Saturday, July 31, 2010

What I've been reading: Steven Pincus,1688: The First Modern Revolution

I have enough to say about this book that I keep putting off the blog post, but eventually that makes the post an overdue assignment, and I don't need to add any of those to my life. So let's see what I can rush through:


This is an important book with a powerful, distinct argument pressed forward in lots of ways. It isn't, and shouldn't be mistaken for, a freestanding popular history of the Glorious Revolution, though given the conventions of history book publishing it physically looks like it could be. Instead, it's an argument in support of the following propositions:

Contrary to the traditional Whig understanding, the Glorious Revolution was not a consensual, peaceful restoration of a stable and traditional English political order.

Contrary to the modern revisionist understanding, the Glorious Revolution was not a conservative elite Anglican coup against a moderate James II as punishment for his support of religious toleration.

James II was an innovating modernizer, rapidly building up and centralizing an absolutist modern state on the close model of Louis XIV's state in France. This included an aggressive plan for Catholicizing England and English institutions (not merely allowing Catholics religious freedom), but the Catholicism James promoted was the Gallican Catholicism of France and the Jesuits, putting him on the other side of a profound split from the papacy and Catholic Spain and the Holy Roman Empire-- all of which ultimately aligned with William of Orange and the Netherlands against Louis and James. Gallicanism was as much a political project as a religious one, and the Glorious Revolution cannot be well understood as the last shot of the Wars of Religion. Instead, it was part of a long-term and Europe-wide fight against Louis' absolutist modernization and imperial ambition.

This means that the Revolution cannot be (as it often has been) read in a narrowly English or even British context; and it also means that it cannot be read in a narrow timeframe that ends in 1689. But neither was England just a field on which to fight out the European conflict; Pincus forcefully denies another revisionist thesis that sees the Revolution as essentially a Dutch invasion.

James had domestic modernizing opponents, those who sought to pursue a different modernizing and state-building project on non-absolutist, commercial rather than aristocratic, tolerant rather than Gallican grounds. They (along with more traditionalist Anglican Tories) rose against James in a genuine domestic violent insurrection-- one that would have failed without the invasion by William at the head of an armed force that included Dutch as well as Anglo-exile forces, but one without which William would not have made the crossing.

Pincus maintains that this fits a general pattern. Revolutions, he thinks, are made against modernizers. An initial state modernization project either reveals that traditional institutions are fragile, or makes them so, or both. And so at the moment that state capacity is being built up, the popular allegiance to it is shaken-- change no longer seems unthinkable, as change is already being pursued, indeed already seems inevitable. And revolutions are also made by modernizers. That is, they are the violent and (at least semi-)popular overthrow of a modernizing state by rival modernizers-- not, despite frequent rhetoric, by restorationists. He maintains that revolutions are events in early state modernization and consolidation-- and that the English Revolution was the first of them.

The book is sweeping and general-- which is to say that it pursues depth of evidence of a number of different kinds, aimed at making its interpretive claim irresistible. It offers quantitative and archival history; economic, theological, ideological, and diplomatic history; domestic and international history, all arranged to clear argumentative purpose. Again, this doesn't amount to a narration of events-- much is explained but much is not. (I know a lot about the era for a non-historian, but I read the book with wikipedia open next to me, and made a lot of use of it.)

The cumulative effect is sometimes devastating for the rival views, and I doubt that they can survive in unmodified form. That said, Pincus' own evidence sometimes points to openings that might be exploited by adherents of the rival views trying to rebuild and recover. The first major case of this I noticed was the frequency of anti-Catholic rhetoric in Whig claims he quotes in places besides where he's maintaining that the Revolution was not essentially anti-Catholic. The distinctions he draws between Gallicanism and Catholicism as such are well-taken (and for me were probably the most important revelations of the book), and they do provide a way to understand anti-Catholic language that's not narrowly confessional. But it's not always clear that the revolutionaries observed the distinction as cleanly as Pincus suggests, and he doesn't tell us how to evaluate or weigh the cases in which the distinction was not observed. I think he ultimately makes his case-- I was persuaded, anyway-- but I predict that there will be pushback here.

In the second case I'm less sure what to think. His narrative of rival imperial and economic visions, and of Whig-revolutionary triumph in the second half of the 1690s over a Tory restorationist mindset, seems to demand the destruction of the East India Company. But the Whig attempt to do so failed. Pincus leads us through the sequence of events, and then shows that Whigs triumphed on the related but distinct ground of banking (in the creation of the Bank of England and the destruction of the Tory Land Bank). But I was left dissatisfied; it seems as though the survival of the Company is more important disconfirmatory evidence of Pincus' thesis than he allows. I predict pushback here, and am eager to see how it turns out.

But it is to the book's (Pincus') credit that I end the book understanding that these are moments of possible weakness in his claim, on the basis of evidence he has supplied. More importantly, it is to the book's (Pincus') credit that it has such a clear and controversial thesis that we can talk about what would be disconfirmatory evidence; and that, despite its novelty, the thesis is supported so powerfully across so many areas that one can identify the discrete patches of ground left to defend by those whose views Pincus is critiquing.

I think the book is a major event in historical scholarship, but I also think it repays reading for political theorists. Some thoughts on why:

I learned a lot about a semi-minor figure I'm writing on (Robert Molesworth); and learned enough to seriously change how I'll teach Locke's Letter Concerning Toleration in the future. His exclusion of religions that demand allegiance to a foreign prince, I now think, was certainly not a euphemism for Catholicism as such. Instead, it emphasizes the political-not-confessional divides in the way that Pincus shows was common among (at least) Whig and revolutionary intellectuals and leaders. The upshot is that Locke was acknowledging that the Catholicism of Elizabethan times, the Catholicism that taught that heretical monarchs could be deposed and killed on order of the Pope, was intolerable in a regime of toleration-- but insisting that by-then-contemporary Catholicism was tolerable. This is largely my interpolation-- Locke qua philosopher rarely appears in 1688, and even Locke the important Whig exile intellectual often appears only passively-- I think much more is quoted from letters to Locke or accounts of things told to him than is quoted from Locke, and he begins to seem like a curiously blank center of Whig and exile networks. But it's a treat to be able to read a book in another field that supplements and contextualizes things I already know in a way that changes what they seem to mean.

Moreover, the reader of Pincus' book is left understanding what was radical and revolutionary in the Second Treatise, and what the chapter on property was about in a way that transcends the justification of expropriation in America. The idea that labor was the source of property was at the core of the Whig non-zero-sum political economy, opposed to the Tory account that treated the finite sum of land in the world as the core resource, and commerce as just a matter of moving things around. I look forward to my next re-reading of the Second Treatise; I think that having read this book will make it exciting again.

The Whig account of the Revolution as limited in aim, consensual, and mainly intended to undo the absolutist innovations of James receives one of its canonical statements in Burke. While everyone understands that Burke is no neutral narrator, I think his account still has a substantial influence on those of us who read more political theory than history. Here, again, theorists have something important to learn from the book. Pincus' Whig revolutionaries were tamed and staved off eventually; the Revolution was, in the French idiom, brought to an end by the 1720s, giving rise to the relative stability of the Hanoverian era. But the Revolutionary era itself here seems more like the Americans' long-distance memory of it in the 1770s than like Burke's account of it a little bit later.

Similarly, I think that political theorists, political scientists, and sociologists who worry about revolutions as a category really need to read this book-- the introductory treatment of their literatures and development of a rival claim about what revolutions are and why they happen, and then then enough of the rest of the book to understand why 1688 qualifies. Revolutions aren't a key idea for me-- but state-building and state-consolidation are, and here too I learned a lot and had my ideas sharpened considerably. The sharper ideas aren't always in agreement with Pincus', but they're indebted to his book.

Very, very highly recommended.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It is a huge book. I wonder if you could share some tips about how to go about reading it.