Ehud's Dagger: Class Struggle in the English Revolution (review)
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Criticism 44.2 (2002) 193-197



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Ehud's Dagger: Class Struggle in the English Revolution by James Holstun. London and New York: Verso Press, 2000. Pp. xix + 460. $40.00 cloth.

Ehud's Dagger: Class Struggle in the English Revolution is an ambitious, witty and provocative book. It is as much a polemical attack on strands in contemporary scholarship as an account of radical action in the English Revolution, for Holstun demands readers think beyond the familiar oppositions: Roundheads vs. Royalsts; Puritans vs. Bishops; Parliament vs. King. As one of its [End Page 193] stars, Gerard Winstanley, put it, "No priest, no king; no king, no judge; no judge, no landlord; no landlord, no priest" (410), an utterly radical extension of James Stuart's "No bishop, no king" rejoinder to calls for ecclesiastical reform. Populated by heroes ( Jean-Paul Sartre, Christopher Hill, the British Marxist historians, Ernest Bloch, Jurgen Habermas) and villains (Michel Foucault, a plethora of new historicists, and a dragons' mouthful of revisionists), Holstun's book offers rich readings in early modern English political culture that are bound to interest a range of scholars from the disciplines of literature and history. Mounting a powerful defense of "pre-post Marxist" interpretation, Holstun challenges new historicists in literary studies and revisionists in history to consider the ethical norms and political subtexts of their work. It should be required reading for those wishing to do politically-alert criticism.

The book pursues two related theses. First, that the English Revolution was both cause and consequence of the transition from feudalism to capitalism. Second, that the English Revolution may be understood as a class struggle, a "struggle among various groups that were endeavoring to maintain or transform the relations of production" (88). For those who reject these theses, or who did so years ago, when Marxist accounts of the English Revolution went out of favor, the book demonstrates that the history of popular collective praxis is a viable method, preferable to other explanatory models, specifically new historicism and revisionism. The book is not simply a throw-back to a pre-post structuralist Marxist humanism or an unreflecting Whig history however. Rather, because he takes seriously postmodernist critical practice, Holstun covers a lot of theoretical ground to justify his dialectical method. This is a book as much written to clear the forest as to preserve the endangered species hiding in the trees.

The book divides into two halves: Part One engages with critical questions; and Part Two takes up particular examples. The first chapter attacks recent accounts of the mid-century struggles by historians who stress personal relationships among elites, local traditional loyalties, and contingency, rather than looking at what intentions drove radicals to act. Holstun approaches the charge of anachronism that has been leveled against Whig or Marxisant historical interpretations. "Revisionist"—and here he targets Conrad Russell, John Morrill, J .C. D. Clark, Kevin Sharpe, Conal Condren, and Mark Kishlansky—"rigorously police contemporary historical writing for interloping modern phenomena, social models, and schemes of analysis" (21). As Holstun argues, "This prerogative rigor regarding terminology and concepts aims not to keep the empirical discussion of historical change from starting off on the wrong foot, but to throttle it in its crib" (21). The revisionists' purging of analytic terms along with historical models conceals a broad agenda: an effort "to purge intention and ideology from historical explanation" (12).

Holstun wants an account of the English Revolution that reclaims popular [End Page 194] actions in the face of a rising modernity that is both process and product of mid-seventeenth century struggles. For the revisionist J. C. D. Clark, for instance, "modernity is nothing more than electrification plus the parish." So quips Holstun, as he hits home a larger point that the revisionist case can do little to explain the vast changes from that early modern society to our own. Social change explanations, he argues, are vital to the ongoing work of explaining history, and to ignore them is to miss what is important about studying the past, at best, and to produce a history that is...


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