The Seventeenth Century
It has been common to see the seventeenth century as the source of the modern idea of revolution. Partly this is due to the fact that seventeenth-century Europe was profoundly shaken by a great wave of rebellions and civil wars. There were revolts in the Netherlands against Spanish rule; major rebellions in France—the Fronde—and in several of the territories of the Spanish monarchy—Catalonia, Portugal, Naples, and Sicily; Scotland and Ireland rose against English domination. Above all there is the English Civil War of 1642–1649, seen by many, such as Karl Marx, as the first of the "great revolutions" of modern history.
Most historians agree that, however bloody the conflicts, most of these rebellions were just that—rebellions, not revolutions. These were traditional uprisings by traditional actors. There was no attempt to create anything new or different. Peasants, townsmen, and disaffected aristocrats appealed to "the ancient and fundamental laws of the kingdom," to customs, traditions, and the "good old ways"—in other words, to the past—in their struggles with their rulers. The aim was to bring back or to confirm historic institutions—the French parlements and Estates-General, the Spanish Cortes, the Catalan diputació, the English Parliament.
The English Civil War, however, has seemed to many a different kind of conflict, one deserving the name revolution in the modern sense. Did the English not execute their king, abolish the monarchy and the House of Lords, disestablish the Church of England, and proclaim a republic? In a more far-reaching way, did the English Civil War not clear the way for capitalist development, so launching England on the path that was to take it to the pinnacle of the world economy? Contemporaries called it "the Great Rebellion," but should we not be prepared to call it, with Lawrence Stone, "the first 'Great Revolution' in the history of the world" (p. 147)?
One needs to attend to the language of contemporaries, and to beware of imposing our often anachronistic interpretations on past events. In relation to the events that occurred between 1640 and 1660, and even to those of 1688, contemporaries largely avoided the newly coined political term "revolution." When they did use it, they gave it the meaning current in early modern political thought. That is, they employed it with the cyclical connotation derived from its astronomical usage. That is why it so often appeared in plural form, as when Robert Sanderson wrote in 1649 of "the confusions and revolutions of government," or Matthew Wren in 1650 of "those strange revolutions we have seen."
Most revealingly of all, what we call the "Restoration" of 1660 was widely hailed as a "revolution." It was so termed by Lord Clarendon, the first historian of what he called, referring to the events of the past twenty years, the "Great Rebellion." Thomas Hobbes, in his Behemoth (1668), was also clear that with the return of Charles II in 1660, a political cycle had been duly completed: "I have seen in this Revolution a circular motion of the Sovereign Power, through two Usurpers, from the late King to his Son." Nor was it just monarchists and conservatives who remained wedded to the traditional concept of revolution. What was later to be sanctified as the "Glorious" or "Bloodless" Revolution of 1688 was also at the time understood to be a revolution in the traditional sense of the word. The parliamentary Whigs, taking their cue from John Locke, here turned the tables on Clarendon and the supporters of the Restoration by arguing that not 1660 but 1688 was the true restoration, hence the true, final revolution. Charles II, and even more James II, had flouted the fundamental laws and violated the original constitution of the kingdom every bit as much as Charles I and Oliver Cromwell. All had plunged the country into a cycle of violence and oppressive but unstable regimes. Only with the restoration of a truly constitutional monarchy in 1688 had the cycle run its course.
One is entitled, for certain purposes, to argue that the men and women of the seventeenth century knew not whereof they spoke, that when they spoke of "restoration," we can quite properly speak of revolution in the modern sense. This claim has been especially made for the radicals of the English Civil War, the Levellers and Diggers, who are said to look forward to the socialist and communist revolutionaries of a later century. But why deny the reality to the radicals of the language that they used to describe their actions? When Levellers protested against "the Norman yoke," this represented to them a real usurpation of traditional English rights and liberties by an alien ruling class. When the Diggers proclaimed communism, this was because, as their leader Gerard Winstanley said, they wished to restore "the pure law of righteousness before the Fall," to make the earth "a common treasury again." Along with such groups as the Fifth Monarchy men, the Diggers believed that Christ's Second Coming, as foretold in the Book of Revelation, was imminent. With it would come "a new heaven and a new earth," Christ's millennial reign on earth. These were all convictions sincerely and powerfully held. On what grounds are we to say that they were deluded, that their actions really meant something else?
Millennial imagery and even doctrine are not foreign to modern concepts of revolution. It is even possible to argue, as Melvin Lasky does, that without this millenarian background, the idea of revolution is inconceivable. But revolution is no more religion than it is restoration—not, at least, in the senses that the term has come to hold for us. At some point revolution was stripped of its religious associations and launched on an independent career as a secular concept. This was the accomplishment of the American and French Revolutions of the eighteenth century. It is to them we must look for the birth of the modern concept of revolution.
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