The Glorious Revolution: Church and Class
Posted by shane
by Peter Brooke
Labour & Trade Union Review; 1988
What did the Glorious Revolution of 1688-1689 achieve? Or, rather, what followed it and may have resulted from it? England is distinguished in Europe as the only country which achieved the transition from a peasant/craftsman economy to an industrial economy without a violent transformation of its political structures. The Glorious Revolution instituted political structures which were sufficiently flexible to accommodate economic change.
There are many aspects to this question, but the one on which I wish to concentrate is the elimination of the idea of government as a spiritual authority. This is not exactly the same thing as the elimination of the Church as a political power in the land. That had already been achieved; it was the principle work of the Reformation. The whole thrust of Lutheranism and Anglicanism was the subjection of the Church to the national government. Calvinism attempted to reverse the process and reassert the independent authority of the Church but everywhere it was defeated. It came closest to success in Scotland after the Glorious Revolution, but the defeat of the Church of Scotland was a major consequence—and purpose—of the Act of Union with England in 1707. This was shortly followed by patronage acts which asserted the authority of the British parliament over the Church.
The subjection of Church to State, however, was not confined to Protestant countries. The dominance of the State over the Church had been largely achieved in Spain before the Reformation. It was the central tenet of the Gallican Church of the 16th century in France. The Middle Ages had seen a long struggle between two independent powers each with its own body of law. By the 17th century the struggle had everywhere been resolved in favour of the state. That is everywhere, other than the Netherlands and Switzerland, in favour of the King.
But in subordinating the Church to himself, the King was combining in himself the two roles of secular and spiritual authority. The spiritual authority was not eliminated. It was assumed by the King. Thus, the idea that government was a moral charge remained intact, together with the idea that the major agent for the moral authority of the government was the Church. It was this that was shaken fundamentally by the Glorious Revolution of 1688-89.
The theorist of the Glorious Revolution was John Locke and the most important of John Locke’s thoughts was perhaps the following (from the First Letter on Toleration):
A church, then, I take to be a voluntary society of men, joining together of their own accord, in order to the public worship of God in such a manner as they judge acceptable to him and effectual to the salvation of their souls.
That, the view that religion is a private matter and, consequently, that there is no spiritual authority in society, is at the heart of the Glorious Revolution. This was not immediately obvious. The reign of Queen Ann marked an apparent comeback for the idea of government as a moral authority. But the Anglican hierarchy had already been filled by people who shared Locke’s view of the matter and, with the Hanoverian succession in 1714, the new idea was openly proclaimed by the Bishop of Bangor, Benjamin Hoadly, the court theologian, and the authoritative assemblies of the lower clergy of the Church of England were suppressed for over a century to prevent them from censuring him:
He (Christ – PB) hath…left behind him no visible authority, no vice-regents who can be said properly to supply his place, no interpreters, upon whom his subjects are absolutely to depend; no judges over the consciences or religion of his people (Hoadly, The Nature of the Kingdom or Church of Christ, London, 1717).
Thus the ‘Whig oligarchy‘—the aristocracy which triumphed with the accession of George I – were free to regard government as a matter of purely secular material interest. What did they do with their freedom from the contraints of any moral authority other than that of their own consciences? They set about turning agricultural production into a business enterprise. The Glorious Revolution was followed by the agricultural revolution. No longer restrained by the moral responsibility imposed by the old order, they set about throwing the peasantry off the land and turning themselves into large scale capitalist farmers.
It was the same process of social engineering that Stalin conducted in five years of the ‘liquidation of the Kulaks‘. If it appears less brutal it is largely because it was comparatively prolonged. But it was brutal (its most obviously brutal point being the Highland clearances in Scotland – where incidentally, the militant end of the Church of Scotland which opposed the domination of the state sided with the peasants). Huge numbers of people were driven away from their homes at a time when there was no industry to absorb them. The process was resisted in Ireland by agrarian terrorism practised against a weak and insecure upstart aristocracy, who have gone down in history as particularly brutal precisely because they did not manage (or even try very hard) to eliminate their peasantry altogether. (America is built on the recent—19th century—massacre of the Indians. We all know it but we do not hold America culpable for it. Doubtless had Hitler succeeded in eliminating European Jewry our grandchildren would have regarded him in the same light. Nothing succeeds like success.)
By the end of the 18th Century, British agriculture was established on a sound basis of large scale production capable of feeding the huge populations gathered in the towns (largely as a result of their expulsion from the country) who in turn provided the human material for the rapid expansion of the Industrial Revolution. This was the basis of Britain’s 19th Century prosperity. In the account books of the political economist, the whole thing was a miracle. It was a miracle in which virtually every single human manual ability of any value was systematically destroyed; mankind was reduced to the status of a minder of machines; cheapness and quantity became the only values recognised in society; and the market became (as Hobbes, the great opponent of the authority of the church, had foreseen and desired) the only ground of human association. And we may add that war inevitably and irresistably became ‘total war‘: it is in war more clearly than anything else that we see the murderous consequences of an industrial production that goes far beyond our human nature; the best description of all this is still Marx’s Capital.
The course of events was not the same in France, where the King continued to have absolute authority, including a spiritual and moral authority which was necessarily conservative in tendency—conservative of the existing rights of his subjects and therefore of the status quo. England in the 18th Century was in a state of class war—landlord v. peasant—with all the power in the hands of the landlord. While the same economic forces were at work in France they did not have the same liberty to develop. They came up against moral and spiritual concerns which were personified by the Church but which, it should be said, were not intelligent. The Church, subjected to the King, did not have a mind of its own. The King in turn knew very well that he was not a real minister of God and that his authority was usurped. (We may compare the King of Morocco. Does he really believe in his heart of hearts that he is the ‘Commander of the Faithful‘?)
The great work of the French Revolution, as of the English, was finally to do away with the idea of government as a spiritual authority and thereby—as in England—liberate commercial interest as the single overriding authority in the state. The King of France was executed because he refused to accept the reduction of the Church to “a voluntry society of men, joining themselves together of their own accord…” and wished to maintain at least the form of a Church with a divine authority to command the society as a whole (though the substance of this had already been destroyed by the King’s own forebears).
The consequences of the French Revolution, however, were not the same as those of the English Revolution. The latter was effected by the aristocracy who established the principles of industrial production in agriculture and destroyed the peasantry. In France, the Revolution turned against the aristocracy (for no very good reason that I can see). As a result, a greatly weakened aristocracy became identified with reaction. But although the immediate result of the Revolution was that land passed into moneyed hands, this did not bring about the rationalisation of agriculture. The moneyed hands were urban and incompetent in agricultural matters and, as a result, instead of expelling the peasants, they sold to them and in a very short time the peasantry was established as just about the most powerful economic—and political—force in France. Agriculture became capitalist, but on the basis of relatively small-scale individual production which prevailed (and maintained in existence the related artisan-scale production) until the Second World War.
Thus in contrast to England the economy was retarded by the Revolution, and one of the consequences of this was the difficulty of organising France on a military basis to meet the crises of 1870, 1914 and 1939. Marx thought that the market was sufficient to turn small-scale agricultural production into large-scale agricultural production. He was right but, as always, he underestimated the amount of time it would take. (The same phenomenon of the predominanace of small-scale agricultural production can of course be seen in Ireland).
What was specific to the English Revolution of 1688-89 and marked it out as the most successful of revolutions in establishing stable political arrangements to enable economic change was, then, largely that it was achieved by the aristocracy and squirearchy—the existing ruling class. It removed the limits on their freedom of action which had previously been imposed by the King and Church and thus put them in a position of absolute power over the peasantry.
Margaret Thatcher has talked about ‘our peaceful revolution‘, thus showing her usual disregard of Scotland, where it took the form of a civil war that only finally ended with the massacre at Culloden. Also of Ireland, where it took the form of a conquest and the final destruction of an entire national culture—a national culture that had no objection in principle to being ruled by a British monarch. It is only in England that the Glorious Revolution can be called a peaceful revolution. And in England it was not until the Hanoverian succession that it was consolidated and that what it was (the final reduction of government from the status of a moral charge given by God to a matter of arranging things between the various vested interests in society) was clarified.
And what that meant—a political framework in which the English peasantry could be destroyed, peacefully, was revealed only slowly throughout the century and has now, just as peacefully, been forgotten again since we are all—management and workers—beneficiaries of the crime.