Category Archives: History

The Importance of the Thirty Years War in Literature and Politics

The Spanish tercio stands depleted during their defeat at the hands of the French at the Battle of Rocroi, 1643

Few sometimes may know, when thousands err. – John Milton, Paradise Lost

hen a young John Milton sat down to write Latin poetry in his dormitory at Cambridge in the mid 17th century, many themes catalyzed his pen to put words to paper. Yet a preeminent anxiety in the formative Latin poetry of the young puritan was  the cataclysm he observed from across the English Channel (1). As his own government meandered in defending its supposed Protestant allies and advocated for peace, the Protestant armies of Denmark, Bohemia, and Sweden were progressively turned back and crushed by the catholic powers in Spain and the Holy Roman Empire. James I even failed to send troops to save his own son-in-law, Frederick V, when a catholic host annihilated his dwindling host at the Battle of White Mountain.  All of this impressed deeply on Milton and his revolutionary generation; the feudal order had waged war against the estates (the growing middle class) in light of a failing legal system in the Holy Roman Empire, leaving millions dead and the core rivalries and contradictions of society unsolved. It was but years after this era that the axe fell on Charles I and a transatlantic tradition of republican resistance to monarchism was born.

In a time before Cromwell, Paine, and Robespierre, there was this most unfortunate era; where the dying feudal order rife with contradiction brought on the wings of political paralysis the deaths of millions. An era where the core contradictions of society where not dealt with but subverted by emergent nationalism (secular and non) and imperial ambition. The damage was worst in Germany, where the population would vote the war as the most devastating in the country’s history in the 1960s (2*). In many ways, the roots of 19th and 20th century German nationalism were first sewed in the disastrous fragmentation of Germany after the Peace that ended the Thirty Years War (the Peace of Westphalia).

Despite these long reaching consequences, the war is but an afterthought for even scholars of the early modern period. Like World War I, the Thirty Years War draws less attention than its more substantive ancestors. As James Joyce proved in Dubliners (perhaps too well for some readers), paralysis can be just as meaningful as great leaps forwards and backwards. In the perilously fixed limbs of German society in the mid 17th century we find precedent for the keenly militant tone of many of our most treasured early modern authors such as John Donne, Andrew Marvell, and John Milton; and I will argue that to ignore the Thirty Years War is to shut out a major avenue for understanding their work. What’s more, in the history of the Thirty Years War we find remarkable similarities to our own time (some of which I will cover below) and equally remarkable warnings against the problems of imperialism, abstraction, and dedication to aged constitutional provisos.

It it for this latter reason that I have taken a break from writing my thesis (fleeing like Frederick V from the Catholic League, in other words) to write this on the 2nd anniversary (to the day) of Waiting for Putney. In that time, we’ve reached over 110 countries and collected tens of thousands of unique readers. I certainly did not expect the late night, caffeine-induced sermons about Cuba and Milton that began this blog to lead where it has, and I thank each and every reader for their attention and thought. Like a good puritan, I will celebrate this milestone by ruminating on the near collapse of western civilization and the ways in which said collapse mirrors our own time.

The Thirty Years War in Literature:

John Donne

Literary scholars of 17th century British literature find themselves in the uncomfortable position of reading literature only years apart that is rapturously different. This has resulted in the quite awkward “long 18th century” which includes the literature written during the rule of Charles II and James II. This rapture in literature was caused chiefly by the English Revolution, but the war that ravaged Europe in the time leading up that fateful struggle left indelible marks on the literature of canonical writers from Donne to Bunyan. In many ways, the necessity of the awkward “long 18th century” was brought about by the militancy and violence that loomed in the fearful caverns of British thought leading up to the English Revolution, and the Restoration’s delightful (or utterly repulsive, as it is for this author) flight from themes of religious ideology, the question of legitimate political violence, and the prospect of universal truth is a direct response to these themes transported from Europe’s tragedy to all the kingdoms of Christendom. Here, we will look at the work of John Donne to find the threads of war that separate so profoundly early and late 17th century British literature.

The specter of war in British literature can perhaps be seen most profoundly in the work of John Donne. Writing well before the English Revolution, John Donne put pen to paper in those troubling years in which the German crisis became generalized to include all the powers of Europe (the late 16th and early 17th centuries). Throughout Donne’s work we find repeated attempts to synthesize the two ever-splitting protestant and catholic factions. Scholars have justifiably attached this theme to Donne’s own struggle with conversion from Catholicism to Anglicanism but his textual attempts to bring together these factions reflects a more generalized reflection on their failure to do so as Europe descended into war. “Death, Be Not Proud” and “Meditation XVII,” two of his most famous works, both reflect a desire that extends beyond the merely personal or national  to unite the warring churches of Christ. Both are written after his conversion to Anglicanism (the former a Holy Sonnet, the latter part of his much celebrated Devotions upon Emergent Occassions) (3), and both are written (~1620 and ~1623 respectively)( 4) right as the Thirty Years War emerged as a major international conflict. Let us first look at “Death, Be Not Proud” as it was written right as the Thirty Years War broke out. The poem ends,

And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery.
Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell;
And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die. (Death, Be Not Proud)

The all-important “we” in the second to last line anticipates Donne’s later focus on depicting the universality of Christians and humans in general. Of note, this universality is built here on the back of a condemnation of martial force and the chivalric nationalism that accompanies wars to this day. This general fear of war created by the temporary truce between the Dutch and Spanish was a tinder box in the minds of Europeans – and Donne here remarks that Death is itself a slave to fate that dwells in war and sickness. This idea of slavery to fate and war reflects the writings of thinking men across Europe at the time, highlighted in great detail in the opening chapters of C.V. Wedegewood’s chronicle of the war. War seemed inevitable, but all wanted to avoid it. This is repeated in Spanish, German, and English literary circles. In 1620, a year after top catholic officials had been thrown out of a three story window into a pile of crap (literally), Donne here strives for reconciliation and warns against the appeal of religious war. Donne hopefully declares that death and war will die in the face of an eternal life given by Christ. It is a hope he will quickly lose as the war in Germany became more violent.

By the year 1623, the Bohemian protestant state had been crushed by the Hapsburgs and in the very year Christian the Younger (a protestant) was defeated at the cost of nearly 13,000 casualties at the Battle of Stadtlohn. We see the events of the exponentially multiplying war on Donne in his famous Meditations. In one of his most famous moments of prose, Donne writes in Meditation XVII,

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee. (Meditation XVII)

Far from the confident declarations of the previously cited sonnet, Donne here replaces hopefulness with a universal sorrow. Ever clever with his language, Donne even fits in the term “continent,” almost certainly a reference to the events occurring “on the continent.” He continues to assert that each and every death, the bodies washed away by the tens of thousands in Germany  make “Europe (the) less.” As the bell tolled for thousands of men fighting for religious freedom, profit, and nation, Donne defiantly, if not hopefully, asserts that the war that presently rocked Europe lessened all the parties involved. This change in Donne’s tone, from one of hopeful declaration and persuasion to defiant and universal sorrow at the loss of Catholic and Protestant alike is elucidated with greater detail by the events of the Thirty Years War. Donne’s dealings with Catholicism had certainly ended by this time, but he still found himself deeply entangled in the questions that tore Europe apart.

Donne’s interaction with these themes that were anathema to restoration writers is but an example of how the Thirty Years War fractured the short 17th and long 18th centuries. In our understanding of the literature of this time period, the importance of the Thirty Years War and the intellectual environment it created cannot be overstated. To read Donne, Marvell, Milton, Winstanley, and Bunyan without an understanding of their view of the European cataclysm from across the Chanel is to read Hemingway and Fitzgerald without rendering the effects of the First World War. Let us turn now to some of the similarities to be found between our era and this tragic one, and endeavor to point out some of the pedagogical remedies for that paralysis to be found in studying the history of the era.

Constitutions and the Abstraction of Conflict:

The Surrender of Jülich, by Jusepe Leonardo (1635).

One of the more striking qualities of both the Thirty Years War and the English Revolution is that the revolutionaries and warriors in each case attempted to hold to ancient constitutions and traditions while massacring each other in heinous numbers. When Ferdinand (the Holy Roman Emperor to be) infringed upon Protestant privileges in Bohemia, they had retaliated by throwing his officials out a window. When the Bohemians went to the Protestant Union (a group of protestant German princes put together for self-defense) to ask for money and support, the Union was horrified at the Bohemian’s violation of the ancient ways of the Holy Roman Empire. Ferdinand headed the state that supposedly was controlled by these various documents, but he cared less about its provisos than his supposed enemies. While liberal Lutherans condemned the actions of radical Calvinists in an effort buy clout with the catholic institutions of power, the Hapsburgs imprisoned and killed both groups.

This confusion and political moderation born of an attachment to aged documents originating in the era of Charlemagne certainly reflects similar developments in the United States. While constitutional rights are thrown out the window by a growing surveillance state and an increasingly violent police presence across the country, leftists and rightists alike urge a return to the Constitution’s promised rights. This idea that present failures in governance are due to a corruption of some core set of rights or national values (German and American, respectively) dominated 17th century German politics. The problem with this rendering in both eras was the supposition that this set of rights and values were born in universal time. “German Values” in the 17th century were the same as the values of Arminius (the Germanic general at the Battle of Teutoburg Forest) and Charlemagne; and “American values” in the 21st century are the same as the values of George Washington and Alexander Hamilton. When new variables were introduced (the protestant reformation, and the derivatives economic collapse of 2008) , the aging legal documents of each country came under fire. In both cases, the battle was fought in the courts, and in both cases, the results were disastrously inconclusive. 

In Bohemia, the protestants urged Ferdinand to adhere to the “Letter of Majesty” in which Rudolf II (the former Holy Roman Emperor) had promised them equal rights to practice their religion. As the militantly catholic Ferdinand began his campaign to dissolve the provisos of this letter, the case was taken to several courts across the Empire. Different verdicts were given, allowing Ferdinand to continue with his campaign while legal confusion prevailed. This lead to the militant action in Bohemia (the aforementioned defenestration), which was in turn condemned by protestants as previously mentioned. So the courts of the Holy Roman Empire ensured both militant retaliation and the recreation of the conditions that would replicate violence through paralytic moderation and adherence to outdated legal codes.

In the United States, the failure of courts to convict those responsible for the economic collapse, the War in Iraq, and those responsible for police violence created a similar sense of militancy that erupted most notably in Ferguson and Baltimore. These acts of militancy, just like that of the Bohemians, was condemned by their supposed comrades on the left and right. These activists must seek legal recourse, claimed the moderates, to a problem rooted in legal ineptitude and paralysis. Thus we see a self-replicating cycle that spins on the axis of assuring violence by legal failure and then condemning it. German intellectual circles spun on this circle while thousands of men, women, and children were butchered on the battlefield and in besieged cities. This cycle is not self-sustaining, though, and as war escalated in the mid 1620s, leaders endeavored to obfuscate constitutional precedent by the abstraction of conflict to an almost ludicrous degree.

As war escalated and moderates hurried to justify it, governments and leaders needed the constitutional organs to raise money and armies. The Hapsburg dynasty had long tasked the emerging bourgeoisie with funding its armies against Ottoman invasions, and when the dynasty asked for money to fight protestants the burghers were less than willing to cooperate. To mitigate outrage, leaders used mercenaries to an unprecedented degree. Battles of the Thirty Years War were not uncommonly fought by Spaniards (ostensibly ruled by the Hapsburgs) fighting for the French against the Hapsburgs who fielded an army of Dutchmen. In the Jülich succession crisis of the 1610s, for example, France, Spain, and the Hapsburgs all fielded mercenary armies to secure a tiny parcel of land close to the ever-warring low countries all because the leader of the tiny nation of Jülich passed away and a quarrel over who was to succeed him (and what religion that person would be a part of) erupted. Just what each individual soldier was fighting for was deeply ambiguous. In reality, kings and emperors alike were using the funds of the state for personal empowerment and political maneuvering for themselves and their families. This was a fact not lost on the emergent bourgeoisie, and the enslavement of feudal aristocracy to this set of political principles would be paid back in part at Whitehall, Yorktown, and the Bastille.

Thus the supposed guardians of the ancient German values violated them consistently and hid it through the abstraction of conflict through mercenaries and feigned religious and national fervor. In our era, conflict is abstracted in numerous ways. Armies are relatively small in number, and mercenaries are commonly used by the US and its allies in the middle east. A physical abstraction is also a luxury afforded the american ruling class. In any case, a movement for a radical remaking of the German state textured with the realities of the day may have prevented thirty years of war. Instead, moderates clung to ancient traditions as the ruling class violated them for personal gain at the cost of millions of lives. This question of the ruling class being disparate from moderate elements that continually tried to court them brings us to perhaps our clearest lesson from the Thirty Years War.

Mitigation and Synthesis:

Mercenaries put civilians to the sword (that randomly adult looking baby isn’t going down without a fight) in Sebastian Vrancx’s “Soldiers Plundering a Farm During the Thirty Years War.”

The chief lesson of the Thirty Years War for us today is one that teaches us how we should construct our movements for change in systems paralyzed by unchecked ruling classes and failing justice systems. In Germany in the 17th century, much like 21st century America, political movements cling to constitutional precedence and endeavor to find ways to best mitigate the failures of the economic system of society. Coming to the end of the Thirty Years War should help us understand where such politics lead, and should also give us a gloomy warning that holds hope in its recognition.

The end of the Thirty Years War is perhaps why it is not studied to a great degree. The outcome of so much death was essentially total ruination and utter paralysis with almost no positive outcomes. Yet as I mentioned before, in the paralysis of Germany we find potential salves for that paralysis that as we have seen is so similar to our own. As Kings and Emperors sent thousands to their deaths, a growing sense of distrust in central government understandably blossomed in war-ravaged Germany. This lead to the utter fracturing of Germany in the Peace of Westphalia (5). Small principalities were split into several land grants the size of central park in New York City. This way, reasoned German intellectuals, the privileges promised to Protestants that started the war could be secured so long as they found a neck of the woods that was sympathetic to them or had a Protestant prince.

This desire for decentralization is extremely prevalent in modern american politics. After the economic bailouts and fraudulent wars in the middle east, a profound apathy underlies a distrust in governance that is matched only in the Civil War era in American history. This relationship of failed constitutions and the growth of a desire for decentralization is a dangerous one, as the history of the Thirty Years War can teach us. In the aftermath of disastrous decentralization, Germany became an economic backwater reversed only with the growth of nationalism and militarism in the early and mid 19th century. When Germany finally came together it partook in two World Wars and was the home of unprecedented nationalism and centralization.

The problem then as it is now is not with central government. It is instead, as it was then, rooted in the failure of resistance movements to seek synthesis and not merely mitigation. By shackling the protestant cause to aged documents, resistance movements in the Holy Roman Empire were unable to reach the universality John Donne so desired. Instead, protestants were stuck in a cycle of courts and alliances that continually failed them and lead to their utter destruction at the hands of the Spanish and Austrian Hapsburgs. In the United States, topical activism attached perilously to appeals to the ethics of the government officials and the documents by which they rule prevents a more universal critique of the capitalist system.

Modern activists must not fall for the Hapsburg lie that courts and representative diets can fully amend the contradictions of society and must equally avoid the diffusion of ruling class “justice” systems. We must instead follow in the footsteps of the bourgeois revolutionaries who succeeded in dissolving the paralysis of late feudalism left in the wake of the Thirty Years War. In England, America, and France, revolutionaries changed the question from one of constitutional precedence to one of “cruel necessity” (6) and the new life of an unburdened, revolutionary state (7). Like them, we must seek the contradictions of our day and find syntheses, imperfect as they be, for them. By seeking synthesis and shifting the questions of political resistance away from aged constitutional precedent and legal mitigation, we can achieve what the Bohemians and Germans could not. We can finally declare with John Donne that “death,” the deaths Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, and so many others, “thou shalt die.”


(1) Lewalski’s biography of Milton

(2) The general facts expressed in this post are taken from Peter Wilson and C.V. Wedgewood’s histories of the event. I recommend them both.

(3) The title itself suggests his interaction with something beyond the merely autobiographical.

(4) Dates for Donne’s work are disputed, but both of these dates I secured from my Norton Anthology. Generally, these dates seem to be in the ballpark from my outside research.
(5) Germany after the Thirty Years War is, in my scholarly opinion, the first example of splatter painting.

(6) By legend, Cromwell said this after seeing Charles I’s body

(7) I’m mirroring Robespierre’s language in his famous declaration that Louis must die so that we (France) can live.


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Filed under Andrew Marvell, Early Modern, History, History of the English Civil War, Horatian Ode, John Donne, Meditation XVII, Milton, Modern, Movements, Puritanism, Thirty Years War

Reappropriating the Bourgeois Revolutions

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

here is a rather 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.

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 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 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 fulfill 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. They are, 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’s tolerance of Catholicism was used to bring about liberal reforms. England had become, as author J.G.A Pocock alludes to in 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 in Ehud’s Dagger, garnered a previously unseen level of communal consciousness. At Putney, a debate between New Model radicals and Grandees, battalions elected their 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 to any measurable degree.

I do not dispute the idea of the public sphere, 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 how 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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