity towards the democratization of production. To write off the bourgeois revolutions as historically necessary and inevitable is not only lazy Marxist analysis but it also silences the voices that actively fought against both feudalism and emergent capitalism. To ignore the struggles of peasants and workers in an era before developed capitalism and Marxism is to rob ourselves of a rich history and context for the establishment of our current struggles and dynamics. It is to chain Marxist analysis to the material conditions of the 19th century, an idea Michael Foucault and other post-modernists have endeavored to  establish for several decades; and an idea we must continue to oppose.

Let us then appropriate in this essay, as the bourgeois revolutionaries did in their revolutions, history. Just as Milton would highlight the democratic “nature” of the English people in Saxon times, let  us tell a history that leads to an understanding of these revolutions developed for many decades by Marxist historians across field and era. An understanding that renders the revolutions as a crucible where revolutionary anti-capitalist voices erupted from anti-royal struggles and were violently silenced by emergent capitalist states; revealing, in turn, the true nature of modern capitalist states and mythos.

Armed with Book and Lance: England and the Danger of Peasant Power

 “For the army are acted by their own principles; they are an army that  understands themselves.” -John Saltmarsh, A Letter from the Army, on the New Model Army

Perhaps the most obvious positive outcome of the bourgeois revolutions was the destruction of the feudal mode of production and the states that supported it. In England, in spite of the ultimate failure of the Commonwealth, the bourgeoisie continued to reign supreme into Restoration England, orchestrating the dubiously titled “Glorious Revolution” when fears of James II tolerance of Catholicism was used to bring about liberal reforms. England had become, as author J.G.A Pocock alludes to in his recommendable book The Machiavellian Moment, a society where economic stability was tied to political stability, where stability was tied to the prosperity of all; a convenient ideological strand given the frightening upsurge of peasant consciousness and resistance during the interregnum.

There are two things of import in highlighting this ideological turn in the restoration era bourgeoisie in England. First, the feudal economic system was undone. No longer did a King hold the leash of a parliament, long, short or in between; parliament now held the leash of King and Queen; rather tightly, as the Glorious Revolution illustrates. Second, the economic stability of capitalist England was tied to political stability (read Pocock’s chapters “Court, Country and Standing Army” and “Virtue, Passion and Commerce”) to nurture the later blooming English fear of chaos caused by violent revolution, manifested in Alexander Pope’s rational exultation of inaction in his Essay on Man, Samuel Butler’s lampooning of puritan revolutionaries in his Hudibras, rabid anti-Jacobin tracts, and fearful early-Victorian tracts on continental upheaval (1848). Just what had happened in England during its revolution to elicit such fearful sentiments from the triumphant bourgeoisie and their culture? That, in our effort to render the bourgeois revolutions as class wars alight with ultimately snuffed out peasant consciousness, is worth answering.

The English Revolution is remarkable for its firstness in executing a king, and paradoxically, the revolution’s fairly conservative goals. The poetry of Andrew Marvell and John Milton (Marvell’s Horation Ode, Milton’s 16th Sonnet) reflect a deep anxiety with the violent revolution that killed 100,000 in a nation of five million. The political developments of the period (the Presbyterian parliament, the general unpopularity of the commonwealth government, and the ultimate betrayal of the military in the Restoration) show a keen conservative discomfort with what the revolution had uncovered; notably an English heritage of peasant revolt and consciousness, found politically in 1381 and even in literature in Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene.

The Commonwealth government, despite its enemies’ accusations, advocated itself for fairly conservative measures. Cromwell, and his fellow Grandees (landed gentry and other nobleman of the New Model Army, of which Cromwell was one, who opposed the agitators at Putney) advocated for very little past greater representation and parliamentary autonomy. That’s not to say, however, that radical and future-looking rebel voices didn’t emerge. In fact, the English Revolution is remarkable for the level of dialogue modern readers can find, be it through the Clarke Papers (which record, by quote, the Putney Debates) or the political tracts of Winstanley, Lilburne, Milton, Presbyters, Grandees, Fifth Monarchists and beyond, all of which survive to this day.

These tracts were read by an ever-diversifying populace. When John Milton was born in 1608, approximately 30% of the population in England could read, by the time he died, in 1688, nearly 50% of the society could read. What is the function of this change? Put simply, revolution and puritan egalitarianism (two connected concepts, no doubt), and what Jurgen Habermas would call the public sphere. Gone were the days of Latin texts read by only a handful of souls deciding the fate of an entire nation. In revolutionary England, working class New Model soldiers read and circulated texts, arguing with each other on points of organization, terror, and agitation. These texts, of course, were written in the vernacular. They were printed by the hundreds and thousands with ease. Political consciousness in peasants, women (see: Lucy Hutchenson, Anne Trapnell) and urban proletariat soared. Bibles were read by everyone in a pike battalion and everyone in a parish. The same anti-slavery verses that would so attract radical African slaves to the old testament worked unfiltered through the minds of revolutionary puritans via the Geneva Bible.

Of course, this consciousness and ideology wouldn’t be worth very much if it was not itself conscious of its own potential for realization. This potential was elicited, rather unwittingly, by the Grandee officers who gave the same peasants who had rebelled in 1381 pikes and muskets to do battle against the King. The New Model had, by its very own organization and revolution in military leadership and command, toppled one of the most powerful monarchs in the world. This experience, as James Holstien highlights with precision in his chapter “New Model Soviets” in his book Ehud’s Dagger, garnered a previously unseen level of political, communal consciousness. At Putney, a debate between New Model radicals and Grandees, battalions elected there very own agitator to represent their interests. Agitators verbally acknowledge in the debates that they speak not for themselves but for their troops. This, fundamentally, was revolutionary democracy. Without the legitimacy of state and constitution, New Model soldiers struggled against what they saw as Grandee betrayal.

Predictably, Cromwell and Ireton (a frequently quoted Grandee from the Clarke Papers) responded to these agitator’s cries for universal suffrage with accusations of anarchism and banditry. Cromwell retorted to Rainsborough, the oft quoted agitator, by claiming, “No man says that you have a mind to anarchy, but that the consequence of this rule tends to anarchy, must end in anarchy.” Ireton condemned the leveling ideology at the meeting by asking, “by what right may I not take your property?”

These responses to peasant power, in letter and musket, is anticipatory of the universal repressions of peasants and workers subsequent to each major bourgeois revolution. Critically, we see a keen tension between what the bourgeois revolutions produced as bi-product and what they were prepared to procure politically. Elevated consciousness in the peasants and the wars they were willing to wage to bring together ideal, both religious and political, and reality, posed a grave danger to the triumphant bourgeois state of England. It is for this reason that repressions occurred, and that even through restoration and glorious dynasty change, the bourgeoisie continued to reign supreme in England; in stability, profit, crushing urbanization, and growing inequality.

We must never silence the voices of these agitators because they are inconvenient to our analyses, both left and right. The bourgeois revolutions were not simply anti-feudal, inevitable struggles born of inherent contradiction, nor were they wars for universal freedom and liberty. In between lies a world of both Grandee and Agitator, where both parties battled, and the latter lost. This battle and its belligerents are not insignificant. In the battle, many aspects of modern bourgeois democracy and the mythos that supports it were forged. The martial metaphor, as will be elucidated, is apt indeed.

A Republic of Burned Letters

“-no man hath a right to an interest or share in the disposing of the affairs of the kingdom… that hath not a permanent fixed interest in this kingdom.” -Ireton, Putney

The battles and its ultimate outcome is worth stopping upon, to illustrate how the failures of the bourgeois revolutions to meet their revolutionary ideals can be used as a catalyst in understanding the dominance and weaknesses of modern bourgeois mythos.

I had previously mentioned Jurgen Habermas’ concept of the public sphere and highlighted then only the core and mostly well-respected movements of his theory; chiefly that in Early Modern Europe you see the emergence of a republic of letters (not his term, but a popularly used one) in which textual voices discoursed over vast geographical distance critical problems and issues in society, philosophy, and so on. What many Marxist critics notice upon reading Habermas (a Frankfurt Marxist himself) is that the idea is too glorified, that Habermas believes too strongly that this system actually worked in any measurable amount.

I do not dispute the idea of the public sphere (obviously, having used the concept previously), but I do agree with other critics that Habermas’ vision of it is too idealized. The public sphere functioned down class lines, and was, as alluded to above, working in a society where only half of the population knew to read and write. We must guard cautiously against dubiously claiming the public sphere was anything more than an inter-bourgeois mode of critique and debate. Clearly, as we will revisit and hash out below, many voices in emergent bourgeois society were crushed utterly and violently.

In England, many leveling New Model soldiers refused to go to war in Ireland, earning them jail and expulsion from the army. The Diggers, lead by Gerrard Winstanley, numbering only 50, were attacked by hired thugs of landed gentry (on whose land they lived on the outskirts of) and were eventually dissolved forcefully by Thomas Fairfax and Commonwealth soldiers, with their crops torn out, their hovels burned, and their common buildings torn to the ground. Radical preachers were thrown in prison by a parliament preaching religious freedom. Licensing of texts continued in spite of John Milton’s famous protestation Areopagitica. Perhaps most famously but least importantly, Christmas was cancelled due to peasant revelry and the associated sinning.

Clearly, this was a society much to John Milton’s liking; a society where a privileged, intellectual few men made the decisions for an entire nation, and not a society were millions discoursed on national policy free from repression. What we see in England is, as Pocock is right to trace, republican governance in the true Roman and Greek sense; as Vladimir Lenin was astute to point out, freedom for wealthy men, and not plebs, lest we find ourselves in tyranny (or anarchy, as Cromwell suggested at Putney). Indeed, this was, explicitly, what Milton and many other Commonwealth intellectuals (such as Marvell) advocated for. The rule of the rich was universally preferable to the rule of the emotional and chaotic “thralls” (as Milton called the working class in his Readie and Easie Way).

As many recent scholars have been right to point out, the American revolutionary generation inherited much from its English younger brother. Ben Franklin reflects in his autobiography reading Milton’s political tracts in his grandfather’s library. Tom Paine quotes Milton’s Satan in Common Sense, and Lilburne was widely read. Interestingly, the repression of emergent peasant radicalism was not transcended by a purely temporal shift forward (as a Whig historian might suggest). We see in the Whiskey Rebellion and more particularly Shay’s Rebellion, opposition to the failure of even the Constitutional (as opposed to the confederated) government to achieve the aims of revolutionary peasants and workers met with violent repression instead of an open republican hand or even a concession like the tribune or plebeian council.

In France we find an extremely similar story. The sans-culottes, essentially rioting urban proletariat, were originally used and championed by the Jacobins and their leader Maximilian Robespierre. It was the sans-culottes who most vigorously defended the “terror” against reactionaries and enemies. When Robespierre was executed himself and the Directorate rose to supremacy, the sans-culottes were repressed violently as remnants of a chaotic and tyrannical period. Those two words associated with peasant power should be familiar to you at this point. The offspring of Greco-Roman republicanism shared its deep fear of true democracy and the crucible of plebian control.

“The secret in freedom lies in educating the people, whereas the secret of tyranny is to keep them ignorant.” – Maximilien Robespierre

In total, studying the true, if often not recounted, nature of the bourgeois revolutions; in their deep fear of true democracy and in their brutal repression of emergent peasant power, we find a fruitful theoretical avenue for understanding the formation of modern bourgeois states and their mythos. A Marxist will be eager to use the simple fact that the bourgeois revolutionaries never attempted to provide true democracy or freedom. They never sought to hear the voices of every citizen, and this is flagrantly obvious with the tangential study of bourgeois repressions of peasant movements in each major revolution found above. In spite of capitalist mythos of unlimited freedom and a republic of letters, the history of the revolutions alone (to say nothing of imperialism) proves these to be completely false and even never explicitly desired by the founding fathers in each case.

Given what we have highlighted above, we must refute both whig and crude marxist renderings of the bourgeois revolutions that leave them a lifeless husk of nebulous progress and inevitability. What we find in a true study is quite the opposite – a period alight with bloodshed, rebellion, revolutionary discourses, and tyrannical bourgeois republicanism; where each tract and battle titled the scales of history. Critically, we find in the bourgeois revolutions as an almost unintentional bi-product the empowering of peasants past what the bourgeois leaders were comfortable with. We see peasants and urban proletariat waging war against capitalism as well as feudalism, and forming their own independent organizations with their own representatives.  Their voices are important for us now, in light of whig history coming from both left and right, we find in history that the contradictions of capitalism have not moved an inch. From 1640 to today, from Lilburne to Hampton, the bourgeoisie maintains its deep fear of a people’s tyranny, repressing violently any who would suggest something more; any who would suggest for true universality and not the universality of Rome and Athens, who would endeavor to fulfill the true promise of the revolutionary movements in England, France, and America. Such is the function of the bourgeois state from its inception as we have seen above, but in the history of its forging, what we have endeavored to reappropriate to the history of class struggle, we can find in their own deeds the means for procuring an end of true, universal “liberty, equality, and fraternity.”

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Dreaming of Another World: Revolutionary Puritanism in England


“Was the earth made to preserve a few covetous, proud men to live at ease, and for them to bag and barn up the treasures of the Earth from others, that these may beg or starve in a fruitful land; or was it made to preserve all her children?” -Gerrard Winstanley, The New Law of Righteousness

https://rlv.zcache.com/letter_i_medieval_monogram_vintage_initial_statuette-r0a3155c6fc5849d18474e628703936c8_x7saw_8byvr_324.jpg n a damp prison cell in the Tower of London  in the year 1677, a portly Evangelist sat defiantly in his cell writing what would become, next to the bible, the most published and read book in the English language. He had been arrested countless times subsequent to Charles II’s Restoration, each time suggesting to his judge what Joey Strummer would later defiantly yell in his 20th century punk song “Clampdown,” to double the prison sentence. The man, in a statement quoted in Martin Luther King Jr’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” preferred to“-stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience.” The book he wrote was about a dream, a dream about a man named Christian defeating all obstacles on a perilous but ultimately successful journey to the gleaming citadel of heaven. The man, of course, was John Bunyan. The book was his masterpiece, Pilgrim’s Progress. 

I use this anecdote of a dreamer in prison in response to the shocked and amused
“why?” I get every time I express my passion for the radical puritan literature that erupted from the English crucible of the 1640s and 50s. Today, the perception of 16th through 18th century puritanism in the consciousness of the left and modernity at large is one of scornful amusement, and justifiably so given modern developments. The descendants of puritanism, modern day radical Protestants, have been unkind to the legacy of Bunyan and his dreamer.

However, in the world of Bunyan and Winstanley the vocabulary of radical religiosity was at once religious and political, personally empowering and collectively egalitarian. In this extraordinary time where feudalism fell to parliamentarian liberalism, revolutionary puritanism became in England a way of critiquing emergent capitalism on radically equal spiritual grounds.  The puritan experience was congruent with Christians’ in Pilgrim’s Progress: reading a book, looking at the world around, and asking “-what shall I do?” The revolutionary generation that Bunyan was but the latter bookend was marked by a different kind of puritanism from that which we are familiar with today; a puritanism that gave voices to the voiceless, namely women, preached radical economic equality begotten out of spiritual sameness, and one that rendered property and ownership as the root of sin on earth.

Anna Trapnel, Fifth Monarchist Prophetess

The dialectical nature of radical Puritan thought attacked one firmly held belief of historical import – the inherent inequality between social strata of men and women. In the radical puritan thought system, the body was annihilated and replaced with the fervent soul; a soul that suggested total equality divorced from physical and mental limitations often fraudulently ascribed to women in the period (and ours). It is no coincidence that in the English Revolution countless female political actors emerged from enforced silence to the center of movements through the avenue of spirituality. The spirituality of Puritanism, at the time, was a legitimated vocabulary that opened the door to the creation of discourses of struggle for women, namely for the purposes of this post Anna Trapnel.

A modern reader of Anna Trapnel, a fifth monarchist prophetess, may wonder if she was mentally insane. She writes fervently, like Bunyan, about hearing voices so loud as to turn her head. Yet, her textual constructions (Notably “A Narrative of Her Journey Into Cornwall”) and her visions were of a dual nature. On one hand her visions were orthodox and apocalyptic, typical for the period amongst puritan radicals. On the other, they pit a woman against the highest secular powers on earth; priests, kings, lords, and land-owners. Her most famous vision came at the very location where Charles I had lost his head, a vision that warned against the resurgence of tyranny and anticipated that Caesarian, Cromwellian bolt of lightening Marvell describes in his Horation Ode. She would fast for weeks on end, a radical divorcement from material reality, but she would always return to it in the visions that were produced from her periods of fasting. When she was arrested for disturbing the peace in Cornwall (preaching), she responded to her accusers with verses and parables; much like Jesus in his Roman trial. Throughout her career as a prophetess, we find keenly secular critiques in the form of visions rooted deeply in biblical precedent. (See Holstun’s chapter on Anna Trapnel in Ehud’s Dagger for more, citation below).

Anna Trapnel teaches the modern reader to dig deeper into Puritanical thought beyond the immediate facade of radical religiosity. For Trapnel as for Bunyan, Winstanley and others, Puritanism was a mechanism for critiquing society, a dialectical antithesis to a thesis of equality that formed the synthesis of the rule of the saints. These saints were without gender. Through visions and biblical citation, Anna Trapnel gained a secular voice through deep religiosity, and she was able to construct a validated discourse with which to clash with the ruling class of her society. The opportunity to construct socially antithetical discourses in direct opposition to secular powers gave voice to the voiceless, power to the powerless, and in doing so, rendered all of society as made up of equal members. Marxist critics of the period must be vigilant, as Holstun reminds us, not to simply render Trapnel’s voice as a product of bourgeois individuality, but rather as a point in the spectrum between individual empowerment and societal equality. Holstun concludes, “If we reduce the civilian an Army radicals at Putney to possessive individualists, we overlook the democratic and collectivist currents inside seventeenth-century radicalism, which never quite died” (256).

The legacy Holstun alludes to is a truly remarkable part of Puritan thought and revolution in Early Modern England. Puritanism gave voice to the voiceless and opened the door to the creation of discourses antithetical to worldly power, and just what they said is still relevant to contemporary struggles against strictly gendered societies obsessed with mammon. Much of the radical egalitarian ideology of 1648/9 came out of the New Model Army, an army of radical parliamentarians with a significant puritan leaning. Cromwell lead this army to smashing victories over the king at Marston Moore and elsewhere; surely a sign, as Cromwell noted, of God’s favor. Unfortunately for Cromwell, the New Model knew a different kind of providence than he, one that made them all equal and members of a democracy of  God, pike and musket.

At Putney soldiers met with Cromwell and his leadership to discourse and debate over the “disunity” of the parliamentarian cause. Cromwell, in motions similar to those of modern moderates, scolded the New Model for promoting faction and disunity. His solution, of course, was to submit to New Model authorities. Each regiment elected agitators to speak for them and agitate for their goals. If one reads the Putney Debates, one finds agitators cautiously unwilling to speak on behalf of their soldiers, reflective itself of an emergent communal power in the New Model. Both of these concepts were important, community and power, for the Putney agitators and for modern critics looking for a cast shadow on political developments in the 18th century. The soldiers were not solely a collection of individuals but something more; they were a community whose power superseded that of a single arm or pike; and they knew it.

Thomas Rainsborough, one of the more memorable agitators of the New Model at Putney, elucidates:

“For really I think that the poorest hee that is in England hath a life to live, as the greatest hee; and therefore truly, Sr, I think itt clear, that every Man that is to live under a Government ought first by his own Consent to put himself under that Government; and I do think that the poorest man in England is not at all bound in a strict sense to that Government that he hath not had a voice to put Himself under.” (Rainsborough, Putney Debates)

Rainsborough knew by his very presence at Putney that a man’s voice was not simply his own but that of his entire class. Through the Puritan creation of alternative discourses Rainsborough moved, if only for a moment, into something profound and historically unique; a critique of emergent, victorious English capitalism. Rainsborough and his agitators were the voice of the voiceless, a struggle opened by radical puritanical egalitarianism and taken forward perhaps most famously by New Model Colonel, Gerrard Winstanley.

The resurgence of the popularity of Gerrard Winstanley in the general public and critical circles in the wake of the Occupy movements is telling of the character of the Colonel’s ideology. Winstanley is undeniably a proto-marxist, a socialist without Marx, and a class warrior on the historical frontier of emergent capitalism. Yet, as we must not forget, Winstanley was a fervently religious man and a devout puritan. His motivation to creating a common treasury of earth through his communist Diggers was a vision. He, like Bunyan and Trapnel, heard divine voices speak to him in times of trouble.

Yet, Winstanley’s religious, critical analysis leads him to make cutting critiques of capitalism and authority; be it King or lord (or Lord Protector, for that matter). Winstanley wrote several letters to the Council of State (of which Milton was the Latin Clerk) urging them to fulfill revolutionary promises, elucidating with precision the theme I am highlighting throughout – Puritanism as a mechanism for critiquing the emergent bourgeoisie and their counterrevolution. In his famous “Declaration of the Poor Oppressed People of England, Winstanley declares, “And we look upon that freedom promised to be the inheritance of all, without respect of persons; And this cannot be, unless the Land of England be freely set at liberty from proprietors, and become a common Treasury to all her children.” Winstanley reached a new synthesis of puritanism in conflict with bourgeois society in the crucible of English revolution. Not only is he speaking on behalf of a class and not a denomination or sect, but Winstanley looks at his society (like Bunyan’s Christian) and highlights the problem – inequality. It is inequality that makes the revolutionary promises of Cromwell and his Council impossible. While Lords are left to tyrannize the working classes, no rule of the saints can truly be procured. In short, Winstanley was right. The promises of saintly equality were impossible while the land was divided and profited from by a select few.

We must guard against rendering Winstanley as a “man ahead his time,” however. Winstanley was but one man who cast a literary shadow in writing, but he was emblematic of a movement that bursts through the cracks of history at Putney, Whitehall and even Milton’s Pandaemonium. Puritanism, first through the creation of egalitarian discourses for both male and female, and secondly through the emergent consciousness of community, power and inequality in New Model struggle, became capitalism’s first resistance movement. Winstanley was not an aberrant lifestylist, as some Trotskyists claim (http://www.marxists.org/archive/james-clr/works/1949/05/english-revolution.htm), but a man born from an army of consciousness and struggle.

 photo diggers_zpse5ded43b.png

Winstanley and his Diggers did not only attack  inequality, however, and this is perhaps the greatest contribution of English puritanical radicalism through the precision of hindsight; they attacked what they saw as the root of all inequality – property. Bunyan’s “Vanity Faire” is a commodity market, Christian’s chief enemy Apollyn offers Christian a higher wage for him to desist form his journey to the Celestial City, Milton’s Mammon is obsessed with gold and its procurement, and Winstanley’s Biblical analysis dating back to Cain and Abel sees ownership as the root of all sin on earth.

Winstanley is perhaps the most emblematic of the puritanical impulse to see property as the root of sin on Earth. Winstanley writes, “So long as the earth is intagled and appropriated into particular hands and kept there by the power of the sword……so long the creation lies under bondage.” As Winstanley’s career advances towards the ultimate forceful dissolution of his Diggers we see a developing understanding of the violence inherent in the system (to quote the Anarcho-Syndaclist peasant in Monty Python and the Holy Grail). Winstanley sees not only inequality as a problem but identifies its main cause; the ownership of property and the system built to enforce it. Inequality does not simply exist in Winstanley’s analysis, it is enforced by sword and fire. Winstanley and the agitators at Putney made class struggle central to a developing puritan understanding of saint and society; one tempered by their experiences with the property holders of their society.

Winstanley, like later Marxists, would see the specter of property as theft. Winstanley’s historical firstness is key here, and it suggests that a unique collision of material circumstances produced his forward-looking ideology; chiefly the collision of puritanical egalitarianism and the capitalist state it helped create on the battlefield. Winstanley, Rainsborough, Bunyan, Trapnel and others are evidence that the Puritanism of England was not simply a catalyst in the creation of bourgeois, humanist ideology and the republicanism that would take hold in the Americas and Western Europe. At work in the Puritan experience in the New Model and early modern English society at large was burgeoning radicalism. A radicalism that would be repressed in 1649 in England, 1786 in the United States, and 1794/5 in France. Of import is the fact that these movements were suppressed by emergent capitalism by force, and was not simply a product of bourgeois liberalism. I can say without flinching that Winstanley and his Diggers are the roots of modern British Socialism, if not international socialism; and the grounds for such a statement are in Winstanley and other radical Puritan’s rendering of property as the cause of inequality and sin. Winstanley concludes,

“For though you and your Ancestors got your Propriety by murther and theft, and you keep it by the same power from us, that have an equal right to the Land with you, by the righteous Law of Creation, yet we shall have no occasion of quarrelling (as you do) about that disturbing devil, called Particular propriety: For the Earth, with all her Fruits of Corn, Cattle, and such like, was made to be a common Store-house of Livelihood to all Mankinde, friend, and foe, without exception.” (Winstanley, Declaration).

Winstanley looks to the Peasant Rebellion of 1381 as a historical lesson, that the lords attained their wealth by the sword and with the sword they will keep it. This, in short, is the experience of radical puritan elements in the English Civil War. 1649 would see the Levellers and Diggers disbanded, executed and imprisoned. The common treasury would be taken away to private cellars, Trapnell would be thrown in prison along with Bunyan, left only with his literary dreamer defeating what Bunyan could not in physical reality. Winstanley’s ideology evolves through material struggle, a pedagogical process for future generations who would carry on his work. Winstanley began with the belief that his Diggers could coexist with Lords and manors, but later, as illustrated in this quote, realized that struggle was necessary; and struggle he did, through scriptural critiques and communal living. In summary, Puritan radicalism in England must be understood as a struggle within a unique, period, and religious vocabulary that procured material struggle between newly forming proletariat and bourgeoisie. Of this struggle we find the creation of radical, inclusive discourses, emergent class-consciousness and the rendering of property as the root of all of Earth’s ills.

The historical struggle of the radical puritans in early modern England gives valuable insight to the movements of today that struggle still with lords and manors of different character but identical nature; those who would keep their property by murder and theft and deny the people their common treasury. From that which we started we shall end, as there is no finer example of the puritan radical experience than that of Bunyan’s Christian, shedding tears over the present state of things but ultimately struggling against it through dangerous adventure. To Bunyan as it was to Winstanley and as it is to us today, the common treasury is but a dream. As Bunyan proved with his prose, Trapnell with her prophecy, Rainsborough with his pike, and Winstanley with his pen, to dream is a first step well taken towards the procurement of a rule of the saints.

Further Reading

Dunn, Alastair. The Great Rising of 1381: The Peasants’ Revolt and England’s Failed Revolution. Stroud, Gloucestershire: Tempus, 2002. Print.

Habermas, Jürgen. The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 1989. Print.

Hill, Christopher. Puritanism and Revolution: Studies in Interpretation of the English Revolution of the Seventeenth Century. New York: St. Martin’s, 1997. Print.

Hill, Christopher. The Century of Revolution 1603-1714. London: Routledge, 2002. Print.

Hill, Christopher. The English Bible and the Seventeenth-century Revolution. London: Allen Lane, 1993. Print.

Hill, Christopher. The World Turned Upside Down; Radical Ideas during the English Revolution. New York: Viking, 1972. Print.

Holstun, James. Ehud’s Dagger: Class Struggle in the English Revolution. London: Verso, 2002. Print.

Petegorsky, David W. Left-wing Democracy in the English Civil War; a Study of the Social Philosophy of Gerrard Winstanley,. London: V. Gollancz, 1940. Print.

Pocock, J. G. A. The Machiavellian Moment: Florentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Republican Tradition. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 2003. Print.

Winstanley, Gerrard. The Complete Works of Gerrard Winstanley. Ed. Thomas N. Corns, Ann Hughes, and David Loewenstein. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2009. Print.

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Filed under Capitalism, Class, Dialectics, Early Modern, English, English Civil War, Gerrard Winstanley, John Bunyan, Literature, Puritanism

The Six Shilling Scarlet Rage: A Marxist Reading of Dubliners

            James Joyce’s Dubliners is a text that seems inseparable from Dublin and the social conditions that defined the English Empire’s second-city to Joyce, but as author Paul Delany remarks in his article “Joyce’s Political Development and the Aesthetic of Dubliners,” “Modern discussions of Dubliners, …have been devoted mainly to the stories intricate and interlocking patterns of symbolic meaning” (Delaney 256). Work must be done, then, to connect Joyce’s Dublin and its heuristic – the text of Dubliners itself. By studying the depravity of Farrington as a product of his position in capitalist society and the critical theme of paralysis in the text being tied directly to corruption and ineffectuality in Irish politics, the centrality of the capitalist mode of production to Dubliners emerges. On one hand Farrington is personally depraved by a capitalist system that alienates him and leaves him chasing after women, a sense of purpose, and a vent for his anger. On the other, the specter of “Tricky Dicky Tierney” keeps all of Ireland stuck in the endless wheel-spinning of corrupt electoral politics. In synthesis, the two make central to Dubliners the specter of capitalism in Dublin at the turn of the 20th century – manifested in the themes of personal depravity and a profound inability to escape said depravity personally or politically.

One must first make clear what kind of Marxist reading we are to partake in concerning Dubliners. Are we, as author Gaylord Leroy remarks in an afterword to Delaney’s article found in the cited edition, to partake in a “vulgar Marxism” that listens for “a song of social significance” (Leroy 266)  appreciated only through knowledge of other disciplines (Sociology, History, Economics etc.)? Frankly, no, we are not to partake in such a reading of Dubliners –we are to partake in a reading, as Leroy says, that brings light to the “second reality” brought to the fore by literature. This reality is a Hegelian-esque synthesis in the way it must be understood by its foundational elements, in this case, the concrete historical and structural elements at play in early 20th century Dublin. Delaney makes clear his own “critical principle,” which will be very similar to the one utilized in this article, writing, “The critical principle involved is that symbolic form should not be assigned to a closed and self-relating universe of meaning; it should be derived from social reality (as represented in the work), and that social reality should be recognized as primary. Only then can Dubliners be seen to merit the particular status continually claimed for it by Joyce: that of a moral work” (Delany 256). Thus, to understand the moral work of Dubliners is to understand the concrete historical and economic factors at play in the city of Dublin. This is not the entire scope of Dubliners, though, as Leroy points out, such a perspective would be the aforementioned “vulgar Marxism.” Joyce also endeavors to creatively express his own, intimate Dublin from the anxiety of a young boy in love to the depravity of a child abuser to the ultimate inability to escape or transcend the cruelty and beauty of the textual city painted in such great detail by its author. In this “second reality” we find the foundation of the primary reality Joyce interacts with to construct his characters and their relation to one another. Thus, to begin to understand the discursive Dublin, we must look to that which it was creatively synthesized from – Dublin itself and the socio-economic relations that dominated life there. For the purposes of this article, I will highlight one textual thematic where the connection between the two Dublins is clear – the way the capitalist system debauches a character such as Farrington and prevents any sort of escape through political means.

“Counterparts” and its protagonist (or antagonist) Farrington are perhaps the examples that most easily come to mind when one is asked to highlight the role of the capitalist economic system within Dubliners, and it is Farrington’s profound alienation from his wealth and himself that is the main catalyst in the story. Marx defined the conditions that brought about the creation of alienation in the following terms; “The devaluation of the world of men is in direct proportion to the increasing value of the world of things. Labor produces not only commodities; it produces itself and the worker as a commodity…”(Marx 22). It is worth noting that Farrington is referred to only as “the man” until he is with his friends – he is alienated from even his own identity when at work as a scriber. We see such a relation, one where increasing wealth elicits increasing alienation and commodification in the worker immediately within the discourse of “Counterparts.” It is Farrington’s boss and perhaps more importantly (through retrospective repetition with the English woman with the big hat) his lover Miss Delacour’s indifference to his bow, itself a symbol of submission and subservience, that catalyze in Farrington his first rage. Farrington reflects, “He felt strong enough to clear out the whole office single handed. His body ached to do something, to rush out and revel in violence. All the indignities of his life enraged him” (Joyce 90). His rage is portrayed by Joyce as a direct product of the indignities put upon him by his boss and his perfumed confidant, and his inability to secure payment or an advance of a payment for the work he could not complete. In short, the rage that defines Farrington to the end of the story, and his inability to levy it upon its’ source, is a product of the capitalist system.

After pawning his watch for a small “cylinder” of coins and reclaiming his name amongst his friends, Farrington’s humiliation at the hands of Mr. Allyene and Ms. Delacour is recreated out of work at the hands of a “young stripling” and a British woman in a big hat. Farrington at first longs for “the comfort of the public house,” (Joyce 92) but later “He cursed his want of money and cursed all the rounds he had stood, particularly all the whiskies and Apollinaris which he had stood to Weathers” (Joyce 95). This transformation is denoted by his loss of money to the “sponge” Weathers and his foolhardy expectation that the British woman would turn back to look at him upon passing – immediately eliciting from Farrington the following thought, “He cursed his want of money and cursed all the rounds he had stood, particularly all the whiskies and Apollinaris which he had stood to Weathers” (Joyce 95). Again, Farrington’s rage is made to be in a relationship with money and lack thereof. He has pawned his watch, lost all of the money he gained from it and is once again denied by a wealthy woman.

It is no coincidence that Joyce interjects with the metaphor of strength again, and as it turns out, Farrington’s strength is not only insufficient to clear out the entire office, but to even lower Weathers’ arm. This final indignity is what puts Farrington over the edge, as he reflects, “He had lost his reputation as a strong man, having been defeated twice by a mere boy. His heart swelled with fury and, when he thought of the woman in the big hat who had brushed against him and said Pardon! his fury nearly choked him” (Joyce 97). Interestingly, Marx talks at length about the way the capitalist mode of production turns a worker towards his base animal nature, writing, “…the worker no longer feels himself to be freely active in any but his animals functions – eating, drinking, procreating…; and in his human functions he no longer feels himself to be anything but an animal” (Marx 72). This, in effect, is precisely what occurs to Farrington over the course of the story. He even fails at the animalistic test of strength, creating a rage so profound as to suggest a displaced source – Farrington cannot be as angry as he is over simply losing a contest. Farrington is enraged over his subservient yet ignored “bow,” enraged by his poverty, and enraged, as Marx highlights, by his inability to “feel himself” even in his animalistic desires for sex, drink and contests of strength. The tragic ending of “Counterparts” becomes in this light Farrington funneling his rage on the only thing he has control over – his five children and his wife, who has Joyce writes, “Bullied her husband when he was sober and was bullied by him when he was drunk” (Joyce 97). None of this absolves Farrington from judgment within the text, as Joyce’s own experience with an abusive father would suggest, but Farrington can be seen as man turned into a base beast by the indignity suffered daily at a meaningless job that he can never truly be free from even after drinks. In essence, “the man” is never able to find Farrington, never able to find himself within the animalistic impulses elicited by a social structure that renders him a copying machine. This separation, between the bestial “man” and the human “Farrington” is a direct product of his position as a wage-laborer in capitalist society as established by Joyce. “Counterparts” thus emerges as a story immersed in a discourse inseparable from the capitalist mode of production at work in colonial Dublin, and is a point where the textual Dublin and the real Dublin are brought closely together by Joyce’s critique of capitalism.

From the first short-story, “The Sisters,” the concept of paralysis remains central to Dubliners and this can be seen to be a product of corrupt Capitalist politics in the story “Ivy Day in the Committee Room.” The story is pervaded by a keenly disingenuously political dialogue that always returns to money. This can be seen immediately in a dialogue between Mr. Hynes and Mr. O’Connor, “Our man won’t vote for the address, said Mr. O’Connor. He goes in on the Nationalist ticket. Won’t he? said Mr. Hynes. Wait till you see whether he will or not. I know him. Is it Tricky Dicky Tierney? By God! perhaps you’re right, Joe, said Mr. O’Connor. Anyway, I wish he’d turn up with the spondulics” (Joyce 122). Essentially Mr. O’Connor has said nothing here only suggesting that Mr. Tierney will not vote for a visit from King Edward of England simply because he’s going in on the nationalist ticket, quickly returning once again to the “spondulics.” The return to anxiety over the money defines much of the early dialogue in the text, and can be said to define the entire story. Delaney remarks on the nature of the story, “In ‘Ivy Day in the Committee Room’ we see the hopelessness of looking to electoral politics for a solution to personal misfortune or to the paralysis of the city as a whole. The supporters of Nationalist Candidate, Mr. Tierney, recognize that he will betray the nationalist cause once he is elected…” (Delany 262). This foreknowledge seems an accepted thematic throughout the text, and as illustrated above by Mr. O’Connor’s ineffectual speech, no one seems to care. The paralysis is not only fully present, but is willingly tolerated by the story’s characters for money and influence.

This willing tolerance and active support for paralysis can be seen with precision in the deceptive yet darkly truthful character of Mr. Henchy. Henchy, his name itself similar to what his character truly represents, first attacks nationalist politics, cynically remarking, “”O, the heart’s blood of a patriot! That’s a fellow now that’d sell his country for fourpence – ay- and go down on his bended knees and thank the Almighty Christ he had a country to sell” (Joyce 125). This statement is a synthesis of much of Joyce’s critical venom in Dubliners at large, but for the purposes of this article the wellbeing of an entire state is worth nothing more than a fourpence to its leaders – even of the nationalist variety. Later, he recalls to his friend how he sold the candidacy of Mr. Tierney to an undecided fellow on the street, “He has extensive house property in the city and three places of business and isn’t it to his own advantage to keep down the rates? He’s a prominent and respected citizen ….and a Poor Law Guardian, and he don’t belong to any party, good, bad or indifferent” (Joyce 131). The contradiction is obvious, Mr. Tierney is rich, seeks lower rates for his own advantage, but is supposedly at the same time a Poor Law Guardian. Mr. Henchy is peddling political nonsense solely to get his candidate, who is running for a party he has already lampooned, elected. The story makes obvious what Henchy will later conclude, “Parnell, said Mr. Henchy, is dead” (Joyce 132). The hope of a changed and enlightened Ireland, personified by Joyce here with the shadow of Parnell, is dead – killed by the corruption and debauchment of Irish politics to money and English domination. Ireland is Farrington on a national scale – a state unable to deal with its true enemies and thus forced to destroy those that care most for its’ well-being, namely in the text, Parnell. The corks flying off the bottle are like the serenade of fire at a funeral, marking the end of a life and its descent to the cold earth. A descent narrated in the story in keenly monetary terms, as Hynes’ poem is celebrated by those who wait only for spondulics and not that which the poem professes. The poem, then, is as Mr. Crofton says, “…a very fine piece of writing” (Joyce 135) and nothing more – robbed of impact by a disingenuous system tied to monetary gain and not public good.

Dubliners is a text that is in synthesis with the conditions of Dublin at the turn of the 20th century, and cannot be wholly understood without the insights of a Marxist analysis of the impact of social-economic relations on the formation and relation of characters to one another. By studying the impact of Farrington’s proletarian status in relation to the formation of his character in “Counterparts” and the corruption of Irish politics as a mechanism for the oft-mentioned theme of paralysis in the text in “Ivy Day in the Committee Room” a greater understanding of the centrality of socio-economic factors in Dubliners emerges. Yet, as elucidated above, the entirety of Dubliners cannot be explained with one heuristic. By rendering Dubliners as a synthesis of a dialectical relationship with real Dublin and the concrete material conditions that defined it, the story opens itself to many heuristics that can hope to unravel the revelations to be had in a collection covering the experiences of “all the living and the dead” (Joyce 224).

Works Cited:

Delany, Paul. “Joyce’s Political Development and the Aesthetic of Dubliners.” JSTOR. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Oct. 2013.

Joyce, James, Robert Scholes, and A. Walton Litz. Dubliners. New York: Viking, 1969. Print.

Marx, Karl. Economic & Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844. Trans. Martin Mulligan. Moscow: Progress, 1956. Print.

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Filed under Capitalism, English, Ireland, Joyce, Literature