Leon Trotsky’s Writings on Britain
Volume 1

History And Culture

The Seventeenth-Century

In England serfdom had disappeared in actual fact by the end of the fourteenth century – that is, two centuries before it arose in Russia and four and a half centuries before it was abolished. The expropriation of the landed property of the peasants dragged along in England through one Reformation and two revolutions to the nineteenth century. The capitalist development, not forced from the outside, thus had sufficient time to liquidate the independent peasant long before the proletariat awoke to political life.

From Chapter 3 of The History of the Russian Revolution (1931)

* * *

The English revolution of the seventeenth century, exactly because it was a great revolution shattering the nation to the bottom, affords a clear example of this alternating dual power, with sharp transitions in the form of civil war.

At first the royal power, resting upon the privileged classes or the upper circles of these classes – the aristocrats and bishops – is opposed by the bourgeoisie and the circles of the squirearchy that are close to it. The government of the bourgeoisie is the Presbyterian Parliament supported by the City of London. The protracted conflict between these two regimes is finally settled in open civil war. The two governmental centres – London and Oxford – create their own armies. Here the dual power takes a territorial form, although, as always in civil war, the boundaries are very shifting. Parliament conquers. The king is captured and awaits his fate.

It would seem that the conditions are now created for the single rule of the Presbyterian bourgeoisie. But before the royal power could be broken, the parliamentary army has converted itself into an independent political force. It has concentrated in its ranks the Independents the pious and resolute petty bourgeoisie, the craftsmen and farmers. This army powerfully interferes in social life, not merely as an armed force, but as a Praetorian Guard, and as the political representative of a new class opposing the prosperous and rich bourgeoisie. Correspondingly the army creates a new state organ rising above the military command: a council of soldiers’ and officers’ deputies (“agitators”). A new period of double sovereignty has thus arrived: that of the Presbyterian Parliament and the Independents’ army. This leads to open conflicts. The bourgeoisie proves powerless to oppose with its own army the “model army” of Cromwell – that is, the armed plebeians. The conflict ends with a purgation of the Presbyterian Parliament by the sword of the Independents. There remains but the rump of a parliament; the dictatorship of Cromwell is established. The lower ranks of the army, under the leadership of the Levellers – the extreme left wing of the revolution – try to oppose to the rule of the upper military levels, the patricians of the army, their own veritably plebeian regime.

But this new two-power system does not succeed in developing: the Levellers, the lowest depths of the petty bourgeoisie have not yet, nor can have, their own historic path. Cromwell soon settles accounts with his enemies. A new political equilibrium, and still by no means a stable one, is established for a period of years.

From Chapter 11 of The History of the Russian Revolution (1931)

* * *

In the middle of the seventeenth century the bourgeois revolution in England developed under the guise of a religious reformation. A struggle for the right to pray according to one’s own prayer book was identified with the struggle against the king, the aristocracy, the princes of the church, and Rome. The Presbyterians and puritans were deeply convinced that they were placing their earthly interests under the unshakeable Protection of divine providence. The goals for which the new classes were struggling commingled inseparably in their consciousness with the texts from the Bible and the forms of churchly ritual. Emigrants carried with them across the ocean this tradition sealed with blood. Hence the extraordinary virility of the Anglo-Saxon interpretation of Christianity. We see even today how the minister “socialists” of Great Britain back up their cowardice with these same magic texts with which the people of the seventeenth century sought to justify their courage.

From Chapter 1 of The History of the Russian Revolution (1931)

* * *

Let us first look at the religious Reformation, which proved the watershed between the Middle Ages and modern history; the deeper were the interests of the masses that it involved, the wider was its sweep, the more fiercely did civil war develop under the religious banner, and the more merciless did the terror become on the other side.

In the seventeenth century England carried out two revolutions. The first, which brought forth great social upheavals and wars, brought amongst other things the execution of King Charles I, while the second ended happily with the accession of a new dynasty. [1] The British bourgeoisie and its historians maintain quite different attitudes to these two revolutions: the first is for them a rising of the mob – the “Great Rebellion’; the second has been handed down under the title of the “Glorious Revolution”.1 The reason for this difference in estimates was explained by the French historian, Augustin Thierry. [2] In the first English revolution, in the “Great Rebellion”, the active force was the people; while in the second it was almost “silent”. Hence, it follows that, in surroundings of class slavery, it is difficult to teach the oppressed masses good manners. When provoked to fury they use clubs, stones, fire. and the rope. The court historians of the exploiters are offended at this. But the great event in modern “bourgeois” history is, none the less, not the “Glorious Revolution” but the “Great Rebellion”.

From Chapter 4 of Terrorism and Communism (1920)

* * *

But was parliamentarism born on the Thames by a peaceful evolution? Was it the fruit of the “free” foresight of a single monarch? No, it was deposited as the result of a struggle that lasted for ages, and in which one of the kings left his head at the crossroads.

The historic-psychological contrast mentioned above between the Romanovs and the Capets can, by the way, be aptly extended to the British royal pair of the epoch of the first revolution. Charles I revealed fundamentally the same combination of traits with which memorists and historians have endowed Louis XVI and Nikolai II. “Charles, therefore, remained passive,” writes Montague [3], “yielded where he could not resist, betrayed how unwillingly he did so, and reaped no popularity, no confidence.” “He was not a stupid man”, says another historian of Charles Stuart, but he lacked firmness of character ... His evil fate was his wife, Henrietta, a Frenchwoman, sister of Louis XIII, saturated even more than Charles with the idea of absolutism.” We will not detail the characteristics of this third – chronologically first – royal pair to be crushed by a national revolution. We will merely observe that in England the hatred was concentrated above all on the queen, as a Frenchwoman and a papist, whom they accused of plotting with Rome, secret connections with the Irish rebels, and intrigues at the French court.

But England had, at any rate, ages at her disposal. She was the pioneer of bourgeois civilization; she was not under the yoke of other nations, but on the contrary held them more and more under her yoke. She exploited the whole world. This softened the inner contradictions, accumulated conservatism, promoted an abundance and stability of fatty deposits in the form of a parasitic caste, in the form of a squirearchy, a monarchy, House of Lords, and the state church. Thanks to this exclusive historic privilege of development possessed by bourgeois England, conservatism combined with elasticity passed over from her institutions into her moral fibre. Various continental philistines, like the Russian professor Milyukov [4], or the Austro-Marxist Otto Bauer [4], have not to this day ceased going into ecstasies over this fact. But exactly at the present moment, when Britain, hard pressed throughout the world, is squandering the last resources of her former privileged position, her conservatism is losing its elasticity, and even in the person of the Labourites is turning into stark reaction. In the face of the Indian revolution the “socialist” MacDonald [6] will find no other methods but those with which Nikolai II opposed the Russian revolution. Only a blind man could fail to see that Great Britain is headed for gigantic revolutionary earthquake shocks, in which the last fragments of her conservatism, her world domination, her present state machine, will go down without a trace. MacDonald is preparing these shocks no less successfully than did Nikolai II in his time, and no less blindly. So here too, as we see, is no poor illustration of the problem of the role of the “free” personality in history.

From Chapter 6 of The History of the Russian Revolution (1931)

Volume 1, Chapter 1 Index


1. The accession of William III (William of Orange) in 1688.

2. Augustin Thierry (1795-1856), French historian.

3. Francis Montague (1858-1935), British historian

4. Pavel Nikolayevich Milyukov (1858-1943), historian and liberal politician in pre-revolutionary Russia; foun der of the Consatitutional Democratic (Kadet) Party; member of first Provisional government in 1917; forced by mass movement to resign; after the October he supported and advised the counter-revolutionary White forces during the Civil War and then went into exile in Paris, where he edited an anti-Soviet Russian-language paper.

5. Otto Bauer (1881-1931), Austrian Social Democrat, leading theoretician of the Austro-Marxist school.

6. Ramsay MacDonald (1866-1937), Scottish Labour politician, member of Independent Labour Party (ILP), adopted pacifist position during World War I, prime minister in the first (1924) and second (1929-1931) Labour governments, defected in 1931 with Philip Snowden and Jimmy Thomas to form National Government with the Conservatives after the Labour government split on the question of cutting unemployment benefits, served as prime minister until 1935.

Volume 1 Index

Trotsky’s Writings on Britain

return return return return return

Last updated on: 2.7.2007