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Workers Vanguard No. 918

1 August 2008

Oliver Cromwell and the English Revolution

Abolish the Monarchy, the House of Lords and the Established Churches!

In Honor of Christopher Hill 1912–2003

We reprint below an article that originally appeared in Workers Hammer No. 184 (Spring 2003), the newspaper of the Spartacist League/Britain, section of the International Communist League.

Speaking last month at a “People’s Assembly” convened to protest parliament’s support for the war on Iraq, “left” Labour MP [Member of Parliament] George Galloway complained that “we have a parliament that is not speaking for Britain,” a view echoed by Chris Nineham of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) who moaned that Blair was “negating democracy.” The illusion that Her Majesty’s parliament ought to represent “the people” has been handed down for generations. But the question is, whose interest does Parliament serve? And what is the nature of the “democracy” that the British ruling class claims to have invented in Westminster and upheld since time immemorial?

The single most important event in British history was the seventeenth-century English Revolution. This shaped British capitalism, made possible the industrial revolution in the eighteenth century and laid the foundation for England, a small nation in the seventeenth century, to master the world in the nineteenth. As a result, by 1914 the British ruling class ruled over more than one-fifth of humanity. The British bourgeoisie came to power in a revolution that overthrew the feudal order—the monarchy, the old feudal landowning aristocracy and the established Anglican Church.

However the capitalist class that came to power never forgot that Cromwell’s army mobilised the “lower orders,” and that it was they who made sure the Civil War was fought to the finish, resulting in the defeat of the old order. To this day the British ruling class, aided by Her Majesty’s Labour Party, rewrites history to erase all trace of revolution and civil war, which according to them must never happen again. School students are taught that Oliver Cromwell’s Roundheads fought King Charles I and his Cavaliers in the 1640s, and that the King’s head was cut off. But bloody civil war and regicide was an “excess.” The episode was merely a “constitutional” dispute between King and Parliament, in which Parliament triumphed and established its sovereignty over the monarchy. The period between the execution of the King in 1649 and the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 is described as an “interregnum.” The “Glorious Revolution” of 1688 is so called because there was no bloodshed and no mobilisation of the lower classes. In reality it was the removal of a king (James II of England) who overstepped the mark and acted as though the revolution had never happened.

Ever since the Cromwellian revolution, “Her Majesty’s Parliament” has been an instrument of bourgeois rule and for the suppression of struggles for the emancipation of the working class. The capitalist order has long been obsolete, just as the feudal system had become outmoded by the seventeenth century. And in order for the proletariat to prepare its historic task—the overthrow of the capitalist order—there is much to be learned from the English bourgeois revolution. The old feudal ruling class did not exit gracefully from the scene, and neither will the capitalist class relinquish power without a fight. This will require class struggle on a mass scale, pursued to the end, and must culminate in a thoroughgoing socialist revolution.

To study the English Revolution is to read Christopher Hill, the outstanding historian of Cromwellian England who died in February. Hill devoted his life’s work to rescuing the history of the English Revolution from oblivion at the hands of those who churn out “gradualist” accounts of British history. Hill’s literary output began in 1940 with the essay, The English Revolution of 1640, which asserted that “the English Revolution of 1640-60 was a great social movement like the French revolution of 1789.” He argued that:

“Ever since then [1660] orthodox historians have done their utmost to stress the ‘continuity’ of English history, to minimise the revolutionary breaks, to pretend that the ‘interregnum’ (the word itself shows what they are trying to do) was an unfortunate accident, that in 1660 we returned to the old Constitution normally developing, that 1688 merely corrected the aberrations of a deranged King. Whereas, in fact, the period 1640-60 saw the destruction of one kind of state and the introduction of a new political structure within which capitalism could freely develop. For tactical reasons, the ruling class in 1660 pretended that they were merely restoring the old forms of the Constitution. But they intended by that restoration to give sanctity and social stamp to a new social order. The important thing is that the social order was new and would not have been won without revolution.”

The English Revolution of 1640

Hill went on to become Master of Balliol College in Oxford, but stuck to his original thesis and published a variety of superb books. His commanding sweep of the social, political and cultural history of seventeenth-century England resulted in books such as: The Century of Revolution, 1603-1714; The World Turned Upside Down; God’s Englishman; a series called People and Ideas in 17th Century England and many more. Hill provides an orthodox Marxist account of the revolutionary period. He highlights the role played by radical democratic movements such as the Levellers and the Diggers (or True Levellers) whose programme expressed the most radical and enlightened views of their time. The Levellers represented the lower classes, who at the time were the lowest levels of the petty bourgeoisie, including the craftsmen and apprentices of London. Christopher Hill shows that, had it not been for the influence of the Levellers, it is unlikely that Charles I would have been beheaded in 1649.

The lessons of the English Revolution are as relevant for today’s new generation of political activists who despise Blair’s Labour Party and parliament as they were when Trotsky urged British workers to study Cromwell’s revolution, as an antidote to the Labourite view of British history as “gradualism.” Those youth who have no desire to be duped by the SWP, Workers Power or the Socialist Party into supporting parliamentary reformism through an alliance with Labour “lefts” ought to relish Trotsky’s 1925 essay Where Is Britain Going?, a delightfully savage polemic against Labourite gradualism. He evokes Carlyle, Cromwell’s biographer, who noted that his job was to drag out the Lord Protector from under a mountain of dead dogs, meaning a huge load of calumny and oblivion. Trotsky said that “British workers can learn incomparably more from Cromwell than from MacDonald, Snowden, Webb” (Labour leaders of the time) and added that:

“Cromwell was a great revolutionary of his time, who knew how to uphold the interests of the new, bourgeois social system against the old aristocratic one without holding back at anything. This must be learnt from him, and the dead lion of the seventeenth century is in this sense immeasurably greater than many living dogs.”

Where Is Britain Going?

Trotsky railed against “left” Labour leaders for their religiosity, cowardice and servility to the monarchy—as he put it, they “dare not refuse pocket money to the Prince of Wales.” The monarchy is an integral part of the “parliamentary democracy” that Labour leaders revere. One of the few Labour figures today who professes to oppose the monarchy is Tony Benn, and he’s a member (for life) of the Queen’s Privy Council, a secret body whose members swear “by Almighty God to be a true and faithful servant unto The Queen’s Majesty”! Benn’s “anti-monarchism” makes us Red Republicans look longingly on the day when Oliver Cromwell summoned his troops to disperse the Long Parliament with the words, “call them in, call them in.”

While he was a young student at Oxford in the mid 1930s, Christopher Hill joined the Communist Party, as indeed did many youth who were radicalised by the rise of the Nazis in Germany and by the Spanish Civil War. This was a time when the capitalist world was beset by the Great Depression, yet the Soviet Union was undergoing dramatic economic development. In Britain there was mass disaffection with Labour’s betrayals, precipitated by Labour leader Ramsay MacDonald joining a “National Government” in 1931. But while the British Communist Party that Hill joined was distrusted by the British bourgeoisie for its loyalty to the Kremlin, it nonetheless was a party of parliamentary reformism. Posthumously, Hill is being accused of having spied for the Soviet Union in the period during World War II when he worked in military intelligence and at the Foreign Office. For the British establishment and their Labour Party lackeys, this is the ultimate betrayal. Spying for the Soviet Union against an imperialist power, if indeed he did, is certainly no crime as far as we Trotskyists are concerned. The Soviet Union emerged out of the Bolshevik October 1917 revolution and continued to embody the gains of that revolution despite the political counterrevolution that took place in 1923-24 with the rise to power of the conservative Stalinist bureaucracy. For this reason we defended the Soviet Union and fought tooth and nail against the capitalist counterrevolution of 1991-92. We don’t know what Christopher Hill did in World War II. But given that he openly professed his Marxist sympathies, it seems unlikely that he could have played a role comparable to heroic Soviet spies Kim Philby, Guy Burgess, Donald Maclean and Anthony Blunt, his contemporaries and comrades who were recruited at Cambridge.

Hill was outstanding even among Communist Party historians such as E.P. Thompson, Eric Hobsbawm, A.L. Morton and Rodney Hilton who were his peers. He wrote cogent history because he mainly restricted his work to seventeenth-century England, on which there was no Stalinist line. One exception is Hill’s 1947 book Lenin and the Russian Revolution, which is inferior to any of his works on the English Revolution. He denies Trotsky’s role alongside Lenin as co-leader of the Russian Revolution while elevating Stalin to great heights.

Class Forces in the Civil War

Key to understanding the English Revolution is recognising the class forces in conflict. On the side of King Charles I were the old feudal landed aristocracy and the Anglican Church. The latter became the official church with the Reformation against the Catholic Church a century earlier, which also led to much political power (and land) passing to the Crown. The fifteenth-century Wars of the Roses, in which overmighty and some mighty nobles killed each other, had the virtue of reducing the old feudal lords.

Outside of England, the Catholic Church dominated the feudal world and was the main bulwark against social, economic and scientific progress. As Europe emerged from the Middle Ages, the nascent merchant capitalist class was forced into a collision with the feudal system. Friedrich Engels described the role of the Catholic Church:

“The great international centre of feudalism was the Roman Catholic Church. It united the whole of feudalized Western Europe, in spite of all internal wars, into one grand political system, opposed as much to the schismatic Greeks as to the Mohammedan countries. It surrounded feudal institutions with the halo of divine consecration. It had organised its own hierarchy on the feudal model, and, lastly, it was itself by far the most powerful feudal lord, holding, as it did, fully one-third of the soil of the Catholic world. Before profane feudalism could be successfully attacked in each country and in detail, this, its sacred central organization, had to be destroyed.”

—Introduction to the English edition of Socialism: Utopian and Scientific (1892)

During his reign, Charles I connived with the Catholic absolutist monarchies of Europe, including through his queen, Henrietta Maria of France. The grip of the Crown and Church on the populace in England would be difficult to overstate: the king ruled by “Divine Right”; both Church and Crown operated their own courts; non-attendance at one’s local parish church was punishable by law and church taxes were levied in the amount of one-tenth (a tithe) of one’s produce or profit. The dominant force on the Parliamentary side was the rising Presbyterian bourgeoisie based on the City of London and the merchant capitalists who had been accumulating vast amounts of capital. This class dominated the House of Commons, which had become three times as rich as the House of Lords. But the feudal system was an enormous barrier to the expansion of trade and industry and thus the merchant capitalists were compelled to remove these fetters on their profit accumulation. Parallel with the rise of capitalism went developments in science, and the capitalists needed science, which gave them added impetus to rebel against the Established Church.

In the countryside, the encroachment of capitalist economic relations meant higher rents for tenants. Lower sections of the landed gentry—from which Cromwell hailed—were being squeezed by the big feudal landowners. Also pitted against the feudal nobility were the yeomen—a stratum of independent farmers—who became the backbone of Cromwell’s army, as well as petty-bourgeois layers—small producers and craftsmen. The majority of wage-earners in England at the time were domestic servants and there was no industrial working class to speak of. The radical wing of the Parliamentary side, known as the “Independents,” came into conflict with the conservative Presbyterians, while Cromwell occupied an intermediate position between these two wings.

Cromwell’s Army, Instrument of Revolution

England in 1641 was crisis-ridden: the Royalists pulled out of Parliament because it would not do their bidding; a wave of riots against the enclosure of common land engulfed the countryside and an uprising in Ireland provoked a major crisis. In this context civil war between Parliamentarians and Royalists erupted in 1642. The Presbyterian bourgeois elements were alarmed by the social forces unleashed in the countryside against land seizures. The Royalists had created their own army, but the “Parliamentary” side tried to avoid doing likewise, hoping at first to leave the task of defeating the Royalists to the Scots, with whom Parliament signed a “Solemn League and Covenant” in 1643.

However in the course of battle Cromwell became convinced of the need for an army that would decisively defeat the Royalists. In 1645 he founded the New Model Army which became the decisive force in the revolution. In it he welded together yeomen, peasants and labouring classes of the cities—who had already engaged in effective battles against the Royalists—into a disciplined army. The New Model Army cut across aristocratic disdain for the “lower orders” by promoting men according to merit, up to the rank of general, which was normally the preserve of the nobility. Cromwell famously said: “I had rather have a plain russet-coated captain that knows what he fights for and loves what he knows than what you call a gentleman and is nothing else” (quoted in God’s Englishman).

The “Protestant work ethic” played an enormous role in the rise of capitalism by providing an ideology that was tailor-made for the rise of a system based on private property. Calvinism was the clearest expression of this “work ethic” and Puritanism, the ideology of Oliver Cromwell and the yeomen, was heavily influenced by Calvinism. Puritanism emphasised the virtue of hard work, thrift, self-discipline and individual merit, over factors such as “noble birth.” The Puritans opposed the Presbyterians’ involvement in enclosures—the seizure of common lands from peasants by declaring it to be private property. Hill cites a Puritan tract urging Presbyterian gentlemen to “first go hang yourselves for your great thefts of enclosures and oppressions, and then afterwards you can go hang your poor brethren for petty thefts” (quoted in The World Turned Upside Down). A variety of small Protestant sects, tending to represent more radical social layers, emerged with the rise of capitalism. Because they favoured the right to choose one’s own religion and some regarded women as equal, they were persecuted as subversive. Within the army ranks there was considerable tolerance for these views and Cromwell’s army became a vehicle for major changes in many areas of social life.

The New Model Army inflicted crushing defeats on the Royalists, culminating in the battle of Naseby in 1645 in which they captured the King. With victory in their grasp, the conservative bourgeois elements in Parliament sought a compromise with the Royalists. This outraged the army ranks who, under the influence of the Levellers, were becoming politically independent. The Levellers organised a system of elected Agitators and acquired a substantial following in army regiments. With the King’s fate now hanging in the balance, Christopher Hill describes the situation as one in which: “Army and Parliament now existed side by side as rival powers in the State” (The English Revolution of 1640).

In June 1647 Parliament tried to disperse the army regiments, ordering them to enlist for Ireland or face immediate dismissal. The ranks mutinied, the Agitators seized the King, held him captive and led a march on London. This led to the ultimate nightmare scenario for every fat-headed Parliamentarian: the revolutionary army purged Parliament of its main conciliators, causing all the Presbyterians to flee from “the House.” Parliament subsequently assigned Oliver Cromwell to negotiate with the mutinous ranks. The Agitators met Cromwell and demanded that he should lead the army, while making clear that, if he chose not to, they “would go their own way without him.” Cromwell and the generals made a deal with the Levellers and Cromwell resumed command of the army.

Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution (1931) referred to this stage of the English Revolution, describing it as “dual power” between Parliament and the army. He noted:

“It would seem that the conditions are now created for the single rule of the Presbyterian bourgeoisie. But before the Royal power could be broken, the parliamentary army has converted itself into an independent political force. It has concentrated in its ranks the Independents, the pious and resolute petit bourgeoisie, the craftsmen and farmers. This army powerfully interferes in social life, not merely as an armed force, but as a Praetorian Guard, and as the political representative of a new class opposing the prosperous and rich bourgeoisie. Correspondingly the army creates a new state organ rising above the military command: a council of soldiers’ and officers’ deputies (‘agitators’). A new period of ‘double sovereignty’ has thus arrived: that of the Presbyterian Parliament and the Independents’ army. This leads to open conflicts. The bourgeoisie proves powerless to oppose with its own army the ‘model army’ of Cromwell—that is, the armed plebeians. The conflict ends with a purgation of the Presbyterian Parliament by the sword of the Independents. There remains but the rump of a parliament; the dictatorship of Cromwell is established.”

Political debates between the Levellers and the generals raged within the army, most famously at Putney in London in November 1647. The very idea that soldiers could argue with their officers was unheard of. The Levellers argued for equality between rich and poor, expressed in the phrase by Colonel Rainborough that “the poorest he that is in England has a life to live as the greatest he”; to which Ireton, Cromwell’s son-in-law responded: “liberty cannot be provided for in a general sense, if property be preserved” (quoted in The Century of Revolution). The Levellers’ most radical democratic demands were in advance of the social and economic conditions of the time and of the social forces that could realise them.

The King’s Head Rolls

The immediate possibility of a split in the army was averted when the King escaped (or was freed) which re-ignited the civil war. Throughout 1648 Cromwell’s army inflicted defeats on the Royalists in England and Wales; they also defeated a pro-Royalist army from Scotland that threatened to invade. Once again, Colonel Thomas Pride purged Parliament of those who continued to seek a compromise with the King. However this time the army leadership in London, in alliance with the Levellers, also decided to put the King on trial, which meant he would be sentenced to death. This was done while Cromwell was finishing off the military campaign in the north of England. Upon his return, Cromwell hesitated before endorsing the regicide, although hardly out of principle—he is reputed to have told his soldiers earlier that he “would as soon discharge his pistol upon [the King] as at any other private person” (quoted in God’s Englishman). When Cromwell made his mind up, he wholeheartedly supported the execution of Charles I, declaring: “I tell you we will cut off his head with the crown on it.”

On 30 January 1649 the King was executed, along with other leading Royalists. The regicide marked the decisive defeat for the feudal order in England. And as the first revolution of its kind, the significance of this victory was enormous. In March the monarchy and House of Lords were formally abolished and England became a republic. Compared to later revolutions, it had many limitations but judged by the conditions of its time, it was unprecedented. Common Law was adopted and although this was no equivalent of the Code Napoleon introduced by the French Revolution it was a major advance from “Royal Prerogative.” The Star Chamber court was abolished and although separation of church and state was not achieved, a measure of Protestant religious dissent was allowed. Christopher Hill eloquently captured what was meant by religious toleration, and how it was achieved, saying: “Cromwell, [by] stabling in cathedrals the horses of the most disciplined and most democratic cavalry the world had yet seen, won a victory which for ever stopped men being flogged and branded for having unorthodox views about the Communion service” (The English Revolution of 1640).

Oliver Cromwell died on 3 September 1658, as Lord Protector, having refused the Crown. However, the revolution and civil war had established bourgeois rule and even though the monarchy was restored in 1660 there would be no going back to the situation where the feudal nobles ruled over the bourgeoisie. The power of the monarchy that was restored had been drastically curbed. Trotsky pointed out that, underneath the struggles between Cromwell and Parliament, Cromwell had created a new society and that this could not be undone by decrees of parliament. He explained:

“In dispersing parliament after parliament Cromwell displayed as little reverence toward the fetish of ‘national’ representation as in the execution of Charles I he had displayed insufficient respect for a monarchy by the grace of God. Nevertheless it was this same Cromwell who paved the way for the parliamentarism and democracy of the two subsequent centuries. In revenge for Cromwell’s execution of Charles I, Charles II swung Cromwell’s corpse up on the gallows. But pre-Cromwellian society could not be re-established by the restoration. The works of Cromwell could not be liquidated by the thievish legislation of the Restoration because what is written by the sword cannot be wiped out by the pen.”

Where Is Britain Going?

Having Brought Revolution to England, Cromwell Brings Tyranny to Ireland

The execution of Charles I so alarmed the bourgeoisie that within days they re-opened negotiations with the Royalists. The latter were regrouping and were actively engaged in battle in Ireland. In March 1649 Parliament nominated Cromwell to command an invasion of Ireland. The prospect of being shipped to Ireland provoked a Leveller revolt in the army, as had happened in 1647, but this time on a much larger scale. However this time Cromwell and his generals did not side with the mutineers. As Hill says the generals “were now the government; and the government decided Ireland had to be subdued once and for all” (God’s Englishman). Cromwell and the generals crushed the Levellers at Burford; Leveller leaders were arrested and four were executed.

This was a turning point in Cromwell’s revolution. The bourgeoisie heartily endorsed Cromwell’s suppression of the Levellers: he was given an honorary degree by Oxford University, heretofore a bastion of Royalism, and the City Fathers in London threw a banquet in his honour. Rooting out the Levellers from the ranks of the army was seen by the bourgeoisie as necessary preparation for the upcoming invasion of Ireland. This showed that the bourgeois revolution was progressive when it was ascendant because, however reluctantly, the capitalists were pitted against feudalism and backwardness. But when the bourgeoisie took power, the progressive content soon gave way to reaction as the capitalist class consolidated its hold on power.

In September 1649, when Cromwell invaded Ireland, Royalist forces from outside were also converging there. Charles Stuart—who would later become Charles II of England—arrived in Jersey en route for Ireland and leading Royalist general Prince Rupert, nephew of Charles I, was waiting off the Irish coast. However, Cromwell’s campaign in Ireland was not only carried out to defeat the Royalists and was not simply an extension of the English Civil War on Irish terrain. From the time of the 1641 uprising in Ireland—before the Civil War—both Royalists and Parliament agreed that Ireland must be subordinated to England, the only question was which side would command the English army that would carry this out. As an added incentive for a military conquest, Parliament had passed an “Adventurers Act” in 1642 inviting English moneymen to “invest” in the army, in return for which they were guaranteed Irish land. Under this scheme Cromwell himself had loaned over 2,000 pounds and had been promised land in Leinster.

Cromwell’s military campaign in Ireland was designed to colonise Ireland with settlers, by seizing land from Catholic landowners, who were sent to Connaught. Tenants were offered the choice of going with the landlord, or remaining to serve the new lord as “hewers of wood and drawers of water.” Cromwell also instituted severe repression for the 1641 uprising. For sheer brutality his campaign is regarded to this day as the most repressive English invasion ever. It has also been seized upon ever since by supporters of Catholic reaction and Royalism, as an example of the barbarity of what they termed the “regicide republic.” A Jesuit historian, Father Denis Murphy, became the leading Irish authority on Cromwell’s campaign. In 1883 he published fabricated tales about Cromwell’s indiscriminate slaughter of women and children, to inflate the death toll of this already bloody campaign. Judged by military standards of the day, and of the Civil War battles in England and Scotland, Cromwell’s policy was ruthless (though not indiscriminate). His army demanded the surrender of the garrisons at Drogheda and Wexford and when this was refused he took no prisoners but put to death all men at arms, including Catholic clergy.

Christopher Hill aptly describes Cromwell’s conquest of Ireland as “the first big triumph of English imperialism and the first big defeat of English democracy” (The English Revolution of 1640). In this he echoes Karl Marx who said in 1869 that “English reaction in Ireland (as in Cromwell’s time) had its roots in the subjugation of Ireland” (Letter to Engels, 10 December 1869). Cromwell’s army conquered Ireland, crushed the resistance and seized two-thirds of the land. In addition, Cromwell encouraged colonial settlement of Ireland, particularly from among Leveller-influenced regiments in his army, as a way of dispersing troublemakers.

The fact that Cromwell’s army had brought progress and liberation from the yoke of absolutism to England, yet offered nothing but brutal colonisation to Ireland, seems contradictory at first. But the same phenomenon can be seen for example when we look at the impact of the French revolutionary regime in Haiti, a French colony. The French Revolution itself had inspired a slave rebellion in Haiti that struck fear into the slavemasters and property-owning classes. However, the class that came to power in France under the banner of “liberty, equality and fraternity” was the bourgeoisie and the new rulers were horrified at the prospect of abolishing slavery in Haiti, because the wealth of the leading capitalists in France depended on the enormous profits that flowed out of the Antilles. For the same reason, the relationship of Cromwellian England to Ireland would necessarily be oppressive because the determining factor was the profit the English capitalists raked in from its Irish colony, where the London-Derry Company had been established before Cromwell’s reign.

The fact that the bulk of the Irish poor were Catholic certainly added to the hatred displayed by Cromwell’s troops. It is true that the struggle against feudalism had to be conducted in the first instance against the Catholic Church, the centre of feudal reaction. In Ireland, Catholics and Protestants, English and Irish fought on the Royalist side against Cromwell. But there was little incentive for Catholics to fight on the Parliamentary side, since Cromwell’s Puritanism condemned all Catholics as enemies. In Cromwell’s England, Jews returned for the first time since they were driven out in 1290, but there was no religious tolerance for Catholics.

Hill also points to the prevalence of anti-Irish prejudice in England, saying: “The hatred and contempt which propertied Englishmen felt for the Irish is something which we may deplore but should not conceal” (God’s Englishman), adding that this was shared even by the poet Milton, who was far from a reactionary. Milton was a leading ideologue whose poem Paradise Lost refers to the wave of reaction that accompanied the end of the republic and the restoration of the monarchy. For his defence of the regicides, Milton himself risked execution.

The Levellers often expressed solidarity with the people of Ireland—William Walwyn was of the view that, “the cause of the Irish natives in seeking their just freedoms...was the very same with our cause here in endeavouring our own rescue and freedom from the power of oppressors” (quoted in The World Turned Upside Down). The Levellers had a radical-democratic programme calling for abolition of the monarchy and House of Lords; free trade, freedom from monopolies, freedom from conscription, opening of enclosed lands, disestablishment of the church, abolition of tithes. The Diggers, who also had popular support, opposed private property and called for the abolition of wage labour while experimenting with communal farming. But the yeomen and craftsmen who were the base of the Levellers and Diggers were petty-bourgeois, and therefore lacked the cohesion and social power to take on and defeat the bourgeoisie. The birth of the factory proletariat was still far in the future. However, the Levellers earned their place in history for what they did achieve—it was thanks to their radical programme that the bourgeois revolution achieved what was possible at the time, namely the execution of the King, the abolition of the monarchy and establishment of a democratic republic.

Paradoxically, the bourgeois revolution would lead to the destruction of the yeomen who fought most valiantly for its victory. As Friedrich Engels explained in 1892, this applies to the bourgeois revolutions in France and Germany as well. He says:

“Curiously enough, in all the three great bourgeois risings, the peasantry furnishes the army that has to do the fighting; and the peasantry is just the class that, the victory once gained, is most surely ruined by the economic consequences of that victory. A hundred years after Cromwell, the yeomanry of England had almost disappeared. Anyhow, had it not been for the yeomanry and for the plebeian element in the towns, the bourgeoisie alone would never have fought the matter out to the bitter end, and would never have brought Charles I to the scaffold. In order to secure even those conquests of the bourgeoisie that were ripe for gathering at the time, the revolution had to be carried considerably further—exactly as in 1793 in France and 1848 in Germany. This seems, in fact, to be one of the laws of evolution of bourgeois society.”

—Introduction to the English edition of Socialism: Utopian and Scientific

Following a war with the Dutch republic in the early 1650s, England took control of shipping to and from the colonies, which now included Jamaica. The Navigation Acts of the early 1650s laid the foundation for British domination of the seas. Cromwell’s rule paved the way for development of British capitalism over the next two centuries to the point where it would become the “world’s number one superpower.” Beginning around the end of the nineteenth century, British capitalism went into steep decline relative to its rivals in the United States and Germany. In its prolonged decline, British imperialism has been preserved by Labour reformism, which has been implacably hostile to every revolutionary movement of the proletariat. But they cannot bury the revolutionary traditions.

In the nineteenth century, the young proletariat produced a revolutionary movement known as the Chartists, who picked up many of the ideas of the Levellers and Diggers. In 1848 Marx and Engels published The Communist Manifesto, a programme for proletarian revolution. Subsequently they came to understand the vital importance of the fight against the colonial oppression of Ireland to the emancipation of the proletariat in England. Summarising his conclusion, Karl Marx described how his appreciation of this question changed over time:

It is in the direct and absolute interests of the English working class to get rid of their present connection with Ireland.... For a long time I believed it would be possible to overthrow the Irish regime by English working class ascendancy. I always took this viewpoint in the New-York Tribune. Deeper study has now convinced me of the opposite. The English working class will never accomplish anything before it has got rid of Ireland. The lever must be applied in Ireland. This is why the Irish question is so important for the social movement in general.”

—Letter to Engels, 10 December 1869

The programme for proletarian revolution outlined by Marx and Engels was carried forward, developed and implemented by Lenin’s Bolshevik Party who led the great revolution of October 1917 in the Russian Empire, the first workers revolution in history. The Bolshevik Revolution overthrew the capitalists, landlords and the tsarist autocracy and set up a new state power based on working-class rule, supported by the peasantry. To paraphrase Gerard Winstanley, a leader of the Diggers, the Bolshevik Revolution “turned the world upside down.” And our job is to build a party that will again turn the capitalist order upside down. The revolutionary proletariat in Britain will recognise its debt to Oliver Cromwell as it establishes workers republics in Britain and in Ireland, and fights to extend working-class rule internationally. The revolutionary proletariat will take care of unfinished business: the abolition of the monarchy, the House of Lords and the established churches!

Our demands also include: British troops out of Northern Ireland and for the right of self-determination for Scotland and Wales. Together with our comrades in Ireland who fight for an Irish workers republic, our aim is a voluntary federation of workers republics in the British Isles. This will open up the possibility of social and economic development far surpassing the English Revolution and the industrial revolution. We cannot say in advance how quickly the proletarian revolution will dissolve Parliament, but we concur with Trotsky that:

“Whether the proletarian revolution will have its own ‘long’ parliament we do not know. It is highly likely that it will confine itself to a short parliament. However it will the more surely achieve this the better it masters the lessons of Cromwell’s era.”

Where Is Britain Going?

We are indebted to Christopher Hill for making these lessons more accessible to us.


Workers Vanguard No. 918

WV 918

1 August 2008


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(Young Spartacus pages)


Oliver Cromwell and the English Revolution

Abolish the Monarchy, the House of Lords and the Established Churches!

In Honor of Christopher Hill 1912–2003