Socialist Appeal are proud to publicise a podcast series by Alan Woods on the English Revolution of the 17th century. Subscribe to Marxist Voice to listen to weekly installments of Alan discussing these dramatic and revolutionary events.
In this series, entitled The English Revolution: the world turned upside down, Alan provides an in-depth examination of the dynamics of the revolution, drawing out the vital lessons for socialists today.
Tune in to Marxist Voice each week, every Friday, as Alan provides a Marxist analysis of this important chapter in British history; this colossal event that dealt an irreparable blow to feudal absolutism and paved the way for modern democracy as we know it.
See below for episode three of the series, where Alan explains the emerging splits at the top of society between King Charles and the English Parliament.
And if this series sparks an interest in Britain’s radical past, please head over to our publishing house Wellred Books, and grab yourself a copy of Socialist Appeal’s new pamphlet on Britain’s Forgotten Revolutionary History, which is available now digitally.
To supplement this new podcast series, we are also republishing articles from our archive on the subject of the English Revolution. Below we republish an article by David Brandon, who looks at the general processes that led to the Civil War, and the emergence – and later eradication – of the Levellers.
The English Civil War and the Levellers
“None comes into the world with a saddle on his back, neither any booted and spurred to ride him” – Richard Rumbold, Leveller.
Politicians, mainstream historians, constitutional lawyers and the like would have us believe that there is something uniquely decent about the way in which the British conduct their affairs of state. These are marked out, so they say, by tolerance, hatred of violence, a sense of justice and fairness, willingness to compromise and by gradual, evolutionary change. Not for us, they continue, warming to their theme, are the extremism, the violence and the awful revolutionary upheavals witnessed in France, Russia or elsewhere.
In reality, the stormy events which occurred in much of Britain in the middle of the seventeenth century give the lie to this facile but, from their point of view, convenient view of historical development. The conditions for the development of modern capitalism in Britain came about as the result of a bloody civil war and revolution which saw the execution of a king and the violent overthrow of those who tried to defend the old way of doing things.
There is a need to revisit these events of the past to counter what should be the totally discredited ‘argument’ repeated by generations of reformists within the Labour Movement which ‘explains’ that in Britain things change for the better by evolution rather than revolution. Those putting forward this specious argument, if they believe in socialism at all – and many of them never have done – view the achievement of socialism as the music of the distant future and something that can be achieved through piecemeal reforms in Parliament. The reality is very different. Reforms won through struggle when capitalism is prosperous enough to be pressured reluctantly into conceding them turn into counter-reforms when the system is in crisis. Politics is about power and history teaches that the change from one form of economic and social organization to the next and higher stage, can only occur through revolution – no ruling class has ever peaceably voted itself out of existence; no ruling class has ever given up the source of its power and privileges without a struggle. This is a lesson totally lost on the reformists.
The economic, social and political context
From the early fifteenth century, great changes had been afoot in much of England. The country was starting to undergo the transformation from a feudal to a capitalist economy. Merchants, financiers and industrialists were the up-and-coming class, gaining rapidly in economic power. They wanted a system of government that would provide maximum encouragement to what is now called ‘the enterprise culture’. In addition they craved the political power they felt they were entitled to given their increasingly prominent economic position. This class, the ‘bourgeoisie’, found their interests frequently opposed by those who traditionally held power – the King, the Church and the so-called nobility, the latter in reality being men who were often nothing more than gangsters with posh titles.
The Tudor monarchs were mostly competent and forceful. Between them they reigned from 1485 to 1603 and while centralizing power in their hands, they did so by taking advantage of a temporary balance of class forces where, with the exception of Mary I, they leaned for support on a coalition of the increasingly powerful and forward-looking bourgeoisie with sections of the landed gentry. The Tudors were progressive to the extent that they supported the development of industry, commerce and trade, including that with overseas nations and territories. They worked to rid the country of many of the last vestiges of feudalism and were supported by the bourgeoisie for the way they set about ending disorder and establishing stable government, internal peace being a requirement for economic development. With the support of the middle classes therefore, the Tudors subverted the power of the Church and the nobility and helped to create the preconditions for the development of capitalism.
Henry VIII appropriated the monasteries in the late 1530s and raised money by selling their assets off, mostly at bargain-basement prices. In doing so, he endeared himself to substantial numbers of opportunists who, in snapping up the confiscated monastic property, laid down the basis of what were to become enormously rich and powerful business dynasties in the future. He also made himself head of the Church in England. By these actions he attacked a major source of support for the ‘old order’.
Religion was a major presence in everyday life in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Attendance at worship was almost universal and the Church continued to play a major role in education and learning. It is not surprising that religion became one of the battlegrounds as a new order painfully gestated in the womb of the old. The Church, even in its state of being ‘nationalized’ by Henry VIII, was largely a bastion of reaction. The Church taught respect for authority and acceptance of inequality and injustice as part of the citizens’ duty of obedience to God.
By the early seventeenth century, elements within the bourgeoisie were developing their own brand of Christianity, conveniently if not very precisely defined as ‘Puritanism’. It was hostile to the Church of England for retaining too much Catholic rite and ritual. The Catholic Church was viewed as a sinister international conspiracy bent on regaining the power it had enjoyed before the Reformation. Every Puritan thought he or she was one of God’s chosen people, a member of an elite. As the chosen, they could use any methods to confound their enemies; such enemies were, in their eyes, the enemies of God.
Puritanism was a self-serving religion. The pursuit of worldly wealth was elevated to a virtue and it could be achieved through hard work, sobriety, thrift, moral conduct and the rejection of shallow, pleasure-seeking pursuits. Success in piling up material riches was taken as evidence of God’s approval. It is worth remembering that the Church before the Reformation had, in words at least, condemned usury and excess profiteering and advocated what would now be called ‘ethical trading’. Many Puritans were rich bankers and traders. No wonder many of them had a fanatical loathing of Catholicism and all its trappings.
The Puritans may have hidden their material interests behind a mass of Biblical verbiage and cant but they saw themselves as what they actually were, a historically progressive class making the world, as they saw it, a better place. The Puritans were no respecters of hereditary status and power and welcomed those from humble origins who improved their economic and social position through their own efforts. In that sense Puritanism contained a powerful drive for economic growth and democracy. In general, the Puritans were energetic, some of them were extremely wealthy and they had much support for example among the masses in London and the artisan workers in the East Anglian clothing industry. This made them into a force to be reckoned with.
James Stuart, who ruled from 1603, disliked the Puritans for political reasons. He had experienced confrontations with them when he was King of Scotland. In that country the presbyterian aspect of Puritanism had considerable support. It meant that there the Church or Kirk was governed from the bottom up through various democratically elected bodies. James believed in a Protestant Church governed from above by bishops, appointed by and subordinate to the state, which ultimately meant himself. A strong current within English Puritanism argued for a democratic structure within the Church. This was incompatible with the royal absolutism which James craved.
At a time when Catholicism was widely feared and loathed, deep suspicions were held that both James and his son Charles ultimately wanted the country to return to its earlier place within the Church of Rome. Those who had bought monastic assets so cheaply during the reign of Henry VIII feared that if the Catholic Church was restored to power, they would have to surrender those lands. Charles I, in league with Archbishop Laud, allowed Catholic practices to creep back into England and attempted to ally England with feudal Catholic states such as Spain and Austria. However it was the heavy-handed attempt of Charles to impose a new prayer book in Scotland, based on the English one, which was seen as the thin end of the wedge. It provoked a violent response from the Scottish Covenanters and drew Charles into an ill-judged attempt to enforce the prayer book on the Scots by force of arms. This was a precursor of the Civil War.
England had a Parliament. This consisted firstly of the House of Lords, mostly hereditary landowners, some with a lineage dating back to the eleventh century and including many who hankered for a return to their past status in a feudal society. It also contained bishops, the so-called ‘Lords Spiritual’. The Lords mostly resented the emergence of the bourgeoisie. The House of Commons was growing in stature and consisted largely of members of the country gentry and of the rising urban bourgeoisie, many of them strongly influenced by Puritanism. In constitutional terms, Parliament had no specific powers. The Commons had little to do with the day-to-day government of the country, nor were the King and his advisers responsible to Parliament. Charles stated quite clearly that he was responsible to God alone for his acts. James and especially Charles viewed Parliament as a collecting box, to be summoned when they needed extra money.
The Tudor monarchs, although building up their own power, had usually managed to find an accommodation with Parliament, but the early Stuart Kings who followed them believed in the Divine Right of Kings and wanted to be absolutist monarchs like the contemporary French Kings. Neither James I nor Charles I thought that the Commons should interfere in their right to raise their own income from taxes, to spend their money on whatever they chose or to rule in any way they wished. James, however, handled this conviction more circumspectly than his successor. The first half of the sixteenth century was a time of inflation. James and Charles were both permanently broke and demanded more revenue from taxes. Those who refused to pay or protested against the fiscal exactions of Charles were brought before the Court of Star Chamber. This in effect was the King’s private kangaroo court and he used it to bypass the normal courts where proceedings took place under the common law. Members of the House of Commons were reluctant to vote increased taxes without the quid pro quo of increased political power.
The Stuarts wanted to create a state apparatus to support their despotic rule. This, among other things, would require a standing army which could only be paid for by a significant increase in taxation. They could not do this without attacking private property and profit-making. The King’s powers and the backward-looking institutions which supported him had become obstacles to the development of the productive forces along capitalist lines. Such a situation was unacceptable to the bourgeoisie. This was a class struggle. The scene was set for confrontation.
The setting of the scene
Marxists do not deny the role of accidents in history but they point out that their influence on great historical events is, in the last analysis, just what the word says – accidental. Far more significant in explaining historical change are the complex processes whereby the forces of production are developed. Each stage of development has a corresponding form of social organization or class society. Marx explains that there are four main types of class society. These he designates the “ancient, Asiatic, feudal and modern bourgeois modes of production.”
Marx goes on to say: “…social relations are closely bound up with productive forces. In acquiring new productive forces men change their mode of production, in changing the way of earning their living, they change all their social relations. The hand-mill gives you society with the feudal lord: the steam mill society with the industrial capitalist.” (Poverty of Philosophy)
Nothing in society is static. There is inevitable and constant conflict between those with conflicting economic and class interests, in short, the have’s, the have-some-but-want-mores and the have-nots. The outcome of these struggles depends on the balance of forces at any particular time. Let us quote Marx again. “At a certain stage of their development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production, or- what is but a legal expression for the same thing- with the property relations within which they have been at work hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an epoch of social revolution.” (Introduction to ‘Contribution to a Critique of Political Economy’)
The English Civil War was part of such a revolution. It was not a clash of personalities between King Charles, he of the flowing locks, frills and furbelows and Cromwell, austere and even dour though he may have been. It was not simply a clash between old and new forms of religious worship although there was always a suspicion that James perhaps, but Charles more definitely, wished to rehabilitate Catholicism. Nor was it simply a clash between a monarch who wanted absolute power and a Parliament defiantly determined to defend and develop its political influence. Material interests were involved. This was class struggle.
Feudal society in England was dealt a mortal blow at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485 where the ironically-named ‘nobles’ – in reality gangster barons, fought themselves virtually to a standstill. The new King, Henry VII, was on the throne as the result of force and violence and was determined to secure his own position by ensuring that the barons did not regain their previous power. They had by no means totally lost their influence but, along with various other institutions, they were rooted in the country’s feudal past. They had to be swept away or at least brought to heel if modernization was to take place.
By the 1630s the population of England and Wales was about 5 million of whom the majority were still engaged in agriculture. Many were yeoman farmers cultivating their own or rented smallholdings. They were strongly independent-minded and prepared to defend their interests. A peasantry declining in numbers worked for frugal rewards on small rented plots. There were a larger number of landless labourers who eked out a similarly frugal existence by working for wages on the land supplemented by earnings from work in their own homes, spinning or weaving in the cloth trade, for example. Most industrial production at this time bore little resemblance to modern industry, being carried out in a rural setting by cottagers as a family unit in their own homes. Significantly, however, production was for the market rather than for the producer’s own consumption. The increasing development of large-scale enterprises in such industries as mining, iron and metal-working, seafaring, transport and distribution was creating a new class in society, those who sold their labour power in return for wages: as such they were the forerunners of the modern working class or proletariat. The common people, both rural and in growing numbers urban, had no political rights whatever.
England had a significant woollen industry, centred especially in East Anglia, the Cotswolds and the West Riding of Yorkshire. The thriving nature of this industry had caused many landowners to convert their land from use for labour-intensive arable farming to sheep pasture. This meant that large numbers of peasants and their families lost their livelihoods and substantial numbers of them drifted to the towns, especially London, where they took whatever low-paid work was available, themselves also becoming part of the proletariat. Others became robbers, beggars and vagabonds. Tudor England saw an explosion of crime.
The inhabitants of the many towns that were growing rapidly could not cultivate their own crops or rear many animals and so to cater for urban demand, some landowners seized the opportunity to overhaul their agricultural practices along capitalist lines, producing for the urban market. This process involved enclosures which consolidated land in far fewer hands, allowed modernization to take place and led to an increase in productivity. It also forced many others who had worked on the land to migrate in search of work. Some of the larger landowners became capitalists producing for the market, not for subsistence, and these processes were carried out with the ruthlessness and disregard for social effects that typify capitalist business methods. These landowners or gentry and the emerging bourgeoisie, both growing in wealth and playing such an important part in the developing economy, found their interests at odds with those surviving vestiges of the past, the feudal nobility, the Church and the Crown. We have seen that the Tudor monarchs were adept at playing off the progressive bourgeoisie and gentry against the Church and the so-called nobility. James I and Charles I however claimed the God-given right to rule as absolute monarchs. Had they succeeded, they would have returned England to feudal conditions.
What was at stake was nothing less than a revolution. The middle class, the bourgeoisie, urgently needed political power so that it could proceed to develop capitalism fully, unfettered by obsolete political and governmental practices. Standing in the way was Charles I, a singularly inept and obstinate man with delusions of grandeur and ideas and attitudes which were a throwback to past centuries. In his support were gathered all the forces that likewise stood in the way of progress. Together they stood, like Horatius on the bridge over the River Tiber but with much less success, trying to defend ideas, institutions and practices which were obstructing the development of the so-called ‘free market economy’.
It was all about money and the power that goes with money. The Crown’s methods of raising revenue were still largely feudal in nature. The King, a parasite himself, was surrounded by favourites who also enjoyed a parasitic existence. Many of them had sinecures. These were fancy titles and loads of money for doing little or nothing. They had to be paid for out of taxes. James and Charles were permanently at odds with Parliament over the issue of taxation and this symbolized their different material interests. The King raised money for himself by granting monopolies – exclusive rights for favoured individuals or companies to trade in or manufacture specified commodities. These had the effect of increasing prices. The King alone had the power to declare war. Wars were very expensive. The bourgeoisie had no objection to wars if they defeated foreign commercial rivals or secured trading bases abroad. They had, for example, supported the Tudors in wars against Spain and the Dutch but they did not see why the King alone should be allowed to decide such matters.
The scene was set for the bourgeoisie and gentry to try to match their economic power with corresponding political power. The outcome was civil war and a political revolution. As a result of the decisive defeat of the forces around the King, sovereignty came into the hands of a coalition of progressive forces who then established the political, legal, ideological and other institutions which were the framework within which capitalism could grow and flourish. The divine right of kings was challenged by the divine right of capitalist property. The latter won.
It cannot be stressed too strongly that the Civil War was a class struggle and it led to a political revolution of an immensely progressive character. It was the culminating part of a social revolution that transformed England from a feudal to a capitalist nation. We do not seek to idealize the bourgeoisie of the time. They had all the faults common to their class whether in the seventeenth century or today in the twenty-first. However in fighting to assert their right to economic liberties and freedoms, they were also fighting, albeit less consciously, for the rights and liberties of artisans and craft workers, small businessmen and wage-earners in industry and on the land. The bourgeois in Parliament drew its support from the economically more advanced parts of England, generally the south and the east. They enjoyed much support among the artisans, apprentices and proletariat of London, far and away the largest and most influential city in England. Despite the enormity of defiance to the monarch who regarded himself as God’s anointed, the bourgeoisie did not flinch when the King declared war on them.
It is important to emphasise that the early part of the seventeenth century was a time of inflation which particularly affected food prices and this, as always, made life particularly difficult for the poor. Real wages fell. Additionally, England could not avoid the effects of the Thirty Years’ War which devastated Europe from 1618 disrupted trade and depressed the export market. The run-up to the Civil War was a period of social and political instability. As a Royalist wrote in 1642: “The countenances of men are so altered, especially of the mean and middle rank of men, that the turning of a straw would set a whole country in a flame, and occasion the plundering of any man’s house or goods.”
The changing balance of class forces
In the period immediately before the outbreak of war, it was clear that the country was heading for a crisis and the population of the towns absolutely seethed with discussion; a release of pent-up energy around the growing confrontation between the Commons on the one hand and the King and those who supported him, on the other. Speakers held forth in London and elsewhere, gathering eager crowds around them. Pamphlets poured off the press and political sects proliferated, avidly discussing fundamental questions about the roles of the King, of the state and the Established Church and their relationship to Parliament and also, significantly, the people. Time and time again, the London masses turned out in huge numbers to support Parliament in its confrontations with the King and such immensely unpopular figures associated with him such as Archbishop Laud and the Earl of Strafford.
What precipitated matters was the ill-advised military intervention in Scotland by Charles, for which he needed money. The King had spent much of his reign attempting to rule without Parliament and getting deeper and deeper in the financial mire while pleasing no one, even his own supporters. The Long Parliament summoned in 1641 was in no mood for compromise with the King’s greed and incompetence, and issued a number of decrees aimed at curtailing his political power. Henceforth, Parliament could not be dissolved except with its own consent, arbitrary taxation was outlawed, money could not be raised for royal purposes without Parliament’s agreement, the King was no longer allowed to appoint bishops nor could he control the armed forces, and so it went on. Soon afterwards, Parliament declared that it was now the supreme policy-making body in England. On the face of it, a peaceful revolution had taken place. Political power had passed from the remaining institutions of feudalism to the Parliament of the bourgeoisie. As so often happens in history, it wasn’t quite as simple as that.
It may have been a Parliament expressing the interests of the bourgeoisie but the latter were by no means homogeneous nor agreed on how best to proceed. In simple terms, there were two main groups. The ‘Presbyterians’, largely consisting of financiers, rich merchants and large landowners, were reluctant to be drawn into an all-out confrontation with the King for fear that the latter’s intransigence might provoke the masses to become involved and then to push events beyond their (the Presbyterian’s) control. Their fear of the common people was greater than their criticisms of the King and how he used his powers. Basically they wanted to reach an accommodation with him. The ‘Independents’ generally consisted of yeomen farmers, businessmen and skilled artisans and they wanted to bring the King to heel by military means if necessary and initially they were quite prepared to enlist the active support of the masses in order to achieve their aims.
Few on the Parliamentary side were republicans at this stage or wanted anything more radical than to clip the wings of the monarchy and bring Charles under control. Indeed, when the war started, none on the Parliamentary side could possibly have envisaged and indeed few would have wanted it to culminate in the execution of the King for treason. Less than two years before the King was executed in January 1649, Oliver Cromwell had defended the principle of monarchy as essential for peace and the prosperity of the people. However, just before the King’s premature demise, he said, “We will cut off his head with his crown on it.” That is evidence of the speed with which events move in a revolution!
Once the war started, animated discussions opened up in the Army and elsewhere throughout society about what the outcome would be and what sort of society would emerge after the war. Expectations about a better order of things had been raised but the immediate issues were economic disruption, sharp inflation and rising unemployment. There was even a run of cold, wet summers with accompanying poor harvests. As usual it was the poorer people who were most affected and many of them provided a ready audience for those who argued for the more radical solutions.
The King had support from much of the landed aristocracy, from sections of the landed gentry, the Catholics and from those elements around the royal court who toadied for financial and other favours. Generally the King’s supporters lived in the less prosperous northern and western parts of England and in parts of ScotlandIreland, more remote from the influence of London, less touched by industrial and agricultural innovation and where vestiges of feudalism were stronger. Deference to the Crown, to the Church and the nobility had been carefully cultivated over centuries and substantial sections of the population could not accept the idea of defying the King and his works because in doing so, they were told that they were defying God.
Both sides initially had conscripts in their ranks, forced to fight by the local landowners who were often also their landlords. The Royalists had large numbers of foreign mercenaries. The bulk of the population, whatever their sympathies, did not get involved in the actual fighting although the disruption created by it was almost impossible to avoid.
Although both sides enjoyed some early military successes, both were poorly equipped and often badly led and there was nothing really decisive until the emergence of the ‘Ironsides’. They were organized by Oliver Cromwell, a Cambridgeshire landowner and MP. They consisted of selected volunteers, many of them from the eastern counties with deeply-felt political and religious commitment to the Independent wing of Parliament’s supporters. Large numbers of them belonged to the various radical, militant religious and political sects that had emerged over the previous decades. Cromwell made use of their moral fervour. While he encouraged them openly to discuss their various differences, he realized that what united them strongly was a sense of God-given mission that was good for discipline. It was without precedent that the Ironside officers were chosen on merit rather than for reasons of social standing.
By early 1645 ultimate victory in the war could still have gone either way. The experience of creating the Ironsides convinced Cromwell and others among what were then the more radical officers that the Parliamentary army needed to be thoroughly overhauled if it was to win. The result was the creation of the New Model Army under the overall command of Thomas Fairfax. Its crack soldiers were in its cavalry and they shared the common sense of purpose that came from constant and open discussion of religious and political issues.
The Parliamentary cause was now served by what could be described as a politicised and even a potentially revolutionary army. The Presbyterians who were looking to make an accommodation with the King were extremely unhappy about the social composition of the New Model Army and its purpose. It was unprecedented to find senior officers, in this case colonels, among men of humble station such as Hewson, a cobbler and Pride who was a drayman. These men were zealots who loathed the King, the bishops and the Anglican clergy with fierce passion. They blamed military commanders from the Presbyterian wing, men such as the Earls of Essex and Manchester, for their lack of conviction, which they said had caused Parliament’s poor showing in the early years of the war.
The success of the new force was quickly shown at the Battle of Naseby in June 1645 where the Royalists were routed and this marked the decisive military turning point of the war. From then on it was downhill all the way for the King.
The emergence of the Levellers
With the King no longer apparently posing a serious military threat and in custody although virtually continuing to run the royal business as usual, the Presbyterian supporters of Parliament mostly felt that they had achieved what they had set out to do. Many of them had done very well out of business ventures associated with the war and so they wanted a quick return to normality. By this they meant an end to further civil disruption so that they could enjoy an unrestricted exploitation of the mouth-watering commercial opportunities in prospect.
It was not to be. To their horror it seemed as if a Frankenstein’s monster had been created out of the war. The aspirations of tens of thousands of ordinary people had been raised as they gorged themselves on discussion of political and religious issues – the two were intertwined. A host of millennarian Christian groups, radical and even communistic sects sprung up. The people had been always told that changing history was something that only their ‘betters’ could do but now they saw that they could also make history. Encouraged by success against the King and the forces of reaction, they now wanted to move on to further change. Behind the demand for the creation of democratic rights was the belief that better economic and social conditions could be delivered by a Parliament more widely representative of the people. The Presbyterians for their part believed that the purpose of government was to safeguard property.
The rank-and-file of the New Model Army developed a very strong religious and political esprit de corps. Each of the regiments of which it was composed elected two representatives, known as ‘agitators’ to promote the views of the rank-and-file and these increasingly challenged not only the power of the King but also that of the Presbyterians. They attacked the narrow basis on which the House of Commons was elected and demanded annual parliaments, for example. They sent delegates to stir up the men in other regiments not within the New Model Army. They also despatched delegates to meet and discuss with radical elements throughout the country.
The most prominent radical democratic grouping was the Levellers. In simple terms the twin demands of the Levellers were freedom of conscience in religious matters and the inalienable right for citizens to choose the government they wanted. Such a government therefore owed its power to the people’s consent. With unprecedented boldness the Levellers advanced the idea that the people must be sovereign. Such ideas were anathema to the Presbyterians among Parliament’s supporters. Making religion a matter for the individual was a threat to the long-established hegemony of the Church and the sense of obedience to those in authority which it had systematically inculcated in the populace. The idea of a government elected by the common people was equally threatening. The implications were truly revolutionary and far too advanced for the established bourgeoisie. They had to be surgically removed.
A central concept of the Levellers was that of the ‘Norman Yoke’. This notion rather naively explained that all had been well for the common folk of England until William of Normandy conquered the country in 1066. He subjugated the native population, seized the lands of the better-off and gave them to his Norman cronies. These became the barons who supported the King in imposing the miseries of feudalism and serfdom on the common people. The Levellers went on to argue that the descendents of the Normans still dominated land-ownership and the country’s institutions of power. The task therefore was to claim power back from the Norman usurpers. This call for the disfranchised to reclaim their hereditary rights combined nationalism with elements of class-consciousness and had a powerful appeal.
The class base of the Levellers was mainly among small and middling businessmen, skilled craftsmen and yeoman landowners. Theirs was not a socialist programme. They wanted Parliament to provide them with protection against the monopolies, powerful and unscrupulous entrepreneurs and landlords engaged in enclosures. They wanted an economic system in which industrial and agricultural activity would be carried out by small independent business concerns of the kind which so many of them already owned. This perspective was utopian. The tendency of emerging capitalism even then was towards the concentration of production in the hands of large businesses. Only these had the resources to invest in the expensive new forms of technology that would raise productivity and take the economy forward.
The reality is that the Levellers were not a class in any real sense and unlike the workers in the Russian Revolution, for example, they had no distinctive common class purpose. In the last analysis they were individualists aspiring on the one hand to be bigger and more successful businessmen and on the other hand terrified of being driven down into the ranks of the landless labourers or urban poor by uncontrollable and ruthless economic forces they greatly resented and feared.
This is not to belittle the Levellers. They were of their time. They represent the continuance of an English tradition going back to the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381 of defiance towards the ruling class and of fighting to express the interests of the poorer and disenfranchised people. They occupy an honourable part in the struggles out of which the British labour movement was to develop. The role they played, however, was an indication of the limited historical mission of the bourgeoisie or middle classes. Even in the partial moves towards democracy that they made, the bourgeoisie could not stand on its own but had to find ways of appealing to the common people, the forerunners of the working class, for their support on which to build something approaching a mass base. However at this time the economy was insufficiently developed for the working class to take society forward. Their emergence as the class with the historic mission of leading the struggle for socialism had to wait until the nineteenth century.
The Levellers’ two greatest centres of support were among the London citizenry, especially the urban tradesmen and apprentices and in the New Model Army. Scattered centres of activity could be found across the country and it is interesting to note that in Derby, for example, the Levellers were strong enough to give useful support to striking lead miners. In the Army their greatest strength was in the cavalry which consisted almost entirely of educated and articulate volunteers well used to radical discussion and debate, rather than in the infantry which was largely composed of more proletarian elements. Some of the Levellers strongly advocated building links between the Army and the citizens with a view to creating a powerful alliance to secure the implementation of their more far-reaching demands.
Timing and effective leadership are critical in potentially revolutionary situations. By 1647, the bourgeois revolution had achieved most of its aims and events were passing the Levellers by. Many of their demands were left unfulfilled. Significantly some, such as the issue of annual parliaments, in effect the right of recall for MPs, were to reappear on the political agenda in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and remain relevant today. No wonder it excites revulsion in the minds of MPs!
The balancing act and eradication of the Levellers
The Civil War was part of a revolution in which the English bourgeoisie used violence in order to seize the main levers of political power from the Crown and other outdated institutions. These had to be destroyed or at least brought fully under control so that they would no longer obstruct the creation of a political and legal system designed to provide the best possible conditions for the development of capitalist enterprise.
History teaches that the various classes and even the subdivisions within the classes support a revolution for different reasons. These largely reflect the varying and sometimes conflicting economic and social interests of the participants. Revolutionary events create expectations among wide sections of the population. Those groups that initiate the process of revolutionary change can find themselves being forced by newly aroused, rapidly learning elements to push the process much further than they would wish. They may lean on the support of these newcomers in order to achieve their own interests but having gained what they want for themselves, they then attempt to consolidate what they have gained by turning on and suppressing their more radical supporters.
This is what happened from 1647. As the result of the war, Parliament was now the legislative body dominated by and representing the Presbyterians, generally the richest and certainly the most conservative section of the emerging capitalist class. They were happy to maintain a monarch on the throne so long as he basically did as he was told. For them, the Revolution was over – they had achieved what they wanted. Parliamentary power was in their hands, there was a limited franchise based on property and the Church of England was under their control as part of the State. Relishing the business opportunities opening up before their eyes, they felt threatened by those who seemed intent on pushing the revolution towards a political system that would give greater power to the middling and lower orders of society.
The situation was complicated for the Presbyterians. They could not rely on the Independents in Parliament, the more middle-class group around Cromwell. The latter shifted to and fro uncomfortably, supporting the Presbyterians on some issues but very aware that they had also had to take some account of the Levellers and other radicals. These had the mass support which was needed by the Independents to enable them to push the revolution further to the left. Their main purpose in doing this was to further their sectional interests against those of the Presbyterians, the party of big business. The Independents at this stage would probably have happily settled for a titular constitutional monarch as head of state, some widening of the franchise to give their supporters a greater voice and religious freedom for all Protestants. Such was the growing influence of the Levellers, however, that Cromwell had to keep looking over his shoulder, frightened that if he did not break their power, they might well break him.
The King had been kept under very liberal house-arrest but matters came to a head when he managed to escape. He was quickly back in confinement after which in 1648 there was a brief ‘Second Civil War’ brilliantly conducted by Cromwell whereby the King’s forces were finally defeated and the land holdings of his most prominent supporters confiscated, ostensibly by the state but largely conferred as favours on major figures among the Presbyterians. Parliament now finally ran out of patience with the perfidious Charles when it was discovered that he had been negotiating with foreign powers to come to his aid with military force.
The process began which led to the trial and execution of the King for treason. The execution took place on 30 January 1649 and provoked the anger, horror and revulsion of all the crowned heads and other reactionary elements in Europe. It was evidence of how far the English revolution had gone. It had moved way beyond the original aims of those who had taken up arms against the King when he first raised his standard at Nottingham in August 1642. Nearly 1,000 years of tradition fell with that royal head because the executioner’s axe not only ended the life of a king but also symbolically put an end to the feudal system.
The capture, escape, recapture and later execution of the King only encouraged further debate and discussion among the radical supporters of Parliament, especially the Levellers in the New Model Army as well as their growing support among the civilian population. Cromwell, Fairfax, Ireton and others of what were now becoming known as the ‘Grandees’ took the unprecedented step of meeting representatives of the Army, who they knew would mostly be Levellers, and engaging them in a series of debates at Putney at the end of October and early November 1647. These ‘Putney Debates’ were an indication of just how far political freedom had developed in revolutionary England.
Among the Levellers’ leaders at Putney were John Lilburne, Richard Overton and William Walwyn. Lilburne was a passionate man, a born rebel; Overton a witty extrovert and Walwyn subtly and gently persuasive. The Grandees had previously circulated a document usually called The Heads of the Proposals. These were a number of points about the ethical and practical basis for government now that the political revolution had taken place. Although these proposals were mostly progressive, they relied on the co-operation of the King. The Levellers were unhappy with this, not trusting the King and preferring what they called a settlement from ‘the bottom up’ as opposed to the Grandees’ one which was ‘top down’. For their part, the Levellers presented most of their ideas in what was known as An Agreement of the People.
The polarization of opinion is shown by the statement from the Leveller Colonel Rainborough to the effect that the poor were not bound by any government which they had not had a chance to put into place. To this Ireton retorted: No one has a right to…a share…in determining the affairs of the kingdom…that has not a permanent fixed interest in the kingdom…that is, the person in whom all land lies, and those in the corporations in whom all trading lies.
The Grandees made clear their belief that the holding of property was a sacred and natural right. They pointed to what they thought was the danger that if men without property were allowed to vote, they, being in the majority, might vote in favour of the abolition of private property. Parliament, they argued, had fought the King in order to defend property for the common good. Rainborough dismissed this by dryly declaring that if this perspective was correct, the soldiers of the New Model Army had fought merely to substitute subjection to a tyrannical king for enslavement by plutocrats. As he put it, the better-off one-fifth of the population by using their voting power could enslave the rest: One part shall make hewers of wood and drawers of water out of the other five. He continued in words which still resonate: The poorest he that is in England hath a life to live as the greatest he; and I think it is clear that every man that is to live under a government ought first by his consent to put himself under that government.
As might be expected amongst those advocating freedom to debate ideas, there were many variants among the arguments put forward by the Levellers. Many of their leaders were themselves property owners although not in a big way. They considered themselves very definitely a cut above the more proletarian mass of the Army. For this reason, while wishing to widen the franchise, they did not all support universal male suffrage and many specifically excluded landless labourers who they thought would be particularly subject to intimidation by their landlords so far as voting was concerned. They also wanted to make it clear that they were not all advocating the abolition of private property. Lilburne hastened to assure the well-to-do that…this conceit of levelling of property…is so ridiculous and foolish an opinion that no man of brains, reason or ingenuity can be imagined such a sort to maintain such a principle.
In spite of these soothing words, the activity of the agitators in the New Model Army filled both the Presbyterians, but also increasingly the Independents, with horror. They saw a cohesive, disciplined army intent on pushing change way beyond the bounds of what was acceptable. However they themselves were far from unanimous about what kind of new order should be built. It was evident that what big capitalist farmers or rich merchants of the Presbyterians wanted from the possession of political power bore little resemblance to the aspirations of the Independents among the small yeoman farmers, independent craftsmen or small urban businessmen or industrialists. What the rank-and-file Levellers and ordinary folk wanted was yet something else different.
The Grandees by no means got the better of the argument with the Levellers at Putney and they decided to try to move against them. Both parties were aware that they were moving towards a showdown. The Grandees were determined to regain control of the New Model Army and restructure it under their control as a purely military force.
The basis of the military has always been instant obedience to orders given by a superior officer. On 15 November 1647 Cromwell decided on a trial of strength. He ordered a parade at Ware in Hertfordshire, consisting of approximately a third of the New Model Army, deliberately chosen from those companies least affected by Leveller doctrines. The Grandees demanded that the soldiers accept The Heads of the Proposals as the manifesto of the Army. When some soldiers refused and declared that they stood by the Agreement of the People, they were treated as mutineers. They were seized and immediately brought before a drumhead court-martial. Three of them were found guilty and sentenced to death but to prolong the drama, Cromwell ordered them to draw lots as to which one of them should be executed. The unlucky one was a private and he was shot in front of his comrades. Cromwell had started to get tough. He received a vote of thanks from the House of Commons for his decisive action. For their part the revolutionary ardour of the Levellers had been put to the test. On this occasion military discipline and martial law had won. It was clear that the matter was not finished.
Independents and Levellers buried their differences while there was a renewed threat from the King. The Presbyterians had been totally opposed to any punishment, let alone the execution, of the King. Now leaning on the New Model Army, Cromwell had the Commons purged of its Royalist supporters. The King was executed at Whitehall and on 19 May 1649, England was declared to be a republic.
Cromwell now showed how ruthless he could be where power was concerned. He court-martialled the leading Levellers or expelling them from the Army where democracy and freedom of speech were replaced by repression and rigid discipline. The best-known Levellers were thrown into prison. Cromwell was taking a risk because his action aroused the fury of wide layers of the soldiery and the wider population. The process continued when he ordered several regiments of the Army to Ireland. Those selected were the regiments in which the Levellers enjoyed their greatest support.
This was fully intended to be the proverbial red rag to the bull. The Levellers were faced with the choice of mutinying or submitting and seeing their movement effectively destroyed. Cromwell had chosen his time well. At least three mutinies broke out. He dealt with them ferociously. 1,500 Levellers were camped at Burford in the Cotswolds and Cromwell personally led a surprise night time attack on them. Some were briefly imprisoned in the parish church and three who refused to recant their views were court-martialled, sentenced to death and shot by firing squad in the churchyard. The marks made by the musket balls can still be seen. The date was 15 May 1649. The threat to Cromwell from the Levellers was largely excised when the troublesome regiments were at last sent to Ireland.
The Leveller movement quickly disintegrated. Cromwell saw to it that its leaders were either exiled or placed in widely dispersed prisons unable to communicate with each other. For their efforts Cromwell and Fairfax were awarded honorary degrees by the University of Oxford, a noted bastion of royalist sentiment. Likewise the plutocrats of the City of London gratefully invited them to a banquet of quite obscene opulence where they both received a large and extremely valuable set of gold plates, cups and other paraphernalia. The bourgeois had completed the revolution which was their historical task in seventeenth century England. Cromwell and his cohorts may have embarked on counter-revolutionary policies against the Levellers but they did so only on the basis of preserving the new economic and political relations which had been created by the revolution itself.
Marxists do not explain historical processes in terms of the character or personal qualities of the individuals involved. Cromwell was without question ferocious and ruthless in suppressing the royalists and his own left-wing, but he did so in a scenario not of his own making. He was an outstanding military leader and politician but it really isn’t the point whether we like him or not or whether we approve or disapprove of his methods. The fact is that he played a pivotal role in a progressive revolution which ended a social and economic system that could no longer develop the forces of production. On the basis of that revolution, it took the English bourgeoisie only about a century to embark on the extraordinary effusion of energy and activity that we know as the Industrial Revolution. This in turn created the conditions for the emergence of a mass proletariat, the propertyless working class whose historic task it is to play the leading role in overthrowing the capitalist system and ushering in the higher form of economic and social organization known as socialism, not only in Britain but across the world.
History is not merely the recitation of facts or the stories of so-called ‘great men’. It is the attempt to understand and explain the processes of social, economic and political change. Marxism is the collective memory of the working class. Today’s socialists must consciously engage in political education and learn the lessons of the past to apply them to the current struggles across the world and those that will take place in the future as the working class moves to end the crises, the despair, the indignities and the injustices which are the price to pay for the continued existence of capitalism.