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International Socialism, Autumn 1999


Judy Cox

Dreams of equality:
the levelling poor of the English Revolution


From International Socialism 2 : 84, Autumn 1999.
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Brian Manning
The Far Left in the English Revolution 1640 to 1660
Bookmarks 1999, £7.95

A historian once described the history of the 17th century as ‘a battleground which has been heavily fought over ... beset with mines, booby-traps and ambushes manned by ferocious scholars prepared to fight every inch of the way’. Standard histories traditionally interpreted the events of the 1640s as a civil war between different wings of the ruling class. However, the Marxist interpretation, pioneered by Christopher Hill, centred on the conflict between two classes, the old aristocracy and the emerging bourgeoisie, with the bourgeoisie being propelled to greater militancy by the poorer sections of society. According to this account, the revolution shifted the balance of power decisively in favour of the emerging capitalists, and in turn facilitated the Industrial Revolution of the 18th century.

Yet despite the ongoing controversy which surrounds interpretations of the revolution, one important element has been neglected by historians: while many have examined the role of the aristocracy and the ‘middling sort’ in the events of the mid-17th century, few have given equal weight to the role played by the poor. Brian Manning’s new book makes an important contribution to the Marxist interpretation of the English Revolution, and also redresses this imbalance by focusing on the role of the poor and those who spoke for them. In order to do this, Manning seeks out the far left of the revolutionary movement, those who stood to the left of the leaderships of the radical Levellers, Fifth Monarchists and Quakers. The English Revolution was a bourgeois revolution, not a socialist revolution. However, as Engels pointed out in his Socialism, Utopian and Scientific, ‘In every great bourgeois movement there were independent outbursts of that class which was the more or less developed forerunner of the modern proletariat’, and at the heart of Manning’s book is his brilliant account of the groups that based themselves on those forerunners.

One of the great strengths of this book, besides the wealth of historical detail which Manning brings to the subject, is the weight he gives to the writings of the revolutionary tradition. This aspect of the book ensures it will find an audience amongst many who are not already familiar with the history of the English Revolution. Manning’s investigation of the far left wing is interwoven with insights into the process of revolution itself drawn from Marx, Engels, Trotsky, Lenin, Gramsci and Lukács. Thus this book achieves much more than its stated aim: it illuminates the previously shadowy figures of the poor in the revolution and at the same time applies a Marxist analysis of historical change and the revolutionary process to a particular historical situation.

Royalists, parliamentarians and soldiers

Placing the English Revolution firmly in the tradition of great revolutionary upheavals, Manning turns to Trotsky’s theory of dual power to explain how the class conflict at the heart of the revolution developed, how two classes competing for power could coexist, albeit uneasily, for a limited time: ‘The English Revolution of the 17th century...affords a clear example of the alternating dual power, with sharp transitions in the form of civil war.’ Manning develops this further, pointing out that the old order collapsed in 1642 but for the next three years neither the royalists nor the parliamentarians won a decisive victory. The crucial parliamentarian victory at the Battle of Naseby in 1645 ushered in an era of further conflict between the moderate parliamentarians and the highly political New Model Army led by Oliver Cromwell. Ultimately, state power hung between two distinct classes – the old order (the monarchy, the House of the Lords, and the church) and an aspiring class (the House of Commons, the merchants of the City of London, and army officers). Cromwell seized power because neither class seemed capable of imposing itself decisively on the situation. [1]

The conflict between the king and his court, and the wealthy merchants and landowners represented in parliament, has traditionally been used to reinforce the idea that the 1640s was merely a political revolution made by one faction of the ruling class against another. However, Manning argues that the divisions at the top of society should not disguise the role played by those at the bottom of the social hierarchy. During the revolution it was the poor who formed the backbone of the parliamentary forces and, in 1649, it was the poor, those who had no interest in maintaining the hierarchy and economic inequality of society, who were the basis for any extension of the revolution.

The middling sort and the poor

’The poor’ were not one homogenous group. Using the premise which Marx outlined in The Communist Manifesto, that the whole history of mankind has been a history of class struggle, Manning explains how that struggle was being transformed in the 17th century. The majority of the poor combined working the land, either their own small plot or common land, with selling any surplus on the market: they were small or petty producers. However, as capitalist methods of production developed through the extension of the market, increasing numbers of the rural poor found their access to land denied. Many were separated from the means of producing what they needed to live, and thus had to sell their labour power for wages. As Marx wrote, ‘The expropriation of the great mass of the people from the soil, from the means of subsistence, and from the means of labour, this fearful and painful expropriation of the mass of the people forms the prelude to the history of capital.’

This process was just beginning to have an impact on society in the mid-17th century, so it was the small producers who were the driving force of the English Revolution. Manning gives a fascinating account of the concerns of this class of people. Many groups articulated the resentment of the poor against the rich, but the Levellers and others also defended private property in order to safeguard the small producers’ ownership of the means of production. This class of small producers was capable of being extremely radical in defence of its own interests but, Manning argues, it is uncertain whether it was capable of developing a consistent revolutionary consciousness and organisation, as it was both exploited and the exploiter of family, servants, and so on: ‘The germs both of proletarian and industrial capitalist class consciousness were already contained in the craftsmen’. [2] The revolution helped to crystallise these emerging forces: the richer farmers became agrarian capitalists who supported the enclosures of the land which so devastated the lives of their poorer neighbours. Other, less fortunate, artisans and farmers were forced to join the ranks of the wage labourers.

The concerns of the labouring poor, as opposed to the farmers and artisans, were articulated by the most radical groups, such as the Diggers. Gerrard Winstanley, the Digger leader, wrote how wage labourers had their labour stolen from them and campaigned for the abolition of wage labour. Their alternative was the communal cultivation of the land, which was to be held in common ownership. The Diggers’ movement was crushed by the landowners, but Manning argues that their political ideas indicated that full time wage workers did develop the potential to form their own distinct class consciousness, a consciousness which shaped the egalitarian ideas put forward by the far left in the revolution.

Although the small producers and the labouring poor were often indistinguishable from each other in social status and political aims, Manning gives fascinating and suggestive descriptions of what was beginning to divide them as the labouring poor took their first tentative steps towards becoming a class in their own right. Manning provides a brilliant political context for the development of the poor as a political force, explaining how their ideas and their actions reinforced each other. He quotes Trotsky: ‘The immediate causes of the events of a revolution are changes in the state of mind of the conflicting classes. Changes in the collective consciousness have naturally a semi-concealed character. Only when they have attained a certain degree of intensity do the new moods and ideas break to the surface’. Manning combines this with Engels’ description of how revolutionary struggles work on the minds of the participants and onlookers until they explode in new political and religious ideas but remain within the assumptions created by the economic conditions of the different social groups.

The godly poor and the levelling poor

This understanding of how revolutionary ideas can remain embedded in assumptions inherited from past provides the basis for looking beneath the religious language which can disguise revolutionary intentions of 17th century radicals. Manning’s account of the contradictory role of religion in the 17th century sheds light on the ideology of that age and on the power of some religions today. Royalists, parliamentarians and the far left all claimed biblical justifications for their actions: ‘… the culture common to both upper and lower classes was a biblical culture, which could be interpreted in two ways – to defend the existing order or to attack the existing order. It contained within it subversive possibilities when transmitted through the experiences and traditions of the poor, and presented the potential for carrying the revolution to more extreme social changes’. [3] For the far left in the English Revolution, religion expressed class conflict and the overwhelming desire for economic equality. As Manning explains, ‘Invoking religious sanction for equality was revolutionary because it allowed for the overthrow of the existing economic and social order and its replacement by a wholly different one based on Christian equality’. [4]

Manning gives a real flavour of the heated biblical disputes which were conducted in taverns and markets as ordinary people began get to involved in the revolution. These religious debates often concerned competing political strategies. The far left developed their own brand of ‘practical Christianity’ which drew its strength not from theology and sermons but from actively helping those in need. This practical Christianity went beyond charity to call for the redistribution of wealth, ‘to empty the fullest bags, and pluck down the highest plumes’. [5] The god they appealed to was a levelling god, a god of class revenge, described here by Digger leader Abiezer Coppe: ‘For lo I come (says the Lord) with a vengeance, to level also ... your honour, pomp, greatness, superfluity, and confound it into parity, equality, community; that the neck of horrid pride, murder, malice, and tyranny, etc. may be chopped off at one blow.’

Manning’s book reveals how the far left of the English Revolution can be seen as providing the fertile seed bed from which socialist ideas would grow. The low level of social development in the 17th century limited the scope of the radicals, both in terms of the strength of the social groups they represented and of their ideas. Many believed divine intervention would achieve their revolution and that god would level society for them, but the experience of revolution did pull in the opposite direction. In a wonderful quote from Gerrard Winstanley, Manning reveals how the radicals understood the disarming role religion could play: ‘For while men are gazing up at heaven, imaging after a happiness, or fearing a hell after they are dead, their eyes are put out, and they see not what is their birthright, and what is to be done by them here on earth while they are living’. [6] Armed with such views, many decided to give their levelling god a helping hand.

The Diggers went furthest in carrying out the will of god through their own actions. ‘The Digger colony on St George’s Hill was intended to be the first stage in a sort of general strike against wage labour’. [7] Such strikes would have required a far greater level of organisation than that of which the small bands of Diggers were capable, and the strikes which took place during the revolution were hard to sustain as wage labourers were isolated and under the scrutiny of their employers. The emerging proletariat was, in the words of Eduard Bernstein, as yet ‘an inchoate class’. But in many ways the strategies they attempted and the goals they fought for have a surprisingly familiar ring to socialists today.

Manning draws a distinction usually applied to the Chartist movement, between ‘moral force’ radicalism of groups like the Diggers who relied on persuasion and symbolic actions, and ‘physical force’ radicalism which sought to overthrow the regime through armed uprisings. However, he points out that the two wings were not mutually exclusive: manifestos and peaceful demonstrations were seen as compatible with armed revolt and many radicals combined the two strategies. Manning examines two revolts in order to illustrate this point. The stories of these revolts make exciting reading but the narratives also indicate how the course of the revolution was not predetermined or inevitable but was punctuated by attempts to force it into more radical channels.

Revolt in the army

The first uprising Manning looks at is the Corporal’s Revolt of 1649. Corporal William Thompson was dismissed from the army for brawling, became close to the Leveller John Lilburne and agitated among the soldiers. He was court-marshalled for attempting to stir up mutinies in solidarity with the Leveller army revolt of 1647 but he escaped his death sentence. After the regimental revolts which ended at Burford in May 1649, Thompson and around 120 comrades launched an insurrection at Banbury. Thompson went beyond inciting soldiers to mutiny and called for a rebellion against cruelty, tyranny and oppression. After being routed by troops loyal to the republic, Thompson and about 12 companions were isolated and eventually overrun by army regiments. Thompson was killed in this encounter.

This uprising receives little attention today, but contemporaries considered it to be more threatening than the Diggers’ commune: Thompson was called the General of the Levellers, and Thompson the Great. Neither was Thompson an isolated, congenitally violent fanatic, as some historians have argued. He enacted a physical force Levellerism which was not an aberration. For example, John Lilburne called for armed revolt when he and others were arrested in March 1649. At this point armed insurrection was an option being considered by many beyond the ranks of Thompson and his band of insurrectionaries. They were being propelled in that direction by events, by the establishment of an army dictatorship and the use of force against the Levellers themselves. There was also a continuity between Thompson’s insurrection and the political strategy of the Diggers. As Manning explains:

William Thompson and Gerrard Winstanley were both revolutionaries. Thompson sought primarily a political revolution and Winstanley primarily a social revolution, and Thompson pursued his objective by physical force and Winstanley by moral force. However, revolution truly is directed at both social and political transformation and involves continuity between moral and physical force. [8]

Revolt in the church

Thompson’s revolt was based on one of the two great centres of radicalism in the revolution, the army. The Coopers’ Revolt in 1657 was based on the other, the congregations of the dissident religious sects. Thomas Venner was the leader of a Fifth Monarchist congregation in Swann Alley, London. The congregation was made up of small producers and artisans. They believed that the kingdom of Jesus Christ was coming but thought they could hasten his arrival: ‘Their millennial dreams were sharpened by poverty and they had no social position at stake to restrain them.’ Venner and his congregation published a declaration inviting the people to stand up for Christ and their own liberties, and called for revolt to replace King Oliver with King Jesus. They called for a raft of reforms, indicating that they hoped to inspire a mass movement. Large numbers of copies of their programme were printed and distributed around London by the sisters of the congregation. Their planned revolt was nipped in the bud by a troop of horse sent by the government to arrest the revolutionaries. They were caught as they prayed for the success of their revolt in a house in Shoreditch, surrounded by weapons and military provisions. While the number committed to the rebellion was small (between 40 and 300), they expected thousands to flock to their standard. Venner and his comrades were imprisoned until just before the Restoration in 1660 but in January 1661 the irrepressible Venner launched another revolt on the city of London. It was soon crushed, but not until the city was thrown into panic, as documented by diarist Samuel Pepys.

The seedbeds of socialism

The outbursts of independent activity by the poor which Engels described remained isolated and were often strangled at birth, or in early infancy, because the classes they represented were not yet coherent enough to sustain independent organisation. But they were significant. They showed the possibilities which the revolution opened up, and began the discussions which have continued to be central to the working class movement. The debates which engaged the English revolutionaries – whether to wait for divine intervention from above or take direct action, whether to rely on moral force or physical force (or a combination of the two), how to stir the masses into action – were debates which rose again in the Chartist movement of the 19th century, and in every mass movement since. The 17th century radicals dreamt of a society of equality and freedom, the same dream which inspired the the Utopian Socialists two centuries later. The experience of the Chartists and the writings of the Utopian Socialists were drawn on by Marx and Engels as they formulated the theory which could show how to make the Diggers’ dream of equality a real possibility.

The Far Left in the English Revolution is a brilliant book. It gives an exciting flavour of the revolutionary possibilities in our past, without sacrificing its theoretical clarity. It deepens our understanding of the forces whose struggles shaped the outcome of the English Revolution and it encourages a deeper understanding of a Marxist account of historical change and what makes a revolution. Manning’s account of the revolution helps to illuminate aspects of the revolution such as the shifts in consciousness, the changing relationship between ideology and experience, and the question of state power. All of this means it is a book which helps us understand the past as part of the future.


1. It was also the largest concentration of wage labourers in the country, and sharp class divisions existed in the army. In the 1640s the rank and file demonstrated deep political consciousness, which turned to disillusionment in the 1650s under Cromwell’s Protectorate. By 1659 soldiers were owed £900,000, and when Charles II promised to pay all arrears, the soldiers proved just as decisive in the restoration of the monarchy as they had in its overthrow.

2. K. Kautsky, quoted in B. Manning, The Far Left in the English Revolution 1640-1660 (Bookmarks 1999), p. 20.

3. Ibid., p, 34.

4. Ibid., p, 40.

5. Quoted ibid., p, 45.

6. Quoted ibid., p77.

7. C. Hill, quoted ibid., p. 64.

8. Ibid., p. 111.

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