There is no part of English history which has been regarded with more satisfaction by the middle class of our day than the great Civil War against Charles I. The whole thing is so stirring, so thorough-going, so complete, so orbicular. It has, moreover, that comforting savour of godliness about it which sanctifies victory and almost jxistifies massacre. Man, wrote James Mill, made God in his own image. Never was this done more agreeably to the worshippers calling stoutly upon Providence to help them, than by the grim fighters who, on land and on sea, in England and on the continent of Europe, made all their enemies flee before them. Their God was unquestionably the God of Battles; and his special representatives on earth hewed the Agag of the seventeenth century in pieces before the Lord with truly Hebraic unction. “You English,” said Karl Marx once to me, “like the Romans in many things, are most like them in your ignorance of your own history.”
The history of the real revolution of the seventeenth century in Great Britain has been written, as a rule, so exclusively from the standpoint of the Parliament, that few give thought to the condition of the mass of the people during the struggle between the Commons &38211; that is, the middle classes – and the King. The whole story from the side of the victorious class has been told so often and so well that there is no need even to summarise it here. Charles I mistook his period and failed to recognise the strength of his opponents. Moreover, he, like his father, had a God of his own, who, he was convinced, was on the side of divine right, ordained and sanctified from on high. There were, in fact, two Gods as well as two armies in the field. This being so, he felt it unnecessary to turn for support to the people, as at times Henry VIII and Elizabeth did, even when they were butchering vagrants wholesale and looking on at the extrusion of tillers from the land. His claim to autocracy was so surely based that the dexterous popularity-hunting of the Tudors was out of date. This would not have changed the result in the long run; but had the advice of Wentworth been taken in the matter of a standing army, and the landless men been propitiated by promises of better treatment, the conflict might have lasted many more years.
Here, however, obviously, the class which was socially ready to assert its right to increasing control secured practically all that it strove for in the department of finance and economics, not so much by its victories in the field, remarkable as those were, or by its intellectual superiority, as by the relentless pressure of historic causes. In spite of Cromwell’s despotic action, by which at the close of his career he set aside all the parliamentary freedoms he had previously upheld, and established military domination with a standing army and its generals much after the fashion recommended by Strafford to his sovereign; notwithstanding the restoration of the Stuart dynasty under Charles II, and its continuance under James II and Mary, with her husband William of Orange, the middle class lost nothing that it had gained by the stalwart fanaticism of the highly respectable, if sometimes hypocritically ascetic Puritans. From “the crowning mercy” of Worcester onwards, the merchant, the banker, the trader, the capitalist farmer steadily made way. Not until the middle and end of the nineteenth century did this progress manifest itself in the acquisition of virtually complete political control. But from 1680 to 1914 capitalism gradually became master of English policy at home and abroad. The aristocracy and the landowners, though dexterously maintaining their rights and their political influence, only did so by slowly becoming sleeping partners with the owners of capital in their exploitation of the masses of the working people.
The growth of this powerful profiteering class during the seventeenth century in England is one of the most remarkable features of European history. There was nothing at first to show that this country would gain the position in world commerce which it shortly afterwards did, nor could anyone have predicted a century later that it would for a time lead the world in capitalist production. Other countries seemed more advanced than England. The Netherlands, and France especially, whose power of colonisation preceded and surpassed the English adventurers, seemed more likely to succeed, while Spain’s decline was not so manifest as it shortly afterwards became. Strange as it may appear, the ruin of the mass of the people helped on the development of the wealthy. Cromwell himself, repeating ca [?] without knowing it, exclaimed against the few rich who made many poor. But once begun, the process was bound to continue its work to the end.
Under the rule of the Tudors, as has been seen, England changed from a country where in the main the majority lived on their own land, were happy, contented, well-fed and well-clothed, producing and working up enough food and raw material for their own use and thinking little of exchange, into a country where people were gradually being driven off the soil, their ancient rights destroyed, their means of production and their land taken by others – a country where exchange for profit becoming the rule of the time. A propertyless people, compelled to work for the farmer’s profit, or forced to compete with one another in the cities for wages to keep body and soul together, was replacing to a large extent the sturdy yeomen, craftsmen and free labourers of the old days. Pauperism became an integral portion of the English social system, and the lot of the many one never-ending servitude under the guise of freedom. In these days the origin of the degrading division of labour and the monotony of our long mechanical toil, so scathingly denounced by Adam Smith, are to be found. Meanwhile farmers, traders, and manufacturers grew wealthy, and the name of England made great in Europe: the foundations of her commercial preponderance and naval supremacy were laid.
The change in the method of production, though still in its infancy during the early part of the seventeenth century, was of the highest importance. Instead of the isolated labourer on land or in the workshop there were henceforth an increasing number of wage-earners, without any means of tilling or producing by themselves, toiling under one employer who himself owned the means of production and took the whole product as his property. This, cruel as were its effects upon the majority of workers, was a necessary step towards bringing about the full institution of that social labour, divorced from the ownership of its own tools, which is essential to all wage-earning production on a large scale. But it shuts out more and more from the workman the chance which he had before of becoming a master craftsman and an employer himself, while the deprivation of ownership of the soil brings about the same result for the labourer on the land. Both now work for the profit of a class above them and economically antagonistic to them. For the business of agriculture, like the business of manufacture, is now carried on by persons of capital (Statute 43, Elizabeth).
The capitalist becomes one, not because he is an organiser of labour – the Roman villicus was no capitalist – but he grows into an organiser of labour because he is a capitalist, and wishes to make his capital fructify by means of profit. Hence the tendency, very slow at first, more rapid afterwards, to increase the scale of operations, the size of workshops, the number of men employed by one master, and, consequently, the amount of capital needed to start on good terms with others, to build workrooms, to purchase raw materials, etc. A radical change in the very nature of the work done takes place by dividing the labour into sections and splitting up the trades. It is no longer merely an extension of the simple handicraft of the Middle Ages, bringing more workers together; it is a direct attack upon the whole local arrangements and restrictions of the old time. Commerce first, and then manufactures, greatly increased by the influx of foreign capitalists and highly skilled labourers, combined with aggression, exploration, slavery and piracy to give England her initial advantages in the competition for wealth for the trading and capitalist class which followed. Usury laws, protective duties, monopolies, interference by the State on behalf of the workpeople in their “free contract” with the dominant master-class were the expiring efforts of the fading Middle Age polity to cope with the capitalist growth, national and international, and to prevent it from benefiting one class alone. They had little permanent effect against the purely pecuniary and personal struggle of the rising class against the working people.
All this change did, in fact, turn to the advantage of one class and one class alone. And the enormous improvements which were going on in every department at the same time told steadily in favour of the same class. There never was such a period of rapid transformation before, through all the long annals of mankind. In agriculture and in trade, in arts, mechanics, chemistry, in every branch of science, in banking, commercial industrialisation, shipping, navigation, colonies, fisheries – in all of these steps forward were taken, exceeding far in importance any advances that had been made for hundreds and even thousands of years. The benefits of these inventions, discoveries, expansions and transformations fell exclusively into the hands of the few; while the misery of the people was such that their numbers had actually decreased during this time of superabundant prosperity. A slight change for the better set in later, owing to the growth of the towns through this increase of manufacture and trade, which created a demand for more cereals, raised the price of corn, rendered tillage more profitable and reduced the sheep demesnes within reasonable limits, causing a demand for more agricultural labourers; while the introduction of the turnip husbandry and artificial grasses gave at the same time a great stimulus to agriculture generally. But the mischief had been done, so far as the people were concerned, and there was no improvement in the position of the workers in town or country at all comparable with the wealth which had been piled up for the minority.
Throughout the seventeenth century the status of the labourer was bad in every respect. His cottage was wretched and had no land around it; the price of food had risen out of all proportion to his increase of wages in town and country alike. In 1622 the rural districts were described as “pitifully pestered with poor and lusty labourers, who, because no man would be troubled with their service, begged, filched and stole for maintenance.”
Matthew Hale, whom Cromwell appointed to try to introduce some sort of order into chaotic law, confirms this nearly forty years later, after the complete defeat of the Royalist party. He writes: “There are many poor who are able to work if they have it at reasonable wages, by which they could support themselves and their family which oftentimes are many.” In the preamble to Statute 13, Charles II., cap. 12, the growing necessities, number and continual increase of the poor are dwelt upon. This was in 1662. Five and thirty years later one half of the people relieved under the Poor Law were able-bodied, and might easily have maintained themselves if they had got any useful work to do. But that is precisely what they could not obtain. They could not obtain remunerative employment, that is to say, either under Charles I, Cromwell or Charles II, although England as a whole was becoming richer and richer. This wealth was accumulated in the hands of a small minority of the population. “The trade of the world,” of which the founder of English political economy wrote, was pouring its profits into their lap, and the socialised method of production under capitalism was being prepared and carried on. This could only find a satisfactory outlet in such a world market, especially since the difficulty of transport, owing to the breakdown of roads, restricted the home market for bulky goods, which could much more easily and cheaply be conveyed by sea.
Here then, if the poverty of the poor contrasted cruelly with the increased wealth of the rich, if the inability to obtain employment even at a barely living rate of wages, if the deprivation of the mass of the people of the ownership of their own soil, if the great and bitter discontent prevailing in town and country – if all these causes were by themselves adequate to create a revolution, unquestionably our revolution of the seventeenth century would have come from the working and not from the trading or bourgeois class. But this, of course, was not the case. The revolution sprang from those who were not only well-to-do, but were increasing year by year in prosperity.
Moreover, whatever gloss middle-class historians put upon it, the fact remains that, in spite of all the fine sentiments with which it was garnished, the great struggle of the Parliament against the King was a pecuniary conflict. The bourgeoisie was touched in its most sensitive place – its pocket. The King and his counsellors, vainly imagining that the regal authority, built up into little short of despotism by the Tudors, might be stretched to an indefinite length, were foolish enough to tax the strongest economic class in the kingdom, without going through the proper constitutional forms. It was a fatal mistake. The Royalists altogether failed to understand that they were acting in opposition to an inevitable social transformation. So the god of the monarchy, with its semi-Catholic Anglicanism, fell before the god of the purse, with its individualist Puritanism. But the condition of the people went relatively from bad to worse below, throughout the whole period of disturbance. During the Wars of the Roses the common folk came largely by their own; during the wars of King and Parliament they gained nothing whatever. They showed their feeling towards both sides, where they could, by impartially clubbing to death on the field of battle Royalists and Parliamentarians indiscriminately.
We can scarcely blame them. Both sides were their enemies. A political and economic struggle above, however bloody, party writing, however eloquent – and who will ever forget the noble pamphlet on the Liberty of Unlicensed Printing – affect not at all the relentless economical pressure upon the producing class below. Let those who will talk of freedom of speech, freedom of person, freedom of contract; what are all these mock liberties have to those who have but the freedom to work as wage slaves their life long, to starve with their families or to turn paupers? What do the names of Milton or Marvell, Eliot, Hampden, Vane, Fairfax or Cromwell mean to the poor bowed-down hind, or city wage-earner, forced by the economical ordinances of his time to stumble along, half clothed and half fed, from his pauper cradle to his pauper grave? History is regardless of him, the political economist or statesman passes him by on the other side, whilst the misery of yesterday furnishes forth the misery of to-day, and the dispossessed vagrants of the Tudors and Stuarts hand on their heritage of suffering to the hopeless proletariat of the next generation.
The Tudors had established in Great Britain during a period of transition a system of monarchical rule not widely different from that which Richelieu and Mazarin created for the kings of France, though the economic conditions below were not on the same plane at all. That was the point at which Charles and his admirers blundered; there arose the opportunity which gave the Parliamentary leaders and Cromwell, both before and after the decapitation of the King, their power. Some of those leaders were genuine Republicans of an oligarchic type; others honestly believed that the class to which they belonged had all the wisdom and piety in the island; others, again, like Ireton and his fellow lawyer-generals, were democrats in their way. But not one of them, nor all of them together, could hold their against the curiously complex, crafty and ruthless character which lay behind the fanaticism of Cromwell. He was able to gratify his ambition and determination to be master of them all because, in direct contradiction to what he said of himself, he knew quite early in his career of self-aggrandisement where he was going and how he would get there. Cromwell never at any time had any scruples whatever. If he thought it politically judicious to massacre, he massacred. If he believed that for the time being it was to his interest to play the part of the whole-souled Parliamentarian, he played it. If he felt that to encourage doctrines of equality among his soldiery would bind them more closely to him, he was as thorough-going a Fifth-Monarchy man as the most raving enthusiast in his army. If he found, on the contrary, that this sort of militarist fanaticism might be dangerous to himself, he dealt sternly enough with his devotees of yesterday. From the moment he discovered that none of his possible rivals possessed the politico-warlike qualities that were combined in his person, he threw overboard every opinion and was false to every pledge that might encumber him in his upward climb.
His execution of the King, who, assuredly, well deserved his fate, is sometimes spoken of as a blunder. It was nothing of the kind. Foreign statesmen made no mistake on that head. They understood from that moment that Cromwell, so long as he lived, was the only man in England with whom they had to reckon. Brutal and merciless as he was, butchering his thousands at Drogheda and Wexford, dooming his prisoners to slow starvation, and transportation to frightful slavery in the West Indies, after his victories at Dunbar and Worcester, Cromwell was always the thorough representative of the English well-to-do landowning, farming and profiteering class. Sympathy with democracy and freedom he had none. That the labourers should be on terms of equality with landowners and farmers was to him an outrageous proposition. So the revolution of the class to which he belonged was carried through entirely in the interest of that class; and the rule that victory is for the class whose triumph has been economically prepared beforehand, by a series of historic events, was once more verified in this great conflict.
But a section of those Englishmen who overthrew the monarchy resented the high-handed methods of the Parliament and the tyranny of Cromwell as much as they did the ecclesiastical ruffianism, the Star Chamber atrocities and the irresponsible tax-gathering of Charles. Their grand resistance to illegality and injustice has been for the most part passed over with contemptuous indifference by English historians. The militarists were successful, so their crimes are carefully belittled; while the heroic actions of John Lilburne, Wildman, Overton, Saxby and their friends of The Agreement of the People and England’s New Chains, have been sneered at, or the record of their works and trials suppressed. Yet there is no finer character in English history than Colonel John Lilburne. Unjustly and inhumanly condemned to degrading punishments by the persecuting Anglican bigots under the Monarchy, every possible effort was made to secure his legal condemnation to death under the Republic. A large bench of judges was specially constituted in order to ensure a verdict against him; he was refused the right to employ counsel. When completely exhausted by his endeavours to prevent the bench from depriving him of all chance of a favourable verdict by their legal chicane, he was forced to make his defence then and there. Constantly interrupted and brow-beaten by the suborned bench throughout, his speech was as fine both legally and oratorically as any ever delivered from the dock. This was in 1649, when England was supposed to be living under the rule of justice and freedom. Lilburne’s sole and only offence was that he had vigorously and unceasingly upheld English liberties, as decreed by the House of Commons and recorded on the Statute Book. In spite of all the indecent efforts of his judges to force the jury to convict him and thus bring him to the gallows, the jurymen one and all found him “Not Guilty” on all counts of the indictment charged and enforced against him by the Attorney-General, with the relentless prosecution conducted from the Bench.
This verdict was really far more important than the acquittal of the Seven Bishops under James II. It was acclaimed by the audience in court with such fervour that the unjust judges were in the utmost terror, and evidently feared that they might not escape with their lives. All London echoed with cheering when the result was known. No wonder. Lilburne was tried for his life, under the circumstances recounted, simply and solely because he and his associates demanded that the discredited Parliament should at once be dissolved, that the elections to the House of Commons should take place once in two years, that all male tax-payers should have the vote, and that the great discrepancies in voting strength should be remedied. It was, in short, an advanced political reform programme. But there were other proposals of the so-called “Levellers,” with whom General Ireton himself sympathised and even co-operated, which tended to reduce also not only political but property inequalities. These were the measures which infuriated Parliament and evoked the denunciations of Cromwell, whose ambitions to attair despotic power Lilburne had been the first to detect and want his countrymen against. It was evident, from the military mutinies in many districts, that a large portion of the army was favourable to the programme of the Levellers and quite ready to support an organised movement for genuine political and social reform. But their expressions of dissatisfaction were crushed by Cromwell, who saw in the disciplined Levellers his most formidable opponents.
Thus the discontent of the mass of the people counted for nothing and the protests of the soldiery were of no avail. Lilburne himself after his acquittal was not even released, as according to all law and justice he ought to have been. He was taken back to the Tower under a strong armed guard and for years afterwards was harassed by constant persecution. His career, and that of the men who worked with him, affords fair proof that the bourgeois heroes of the anti-monarchical conflict, when once they felt themselves strong enough, cared as little about the freedom for which they nominally fought as the Royalists themselves. Having secured these particular liberties which benefited themselves and asserted their economic mastery, the well-being and fair representation of the rest of the community so little concerned them that they resorted to the most shameful means in order to prevent the really oppressed class from obtaining a hearing. The English bourgeoisie had won its great revolution and from this time forward, whatsoever king did reign, they were determined to maintain their predominance. They, whose descendants talk so glibly against the idea of a class war between the people and themselves, and deprecate any resort to force, were the first traders in Europe to persuade a monarch, judicially, to part from his head. The superficial political revolution of 1688 was of little importance compared with the real revolution forty years earlier. Charles II and the long roll of foreign monarchs who succeeded him have been careful not to run counter to the interests of the English middle class, who thenceforth were, in the main, masters of English policy at home and abroad. Not, however, until some two hundred years after did they achieve acknowledged political domination. So slowly do events move.
Last updated on 6.7.2006