370 years ago this weekend, a quite extraordinary event took place in English history – one which most establishment historians either ignore or belittle as being of no real importance. However, if it was of no importance, then why did it happen in the first place?
The Putney Debates of Oct-Nov 1647 were meetings of elected representatives (“New Agents” or Agitators as they were called) from the ranks of the Army, called to present their views to the General Council of the Army, which met at the Church of St Mary the Virgin, Putney (which still stands today) under the chairmanship of no less an individual than Oliver Cromwell himself. This, if nothing else, confirms the importance of the event to those who took part.
The subject of the debate was to decide on the demands contained within the Agitator manifesto, “The case of the Army truly stated”, and the Leveller ideas contained within the tract “An Agreement of the People”.
What was to be discussed was, in the wake of the First Civil War, nothing less than the future direction of England. The demands of the Army ranks and the Levellers were revolutionary: an end to rule by Lords and Kings; universal male suffrage; and the election of a parliament answerable to all – rich and poor.
The degree to which such views were held by many can be gaged by the fact the Cromwell and the “grandees” felt that they had no choice but to debate rather than immediately suppress them.
Behind the various and sometimes confused ideas of the Levellers stood an even more radical concept of an end to domination by the rich and the establishment of a communistic and equal society, soon to be openly expressed by people such as Gerrard Winstanley and the New Levellers, or Diggers as they became known.
The debate was eventually sidelined: firstly by a proposal to set up a commission to review these issues (a familiar trick even today); and secondly by the call from Cromwell to suspend the General Council on November 8th, followed three days laterby the escape from captivity of King Charles, which ushered in a new phase of military discipline, cutting across the mood of radicalism.
To mark this anniversary, we republish below an extract from a history of the English Revolution (as Marxists correctly describe the English Civil War) by David Brandon, which deals with the events of the period and the importance of the Putney Debates.
Over three hundred years later, Tony Benn would describe these struggles as still having to be resolved. The aims and ambitions of the radical movements of the 17th Century were in many ways ahead of their time, requiring the growth of a mass working class, a labour movement and the formation of Marxist ideas and a programme to point the way forward to a successful conclusion with the overthrow of the ruling class and the establishment of a socialist society. The Putney Debates started a discussion, it is the job of workers and youth today to provide a conclusion.
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.
Execution of Charles I
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.
The New Model Army
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 and the Levellers
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.