Christopher Hill

Book Review

Cromwell and the English Middle Class Revolution

Source: The Labour Monthly, Vol. 19, November 1937, No. 11, pp. 707-709 (1,255 words)
Transcription: Ted Crawford
HTML Markup: Brian Reid
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Oliver Cromwell: The Conservative Dictator
By Maurice Ashley
(Jonathan Cape).
12s. 6d.

This is the most useful general biography of Oliver Cromwell that has appeared to date. Dr. Ashley has a wide acquaintance with modern research and has re-co-ordinated it with interesting viewpoints of his own. He has at last escaped from the attitude of reverence to the puritan hero which has dominated historians since Carlyle, and without silly denigration rightly points out that Cromwell usually won his battles by pinning down a numerically inferior enemy, that he was ambitious, that his judgment (outside military matters) was frequently unsound, and that as he grew older he became more and more subject to caprice and dependent on the firmness of others: that his government was supported by terror, espionage and agents provocateurs. All these should have been obvious enough points, but they needed making. Dr. Ashley has also benefited by his study of the economic history of the protectorate, and this helps to secularise his approach. A deeper knowledge of the fundamental economic problems of the thirties and forties might perhaps incline him to modify his views of Cromwell’s conservatism.

The key to Dr. Ashley’s provocative and puzzling sub-title is to be found on p.214, where he refers to “the middle classes, the bulwark of conservatism.” Now it is true that Cromwell was a dictator whose bulwark was the middle class. Dr. Ashley has observed that Cromwell was defending a social order similar to that shored up by some modern dictators, and transfers the word “conservative” from the 20th to the 17th century as a synonym for “defender of bourgeois property relations.” But this undialectical use of words breeds confusion. Cromwell and his like were a progressive force in the 17th century, and he not merely defended bourgeois property relations from attack but was a leader of the revolution which created the conditions in which bourgeois property relations could freely develop. After the revolution had been accomplished, Cromwell did in fact occupy a conservative position vis-a-vis those democratic revolutionaries who wished to extend its benefit further down the social scale: he shot the leveller leaders and excluded the republicans from his parliament. But conservatism is a relative concept, and Cromwell was anything but conservative in relation to the defeated Cavaliers. Even the return to monarchial forms through the Petition and Advice (on which Dr. Ashley has his most interesting and original point to make), though it was a set-back to the progressive elements relying on the army rank and file, was not a return to the old order, any more than Charles II was restored to his father’s throne in 1660. Monarchy is not an absolute: the question we have to ask is, Whose king? And Mr. Ashley’s analysis makes it clear that in 1657-8 Cromwell was to be the parliament’s king (i.e., to be controlled by the classes represented in the house of commons—the country gentlemen and the urban bourgeoisie), just as “a free parliament” was what was really restored in 1660. That Cromwell should be theirs was more important than that he should be a king, and when pressure from the jealously ambitious army grandees and the democratic lower ranks forced him to decline the crown, parliament raised no objections so long as he accepted the constitution which transferred real power to them. “In the contest with his friendly Parliament he had been outgeneralled.” (p.292).

From 1649, when the grandees first allied with the leveller rank and file to bring the king to justice and then betrayed and shot up their allies, there were two paths for the revolution. Either the big bourgeoisie, creditors of the government and purchasers of the confiscated lands of their defeated enemies, would get the upper hand and stabilise the revolution at the point it had already reached, or the yeomen and small craftsmen of the towns would succeed in carrying out a further social revolution. Cromwell rightly saw that universal suffrage would in fact lead to an attack on property rights as then established, and he and the right-wing of the revolutionary coalition were ultimately prepared to compromise with their defeated enemies rather than see this happen. Ultimately, only, for Cromwell remained sufficient of a revolutionary to wish to avoid a complete switch-over: hence the period of army dictatorship in which he tried to balance the two wings of the Roundheads at the expense of the Cavaliers (decimation tax). But this broke down financially: the army was too expensive to be tolerated by the big bourgeoisie, and its overseas adventures brought no returns. A continuation of the rule of the Major-Generals would have driven the “presbyterians” solidly over to Charles II., as Lambert’s reversion to militarism did in 1659-60. Cromwell had to submit to his paymasters or find new resources in a further social revolution. He chose the former.

Mr. Ashley’s estimate of him as a conservative is reached by stressing the later part of his career and the conservative phraseology which he shared with all the early revolutionaries. We smile now at the earnest professions of the long parliament that it desired only to preserve the liberties of its ancestors and revert to the ancient ways; but recent experience has taught us that in certain circumstances the defence of liberties won by past struggle may be a progressive and indeed revolutionary course. Business society had grown up inside the feudal structure of society with the tolerance of the Tudor monarchy, and had adapted old institutions to its own needs (parliament, common law). These institutions were being attacked in the 1620’s and 1630’s, when the king was trying to build up a bureaucracy, standing army and system of taxation which would render him independent of the house of commons and the liberal lawyers. Cromwell was on the progressive side in resisting this attack, though he, like most of his contemporaries, was slow in realising the logic implied in his actions, and remained more conservative in thought than in deed.

Mr. Ashley characterises the protector’s policy as conservative and dictatorial except in two respects—religious toleration and expedients due to the financial demands of the army. These are fairly large exceptions. In religious toleration was involved the negation of the whole Tudor “State-Ecclesiastical” and its hierarchy; which was the one thing Oliver would not tolerate; and “expedients due to the monetary demands of the army” conceals the whole process of land confiscation and resale, the abolition of feudal tenures and transition to modern bourgeois property relations, which was the main positive achievement of the revolution, and led to the redistribution of power (through parliament and the J.P.s) with land ownership.

Two conclusions can be drawn from this instructive and valuable book. (1) Unbiassed modern research tends to reach conclusions about the English civil war which in fact, if not in phrase, more and more coincide with the Marxist viewpoint. (2) Left wing historians anxious to relate the past to the present and give it living meaning have a great deal to gain from a study of Marxist theory and the comparative history of revolutions. A study of the French and Russian bourgeois revolutions, e.g., would show Mr. Ashley that the transition from revolution to relative conservatism after the achievement of limited objectives is the rule rather than the exception; and a knowledge of dialectics would show that defence of bourgeois property relations may be as relatively progressive in one age as it is absolutely reactionary in another.