Review: revolutionary capitalists?

04 March 1993

Bill Jenkins reviews Merchants and Revolution: Commercial Change, Political Conflict, and London’s Overseas Traders, 1550–1653 by Robert Brenner, Cambridge University Press, 1993, 754pp.

For many years bourgeois historians have treated the English Revolution of the seventeenth century as a purely constitutional or religiously motivated struggle. It was a deviation from the normal “gradualist” path of development in Britain. Above all, they tell us, it had nothing to do with the class struggle.

Such an explanation of the English Revolution is self-serving. It underlines the message, drummed into us with mind-numbing regularity at school and in the media, that revolution and violence in the course of the class struggle are “un-British”, and as such, unnecessary.

The English Revolution itself was an aberrant interlude, never to be repeated and always to be regarded with some embarrassment. That is why they still cover up the statue of Oliver Cromwell when the Queen visits Parliament!

In this case we can declare, with some justification, that “history is bunk”. Any history that divorces the events of the English Revolution from the struggle of classes, from the revolutionary victory of the bourgeoisie over the remnants of feudalism, which was necessary to clear the way for the development of capitalism, is bunk.

Faced with the Marxist explanation of the English Revolution as a class struggle from which the bourgeoisie emerged victorious, bourgeois historians recoil. They have attempted to deny the bourgeois character of the revolution by highlighting the role of the petit bourgeoisie, as against the bourgeoisie proper, in the revolution, or pointing to bourgeois forces ranged against the revolutionaries. Similar arguments are used by revisionist historians to deny the bourgeois revolutionary character of the French Revolution of 1789.

These seemingly convincing arguments do not stand up any better than earlier revisionist interpretations of the English Revolution. The important point is that revolutions in general are made by the masses. In seventeenth century Britain the masses were predominantly petit bourgeois, yeoman farmers, artisans and the like. The bourgeoisie then, as now, was a minority of the population. But the revolution’s goals were bourgeois and the bourgeoisie played a pivotal role in leading and underwriting the revolution.

Likewise, the fact that sections of the bourgeoisie opposed the revolution is no mystery. Some bourgeois elements feared the scope of the revolution, just as they did in France after 1789. Either such sections had a material stake in maintaining the old order and fought accordingly or they soon turned against the revolution for fear that its democratic dynamic would threaten their rule in the new order.

In Merchants and Revolution Robert Brenner provides important proof for the Marxist explanation of the bourgeois character of the English Revolution. He shows how English merchants, a key section of the nascent bourgeoisie, were central both in bolstering the absolutist monarchy of the Tudors and Stuarts and in creating a new capitalist class who fought for its overthrow.

Capitalism grew within the absolutist state, supported by the creation of a national market and a state apparatus capable of defending its trading interests overseas. But the monarchy became increasingly unable to fund its growing obligations from traditional sources of revenue.

To pay debts it sold land. The sale of land lowered the royal income and in turn increased its debts. The monarchy became ever more dependent on the City of London and Parliament for loans and new taxes in order to maintain the state machine. The English monarchy faced a “scissors crisis”.

Thus it supported the expansion of trade, because this provided a method of raising funds which did not rely on the City or Parliament, and increased the monarchy’s independence vis-a-vis the rising bourgeois class. The sale of merchant monopolies was the vehicle for this expansion. These monopolies restricted the right to trade to “mere merchants”, excluding the manufacturing capitalists. A fresh source of income and a powerful group of royalists amongst the monopolists were created. The crown levied extremely high import duties. By 1640 these duties accounted for 40% of Charles I’s revenue.

Brenner details the rise of a major monopoly merchant: the Levant Company. It controlled the import of commodities, like currants, from the Far East. There was a massive and growing demand for these in the English market. Under Charles I the Levant Company was the backbone of the royalist City establishment.

The development of trade, however, meant that a new class of commercial seafarers, shopkeepers and small manufacturers arose. These merchants wanted to export to their particular markets but were prevented from doing so by the monopoly restrictions. They had to seek out new markets not protected by monopoly privileges. The discovery of the Americas gave this group the impetus they required. As Marx noted in the Communist Manifesto:

“The discovery of America, the rounding of the Cape, opened up fresh ground for the rising bourgeoisie. The East Indian and Chinese markets, the colonisation of America, trade with the colonies, the increase in the means of exchange, and in commodities generally, gave to commerce, to navigation, to industry, an impulse never before known, and thereby, to the revolutionary element in the tottering feudal society, a rapid development.”

The Americas were therefore central to the development of a new group of merchant capitalists, distinct from the old monopoly merchants. They were to play a key role in the Parliamentary opposition to the King and in the civil war itself.

The Americas were significant because the Virginia Company—which had been established as a traditional monopoly merchant company in 1609—collapsed in 1624. Its backers were not prepared to engage in the creation of plantations which were necessary to ensure the regular supply of tobacco and sugar for the English market. Monopoly merchants refused to engage in production because their charters restricted them to being “mere merchants”, and because easier and more lucrative profits could be garnered from expanding far eastern trade.

The new capitalist merchant class had no option but to take up the opportunity presented to them. They were unable to invest in the foreign markets open to the monopolists, and as they arose not from merchant families but outside the ruling elite they had no prejudice against engaging in production. In addition their close links with London’s developing urban bourgeoisie meant they were able to establish firm ties with the leading Parliamentary oppositionists, and had a ready base to organise mass protest action at the outbreak of the revolution in 1640-42.

Through pioneering the use of slaves, it was these bourgeois merchants who began trade with Africa and who controlled the provisioning of the new colonies from England. It was from their American base that they undertook piratical raids against their Spanish rivals. They used their base in the colonies to promote radical Protestant ministers, and support the Parliamentary opposition in England.

They demanded free trade, and an aggressive anti-Spanish foreign policy. They had close links with capitalist merchants in the United Provinces (Holland), which was England’s chief trading rival, and supported them against the Spanish King. They were fiercely opposed to Charles I’s concessions to “papism”, and his attempts to levy unparliamentary taxes. They supported the oppositionist MPs in the Parliament and were in the forefront of opposition to the imposition of Ship Money in 1636.

The unstable alliance between the developing bourgeoisie and the absolutist monarch was breaking down. Rather than a war against Spain as the new merchants demanded, Charles I adopted a conciliatory pro-Catholic foreign policy. This allowed him to avoid expensive wars which increased his dependence on Parliament, maintain peaceful trade routes for his monopoly merchant allies, and aid his campaign against the radical Protestant sects who were closely allied to the developing bourgeoisie.

In 1640, following the invasion of England by the Scots, the crisis of the feudal regime came to a head. Charles I was unable to raise the necessary funds to muster an army against them and was forced to recall Parliament. When it tried to place conditions on its support, Charles immediately dissolved the Short Parliament. But in spite of a loan of £250,000 from the Levant Company, he had no choice but to recall it again in the autumn.

The new merchant leadership were at the heart of the parliamentary opposition to the King and supported and organised much of the opposition against him. They demanded the impeachment and execution of Stafford, and mobilised their supporters amongst the small traders and apprentices in the City to ensure it happened.

They supported the Root and Branch Bill to reform the state church, and the Grand Remonstrance which appealed to the people to aid Parliament, and which split Parliament between the royalist and revolutionary camps. They allied themselves with the Independents, religious radicals who represented the most revolutionary wing of the bourgeoisie. Unlike the Presbyterians they were prepared to look to their natural allies amongst the petit bourgeoisie to achieve their own revolutionary ends.

In the winter of 1641-42 a new capitalist City government was established in London and the feudal aldermanic government was overthrown. Brenner calls this a revolution, as it placed the bourgeoisie in power for the first time. The colonial merchants were at the centre of events throughout this period. They organised the City petition campaign, the mass rising in London which defended Parliament from Charles I’s attempted coup d’état, and made up a large part of the membership of the Committee of Safety which organised a militia in the winter of 1641-42.

The colonial merchants led the main organising committees for the Parliamentary war effort. They took control of the collection of customs duties. They reorganised the navy, donated ships, and established a new officer corps made up of their supporters. In 1644 they supported the establishment of the New Model Army.

Parliament’s Presbyterian leadership were prepared to accept the fruits of the 1642 revolution. But they were terrified of the “middle sort of people” gathered under the leadership of the religious sectarians in the New Model Army. This meant that there were strict limits as to how far they were prepared to allow the revolution to go.

After the defeat of the King in 1645, they attempted to re-establish control of the City institutions, demobilise the army and establish a new accord with the King. They systematically removed the colonial merchant leadership from their seats of power in the City government and on the Parliamentary committees.

The New Model Army responded by invading London in 1647 and purging Parliament of its opponents. After some hesitation the Independents supported them. This placed the colonial merchant leadership at the centre of power. A renewed outbreak of civil war in 1648 was rapidly defeated. “Pride’s Purge” removed the Independents’ opponents from Parliament.

The remaining Rump Parliament now had no barriers to implementing the Independents’ programme. The execution of the King, the abolition of the House of Lords, and the religious reformation in the winter and spring of 1649 completed the major planks of the bourgeois revolution. The danger of Leveller opposition was removed through their defeat at Burford.

Brenner shows how the new regime responded immediately to the demands of its major supporters and centrally the colonial merchants. Although the Independents were constrained due to the destruction of their mass support amongst the Levellers, the new government implemented the programme of the colonial merchants.

In foreign policy they embarked on the conquest of Ireland, destroyed royalist influence in the West Indies and approached the United Provinces with proposals to unify the two countries. When these proposals failed they implemented the Navigation Act which replaced the policy of unification with that of war and destruction.

Merchants and Revolution is a profound and rewarding analysis of the development of capitalist merchants under feudalism, and their role in the English civil war. Brenner provides a wealth of detail and evidence to show the contradictions between the bourgeois merchants and feudal society and how those contradictions exploded in the civil war. He enables to reader to grasp the massive scale of capitalist development under the feudal regime, and shows with remarkable clarity the energy and class consciousness of the rising bourgeoisie in their revolutionary past.

Today the revolutionary role of the bourgeoisie is exhausted. All those who are striving to imbue a revolutionary spirit in the rising class of today—the working class—would do well to study Brenner’s monumental work.

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