Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Engels on the English Revolution

Oliver Cromwell
1599 - 1658

Oliver Cromwell, the leader of the English Revolution, died on 3rd September 1658. Cromwell, the MP for Huntingdon, was the leading Parliamentary commander during the English Civil War which began in 1642 and ended in 1649 with the trial and execution of Charles Stuart and the abolition of the monarchy. The Republic of England, or Commonwealth as it was styled in English, was proclaimed soon after. In 1653 Oliver became head of state, the Lord Protector.
The republic he led included England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland as well as colonies in New England and the Caribbean. Cromwell died in 1658 and his son, Richard, succeeded him. Richard was neither a politician nor a general. The new Protector was unable to reconcile the republican generals with the demands of the rich merchants and landowners that wanted to curb the influence of the New Model Army. Richard resigned in 1659. The government collapsed and the monarchy was restored in 1660.
Frederick Engels looked at the English revolution in this article published in Vorwärts! [Forward!], a radical paper based in Paris associated with Karl Marx, in 1844.

The century of revolution has to all appearances passed England by, causing little change. While on the Continent an entire old world was shattered, while a twenty-five-year war cleared the air, in England everything remained calm, neither state nor church were in any way threatened. And yet since the middle of the last century England has experienced a greater upheaval than any other country — an upheaval which is all the more momentous the more quietly it is brought about, and it will therefore in all probability attain its goal more readily in practice than the political revolution in France or the philosophical revolution in Germany. The revolution in England is a social one and therefore more comprehensive and far-reaching than any other. There are no fields — however remote — of human knowledge and no conditions of life which have not contributed to it and which in turn have not been affected by it. The only true revolution is a social revolution, to which political and philosophical revolution must lead; and this social revolution has already been in progress in England for seventy or eighty years and is rapidly approaching its crisis at this very time.
The eighteenth century was the assembling, the gathering of mankind from the fragmentation and isolation into which it had been driven by Christianity; it was the penultimate step towards the self-understanding and self-liberation of mankind, but just because it was the penultimate step it was still partial and remained within the contradictions. The eighteenth century collated the results of the past, which had previously been scattered and appeared to be fortuitous, and laid bare their necessity and inner connection. The jumble of countless scientific discoveries was put in order, classified and the causal connections shown; knowledge became science, and the sciences approached their perfection, that is to say, they took philosophy on the one hand and practice on the other as their point of departure.
Before the eighteenth century science did not exist; the study of nature assumed its scientific form only in the eighteenth century or, in some fields, a few years earlier. Newton created scientific astronomy with the law of gravitation, scientific optics with the decomposition of light, scientific mathematics with the binomial theorem and the theory of infinity, and scientific mechanics with the analysis of the nature of forces. Physics likewise acquired its scientific character in the eighteenth century; chemistry was only brought into being by Black, Lavoisier and Priestley; geography became a science with the establishment of the form of the earth and the many voyages which only now were of benefit to science; with Buffon and Linné natural history too became a science; even geology gradually began to struggle free from the whirl of fantastic hypotheses which threatened to engulf it.
The concept of the Encyclopaedia was typical of the eighteenth century; it was based on the awareness that all these sciences were interconnected but it was not yet able to show these connections, so that only a simple juxtaposition could be achieved. History was in a similar position; now for the first time we find voluminous compilations of world history, as yet without any critical comment, and entirely without a philosophical approach, but nevertheless universal history instead of the previous historical fragments limited both in time and place. Politics was given a human foundation, and political economy was reformed by Adam Smith. The culmination of science in the eighteenth century was materialism, the first system of natural philosophy and the consequence of this development of the natural sciences. The struggle against the abstract subjectivity of Christianity forced the philosophy of the eighteenth century to the other extreme; it opposed subjectivity with objectivity, the mind with nature, spiritualism with materialism, the abstract individual with the abstract universal or substance. The eighteenth century represents the revival of the spirit of antiquity as against that of Christianity. Materialism and the republic; the philosophy and politics of the ancient world, arose anew, and the French, the exponents of the ethos of antiquity within Christianity, assumed the historical initiative for a time.
The eighteenth century thus did not resolve the great antithesis which has been the concern of history from the beginning and whose development constitutes history, the antithesis of substance and subject, nature and mind, necessity and freedom; but it set the two sides against each other, fully developed and in all their sharpness, and thereby made it necessary to overcome the antithesis. The consequence “Of this clear final evolution of the antithesis” was general revolution which spread over various nations and whose imminent completion will at the same time resolve the antithesis of history up to the present. The Germans, the nation of Christian spiritualism, experienced a philosophical revolution; the French, the nation of classical materialism and hence of politics, had to go through a political revolution; the English, a nation that is a mixture of German and French elements, who therefore embody both sides of the antithesis and are for that reason more universal than either of the two factors taken separately, were for that reason drawn into a more universal, a social revolution.
This will need to be elaborated in greater detail, for the position of nations, at least with regard to recent times, has in our philosophy of history so far been dealt with very inadequately, or rather not at all.
That Germany, France and England are the three foremost countries at the present moment in history, I can doubtless take for granted; that the Germans represent the Christian spiritual principle, the French that of classical materialism, in other words, that the former represent religion and the church and the latter politics and the state, is equally obvious or will be made so in due course; the significance of the English in recent history is less conspicuous and yet for our present purpose it is the most important.
The English nation was formed from Germanic and Romance people at a time when the two nations had only just separated from one another and their development towards the two sides of the antithesis had scarcely begun. The Germanic and Romance elements developed alongside one another and eventually formed one nation which contains the two unmediated sides. Germanic idealism retained abundant scope so that it was even able to turn into its opposite, abstract externalism; the fact that women and children may still be legally sold, and indeed the whole mercantile spirit of the English, must definitely be attributed to the Germanic element. In a similar fashion, Romance materialism turned into abstract idealism, inwardness and piety; hence the phenomenon of Romance Catholicism persisting within Germanic Protestantism, the Established Church, the papacy of the sovereign and the thoroughly Catholic manner of disposing of religion with mere formalities.
The English nation is characterised by this unresolved contradiction and the mingling of the sharpest contrasts. The English are the most religious nation on earth and at the same time the most irreligious; they worry more about the next world than any other nation, and at the same time they live as though this world were all that mattered to them; their expectation of heaven does not hinder them in the slightest from believing equally firmly in the “hell of making no money” and in the everlasting inner restlessness of the English, which is caught up in the sense of being unable to resolve the contradiction and which drives them out of themselves and into activity. The sense of contradiction is the source of energy, but merely external energy, and this sense of contradiction was the source of colonisation, seafaring, industry and the immense practical activity of the English in general. The inability to resolve the contradiction runs like a thread through the whole of English philosophy and forces it into empiricism and scepticism.
Because Bacon could not resolve the contradiction between idealism and realism with his intellect, the intellect as such had to be incapable of solving it, idealism was simply discarded and empiricism regarded as the only remedy. From the same source derives the critical analysis of cognition and the whole psychological tendency within whose bounds English philosophy has moved from the outset, and in the end, after many unsuccessful attempts at resolving the contradiction, philosophy declares it to be insoluble and the intellect to be inadequate, and seeks a way out either in religious faith or in empiricism.
Human scepticism is still the form all irreligious philosophising takes in England today. We cannot know, this viewpoint argues, whether a God exists; if one exists, he is incapable of any communication with us, and we have therefore so to arrange our practical affairs as if he did not exist. We cannot know whether the mind is distinct from the body and immortal; we therefore live as if this life were the only one we have and do not bother about things that go beyond our understanding. In short, this scepticism is in practice exactly the same as French materialism, but in metaphysical theory it never advances beyond the inability of arriving at any definitive conclusion.
However because the English embodied within them both the elements which were responsible for historical progress on the Continent, they were therefore able, even without having much contact with the Continent, to keep abreast of development there and at times even to be ahead of it. The English revolution of the seventeenth century provides the exact model for the French one of 1789. In the “Long Parliament” the three stages which in France took the form of Constituent and Legislative Assembly and National Convention, are easy to distinguish; the transition from constitutional monarchy to democracy, military despotism, restoration and juste-milieu [middle way] revolution [The French revolution of July 1830] is sharply delineated in the English revolution. Cromwell is Robespierre and Napoleon rolled into one; the Presbyterians, Independents and Levellers correspond to the Gironde, the Montagnards and the Hébertists and Babeuvists; in both cases the political outcome is rather pitiable, and the whole parallel, which could be elaborated in much greater detail incidentally also proves that a religious and an irreligious revolution, as long as they remain political, will in the final analysis amount to the same thing. Admittedly, this lead the English had over the Continent was only temporary and was gradually evened out again; the English revolution ended in juste-milieu and the creation of two national parties, whilst the French one is not yet complete and cannot be so until it achieves the result which the German philosophical and the English social revolutions have to achieve as well.
The English national character is thus substantially different both from the German and from the French character; the despair of overcoming the contradiction and the consequent total surrender to empiricism are its peculiar characteristics. The pure Germanic element converted its abstract inwardness into abstract outwardness, but this outwardness never lost the mark of its origin and always remained subordinate to inwardness and spiritualism. The French too are to be found on the side of materialism and empiricism; but because this empiricism is the primary national tendency and not a secondary consequence of a national consciousness divided within itself, it asserts itself nationally, generally and finds expression in political activity. The Germans asserted the absolute justification of spiritualism and hence sought to set forth the universal interests of mankind in religious and later in philosophic terms. The French opposed this spiritualism with materialism as something absolutely justified and consequently considered that the state was the eternal manifestation of these interests.
The English however have no universal interests, they cannot mention them without touching that sore spot, the contradiction, they despair of them and have only individual interests. This absolute subjectivity, the fragmentation of the universal into the many individual parts, is admittedly of Germanic origin, but, as we have said, it is cut off from its roots and therefore only takes effect empirically, which is precisely what distinguishes English social empiricism from French political empiricism. France’s actions were always national, conscious of their entireness and universality from the start; England’s actions were the work of independent coexisting individuals — the movement of disconnected atoms — who rarely acted together as one whole, and even then only from individual motives, and whose lack of unity is at this very time exposed to the light of day in the universal misery and complete fragmentation of society.
In other words, only England has a social history. Only in England have individuals as such, without consciously standing for universal principles, furthered national development and brought it near to its conclusion. Only here have the masses acted as masses, for the sake of their interests as individuals; only here have principles been turned into interests before they were able to influence history. The French and the Germans are gradually attaining a social history too, but they have not got one yet. On the Continent too there have been poverty, misery and social oppression, this however has had no effect on national development; but the misery and poverty of the working class in present-day England has national and even world-historical importance. On the Continent the social aspect is still completely hidden by the political aspect and has not yet become detached from it, whilst in England the social aspect has gradually prevailed over the political one and has made it subservient. The whole of English politics is fundamentally social in nature, and social questions are expressed in a political way only because England has not yet advanced beyond the state, and because politics is a necessary expedient there.
As long as church and state are the only forms in which the universal characteristics of human nature are realised, there can be no question of social history. Antiquity and the Middle Ages were also therefore without social development; only the Reformation, the first, as yet biased and blundering attempt at a reaction against the Middle Ages, brought about a major social change, the transformation of serfs into “free” workers. But even this change remained without much enduring effect on the Continent, indeed it really took root there only after the revolution of the eighteenth century; whereas in England the category of serfs was transformed during the Reformation into villeins, bordars and cottars and thus into a class of workers enjoying personal freedom and as early as the eighteenth century the consequences of this revolution became evident there. Why this happened only in England is explained above.