ENGLAND revolted against absolute monarchy a century and a half earlier than did France, under conditions very dissimilar from those that marked the epoch of the great French Revolution. Nevertheless, important resemblances may be detected between the nature and the course of the two rebellions.
At the time of the Revolution England was on the whole more than one hundred years behind France in general development, and her social organization differed in essential points from that of France in 1789. Yet these differences were not all of the same kind, as they did not in all cases indicate backward social development. Only a remnant of the old feudal nobility was left in England; the title-deeds of most of the landed aristocrats were of recent date, and the majority of the estates were already being managed on commercial principles. There was a numerous free peasantry, whilst the middle class already represented a considerable economic force. In the latter class guild elements were still strongly represented. Its ways of living were somewhat coarse, and its mental outlook was narrow, at least when compared with that of Court circles. But intellectual limitation is by no means an impediment to vigorous action. A single-track mind is often the secret of political success. Lastly, the middle class and the bourgeois landowners in seventeenth-century England were confronted with a monarchy that fell far short of the brilliant absolutism of the Bourbons under Louis XIV.
Despite the differing social and political conditions of the two countries at the outbreak of their respective revolutions, and despite the different starting-points of these revolutions, a parallel can be traced both in the formal course which they assumed and the historical results which they achieved. The English Revolution, as it advanced, resembled the great French Revolution in outstripping the aims that were proclaimed at its commencement. During its course the various parties, and the different social classes behind them, came to the front, one after another, and played a leading part in the direction of events, and after a period of military dictatorship the English Revolution, like the French, came to a temporary conclusion in a restoration, which, again resembling the French, proved unable to restore the conditions that existed before the outbreak. Moreover, its last phase consisted in a weak repetition of the rebellion, viz., the Whig Revolution of 1688, which restored the initial political objects of the first revolt. Its Girondists were the Presbyterians; its Jacobins or its Mountain were the Independents; its Hebertists and Babeuvists were the Levellers, whilst Cromwell was a combination of Robespierre and Bonaparte, and John Lilburne the Leveller was Marat and Hébert rolled into one.
It goes without saying that these comparisons are only partially valid. The Levellers, for example, may be compared with the Hébertists only in so far as they constituted the party which, without ever itself being dominant, represented the most extreme element of the revolutionary movement. It was only at the height of its power that the Leveller movement produced a genuinely communistic offshoot in the sect or group of “true Levellers”. This sect not only made an experiment in communistic self-help of remarkable originality, but left behind it a noteworthy sketch of communistic reconstruction which seems to have escaped the notice of historians of the English Revolution. In religious matters the majority of Levellers did not differ greatly from the mass of the Independents. Like the latter, they belonged to the Puritan school, but a minority of their leaders undoubtedly professed a rationalistic deism, if not definite atheism. If the personality around whom the Leveller movement grouped itself was in respect of erudition and literary power considerably inferior to Marat, yet “freeborn John” – as John Lilburne often calls himself in his pamphlets – may well be regarded in his strong democratic instincts, his courage, and his championship of plebeian interests as a prototype of the People’s Friend. As to the Père Duchesne, Lilburne’s pamphlets never bore the excessively vulgar character of Hébert’s outbursts.
Middle-class historians, however, have been in the habit of treating Lilburne not a whit better than they treated the editor of the Père Duchesne. To Carlyle he was nothing but a noisy mischief-maker, and even William Godwin, in his History of the English Commonwealth, is frequently unjust to Lilburne.
Nevertheless, Godwin devotes so much attention to the activities of Lilburne and the Levellers that their effect on the course of the political struggle up to the inauguration of the Commonwealth may be gathered from his pages. And since Godwin’s time historical investigation has been constantly bringing to light fresh material for this chapter of the Revolution.
Outstanding works dealing with this period are the late S.R. Gardiner’s History of the Great Civil War and C.P. Gooch’s Democratic Ideas in the Seventeenth Century. Since the first German edition of the present book appeared, Mr. Berens has published his study of The Digger Movement.
Last updated on 21.11.2002