Reflections Upon ‘Merchant politics, capitalism and the English Revolution: Robert Brenner’s Merchants and Revolution revisited’

by Thomas Leng (University of Sheffield)

In February 1973, an article appeared in Past and Present by a young American historian, with the deceptively prosaic title ‘The Civil War Politics of London’s Merchant Community’. Here, the author traced the emergence of a succession of merchant groupings linked to changes in the structure of overseas trade which unfolded in the 80 years up to the outbreak of civil war, culminating in a cohort of ‘new men’ who rose from England’s early colonial exploits, and who differed from the traditional trading company merchants who preceded them. Whereas the latter would cleave to the crown which privileged them, in the civil war these ‘new merchants’ came to occupy a pivotal position parliament’s victory, ushering in a regime that supported their commercial goals. In the case of the merchant community at least, civil war allegiance was rooted in socioeconomic position.

This was not Robert Brenner’s first publication- in the previous year he had published a revisionist interpretation of English commercial expansion in the late Tudor and early Stuart periods as driven by the search for imports to feed an expanding domestic market. But his Past and Present article bought this analysis to bear on what was then one of the chief scholarly battlegrounds on which competing grand narratives were pitted against each other: the debate on the causes and nature of the English Revolution. In doing so, Brenner launched what remains as its last major Marxist interpretation. Last November, twenty or so historians met at The University of Sheffield, supported by the generosity of the Past and Present Society, in order to discuss this work on its fiftieth anniversary (in fact 2023 was a double anniversary for Brenner, it being 30 years since he presented his ‘new social interpretation’ of the Revolution in full, in his book Merchants and Revolution. Commercial Change, Political Conflict, and London’s Overseas Traders, 1550-1653, published by Cambridge and Princeton). That this work is still capable of generating discussion attests to its enormous range, and the enduring significance of the questions that it raises.

Cover of Merchants and Revolution. Commercial Change, Political Conflict, and London’s Overseas Traders, 1550-1653 (Verso edition, 2003), cover image all rights reserved

Reflections on landmark publications such as this provide an opportunity to assess how scholarly priorities have changed over time, and certainly the field of civil war history looks very different now than it would have done in 1973. At that time, the world-historical importance of England during ‘Tawney’s Century’ (1540-1640) was widely accepted, at least within Anglophone academia. As the festschrift later published by Past and Present for Brenner’s doctoral supervisor, Lawrence Stone, put it, this was the crucible from which the world’s first modern society’ emerged, the English Revolution its undoubted climactic. Three years later, Brenner would publish another even more impactful Past and Present article on the agrarian origins of capitalism in preindustrial England, prompting the well-known Brenner debate largely conducted in the pages of the same journal. It was here that Brenner would flesh out his classically Marxist vision of capitalism as rooted in the social relations of production and first realised in England. Although his field of interest increasingly turned to twentieth century political economy, Brenner would restate this position in the face of scholarly turns which switched attention to the development of capitalism as a world-system, or placed the ‘great divergence’ between Europe and Asia in the eighteenth century, long after ‘Tawney’s Century’.

But already in 1973 debates were underway (Stone having been an early participant) which would ultimately bring to question the English Revolution’s role in this story, even its status as a ‘revolution’ at all. By 1993, Brenner had to take into account a historiographical terrain transformed by revisionism, which questioned socioeconomic interpretations of civil war allegiance and emphasised short term causes over deep seated structural changes. In many senses, however, Brenner’s account of the agrarian origins of capitalism in the English countryside had little need for a Revolution which, in his reading, broke out in an essentially already capitalist society. Why, then, did Brenner go to such lengths to incorporate the English Revolution into his account of the emergence of capitalism? Given that he had developed his account on agrarian capitalism during his Masters thesis, Brenner’s switch of focus to the English Revolution for his doctorate might appear a digression. This was an issue which participants in the workshop grappled with as we struggled to reconcile what essentially, in its fullest form, became three books in one: an account of the rise of new social interests associated with early English colonialism; a study of their role in the course of London politics in the 1640s; and a new grand narrative of the English Revolution as a contest for control of the state in an already capitalist society (the biggest claim, but given the least amount of space in Merchants and Revolution). To some participants, at least, the civil war appeared to be something of a red herring which only muddied Brenner’s explanations for the emergence of capitalism.

That Brenner evidently did see it as important to provide a social interpretation of the English Revolution is itself indicative of the status this event once possessed in English grand narratives of all stripes. Producing an account of the transition to capitalism without the Revolution was perhaps, for him, out of the question. If he had been commencing his studies today, would Brenner have felt the same urge? Early modern English history has by-and-large been dethroned from its status as ‘master-subject’ of modernising narratives, leaving its Revolution as an event of local significance, perhaps, at best. But if this had led to the crumbling if not collapse of Brenner’s new social interpretation of the Revolution, then perhaps the foundations on which it was built can be revealed in new light. Throughout the workshop, participants were reminded that Brenner’s work did uncover developments which were indeed momentous. More than any of his contemporaries, Brenner was conscious of the interconnections between domestic political crisis, colonial development and commercial expansion, including of course the emergence of an English slave trade, pioneered by his new merchants. Brenner’s work sketched out a vast terrain which remains fully to be explored, and which the workshop ranged across freely (if at times following several directions at once). Certain themes emerged that participants will no doubt pursue in their own work. Whereas Brenner’s account of the emergence of agrarian capitalism centred on the English countryside, colonial plantations were revealed as key sites for the assertion of individual property rights and the application of innovative methods of labour management- including, of course, coerced labour and ultimately slavery- with ramifications for developments in England. Domestically, the Stuart crown appeared as itself heavily implicated in agrarian transformation and commercial innovation. But the deployment of political power to achieve such ends was universal, putting some pressure on Brenner’s category of ‘politically constituted property’ as characteristically pre-capitalist, both in terms of commercial organisation (monopolistic privileges) and agricultural production (coercive powers of surplus-extraction). Indeed the phrase is ambiguous in Brenner’s own work, which acknowledges that the ‘free market’ in land and labour rests ultimately on political power in the form of state-backed property rights. Brenner as a Marxist fully conscious of the compulsive character of free market competition would surely appreciate how coercive labour practices could be concealed through notions of consent. His ‘new merchants’ were deeply associated with the traffic in indentured servants and their deployment in plantation labour at the same time as they were arguing in favour of greater freedom to access global market opportunities, not to mention the defence of English freedoms in the civil war. That these efforts would coalesce on the establishment of England’s Caribbean colonies as slave-based plantation machines, politically secured by the Republic’s warships, is a grim irony: the Revolution played its part in enshrining this ultimate form of ‘politically constituted property’ at the centre of England’s nascent empire. Here if anywhere might rest the claim of the English Revolution as an event of world historical importance. Any historian wishing to challenge the poet John Dryden’s assertion that the civil wars ‘brought nothing about’ would do worse than to start by reading Brenner.

Past & Present was pleased to support this event and supports other events like it. Applications for event funding are welcomed from scholars working in the field of historical studies at all stages in their careers.

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