Socialism and the 1688 British Revolution

1688: British Socialism and the Permanent Revolution

by Brendan Clifford

According to an authoritative rumour, Tony Benn made a contemptuous remark about 1688 at a recent meeting of the Executive Committee of the Labour Party, and Roy Hattersley rebuked him and launched into an animated defence of the Glorious Revolution as an inheritance of the Labour Movement.

In this incident it was Benn who, to some extent, acted in the spirit of the Glorious Revolution. He said in the privacy of an Executive meeting the same thing as he had said publicly.

Hattersley, to the best of my knowledge, has never said in public about 1688 what he said in private. Like a continental aristocrat of the 18th century, he has esoteric knowledge which he mulls over in · secret conclave, but considers unsuitable for public circulation.

Those 18th century aristocrats came to grief. And so will the “dream ticket” if it continues to emulate them.

Thatchockism v. the Revolution

The Revolution of 1688 established a state which has endured for three hundred years. It endured because it was capable of development on the basis of its founding philosophy. But on its third centenary it is the subject of a combination of forgetfulness and ridicule.

Margaret Thatcher’s Foreign Office decreed last year that 1988 should be a year of revolutionary amnesia. Neil Kinnock’s Opposition was happy to agree that forgetfulness should be bipartisan.

A generation ago, the Labour/Tory consensus on the welfare state was given the disparaging name of Butskellism.

But that consensus between Butler Toryism and Gaitskell socialism was advantageous to the working class. The names of Thatcher and Kinnock cannot be combined as euphoniously as those of Butler and Gaitskell, but a Thatcher/Kinnockism (Thatchockism?) exists in reality.

It is an absurd consensus, this rancorous complicity of Yuppie Toryism and the socialism of Michael Foot’s protege. But its existence is beyond dispute. The failure of Kinnock not only to contend for political power, but to mount even an impressive rhetorical campaign against the narrowly egoistic Toryism of the suburban nouveau riche, is an outcome of complicity on fundamentals.

The Thatcher government decided to use all its levers of influence to minimise commemoration of 1688. It did this for the trivial reason that it felt a celebration of 1688 would give a moral boost to the Ulster Unionists, whom it is intent on demoralising utterly through the machinations of the Anglo-Irish Agreement.

The triviality of the reason fitted the smallmindedness of the Thatcherite vision. None of the great politicians who made Toryism a historic force in the shaping of Britain would have acted out of such a petty consideration. Not even the vastly over-rated Churchill would have done so.

And Thatcher’s reason was not only trivial, but misconceived. The Unionist population in Ulster has been rendered politically moronic by seventy years of exclusion from the political system of the state, and it is inherently incapable of taking advantage of opportunities. Its entire political capacity now consists of an anti-United Ireland reflex, and the obvious determination of the government to do nothing which might please it sharpens that reflex. What would have bewildered and disoriented it was a good commemoration by the state of the 1688 Revolution.

The Labour Party discouraged 1688 commemorations for reasons which are more substantial than those of the government only in the sense that they are more perverse.

Labour’s illusion

Thatcher Toryism is dominant only by default of the Labour movement. Because Labour would not come into its inheritance in the 1970s, a party of mere egoism has dominated the 1980s.

Alan Bullock confronted Labour with its destiny. The trade union leaders, living in illusion, decreed that the working class would not begin to act as the ruling class. And Neil Kinnock, a politician very obviously on the make, thrust himself forward in the campaign against Bullock in order to catch the eyes of the block voters.

He achieved a spectacular personal success through the catastrophe into which he helped to lead the movement. And the “dream ticket” has proved to be just that – a dream signifying nothing, and without a bit of sound and fury for entertainment.

The depth of pretentious vulgarity was plumbed at last year’s Brighton Conference when Neil showed himself to the populace on the balcony of the Grand Hotel, accompanied by Glenys and the socialist millionaire press baron. Here was our own Royal Family, complete with fairy godmother – if not our Holy Family, complete with Holy Ghost !

Neil sees only the glitter of Thatcherism, and so he wants some glitter of his own. He has been conned by the idea that Saatchi and Saatchi brought Thatcher to power. But the succession of Thatcher victories owes little or nothing to glossy images.

Thatcher has never engaged in the soft sell. She has never desisted from stating the brutal egoism of her position and that has been her strength. Brutal egoism is at least realistically intelligible. (And when Thatcher said the Health Service was safe with her, I would guess that most people understood this to be an admission that, much as she would like to dismantle the NHS, it was beyond her power to do so.)

On the other side there has been nothing but empty imagery.

The trade union leaders, in response to Bullock, decreed that the working class should not become the ruling class. The formal argument was that parity with the shareholders was not a good enough starting point. There should be a formal abdication of the bourgeoisie. Somebody else should legislate the working class into complete social power before it should be allowed to do anything for itself. In the meantime it was up to the capitalists to manage.

Thatcher said: very well, let’s have capitalism in earnest, then. And it made sense to people.

The Labour leaders were acting within an illusion which they thought to be England. They thought they could reject Bullock and things would remain as they were. The triumph of Thatcher was inconceivable to them. Such things did not happen in England. They had an elaborately developed idea of England as a place where nothing happened. They could therefore bask indefinitely in the stalemate between unions and management.

This mad idea was a consequence of the comprehensive breach with the Glorious Revolution which was completed in the 1950s.

1945 and 1688

The effective radicalism of previous generations and centuries had its ideological source in the 1688 Revolution. The Labour movement was made effective by people who were saturated with the spirit of John Locke. And the fundamental reform enacted under the leadership of Attlee and Bevin in 1945-1951 was a continuation of the Glorious Revolution.

Bevin and Attlee spiced up the political philosophy of 1688 with an element of Marxism, as Tom Paine had spiced it up with an element of the French Enlightenment and John Stuart Mill with an element of German metaphysics. By virtue of what has recently been referred to dismissively as its “empiricist” character, the philosophy of 1688 has a considerable capacity for living off new surroundings, and for assimilating and making effective doctrines which if left to themselves tend to atrophy.

But in the Bevin/Attlee generation there was a powerful impulse within the Labour movement to make a clean break with the progressive political philosophy deriving from 1688 and to go over to a comprehensive theoretical doctrine. In other words, there was a Marxist movement which resisted incorporation with the philosophy of Locke, and which became increasingly influential in the mental life of Labour.

Bevin was a reflective political leader, with powers of analysis and synthesis comparable to those of Balfour and Pitt. But he had no heirs. In so far as he had successors, they were merely “practical”, meaning that they operated a routine. For a generation Labour conducted itself on “practical” lines while living its mental life in a different dimension. The practical was out of joint with the theoretical. And this incompatibility was eventually resolved in favour of the theoretical – which is what usually happens.

The establishment of the NHS and of National Assistance were the most fundamental alterations in the conditions of working class life ever enacted in Britain, and they were in both inspiration and substance a continuation of the Glorious Revolution.

Nye Bevan was given the job of establishing the NHS, and he did it well. But until he was given that job to do he had been committed to an ideological stance which, if it had been dominant in the Labour Party, would have made the post-1945 reform impossible. It was Bevin who enabled Bevan to be effective. Bevan could not have established the political framework in which he became a highly competent administrator of reform. Bevin was his necessary precondition as architect of the National Health Service – and he hated Bevin with a profound, and implicitly suicidal, ideological hatred.

In that period, basically different world outlooks were manifested in different persons. But Bevin and Attlee had no heirs as reflective and practical reforming socialists within the political philosophy of John Locke.

Bevanism and 1688

After 1951, two incompatible world outlooks jostled together within the same persons – within Brown, Wilson, Healey, Crossman, etc. (or, rather, a “practical” leftover from one world outlook was attached to the rhetoric of another world outlook).

The Wilson generation were one thing in words, under the influence of an elaborate but ineffectual rhetoric, and they were something else in deeds, under an inarticulate feeling of practicality. What they did was indefensible in terms of what their rhetoric said they ought to do. But what the rhetoric said they ought to do was incapable of being done – not because of the reactionary power of the bourgeoisie, but because it was inherently incomprehensible where it was not self-contradictory.

For a while, doctrinal purity was maintained apart from practicality by Michael Foot and his little band of verbose fence-sitters. But in 1974 Foot was lured down off the fence by Wilson. Bevanism became completely enmeshed in the apparatus of political power. And the fantasy character of its philosophy rendered it incapable of making effective use of its power.

The great reform of the Attlee/Bevin period still stands. The reforms of the Foot era have all evaporated. Attlee and Bevin knew what England was, and therefore they would have known that you cannot get away with garlanding the trade unions with legislative privileges while they continue to behave as a protest movement, obstructing the managerial function which they have refused to undertake. Foot legislated for a ruling class, while his protege put himself to the fore in demanding that the Bullock proposals be rejected.

A proletariat with the legislative privileges of a ruling class was not an arrangement England would stand for. Since the Labour leadership insisted that the trade unions should continue to luxuriate in a make-belief of capitalist oppression, Thatcher was given a mandate to end the make-belief and to introduce trade union legislation more appropriate to a proletariat.

Now, that strategic collapse of Labour politics into fantasy was not caused by the insidious “extremist” influence of Militant. In fact, the “extremism” of Militant is only the rhetoric of Bevanism taken in earnest.

In terms of rhetoric, Militant is more sensible than Foot was a generation ago. The difference is that Foot did not take his senseless rhetoric in earnest – he checked himself under the influence of a philosophy which he never admitted to holding in his head.

Bevin battered a bit of horse sense into the Foot generation.  But the Foot generation did not transmit a semblance of the art of British politics to the Militant generation. And there was something very unpleasant about the scapegoating of Militant by Foot’s protege, and especially about Foot’s letter to The Times in support of the Militant purge.

The obliteration of history

1688 was, I think, the most idealistic, the most political, and the most competently conducted revolution that ever was. It was “revolution in permanence”, while the affair to which Trotsky gave that name was an authoritarian straitjacket.

The history of Britain ever since, and of a great part of the world, has been a working out of the ideals of the Glorious Revolution.

And yet, if I had been present at the dispute between Hattersley and Benn, I would have supported Benn. Hattersley defended 1688 in a spirit which was alien to it, while Benn dismissed it in the spirit of the thing itself.

Hattersley is a schemer and his place is with the pre-Revolutionary Cabal. Benn sees that purposeful and effective political action is possible only in the context of a historic ideal. And if his history is groundless that is hardly his fault.

Comintern Marxism, in its numerous varieties, seized control of the academic life of Britain some time ago and has since obliterated history and replaced it with the schemes of pseudo-science. The obliteration of history was a major influence in guiding Labour into a cul-de-sac and preparing the ground for Thatcher.

But Comintern Marxism remains firmly in place in academia despite the catastrophe which overtook the Labour movement. It is not endangered by Thatcherism. Yuppiedom does not possess the internal resources necessary for recovering the history of Britain since 1688. In fact, Thatcherism has itself assimilated the essential Comintern dogma of economic determinism.

In March this year Radio Three broadcast what was advertised as a debate on 1688 between Tony Benn and a Tory historian, Jonathan Clarke. It turned out that they were in total agreement. They tried to outdo each other in “debunking” the Glorious Revolution. And a few months later the Sunday Telegraph commissioned Clarke to do a debunking job for the Yuppies to read with their morning coffee (up-market instant).

Current egoism is the spiritual medium of life for Yuppies of both Thatcher and Kinnock orientations. And in a medium of current egoism nothing much can grow. As against that, Benn at least stands for a framework of historical misconception.

Morton’s scheme

A short, crisp, coherent pamphlet, entitled “The Story of the English Revolution” by A.L. Morton, was published in 1949. The scheme of things which it set out has during the past forty years seeped through the whole of British academia. It is no longer clearly stated. And the elaborate statements of it all tend towards incoherence and internal collapse. But the ghost of Morton’s pamphlet is triumphant everywhere.

According to this vision of things, the English Revolution culminated on January 30, 1649, when the King’s head was cut off. Its Thermidor – to use an intelligible anachronism – occurred three months later, when the Leveller movement, which might have consolidated the Revolution, was suppressed by Cromwell. Since then there has been a long wait. But one of these centuries the Thermidorean reaction will end and the English Revolution will pick up where it left off in the late spring of 1649.

On the face of it a gloomy story: so much heroism, so many sacrifices, so much glory, and at the end of it – capitalism,” Morton comments. But the worst is yet to come.

On the understanding that Cromwell thwarted the people of England by preventing them from entering their rightful inheritance in March 1649 and consigned them to three and a half centuries of misery, we might at least feel a sense of apocalyptic rage against him and all his heirs and successors.

But Morton, and his successors, will not allow that. But “scientific socialism” will not allow that.

A tantalising glory

Morton proceeds to tell us that Cromwell was probably right in his estimate that an attempt to implement the Leveller programme would have resulted in Royalist counter-revolution. And he requires us to think that capitalism was the right outcome:

“much as we hate capitalism,… we should remember capitalism is an advance on feudalism. We have to understand that what happened three hundred years ago was not a socialist revolution which failed but a capitalist revolution that succeeded. It was by their victory that the capitalists created the working class.”

“So much glory: and at the end of it – capitalism.”

So why get us worked up about that glory if its outcome, so far as we are concerned, is a wait of 350 years plus ? Why give us this knowledge, with its requirement of philosophical resignation ?

There have been all sorts of glory in the history of mankind, so why tantalise us with the particular glory of the 1640s if its only relevance to us is that it was a fuss caused by the rise of capitalism, and was a necessary precondition of 19th century Manchester ?

Why not treat that Puritan glory as we treat the Mongol glory of the 13th century ? Capitalism would not cease to have existed if we refrained from exciting ourselves by contemplating the glory which preceded its birth. Why not simply treat Cromwell as a Genghis Khan writ even larger, who through the system he ushered in destroyed human life by. the million where the great Mongol only destroyed it by the thousand in hot blood?

History is the imaginative basis of politics. What is assumed to be possible is intimately connected with what is assumed to have already happened. And to require the aspirant politicians of the working class to get their minds around a 350 year wait is to lay an imaginative foundation which stultifies all capacity for political action.

An imagination which learns to bear with scientific fortitude three and a half centuries of essentially static misery is so highly adapted to defeat that opportunities for· victory must pass unnoticed by it. And that, I think, is why the Labour leadership opposed Bullock and prepared the way for ten years of Thatcherism.

A capitalist revolution?

On the “scientific socialist” view, the suppression of the Levellers, which was historically inevitable and objectively progressive, sapped the energy of the Revolution. Within three months of the execution of the King, regression towards monarchy began. Having curbed the democracy of the Revolution in the service of historical necessity, Cromwell in the ebb of revolutionary vigour established a personal dictatorship, which in turn accelerated the regression towards monarchy.

The Restoration was, of course, a very bad thing. At the same time it was nothing at all. Feudalism died with Charles I, and Charles II could not resurrect it. Capitalism not only survived the Restoration, but developed apace under it.

‘The truth was shown in 1688 when James 11, not realising the nature of the change that had taken place, tried to stage a counter-revolution. Jn a very short time and without serious difficulty he was sent packing.” (Morton, op.cit., page 14.)

An ignorant and wilful king, who neglected to learn the phases of history, is replaced with a king who is wise in his generation. Capitalism, having abolished monarchy in its way onto the stage, is now in complete control of the theatre and chooses to retain a mask of monarchy for the purpose of popular mystification, And so it remains to this day, “essentially”.

From the exciting days of 1647, when Cromwell was still discussing possibilities with the Levellers in the Army debates, to the dull “compromise” of 1688, political affairs are of steadily declining interest, according to the Comintern conception as expounded by Morton, Christopher Hill, and their multitude of disciples who now dominate academia and publishing. Morton, in his “People’s History of England”, does not even mention the names of Locke, Halifax and Burnet.

But, if one wanders out from the closet of systematic Marxist omniscience, one discovers that there was much more to the Puritan Revolution than “capitalism” if indeed capitalism had anything at all to do with its conflicts and divisions.

And as you get your bearings outside, politics becomes of steadily increasing interest from 1649 to 1688, and becomes even more interesting in the generation after 1688.

The Puritans

When I left the closet of Marxist omniscience over twenty years ago (because I got claustrophobia almost as soon as I entered it), I could not see that the Puritan Revolution was about capitalism and feudalism at all. Whatever feudalism be, England was not it in 1640. Also I could not see any necessary connection between the fact that England became a liberal democracy and the fact that it became capitalist.

An intelligent and perceptive 18th century writer, Mandeville, said that illiterate ignorance was the proper condition of the proletariat in order to make life half tolerable for them and safe for their cultured masters. And it has always seemed to me that a culture generated by the requirements of capitalist exploitation would be precisely what Mandeville advocated.

The Puritans, having failed to make a go of their political revolution, became influential in the development of capitalist economy. And Puritan capitalists had the urge to enlighten the proletariat because they were Puritans and not because they were capitalists. They were momentarily in the business of making money, but fundamentally they were theocrats fighting the devil as agents of Heaven, with eternal salvation at issue. They introduced alien considerations into the mode of production.

(The argument that the workers had to be taught to read as an integral part of the process of exploitation is highly implausible. Very little reading was involved in the labour process of early capitalism. And other arrangements could easily have been made even for the reading involved in the labouring process of 20th century capitalism – e.g. the use of symbols, or the development of a caste of literate foremen.)

English capitalism, because of the Puritan yeast at work within it, did not act rationally in the social sphere for the purpose of maximising and perpetuating the exploitation of labour. The Puritans were wayward exploiters of labour because they were moved by theocratic passion to make Bible-readers of their workers.

The significant contribution of Puritanism to the development of modern Britain is the spiritual egalitarianism it engendered in the politics of the 1640s, and later grafted on to the capitalist process. But the Puritans lost political power in 1660 and they never really regained it (unless the alliance of Thatcher Toryism and Ken Livingstone’s GLC in a crusade against the pleasures of the flesh in the early 1980s be considered a restoration of the rule of the saints under secular camouflage).

Locke’s subversion of theocracy

Puritanism was disabled as a political force by the philosophical aristocracy which took command in 1688.

Christopher Hill, in an Open University textbook, observes dismissively that

“Locke’s philosophy was a workaday synthesis of the ideas of more creative, more revolutionary thinkers of the early 17th century. Locke was a Christian, and he favoured religious toleration; but his Christianity was shorn of everything that had made Puritanism revolutionary – of direct contact with God, of enthusiasm – and his tolerance was the rational calculation of the Toleration Act rather than the humanist idealism of Milton .. .He wrote in a lucid unadorned style, persuasive both because it addressed itself to the man of commonsense, and because it side-stepped difficulties that have worried more profound thinkers.” (The Century of Revolution, page 252.)

I suppose one ought not to say that the former Master of Balliol has what Lenin called “the itch”. But I’m afraid all I can see here is the itch.

The Puritans who communed with God, and gave nasal expression to enthusiasm in every waking hour, did not succeed in establishing a functional state – not to mention a progressive one. They were fantasisers, as distinct from politicians, of revolution. And if they had managed to realise their ideals in a functional state, it would have been a theocracy.

Locke subverted theocracy.  And by making enthusiasm devious and slow burning, he harnessed it to power a long, open-ended, liberal political evolution.

Milton’s humanist idealism was not a guiding influence on the Commonwealth. It flourished in the political conditions established through the 1688 Revolution. And the first life of Milton was published by Locke’s colleague, John Toland.

England’s philosophical aristocracy

Hobbes is presumably one of the “more creative, more revolutionary” thinkers Hill has in mind. He is undoubtedly a more doctrinaire thinker. His totalitarian scheme of things is more compatible with the dominant varieties of Marxism. And he is probably more easily lectured about than Locke. In short, Hobbes is more academic.

Now it is not difficult to spin out an abstract doctrine, or form a systematic set of ideas. It is what children are naturally inclined to do, and I suppose it is natural that academics, whose lives are spent with children, should keep on doing it.

The difficult thing is to produce a body of ideas which interconnects with a free society (a society not formed by a state, which has representative government), in such a way that it orients society in changing circumstances, and thus facilitates evolutionary change (or “permanent revolution”).

“Locke was a synthesiser, obscuring contradictions between the ideas he brought together”, says Hill, imagining that is inferior to what Hobbes did.

The aristocracy which enacted the 1688 Revolution, and conducted the affairs of state until 1832, had sources in Puritanism, but had a political philosophy which enabled them to do what Puritanism proper could never have done – foster social diversity as an accepted state of affairs, connect it up with representative government, and thus establish the conditions for a democracy which was stable, liberal and progressive – a thing never before seen in the world.

Being essentially philosophical in outlook, that aristocracy could use its levers of influence as a ruling class to take the heat out of theological division. Since it was itself divided into parties and conducted its disputes in public, secular political divisions gradually superseded theological divisions in the popular mind. And, since it was an aristocracy (with, as the saying goes, independent means of support), it was not tied to the capitalist economic form, and was not under pressure to shape society into a streamlined adjunct of the capitalist process of labour exploitation.

The real England in history

With this ruling class, and with a capitalist class saturated with Puritanism, the actual history of Britain in the past three hundred years becomes conceivable. If the assumptions of the Labour movement had been formed through an understanding of that history, it would now be in the process of taking its place in the succession of ruling groups since 1688.

Because “scientific socialism” disconnected the mind of Labour from the real process of British history, and paralysed it with the idea of three and a half centuries of nothing, the Labour movement is now being fragmented by the shallowest of all Tory Prime Ministers.

The mandarins of Labour in the 1970s had exactly the wrong idea of England. They thought it was highly resistant to change and that they could therefore continue indefinitely in the stalemate they had achieved. The historical truth is that under the process set in motion in 1688 England became highly adapted to change, and of all societies in the world is the one least likely to continue indefinitely in stalemate.

Therefore, when the Labour movement would not set about enacting the progressive change which was on the cards, Thatcher was given a mandate to restore the power of capitalist management.

And a large part of the working class agreed in giving her that mandate, because the working class at large continues to be part of the historical reality of England even though the leadership of Labour emigrated to wonderland as soon as they got free of Ernest Bevin.


This article appeared in October 1988, in Issue 8 of Labour and Trade Union Review, now Labour Affairs.