The Bourgeois Revolution: A Mirage?

Conrad Russell asks if England has ever had a revolution.

A generation ago, the late Professor Alfred Cobban used to have four laws for answering an historical question: that the middle classes were always rising, that kings were always short of money, that the peasants were always revolting, and that dictators always drained marshes. The incompetence of President Marcos and others having served to refute the fourth, perhaps the only one of these laws which now survives is that kings were always short of money.

This article is concerned only with the first, the notion of the rising middle classes, the political yeast of historical writing in the 1950s and 1960s. In most periods, this yeast is much harder to find than it used to he. The rise of the middle classes has been chased into later and later periods, until the rise of the working classes has been snapping at its heels, and in some cases, may even be thought to have overtaken it. Together with increasing doubt about the rising middle classes, historians are showing increasing doubt about the dialectical model, in which change comes about by the clash of opposites. This model, as Marx generously admitted, is one we originally owe to Hegel, and its survival has owed as much to Hegelian as to Marxist influence. The Whig version of the origins of the English Civil War, for example, was a clearly dialectical view, and it has come in for heavy criticism in the past fifteen years.

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