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Reviewed by:
  • Ehud’s Dagger: Class Struggle in the English Revolution
  • James R. Farr
Ehud’s Dagger: Class Struggle in the English Revolution. By James Holstun ( London: Verso, 2000; paperback 2002. xix plus 460 pp. $21).

Polemical books are nothing new to the historiography of the English Revolution of the mid-seventeenth century, and in that sense this one is unexceptional. Holstun's book is remarkable, however, in the extent of his assault on both revisionist and postmodernist explanations of that event. Holstun's fundamental criticism of those explanations is that they do not acknowledge that social change was a clearly stated goal of radical revolutionaries. Indeed, Holstun argues that the English revolution was a class struggle, "the struggle among various groups that were endeavoring to maintain or transform the relations of production." [p. 88] In that sense, Holstun sees the revolution as "the first capitalist and anti-capitalist revolution..." and that "the radical praxis" of working people played a key role in it. [p. ix] By "praxis" he means "goal-oriented ac- tion... action planned, accomplished and reflected upon. It includes both verbal and non-verbal action, and... the former [does not] always determine the latter." [p. xi] Thus praxis can be located in discourse as well as physical activity, and this is where Holstun finds most of it in the deep analysis of texts that fills this substantial book. [End Page 1142]

Part I, "Hierarchy and Association," is a 140-page assault on revisionists (he repeatedly singles out Kevin Sharpe, John Morrill, Conrad Russell, Mark Kishlansky, and J.C.D. Clark) and postmodernists (above all Foucauldians and New Historicists), both because they are reductionist. He has no truck with revisionists because of their "effort to purge intention and ideology from historical explanation" [p. 12] and replacing it with contingency and personality, and their acceptance of Russell's sweeping claim that "'social change explanations of the English Civil War must be regarded as having broken down.'" [p. 28] Postmodernists fare no better. Holstun sees this approach as exhausted in a "morass of contingency and power," [p. 137] "constitutionally" opposed to history from below. Neither revisionists nor postmodernists seem capable of or interested in even addressing why social conflicts arise and how and why society changes.

Guided by Jean-Paul Sartre (especially his Critique of Dialectical Reason), Christopher Hill, Jürgen Habermas, and Raymond Williams, Holstun closely analyzes popular praxis in five radical projects. In these projects he finds that the revolution was fundamentally about a conflict between a radical associative praxis opposing the "hierarchical praxis of the ruling class." [p. 7]

The first radical project is John Felton's assassination of the Duke of Buckingham. Holstun argues that Felton's attack was not just a 'motiveless' act by a frustrated or impoverished client, but rather a "rationally motivated act" reflecting "nascent political opposition... thinking its way slowly toward revolution and regicide." [p. 145] There is some evidence that Felton flirted with republicanism, but it is difficult to see class struggle here (Felton himself was from an impoverished gentry family) and a causal leap to see his action as part of an emerging "alliance of the parliamentary classes with the small-producing extra-parliamentary laboring classes" who shared a "common interest in resisting the absolutist class-state embodied in the person of... Buckingham." [p. 153]

In his chapter on the Agitators in the New Model Army during the summer and fall of 1647 leading to the Putney Debates, Holstun is on firmer ground. Here he finds in the election of the agitators from the rank and file of the New Model Army "a relatively egalitarian forum" and "an important predecessor to the Enlightenment public sphere." [pp. 194, 195] He takes issue with Kishlansky's minimizing the role of radical democratic ideology in the Army and his casting of the Putney Debates as a traditional search for consensus. Holstun castigates the revisionist position as a one-sided embracing of the grandees' hierarchical vision of collective life as if it were universal, whereas Holstun convincingly argues that it was "a particular strategic rhetoric" pursuing particular political interests resting upon property rights limiting the franchise, a rhetoric that was countered by the radicals...


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