Book review: 1688 – The First Modern Revolution by Steve Pincus

1688 - The First Modern Revolutoin by Steve Pincus - book coverThe traditional picture of 1688 is of a rather English revolution – one much politer, less violent, more limited and rather more sensible and rational than the bloody versions of revolution seen in other countries. In this work Steve Pincus sets out to challenge that view.

In his view the Glorious Revolution was not simply a quick and painless transfer of power at the top of the state but a wide reaching and fundamental alteration to the state, politics, society and culture – all deliberately planned by opponents of James II. They were not seeking simply to oppose him but also to offer the country a different route to modernisation. The Glorious Revolution was not, as in the traditional version, a defence of the English way of life against an errant monarch who had blundered for a few years but, in Pincus’s eyes, the creation of a new way of life. This view, he argues, returns historical interpretation to a position much closer to that held by many in the eighteenth century.

Rather than James II’s approach of centralisation, intolerance of dissidents and territorial empire, his opponents created a participatory state set on a course of continuous evolution. Instead of James II taking the country down a path towards a country in the style of Louis XIV, the revolutionaries looked to Holland for a radically different alternative vision of the future.

Holland too was a country where the military was at the centre of the government’s efforts, with a centralised state at home and military intervention abroad. However, it was also a state valued political participation rather than an absolute monarch, tolerated different religions and encouraged manufacturing rather than focusing on protecting a landed empire. The driving motor of society and government was commerce, not the monarch. Pincus therefore argues that, “the revolution pitted two groups of modernizers against each other.”

He also as a result asks us to see 1688 not as a short, English revolution but rather as an event that played out over several years and had important repercussions across the blogs, including India, the West Indies, North America and continental Europe.

Moving into more theoretical territory, he therefore also positions the Glorious Revolution, and not the French Revolution, as the first modern revolution. Part of this argument is about the bloody nature of 1688 in his eyes: “Though we have come to view the Glorious Revolution as bloodless, aristocratic, and consensual, the actual event was none of these things … the English endured a scale of violence against property and persons similar to that of the French Revolution.”

The case is an impressive sweeping one, and it is a laid out in a long book, rooted in years of research and buttressed by pages of footnotes. It is a case though that does not fully convince.

Take the striking argument that the Glorious Revolution was as bloody as the French Revolution. A footnote tells us, “Statistics that highlight the bloodiness of the French Revolution inevitably include the Napoleonic Wars … By including the Nine Years’ War (1689-97) and the wars of Ireland and Scotland – all direct consequences of the Revolution of 1688-89 – the percentages of dead and wounded are comparable to the French case.”

However, for many the bloody reputation of the French Revolution is based not on its wars but on its civil violence. It is the guillotine and not the battlefield that shapes the view of a bloody revolution. Hence, making a like for like comparison based on including the wars has merit, but does not form a good basis for the claim that “the English endured a scale of violence against property and persons similar to the French Revolution”, especially given the domestic implication many will take from that wording and given only the scattered and incidental subsequent comparison of violence off the battlefield in France and Britain.

Part of the book hinges on what is considered a revolution, with Pincus suggesting that revolutions should not be seen as a struggle of the new to usurp the old but rather as a staged process in which the existing power structure seeks to change and then in turn is challenged by an alternative route to change. It is a theory that prompts thoughts across many centuries and countries; in particular, whether or not the crucial early stage of revolutions is when the existing establishment starts to break down existing power structures in its own desire to bring about change – but thereby also opening up the possibility of a different form of change replacing the establishment. It is an intriguing idea, though one that in itself cannot really be supported by a book that focuses on just the one revolution.

In addition to the novel interpretation the book offers of both 1688 and revolutions more generally, it also offers an unusual reading experience as, at the end of the introduction, Pincus points readers with different interests to start reading the main book at different chapters inside.  That offer reflects the breadth of a work that has been heavily praised for the detail of its research and which, whilst not convincing all fellow historians of the strength of its case, has certainly opened up new viewpoints to debate. The concentration on presenting those viewpoints means that those looking to understand the full cast of personalities or the story behind James II’s accession to power will mostly not find it here.

As a result, this controversy and length yet narrow focus make the book more for the student of the period than for the causal reader looking for an accessible introduction.

You can buy 1688: The First Modern Revolution by Steve Pincus from Amazon. This review first appeared in the Journal of Liberal History.

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