Why has Britain never had a “real” revolution — unlike, say, France, Italy, Mexico, Russia, China or Cuba? That’s the question asked by Frank McLynn in The Road Not Taken: How Britain Narrowly Missed a Revolution.
The result of his endeavours is a highly readable book. But not one which really gets to grips with the question he asks. In fact, on more than one occasion, it all becomes very confusing.
The English Revolution of the 1640s replaced feudal-absolutist rule by bourgeois rule, even if feudal elements such as the monarchy and the House of Lords later returned. In doing so, it achieved “monumental change,” to use McLynn’s expression, and should therefore surely count as a “true revolution”. For McLynn, however, it is another failed revolution, because the most radical elements — the Levellers and the Diggers — were defeated.
McLynn covers “seven clear revolutionary situations which did not, in the end, lead to revolution.” (In McLynn’s usage, “a revolution need not necessarily be in a leftward direction, provided it satisfies the criteria for monumental change.”)
In addition to the 1640s, the seven might-have-been revolutions range from the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 and the rural uprising led by Jack Cade in 1450 through to the 1745 Jacobite uprising, the Chartists of the 1830s/40s, and the General Strike of 1926.
Those, indeed, did fail. Why?
It is certainly not because the potential for such a revolution has been sapped by a record of altruism, benevolence and paternalism on the part of the British ruling classes.
On the contrary — and this is what makes the book so readable — the ruling classes and their representatives are consistently shown up as duplicitous scoundrels, never happier than when grinding the faces of the poor and maintaining their grip on power through brute force and terror.
Richard II, monarch at the time of the Peasants’ Revolt, was “a devotee of cruel and unusual punishment” who “wallowed in the reign of terror he unleashed,” while Henry VIII, on the throne at the time of the Pilgrimage of Grace, was a “ruthless, single-minded, vengeful and terrifying tyrant” with a “maniacal thirst for blood”.
In more recent times, after the emergence of the modern working class as a social force, the ruling classes have continued their ancestors’ traditions. Between mid-1839 and early 1840 some 550 Chartist activists were imprisoned, some for a few weeks, and others for several years. Three of its leaders were handed down death sentences (which in 1840 still meant being hanged, drawn and quartered), albeit subsequently commuted to transportation for life.
During the General Strike Churchill boasted that the military had assembled enough artillery in London to kill every living soul in every street in the capital, and that troops had carte blanche to open fire. The specially recruited Civil Constabulary Reserve was also told that any deaths which they might be responsible for would be treated as justifiable homicide.
In the course of the strike’s nine days there were around 4,000 arrests, more than 600 of them without a warrant. In Birmingham the entire strike committee was arrested, in Glasgow sentences of up to three months in prison were imposed for “impeding traffic”, and in Aberavon three strikers were each jailed for two months for being in possession of communist literature.
McLynn assumes that there are factors peculiar to Britain which explain why there has never been a “true revolution” in this country. He therefore ends up as a prisoner of his own question. He has to search for supposedly specific British reasons for defeat.
But three of the might-have-been-revolutions covered in the book occurred before Britain even existed.
If one dates Britain from the Treaty of Union of 1707, rather than the Union of the Crowns of 1603, one could add a fourth as well: the English Civil War. It is called the English Civil War, not the British Civil War, for a good reason.
Nor was there anything particularly British (or English) about the failure of the peasant uprisings covered by McLynn. Medieval and late-medieval peasant uprisings failed in all countries — most notably, and bloodily, in Germany — because the peasantry as a class was incapable of stamping its own authority on society.
As Engels, whom McLynn himself quotes, put it, the medieval peasantry was capable only of “communism nourished by fantasy”: they could point to the future, but not reach it. English peasants failed to carry out a “true revolution” because they were peasants, not because they were English (or incipiently British).
There was nothing peculiarly English/British about the defeat of the radicals in the 1640s. The most radical elements in later bourgeois revolutions (such as the French Revolution, or the European revolutions of 1848) likewise went down to defeat. But that was in the nature of those revolutions.
They were bourgeois revolutions which turned against the more radical plebeian elements once the latter had helped bring the bourgeoisie to power. And those radical elements were necessarily too weak to defeat the bourgeois counter-revolution to which they fell victim.
As Marx wrote of the Levellers: “Only if those revolutionary soldiers could have linked with a great mass movement of the people would it have been possible to set up a genuinely democratic republic. … (But) the proletariat had not yet appeared on the historical scene. Since none of these necessary economic conditions yet existed, a Levellers’ government could have done little to change the march of events.”
In fact, if the English Revolution was not a “real” revolution because the most radical elements failed to take power, then, the French Revolution was not a “real” revolution either.
In relation to later might-have-been-revolutions — the Chartists and the 1926 General Strike — McLynn does put forward credible reasons for their failure which are rooted in the particular history of Britain.
Capitalism developed earlier and over a longer period of time in England than in other countries. Unlike elsewhere, it was not the product of sudden social changes which, in turn, triggered violent social conflict. As McLynn puts it: “Britain developed earlier and faster than the continental countries; it had its civil war and ‘revolution’ earlier; it industrialised earlier; it embraced capitalism earlier; it solved its peasant problem earlier.”
This did not apply without qualification to Scotland. As Trotsky commented, in explaining why “the most radical elements” in the British labour movement were often natives of Scotland: “Scotland entered on the capitalist path later than England. A sharper turn in the life of the masses gave rise to a sharper political reaction.”
The fact that England, and then post-1707 Britain, was the first country to strike out on the road of capitalist development was “bad news” for its proletariat, writes McLynn.
It meant that the working class came into conflict with the bourgeoisie before it had developed its own class ideology. Or, as Trotsky put it, writing of the failure of the Chartist movement: “The era of Chartism is immortal in that over the course of a decade it gives us in condensed and diagrammatic form the whole gamut of proletarian struggle — from petitions to parliament to armed insurrection. … Chartism did not win a victory not because its methods were incorrect but because it appeared too soon. It was only an historical anticipation.”
The emergence of a labour movement in Britain before the development and spread of a set of ideas which would have enabled it to understand its position and role in society (i.e. Marxism) meant that that labour movement was ideologically shaped by hostile forces.
Its perspective, and in particular the perspective of its leaders, was not one of the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism and the seizure of power by the working class. On the contrary, the unions — and, in later years, the Labour Party — were committed to bargaining within the system for a better deal. Armed (or, rather, disarmed) with such a perspective, it was only to be expected that the leaders of the 1926 General Strike would call it off at the first opportunity.
But even these insights into why there has not been a successful socialist revolution in Britain — the early development of British capitalism, and the early, pre-Marxism, emergence of a British working class — cannot save the book from itself.
McLynn writes: “1919 was probably the last date at which revolution could realistically have been attempted in Britain.”
The reason for this is: “After 1919 the dominance of the Labour Party on the left-centre of British politics gave the coup de grace to any lingering hope of revolution still entertained on the left.”
Even if one ignores the almost magical powers attributed by McLynn to the Labour Party as an obstacle to successful revolution, this is a particularly strange argument. The central thesis in his book is that a “real” revolution was never really on the cards at any point in time in Britain (or England) anyway. So why suddenly introduce a “cut-off date” of 1919, and blame the Labour Party for putting an end to any “lingering hope” of a revolution?
In any case, given his own hostility to revolutions in general, McLynn should surely congratulate the Labour Party for being “counter-revolutionary” and putting revolution, in his words, “beyond the pale”.
Revolutions, he writes, are bad things: “Everyone who has studied revolutions must surely be depressed by the disappointing outcomes.” It is a “serious error” to “romanticise revolution”, especially given their propensity to “kill millions of recalcitrants who refuse to adapt.”
And a revolution in Britain today, according to McLynn, is neither possible nor necessary: “No-one could seriously claim that today’s citizens face the spectre of starvation and therefore have no choice but to pick up the cudgels or raise the barricades.”
In the introduction to his book McLynn writes: “I am not a Marxist, nor even a socialist, but I do have an instinctive sympathy for the underdog, and this has informed my work; the villains tend to be members of the elite or their minions.”
His words are also a fair summation of the book itself. Not Marxist. Not socialist. But a good read if you want to be reminded of the vileness of the English and British ruling classes over the ages.