CLR James 1949
II. Tercentenary of the English Revolution: 1649-1949

Ancestors of the Proletariat

Source: Fourth International, Vol.10 No.8, September 1949, pp.252-255;
Signed: G.F. Eckstein;
Transcribed: by Einde O’Callaghan;
Public Domain: this work is free of copyright.

The contemporary interest in the Puritan revolution of the 17th Century is an outgrowth of the crisis of bourgeois democracy and dates from the 1929 depression. Two groups have concerned themselves with it – the liberal intellectuals who preoccupy themselves with the Levelers and the Stalinists who give their main attention to Winstanley and the Diggers. In this they have recently been joined by the Catholics.

The Stalinists made no contributions of their own to the understanding of the Levelers and ignore the work which has been done during the recent past. A gulf separates them from Marx who called the Levelers “a functioning communist party.” It is the gulf between the revolutionary-class struggle and a bureaucratic, authoritarian conception of society and politics.

It is true that the Levelers did not have a revolutionary program which proposed to confiscate bourgeois property. But after Charles I had been executed, they aimed directly at the overthrow of the military government of Cromwell in the name of the people. The great political act of the abolition of the monarchy, dramatized in the execution of the King, was in their eyes entirely subordinate to the positive reorganization of society. It must be understood that this is no inference or “interpretation.” The protagonists of those days understood and expressed perfectly, well what was involved.

In March 1649, three months after the execution of the king, Overton in The Hunting of the Foxes recalled how the officers had refused to continue to sit with the Agitators, the representatives of the regiments, in a Common Council:

This was a thing savoured too much of the peoples authority and power, and therefore inconsistent with the transaction of their lordly interest; the title of free election (the original of all just authorities) must give place to prerogative patent (the root of all exorbitant powers) that Councel must change the derivation of its session, and being from Agreement and election of the souldiery to the patent of the Officers, and none to sit there but commission Officers, like so, many patentee Lords in the High Court of Parliament, deriving their title from, the will of their General as the other did theirs, from the will of the King; so that the difference was no other, but in the change of names: Here was (when at this perfection) as absolute a Monarchy, and as absolute a Prerogative Court over the Army, as Commoners, as ever there was over the Common-wealth and accordingly this Councel was overswarmed with Colonels, Lieut-Colonels, Majors, Captains, etc. contrary to and beyond the tenour of the Engagement.

Suppression of the Levelers

The defiance was mortal. Without democracy, said the Levelers, Cromwell was as absolute a tyrant as Charles. Overton demanded that the army be ruled, i.e., that the country be temporarily governed by a joint council of officers and men representing the regiments, and he called upon the soldiers and people to fight for it. Cromwell, like the Presbyterian Parliament, tried to shift the rebellious regiments to Ireland. They mutinied. He broke the mutiny and had Trooper Lockyer shot.

Lockyer’s funeral in London became a great revolutionary demonstration. One hundred people went before the corpse, then came the corpse itself adorned with bundles of rose-mary, one-half stained with blood, and the sword of the deceased borne with it. Six trumpets sounded a soldier’s knell. Then came the trooper’s horse, clothed in mourning and led by a footman. Thousands of “the rank and file” followed, all wearing sea-green and black ribbons – sea-green was the color of the Levelers, The women brought up the rear. In Westminster at the churchyard, “some thousands more of the better sort” who had not wanted to march through the city joined the demonstration. The people of London and the surrounding counties had previously presented a Leveler petition which was said to have been signed by nearly a hundred thousand people.

Thousands of women, led by Lilburne’s wife, had presented a special women’s petition. The Parliament had told them to go home and wash their dishes. They replied that they had at home neither food nor dishes.

In the previous article we have referred to the final mutiny which was crushed at Burford on May 17. At the same time, there were thousands in Somersetshire in the West ready to revolt. Later thousands of miners in Derbyshire were organized to rise under the banner of the Levelers whose revolutionary organization calling for “Councels” everywhere was spread all over the country.

Thus the Levelers themselves both in theory and practice consciously wanted a popular, democratic government opposed to the dictatorship of Cromwell, revolutionary though it was. To the new rulers this could mean only one thing – communism. Let. us hear Cromwell himself on what he very rightly called “the leveling principle.” Immediately after the execution of the King, Cromwell warned the Council of State against the Levelers:

“I tell you ... you have no other way to deal with these men but to break them in pieces. If you do not break them, they will break you.”

In 1654, five years after the defeat of the Levelers, Cromwell called his first parliament. He opened the session with a review of the past and painted a picture of the country in 1649:

What was the face that was upon our affairs as to the Interest of the Nation? As to the Authority in the Nation; to the Magistracy; to the Ranks and Orders of men – whereby England hath been known for hundreds of years? A nobleman, a gentleman, a yeoman; ’the distinction of these’ that is a good interest of the Nation, and a great one! The ‘natural’ Magistracy of the Nation, was it not almost trampled under foot, under despite and contempt, by men of Levelling principles?

I beseech you, for the orders of men and ranks of men, did not that Levelling principle tend to the reducing of all to an equality? Did it ‘consciously’ think to do so; or did it ‘only unconsciously’ practise towards that for property and interest? ‘At all events’ what was the purport of it but to make the Tenant as liberal a fortune as the Landlord? Which, I think, if obtained, would not have lasted 1ong. The men of that principle, after they had served their own turns, would them have cried up property and interest fast enough! This instance is instead of many. And that the thing did ‘and might well’ extend far, is manifest; because it was a pleasing voice to all Poor Men and truly not unwelcome to all Bad Men.

Cromwell warns the Parliament that in its proposals to pacify the country it should not forget this dangerous experience: “To my thinking, this is a consideration which, in your endeavours after settlement, you will be so well minded of, that I might have spared it here.” Later in the speech he described the country in 1649 as “rent and torn in spirit and in principle from one end to the other ... family against family, husband against wife, parents against children; and nothing in the hearts and minds of men but ’Overturn, overturn, overturn!’

What Marx and Engels Thought

Let us now turn to Marx and Engels. A quarter of a century after Marx’s characterization of the Levelers as the “first functioning communist party,” he, along with Engels, became preoccupied with the contemporary Irish question. On October 24, 1869, Engels wrote to him: “I have still to work through the Cromwellian period, but this much seems certain to me, that things would have taken another turn in England but for the necessity for military rule in Ireland and the creation of a new aristocracy there.” On November 29, in the same year, Marx wrote to Kugelman: “As a matter of fact, the English Republic under Cromwell met shipwreck in Ireland.”

Finally on December 10, Marx, in a letter to Engels, showed the thoroughness with which he had applied himself to the question. In the course of a masterly page he reviews the long centuries of the Irish connection with England and draws his conclusions for the struggle which was raging at the time. He repeats: “The English reaction in England had its roots (as in Cromwell’s time) in the subjugation of Ireland.

If, then, Marx and Engels recognized that the demands of the Levelers were in advance of their time they did not by any means think that the continuation of the republic was impossible. Many republics have existed for long years without carrying out the extreme demands of the masses. The issue in 1649 was a military dictatorship or a popular constitution. The Levelers wanted a constitution based upon manhood suffrage. They wanted this draft constitution taken to the people by means of petitions spread throughout the breadth and length of the country, which the people could sign and thereby ratify their government as emanating from themselves. The struggle over the army was the struggle as to whether it would be used on behalf of the military dictatorship or on behalf of such a constitution.

The mutinies in the army revolved precisely around Cromwell’s attempt to despatch the revolutionary elements to Ireland. It was by grants of Irish land that Cromwell corrupted some of his opponents. The bogey of a Catholic-dominated Ireland was an important part of his propaganda. Lilburne had been repeatedly right against Cromwell in their previous disputes. Now in August 1649, after the Levelers had been defeated in May, Lilburne told him that if he continued with the military dictatorship, the restoration of the monarchy was inevitable: democracy alone could save the new liberties. It is obvious that you cannot dismiss the Levelers by saying that they were before their time. Marx and Engels and modern research both show how unhistorical is such an attitude.

The Place of “The Diggers”

Compare now the Diggers. In April 1649, perhaps 50, perhaps 100 men began to dig and to plant the common land at St. George’s Hill in Surrey. There were similar groups in two other counties. So conscious were they of their weakness, that they applied to Fairfax, the titular commander-in-chief of Cromwell’s army, for assistance against those who were hostile to them. After a brief period, the demonstration petered out. In striking contrast to the attitude against the Levelers, the government refused to take the Diggers seriously. The chief political importance of the Diggers at the time was that the government attempted to saddle the Levelers with the communist doctrines of the Diggers and the Levelers had to hastily repudiate them.

Theoretically the Diggers are worthy of attention, first because the movement marked a differentiation of the agricultural proletariat from the revolutionary forces. Secondly they were led by a man of undoubted genius, Gerrard Winstanley. He expounded a doctrine of holding all things in common, the abolition of private production and exchange, with the aim of social harmony and brotherly love. For that time, his work is astonishing. But to take Winstanley as characteristic of the revolution and to ignore the Levelers on his behalf is such a violation of historical facts, historical method and the living class struggle as can come only from an organic hostility to any independent revolutionary movement of the masses.

Yet this is precisely what the Stalinists do. In 1939 Holorenshaw published The Levelers and the English Revolution through the Left Book Club, a Stalinist organization. But despite its title, the book opens with substantial pages devoted to Winstanley and the Diggers and contains numerous references to the way in which Wfnstanley’s ideas and proposals can be seen exemplified in the Soviet Union. In 1940, D.W. Petegorsky published Left-Wing Democracy in the English Civil War. Of its, six chapters, four are devoted to Winstanley and the Diggers. This presumably represents left-wing democracy in the English Civil War.

Two years afterward an article by Petegorsky on the same subject was published in the American Stalinist journal, Science and Society. It should be noted that Petegorsky’s book was written under the inspiration and constant guidance of Harold Laski who obviously would have no affinity with revolutionaries like the Levelers. But Laski at any rate does not pretend to be revolutionary.

The tercentenary issue of the English Modern Quarterly, April 1949, has an article on Winstanley and the English Communist Review of March 1949 and one devoted to “Harrington, Revolutionary Theorist.” Harrington wrote an obscure Utopia called Oceana which imaginatively complements the work of Winstanley.

Hobbes, Locke and the Levelers

Such a distortion of revolutionary analysis goes deep and we can reasonably expect to see it in other spheres. As sure as day it turns up in the Stalinist treatment of the philosophical development in the Civil War. The philosopher of the English Revolution of 1640-49 is Hobbes. Hobbes’ great contribution was to place political theory upon a secular basis, wiping out all justification of government by any right or theory except the necessities of society and the class struggle. But Hobbes was not a democrat; he was an advocate of the absolute power of the state. The man who adapted these secular theories to the needs of the British bourgeois democracy was John Locke.

The modern students of Puritanism (A.S.P. Woodhouse, Puritanism and Liberty, 1938; D.M. Wolfe, Leveller Manifestoes, 1944; William Haller, Tracts on Liberty, 1934; The Rue of Puritanism, 1938; William Haller and Godfrey Davies, The Leveller Tracts, 1944) all recognize that, the foundations of modern democratic theory and practice are in the Levelers, although they have not written much directly on the contribution of the Levelers to the sequence of bourgeois philosophical thought.

Charles Beard, however, in his Preface to Wolfe’s book writes:

Even boys and girls in American high schools are now aware that Jefferson drew heavily on John Locke for many essentials deemed ‘self-evident’ in the immortal document of 1776. What is not generally known is that nearly all the fundamentals of government and liberty had been set forth or foreshadowed in the declarations of English Levelers long before John Locke published his celebrated treatises on government..”

That is valuable. But it is only half the truth. Everything that is in Locke can be found in Lilburne, Overton, Walwyn and the pamphleteers whom the intellectuals have brought back to life. But the democratic ideas which Lilburne and his followers fought for not only in theory but in practice, e.g., the manner in which the new constitution was to be introduced, all this finds no place in Locke, far less in Hobbes. Locke and the Lockians have never been able to explain what was the origin of their famous social contract. But in 1647, attacking not the Monarchy but the Parliament, Overton was writing as follows:

Even so many the commonalty of England reply to their Parliament-members, that they are made for the people, not the people for them, and no otherwise may they deal with the people than for their safety and weal, for no more than the people are the King’s no more are the people the Parliament’s (they) having no such propriety in the people as the people have in their goods, to do with them as they list. As they will not grant it to be the prerogative of kings, neither may we yield it to be the privilege of Parliaments. For the safety of the people is the reason and end of all governments, and governors. Salus populi est suprema lex: the safety of the people is the supreme law of all commonwealths.

You can find in Leveler writings dozens of such passages. What have the Stalinists to say on all this? Not a word. But the Communist Review for April 1949 prints an article on Hobbes which proposes to tell us why “Marxists and many other progressives today hail Hobbes’ Leviathan as one of the great glories of the English Revolution.” We are told, it is true, that Hobbes “utterly failed to discern the essentially progressive role of the revolutionary forces and had nothing like Harrington’s insight into social realities.” In other words, for the Stalinists, the theoretical opposition to Hobbes is to be found not in the Levelers but in the utopianism of an obscure scribbler like Harrington.

If the Stalinists are reactionary in their estimate of the political and philosophical contributions of the Levelers, they are no less so in the field of literature.

An Evaluation of Milton

Along with Cromwell and Hobbes, the third great bourgeois hero of the English Revolution is Milton. Woodhouse, Haller, Wolfe, all began their work in this particular field with studies of Milton. They see in him one of the very greatest writers of English literature, a revolutionary who supported and worked for the Puritan cause to the end, and a humanist who wrote some tracts, forever famous, on free speech, toleration, divorce, education, etc. But it is fair to say that what characterizes their work is the belated recognition that it was the Levelers and not Milton who represented the principles of humanism as they have been developed over the centuries.

What has sent these intellectuals from Milton to the Levelers? It is this. Milton was an intellectual aristocrat. He represents the intellectual counterpart of Cromwell, the soldier, politician and administrator, and of Hobbes, the philosopher. The diversity of these three men is linked together by a profound bond, much clearer today than it was a generation ago.

The struggle for power around 1649 brought forth three distinct elements characteristic of all modern revolutionary periods. The Presbyterians represented the right wing of the revolution ready to come to terms with the monarchy. The other revolutionary forces, however, were composed of two elements. The one, the Levelers, were the genuine democrats, “consistent republicans.”

The other was the Fifth Monarchy men, the Saints. They helped to abolish the monarchy, but they were not in any sense democrats. Their theory was that there had been four corrupt monarchies in the past history of the world and the time had come for the Fifth Monarchy, which was to initiate the rule of Christ on earth.

They, the soldiers, bureaucrats and priests, were the Saints. They conceived themselves as the elect, the direct exponents of the doctrines of God which they interpreted and manipulated to suit their consuming desire to institute the rule of order and righteousness upon earth. The Saints were doctrinaires but Cromwell, empirical as he was, leaned strongly to their type of political thought and men of this stamp were the foundation of his government.

Hobbes, the philosopher, might ridicule all religion, but the cast of his thought was equally authoritarian and the truth is that Milton, in his conception of intellectuals as men of virtue and learning who were to lead the people to the higher life, belonged as did Hobbes and Cromwell to this type which conceived itself as the chosen. It is very easy to misunderstand them. When Don Wolfe calls Cromwell a spiritual fascist, he is talking nonsense. Cromwell rooted out a decaying system; fascism tries to prop it up. That theoretician is lost who does not begin from the fact that Hobbes as a political philosopher, Cromwell as a leader of the revolutionary bourgeoisie, and Milton as artist and revolutionary intellectual stand foremost among the makers of the new bourgeois society. But it is the approach of another new world which has driven questing intellectuals to recognize that not only in democracy and political philosophy but as humanists, in the sphere of culture, it was the Levelers, not Milton who had the root of the matter in them.

Stalinist Confusion on Milton

Do the Stalinists help in any way to bring this out? Not they. In their volume celebrating 1640 they publish three articles and one of them is an article on Milton by Rickword, a well-known British intellectual who says:

“Nothing could negate his (Milton’s) testimony to his belief that men can construct a society for themselves in which a reasoned and conscientious discipline will liberate the active virtue in each individual.”

It sounds innocent enough. Read on:

“How is it that such a society did not come about in Milton’s day? If Milton could only think in terms of individuals, yet be nearly puts bis finger on the spot. The men were wanting who could bring into being the ideas of organisation latent in the advanced speculation of the time. Such a class of men was only to be created in a furnace of suffering, in which the justice and mercy of Milton’s inspiration seemed to be consumed utterly.”

It is a confusing passage. Let us put the best interpretation on it possible. Let us assume that by the class of men who were missing he means the proletariat trained and disciplined in the stern school of capitalist production. That only makes the blunder more glaring. Milton’s ideas were the exact opposite of a universal socialism. He was authoritarian. His ideas were not “the advanced speculation of the time.” It is precisely this that the modern researchers and critics disprove. It was the Levelers who sought not only complete democracy but posed in militant fashion the social and intellectual well-being of the great masses of the people.

In the tercentenary issue of Modern Quarterly for 1949, there is yet another article on Milton: John Milton and the Revolution. The article is on a very low political level but its reactionary content is high. Recognizing Milton’s notorious leaning to the chosen few, the author claims that Milton went “most seriously wrong in overestimating their numbers and influence”; Milton counted wrong. That was all. The writer has the audacity to compare the “inner paradise” of Milton with Lilburne’s final conversion to Quakerism. This is indeed monstrous.

Lilburne fought passionately for individual freedom. But, as Davies and Haller point out in their introduction to the tracts, “In the Levellers ... Puritan individualism sought to save itself from anarchy by organizing not dissident communions of saints but an all-inclusive community of citizens! This was the larger meaning of Lilburne’s career.” Precisely. And just this was the social as opposed to the political revolution. Milton was blind to this and this defect in him must be the starting point not only of the political but of the strictly literary, criticism of his prose and his poetry.

Here, perhaps, more than anywhere else, the Stalinists play their most obviously reactionary role in their misinterpretation of the revolution. For it is in. the field of literature that the modern evaluation of the Levelers is most startling and constitutes a great enrichment of revolutionary doctrine. For here, too, the Levelers take the first place.

Today it is quite clear that the Milton of Paradise Lost and Samson Agonistes represented the end of an age. Satan and Samson are heroic, symbolical characters, like the jealous Othello, the ambitious Macbeth, the vacillating Hamlet. Elizabethan also is the prose of Milton’s great tracts on divorce, freedom of speech, etc., magnificent but turgid, uncertain.

The new in literature was the straightforward, plain, simple prose style. And the men who created it were the Puritan preachers, not Dryden, Addison and Steele, as all the bourgeois school books say. The Puritan propagandists were the founders of the style which is the basis of modern English to this day.

Literature and Revolution

They did more. In their efforts to dramatize their theological doctrine, they introduced the autobiographical narrative, dialogue, and the dramatic scene, all of which were the direct ancestors of the modern novel. Haller recognizes that not only Paradise Lost but Pilgrim’s Progress and Robinson Crusoe came directly from the left-wing Puritans. Bunyan was at one time a soldier in Cromwell’s army, and Defoe, though he belonged to the next generation, was himself a dissenter and was taught by a man who was a famous exponent of Puritan doctrines.

The three books which represent bourgeois society before the rise of the working class movement are Pilgrim’s Progress, the struggle of the poor; Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, the odyssey of the individual capitalist, and Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, the revolt (without hope) against the immorality and corruption of bourgeois society.

Swift hated the dissenters but his prose writing, thought by many to have no superior in English, is the very highest pitch to which the plain style of the Puritans ever reached, while the savage indignation of his attack on bourgeois society is nothing else but Puritanism turned inside out; not only the book itself but his struggles on behalf of the Irish people testify to this. What the work of Haller above all has shown, however, is this: that the very finest exponents of the new plain straightforward style were not the preachers but the Leveler pamphleteers.

As a publicist, no one in English literature has ever approached the incomparable force and variety of Lilburne. In Thomas Walwyn can be found in germ everything that was to make Rousseau the great protagonist of modern individualism and the Romantic Movement in the eighteenth century, with the added virtue that here for the first time is someone who speaks from out of the people and as one of them; while Overton, the marvelous Overton, at his best has no superior in English as a writer of political journalism from the seventeenth century to the present day. His only peer is Tom Paine.

The abiding miracle of Overton is that this seventeenth-century writer is already completely modern and he could walk into a revolutionary newspaper office today, get the situation explained to him, and could write in a manner that would be immediately understood with delight by soldiers suffering the oppression of officers and workers suffering the oppression of bureaucracy.

It may appear from the writings of Lilburne, for example, that his work is something of a jumble. In reality it is not so. Those pamphlets appeared sometimes two or three times a week. They served the function of modern newspapers, and in one and the same pamphlet you will find what is equivalent to a theoretical article, an editorial, a piece of agitation and the latest news of the class struggle. In this sense they are the founders of modern journalism. And Defoe in his contributions to journalism merely expressed in more finished form what they had begun.

Of this truly wonderful chapter in the history of the revolution, the Stalinists have nothing to say. They are busy finding excuses for Milton’s shortcomings.

Why do the Stalinists show such consistent passion in building up the leaders of the bourgeois revolution and denigrating, obscuring, ignoring the role of the Levelers? They do this because (1) they have to justify the counter-revolutionary, Thermidorian role played by the Russian Stalinist bureaucracy in its suppression of the masses after a revolution which these masses achieved; (2) their incessant quest in every country for Popular Fronts, i.e., subordinating the proletariat to some mythically progressive sections of the bourgeoisie, involves of necessity an inflation of the national heroes of the bourgeoisie, and the stern suppression of the independent revolutionary achievements and characteristics of the masses. Theirs is no misinterpretation but a conscious and consistent miseducation of the proletariat in order to buttress their own reactionary policies.

A Failure in Fundamentals

The petty-bourgeois intellectuals Woodhouse, Haller, Davies and Wolfe have done work of real scholarship and genuine feeling. But they do not understand the Levelers precisely because they do not understand the revolution. They continually use the word “democracy” but when Haller and Davies speak today about democracy and draw conclusions from what Lilburne said, they are doing the exact opposite of what Lilburne represented. They are seeking to preserve the decaying social order. The democracy of the forces represented by Lilburne in 1649 implied the destruction of the existing social order, root and branch.

The work of these scholars nevertheless, in the correct hands, is a weapon against the bourgeoisie. For many years now the bourgeois trend has been to pay homage to men like Cromwell and Robespierre, strong figures, who corrected “social evils” but disciplined the masses. This too is at the root of the Stalinist misinterpretation, despite all their verbal reservations. The Marxist rehabilitation of Lilburne against Cromwell is part of the revolutionary struggle against the contemporary bourgeoisie and against Stalinism.

But the genuine Marxist study of the Levelers will have to wait. The Leveler “program” did not flare up in 1649 and then disappear for two hundred years, as all parties seem to believe. The belated recognition of their contributions to the Puritan revolution, the political philosophy and the literature of England, are a sign of the times. But what to the Levelers did goes deeper. Between 1645 and 1649, they brought the masses of the people, men and women, into politics by means of what were practically daily papers, and through mass meetings, mass demonstrations, and a wide variety of independent organizations. And in so doing they tore all religious, feudal, monarchic disguises from bourgeois society.

The essence of bourgeois society, more than any other society, is the class struggle, the conflict between the mass and the upper classes which rests on the specific economic foundation of society but must be expressed in social and political relations. That conflict was established in England between 1645 and 1649 in an unmistakable fashion and it was done under the leadership of the Levelers. Like the literature of England, the politics of England was never the same afterward.

It is, of course, true that there is much more to be said about the Levelers. They were not proletarian; they were petty bourgeois, in essence leaders of an intermediate class. But at that time the petty bourgeoisie was closer to the proletarian and semi-proletarian elements than it has ever been since. So that despite weaknesses organic to their unstable class position, they did pose the whole social question, and they posed it in terms of political power and a political method of action never before seen. They were the most consistent republicans and therefore in their actions, in their function, they were our ancestors.

One final word must be said in what is no more than an introductory outline. The accumulation of material and modern research (and this is bound to grow) confirms the main lines of analysis which Marx and Engels laid down. They still remain unchallenged as guides to the period. But the modern accumulation of material and detail gives modern Marxists more than a hitherto unrealizable insight into the gigantic achievements and the debt, in so many spheres, owed by the modern world to the Levelers and the petty-bourgeois yeomen and artisans on whom they mainly rested. We can legitimately say that if this was what such classes could do at that time, we have another touchstone by which to gauge the vast creative powers, in production, in politics, in philosophy, in literature, which are contained in a class so fundamental, comprehensive, and all-embracing as the modern international proletariat.

(A previous article on Cromwell and the Levellers appeared in the May 1949 Fourth International. Copies are still available.)


Last updated on: 11 April 2009