From International Socialism (1st series), No.64, Mid-November 1973, p.29.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).
Cromwell, Our Chief of Men
Weidenfeld and Nicolson, £4.95.
OLIVER CROMWELL was born at Huntingdon in the year 1599, and died in London in 1658.
When he was born, an ageing Queen Elizabeth was on the throne of England. When he died, he was Lord Protector of a republican England, Scotland and Ireland.
‘A gentleman by birth’ – in his own words – for the first half of his life he lived ‘neither in considerable height not yet in obscurity’; one of the ‘middling sort’ who were mustering reluctant but determined resistance to the absolutist tyranny of Charles 1. By the time he was 30, Cromwell had already appeared in Parliament for his own town, and both there and at Huntingdon had distinguished himself as an opponent of the King’s demands. A dozen or so years later he was raising a troop of horse in support of a Parliament on which the King had declared war.
‘Your troopers,’ Cromwell told his cousin John Hampden, after the unhappy failure of the Parliamentary troopers at Edgehill, ‘are most of them decayed servingmen and tapsters and such kind of fellows ... Their troopers are gentlemen’s sons, younger sons and persons of quality; do you think that the spirits of such base and mean fellows will ever be able to encounter gentlemen that have honour and courage and resolution in them? You must get men of spirit.’
’I would rather,’ he said on another occasion, ‘have a plain, russet-coated captain that knows what he fights for and loves what he knows, than what you call a gentleman and is nothing else.’ Recruited from free-holding and tenant farmers and their sons, from craftsmen and workmen, Cromwell’s troop became a regiment, famed and feared as the Ironsides. And surely the New Model Army, learning from Cromwell and his troopers, was the most remarkable army in our history – with its delegate councils, its officially recognised agitators, its preachers and religious tolerance. It debated the great political issues of the time (and of the future), wrecked the King’s armies, and, at Dunbar, hopelessly outnumbered and situated, scattered the Scots; it saw the revolution through, purged a compromising Parliament, and brought to judgment that ‘man of blood’, Charles Stuart.
Momentous times, and, as such, subject of much contention among historians; some seeing it as England’s bourgeois revolution, as a clearing away of feudal lumber, a way forward to constitutional, Parliamentary government, a rising to power of new commercial and capitalist classes; others as a time when social democratic ideas made hesitant, tentative appearance, and others as a period of dictatorship, misgovernment and oppression.
Antonia Fraser’s recently published biography of Oliver Cromwell, some 750 closely-printed pages long, evades assessment of class relationships at the time, and of social and economic conditions and problems. It is just not that sort of book – it is a biography of Oliver Cromwell, concerned with his private and public behaviour, and, within those limits, a thoroughly-researched, brightly-written one. Lady Fraser admires the man, and so on the whole maintains a reasonable calm when narrating the events of the time and Oliver’s part in them. But her composure deserts her when she comes to write of the execution of Charles Stuart.
‘For whatever could be said of the execution of King Charles I,’ she writes, ‘that it was inevitable, even that it was necessary, it could never be said that it was right ... it was a disastrous mistake for the cause in which Cromwell believed. From the moment of his trial King Charles had begun to tread the long causeway towards martyrdom ... The accusation of arbitrary tyranny, once levelled with some justice at the King, could now be placed firmly at the door of the men who had done him to death ...’
Charles, it will be seen, was not the only one to lose his head on this occasion!
We do not know what great cause Charles was supposed to have died for—most of us would say that if executions can ever be justified, this was one; and share Cromwell’s opinion that it was ‘the great fruit of the war ... the execution of exemplary justice upon the prime leader of all this quarrel’; and accept John Cook’s statement at his own trial before a post-restoration court packed with royal toadies,
‘We are not traitors, nor murderers, nor fanatics, but true Christians and good Commonwealth men ... We sought the public good and would have enfranchised the people, and secured the welfare of the whole groaning creation, if the nation had not more delighted in servitude than in freedom ...’
It must be added that Lady Fraser expresses no sympathy for those who, like the Leveller troopers, died for freedom and the cause of poor men; nor for the victims of Charles II’s savage and obscene vengeance on surviving Parliamentary leaders. She has no patience with supposed extremists like John Lilburne the Leveller’s leader; and dubs a London woman who led protestors into the House of Commons to confront Cromwell and demand the release of Levellers held in prison, and ‘those rights and freedoms of the Nation that you promised us’, a harpy!
She hurries away from the more determined and vigorous of the sects and congregations. Like Obstinate in Pilgrim’s Progress, she says: ‘I will go back to my place. I will be no companion to such misled fantastical fellows’ – suggesting that they were a small minority of those involved actively in events, and pinning on many of them the label, ‘millenarian’, unaware, it seems, that ‘millenarianism’ was a commonplace of doctrine at the time. The biblical prophecies of the rise and fall of four .successive world monarchies, and the coming of a fifth and enduring kingdom; in which the saints would prepare the world for the Judgment and the reign of Christ, bubbled beneath the surface through the centuries. Belief in ‘the. last days’ came to the top in stormy times, and it was natural that believers should read into the turbulent happenings of the period signs that the time was at hand.
Cromwell himself spoke of being ‘one of those whose hearts God has drawn out to wait for some extraordinary dispensation, according to those promises that he hath held forth of things to be accomplished in the later time’; to many, the Civil War portended that the ‘last wonders of the world’ were about to be accomplished – ‘Christ’, said one zealot in 1642, ‘seems now to have set up his glorious standard.’ The war was on ‘till Babylon be down and Sion be up’, and what had to be done was debated in workshop, tavern, street and conventicle, and on the battlefield. The sects merged and mingled, the saints went to battle for the New Jerusalem, and the revolutionary gospel walked abroad again.
Of the many hopes, ideas, aspirations raised by the revolution, one that certainly survived among the poor was the hope of the coming of ‘the last days’ and the establishment of social justice. In times of upset, it emerged again as an essential element in popular movements of reform and protest. It can be traced in many social and religious movements of the 18th Century; and again in the socialist and co-operative movements of the early 19th century. And, if it departed from most of the chapels save as a pious belief in life after death, it could be found subsequently among earnest groups of working men and women poring over Owenite and Marxist texts, seeking assurance of an imminent, cataclysmic collapse of capitalism and the speedy coming of the new socialist society.
Ironic that nowadays most people no longer deny the likelihood of world catastrophe, but are not so certain about the good society coming out of it and after it. Maybe this is measure of our failure to explain our beliefs adequately. Maybe we spend too much of our time calling for the end of what is, and too little time explaining what might be.
Last updated: 13.2.2008