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The battle for revolutionary history

The plaque commemorating 17th century Leveller leader Colonel Thomas Rainsborough, unveiled in a Wapping churchyard yesterday, appropriately comes at a moment when a modest civil war has broken out about the country’s history.

Rainsborough, one of the ablest and most courageous officers in Oliver Cromwell’s New Model Army, was murdered by Royalists in 1648, at the siege of Pontefract Castle.

He was killed a year after the famous Putney debates in which he and others put forward an Agreement of the People. Tensions between the democratic forces and the emerging new ruling class were at their sharpest. During the debate, Rainsborough made this epic, revolutionary statement:

For really I think that the poorest he that is in England have a life to live, as the greatest he; and therefore truly, Sir, I think it clear, that every man that is to live under a Government ought first by his own consent to put himself under that Government; and I do think that the poorest man in England is not at all bound in a strict sense to that Government that he hath not had a voice to put Himself under.

The Levellers’ demands were not realised during their lifetimes, but they put down a daring and far-seeing marker, to be partially realised in the form of parliamentary democracy.

Naturally, a period when Parliament and the Crown fought it out on the battlefield, ending with Charles I losing his head in 1649, is not exactly what education secretary Michael Gove wants to emphasise.

He has come under heavy fire for his new history curriculum, which is viewed by many as “too prescriptive and Anglocentric”. Enter radical historian Tristram Hunt, Labour MP for Stoke on Trent Central.

In yesterday’s Observer, Hunt lampooned pro-imperialist, ultra-conservative and ultra-successful historian Niall Ferguson. Ferguson, now a Harvard professor, who last year supported Mitt Romney’s election campaign, recently had to deny that he was homophobic. Ferguson had indeed made a personal attack on the economist, and old Labour idol, John Maynard Keynes, which linked his sexuality to his ideas. There can be no doubt that Ferguson has played a key role on the ideological front, with his histories of money, global finance, the role of the British Empire as well as in setting up the elite private New College of the Humanities in London.

Hunt is right to highlight the crucial importance of history in British public life and that the school history curriculum is, as Gove himself has said, “an ideological battleground for contending armies”.

Hunt goes on to praise the post-war schools of largely Marxist historians. For the first time writers like E.P. Thompson, Asa Briggs, Christopher Hill and Raphael Samuel provided an alternative narrative, based on the underbelly of historical change.

They played an important political role, particularly during the 1960s and 1970s, by revealing the social forces driving historical processes and the role of the masses in shaping change.

Hunt bemoans the “worrying conservative consensus” about “our national past”. And naturally the main media, which is indeed dominated by people like Ferguson and David Starkey, with their unashamed pro-capitalist political agenda.

This is not news. Marx pointed out long ago, that “the ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force.”

But should we be like rabbits in the headlights – terrified by the fact that the media and education is dominated by the ideology of those in power? Of course not. The notion that the ruling elites and their ideologists like Ferguson can brainwash us is a pathetic cop-out.

As one comment on Hunt’s piece says: “Information has proliferated so extensively that it no longer matters what people with agendas select or omit, the full story is only a few clicks away on the internet, and no statement can be made by a prominent individual without it being challenged.”

We should take courage and inspiration from 17th century revolutionaries like Rainsborough and continue his work by supporting the Agreement of the People for the 21st century.

Corinna Lotz
A World to Win
13 May 2013


Musketeers of the Rainsborough regiment of the Sealed Knot fire off a volley to mark the unveiling of a plaque to Col. Thomas Rainsborough at the week-end in Wapping, East London - see photo report

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