In 1948 J. H. Hexter delivered a blistering attack on L.B. Wright’s Middle-Class Culture in Elizabethan England (1935). Wright was a fertile and stimulating scholar, whose inter-disciplinary work opened up many of the topics historians have been profitably pursuing since 1935. But Hexter objected to Wright’s use of the phrase ‘middle-class’. With some reason he argued that it had become a catch-all formula: in any century there was certain to be some evidence of a ‘rising middle-class’. Worse, it was a Marxist phrase. Hexter’s small point did not justify the savagery of his attack on Wright, which, in the epoch of the Cold War, had the effect of frightening historians off from following up Wright’s valuable insights.
But now, more than a generation later, Hexter’s pupil Laura Caroline Stevenson has published a very good book whose laborious title, Praise and Paradox: Merchants and Craftsmen in Elizabethan Popular Literature,footnote1 conceals the fact that it is about Elizabethan middle-class novels. Between the lines it is clear that there was a little friction between Ms Stevenson and her supervisor—‘two strong personalities’, as she discreetly calls them. Most of her book might have been written by a Marxist, and almost the only surviving remnant of Hexterism is an occasional ritual denunciation of the discredited ‘Marxist model’. This bit of demonology no doubt made it easier for her to get her excellent work accepted—though, perhaps significantly, it was published in England, under the auspices of the Past and Present Society, not in the USA. What the ‘Marxist model’ is, Ms Stevenson does not tell us; it is difficult to think what she had in mind. English-speaking Marxists, so far as I know, are far from being sufficiently in agreement with one another to produce a ‘model’, in the unlikely event of their thinking such a thing desirable.
For Marxist models we have to look to Eastern Europe; and here I
The present work, with its rather forbidding title, is not as easy a read as his Oliver Cromwell. It is a discreet protest against some prevailing orthodoxies in the Soviet Union which Barg attacks in the name of Marxism. So far as I am concerned, its main interest lies in the many valuable insights into bourgeois revolutions in general and the seventeenth-century English Revolution in particular—the fruit of many years’ reflection.
Barg shows himself very well acquainted with West European scholarship, quoting Le Goff, Braudel, Panovsky and Weber, and referring to Croce, E. H. Carr and Popper. He has a good word for Annales, and he describes the pre-Revolution émigré Vinogradov as ‘the great Russian medievalist’. But I was a little startled by his remark that ‘West European academics no longer shrink from the word revolution’ (p. 289). Alas: some English historians shrink from it like mad. Barg has interesting pages on structuralism (pp. 105–29): Lévi-Strauss, for instance, is considered to be ‘the greatest French anthropologist of our time’, who has made ‘a series of important discoveries in forms of mentalities . . . among pre-literate peoples’, even if he generalizes too widely from limited data. Barg also addresses the work of Foucault and Piaget, but regards them as anti-historical and impressionistic. Structuralism, he argues, builds abstract logical models of an extra-historical reality, lacking any dialectic of structure and process. Marxist history is (or ought to be) the dialectic of synchronic and diachronic, of function and development.
For Barg a revolution marks a transition from one socio-economic formation to another. He sees an ‘epoch of bourgeois revolutions’ extending from the Reformation and Peasant War in sixteenth-century Germany to the French Revolution of 1789. A main advantage of taking this epoch rather than one particular revolution as the field of study is that it limits the danger of imposing a ‘Marxist model’, and enables the historian to study the difference between specific revolutions (pp. 296–7). He has, of course, a model of sorts. Some of Barg’s most interesting remarks deal precisely with such questions. A succinct paragraph justifies distinguishing the Reformation and Peasant War in Germany from
Barg has a sophisticated note on the misunderstandings which result from confusing the Marxist concept of feudalism as a socio-economic formation (where the emphasis is on the lord–peasant relationship) and the formal-juridical point of view more common in West European historiography. The latter regards it as improper to speak of ‘property’ in describing medieval landed relationships: ‘possession’ is the word. For his part, while accepting the validity on its own terms of the juridical position, Barg thinks that in fact the institution of property in land existed in the Middle Ages: social relations were based on property and regulated by it (pp. 331–2). Nevertheless, Barg is critical of many medievalists among his Soviet colleagues just because they refuse on a priori theoretical grounds to consider the complicated reality behind the juridical point and to look seriously at the relation of feudal lords, not to the land, but to those who cultivated it (pp. 239–40). He rather unkindly signals the tautologies into which this refusal has led some Soviet historians. They have not, he suggests, sufficiently explored the contradictions between the legal status of a peasant cultivator before the royal courts, and his status in the manor court; and so have failed to probe the fundamental contradictions between the economic demands of the feudal mode of production and the judicial forms which express them. Already in the 11th to 13th centuries the common-law courts were over-riding local customs. English villeinage, retaining significant pre-feudal characteristics, contrasts with the serfdom of the rest of Western Europe (pp. 254–7). Hence the lot of the English peasantry in the 15th–16th centuries was very different from that of the French. In England the economic content of the juridical relations between lord and tenant changed to the advantage of the cultivators (pp. 254–63).