T. A. Jackson

The Puritan Revolution

Source: The Communist, June 24, 1922.
Publisher: Communist Party of Great Britain
Transcription/Markup: Brian Reid
Proofreader: David Tate
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2007). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.

DURING the Civil War in Britain each party to the conflict loudly protested—and with perfect sincerity—that it was fighting to preserve the ancient laws, rights, and customs of the Realm.

Each side suffered from the illusion that it was defending the law and the Constitution—each was, in fact, attempting its total subversion. The Commons were insisting upon something which, if granted, would have made them dictators. The simple fact that technical progress had destroyed the military power of the Feudal Aristocracy, and also the means of self-defence of the private citizen, made the control of a standing army mean dictatorship—especially so when in the hands of the class with a monopoly of the financial resources. The Commons were thus (albeit unknowingly) aiming at Revolution. The King and his allies of the landed aristocracy in fighting for military control and fiscal irresponsibility were attempting a counter-revolution which would have subjected the whole country to the dictatorship of the ground landlord class and its beloved monarch.

Economic and Social causes of Puritan Politics

It was the social development in the previous period—the rise of the bourgeois system of property and production at the expense of the feudal; the conversion, of land, into an alienable commodity; the conversion of agriculture from production for household and local use into production for market sale; the depreciation of the currency and the consequent revolution in prices; the growth of manufactures free from Guild restraints and (its pre-condition) the growth of merchants’ capital simultaneous with industrial development as a special appendage of agricultural progress; the concentration of an industrial proletariat and semi-proletariat in the great cities—it was these things that precipitated a struggle that lasted for a century. The fact that Feudal politics were necessarily connected with church organisation and authority in turn forced this semi-conscious struggle of the bourgeoisie for mastery to take the forms first of the Protestant Reformation, secondly of the Puritan Revolution in Britain.

In England the Reformation having begun as a Royal Contrivance and passed on to an orgy of aristocratic plunder before it became an intellectual and moral movement—the “Church” had been established on the State-controlled Lutheran model. It became even less accessible to popular influences that the Catholic Church had been—from the closing of the monastic road of entry into holy orders; and the concentration of church discipline in the hands of the Crown and church patronage in the hands of the large land-owning class. Its admirers were to be found among the landed gentry, in the Court, and among the dupes of the absolute monarchist ideology.

The conflict with the King, therefore, from including points of church discipline, extended to matters of church doctrine, and culminated on questions of the relation between Church and State, precisely because—the established Church being an instrument the supremacy of the Crown and of its allies, the Landed Gentry—none but a reformed church could facilitate the emancipation of the merchants of the towns, the yeomen of the country and the craftsmen and proletarians in both.....

London the centre of merchants and moneylenders’ capital, and a chief focus of the new industry, and therefore of proletarian concentration, was the rebel stronghold through all the years up to the opening of the war. Norwich and the Eastern Counties, which had been until a century previous, the chief centre population and wealth outside of London—a centre for sheep-farming and its allied trades of wool fabrication and transport—was held by Parliament through all the vicissitudes of the struggle, Bristol (which, in the previous century, had usurped the place of Norwich in industrial and commercial pre-eminence, outside of London) and the West country around, which had become the textile areas, was only wrested from the Parliament by a combination of Royalist daring and the incompetence of a Parliamentary general. The whole richly fertile and iron-producing south was the Parliament’s likewise—leaving to the King only those parts (Wales, the counties easily accessible therefrom, and those exposed to attack from Scotland) which from their situation, had been less able to provide means for the growth of any alternative to royal and aristocratic pre-eminence.

The first struggles of the war were for the possession of the arsenals and here the Parliament won. The King, cut off at the outset from the great towns, had only the rural population to draw upon; and of these the only ones with the necessary equipment were the landed gentry who, in their persons, their sons, grooms, huntsmen, and body servants, were able from the first to supply a highly-effective but loosely-disciplined body of cavalry. The Parliament, in the town proletariat, had plenty of men to draw upon; but, although they had arms and equipment available, they were lacking in technical knowledge.

The King never conquered the difficulty of drilling an adequate Foot. The Parliament had such a force at the outset in the London trained bands (as Brentford and Gloucester proved). In the early battles the King’s Horse nearly always swept the opposing Horse from the field; only to break themselves on the Parliamentary Foot. For want of cavalry the Parliament could make no serious use of their victories; for want of Foot the King could seldom gain any but superficial successes. The Parliamentary Foot was nearly always equal to its work—its cavalry, in the earlier part of the struggle, was the merest of rabbles. Here Charles had his advantage; and used it to the full. But for this the war could not have lasted six months: with this it lasted six years and more.

This rabble of “invisible” Horse, as their enemies called them, was from the first a matter of prime concern to the Parliamentary Generals. Cromwell saw the remedy at once. The cavaliers had all deep ties of emotion and interest to bind them to each other and to their cause.

Their pride of rank was affronted, and their sense of chivalry outraged, by the opposition of a mob of mechanics, and base-born asserters of moral and spiritual equality. Their sense of order and decency was shocked at the Anabaptist incendiarism which threatened to destroy everything which had made their delicacy, refinement, and luxury possible. The traditions of centuries made them fight to the last sooner than endure the shame of defeat at the hands of those who, but yesterday, as it were, had as serfs, cringed for their favour and flinched at their frown.

The Cavalier had to sustain him a mighty emotional force. The weakness of the Royalist Infantry, recruited as it was from outside the scope of his class interest and traditions, proved the point and enforced the moral. To meet the Cavaliers, a body had to be recruited who could oppose an enthusiasm equal to their own.

The Civil War—The New Model

“Only truly godly men,” said Cromwell, “can face these men of honour.” From the first, in recruiting his regiment of horse, he selected only those who, on examination, proved to be well grounded in the Faith, diligent in searching the Scriptures, powerful in prayer, and steadfast in all godliness of living. In modern English—he recruited a body of “extremists,” whose revolutionary class-consciousness provided a moral fervour and a sense of solidarity.

Counter-revolutionary Frenzy under Rupert was matched, and more than matched, by Ultra-Revolutionary Fervour under Cromwell.

At Marston Moor the “Ironsides” met the recklessness of Rupert with a sustained and exalted enthusiasm which not only turned a muddled disorder into a crushing victory, but shattered for ever the myth of Cavalier invincibility. Cromwell’s regiment had revolutionised the war.

It was clear that Manchester, Essex, Waller, and most of the Parliamentary Commanders, had no liking for a drastic revolution which would shift political power to the lower orders. A compromise with the King was very much more to their interests and liking. But how to effect such a compromise was a problem which, in face of the inflamed class-consciousness of the reactionary Cavaliers, could in no wise be solved. Even if Charles were willing to sacrifice them, these Cavaliers were in no mood to be sacrificed. The “lower orders” for their part were also in no mood to be sacrificed. Compromise was out of the question. The war had to be fought out in the only possible form—a fight to a finish between the extremes of revolution and reaction.

Marston Moor brought matters to a head. The mercantile and financial bourgeois gave way. Their aristocratic Parliamentary Commanders were relieved of their commands; the army was re-organised on Cromwell’s “New Model,” and the Parliament Army became the organised expression of the revolutionary petit-bourgeois and proletarian— concentration, drilled and armed, of the thorough going enthusiasm of that Independency and Anabaptist which it had been the endeavour of every party, till then in power, to stamp out of existence.

With the formation of the New Model the English Puritan Revolution entered upon its positive phase. Till then the conscious object of the Parliamentary leaders had been no more than the negative one of defeating the attempt at Royalist counter-revolution. From now on emerged, in ever-intensifying strength, the aim of a thorough “root and branch” extermination of the “malignant” royal and aristocratic obstacles to the social dictatorship of the bourgeoisie.

While the King held the field, Parliament still nominally ruled. But the altered tone and temper of the Revolution soon appeared in the incidents of the campaign and in the morale and capacity of the New Modelled Army. A few months saw the King’s forces swept out of sight. His reckless chivalry were tumbled into ruin in the attempt to break the immovable infantry, or smashed into annihilation by the terrible onset of the psalm-chanting horse. His last strongholds stormed, and his last Colonels either surrendered or fled overseas, his desperate attempt to embroil the English and Scottish Parliaments in a quarrel having broken on the rock of the Covenant, the King was handed over a prisoner to the Commissioners of Parliament, and the first Civil War came to an end.

Coup d’Etat of the New Model

Their common danger in the face of the Royal Armies had kept the Commons united perforce. The removal of their one tie put an end to their union. The end of the war between King and Commons was the opening of a new struggle between Parliament and the Army.

At first a united army confronted a divided and vacillating Parliament. This gave the King his cue. The whole of his mind concentrated upon taking advantage of the division between Independent and Presbyterian—Army and Parliament—until their mutual hostility might permit their common ruin at the hands of a Royalist rising.

At the outset the Royalist aims had been innovating and counter-revolutionary: now they were confined within the narrow conservative compass of “restoration.” A corresponding change in the temper of the Presbyterian Parliamentary majority (confronted as it was with a Frankenstein’s monster of an Army—which they could not dismiss, and which would not disband) made the division between Royalist-Anglican and Parliamentary-Presbyterian merely theoretical.

The Army had protested, through its Council of Officers, against the terms upon which Parliament proposed to conclude Peace. Parliament’s order to disband deprived these officers of their legal standing. The Army replied by appointing two agents (or “adjutators”) for each regiment, and this council of soldiers “deputies” (called, by a happy mispronunciation, “Agitators,”) formed, virtually, the revolutionary House of Commons with a Council of Officers as its House of Lords. The Presbyterian majority abandoned even their moderate demands and closed with the King’s offer. The army retorted by taking possession of the King, and the revolutionary crisis rose to its culmination.

The Presbyterian Parliamentarian majority protested furiously. The Army demanded the impeachment, as traitors, of eleven of this majority (who had secured a vote refusing in advance the demands the Army were formulating). Mobs of London citizens surrounded the House and demanded that it stand firm against the Army. The speaker and the Independent minority took refuge with the Army; who advanced and took possession of London in order to “free” Parliament from “mob-violence.”

The presence of the Army settled the question for the time. The impeached eleven and a majority of their party avoided the House. The Independents rescinded the decisions of the late majority and proceeded to draw up, in consultation with the Army, a new set of demands.

The King, rejoiced at the humiliation of Parliament, and perceiving that the revolutionary boldness of the Army was driving the upper classes further to the “Right,” haggled over details and schemed for delay.

The clans of Scotland having failed him, Charles turned to the Lowlands, where the Presbyterian Kirk had been driven into a frenzy by the heresies of the Independents. The Scottish Commissioners entered into a secret treaty with Charles in which he promised in return for military aid to establish the Presbyterian system in England and to suppress the Independent, Baptist, and all other sects. The Scottish Army marched into England, and everywhere Royalist risings anticipated the coming of the Scots.

The feelings of the Army can be imagined. After all their toil and suffering their work was to do all over again, and in face of greater odds than ever. For Cromwell and Ireton, who had in their capacity of negotiators taken up an attitude which seemed criminally “moderate,” “compromising,” and “treacherous” to the ardent Levellers of the Left this experience of the King’s treachery was particularly bitter. They had so far watered down the Army’s claims for a political levelling of ranks as to seem mere “Royalists” in the eyes of the ardent republicans. They had never, being “gentleman born,” sympathised with Lilburne’s demands for a general levelling of ranks, estates, and fortunes. For the even more extreme advocates of the Communist cultivation of the commons and wastes, they had barely even a show of patience.

It is not surprising that both Cromwell and Ireton had felt their lives in danger during their negotiations with the King. The revelation of his perfidy flung them, and the Moderates, into the arms of the most extreme party of Republicans. The soldiers met to seek the Lord in prayer and came to a swift resolution—first, to fight the enemy; second, “if the Lord brought them back in peace,” to “call Charles Stuart, that man of blood, to an account for the blood he had shed and the mischief he had done to his utmost against the Lord’s cause and people in these poor nations.”

The Presbyterian Reaction

Up to this point the army leaders had striven to reach, their end under Parliamentary forms. The Presbyterian reaction was now to drive them still further in a revolutionary direction. As soon as the army was busy in Wales and the North the Presbyterians returned to the House and re-opened negotiations with the King.

Their hatred for the army and its sects was shown by an ordinance for the suppression of blasphemies and heresies; condemning to death the holders of certain specified opinions, and imposing the penalty of imprisonment on all who held that Church Government by Presbytery was anti-Christian or unlawful. This would, if enforced, tender the majority of the army liable to penalty of death or imprisonment.

Cromwell, on behalf of the army, protested; but the work of war prevented anything beyond a letter of protest.

In the face of their greatest danger—threatened by Royalist and Scottish armies in front, a Royalist mutiny in the Fleet, and a reactionary Parliament behind—the New Model rose to its greatest height. Its discipline, always good, was perfect. Its vigour, always great, was redoubled. Its swiftness and endurance on the march, always noteworthy, became phenomenal. From Kent to Essex; from Hounslow to Wales; from Pembroke to Chester; from Chester to Durham; from Durham across to the Ribble Valley, the army went; and everywhere the opposition was, not merely crushed, but annihilated. The Scots, caught by a swift flanking movement, were driven from Preston to Wigan and then to Warrington; and so, by rout and capture, disposed of. The army was free to deal with both Parliament and King.

The Presbyterians, amazed and furious, strained everything to complete a settlement with the King. He, however, still, had hopes. Charles would come to no final agreement—and the advance guard of the army marched into London on the very day set for a Parliamentary vote on the provisional agreement—which was all the Parliamentary Commission had been able to gain. For three days more the question debated (Cromwell arriving in the middle of the debate) and then, after an all-night discussion, the voting showed a majority of 36 for the acceptance of the King’s terms.

The majority, it, must be remembered, had not only attempted to disband the army (and with wonderful folly, but vivid class-consciousness, simultaneously refused a settlement of its arrears of pay) but had given it every reason to expect pains and penalties at the hands—even should the King, when restored to office, be disposed to spare them. How little reason the army had to expect mercy from the King or his party was shown by the murder (at Pontefract) of one of the leading Levellers—Colonel Rainsborough. The assassination of the army leaders was freely advocated by leading Royalists, and was at a later date practiced in many instances.

Pride’s Purge

The army in face of a coalition between the Presbyterian majority and the King and his lords, had no option other than to strike—no choice but to bring Parliament into obedience to them, or to submit to a loss alike of arrears of pay and hopes of liberty—penalties of body and inflictions of mind.

The army chose swiftly. Colonel Pride, the officer commanding the regiment guarding the Parliament House, took his station next morning at the door, with a guard; and placed under arrest some fifty of the Presbyterian majority. The process was repeated the two mornings following until some fifty were imprisoned for “treason” and some ninety-six excluded.

The Dictatorship of the Army

The Parliament thus “purged,” proceeded to execute the will of the army; to frame a new Constitution; and to bring the King to trial. A revolutionary tribunal was set up, and, within a month of its opening, “the man Charles Stewart” was beheaded on a scaffold erected outside the Banqueting Hall, at Whitehall, as “a man false to his word, a traitor to his trust, and an enemy to the lives and liberties of his people.”

Other Kings had met, in England as elsewhere, a violent end by secret assassination after deposition. Charles was solemnly tried, in his capacity of King, for crimes committed in his tenure of office; and, being found guilty, was publicly executed with the pomp and ceremonial usual an such occasions.

The best justification for the Army and their supporters, and, indeed, their final vindication, lies in the fact that their point is conceded by the English Constitutional rule, evolved since their act, that no minister of the Crown can plead the King’s command as an excuse for any illegal conduct. This, combined with the practice of allowing the King to do nothing except through ministers, brings the Crown beneath the law, instead of remaining above it.

It was to reach that end that the Army laboured; and the fall of Charles Stuart’s head verified their words by the incontestable logic of deed accomplished.

With the execution of Charles Stuart, and the formal abolition of the office of King and the House of Lords alike, the Puritan Revolution enters upon its conservation.

Till then its aims had been destructive—first of the claims of the Monarchy; then of the power of its allies; finally, of the machinery, of its rule. From now on, it becomes constructive. The ground being cleared and the old State machinery smashed, a new apparatus had to be elaborated; and for ten years and more the history of England becomes that of a dictatorship of the Army and its chief Oliver Cromwell.

The Communist Insurrection

Before this process became completed—at the outset of the period of constitution-framing by the Commonwealth’s Council of State—it was necessary to dispose of the armed forces still remaining to the House of Stuart. There was Presbyterian Scotland, alienated by the sectarianism of the English Independents. More dangerous still, there was Ireland. To Ireland, accordingly, Cromwell was ordered a few months after the execution of the King.

The order to march for Ireland found the Army in a ferment of expectation. Their programme had been in part realised. England was a Republic. The Chief Malignant had surrendered his life as an atonement for the innocent blood he had caused to be shed. The House of Lords was contemptuously swept aside as “useless” and there was nothing to fear from the prelatical persecution of the “saints.”

None the less, this realized only the negative side of their ambitions. The Constitution had yet to be framed. The relief of political tension had made economic anomalies only more glaring.

John Lilburne poured out a stream of pamphlets denouncing the only too patent determination of the “Rump” to cling to office and the emoluments thereof. Everard and Winstanley, with a small group, set about the planting of waste land in Surrey with “roots and beans” (inviting all who would to come and join them in ploughing, digging, and enjoying “in community” the fruits of the earth). They prophesied with much fervour that the time was at hand when all men would willingly come in and, giving up their lands and estates, enjoy this community of goods.

Others, less ideally optimist, sent petition after petition to Parliament demanding annual parliaments, rotation of members of parliament and of holders of State offices, exclusion of officers from Parliament, limitation of the duration of officers’ commissions, abolition of the High Court of Justice and of the Council of State, government by Parliamentary Committee, reform of legal procedure codification of law, reduction of lawyers and their fees, abolition of tithes, limitation of incomes of clergy, maintenance of clergy by a rate on their parishioners, abolition of all indirect taxation, confiscation of all lands belonging to “delinquent” royalists and the sale of the same for the benefit of the needy supporters of the Revolution, limitation of incomes and of estates—in short, the fermenting agitations, exhortations, enthusiasms and excitements of the Revolution had brought to birth the whole crop of ideas, plans, programmes, and ideologies which have, since that date, provided the stock-in-trade of Radical Reformers, Chartists, Social Democrats and Utopian Communists.

Fierce grew the excitement. A series of mutinies compelled prompt action. Many regiments refused to march for Ireland without some, at any rate, of these Communist concessions. Enough, however, of the Army remained under control to enable the mutinies to be suppressed and the ringleaders shot. Even then discipline was only restored by Cromwell’s assertion of sympathy with, at any rate, the purely political demands of the Levellers.

Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector

The changes in the economic importance of various classes which war circumstances had promoted, brought their inevitable reflections in the development of opinion alike within the Army, the “Rump” (of Parliament) and the Council of State.

At the moment of the King’s execution the Army was, as we have seen, predominantly petit bourgeois and proletarian in its composition. Its Republican concepts ranged from Elective-Monarchism through all shades of Theocratic-Democracy to the Levelling Radicalism and Agrarian Communism of the Ultra Left.

The petit bourgeois—as Levellers—fought for cheap government, law reform, relief for debtors, abolition of tithes, and democratisation of the government machinery.

The Big Bourgeoisie (with whom were now allied the defeated Royalist land-owners) opposed them staunchly on every ground; being aided therein by the clericals and ecclesiastics.

The proletarian mass (separated into incompatible fragments by the division of interest between towns and country) oscillated between the extremes of Petit Bourgeois Levelling and the Moderate Republicanism of the merchant Capitalists.

The pauperised mass, rendered abject or desperate by the suspension of all ordinary channels of charity, and of the Poor Law, oscillated over a still wider range—from the extremes of Agrarian Communism to those of Royalist Absolutism.

Two opposite tendencies were operating: one towards a monarchial authority suitable to the new aristocracy of wealth—the other towards a democratic-federal republic of handicraft and peasant producers.

Each tendency, needing for its victory a cooperation of classes, was a complex in unstable equilibrium; and, in the circumstances, only one Government was possible—a military dictatorship. This, by securing peace, would allow the passions of the revolution, to be dissipated by the processes of economic development.

This dictatorship, moreover, from beginning as that of the Army united as a conscious revolutionary political force was under the influence of this development, bound to change—at first into an oligarchy of the officers, and finally into a dictatorship of the General: should one be available of the necessary personal qualities. The gradual passage from the army to civil life of the yeoman and merchant, and his replacement by the proletarian professional soldier facilitated, even if it did not necessitate, this transformation; and thus the Commonwealth passed into the Dictatorship of Lord General Cromwell.