Norah Carlin Archive   |   ETOL Main Page

Norah Carlin

The First English Revolution

(April 1983)

First published by Socialists Unlimited for the Socialist Workers Party in April 1983.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).


1. The landowners’ conservative revolution

2. Merchants and manufacturers

3. The rise of capitalism

4. Popular struggles and the development of the crisis

5.Revolution and class conflict

6. Religion and revolution

7. Class and Puritanism

8. Presbyterians and Independents

9. Separatism, heresy and freedom

10. The politics of the Levellers

11. Leveller organisation and the army

12. Gerrard Winstanley and communism

13. The Digger experiment

14. The Ranters

15. Oliver Cromwell and a world made safe for capitalism

16. ... stage 2

17. Revolution and empire

18. On the side of history?

Further Reading


THERE IS A MYTH that revolutions are somehow un-English, that English history has developed by gradual evolution, without sudden or violent transformations, by a process of compromise and co-existence.

Yet everyone is taught in school that in the mid-seventeenth century state power in England was seized by violence. There was a bitter civil war from 1642 to 1645, King Charles I was executed in 1649, and monarchy was replaced first by a republic or ‘Commonwealth’ (1649–53) and then by the Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell (1653–8). What was this if not a revolution?

Many attempts have been made to explain it away. The present favourite among English academics is that it was a result of a misunderstanding and miscalculation among a political elite. These men were not ‘wild-eyed fanatics ... they were men of substance and wealth, men of broad acres with a stake in the country,’ writes J.H. Hexter. They were ‘for the most part deeply conservative men who sincerely believed they were defending ancient and traditional rights,’ says another historian, R. Ashton.

So if the revolution cannot be made to disappear entirely from history, perhaps it can be reclaimed for the Tory Party as the work of honest but confused Conservatives!

But this is a complete distortion. No revolution is a single, simple process; no revolution is finished by the same leaders or even by the same class that began it. Revolutions hardly ever begin without a split in the existing ruling class, some calling for concessions to change and others for die-hard resistance. To take this initial split in the ruling class as the whole revolution itself is seriously to misrepresent it.

In revolutions people and events are transformed very rapidly. Ideas, aspirations and actions which would have seemed impossible a year or ten years earlier suddenly come within the grasp of masses of people. The French bourgeoisie – middle class – threw off centuries of accommodation to feudal society in just two years between 1787 and 1789; workers in Hungary in 1956 and in Poland in 1980 took actions which they as well as others would have thought inconceivable a few months earlier.

That is why the English Revolution of 1640–1660 must be examined from start to finish – what people said, what they did, during the revolution – if we are to grasp what it was about.

1. The landowners’ conservative revolution

THE REVOLUTIONARY CRISIS BEGAN in 1640, when Charles I was forced to summon parliament, after an eleven years’ gap, to deal with the grievances of the land-owning class.

Parliament, which did not meet regularly as it does today, consisted of the House of Lords, where landowners with noble titles (peers) all sat in person; and the House of Commons, where landowners without titles (known as the gentry) sat as representatives of the towns and shires. The landowning class was divided by many other distinctions of wealth and title, but the near-unanimity with which they confronted the king in 1640 is remarkable. The ‘Country Party’, as it was called, was massive, extending from earls and barons down to the ‘parish pump’ gentry who were lords of only one or two manors. The ‘Court Party’ was reduced to little more than a circle of royal favourites and merchants whose support the king had bought by granting monopolies in various branches of trade.

The dispute between the landowning class and the king was basically about the distribution of power between them. Neither the king nor the land-owners wanted a radical transformation of society nor the dominance of any new class. The old feudal landowning class had ruled the counties, as Justices of the Peace and other officers, in partnership with the monarchy for over a century and a half, and they had no desire to see the balance changed. They thought of themselves as the ‘natural rulers’ of society.

But Charles I, like his predecessors Elizabeth and James I, had been trying to step up central control in order, as he saw it, to cope with the problems of a changing society – problems of law and order, of religion and of finance. One feature of the partnership between king and land-owners had long been that land was undertaxed, and only parliament could increase the taxes. Bankruptcy now forced Charles I to call parliament in 1640, bankruptcy caused by a taxpayers’ strike when Charles embarked on an unpopular war against the Scots.

The leaders of the opposition – who were peers, gentry and their ambitious lawyers – were eager for a confrontation with the king. They insisted on a number of constitutional reforms: limiting the king’s powers of discretion (‘the royal prerogative’), abolishing certain royal courts, recognising the necessity for regular parliaments, and so on.

If possible, these people wanted power for themselves: they would gladly have stepped into the shoes of the existing royal favourites, and the king would have received massive support if he had accepted them. But Charles wanted to retain his freedom of choice. He soon made it abundantly clear that he could not be trusted to pursue policies more satisfactory to the landowning class without some kind of coercion. By 1642 the opposition were prepared to use military force.

During the process of parliamentary debate and manoeuvre, however, the situation outside parliament had been transformed. The broad-based ‘Country’ opposition of 1640, which had for a time involved the landowning class throughout most of the country, had melted away. Many had consciously transferred their allegiance to the king, and now became the nucleus of a royalist party that had not existed in 1640; others tried to stop either side from mobilising and promoted ‘neutrality pacts’ in their areas; many simply kept their heads down until the advance of one or other of the armies in the next three years made commitment inevitable.

If it had been left to the land-owning class, there would have been no civil war. The opposition politicians in parliament would have been left without support outside the one or two areas which they had tied up in advance by their own powerful networks of patronage.

But it was not left to the landowning class. Other classes and other conflicts had entered the arena, conflicts which meant there was no turning back. For the parliamentary leaders, by their attempts to rally support outside their own class, had encouraged the release of all the pent-up bitterness of class conflict.

2. Merchants and manufacturers

THE MERCHANT CLASS did not show an altogether united response to the political crisis. The richest merchant groups, like the landowners, opposed the king in 1640 but had doubts about the escalation in the next two years. They readily attacked the trading monopolies that Charles I had granted to his hated courtiers from outside the London merchant community, but were equally concerned to defend their own monopolies – such as the East India Company’s charter or the Newcastle Hostmen’s monopoly of coal exports.

Nevertheless it was the merchant community, particularly the merchants of London, who precipitated the crisis of 1640 by refusing to lend any more money to Charles I for his unpopular war.

In London, the crucial seat of merchant wealth and power, the City government was taken over in 1641–2 by a new set of merchants who were more generally sympathetic to the opposition. These were mainly very wealthy men, not part of the previous ruling clique, but with extensive interests in the new Atlantic and colonial trades or in provisioning and manufacturing, rather than in the East India or Mediterranean trades like their predecessors. When parliament started to raise an army in the early months of 1642, the wealth of the City guilds and corporations was at its disposal.

Manufacturers supported the war with far less hesitation than the merchants. Cloth manufacturers in the West Country had long-standing grievances against the attempts by the monarchy, in alliance with the London merchants, to regulate the quantity and quality of cloth they produced. In East Anglia, manufacturers of lighter cloths claimed that the king’s foreign and financial policies were to blame for periodic crises in their export trade. In other industries, such as metal manufacturing in the Midlands (which produced iron, steel, nails, ironmongery -and arms) or the Northampton boot and shoe area, leading manufacturers were quick to support parliament. In Birmingham a certain Mr Porter declared that his blade mill would produce swords only for parliament, and later mobilised his workers in defence of the town against Prince Rupert’s army in 1643.

3. The rise of capitalism

THESE MERCHANTS and manufacturers represented the new wealth of capital, wealth based, not on feudal rights over land and peasants, but on profits made from the goods produced by wage-workers.

The old-style merchant wealth of feudal times, based on luxury trades and the high profits of distant and dangerous voyages successfully accomplished, was giving way to a more direct intervention by merchants in production. Their wealth began to depend on exports – cloth, coal, arms – or on the new colonial commodities, sugar and tobacco, which were produced on slave estates in the Caribbean and North America. They encouraged specialisation and the regional concentration of production – such as cloth in East Anglia and the West Country, pots and pans in the Midlands -for internal exchange as well as for export.

The manufacturers organised such specialised production, not by building factories to employ workers in, but by getting control over production in the craft workers’ households. A manufacturer who supplied the raw materials and collected the finished goods at a fixed price needed very little capital to start with, but could make dozens or hundreds of formerly independent households dependent upon him for their livelihood.

This process, of reducing all the workforce to the level of wage-labourers, began at least two centuries before the industrial revolution and Marx called it the ‘primitive accumulation of capital’.

The new wealth of capital was also slowly beginning to transform the land. Under the feudal system, the landlord could make the peasant do unpaid work and pay rent either in produce or in money, while all matters concerning tenancy were settled in his own manor court presided over by his own agent. Although by 1600 the peasants were no longer serfs (that is, they were personally free), and they rarely had to give their labour unpaid except at harvest time, there were millions of ‘copyholders’ whose tenure of their family plots was still feudal. They could inherit, but had to pay the lord (usually with the family’s best beast) for the privilege.

Sixteenth and seventeenth century landlords, faced with rising prices, had raised their income from land using both feudal methods and new, capitalist ones. They used the manor courts to raise rents or transform the ‘best beast’ tax by levying payment in money instead, to evict squatters from common land in order to enclose it, or to persuade tenants to exchange their strips of land with one another so as to provide areas for enclosed cultivation or sheep-farming. The largest and best plots of land were then taken outside the feudal system and leased to commercial farmers for market rents.

This process of land ‘improvement’ was dividing the English peasantry into a few better-off farmers (yeomen) and a mass of landless or near-landless labourers. The impoverishment of the labourers, not only of land, but also of common rights, participation in the manor courts, self-respect and standing in village society, created in many places a pool of bitterness which overflowed into open rebellion in 1640–42.

4. Popular struggles

THE COUNTRY GENTLEMEN’S opposition of 1640 made a deliberate bid to win support from all classes, including those not previously regarded as part of the ‘political nation’. There were two general elections in 1640. The first, in April, elected what came to be known as the ‘Short Parliament’ – for another election followed in October, bringing the ‘Long Parliament’. During these elections, the first for twelve years, candidates opposed to the king and his court often tried to mobilise the largest possible number of voters, interpreting as broadly as they could the laws about who could vote – which varied from town to town and in the counties were open to various interpretations.

Hearing that a parliament was to be called to settle the people’s grievances, many people took matters into their own hands. There were anti-enclosure riots in over half the counties of England, and a nationwide wave of illicit hunting in private deer-parks. At Buckden in Huntingdonshire, a crowd of hundreds of women and boys threw down the Bishop of Lincoln’s hedges and fences and answered the Justice of the Peace who came to investigate ‘only with contemptuous words’. In the Fenlands of East Anglia and Lincolnshire, there was a more-or-less general rebellion against the draining of the swamps on the orders of landowning courtiers. The swamps were a rich source of common rights such as fishing and fowling, on which the poor depended.

As the parliamentary parties polarised into Royalist and Parliamentarian, there was a widespread refusal to pay rents to Royalist landlords. The tenants of several Royalists in Somerset even petitioned parliament to be allowed to pay their rents as a contribution to the war effort rather than to their landlords.

In Essex and Suffolk, crowds drawn from Colchester and the many surrounding cloth-producing towns and villages attacked the country houses of Royalist and Catholic lords, seizing arms and horses, drinking all the beer and wine, carrying off curtains and feather beds, destroying Italian gardens (a prime symbol of seventeenth-century aristocratic culture) and tearing up estate documents. For a few days in August 1642, the mere suspicion that a gentleman was a Royalist was enough to arouse the crowds, and some managed to escape only by ‘speaking well of the parliament’.

In London, the smaller merchants, shopkeepers, craftsmen and apprentices accompanied the main points of the acrimonious proceedings in parliament with large demonstrations. In May 1641 ten to fifteen thousand citizens were said to have gathered at Westminster, calling for the execution of the king’s hated favourite, Strafford. The MPs got so nervous that on 5 May, when part of a gallery collapsed under a fat MP, they thought they had heard a shot and the House was in uproar!

In late December 1641, crowds armed with clubs and swords called for the expulsion of the bishops from the House of Lords. On 27 December they ‘made a lane in both the Palace Yards, and no man could pass but whom the rabble gave leave to.’ In a demonstration outside Whitehall Palace, a shocked gentleman recorded, ‘they talked treason so loud, that the king and queen did hear them.’

This mobilisation of the people had a decisive effect on the attitudes of parliamentarians and the propertied classes. For some, popular violence (and rumours of more) confirmed their conservatism, and they became wholehearted supporters of the king, for ‘law and order’ against what they saw as the threat of anarchy.

For some Parliamentarians, however, the threat of royal tyranny was the greater danger. They defended popular mobilisation, dealt leniently with rioters, and pressed for concessions to popular demands. They had started the confrontation with massive support from the landowning class, and since that support had dwindled away they were quite prepared to rebuild their base with support from other classes.

Relations between the king and the opposition broke down completely in the spring of 1642. In October 1641 the Irish had risen in rebellion against English government and the colonisation of the North of Ireland. Both king and opposition wanted to smash the rebels (many London merchants were up to their necks in land deals in the North of Ireland), but neither side could trust the other with an army. So two armies were raised, one by parliament and one by the king, and in August 1642 they took the field against each other.

While the gentry in many counties were still trying to avoid obeying the orders of either side, the working people of London -men, women and children – rushed to defend their city. The ‘trained bands’ of apprentices and craftsmen halted the king’s first advance on London, and in the next few months the city was fortified with massive earthworks. The guilds and companies marched out to the fields with their craft banners to dig and embank, including ‘a thousand oysterwives from Billingsgate ... all alone, with drums and flying colours.’

As the Royalist forces advanced through the West Riding of Yorkshire in December 1642 the wealthy merchant corporation of Leeds saw fit to surrender, but the spinners and weavers continued to support parliament, and the artisan clothiers of Bradford and Halifax organised armed resistance.

5. Revolution and class conflict

THE PARLIAMENTARIAN LEADERS of 1642 were those who did not fear popular support. They were convinced that it was all in the best interests of the landowning class and the existing order of society. The ‘liberties’ of the landowning class and their parliament were identified with the general ‘liberty’ of the people of England; that the one meant privilege, and the other might mean the destruction of privilege, did not seem to bother them.

Was popular unity in the English Civil War a fact or an illusion? Was the Parliamentarian leadership ‘turning the mob on and off like a tap’, as the historian J.H. Hexter has claimed, or was it simply papering over the cracks of class conflict?

Slowly but surely, from the beginning of the war, the Parliamentarians split apart. First the aristocrats who led the army – such as the Earls of Essex and Manchester – began to hang back, appalled at the prospect of having to fight the war to a conclusion. A faction was organised in parliament to get rid of them (one of its most important members was a country gentleman and officer named Oliver Cromwell) and the New Model Army, based on fighting efficiency rather than inherited rank, and a national organisation rather than regional allegiances, was created to win the war.

As soon as the war was over, late in 1645, the London bourgeoisie began to press their own political program me. They wanted lands belonging to bishops and Royalists to be sold to finance government. They wanted an authoritarian church settlement without bishops. They wanted the crushing of the Irish, a task which had been somewhat neglected since 1642, and they wanted an independent military force based on London and under their control instead of the New Model Army.

By 1646 the ruling group in London was considerably to the right of those who had come to power in 1641–2. They were prepared to organise, together with the more conservative MPs, to get rid of the New Model Army and make peace with the king on their own terms. Their efforts came to a climax in July 1647 with the invasion of parliament by a mob of apprentices who held the MPs prisoner until they agreed to hand over control of the London militia to the Lord Mayor and aldermen.

But this attempt by the London bourgeoisie to organise their own coup failed for two reasons. One was that it encouraged a resurgence of out-and-out Royalism in London, which was a danger to all who had supported parliament since 1642. The other was that their attempts to remove the obstacle of the New Model Army led to the radicalisation of the soldiers themselves.

Asked to disband without arrears of pay or legal indemnity for their actions in war, the soldiers faced destitution, imprisonment for debts incurred while in the army, or even hanging for horsestealing by magistrates hostile to the parliamentary cause. Officers and men decided to stand together and petitioned parliament for redress of these grievances. The more parliament rejected their petitions and enlarged its plans for disbanding the army, the more radical the soldiers became. In April 1647 they elected ‘agitators’ to represent them to the generals and to parliament. By August the army, acting together, had seized the king and marched on London.

Within the army conflict developed between those who, in alliance with those London radicals known as the Levellers, wanted to move on and set up a new constitution and radically reform society, and those who feared just that. At the Putney Debates in November 1647, Cromwell and the generals decided to reject all radical constitutional proposals and abolish the democratic army council which had been set up in June. This led to a series of mutinies, the last of which was not crushed until 1649 at Burford.

In 1648 the outbreak of a conservative threat from below – the Clubmen risings, which were peasant revolts against both sides in the war in defence of ‘ancient liberties’ – led to a renewal of civil war, and for a time unity was reinforced on the Parliamentary side. But in the winter of 1648–9 the Parliamentarians again had to face the problem of class conflict, and the question whether the revolution was to go forward, turn back, or stop where it stood.

Before looking at what happened, we must examine the role that religion played in the crisis, and the birth of the first radical movements in English history.

6. Religion and revolution

NOWADAYS, religion would seem a very arbitrary basis for political choice, because religion is seen as essentially a private matter, a matter of conscience rather than the concern of the state, and so not a political matter.

But this attitude is a result of the revolution of 1640–60. At the outset of the civil war, all but a very few of the participants regarded enforcement of the ‘true’ religion as an essential part of law and order, one of the principal and most controversial functions of the state. The Reformation had destroyed the authority of the Pope in England, but the state had replaced him as the final arbiter in religious matters, so the question of who controlled the state was inevitably bound up with religious questions. Those who fought the English Civil War fought over how the state should implement Protestantism.

Religion, and especially the question of church government, became an inflammatory issue because of the way in which Charles I and his Archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud, used the system of bishops. Many Protestants, including the leaders of the French, Dutch and Scottish reformed Churches, considered bishops an evil papist institution contrary to the word of God. As Charles I encouraged Laud to enforce elaborate ceremonies, persecute dissidents and decrease the role of the people in the church, he made enemies of more and more of his subjects.

The name commonly given to the religious opponents of Archbishop Laud is ‘Puritans’. The word was at first deliberately used to try to amalgamate mild opponents of Laud’s policies with those who opposed the Anglican Church on more fundamental and radical grounds. But by 1640 the name was accepted with pride by many of Laud’s opponents – he had succeeded in uniting the opposition by persecuting everybody equally harshly.

Opposition to the Anglican Church went right back to its foundation in the reign of Elizabeth in 1559. Many Protestants even then thought that although the Anglican settlement was satisfactory in theological doctrine (officially it followed the teachings of the Genevan reformer John Calvin), it was very imperfectly reformed in ceremonies and discipline, since it preserved the skeleton of the Catholic Mass as its main service, and left the structure of bishops and church courts untouched except that they were controlled by the king instead of the Pope.

One of the most powerful traditions of opposition to the Anglican Church was reform from within. Puritan reformers did not wish to set up a rival church, but to change the existing one. Yet their practice varied according to the circumstances, and by 1640 many ‘reformers from within’ had been driven to the point of leaving the church – mainly for exile in the Netherlands or America.

The importance attached to the Bible, preaching, and lay participation in the affairs of the church were also common themes in the opposition to Laud, who stressed the service book, formal prayer and clerical hierarchy. Yet the practical meaning attached to each of these could vary enormously. The Bible may be the word of God, but who is to explain what it means? University-educated clergy? The lay Christian well-instructed? Or any labourer, peasant or woman who can read it? Preaching may be more important than formal prayer, but who is to be allowed to preach? And lay participation could mean anything from that of the paternalistic lord of the manor to grassroots democracy for the whole congregation.

Puritanism was a united movement only when in opposition. Deep divisions – often concerning radically different meanings that might be attached to the same phrase, such as ‘the godly people’ – did not simply emerge under the strain of war, they were always there. To identify Puritanism with one set of views, or one class position; to find the ‘typical’ or ‘average’ Puritan in the middle-class merchant or the independent small craftsman; to say that Puritanism was ‘essentially’ reform from within, or any one thing to the exclusion of others, obscures the issue.

The issue is, of course, the nature of ideology in general and of religious ideology in particular. What ideas make people believe they can act to change the world, and what ideas prevent them from even trying? This is why revolutionaries have always been fascinated by the effects of Puritanism in the English Civil War.

7. Class and Puritanism

FOR THE LANDOWNERS, Puritanism was away of identifying themselves as the ‘godly magistrates’ of the Protestant tradition. As such, it appealed to many of the peers as well as the gentry. Luther and Calvin, the founders of Protestantism, had laid the burden of responsibility for the godliness of society on the magistrates, in order to evade the question of whether Protestant peoples had the right to rebel against Catholic monarchs. The landowners’ Puritanism stressed the medieval rights of patronage that landowners held over parish churches, and insisted on the right of parliament, rather than the monarch and hierarchy of the church, to decide church policy and government. This type of Protestantism was not incompatible with feudalism; indeed, in France in the previous century it had been used mainly by backward-looking feudal nobles against the attempts of absolute monarchs to deprive them of their traditional independence.

The Puritanism of the bourgeoisie, however, was closely related to the rise of capitalism. It was an assertion of the middle-class values of thrift and accumulation against both the decadence of parasitic aristocrats and the squalor in which the poor often lived. Sober living and careful accounting, for middle-class Puritans, added up to long-term prosperity rather than ostentatious spending.

The middle-class Puritan stress on the duties of the father, as head of a household which included servants and workers as well as wife and children, brought patriarchy to the level of production. It was the counterpart of the centralised state, eliminating the old feudal hierarchies of lords and clergy in between. The capitalist morality of sex – the role of the woman being that of child-bearing property and obedient helper in the family business – was to be enforced through rigorous training of the conscience and the elimination of all ‘worldly’ distractions and enjoyments.

This kind of Puritanism opposed the old church and state hierarchies with the confidence of a secret elite: the ‘elect’ chosen by God for salvation. Though no one could be sure of his or her salvation, it was easier to identify the damned by their vices – typically the vices of the aristocracy and the poor.

Such views were in a sense very democratic, upholding the rights of the godly citizen against the old system of privileges based on birth; but at the same time they were highly authoritarian, for everyone else must be made to conform to the standard of the godly elect for the sake of social order.

Above all, the Puritanism of the bourgeoisie stressed the godly duty of hard work. Waste of time, waste of opportunities to contribute to society by productive work, were regarded as serious sins, and persistent poverty was taken as a sign of moral failing. The rich could, however, improve the prospects of the poor by providing work for them: the investment of capital in employing artisans or labourers was therefore seen as a Christian duty.

The need for labour discipline was strongly felt by employers in a society with more and more wage earners, but few or no factories. The ‘putting out’ system of manufacture, in which the employer supplied the materials and collected the products through an agent, allowed plenty of room for ‘idling’ and ‘cheating’, by which the small producers tried to redress the balance between themselves and the manufacturer. Because on-the-spot supervision was impractical, only self-discipline could provide the answer.

But this Puritan stress on hard work as a Christian duty was double-edged. From the point of view of the merchants and manufacturers, it justified their intervention in production in terms of the ‘Christian duty to create wealth’. But from the point of view of the small producers, it reinforced the value they placed on their own freedom and independence. If productive work was the Christian’s highest duty, then should not the Christian producer be protected from exploitation and oppression? Was it not unchristian to take advantage of and deliberately to impoverish honest craftsmen and their families? When religious radicals drew such conclusions they were following an alternative class logic to the ‘Protestant ethic’ of the bourgeoisie.

The democratic aspect of Puritanism was also elastic, though not capable of stretching the whole way. The further down the social scale the Puritan, the more democratic the remedies that seemed necessary to protect the ‘elect’ from oppression. But so long as the Calvinistic idea of predestination – the separation of humanity into those predestined to be saved and those to be damned – persisted, a theory of universal human rights was not possible, for somewhere a line had to be drawn between saints and sinners. Those who arrived at truly democratic positions during the revolution – including the Levellers and Diggers – did so by breaking with the Calvinist tradition of Puritanism.

8. Presbyterians and Independents

THE CLASS DIVISIONS among the Puritans began to emerge at the end of the war, in the form of controversies over church government which may seem to have little meaning today, but which were vital at the time. There were two main parties to the disagreement among the Puritans, the Presbyterians and the Independents, or Congregationalists. Three hundred years later, in the 1960s, these actually joined together to become the United Reformed Church. But they could not even agree to differ, let alone unite, in the 1640s. This was because the only thing on which they did agree was that there must be one form of church for the whole of society.

Church government was a question of state power and how it should be used. Religion was not a matter of individual choice but a social obligation. Church government was frequently referred to as ‘discipline’, and it was exactly that – a vitally important means of social control; in fact it was virtually the only ideological apparatus the state had.

Presbyterianism, as practised in the Netherlands, France and Scotland, was a system of church government that gave control to the rank-and-file clergy, with a few select members from among the better-off parishioners acting as lay elders. The clergy met in synods and assemblies to ordain new ministers and exercise discipline among themselves. For the people, there was great stress on moral discipline, with excommunication as a sanction against unacceptable behaviour.

Many members of parliament disliked the Presbyterian system because of the power it gave to the clergy. They feared, as Milton put it, that ‘new presbyter was but old priest writ large.’ But at an early stage in the war, the Parliamentarians had committed themselves to an alliance with the Scots, which included a promise to reform religion along Presbyterian lines as the Scots had done since their rebellion against Charles I in 1638.

The section of English society which stood most consistently for the full Presbyterian system, most furiously opposed to all modifications and most intolerant of diversity, were the London Presbyterian clergy and their supporters among the merchant elite. From 1646 the Common Council of London, which was the City’s ruling body, consisting of substantial merchants and master craftsmen elected by the freemen of the wards, organised the petitions and demonstrations (and in 1647 the mobs) which put constant pressure on parliament for a Presbyterian system, an end to toleration, and the smashing of their opponents in parliament and the army.

There is no question that at the start of the revolution, Presbyterianism was a revolutionary position. It expressed the determination, particularly among the bourgeoisie, to replace the existing church completely once and for all, to tear up the system of bishops ‘root and branch’, as a London petition of 1640 put it.

But with victory and the possibility of carrying out the Presbyterian programme, all its conservative implications came to the fore – its intolerance, its rigid, authoritarian brand of Calvinism, and the weight it gave to ‘substantial citizens’ as elders in the government of the church. Indeed it was so conservative that it became dangerous to the Parliamentarian cause, and nearly sold out the revolution altogether in 1646–7, when counter-revolution was prevented only by the march of the New Model Army on London.

Why were the London bourgeoisie prepared to go to the very brink of counter-revolution for a Presbyterian settlement? The reason, as they explained in many petitions and manifestos, was their fear of social anarchy. The ending of censorship and persecution in 1641 had led to the flourishing of a huge variety of religious opinions and practices, above all in London. Anti-Calvinist views appeared in print, congregations formed and reformed both inside and outside the parish churches, and some dispensed with clergy’ and service books altogether, having lay preachers or spontaneous contributions by the congregation.

One of the Presbyterian ministers, Thomas Edwards, wrote a famous series of pamphlets titles Gangroena, describing sixteen sects and 271 errors which ought to be suppressed. Toleration, he claimed, led to error, error to heresy, and heresy to atheism and social chaos. In the second and third editions of Gangroena, Edwards included information from all over the country sent in by other anxious Presbyterians.

The main alternative to Presbyterianism was called at the time Independency. Its modern name is Congregationalism, because it is a system of self-governing congregations – with the emphasis on system. Most Independents wanted to retain the parish system as it existed, but with each parish free to choose its own minister and form of worship under the general supervision of parliament and the magistrates. In this form, Independency was particularly attractive to the country gentry, whose sphere of influence was the parish.

The other side of Independency was the existence, mainly in London, of ‘gathered churches’, that is, congregations that were not parishes (though they often met in parish churches) but voluntary associations bound together by an agreement or ‘covenant’. Many of these gathered churches, which had sprung up illegally under Laud in the 1620s and 1630s, were led by ordained ministers and substantial citizens who did not wish to destroy or replace the parish system; they saw themselves as seeking ‘accommodation’, or toleration, within a national church.

Independency in religion, therefore, provided a bridge between the parish gentry in parliament (such as Oliver Cromwell) and those of the London bourgeoisie who rejected Presbyterianism. The church established by law in England in 1649 was Independent in structure: it had some Presbyterian features, such as ministers’ meetings, but was under the control of a parliamentary committee.

Some Independents felt more strongly than others about toleration – both the poet John Milton and Oliver Cromwell expressed principled opposition to any persecution of people for religion. But wherever they drew the line under freedom of opinion, all the Independents believed that the state had a duty to establish and maintain some kind of orthodox religion, however broadly defined. (Cromwell’s state church, for exam pie, was run by a committee that included Independents, Presbyterians and Baptists).

‘It is an undoubted maxim,’ said the 1644 manifesto of the London Independent ministers, the Apologeticall Narration, ‘that it belongs to Christian magistrates in an essential manner to be the authorises of reformation.’ They particularly insisted on an official system of financial support for the state church. Though many Independents criticised the existing system of tithes, they opposed the abolition of tithes until something could be found to take their place.

The really radical ideas on toleration and the freedom of religion from state interference were found not among the Independents but among the sects, Thomas Edwards’ bugbear, which were known as Separatists.

9. Separatism, heresy and freedom

SEPARATISTS did not believe in any churches other than voluntary associations of believers. Though this sprang perhaps from Calvinist elitism – the elect, who were small in number, having the right to break off relations with everyone else – the conclusions which Separatists drew from the English Revolution were libertarian, individualist and politically radical. It was from among such people that the Levellers, Diggers and Ranters emerged.

Separatist congregations in London had experimented with lay preaching, open debate and discussion instead of formal services, even women’s meetings and women preachers, which drew curious crowds to Thomas Lambe’s congregation in Bell Alley. They were accused of recruiting women without their husbands’ consent and servants without their masters’. They would have nothing to do with parishes or even church buildings, which they considered tainted with popery.

The first to make the Separatist position clear, in 1641 when the Independent ministers were trying to keep quiet and manoeuvre for recognition by the Presbyterians, was Katherine Chidley. In her Justification of the Independant Churches of Christ, she laid blame for religious differences fairly and squarely on the established church: ‘Now there must needs be a disagreement between Lambes and Wolves but the Lambes are not the cause thereof.’ She went out of her way to defend the right of working people to choose for themselves, ‘whether they be Taylors, Felt-makers, Button-makers, Tent-makers, Shepherds or Ploughmen or what honest trade so ever’, and spoke out for a woman’s right to choose in religion, for a husband ‘hath authority over her in bodily and civil respects, but not to be a lord over her conscience’.

Katherine Chidley was a haberdasher’s wife who had been expelled from the parish church in Shrewsbury in the 1620s for refusing the attend the superstitious and degrading ceremony of ‘churching’ after childbirth. She and her husband (who clearly supported her and is referred to as ‘my faithful yokefellow’ in one of her works) moved to London and joined one of the Separatist congregations which led an underground existence during Archbishop Laud’s rule.

According to Thomas Edwards, who called her ‘a brazen-faced, audacious old woman’, she took great delight in heckling preachers who preached in parish church buildings, with their old Roman Catholic associations. After her husband’s death she took over his business, selling stockings in bulk to Cromwell’s army in the 1650s, and her son, Samuel, became one of the leaders of the Levellers.

‘When women preach and cobblers pray,
The fiends of hell make holiday’

wrote a Royalist poet of the situation in London in the early 1640s. Men such as Thomas Edwards were convinced that freedom of opinion and religious practice would lead to the destruction of all religion – to free thought and atheism. How far did freedom of religion go in the English Revolution? Did it go beyond religion itself and challenge the basis of Christianity?

The charge of atheism was frequently made against William Walwyn, a Leveller merchant. Yet Walwyn’s beliefs were much closer to modern Christianity than those of the mainstream Puritans. He believed that if all Christians would only accept ‘That it is the bloud of Christ, which cleanseth us from all sinne; this evangelical truth of its own nature would instantly set man on work to do the will of him, that hath so loved him.’ His charge against the clergy was that they led people away from simple Christian truth, encouraging people to believe they were saints ‘for being of this or that opinion ... or for looking more sadly or solemnly than other people, or for dressing themselves in a peculiar manner... or for sucking in and sighing out reproaches, and slanders against their neighbours.’

‘I carry with me in all places,’ wrote Walwyn, ‘a Touch-stone that tryeth all things, and labours to hold nothing but what upon plain grounds appeareth good and usefull: I abandon all niceties and useless things: my manner is in all disputes reasonings and discourses, to enquire what is the use: and if I find it not very materiall, I abandon it, there are plain usefull doctrines sufficient to give peace to my mind’ (A Whisper in the Eare of Mr Thomas Edwards).

Walwyn, an old-fashioned merchant who believed in commercial skill, not exploitation, was a free thinker, but not an atheist.

Yet even this was enough to send respectable merchants and London ministers into a paranoid rage. It was not Puritanism that was modernising, rationalist and freedom-loving; on the contrary, it was the adversary of Puritanism, individualistic Separatism, that brought religion into the modern world. And that tendency flourished, not among the merchant elite and other wealthy citizens, but among small merchants and shopkeepers, artisans, women, apprentices and servants, who challenged the new authoritarianism as vigorously as the Puritans had challenged Archbishop Laud.

10. The politics of the Levellers

OUT OF THE Independent and Separatist congregations of London there emerged in 1646, under attack from the Prebyterians, a movement for religious toleration. As the Presbyterians organised for their attempted coup in 1647, it became evident that this movement would have to defend civil liberties as well, for one of its leaders, John Lilburne, was thrown into prison for his writings. And as the soldiers of the New Model Army began to organise spontaneously in their own defence against disbandment, a group of those active in the movement turned to address the army and work among the soldiers for a new constitution that would guarantee both religious and civil liberties. This is the group known to their contemporaries and to history (though they disliked the name themselves) as the Levellers.

The Levellers demanded a constitution that would guarantee equality. Equal electoral constituencies, annual elections, and the abolition of property qualifications for voting – these would lament, with king and lords abolished.

Much attention has been concentrated on the question of voting in all the various versions of the Leveller proposals, but the fundamental point was to prevent the concentration of political power in the hands of a few. Not only annual election, but a ban on re-election was part of the programme ‘for avoiding the many dangers and inconveniences apparently arising from the long continuance of the same persons in authority’. The alternative was to distribute offices and positions of trust – at both national and local level – among as many people as possible, ‘that all persons may be capable of subjection as well as rule’.

This was not just a ‘foreshadowing’ of modern democracy, it was an alternative to what Marxists are fond of calling, glibly but correctly, ‘bourgeois democracy’.

Further, democracy was not for the Levellers an end in itself. It is clear from many of their pamphlets and other publications that what they saw as the great evil in society was the concentration of economic power in the hands of the rich. The complaint of the poor against the rich is a common theme:

‘Look about you ... see how coldly, raggedly and unwholesomely they are clothed; live one week with them in their poor houses, lodge as they lodge, eat as they eat, and no oftener, and be at the same pass to get that wretched food for a sickly wife, and hunger-starved children; (if you dare do this for fear of death or diseases) then walk abroad, and observe the general plenty of all necessaries, observe the gallant bravery of multitudes of men and women abounding in all things that can be imagined; observe the innumerable numbers of those that have more than sufficeth,’ wrote William Walwyn in 1643.

The cause of all this is clearly identified as exploitation. Though monopolies and taxation are also blamed, especially the Excise Tax which weighed so heavily on the poor consumers, there is, it seems, a basic injustice which lies at the root of it all.

‘When with extreme care, racked credit and hard labour, ourselves and our servants have produced our manufactures, with what cruelty have ye wrought, and still work upon our necessities, and enrich yourselves upon our extremities, offering yea frequently buying our work for less than (you know) the stuff whereof it was made cost us; by which the like unconscionable means in grinding the faces of the poor, and advancing yourselves upon our ruins, most of you rich citizens come to your wealth,’ wrote the author of England’s Troublers Troubled in 1648.

‘You of the City that buy our work ... will give us but little or nothing for our work, even what you please, for you know we must sell for moneys to set our families on work, or else we famish,’ said another pamphlet, The Mournfull Cryes of Many Thousand Poor Tradesmen.

The Levellers were explicitly putting the case of the craftsman, formerly independent but now reduced to producing piece work for the merchant capitalist. Does this mean that they were unsympathetic to the labourer or wage-earner?

It has often been argued that because on some occasions the Levellers (or some of them) modified their demand for votes for all adult men to exclude ‘servants and almstakers’, they regarded the working class as disqualified from the political rights they claimed for the craftsman; the reason being that a master (employer) could influence a servant’s vote, thus reintroducing the concentration of political power.

The Levellers regarded economic independence – the right to the fruits of one’s own labour – as a basic human freedom, and in fact never recognised the name ‘Levellers’ because they did defend private property.

But it was an essential part of their programme that the opportunity for economic independence ought to be available to all. On the land, the feudal tenure of copyhold ought to be abolished, rather than simply denying the vote to copyholders. Similarly, poverty ought to be abolished by providing the poor with the means of independence. The hold of property owners over those dependent on poor relief ought to be broken by giving the poor control over charitable funds themselves; the Fens ought to be drained for the benefit of the poor; trade ought to be ‘improved’ so as to provide the poor with more work – and so on.

Before the rise of capitalism, wage earning was a common but usually temporary status. The journeyman, employed by a master craftsman (like ‘our servants’ in the petition quoted above) could hope to become a master craftsman himself in due course. The smallholder and his family on the land sought wage-labour or craft work as a supplement to the food they grew themselves. Even domestic servants were normally young, unmarried men and women saving from their wages to marry, in their mid-twenties, and set up an independent household of their own.

In the seventeenth century, the growth of lifelong wage slavery, the permanent loss of independence, was a greater grievance for the workers than the existence of the master craftsman’s small workshop with his one or two employees.

The Levellers, therefore, were opposed to the essence of the rise of capitalism in this period – the creation of a property-less, dependent labour force. They wanted to restore control over their own existence to those who had lost it, and if anyone should doubt the powerful appeal of such a programme to the dispossessed, they have only to think of the enthusiasm landless agricultural labourers have shown for small property in twentieth-century revolutions.

While rejecting the new capitalist exploitation, the Levellers showed no nostalgia for feudal society. They condemned everything about it – monarchy, nobility, tithes, clergy and lawyers. They wanted an alternative society of free, independent small producers. And they thought they had identified the solution that would guarantee this: equalisation of political power.

11. Leveller organisation and the army

THE WAY IN WHICH the Levellers organised made them the first grass-roots political party in English history. Organising petitions, canvassing support from door to door, mobilising demonstrations and processions – this was the focus of their activities. Their object was most clearly to politicise their audience as well as mobilise them. The purpose of circulating a petition, said John Lilburne to a meeting in Mapping, was ‘to inform the people of their Liberties and Priviledges; and not only to get their hands to the petition, for (said he) I would not give three pence for ten thousand hands [signatures].’

They had an organisation in each ward of the City of London, weekly subscriptions ranging from sixpence to half a crown according to income, two treasurers (the Levellers also had a systematic distrust of corruptible human nature), and a central committee of twelve who met three times a week in the Whalebone Tavern.

Because the Levellers saw the artisan or peasant household as the basic productive and political unit of society, they did not demand political rights, such as the vote, for women. But they did demand civil liberties, such as freedom of conscience, and they organised women’s petitions and demonstrations. It is no surprise to find Katherine Chidley, who first took up the pen in defence of freedom of conscience in 1641, leading one of the last Leveller demonstrations in London in 1653 demanding the release of John Lilburne from prison.

The Levellers were quick to recognise the importance of the revolt of the soldiers of the New Model Army in the spring of 1647.Here were men, drawn from the peasant, artisan and labouring classes, who had believed in a general way that they were fighting for liberty and justice, yet when they tried to present a petition for their own legitimate demands for arrears of pay and legal indemnity, they found their basic liberty denied.

Leveller writings soon found an enthusiastic audience among the soldiers, and there is no doubt that the events of 1647 – the Solemn Engagement of the Army not to disband in June, the seizing of the king and the march on London, were very much influenced by the Levellers. But there were limits to Leveller influence in the army, which they were unable to overcome.

The main problem was that though the officers and men had stood together from April to October, and generals such as Cromwell had the last resort, held the real power. When the Levellers proposed that the army take the responsibility of setting up a new democratic constitution in the autumn of 1647, this Agreement of the People was debated in the Army Council at Putney. In the course of the debate, Cromwell, Ireton and the other generals began to realise what the Levellers were proposing – indeed they saw further than the Levellers themselves, for they were convinced that private property would not survive in a radical democracy. They brought an end to the meetings of the representative Army Council, reimposed their own control, and refused to put the Agreement of the People to the army rendezvous at Ware in Hertfordshire.

There was substantial support for the Levellers among the soldiers: two regiments mutinied at Ware, and there were further mutinies up to that at Burford in May 1649. Again and again the appearance of sea-green ribbons or Leveller slogans – such as ‘England’s freedom: Soldiers’ rights’ – in the hats of the rank and file signalled the persistence of radical democratic ideas among the soldiers. But never again were the Levellers able to win or keep the support of enough of the men with enough of the resolve to go ahead and overthrow the generals and the old constitution.

How far Leveller tradition lingered on among soldiers and ex-soldiers during the Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell and after the Restoration of the monarchy is not clear. Never again did Levellers organise a successful military presence. Yet it was with a typically military metaphor that Richard Rumbold, one of the last of the Levellers, went to the scaffold in 1685 for his part in Argyll’s rebellion against James II. ‘I am sure,’ he said, ‘that there was no man born marked of God above another; for none comes into the world with a saddle on his back, neither any booted and spurred to ride him.’

12. Gerrard Winstanley and communism

THE GROUP KNOWN to history as the Diggers preferred the name True Levellers. Unlike the Levellers themselves, who rejected the title, they believed that a redistribution of political power was not enough to end exploitation and oppression. True freedom, they argued, consisted in the abolition of private property.

‘In the beginning of time,’ said their manifesto, The True Levellers’ Standard Advanced, ‘the great creator Reason made the earth to be a common treasury... for man had domination given to him, over the beasts, birds and fishes; but not one word was spoken in the beginning, that one branch of mankind should rule over another.’ Sin, or ‘selfish imagination’, has led to private property and the domination of the many by the few: ‘and that earth, that is within this creation made a common storehouse for all, is bought and sold and kept in the hands of a few, whereby the great creator is mightily dishonoured, as if he were a respecter of persons, delighting in the comfortable livelihood of some, and rejoicing in the miserable poverty and straits of others. From the beginning it was not so.’

The Digger programme, announced in this pamphlet of 1649, calls for an end to private property, money, and wage slavery:

‘This declares likewise to all labourers or such as are called poor people, that they shall not dare to work for hire for any landlord or for any that is lifted up above others; for by their labours they have lifted up tyrants and tyranny; and by denying to labour for hire they shall pull them down again.’

With no one left to work for them, said the Diggers, the private property of the rich will be no use to them, and they will be forced to join the new society in which ‘bondage shall be removed, tears wiped away, and all poor people by their righteous labours shall be relieved and freed from poverty and straits.’

In a sense, the Diggers stood in the tradition of agrarian communism, which had often appeared in medieval heresies and revolts. But they also went far beyond that tradition, for Gerrard Winstanley, one of the authors of The True Levellers’ Standard Advanced, was the first communist to see further than the redistribution of property and envisage a system of communal production, for both town and country, which would open the way to continuous improvement and the progress of society.

Gerrard Winstanley was born a draper’s son in Wigan, Lancashire, and apprenticed to a merchant in London. But when his apprenticeship was over, he failed in business, finding that ‘a man shall sooner be cheated of his bread than get bread by trading among men, if by plain dealing he put trust in any.’ Reduced to working as a cowherd in Surrey, he became familiar with the hardships of the poor, and this, combined with his disgust at the competitive standards of commercial capital, led him to a critique of both landed and monied property.

After the destruction of the Digger communities of 1649–50 by the army and the magistrates, Winstanley addressed a final appeal to Oliver Cromwell, in which he described in vivid detail the alternative society which they believed could replace the existing one based on private property.

In this alternative society, production and exchange would be carried on without private ownership and without money. Winstanley was insistent on this, and argues it out in full:

‘... the earth shall be planted and reaped, and the fruits carried into barns and store-houses by the assistance of every family ... Every tradesman shall fetch materials ... from the public store-houses, to work upon without buying and selling, and when particular works are made, as cloth, shoes, hats and the like, the tradesmen shall bring these particular works to particular shops, as it is now in practice, without buying and selling. And every family as they want such things as they cannot make, they shall go to these shops and fetch without money, even as now they fetch with money ...’

The enforcement and supervision of such a system would require many local officials, and like the Levellers Winstanley insisted that these should be directly elected every year with no re-election, ‘that whereas many have their portions to obey, so many may have their turns to rule.’ Everyone over forty would have an equal chance to hold office, and everyone who survived to sixty would automatically become a ‘general supervisor’. The elected officials were to include a ‘soldier’ or policeman in every community: it is clear that in Winstanley’s community the state (precisely in Lenin’s sense of ‘separate bodies of armed men, prisons, etc.’) would cease to exist.

Among many safeguards thought out by Winstanley in his book, The Law of Freedom, was equal education. ‘One sort of children shall not be trained up only in book learning and no other employment, called scholars... for then through idleness and exercised wit therein they spend their time to find out policies to advance themselves to be lords and masters above their labouring brethren ... which occasions all the trouble in the world.’

The basic unit of society was, for Winstanley as for the Levellers, the productive household. ‘Every man’s wife and every woman’s husband [are to be] proper to themselves, and so are their children at their dispose till they come of age.’ From the point of view of present-day women, this may not seem very advanced, but Winstanley was not simply being conservative. In the harsh life of the poor in seventeenth-century England, families were constantly being destroyed and broken up. With wages in general too low to support whole families, fathers often left home to look for work and never returned, leaving their wives and children dependent on parish relief; as soon as the children were seven they were apprenticed by the parish. Even if not ‘parish apprentices’, most poor children were sent into service in another household from between the ages of seven and ten until they were old enough to marry. Small wonder that the productive family household based on ties of affection might seem to the poor a haven by comparison with real life.

Winstanley’s thought was outstanding in other ways, including his treatment of religion. When, in the first passage quoted above, he referred to ‘the great creator Reason’, he was carrying the free thought of the London Separatists to one of its logical conclusions. For Winstanley, the idea of a personal God had been so corrupted by the clergy, ‘imaginary hypocrites, that worship they know not what, except as their fancy tells them,’ as he described them in Fire in the Bush, that it might as well be abandoned in favour of practical knowledge, ‘for to know the secrets of nature is to know the works of God; and to know the works of God within the creation is to know God himself, for God dwells in every visible work or body,’ as he wrote in The Law of Freedom. This is pantheism – the belief that God is a universal presence in nature – but its consequences are not so different from materialism.

For example, what is sin? ‘I speak now,’ Winstanley wrote in The Law of Freedom, ‘in relation between the oppressor and the oppressed; the inward bondages I meddle not with in this place, though I am assured that, if it be rightly searched into, the inward bondages of the mind, as covetousness, pride, hypocrisy, envy, sorrow, fears, desperation and madness, are all occasioned by the outward bondage that one sort of people lay upon another.’

It is pointless to argue whether Winstanley did or did not ‘believe in God’. I think that any materialist who reads this passage would agree that Winstanley had a basic grasp of what the world is all about.

13. The Digger experiment

THE DIGGER COMMUNITIES failed, overwhelmed by superior force. They never managed to mobilise support in more than a few areas. Yet there were at least a dozen of them, in ten counties, and perhaps more that we do not know of. Where they existed, they seem to have attracted the support of the village poor, as lists of names that have survived in Northamptonshire show. In Enfield, Middlesex, they seem to have left a legacy of ideas concerning co-operative schemes for helping the poor, and resistance to the enclosure of the royal forest at Enfield Chase.

The communities on the common were, as The True Levellers’ Standard Advanced shows, part of a grand plan for the gradual but total withdrawal of labour by all wage-earners, and possibly all feudal tenants. The common lands were uncultivated areas used by villagers for pasture for their animals and gathering firewood; many poor families without land survived by building huts on the common and keeping a few animals. The legal position of common land was that it belonged partly to the lord of the manor and partly to the manorial tenants. The rights of poor squatters on the commons were customary but not recognised by the law.

The process of taking common land into private ownership had begun with the sheep-farming enclosures of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The enclosure of the commons for arable farming, already begun in the seventeenth century, was to continue on a large scale in the eighteenth as the first stage of the ‘agricultural revolution’ which marked the triumph of agrarian capitalism in England. By this process, enormous areas of waste land were made productive, but at the expense of the poor.

The Diggers advocated the transformation of waste land into productive land by and for the poor. They farmed small plots intensively, growing root vegetables and manuring the soil after the best contemporary model, the small and progressive farmers of the Dutch Republic. Squatting on the commons, a traditional remedy for poverty, was to be turned into a great positive movement for the transformation of society.

The tactic of withdrawing from existing society and setting up parallel communities was not as idealistic as it sounds. The plan was to cause the collapse of the old society by a slow-motion withdrawal of labour. Nevertheless, the Diggers were explicitly pacifist (‘We shall not do this by force of arms, we abhor it’) and they did not see the need to destroy the existing state in order to create the new society. Their pacifist stance was not only unrealistic in a society which had just undergone a military coup; it was unrealistic in any circumstances.

The Diggers, therefore, stand at the beginning of the tradition of anarchism as well as that of socialism. The Levellers were clear about the need to scrap the old state but less clear about the nature of the alternative society; the Diggers seem to have got it the other way about! And in the end their communities were physically broken up, their houses burned and their crops destroyed by troops of soldiers under orders from the local ‘state’, the magistrates and landowners.

14. The Ranters

BOTH THE LEVELLERS and the Diggers were part of the challenge to Puritanism, but perhaps the most radical challenge in terms of ideas came from a group of people who personified the nightmares of Thomas Edwards and the London bourgeoisie. They are usually known as the Ranters, though there was no party or organisation of that name. Small groups did exist – Lawrence Clarkson was introduced to ‘a people called My One Flesh’ when he came to London – but they were very fluid, and individuals drifted from one to another around the country.

The central feature of the Ranter position was denial of the Puritan moral code. They started from the position that had existed among small groups of heretics in the middle ages, that the ‘inner light’ of direct experience of God freed the soul from the normal rules of behaviour.

‘Sin hath its conception only in the imagination,’ wrote Lawrence Clarkson in 1650. ‘What act soever is done by thee in light and love, is light and lovely, though it be that act called adultery ... No matter what Scripture, saints or churches say, if that within thee do not condemn thee, thou shalt not be condemned.’

If confined to a narrow elite of the ‘enlightened’, such theories were, of course, rather different from any general statement such as that people should be guided by their own consciences. But the Ranters were not narrow elitists, they were egalitarian: ‘Behold, behold, behold, I the eternall God the Lord of Hosts, who am that mighty Leveller am coming ... to Levell in good earnest, to Levell to some purpose, to level with a witnesse, to Levell the hills with the Valleyes, and to lay the Mountaines low ...’ wrote Abiezer Coppe in A Fiery Flying Roll in 1649.

The Ranters associated the new age of spiritual enlightenment with the overthrow of the rich and powerful and the triumph of the exploited and oppressed.

The Ranter challenge to Puritan tyranny over people’s minds could be dramatically direct. Abiezer Coppe, a parson’s son who had suffered in his youth from a compulsive desire to swear, later cured himself (and presumably many of his audience!) by swearing from pulpits. According to one report he ‘assumed the pulpit in a noted Church in London, and in a most wicked manner blasphemed and curst for an hour together, saying a pox of God take all your prayers, preaching, reading, fasting, etc’

Like Winstanley, most of the Ranters were pantheists – they saw the presence of God in all creation. The consequences, for them, were that food, drink and tobacco should be enjoyed as gifts of God. ‘My spirit dwells with God, sups with him, in him, feeds on him, with him, in him,’ wrote Coppe, and one Ranter shocked an observer by calling a pipe of tobacco ‘this goodly creature’.

The Ranter attitude to sex was a rather strange combination of high-minded mysticism and straightforward promiscuity. They were notoriously hostile to the family, and formed wandering and temporary liaisons with one another.

‘Give over thy stinking family duties ...’ wrote Coppe. Clarkson, in his autobiography written in 1660, when he had left the Ranters and joined the severe sect of Muggletonians, described a meeting he attended when he first came to London. ‘I pleaded the words of Paul ... that there was nothing unclean but as man esteemed it ... and therefore till you can lie with all women as one woman, and not judge it sin, you can do nothing but sin ... Sarah Kullin being then present, did invite me to make trial of what I had expressed ... she invited me with Mr Wats in Rood Lane, where was one or two more like herself, and lay with me that night.’ But, said Clarkson, he never forgot the Baptist wife he had married in Suffolk: ‘I was still careful for moneys for my wife, only my body was given to other women.’

What makes the Ranters significant, despite the obscure theological origins of their ideas, is that their standards were not so different from those of ordinary working people. Apart from a small layer of the better-off, peasants and labourers took little notice of Puritan sermons, followed their own traditional standards of sexual morality, frequented alehouses oftener than churches, and expressed cynicism about the whole elaborate structure of theology. Probably the majority of the population (and even more probably the majority of the propertyless) were as yet untouched by Puritan morality and the work ethic.

A Hackney bricklayer denies the divinity of Christ; a Somerset seducer tells his girlfriend not to worry about heaven and hell; a Wiltshire villager says he ‘would sell all religions for a jug of beer’, and another that ‘if a man had a good fortune and did live well, that was heaven; and if he lived poor and miserable, that was hell, for then he would die like a cow or horse.’ This may not be materialist philosophy at work, but it was something that Puritans feared almost more than Popery itself – the blasphemy of the poor; uneducated, unsophisticated, and unintegrated into the society of hard work and profits.

It is as difficult for us to tell how many Ranters there were as it was for contemporaries. They are mentioned, usually by hostile sources, as present in more than twenty different places in the early 1650s. According to George Fox the Quaker, a Justice of the Peace told him that if it had not been for the Quakers, ‘the nation had been overspread with Ranterism and all the Justices in the nation could not stop it.’

The Ranters flourished for a few brief years from about 1648; by the mid-1650s they had all but disappeared. They were largely swamped by the rise of the Quakers, who preached egalitarian ‘inner light’ doctrines and rejection of conventional social distinctions but without turning the Puritan personal morality on its head. Ranterism was not so much a product of despair at the failure of social revolution (all the leading Ranters explicitly rejected Leveller and Digger tactics from the beginning, though they were sympathetic to their aims) as the spread of the Quakers was a reaction against the revolutionary optimism of the Ranters.

15. Oliver Cromwell and a world made safe for capitalism

ALMOST from the outset of the Long Parliament in 1640, as we have seen, the block of classes which opposed Charles I – disaffected peers, landed gentry, merchants, manufacturers, artisans, peasants and wage labourers – began to fragment. The opposition itself became a kaleidoscope of class conflict, and even the weapon forged to re-unite the remaining opposition for war in 1645, the New Model Army, proved double-edged. But the revolution did not fail, it did not collapse in confusion as did a similar revolt in France at almost the same time. The English Revolution succeeded, paradoxically, because it was stopped.

Who set the limits of revolution? Who pulled it together and ensured its success? Traditionally one man, Oliver Cromwell, has been given the credit, and it is true that his personal role – like that of Lenin in the Russian Revolution of 1917 – was crucial. If Cromwell, or someone with the same background and political positions, had not been there and taken the actions he did, events would no doubt have turned out rather differently.

But no one individual can bend history to his will. It was the class and the party that Oliver Cromwell belonged to that were crucial, which set the limits of revolution, at the same time driving it to a climax – the execution of the king – and stopping it from going further.

Cromwell was a member of that section of the lesser gentry who did not desert the Parliamentary opposition between 1640 and 1642. These were those smaller landlords who saw royal interference and the church hierarchy as greater evils than popular resistance. They did not like the king or overmighty nobles intervening in their parishes and manors, disturbing what they saw as good relations with the peasants and townspeople. Nor did they like bishops dictating doctrine and services to the parish clergy, for as patrons of the parish churches they considering it their own right and duty to choose and supervise the ministers.

Men like Cromwell were lords of manors, Justices of the Peace, and Members of Parliament. They were often related to the larger and more powerful landowning families. Cromwell himself had eleven cousins and six other relations in the Long Parliament at its start in 1640. Though there was sometimes not much difference in wealth between a small lord and a rich yeoman farmer, the gentry were distinguished by birth, status and power: they expected to be recognised as the local ruling class.

Such small gentlemen formed the backbone of the Independent Party. Forced to organise in parliament by the much more sophisticated Presbyterians under Denzil Holies in 1646–7, by late 1648 the Independent Party formed a block linking the smaller and less conservative gentry in parliament, the army officers who had smashed the Leveller challenge, and a scattering of men throughout the country who regarded themselves as godly radicals – that is, those who were against surrender to the king but not for a social revolution – including some sections of the London merchant class.

It was the Independent Party which took the crucial steps: rejected the idea of a new constitution, yet purged parliament and had the king tried and executed. The choice of actions and justifications was crucial. Unlike the French Revolution of 1789, the English Revolution was never officially justified as a revolution. Parliament was not abolished; there was no Constituent Assembly (though some of the officers, including Cromwell’s son-in-law Henry Ireton, would have preferred this); no sweeping away of the old system of government and rational planning of a new one. The myth was upheld that the constitution of England could not be changed, only purified.

Why was all this charade necessary? Not all of the revolution’s supporters were so unwilling to recognise the new order for its own sake – Milton, for example. But the English bourgeoisie was not yet strong enough to rule alone. Alone, it could not take decisive action to stop the danger of social revolution from below – it had tried and failed at the time of the Presbyterian coup of 1646–7. Alone, it could not maintain law and order throughout England, because it did not have the network of connections: there was no real state bureaucracy in England before the revolution, only the amateur gentlemen Justices of the Peace. Nor did it have the roots to create a new bureaucratic class. Fortunately, the Independent Party had just what it needed – its own contingent of amateur gentlemen.

In the revolution of December 1648 to January 1649, Oliver Cromwell was merely a figurehead, and a somewhat reluctant one at that. A Colonel Pride and his troopers, with the agreement of the army officers, purged parliament of the majority of its members, who wanted compromise with the king. Cromwell did not openly declare his support for the purge until it was clear that it was going to succeed – he refused even to appear in London until he felt it was safe to do so, on the evening of the first day of Pride’s Purge (6 December 1648). He hesitated over the execution of the king, finally accepting it as the only practicable course of action. But his support gave the revolution prestige and credibility among the gentry as well as in the New Model Army.

What Cromwell was really good at was winning battles and massacring opponents in the name of God. So from 1649 to 1651 he did mainly that – in Scotland, but especially in Ireland, where the people of Drogheda and Wexford were slaughtered because their countrymen had dared to take back the land that was their own from the ‘Saints of God’ who had settled it.

16. ... stage two

IN 1653, CROMWELL returned to the centre of the political stage. The Rump Parliament, that is those who remained or returned to the House of Commons after Pride’s Purge, had ruled by a system of committees since 1649, and had at first been a very successful and very bourgeois government. More centralised than ever before in English history, it had taken into account the needs of commerce, manufacturing and colonialism, and satisfied a long-standing demand for a war of commercial rivalry with the Dutch.

The Rump Parliament’s base in the country, however, was becoming narrower all the time. Often, it had the support of only a handful of individuals with no firm roots in any class. Even though the Levellers’ mass support of 1647–9 had been smashed, there were still demands for the further reform of society in the interests of the poor rather than the new rich.

Above all, the army grew restive and dissatisfied with this narrow government, especially as the Rump tried to hang on to power by postponing or rigging a new general election. The soldiers began to turn towards the millenarian Fifth Monarchy movement, which was already enjoying considerable success among London journeymen and West Country weavers. Apparently without social and economic content, the Fifth Monarchy movement demanded ‘Godly Rule’ as a solution to re-unite the nation; and it was prepared to regard Oliver Cromwell, the wielder of God’s sword against the Irish and others, as a potential Godly ruler.

So Cromwell took charge of the movement of discontent, and led the army in to dissolve the Rump Parliament by force. An ‘Assembly of Saints’, chosen by a committee of officers, was set up in its place; its enemies called it the Barebones Parliament after Thomas Barbon, a London merchant and Independent who was one of the officers’ nominees.

But Cromwell misunderstood the Fifth Monarchist ‘saints’. The movement was, it is true, anti-democratic and therefore distinct from radical movements such as the Levellers and the Diggers. Fifth Monarchists regarded elections as quite the worst way of selecting leaders, because the ungodly must participate in elections on an equal basis with the godly.

But while the Fifth Monarchists that Cromwell knew personally were rather conservative army officers who identified godly rule with law and order, many of the rank and file ‘saints’ were lower-class preachers who saw the task of the Assembly as levelling the way for the coming of Christ by radical social reforms. The Barebones Parliament passed laws for civil marriage registration (abolishing the distinction between the established church and other churches), the relief of those imprisoned for debt, and the protection of infants and the insane. They then considered Bills for the abolition of the Court of Chancery, as a first step in overhauling the complicated and expensive legal system, and the abolition of tithes.

The godly leaders, and especially Cromwell, were outraged and disillusioned. The godly rank and file were no less outraged by what they saw as betrayal by theft chosen leaders. Fortunately for the leaders, the Barebones Parliament had a built-in conservative majority, who took advantage of a morning when the more enthusiastic saints were at a religious rally, dissolved themselves as an assembly, and handed power to Oliver Cromwell in person.

Cromwell and the army officers once again held the fate of the English Revolution in their hands. There were few real choices open to them. What they did was return to the old alliance of bourgeoisie and lesser gentry to restore law and order. The old constitution was brought back, the House of Commons restored with a new franchise making property qualifications on the whole higher and clearer, and eventually, in 1657, a Second House was set up to accommodate the new elite attracted to Cromwell’s Court. Cromwell had believed since 1651 that ‘a settlement with something of the monarchical in it’ was the answer, and under his Protectorate monarchy was restored in all but name.

In the counties, the gentry who had dropped out of the struggle against Charles I in 1649, in 1645, even in 1642, were reassembled. Except for the period following Penruddock’s attempted Royalist rising in Wiltshire, when Cromwell tried to use the army major-generals to supervise local government, the counties were run once again by their old rulers, the gentry.

But the Protectorate did not restore the old society. Feudal land tenure had been formally abolished, giving landlords absolute property rights over their tenants, and the law of the land made a great leap in the direction of bourgeois property rights. During their temporary exclusion from politics, many of the great landowners had turned to ‘improving’ their lands, and wealth was mobilised by an unprecedented amount of buying and selling of land. The gentry acquired many new recruits, as younger sons and army officers made fortunes in land. London goldsmiths and legal clerks began to do banking business, and some of the wealth flowed from land into trade.

Cromwell’s foreign policy secured English interests in North America and the Caribbean, and the conquest of Jamaica was followed by the setting up of sugar plantations and the import of slaves there. Sugar and tobacco, which had been luxuries before the revolution, were well on their way to becoming goods of mass consumption by its end.

Even the London marriage market – an important institution for the transfer of wealth between land and trade – was established during Cromwell’s rule, with young people of the gentry and the aristocracy encouraged to participate by the new romantic literature of upper-class courtship which began to appear in the 1650s. The aristocracy had to dispense with their expensive style of ‘open house’ and hordes of servants, and turned instead to a more private type of luxury in which the family was transformed into the inward-looking nuclear unit more familiar among the bourgeoisie.

Cromwell’s rule was about making the world safe for capitalism – safe from absolute monarchy and feudal domination by the landed class, but safe also from any threat of destruction from below. Cromwell showed that monarchy could be tamed, landowners could recognise that profitability mattered more than political faction, artisans could be lured into competition instead of solidarity, and the propertyless bludgeoned into submission.

The Restoration of the monarchy in 1660, which brought back the son of Charles I as Charles II, happened because after Oliver Cromwell’s death no one could handle the army officers. Though there was now no hope of a popular rebellion, the officers were still a new enough social group, with shallow enough roots, to attempt to refuse integration into the new society. Very few of the old royalists were restored with Charles II, however: Cromwell’s courtiers and Cromwell’s servants filled the new titles and posts under the restored monarchy.

There was for a period a ‘High Church’ reaction against Puritanism, and bishops were permanently restored. But from the failure of the Assembly of Saints in 1653, religion had been abandoned by all parties as a guide to political action. Many of the Puritan clergy submitted because, as one of their number, Richard Baxter, said, ‘better bishops than no discipline’. The aim of one comprehensive church for the whole of society was also abandoned. One church, the Anglican Church, was specially privileged, but the right of rival churches to co-exist was recognised.

17. Revolution and empire

NOT ONLY English society was made safe for capitalism by the outcome of the English Revolution: the repercussions were world-wide. The revolution occurred at a crucial stage in the development of English imperialism, and set the seal on a pattern of empire-building which was to guarantee the success of English merchant capitalism and so prepare the way for the industrial revolution.

Ireland was the testing ground for this imperialism, and it was closely linked to the class struggle in England at every stage of the revolution.

The idea of colonising Ireland by replacing the native population with English settlers had emerged in the sixteenth century when the monarchy was trying to turn its medieval overlordship in Ireland into more direct rule. The Protestant reformation and the interest of foreign Catholic powers in Ireland as a back-door route by which to attack England made the English ‘security’ problem acute; especially as the Old English in Ireland – the descendants of the medieval English barons – identified more with the Irish people and the Catholic Church than with the Tudor monarchy.

The exercise of ‘planting’ colonies was justified, for the English, by tales of the savage and treacherous nature of the Irish, based chiefly on the fact that they resisted the imposition of English rule. By the early seventeenth century, an English judge was arguing for the ‘civilising mission’ of England in Ireland in the same terms as were beginning to be used by English colonists against the native population of North America: ‘Now civility cannot possibly be planted among them, but by this mixed plantation of civil men ... for if they themselves were suffered to possess the whole country ... they would never (to the end of the world) make townships, or villages, or improve the land as it ought to be.’

The English knew and cared little about Irish history.

Major plantations (colonies) were established in all four provinces of Ireland before 1640, by which date 41 per cent of Irish land was in English hands. Irish landowners were expropriated, at first as a punishment for acts of rebellion. By the time of Strafford, who governed Ireland for Charles I and extended the plantation policy to the remote province of Connaught, the English government was simply refusing to recognise any previous legal title to Irish land as valid. Strafford thus succeeded in driving the Old English to join the native Irish in rebellion in 1641.

It was this rebellion, which began in Ulster, that brought the crisis in England to a head, for neither king nor parliament would trust the other to raise an army to suppress it. A fundamental conflict over sovereignty – the question of who ultimately controls the armed forces of the state -was inevitable.

The plantation policy had also embittered relations between the king and the London merchant class. The charter awarded to London merchants in 1609 to colonise the whole county of Coleraine, now renamed Londonderry, had run into the same problem as all previous plantations except those in eastern Ulster, to which Scottish peasants had emigrated in large numbers. Everywhere else there had never been enough actual settlers to take over the land: the ‘planters’ became landlords but Irish tenants and labourers still farmed the land. The king was displeased, but the London merchants were happy to profit from rents and trade without having to provide many settlers. After a long and bitter case in the Star Chamber court – which helped to ensure its abolition in the very first stages of the revolution – the London merchants’ charter was revoked in 1635.

As the Irish rebellion of 1641 spread and no army was sent to crush it, arguments for the total expropriation of the Irish grew. All the Irish, whether actual rebels or not, were to be considered guilty by association: ‘There is not many, (nay I may more truly say) very few or none, that is a native of Ireland and of the Romish religion, but he is either publicly in this action, or privately in his heart, as assistant or well-wisher to it,’ wrote Dean Henry Jones, a collector of the wildest atrocity stories from Protestant settlers.

During the period of civil war, parliament raised money from ‘Adventurers’ (investors) who were mainly merchants, and especially London merchants, by offering as security Irish land that was to be expropriated in the future, and as the war in England drew to a close, a new solution began to emerge to the problem of finding settlers.

Since 1642, some of the pro-English forces in Ireland had been paid in grants of land instead of money. This grew into a grand new scheme: why should not the soldiers of the New Model Army, when the war was over in England, both reconquer Ireland and themselves become the settlers who had been lacking from earlier schemes?

It was undoubtedly this that aroused the anxiety of the soldiers in 1647 over disbandment, arrears of pay and indemnity – for the vast majority did not wish to re-enlist for Ireland and possibly commit themselves to becoming colonists. They wanted to go home to their farms and trades.

Leveller propaganda thus struck a real chord among the soldiers, for the Levellers argued against the conquest of Ireland on principle. The text of a leaflet published in the Leveller paper, The Moderate, asked: ‘Have we the right to deprive a people of the land God and nature has given them and impose laws without their consent? ... How can the conquered be accounted rebels, if at any time they seek to free themselves and recover their own?’

The defeat of the Levellers and the triumph of the Independents in 1649 brought about the coercion of soldiers into settling Ireland, for the new republican government ruled that those who re-enlisted should be paid only in Irish land. The Independent victory also put Cromwell himself at the head of the army which rapidly and bloodily reduced the Irish people to submission in 1649.

It was after Cromwell’s seizure of power in 1653 that the policy of expropriation in Ireland was extended in principle to the whole of the native population, who were to be ‘transplanted’ to the reservation in Connaught. This policy was never fully implemented entirely, but many thousands made the bitter trek westwards in the winters of 1653-4 and 1654-5 – an experience echoed in the nineteenth century tragedy of the native Americans.

Thirty-five thousand soldiers were given land in the late 1650s, but by 1670 only 7,500 of these remained in Ireland. The chief long-term beneficiaries of the Irish land grants were the ‘Adventurers’, who were still more interested in rents and trade than in settlers. By 1688, 78 per cent of Irish land was in English hands.

Tens of thousands of Irish people were also transported right out of Ireland – to Barbados, where the introduction of sugar plantations in 1642 had increased the demand for labour. Several thousand slaves had been imported from Africa, but ‘bondservants’ were also supplied to the planters by a new policy of sentencing criminals, dissidents and Irish to transportation. The transportation policy included rounding up Irish women, guilty of no ‘crime’ but being Irish, to serve as wives in Barbados. Henry Cromwell, Oliver’s son and governor of Ireland in the 1650s, admitted doubts as to the morality of this but soon resolved them: ‘Concerning the young women,’ he wrote, ‘although we must use force in taking them up, yet it being so much for their own good and likely to be of so great advantage to the public ...’ It was done.

Small wonder that the Irish in Barbados joined the African slaves, who had already attempted rebellion in 1649, in a bitter revolt in 1656, which was brutally suppressed.

Before 1642 English settlements in the Caribbean had been a combination of mostly unsuccessful colonies of small farmers with buccaneering bases for naval warfare against the Spanish. Sugar cultivation in Barbados, followed by a similar transformation in Jamaica after its conquest by Cromwell’s navy in 1655, meant that merchant capital replaced gentlemen adventurers as the main driving force in the colonisation of the Caribbean by the English.

Slavery had not yet come on a large scale to the mainland American colonies, but the expropriation of the native inhabitants had begun, and Virginia was producing tobacco as a cash crop on large estates worked by bondservants from the 1620s. The New England colonies, which began as settlements of Puritans fleeing Archbishop Laud’s persecutions, were developing trade in fish and timber during the civil war in England, and prosperous merchants began to appear among the colonists, at first to the disapproval of the Puritan ministers.

In 1651, as part of a policy of reducing Dutch trading competition by force, the republican parliament in England passed a Navigation Act which was to ensure the economic subjection of all the American colonies to English commercial interests. All exports from the from the colonies were to be carried in English ships, and the restrictions on trade with other nationalities were further stepped up by the later versions of the Act passed after the restoration of the monarchy in 1660.

Outside Ireland, the British Empire was still tiny, but by 1660 the basic lines of imperialist policy – expropriation, plantation, cash crops and subordination to English profits – had been laid down for the next two hundred years.

18. On the side of history?

THE RESTORATION preserved the revolution that made England safe for capitalism, and set the seal on the defeat of the popular revolution that had tried to strangle capitalism in its cradle.

And quite right too, many Marxists have said. For after all, the material conditions for a socialist society, or even a more democratic capitalist society, had not yet arrived. Such developments had to await industrialisation, with its collective production, sufficient food supplies for an urban society, or just enough wealth to be worth sharing. Industrial capitalism as it began to develop in England from the late eighteenth century onwards was, they say, an inevitable stage in the development of society. It was progressive in its own time; emerging capitalists were ‘on the side of history’ and their opponents were backward-looking and obstructive.

It is necessary to make it absolutely clear that the Levellers and Diggers were not backward-looking. They were bitterly opposed to all the institutions of feudal society, and fought them with more enthusiasm and courage than most of the bourgeoisie. Nor were they opposed to economic development: though they could not foresee the technological changes that would lead to the reorganisation of production in the industrial revolution, they constantly argued that true equality was possible only in conditions of plenty, and that existing society was putting obstacles in the way of prosperity for all.

The ideas of the Levellers and the Diggers came from a class at the crossroads of history. Known to Marxists as the ‘petty bourgeoisie’, they had been in feudal society the producing classes of artisans and peasants. The rise of capitalism divided these classes into capitalists and workers. Those who prospered would do so at the expense of their fellow peasants and artisans; those who did not prosper would become propertyless workers, the future industrial and agricultural working class. The Levellers and Diggers represented artisans and peasants who rejected this internecine strife among the producing classes in favour of solidarity against the exploiting classes.

They also represented the propertyless workers, of whom there were a large number: in 1688, Gregory King put the proportion of labourers’ families in the population of England and Wales at 26.8 per cent. When the families of ‘cottagers and paupers’, many of whom were wage-earners or unemployed, are added, the proportion is over 56 per cent.

It is true that the status of wage-earner was hated and despised in seventeenth-century England. The ‘hireling’ was regarded with contempt and suspicion by all ‘freeborn Englishmen’, and self-respect was linked very strongly to the idea of small, independent property. In this situation, the working class would certainly have problems about seeing itself as a class with specific class interests. The result was that workers recognised themselves not positively as ‘the working class’ but negatively as those who should be self-respecting, independent small producers but were not. As such, they were capable of recognising their common interests in opposition to exploitation and competition. It is clear that many propertyless workers did support the Levellers and Diggers, though recent historians have been anxious to play this down in favour of the more respectable ‘petty bourgeois’ supporters.

The question about the Levellers and Diggers should be, not ‘do they stand on the side of history?’, but ‘on which side of history do they stand?’ There are two sides to the development of capitalism, the capitalist side and the workers’ side. In championing the cause of the producer against the exploiter the Levellers and the Diggers stand firmly on the side of socialism and therefore of progress.

It is perhaps also true that by their existence and their struggles they gave point and direction to the bourgeois revolution in England, which was after all a very early bourgeois revolution, occurring when capitalism had only just begun to intervene in production on any scale. It is doubtful whether the English bourgeoisie would have had much motivation to stay with the opposition to Charles I had they not felt that there was a task to be carried out – the prevention of ‘anarchy’, idleness and disorder in society -which the monarchy was incapable of performing. Indeed, by his insistence on the formalities of poor relief, Charles I had convinced many employers, especially in cloth-producing areas where crises were frequent, that he was completely unsympathetic to the needs of capital; and by prosecuting landlords for enclosure and de-population Archbishop Laud had convinced many that the monarchy was also insensitive to the property rights essential to the development of profitability in agriculture.

A bourgeois revolution is always, for the bourgeoisie, a fight on two fronts – against the remnants of the old feudal society and against the resistance of the workers to being exploited. It is both progressive and reactionary at the same time. In the English Revolution, where the bourgeoisie depended so much on an alliance with the petty landlords, the reactionary features of the revolution were perhaps more prominent than in later bourgeois revolutions: there were few concessions to equality or democracy, and none at all to the rights of peasant small property, as happened in the French Revolution 150 years later.

In fact official, academic history in England does not even recognise the revolutionary tradition of 1640–60, but makes it out to be the work of conservative landowners.

It is time that the tradition of the English Revolution was reclaimed, and it can be reclaimed only by the working-class movement of today. It is a tradition that runs from the Levellers and Diggers through the Chartists and the rise of the trade union movement, through the popular democratic movements of 1832 and 1848, late nineteenth-century radicalism, the rise of the Labour Party and the development of the revolutionary socialist alternative, to our own struggles today.

Further reading

1. General

Christopher Hill’s The English Revolution 1640, first published in 1940 as part of a Communist Party educational series, is more readily available in its 1955 edition. Though it has influenced a whole generation of Marxists, it is now very inadequate, particularly on the gentry, the Levellers and the Diggers. But the same author’s The World turned Upside Down (1972) is essential reading for anyone trying to rediscover the revolutionary tradition in English history.

The best general account of the Levellers is still H.N. Brailsford’s The Levellers and the English Revolution (edited by Christopher Hill, 1961). A.L. Morton’s The World of the Ranters has much about the Levellers as well as the Ranters, and includes a marvellous essay on William Walwyn.

Far and away the best recent book on the English Civil War, written from a more-or-less Marxist point of view, is Brian Manning’s The English people and the English Revolution (1978). The account given in this pamphlet of the part played by popular struggles in the 1640–2 crisis is taken largely from Brian Manning’s book.

But perhaps the best way of recovering the revolutionary tradition is to go straight to the works of Gerrard Winstanley in The Law of Freedom and other writings, edited by Christopher Hill (Penguin, 1973). They are perhaps surprisingly readable to a modern socialist: begin with The Law of Freedom in a Platform.

For an outline of the academic controversies surrounding the English Civil War, see Norah Carlin’s Marxism and the English Civil War in International Socialism (2 : 10, 1980).

2. Class Conflict and the English Civil War

For the past twenty years, this subject has been approached more frequently and more originally by the right than the left. Much can be learned from such studies, however, if critically read. Classic anti-Marxist statements are J.H. Hexter’s The Reign of King Pym (1941) and P. Zagorin’s The court and the country (1961). More recently Robert Ashton has tried to pull together all the arguments in The English Civil War: Conservatism and Revolution (1978); and J.R. Morrill has brought together a thought-provoking collection of material on what the gentry actually did in the 1640s crisis in The Revolt of the Provinces: Conservatives and Radicals in the English Civil War 1630–1650 (1976).

The least conservative and the most useful reinterpretation of the civil war as the outcome of class conflict, however, is D. Underdown’s Pride’s Purge (1971) – which deals with the whole conflict from 1640 to 1649 and not just the event of the title.

3. Religion and Radicalism

Readers of R.H. Tawney’s Religion and the Rise of Capitalism (1926) and Christopher Hill’s Society and Puritanism in Pre-revolutionary England (1964) will see that I am calling for a re-examination of Marxist views on the relationship of religion and radicalism. This is largely on the basis of the study of the Independents and the Separatists, and their relationship to the Levellers, provided by Murray Tolmie in The Triumph of the Saints: The Separate Churches of London 1616–49 (1977). B.S. Capp’s The Fifth Monarchy Men (1972) also contributed to my rethinking.

On the role of the Levellers in relation to the New Model Army, Mark Kishlansky’s The Rise of the New Model Army (1979) is bound to prove a seminal book, though hostile to the Levellers.

4. Ireland

The story of the sixteenth and seventeenth century colonisation of Ireland is little known in England. Peter Beresford Ellis’ Hell or Connaught! The Cromwellian Colonisation of Ireland 1652–60 (1975) is a vivid account, while K. Bottigheimer’s English Money and Irish Land: The ‘Adventurers’ in the Cromwellian Settlement of Ireland (1971) deals with the sixteenth and early seventeenth century plantations as well as having a computer analysis of investors in the 1642 scheme.

Norah Carlin Archive   |   ETOL Main Page

Last updated: 31 October 2014