Workers Vanguard No. 1064

20 March 2015


Correction on Cromwell and Calvinism

In its discussion of the 1642-51 English Civil War, Part One of the article “The Rise of British Imperialism” (WV No. 1062, 20 February 2015) blundered by referring to Oliver Cromwell as “the great Calvinist leader.” A thoroughly religious man, Cromwell’s sympathies lay with the Independents (today known as Congregationalists), which arose during the Puritan reformation of the Church of England. Although heavily influenced by the theology of John Calvin, the Independents were not the dominant Calvinist denomination, a position held by the Presbyterian church on the British Isles.

Most members of Parliament were Presbyterians when that body commissioned the New Model Army in 1645 to combat Royalist forces. Three years later, after Parliament moved to disband its army, whose ranks had been filled by Puritans under the leadership of Cromwell, the Presbyterians seeking to conciliate the monarchy were expelled from Parliament by force of arms in what became known as Pride’s Purge. The Scottish Presbyterians, who switched sides in the course of the war, also drew the wrath of Cromwell’s Puritan army. In 1650, Cromwell famously wrote in a letter to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland: “I beseech you in the bowels of Christ think it possible you may be mistaken.”

Cromwell did not direct fire only at the Presbyterian compromisers. After the defeat of the Royalists in England, he crushed the radical egalitarian sects popular within the most plebeian layers of his army, such as the Levellers, who mutinied in 1649 over the planned invasion of Ireland. More than matters of religious doctrine were at play in the events of the English Revolution. As Leon Trotsky, co-leader with V. I. Lenin of the October 1917 Russian Revolution, observed:

“The adherents of the Episcopalian, or Anglican (half-Catholic) Church, were the party of the court, the nobility, and of course the higher clergy. The Presbyterians were the party of the bourgeoisie, the party of wealth and education. The Independents and the Puritans in general were the party of the petty bourgeoisie, and the petty independent landowners. The Levellers were the incipient party of the left wing of the petty bourgeoisie, the plebs. Under the integument of ecclesiastical disputes, under the form of a struggle for the religious structure of the Church, there proceeded a social self-determination of classes, a regrouping of classes on new, bourgeois foundations. In politics, the Presbyterian party stood for a limited monarchy, the Independents, also sometimes called ‘root and branch men,’ or—in the language of our day—‘radicals,’ were for a republic. The lukewarm nature of the Presbyterians was fully in accord with the contradictory interests of the bourgeoisie, vacillating between the nobility and the plebs. The party of the Independents, which had dared to carry its ideas and slogans to their logical conclusion, naturally supplanted the Presbyterians in the towns and villages which were the centers of the awakened petty-bourgeois masses, who had become the most important force of the revolution.”

— “Where Is Britain Going?” (1925)