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Shifting Perspectives on the Great Rebellion

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Austin Woolrych reflects on how historians’ approaches to the events of 1640-60 have been changing over the half century that he has been working on the period.

When the editor heard that I had recently completed a blockbuster which attempts to tell the general reader what the commotions in England, Scotland and Ireland between 1637 and 1660 were all about, and how they interacted, he suggested that I might write a piece about some of the themes that had preoccupied me during my book’s long gestation. I gladly accepted, and I thought it might be interesting to consider how historians’ assumptions about the period had changed since I began to work on it fifty-odd years ago, and how the focus of their attention has shifted. What follows is a broad-brushed sketch; so it will inevitably fail to name many scholars who have contributed importantly to the great enlargement of knowledge.

The academic world of the mid-twentieth century was largely dominated by ‘historical materialism’, and the prevailing form that it took was Marxist. The key to the historical process, it taught, lay in the forces of production, and in any community the social class that controlled them would sooner or later wield political power. All true revolutions (so it went) are social revolutions, and they occur when there is a mismatch between the class that has achieved economic dominance and the class that controls the machinery of government. In England in 1642, as in France in 1789 and in Russia in 1917, a monarchy identified with a decayed aristocracy was challenged and overthrown by a rising bourgeoisie, for it was argued that the greater part of the English gentry had become entrepreneurial and formed a single class with the big merchants of London and other important towns. Not all historians who accepted this broad pattern were professing Marxists, or aimed at a Communist regime in contemporary England; R.H. Tawney, for instance, the most famous expositor of a ‘rise of the gentry’, was a Christian Socialist. But one can see why the Marxist interpretation of history had so much appeal after the Second World War, especially when its exponents wrote as persuasively as Christopher Hill. It was elegant, comprehensive and it claimed to be scientific. It stood at the opposite ideological pole from Fascism. Russia had made the largest single contribution to the defeat of Hitler and paid the heaviest price; the horrors of the purges and the gulags were as yet unknown. Hopes were bright for the liberated lands of Eastern Europe, for the People’s Republic of China, and for Asian and African countries on the brink of throwing off colonial control. The nasty tactics of Senator Joe McCarthy against American Communists, real and supposed, made liberal-minded academics on both sides of the Atlantic more sympathetic to the ideas he attacked. Today, after all that has happened in Russia and eastern Europe, in China, Cambodia and in much of post-colonial Africa, the vision of socialist banners flying over a brave new world is not quite so bright.

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