In this coherent, sophisticated and intellectually compelling book, Robert Brenner provides an important reformulation of the Marxist interpretation of the English Revolution of the mid seventeenth century.footnote Few scholars will fail to be impressed by his mastery of the vast secondary literature on this subject, as well as his penetration of the extensive archival sources on the great trading companies and the interloping adventurers in the Mediterranean, the Far East and the New World. It is worth noting that the volume is an enormously expanded and rewritten version of the Princeton PhD thesis which Brenner completed at the end of the 1960s. In a sense we can be glad that Brenner encountered so many frustrations in getting it published, because the result is a work of much greater authority than the original thesis. Merchants and Revolution will command attention for many years to come. This is not to say that it will win assent in all quarters, and as I shall attempt to show, Brenner’s account is open to criticism on both factual and interpretive grounds.

But to begin with the book’s strengths: in the first place, and in spite of his great admiration for the work of Christopher Hill and Lawrence Stone, Brenner disarmingly admits that the traditional social interpretation of the English Revolution has failed. As other historians have conclusively shown, there was no decline in the aristocracy or the landed class as a whole during the century prior to the revolution. Nor did the feudal and capitalist classes take divergent paths in that century. Nor can it be shown that there was any social class difference between those who supported the Crown and those who supported Parliament in the civil war. Finally, the overseas merchants of London, who were the leading stratum of the bourgeoisie, failed to support Parliament against the Crown in 1641–42.

Having made these acknowledgements to recent scholarship, Brenner none the less rejects the conclusion that the English Revolution had little or nothing to do with the transition from feudalism to capitalism. In this respect his book is a continuation of the argument that he advanced in his famous essay on ‘The Agrarian Roots of European Capitalism’.footnote1 By the sixteenth century neo-feudal lords had turned themselves into commercially responsive capitalist landlords. Having given up their private armies, what the greater landed classes looked for from the state was protection of their private property. They therefore associated themselves ever more closely with the monarchy in constructing an increasingly powerful and unified state. Far from being locally focused in their political outlook, landed proprietors ‘backed the extension of the monarch’s authority against the pretensions of the international papacy and the national church hierarchy. They desired the strengthening of the state’s geopolitical position against threatening Catholic powers, notably Spain. . . .Finally, by virtue of their own growing involvement in the developing national capitalism, the greater landed classes had to favour a stronger government that could more effectively regulate the social economy’ (p. 656).

The emergence of a capitalist landlord class and a capitalist agriculture produced a tremendous growth in English wealth in the sixteenth century. Gentry and lawyers were the chief beneficiaries of this growth. Their ability and desire to purchase an increasingly wide range of goods triggered an explosive expansion of English trade during the same century. Whereas the chief commodities of trade during the Middle Ages had been wool and wine, there was now an increasing market for imports of silks, spices, gold, and currants. These goods were shipped from the Levant (the eastern Mediterranean) and the Far East. A host of new stock companies were created to exploit this trade, but by the beginning of the seventeenth century they had shaken down to two: the Levant and East India Companies. Monarchs welcomed the growth of overseas trade, and its concentration in a few hands. Because of the recalcitrance of the landed class the monarchy was finding it more and more difficult to tax land; indeed the yield from the land tax known as the parliamentary subsidy was falling steadily. It was far easier to tax a few men who had a high volume of wealth flowing through their hands. In return for their allowing themselves to be taxed without complaining, the monarch gave these overseas trading syndicates special privileges, like the exclusive right to trade to particular parts of the world—Muscovy, Turkey, France, the Levant, East India—and also gave them the Great Farm of the Customs, namely the right to collect import duties on the Crown’s behalf. Barred from the lucrative overseas trade were all the City of London’s retailers, artisans and mariners. The only exception to this rule was that these humbler men (mostly the sons of minor gentry or prosperous yeomen) were allowed to interlope in the Spanish trade with the Americas and the West Indies. Members of the monopolistic trading companies—the Merchant Adventurers, the Levant Company and the East India Company—evinced little interest in the trade to the New World, partly because it was already controlled by Spain, and partly because the one venture in which they involved themselves—the Virginia Company—was an abject failure. The way was therefore left open for a group of traders from lower social strata. These new merchants established colonizing ventures that combined production and trade. Tobacco and sugar were cultivated and marketed. To these were later added a trade in provisions, staple goods, crops, and slaves from Africa. So great was their success in the 1620s and 1630s that they were ready to challenge the established elite on its own ground. In the last analysis, argues Brenner, the new merchants’ growing strength was basically attributable to their internal cohesiveness and their wide-ranging connections. One of these connections was with a group of colonizing aristocrats, notably the Earl of Warwick and his kinsman Sir Nathaniel Rich, Lord Saye and Sele, and Lord Brook. These men were responsible for the ventures known as the Massachusetts Bay Company, the Providence Island Company, and the Bermuda Company. Other areas of penetration were Barbados, Kent Island and Virginia. The colonizing aristocrats would help lead the parliamentary attack on the Caroline regime. All these men, aristocrats and new merchants, were united by a common religious outlook, that of evangelical Calvinist puritanism. The Arminianism of Charles and Archbishop Laud was anathema to them, not least because of its foreign policy implications. Rejecting the concept of the pope as Antichrist, the Arminians recognized the Church of Rome as a true, though flawed church, and therefore had no principled difficulties in coming to terms with Spain, the pre-eminent Catholic power of Europe. The aristocratic colonizers, by contrast, advocated the creation of a West India Company, and a naval-colonial war against Spain. They also became more and more identified with the campaign for the rights of the subject against arbitrary taxation and imprisonment, and in favour of parliamentary, as opposed to royal absolutist government. While the great company merchants were growing closer to the Crown in the 1630s, the new merchants and their colonizing aristocratic friends were becoming progressively more alienated.

The ending of Charles’s non-parliamentary regime in 1640 owed not a little to the Twelve Peers’ Petition for the summoning of Parliament. The leadership behind this petition was drawn heavily from the colonizing companies. Once the Long Parliament was summoned, the newmerchant leadership played a crucial role in the radical City opposition movement and in the mobilization of the London masses. Active in the Root and Branch Petition of December 1640, they also organized the menacing crowds which intimidated the House of Lords and the king into permitting the attainder and execution of the Earl of Strafford. This radical opposition movement also scored a signal victory in the Common Council elections of December 1641. Their consequent seizure of control of the City from the hands of the oligarchy of royalist overseas merchants came just in time for them to provide sanctuary to the five mps whom Charles attempted to arrest on a charge of treason the following month.

The new-merchant leaders and their radical allies among the City’s shopkeepers, mariners and artisans were at the height of their power in the early years of the revolution, 1642 and 1643. Simultaneously they pursued their anti-Spanish offensive in the Caribbean and launched a policy of imperial conquest against Ireland. Indeed, in Brenner’s candid portrait of these men, nothing comes across so clearly as the brutal, buccaneering character of early-modern mercantile capitalism. Not only did they joyfully participate in piratical raids against the Spanish treasure fleet, they also traded in slaves, and launched the ‘Additional Sea Adventure to Ireland’, a volunteer attempt to raise money and men to crush Ireland in the wake of the Catholic uprising there in 1641. This scheme envisioned setting aside 2½ million acres of Irish land to repay those who financed the expedition. The Irish, in other words, would be required to pay for their own subjugation. Among those who participated in the scheme were future Levellers Thomas Rainborowe, the New Model Army colonel, and Thomas Prince the cheesemonger. The newmerchant leaders also contributed muscle to the parliamentary navy by supplying no fewer than sixty of their own ships.

These men were at the head of the radical offensive of 1642–43. They sought to exploit what was perhaps Parliament’s greatest politico-military crisis in order to gain their own independent citizens’ army and to secure the removal of the Earl of Essex as commander-in-chief of the parliamentary forces. Lacking the support of Pym or the official City government, they could not achieve these goals without conflict, but were obliged to seek to impose them by means of the mass mobilization of the London citizenry, the forging of an alliance with Parliament’s war party wing, and the enunciation of the ideal of parliamentary supremacy based on popular sovereignty. But for reasons that Brenner confesses are unclear, the radicals fell to quarrelling among themselves in the summer of 1643. In the end their committee for a general rising of the people simply disintegrated. A golden opportunity had been missed, for ‘in this situation of unsurpassed military emergency, the London citizenry as a whole was more prepared than at any other time during the civil war years to follow the radicals’ political leadership’ (p. 459). By the end of 1643, the military situation was beginning to turn around, an alliance had been concluded with the Scots, and the City radicals went into sharp eclipse as political force.