CLR James 1949
Tercentenary of English Revolution: 1649-1949

Cromwell and the Levellers

Source: Fourth International, Vol.10 No.5, May 1949, pp.143-148;
Signed: G.F. Eckstein;
Transcribed: by Einde O’Callaghan;
Public Domain: this work is free of copyright.

On January 30, 1649, Cromwell and his officers executed Charles I. But the Levelers, leading the common people of London and the rank and file of the army, rose against the military government, demanding the election of a new parliament based on manhood suffrage, and advocating a social program which showed that for them the revolution had. not ended but had just begun. A military revolt broke out in May. Fairfax and Cromwell took the field against the rebellion in person; the revolutionaries had to be struck down before they could make contact with other regiments. On May 17 they were routed and the Leveler threat to the regime was over. Guizot, describing the ceremonies and the costly gifts which the new power lavished upon the conquerors, notes that these transports of joy showed the terror into which they had been thrown.

For nearly three centuries the truth about the Levelers remained on the whole in obscurity. But within recent years the perils Of democracy have stirred a new interest in them. A.P.S. Woodhouse of the University of Toronto, under the inspiration of A.D. Lindsay, the Master of Balliol College, Oxford; Don Marion Wolfe, with the encouragement of the late Charles Beard, and William Haller of Columbia University, have done truly brilliant work in this field. Haller has also collaborated with Godfrey Davies, an Englishman, perhaps the greatest English authority on the English seventeenth Century and, at the time of his collaboration with Haller, already director of the Huntington Library at Pasadena, California. Woodhouse, Haller and Wolfe had all previously done work on Milton, idol of non-conformism and the great hero of two centuries of intellectuals on free speech, tolerance, humanist education, etc.

The petty-bourgeois democrats, shaken by the crisis of democracy, are probing into its origins. The result has been to raise John Lilburne and the Levelers to a status which challenges Cromwell and Milton as the precursors of modern democracy. Two English writers, W. Schenk and Margaret A. Gibb, within the last few months in England, hate sought to appropriate the Levelers, and Lilburne in particular, for that combination of Catholic ideology and “social reform” which distinguishes the Popular Republican Movement in France and the party of de Gasperi in Italy. They have made a bold modern adaptation of the old Catholic thesis that Charles I represented the common people against the bourgeois, capitalistic House of Commons. Lilburne and the Levelers do not suffer but rather gain from these desperate attempts to link the church with a popular mass movement. The British Social Democracy on this question has had nothing of any importance to say, if indeed it says anything at all.

Not so with the British Stalinists. In April 1949, they celebrated the tercentenary with a number of the Modern Quarterly wholly devoted to the Puritan Revolution. The British Communist Review of March 1949 has three articles devoted to this subject. The American Science and Society published a long article on the English Revolution in their special number celebrating the hundredth anniversary of the Communist Manifesto.

These numerous publications bear the stamp of Stalinism. They win useful but very cheap victories against the bourgeois historians on the question of monopolies, land legislation, feudal tenure, “class struggle,” etc. They find space for a long article on Harrington, author of a seventeenth century Utopia; they write on Winstanley, the leader of the Diggers; they have room for a particularly stupid article on Milton, the very intellectual whose shortcomings have been so resolutely pointed out by the modern writers. But such is the organic Stalinist hostility to the independent action of the masses that despite their phrases, Lilburne and the Levelers in their writings count for less than in the works of the petty bourgeois of today. The Stalinists know better but that does not prevent them from describing the Levelers as men who fought bravely, but who had a program that was in advance of their time – and there they leave them. Marx and Engels knew that the Levelers were before their time and said so often, but they wrote also: “We find the first appearance of a really functioning Communist party in the bourgeois revolution at the moment when the constitutional monarchy is removed. The most consistent republicans, in England the Levelers, in France, Babeuf, Buonarroti, etc. are the first who proclaimed these ‘social questions.’” (“The Moralising Criticism and Critical Morality,” Marx-Engels Gesamtausgabe, Abt.I, Bd.6.)

It is obvious that in this rehabilitation of the Levelers, current political tendencies are expressing themselves. We wish here to give some indication (no more) of the light that the theories of Marxism, aided by modern history and modern historical research, throw upon one of the greatest but hitherto rather neglected revolutionary movements in history.

There is no need to emphasize what, is already known.

The revolution was the revolution of the rising capitalist class against the monopolies and other restraints on free competition of the feudal-monarchic state. The special national peculiarity of the British bourgeois revolution was that sections of the country gentry were capitalist, rearing sheep on land from which the peasants had been driven. Thus in 1640 they were able to combine with the merchants and lead the yeoman farmers and the artisans and apprentices of the town. The government of the King never had a chance and as early as 1644, was severely defeated at Marston Moor. Charles was executed only in 1649, and that he was executed at all (with all that this implied) was the work of the Levelers, the rank-and-file soldiers in the army, the people of London and the neighboring counties.

Cromwell’s Revolutionary Army

The army has so far had the leading role in the accounts of the revolution. This needs to be corrected. True, the army was an entirely new army – a political creation. After the first skirmishes, Cromwell told Hampden what was necessary. Cavalry was the decisive arm. The Royalist cavalry consisted of “gentlemen’s sons and persons of quality.” The Parliamentarian horse were “old decayed serving men and tapsters and such kind of fellows.”

“Do you think,” said Cromwell, “the spirits of such base and mean fellows will ever be able to encounter gentlemen that. have honour and courage and resolution in them? ... You must get men of a spirit that is likely to go on as far as gentlemen will go, or else you will be beaten still.”

Cromwell found this spirit in a class army, the yeomen farmers with the artisans of the towns, psalm-singing, preaching, God-fearing men. Cromwell built his own regiments from the ground up and the new Model Army was modeled on these. It was a thoroughly democratic army, promotion being by merit. Ireton, Cromwell’s son-in-law and second-in-command to him, had been a lawyer. Among the colonels you could find a drayman, a cobbler, a butcher, a grocer’s man, a brewer’s clerk, etc. The country gentlemen saw this force with terror, and their generals after 1644 would not defeat the Royalist troops. Cromwell had to force them out of the leadership of the army.

But despite all that it did, the revolutionary army acted politically as the representative of the revolutionary people. By 1646 the rank and file of the army were under the leadership of the Levelers, and Levelers were a loose organisation of kindred political thinkers who from stage to stage expressed the rapidly developing political consciousness of a great social and political mass movement. For centuries most historians have misrepresented them as a small but noisy minority grouping. The modern students have demolished this, but they do not understand the baffling relation of the Levelers to the people which centers around the relation of politics to the religious ideas which seem to dominate the thinking of the time.

Religious Disguise of Social Currents

For decades before the Revolution the Puritan gentry had sheltered, encouraged and subsidized preachers who toured the country mobilizing support for the Puritan religion. These preachers and their sponsors were Presbyterian. Like the King’s party they fully accepted the dominant role of the church as the social framework of society. What they wanted was to substitute a Calvinist theocracy, Puritan priests taking the place of Episcopalian bishops. They proposed to bind society into synods and to discipline the people far more sternly than the Episcopal regime, which indeed was rather lax until the pressures of Puritanism and the crisis of the monarchy turned it into tyranny.

But the mere fact of going to the people and preaching a new form of religion was a highly political act. The maturing classes used this problem to differentiate themselves and mobilize for social and political action. The country gentlemen remained Presbyterian, the lower middle classes leaned to what became Independency, the masses became Baptists, Separatists, Ranters and an infinite number of other sects. The Presbyterian preachers were startled at what they had unwittingly unloosed, but inasmuch as their propaganda was essential to their own aims, they had to continue.

The breakdown of a society causes what has hitherto been accepted in principle to become the object of insoluble conflict. The same process can be observed in the French Revolution, and the most striking historical example of it is the long-drawn-out battle in the United States today over the interpretation of democracy. At the first serious clash it will be discovered that the battle over bourgeois parliamentary democracy covers social conceptions and aspirations to which this type of democracy is entirely subordinate, and nowhere will this be more marked than among the great masses of the people.

Class Divisions of Contending Factions

This is precisely what happened after 1645 when it became clear that the King was defeated. The Presbyterians in Parliament wanted to come to terms with Charles, but to do this they had to get rid of the army. Cromwell and Ireton were in a minority in the Parliament but they had the army. Lilburne and his friends, Walwyn the merchant, Overton and Wildman, were supporters of Cromwell but were leading a tremendous agitation which was concentrating more and more on the social evils of the times and demanding complete tolerance in religion. For the Presbyterians this was political death, for it meant that the Presbyterian state as they conceived it for the control of the people would be impossible.

Looking at this situation Charles, though a prisoner of Parliament, was supremely confident that he would win in the end. He intrigued with Presbyterians, with Cromwell and the Independents, and with the Scots who, as Charles’ subjects and as Presbyterians, had taken up arms against him but who above all did not want to be subordinated to an English Presbyterian Parliament. Cromwell was moving heaven and earth to come to satisfactory terms with Charles and Parliament. But Parliament sought ways and meant to arrest and even plotted to murder Cromwell; later they put Lilburne in jail where, however, he continued to write and organize. It is during this period that Lilburne and the Levelers become fully conscious of themselves. The brilliance and energy and comprehensiveness of their mass agitation and organization initiate the age of modern politics.

In March 1647 a great petition was presented to the Commons. It called for the abolition of tithes, for the abolition of the Merchants Adventurers Co., for relief to imprisoned debtors and assistance to the poor, for limitations on fees of all judges, magistrates, lawyers and government officials. It demanded the abolition of the veto power of the King and the House of Lords.

The Commons ordered the petition to be burnt. Lilburne who had hitherto been a fervent admirer and supporter of Cromwell broke with him for his subservience to Parliament, denounced the Parliament as a tyrant and oppressor and called for a new constitution and new elections. Lilburne, himself at one time a soldier, now turned to the army, not to Cromwell, but to the rank and file.

For centuries the entry of the army into politics was believed by many to have been the secret work of Cromwell. Near the end of the nineteenth century the Clarke Papers were discovered and selections from them published. Clarke was secretary to the Army Council, took down debates in shorthand and accumulated other material. Some of these debates were admirably edited and republished by Woodhouse in 1938, and that is the edition used here. We can say at once that it is socialism, the proletarian cause, not bourgeois democracy, that has everything to gain from these debates which are in many respects unique in political history.

The Clarke Papers show how dangerous was the temper of “the under officers and soldiers” in the spring of 1647. These soldiers before the revolution had not taken any interest in public or state affairs, but now they drafted an “apology” to their officers. “They wanted among other things their pay, an act of indemnity for all actions committed in the war and that they should not be sent by force out of the country, i.e., to Ireland. The officers did not initiate anything. The men organized themselves – two men from every troop who were known as Agitators.

Expedition Against Ireland Rejected

Parliament sent down Cromwell and other officers to investigate the situation. One question debated was the sending of the army to Ireland. The officers were ready to go. The Agitators on behalf of the men refused. Marx and Engels who took no fatalistic view of the inevitable defeat of the British Republic said that it met shipwreck in Ireland. At that time they did not know this material which in fact was published after Marx’s death. But for this refusal there never would have been any republic at all. Cromwell reported that the officers having joined with the men had been instrumental in tempering their demands and preventing them from acting independently and corresponding with one another as they had been doing up to that time.

In June, fearful of Parliament, Cromwell asked the army to go to Holmby House to safeguard the King who was in the custody of Parliamentary Commissioners. Cornet Joyce exceeded orders. He brought the King away entirely. In that month also Cromwell appointed a General Council of the army to consist of the officers and the Agitators. Revolutionaries know what that meant. He aimed at controlling the men by corrupting the leaders.

The soldiers wanted to march on London and enforce their demands. Cromwell opposed this. And here begins a sequence which, with regret, we are unable to document through the lack of space. First the Agitators propose, and Cromwell and Ireton oppose or temporize. In a brief while, they are forced to do what the Agitators had proposed, whereupon the same thing happens again. By marching to Uxbridge, the army had forced the retirement from the House of eleven reactionary members. In July, however, a mob from the city invaded the House and forced the Independent members to fly to the army for protection. On August 6, the army had to march into London, to enable the Independents to resume their seats in the House.

It was some months later in October that there took place the great debate of the General Council of the army at Putney. Ireton was preparing political proposals for the King and Parliament and the Council met to discuss them. The Agitators presented proposals which today are best known under the heading of the Agreement of the People. This astonishing document demands democracy by natural right, virtual manhood suffrage, dismissal of the present Parliament, biennial parliaments, freedom of religion – all without mentioning the King or House of Lords which were by implication abolished.

The old Agitators had been dismissed as too conciliatory and new ones had been appointed. Wildman, by now known as one of the leaders of the Levelers, had also been sent to speak for the army. Cromwell was in the chair. Edward Sexby, an Agitator, attacked Cromwell and Ireton at once: “Your credits and reputation have been much blasted ...”

Cromwell carefully rebuked Sexby for singling out him and Ireton. He said that whatever he had done in regard to the army in Parliament he had done according to the policy of the Council, in the name of the Council. But at other times he had acted in his capacity as a member of Parliament and then had never used the name of the army. There was some sparring and an Agitator called upon them to get on with the business.

Lieutenant-General Goffe called for a prayer meeting. These meetings were common at the time. The faithful got together and prayed in turn ex tempore. A meeting might last for a dozen hours and much could be said in prayer to break down a stubborn opponent. Ireton and Cromwell thought Goffe’s proposal a fine idea. But some of the men’s representatives made it clear that they suspected the purpose: “For my own part I am utterly unconcerned in the business.” Cromwell replied: “I hope we know God better than to make appearances of religious meetings covers for designs or for insinuation amongst you.”

Cromwell and Ireton then engaged Wildman in a long controversy as to whether it was right to break an engagement entered into, referring to their engagement with the Parliament. The Agitator from Cromwell’s regiment broke it up. “If engagements were proved unjust,” he would break them “if it were a hundred a day.” Repeatedly the meandering talk of the high officers is roughly broken into by sharp short speeches from the men. At the next session the demands were read. The first demand was for manhood suffrage.

Human Rights and Property Rights

Ireton asked if the men who had signed the document knew what they were doing, and here Rainborough, a high officer, lost his temper – a thing that the soldiers’ representatives never did:

For really I think that the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live, as the greatest he; and therefore truly, sir, I think it’s clear, that every man that is to live under a government ought first by his own consent to put himself under that government; and I do think that the poorest man in England is not at all bound in a strict sense to that government that he hath not had a voice to put himself under.

All the sparring was now over. Ireton replied with a long, controlled but passionate outburst:

“Those that choose the representers for the making of laws by which this state and kingdom are to be governed are the persons who, taken together, do comprehend the local interest of this kingdom; that is, the persons in whom all land lies, and those in corporations in whom all trading lies.”

Consistent democracy is no sooner concretely proposed, for the first time in modern history, than immediately, without a second’s delay, what it would ultimately mean to property is posed.

Ireton denounced the proposal philosophically, as being dependent upon a theory of “absolute natural right.” He ended by saying that to do this “we shall plainly go to take away all property and interest that any man hath either in land by inheritance or in estate by possession, or any-thing else.” Rainborough, a true democrat but of a liberal, intellectual, aristocratic type, replied in an equally passionate speech. Every man had the “right” to vote. Ireton drew the arrow to a head:

Is it by the sight of nature? If you will hold, forth that as your ground, then I think you must deny all property too, and this is my reason. For thus: by that same right of nature (whatever it be) [1] that you pretend, by which you can say, one man hath an equal right with another to the choosing of him that shall govern him – by the same right of nature, he hath the same (equal) right in any goods he sees – meat, drink, clothes – to take and use them for his sustenance. He hath a freedom to the land, (to take) the ground, to exercise it, till it; he hath the (same) freedom to anything that any one doth account himself to have any propriety in.

Complete democracy contains in principle communism.

Rainborough denounced Ireton for implying that those who were for this proposal were for “anarchy,” and the debate revolved now around manhood suffrage as leading inevitably to the abolition of property, and anarchism. But though Ireton and Rainborough and then Ireton and Wildman led the arguments, yet the two men who dominated the debate were Cromwell and Sexby, the Agitator.

“We Have a Birthright ...”

Sexby always spoke briefly:

I see that though liberty were our end, there is a degeneration from it. We have engaged in this kingdom and ventured our lives, and it was all for this, to recover our birthrights and privileges as Englishmen and by the arguments urged there is none. There are many thousands of us soldiers that have ventured our lives; we have had little propriety in the kingdom as to our estates, yet we have had a birthright.

But it seems now, except a man hath a fixed estate in this kingdom, he hath no right in this kingdom. I wonder we were so much deceived. If we had not a right to the kingdom, we were mere mercenary soldiers. There are many in my condition, that have as good a condition (as I have); it may be little estate they have at present, and yet they have as much a (birth) right as those two who are their lawgivers, as any in this place.

I shall tell you in a word my resolution. I am resolved to give my birthright to none. Whatsoever may come in the way and (whatsoever may be) thought, I will give it to none ... I do think the poor and meaner of this kingdom ... have been the means of the preservation of this kingdom. Those that act to this end are as free from anarchy or confusion as those that oppose it ... But truly I shall only sum up (in) this. I desire that we may not spend so much time upon these things. We must be plain. When men come to understand these things, they will not lose that which they have contended for. That which I shall beseech you is to come to a determination of this question.

Cromwell answered Sexby. “I confess I was most dissatisfied with that I heard Mr. Sexby speak, of any man here, because it did savour so much of will. But I desire that all of us may decline that ...” He was afraid of the determination which marked the stern words of that plain-speaking soldier. He suggested that the proposal should be “amended” and a committee should be appointed.

Why Have We Fought?

Rainborough refused any compromise and Sexby here spoke again, replying to Cromwell’s rebuke:

I desire to speak a few words. I am sorry that my zeal to what I apprehend is good should be so ill resented ... Do you (not) think it were a sad and miserable condition that we have fought all this time for nothing? All here, both great and small, do think that we fought for something. I confess, many of us fought for those ends which, we since saw, were not those which caused us to go through difficulties and straits (and) to venture all in the ship with you. It had been good in you to have advertised us of it, and I believe you would have (had) fewer under your command to have commanded. But if this be the business, that an estate doth make men capable – it is no matter which way they get it, they are capable – to choose those that shall represent them, I think there are many that have not estates that in honesty have as much right in the freedom (of) their choice as any that have great estates. Truly, sir, (as for) your putting off this question and coming to some other, I dare say, and I dare appeal to all of them, that they cannot settle upon any other until this be done. It was the ground that we took up arms (on) and it is the ground which we shall maintain.

Concerning my making rents and divisions in this way. As a particular, if I were but so, I could lie down and be trodden there; (but) truly I am sent by a regiment, (and) if I should not speak, guilt shall lie upon me, and I (should) think I were a covenant-breaker. I do not know how we have (been) answered in our arguments, and (as for our engagements) I conceive we shall not accomplish them to the kingdom when we deny them to ourselves. I shall be loath to make a rent and division, but for my own part, unless I see this put to a question, I despair of an issue.

Cromwell was determined never to let Sexby speak without as soon as possible making it clear that while he was ready to listen to everyone else, Sexby was for him the enemy. In the course of his next speech he dropped the following: “... I did hear some gentlemen speak more of will than anything that was spoken this way, for more was spoken by way of will than of satisfaction ...”

During the discussion it was implied that the Agents, representing the men, were responsible for the proposals, whereupon an unknown representative of the men put an end to it. He said, and this is his sole contribution: “Whereas you say the Agents did it (it was) the soldiers did put the Agents upon these meetings. It was the dissatisfactions that were in the Army which provoked, which occasioned those meetings, which, you suppose tends so much to dividing; and the reason(s) of such dissatisfactions are because those whom they had to trust to act for them were not true to them.” Almost every rank and file’ intervention is to the point, forceful and plain.

Compromise on Struggle Against Monarchy

The debate shifted to the King and the Lords. Ireton defended a compromise with them. Wildman, the Leveler, in his smooth, insinuating, merciless manner, tore Ireton to pieces.

On November 1, the debate on the King and the House of Lords continued. There were the same long speeches, and Sexby protested:

“I think that we have gone about, to heal Babylon when she would not. We have gone about to wash a blackamoor, or to wash him white, which he will not. ... I think we are going about to set up the power of kings, some part of it, which God will destroy.”

Sexby was no sooner finished than Cromwell spoke: “As for what that gentleman spoke last (but) that it was with too much confidence, I cannot conceive that he altogether meant it.” In the course of many days of debate Cromwell never missed Sexby once, and he was equally alert to guide and direct other speakers in the direction he wanted. While Ireton dealt with ideas, Cromwell dealt with people as representative of tendencies. It was a masterly display and shows that here as elsewhere he was a great politician.

Ireton was routed in the debate. Petty told him that on the one hand he treated King and Lords as if the matter were not important enough to divide them, and at other times he would be arguing as if the fate of the kingdom depended upon King and Lords. Wildman showed that Ireton was ready to deprive the people of their rights but was battling for the rights of King and Lords against whose tyranny and oppression they had all fought. Under this barrage the confident, able, and aggressive Ireton wilted and at one time was reduced to saying that if God decided that King and Lords were to be destroyed, God would not need the mistakes of Ireton or the mistakes of Wildman.

The men’s demands were refused but they remained so resolute that Cromwell before long abolished the joint council. History was to show that at every crisis the men were correct. Officers had been ready to go to Ireland. The men stopped it. The men had demanded that the army take charge of the country. The army had to do so in the end. The famous purging of the Parliament by Colonel Pride, the execution of the King, the abolition of the monarchy and of the Lords, all these proposals came from the Agitators or their representatives. Cromwell and Ireton opposed each but were forced to carry them out.

Summing up this debate and the debates as a whole, we may say this. The whole modern problem is posed there in embryo, the relation of property to democracy. Secondly, the class forces and their political representatives of the time stand out unmistakably in essence and in form. Thirdly, it is not difficult to see in them the germ of their counterparts of today. And one far-reaching conclusion emerges. As the debates went on, the representatives of what Engels once called the pre-proletariat, both the spokesmen and the men themselves, cover themselves with glory.

In honesty of purpose, determination, plain-speaking, trenchant statement, grasp of the concrete, and elevation of feeling and perspective they throw Ireton and Cromwell, great men as they undoubtedly are, into the shade. Again, listening closely, at times you can hear the very voice of the English worker. There is nothing alien to England in these bold revolutionaries, the brothers of the sansculottes and the enragés of the French Revolution and the Russian Bolshevik workers of 1917. They it was who forced Cromwell and Ireton to bring the revolution against the monarchy to a conclusion.

We noted that behind all the polemics and the debating ran the duel between Cromwell, the great leader of the bourgeoisie, and Sexby, the representative of the common soldier and the common people. No sooner was Charles executed than this conflict broke out. Cromwell won, but by the time he had defeated and suppressed them he had wrecked all possibility of success for the Republic.


1. The words in brackets represent emendations of the manuscript which in places is very imperfect.


Last updated on: 11 April 2009