Category Archives: Class

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

I 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 suggest 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 for every peer and professor who asks accusingly “why?” when I tell them my passion for literature lies in the radical puritan writings that erupted out of the English crucible that was 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 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.  In other words, 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.

Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress is often seen as a text demonstrative of orthodox Calvinism, and certainly it is; yet we see even in this text the double-edged nature of puritanical thought in this period. Take this quote, for example; Bunyan writes, “What God says is best, is best, though all the men in the world are against it.” (John Bunyan, Pilgrim’s Progress) On the surface of things this is a rather tropish puritanical statement, yet it highlights with precision the oft-repeated puritan resistance to “the world.” Bunyan’s puritanism is one of faith, a faith begotten from conflict with something else; a denotative quality of much of puritan thought.

For Gerrard Winstanley, leader of the famed Diggers, the world had been progressively detached from holiness through the political machinations of lords who saught to fracture the land and the people – two things that were both of God. The English Revolution for Winstanley was one that threw the shackles of historical development off, towards an unprecedented era of spiritual potential. Of import in both of these examples is the simple fact that out of conflict sprung an opportunity to engage and synthesize with the world towards something better. Puritan thought, at its root, is dialectical and born out of a conflict with an enemy, be it the Catholic Church, the unfaithful, or the King.

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, sadly). It is no coincidence that in the English Revolution countless female political actors erupted 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 article Anna Trapnell.

A modern reader of Anna Trapnell, 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 to name a few. Her most famous vision came at the very location where Charles I had lost his head. It warned against the resurgence of tyranny; a vision that would find the light of day in the protectorate. 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 Trapnell in Ehud’s Dagger for more, citation below).

Anna Trapnell teaches the modern reader to dig deeper into Puritanical thought beyond the immediate facade of radical religiosity. For Trapnell 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, as elucidated above, were without gender. This is undeniably a radical concept. Through visions and biblical citation, Anna Trapnell was able to gain 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; be it Charles or Cromwell. 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 Trapnell’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” (Holstun 256).

The legacy Holstun alludes to is a truly remarkable part of Puritan thought and revolution in Early Modern England. We have established that 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 apt to this day; namely that all of mankind is equal, unconditionally. 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 politicians, 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, both 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, illustrated this, saying,

“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 has moved onto 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 Trapnell, 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 have tried to claim (, but a man born from an army of consciousness and struggle.

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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 Appolyn 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, Trapnell 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

A Gentle, Christian Man: Dickens’ Refutation of the Victorian Gentleman in Great Expectations


Note: The works cited has been removed in an effort to impede plagiarism.

Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, as author Graham Law writes, is his “masterpiece” that is at the same time “unrepresentative” (Law 7). Certainly Great Expectations moves away from the uplifting conclusions of novels such as David Copperfield and A Christmas Carol, and the cutting, at times radical societal critique of works such as Oliver Twist  is replaced by a more subtle and pessimistic look on Victorian England (Law). Undeniably, as has been remarked upon by many scholars , Great Expectations is an exploration of the Victorian concept of the gentleman, a title that Dickens felt himself rejected from (Law), and one that is the subject of much of Dickens’ prosaic venom  in the novel. Indeed, Pip’s journey from working class boy to a gentleman of great expectations can be said to mirror Dickens’ own life journey to prosperity, yet Dickens’ autobiographical past is not as critical to Great Expectations as the authorial present moment; one noted by profound disillusionment with the concept of a Victorian Gentleman and the ability of a “poor man with a rich soul” (Smiles) to self-create an identity as one.

Great Expectations  is a novel in which Dickens utterly rejects the idea that a gentleman is defined by high birth and class, an argument perhaps best personified by the works of William Sewell. Yet Great Expectations  is also a novel that rejects the notion presented by Alexis de Tocqueville and Samuel Smiles that anyone, with enough morale character and elbow grease, could become a gentleman. Then what is a gentleman in Great Expectations, if it is neither men of high birth or men of “rich heart?” In Great Expectations the gentleman is a useless title that is destructive and unachievable, demonstrated by the fact that the gentleman of high birth is one that plays the part of the main catalyst in Pip’s dissolution of character from childhood to manhood, and the gentleman of labor and moral character is ultimately unachievable for Pip; denied him by his actions as a gentleman of high birth – illustrating the thread Dickens is tying between the two concepts and ultimately leaving Dickens unwilling to reappropriate the title for characters like Joe . This is demonstrated by Pip’s inability to reconcile completely with characters such as Joe, a relationship strained during Pip’s idealization of the gentleman in Sewellian terms . Dickens entry into the Victorian debate over what a gentleman was one of dynamic character; it is one where he rejects the concept of the gentleman completely, and endeavors to portray the destructive and ultimately unachievable nature of the title; and in this portrayal is a message that quality and not license is at the heart of being a “gentle Christian man.” In order to explore Dickens refutation of the title in general, one must first demonstrate the fraudulency of Sewell’s definition in the way it diminishes Pip’s strong sense of justice and then move to elucidating just why Dickens is ultimately unwilling to reappropriate the title for Joe.

An understanding of the conservative concepts of what the Victorian gentleman was that Dickens was interacting with is critical in discerning where Great Expectations lies in the debate. William Sewell is famous, or perhaps infamous from a modern perspective, for his very conservative view of what a Gentleman was in Victorian society. In a lecture to privileged school boys, Sewell states, “We have, I think, in England, owing to the freedom of our constitution, and the happy providential blessings which god has heaped upon us, followed the division of mankind which god himself has made, and struck the line between those who are gentlemen, that is, of a higher and superior class, and those who are not, to be ruled and governed” (Sewell 563). In a reply to Sewell who had sent him a volume of these speeches, Dickens’ remarked upon how far apart their views were (Broadview) on the subject, illustrating what is perhaps most obviously elucidated in Great Expectations; the rejection of a class and birth caste system deciding whether or not a man is a true gentleman. To Sewell, and undoubtedly to his ambitious and privileged pupils, to be a gentleman was to be in a position of power in society in which one could govern and rule over others, namely, the working classes. Further, not only was this position over others justified by practical necessity, but by God himself. This conception of a gentlemen, one based in class and family background, is one that is directly counteracted in the prosaic structure of Volume I in Great Expectations in the way that Pip’s sense of justice and his relationship with Joe and Biddy degrade significantly to a point of no return once he is made to feel his class by Estella, and when his quest to become “oncommon” begins; and this is a direct consequence of Pip’s definition of the gentlemen in Sewellian terms.

Pip’s relationship with Biddy is at first one of student and teacher, but it quickly becomes more personal and ultimately demonstrative of Pip’s loss of justice subsequent to his ambitions to becoming a Sewellian gentleman. Indeed, the just Pip admits aptly that “Whatever I knew, Biddy knew” and marvels at her for being an “Extraordinary woman” (Dickens 159).  Yet Volume I highlights Pip’s growing unrest with his situation, and ultimately, Biddy and the life she represented. Biddy is the victim of Pip’s bridge burning attack before leaving for his great expectations, as Pip levies accusations of jealousy at the true-hearted Biddy. Pip says, “I am very sorry to see this in you. I did not expect to see this in you. You are envious, Biddy, and grudging. You are dissatisfied on account of my rise in fortune, and you can’t help showing it” (Dickens 181).  It was not 50 pages prior that Pip was wishing an old, haggered convict hidding in a swamp happy eating; and it seems that Pip’s own anxieties over his class and family background, catalyzed by Estella,  have dissolved his so dearly held virtue of justice in favor of a dishonest “superior tone”(181) which narrator Pip regretfully admits. It’s worth stopping upon that narrator Pip, the flawed character that he is at the time of scribing the novel, still recognizes his actions to Biddy as unjust. It is not coincidental then that Biddy calls upon the specter of a gentleman and of justice, replying simply, “Yet a gentleman should not be unjust neither” (Dickens 181).  In this statement, Biddy essentially summarizes what Pip will only learn when it is far too late in Volume III and highlights the dissolution of Pip’s sense of justice which is catalyzed by his conception of the gentleman as one based in class and family. Pip has become a gentleman, but as he the narrator and Biddy point out, he had become unjust. Indeed, Pip laments that he “cannot get (himself) to fall in love with (Biddy),” (Dickens 163) and only after his revelations of Volume III will he realize how the specter of the Sewellian gentleman  made it impossible for him to love those who would “put him right” (Dickens 163), a fact further illustrated by Pip’s growing mistreatment of Joe.

Joe, like Herbert, is a character that is true of heart and indeed harmed by Pip’s conception of the gentleman as one of opulence and like Biddy is a character treated in a progressively unjust way by “Sir” Pip. At the start of Volume I, Joe is the flawed  gravy-disher that is unable to truly help Pip but is the only one to show Pip warmness; and Pip’s interactions with Joe comprise some of the only heartwarming sections of Pip’s young life. Joe however represents something more than a country simpleton with a good heart, he renders Pip valuable advice subsequent to his crises of identity and Satis House, as the narrator reflects, “This was a case of metaphysics, at least as difficult for Joe to deal with, as for me. But Joe took the case altogether out of the region of metaphysics , and by that means vanquished it” (Dickens 105).  Indeed, Joe serves as the materialist to Pip’s metaphysical ambition to become uncommon, offering a few lines later than even the king of England had to begin with the alphabet. Pip’s quest of becoming a gentleman is deeply metaphysical, from his conception of Estella as a princess waiting to be ridding off on horseback to the “gay fiction” of the finches.

Pip’s imaginative, or metaphysical, class affectation is driven home in several scenes in which Pip is ashamed of Joe in the presence of his class superiors, namely the visit to Ms. Havishams and Joe’s visit to London, only to realize later that the entire fault was his. Narrator Pip reflects in the remarkable Chapter XIV, “It is not possible to know how far the influence of any amiable honest-hearted duty-doing man flies out into the world; but it is very possible to know how it has touched one’s self in going by, and I know right well that any good that intermixed itself with my apprenticeship came of plain contented Joe, and not of restlessly aspiring discontented me” (Dickens 141). In a candid moment afforded to Pip through hindsight, Pip can realize how unjust he had been to Joe when he ” was ashamed of him” (Dickens 134) when his abstract notion of the gentleman in Sewellian terms, and his need to create a gentlemanly identity suitable for Estella’s “mischievous eyes,” (Dickens 134) turned him against those closest to him so he could pursue something he admits “I never knew” (Dickens 141).  In short, the gentleman of Sewell, the idea put into Pip’s head by Estella, and the one he will fruitlessly chase to a bitter end is the same gentleman that removed justice from Pip’s relationship with Joe and Biddy. The more Pip desires to be a gentlemen of wealth and taste, the less just he is to his peers and the more blind he is to the injustice he does to others – something he had as a boy been so sensitive to. Thus, the Sewellian gentlemen plays an integral part in the devolution of Pip’s sense of justice in Volumes I and II, physically made real by his geographical removal from Biddy and Joe and emotionally manifested in Pip’s utter emotional desolation at the beginning of Volume III.

Pip is a character of dynamic and fluid nature, however, and indeed much personal progress is made from the beginning of Volume III. In short, the gentleman of class and blood, the gentleman of Sewell, has left Pip spiritually ruined, and it is from this total destruction that Pip begins to make personal progress. Here at the foundation of this progress, after nearly everything has been taken from Pip, he admits, “I thought how miserable I was, but hardly knew why, or how long I had been so, or on what day of the week I made the reflection, or even who I was that made it” (Dickens 353). Here we see a Pip who is utterly devoid of a sense-of-self or any purpose whatsoever. From this point of utter spiritual desolation, Pip does make significant gains as the prose advances. Interestingly, these revelations are coaxed out of him by an assumed death at the hands of a figure from his childhood. Pip’s abduction by Orlick catalyzes a great deal of emergent feelings of justice and empathy within Pip, and the rise in his moral character seems to lead the reader to believe that a happy ending is imminent; all catalyzed by Pip’s belief that he is soon to die. As Pip ponders his imminent doom, he laments, “Joe and Biddy would never know how sorry I had been that night; none would ever know what I had suffered, how true I had meant to be, what an agony I had passed through.. by the thought that I had taken no farewell, and never never now could take farewell, of those who were dear to me, or could explain myself to them, or ask for their compassion on my miserable errors” (Dickens 450). In this near-death moment, Pip almost miraculously is broken from his Volume II stupor and sees the true “great hearts” (Smiles) of Joe and Biddy, and laments deeply that he cannot explain himself to them. Indeed, Pip now reflects that his intentions were “true” but had left him in great “agony” and ponderous with “miserable errors.” In this moment near death, Pip is softened and returns to his sense of justice highlighted above, in this case, to do himself justice; to plead his case to those who cared for him truly and ask for their clemency. In a novel with very little repetition, the repetition of never is also noteworthy in the way it focuses on Pip’s desire to do himself justice in a farewell to Joe and Biddy and deal with them honestly for the first time in many pages. Is this, then, evidence of Dickens support for the progressive notion of a gentleman as one of true intentions and heart? A more finite understanding of what that notion is, is first necessary.

Samuel Smiles’ “The True Gentleman” is paradigmatic of a progressive urge in Victorian society to claim that any man with sufficient intuition, inclination and good moral character was a “true gentleman..” Smiles elaborates, “Riches and rank have no necessary connexion with genuine gentlemanly qualities. The poor man may be a true gentleman” (Smiles 582). Indeed, the “man with the great heart” of Smiles is identical to Joe’s own dubbing of his abusive father as a man with a good heart (Dickens 83) and Biddy’s own terming of Pip as “ever a man with a good heart” (Dickens 248). These two examples seem to lend a keen sense of ambiguity to Dickens’ acceptance of the idea that any man with a good heart is a true gentleman. Indeed, the latter half of Great Expectations is marked by a significant improvement in Pip’s character as elucidated above, one where he sees more feelingly the thoughts of others and one where he appreciates what he had not before. This notion, that Dickens is supporting a depiction of a gentleman as someone of a good heart only is contradicted by the critical scene were Pip emmerges from sickness to see Joe at his bedside subsequent to the gains he makes in a peculiar and violent event.

Pip’s improvements after his abduction by Orlick and then his subsequent almost idyllic period with Joe during his recovery from what can only be considered a broken heart leads the reader to expect an ending similar to that of Oliver Twist or David Copperfield. Certainly Joe emerges as a man of rich heart, caring for the boy who had so rudely treated him in London. Yet in what can only be considered intentional by Dickens in a novel that uses the word “gentleman” ad nauseum, Dickens refuses the title to Joe in the one moment where he can rightly be considered nothing else in Smilesian terms. Pip implores Joe to dislike him for his “ingratitude” (Dickens 483) which Joe ignores and remarks that they were “ever the best of friends.” Pip then proclaims, “god bless this gentle Christian man”(Dickens 483). Why would Dickens use this language, if almost to specifically deny Joe the title, after a sequence where Joe’s good heart has been highlighted so deeply in his self-sacrifice and forgiving heart towards Pip? This is the first appearance of Dickens disinterest in reappropriating the title of gentleman  to his characters that truly resemble one. Indeed, when Joe is truly a good person to Pip, his class status and his title, are truly unimportant which is reflected in Dickens deliberate side-stepping of the term. After Pip’s moral downfall from chasing the title of gentleman elucidated above, Dickens is unwilling to call Joe a gentleman, only a “gentle Christian man,” demonstrating that perhaps, being such a man was all that really mattered; regardless of the license of title associated with “the gentleman.” Indeed, when Joe is forced into an environment of gentlemanliness in Mrs. Havisham’s company, Pip remarks, “that he looked far better in his working-dress… I could hardly have imagined dear old Joe looking so unlike himself” (Dickens 132).  It is no coincidence that Joe, a character who is so very kind to Pip, who is a gentleman in behavior but not in name as per Dickens deliberate use of a similar yet different term, is “unlike himself” in a suit or a mansion. Dickens critique is clear, Joe is a gentle Christian blacksmith, and that is all the license he needs to be dubbed good, wholesome and kind. Pip’s denial of true reconciliation with Joe is then a further elucidation of Dickens’ rejection of the gentleman as a title. Pip’s past quest for gentlemanliness denies Pip reconciliation, with Joe, just as the specter of the Sewellian gentleman denies true Smilesian self-determination.

Dickens’ denial of Pip true reconciliation with Joe is demonstrative of Dickens’ unwillingness to allow Pip’s journey to come to a wholesome end due to the aftershocks of Pip’s quest for uncommoness. Reflecting upon the good times they had spent together, Pip realizes, “I too had fallen into the old ways, only happy and thankful that he let me. But, imperceptibly, though I held by them fast, Joe’s hold on them began to slacken; and whereas I wondered at this, at first, I soon began to understand that the cause of it was in me, and the fault of it was all mine…Had I given Joe’s innocent heart no cause to feel instinctively that as I got stronger, his hold up me would be weaker?”(Dickens 490).  Not only does Dickens deny the title of gentleman to Joe, he denies true reconciliation between Pip and Joe because of Pip’s actions as the Sewellian gentleman. Pip’s past denies him Smilesian self-creation, as the aftershocks of his actions as a gentleman of high class has disallowed him from coming to equal footing with Joe in their relationship. Thus in Dickens’ prosaic construction, the gentleman of Smiles is unachievable and barred by the specter of the traditional gentleman; just as Pip is disallowed present self-creation by past self-destruction. This relationship is best summarized by Joe himself, who says to Pip in apology for not being able to save him from the tickler, “my power were not always fully equal to my inclinations” (Dickens 489). This statement summarizes the ending of the novel with precision, as Pip’s power is not equal to his inclination in reconciling with both Joe and Biddy; and this greater narrative structure, that is, the denial of Pip any sort of happy or reconciled ending, is demonstrative of Dickens’ rejection of the Smilesian gentleman and the title at large.

Great Expectations  is a novel that frustrates the efforts of readers who seek an emotional synthesis for its flawed protagonist, as its deeply ambiguous nature leaves the reader wanting  a finite conclusion to Pip’s personal struggle. As Graham Law points out in his introduction, it is perhaps the ambiguity itself that is driving force of the novel; an ambiguity concerning what a gentlemen is and one’s ability to rehabilitate relationships long strained. By studying Pip’s loss of justice from his acceptance of  a Sewellian vision of a gentleman and Pip’s ultimate prevention from Smilesian reconciliation and self-elevation by the specter of Sewell’s gentleman, a greater understanding of the gentleman in Great Expectations emerges. The gentleman,  in short, is destructive and unreachable for Pip; demonstrative of Dickens own disillusionment with the license the title supposedly represented. Great Expectations is a sometimes uncomfortable reminder of the permanency of “miserable errors” and the inescapable social barriers that surrounded 19th century England. The reader’s duty is that of Estella;  to not be incompatible with the admission of the ambiguity of love and identity in emerging modernity, and give the sad story of Pip’s quest for uncommonness a place in their hearts, and in doing so, witness the folly of chasing license over authentic virtue.

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