Eduard Bernstein

Cromwell and Communism

Chapter VII
The Struggle for Democracy and the Levellers’ Agreement of the People

BEFORE the happening of the events last mentioned, however, Cromwell’s followers had reached an agreement with the Levellers as to the terms upon which they could co-operate for the time being. This understanding was not achieved without difficulty, as Lilburne and his friends had learnt the lesson of Ware too well to place themselves, even provisionally, in the hands of the “gentlemen” without guarantees. The “gentlemen” were now all zealous for the purification, if not the dissolution, of Parliament, and were nearly unanimous for the execution of the King. But Lilburne and the Levellers desired assurances respecting the subsequent course of events before they would assist in these immediate measures. They clearly perceived that a mere victory of the Army conferred no durable benefits on the people, and Lilburne made this position perfectly plain to the “gentlemen”.

He summarizes his opinion of the negotiations in a report whose authenticity in this respect has not been questioned “It’s true I look upon the King as an evil man in his actions, and divers of his party as bad; but the Army hath cozened us the last year, fallen from all their promises and declarations, and therefore cannot rationally any more be trusted by us without good cautions and security. In which regard, although we should judge the King as arrant a tyrant as Ye suppose him, or could imagine him to be, and the Parliament as bad as ye could make them; yet, there being no other balancing power in the Kingdom against the Army but the King and Parliament, it is our interest to keep up one tyrant to balance another till we certain know what that tyrant that pretended fairest would give us as our freedoms, that so we might have something to rest upon, and not suffer the Army (so much as in us lay) to devolve all the government of the Kingdom into their wills and swords (which were two things we, nor no rational man, could like) and leave no persons nor power to be a counterbalance against them. And if we should do this, our slavery for the future might probably be greater than our first; and therefore do I press hard for an Agreement amongst the People first, utterly disclaiming the thoughts of the other till this be done. And this is not only my opinion, but I believe it to be the unanimous opinion of all my friends with whom I most constantly converse.” [1]

This plain speaking, which sounds a note destined to recur frequently in the history of English democracy, was clearly not at all to the taste of the partisans of the “grandees”. First, on account of the outspoken distrust of them, which they contended was quite unwarranted. They were, as Lilburne writes, “most desperately choleric” about this. And secondly, because these further negotiations would consume precious time. But the Levellers declined to be intimidated either by protests or asseverations. More experienced than the soldiers who supported them, they stood firm until a compromise was effected, by which four chosen representatives of each side should discuss together the chief points of the signed Agreement. The selection of the commission led to an angry dispute. Besides Lilbume himself, an elderly merchant named William Walwyn was chosen as one of the Leveller members. One of the “gentlemen” Independents, John Price, objected to him, which provoked Lilburne to answer that Walwyn had more honour and honesty in his little finger than his opponent had in his whole body, and that he would rather resign his place on the Committee than serve on it without Walwyn. This incident, which, after much discussion, was smoothed over by both Walwyn and Price retiring, is interesting, inasmuch as in a work published shortly afterwards Walwyn is attacked as an extreme communist and atheist, while in the official publications of the Levellers, many of which are signed by Walwyn with other co-signatories, the proposals put forward relate solely to political matters. The work in question was by one William Kiffin, a renegade Independent, who subsequently became a man of great wealth. We shall discuss this work in detail at a later stage of our inquiry. For the present, it is sufficient to say that it does not accuse Walwyn of a single shady transaction, but only of holding and propagating with great cleverness atheistic and communistic theories, so that it could only have been those opinions which led to Walwyn’s rejection.

The Committee, reduced in number to six, on November 15th agreed upon the following points: A Committee formed of representatives of the Army and delegates of the “Wellmeaning” or “Well-affected” [2] in the country, to meet at the Army’s headquarters to formulate a scheme for “the foundations of a just government”; this scheme was then to be submitted to and voted upon by all the Well-affected. [3]

The constitution thus created, provided it came into force, was to take precedence of all other laws, in other words, to form that “paramount law” of the land demanded by the “agitators” and Levellers a year before, and to be signed, with all its provisions governing the authority of Parliament, etc., by all members on the day of their election. To avoid confusion, the Levellers waived their demand for the immediate dissolution of Parliament, contained in a petition, called their “masculine” petition, presented by them on September 11, 1648. But a definite date for dissolution was to be fixed, and the “Agreement” itself was to be embodied in the Remonstrance of the Army which was then being drawn up.

At the Army headquarters, which were shortly transferred from St. Albans to Windsor, a declaration assenting to these stipulations was made, but the Remonstrance presented to Parliament on November 20th by Major Ewer demanded only that all negotiations with the King should be broken off, and that the prime movers in the recent disturbances, both individually and collectively, and therefore including the King, should be brought to justice.

The Remonstrance further demanded the dissolution of the present Parliament and the election of a new one, as well as a decision that henceforth no king who had not been elected by the people should be recognized. The Levellers perceived that this was only in partial agreement with their demands, and contained much that was not to their taste. For the present they did not openly oppose it. They went to Windsor, in order to ascertain the feelings of the “grandees” of the Army, who appeared to be in a conciliatory frame of mind. But once the parties began to discuss the future constitution, serious differences of opinion revealed themselves. Ireton, for example, wanted to reserve to Parliament the right to pass bills of attainder when reasons of State demanded them, which meant that, in certain circumstances, Parliament might pass sentences in opposition to law. But Lilburne, fanatical legalist as he was, and cherishing a rooted distrust of all ruling powers, was strongly opposed to this suggestion, and this Parliamentary privilege was gradually abolished in the course of centuries. Ireton wanted religious tolerance limited to certain forms of Protestant worship, but the Levellers championed the most complete freedom of conscience. Finally, the Levellers made a new proposal. The members of Parliament siding with the Independents, the Army, and “we whom they nickname Levellers”, should each choose four representatives, who should conjointly draw up an “Agreement”, which should be absolutely binding on all concerned. In his efforts to unite all factions not absolutely Royalist, Lilburne went so far as to propose to assign four seats on the Committee to the Presbyterians, if they were disposed to accept them. The “grandees” made no difficulties; some, like Colonel Harrison, because they really believed in union – others in order to gain time. The place of meeting in London had already been arranged, and to London they went. Each party chose its representatives, the Levellers selecting, in addition to Lilburne and Walwyn, a certain Maximilian Petty and John Wildman. Petty is not to be confused with his more famous contemporary, Sir William Petty, to whom he was not even related, although both of them belonged to James Harrington’s “Rota Club”, of which Wildman was also a member. Wildman seems to have done his best to live up to his name. He was a democrat and radical of very impulsive nature. In 1654. he was elected to Cromwell’s first Parliament, but refused to acknowledge the constitution of the Protectorate as final. In February 1655 he was arrested at Exton at the very moment he was dictating to his secretary A Declaration of the free and well-affected People of England now in Arms against the Tyrant Oliver Cromwell. A “stirring man; very flamy and very fuliginous”, writes Carlyle of him; “perhaps, since Freeborn John was sealed up in Jersey, the noisiest man in England”. Gardiner speaks of him and Lilburne as “men of transparent honesty”. Cromwell contented himself with shutting Wildman up in Chepstow Castle. After the Restoration, Wildman, out of hostility to Clarendon, became embroiled with the Duke of Buckingham, whose ministry introduced a measure of toleration. In 1683 he was in the so-called Rye House Plot, but received timely warning and fled to Holland. Finally he took part in the “glorious revolution” of 1688 which placed William of Orange on the throne of England. Among a collection of memoirs, pamphlets, etc., in connection with that event, which was published in 1705, is a Memorial from the English Protestants to their Highnesses the Prince and Princess of Orange, concerning their Grievances and the Birth of the pretended Prince of Wales, to which, in the index, is affixed the note “Said to be written by Major Wildman), so that the fiery republican ended as a monarchical Whig, albeit after forty years of constant disappointment.

Among the delegates of the Independent Parliamentarians may be mentioned one Thomas Scott, not to be confounded with Scott the regicide (peppery Scott), who was hanged after the Restoration. There was also Henry Marten or Martyn, who escaped the same fate on the score of his former efforts to obtain pardon for the Royalists, although he had not been slow in calling for the execution of Charles, on the ground that it was better for one family to suffer than the whole country. Marten was a witty and clear-headed man, like Scott a thorough republican, and in religious questions extremely advanced. By general testimony Marten is credited with unusual generosity. He desired religious toleration to be extended to the Roman Catholics. A republican when others dared not dream of an alternative to the monarchy, he carried a proposal in Cromwell’s Parliaments that the laws against those who refused to recognize the new order should not be enforced against women. It was enough, he declared in Parliament, to hunt the bull. They ought not to want to hunt the cow also. Carlyle writes of Marten: “A tight little fellow, though of somewhat loose life: his witty words pierce yet, as light arrows, through the thick oblivious torpor of the generations; testifying to us very clearly, Here was a right hard-headed, stout-hearted little man, full of sharp fire and cheerful light; sworn foe of cant in all its figures; an indomitable little Roman pagan, if no better.”

The “grandees” of the Army choose amongst others Ireton and Sir William Constable as their representatives. Amongst the delegates of the citizen Independents we meet the names of Colonel White, Dan Taylor, and “Master Price the Scrivener”.

In the meantime Parliament resolved on November 30th not to consider the Remonstrance of the Army, and stigmatized as an “insolent and unseemly letter” a communication from Fairfax, demanding payment of the arrears due to the Army, failing which the Army would take the money where they could get it. To this the Army Council replied that the Parliament had betrayed the trust of the people, and therefore the Army would “appeal” from its authority “unto the extraordinary judgment of God and good people”. The day after it was known that the Remonstrance had been rejected, the Army had, on the proposal of Major Goffe, united in prayer that God would enlighten them and show them the right way, and when the Levellers arrived at Windsor for the discussions, they found the Army on the point of marching to London. The fruits of the enlightenment which their prayers brought these pious men were the purging of Parliament and the execution of Charles I. The Levellers were not too pleased with the turn that events had taken, but their objections were in vain, and the Army chiefs resolved that the situation demanded an immediate settlement of the question between the Army and the Parliament. On December 2nd the Army marched to London and took possession of Whitehall, St. James’ and other places of importance. The discussions with the Levellers were at first carried on in London, but were not allowed to interfere with the active steps that were being taken. On the morning of December 5th, after a long and heated debate, Parliament agreed to a declaration that the removal of the King had been effected without its knowledge and consent, and a few hours later carried by 129 votes to 83 a resolution that the conditions laid down by the King at Newport should form the basis of a settlement of the difficulty. This was a bold defiance of the Army, but Parliament was without the means to enforce its views. Against the Army Parliament was powerless. It had the City bourgeoisie on its side, but the City had made no attempt at resistance when, in the summer of 1647, the Army had first seized London, although the train bands and some regular troops had been specially drilled in readiness for the emergency. In his History of the Civil War, written in dialogue form, Hobbes shows plainly his anger at the City’s weakness. Referring to the events of August 1647, he writes:

“B. It is strange that the Mayor and Aldermen, having such an army, should so quickly yield. A. To me it would have been strange if they had done otherwise. For I consider the most part of rich subjects, that have made themselves so by craft and trade, as men that never look upon anything but their present profit; and who, to everything not lying in their way, are in a manner blind, being amazed at the very thought of plundering” (Behemoth). While this may be a characteristic of shopkeepers grown prosperous, it should be remembered that the City Fathers did not have the undivided support “of the town. It is certain that many small shopkeepers, with their dependents, sympathized with the Army and various outlying places, notably Southwark, where the Levellers had many friends, received the Army with open arms. [4]

The Army and those Independents who supported it had no alternative but to answer Parliament’s decision by a coup d’état, which took the form of Pride’s Purge, as a result of which only hard and fast Independents were left in Parliament. This Parliament was nicknamed by its opponents the “Rump Parliament”.

A few days later the mixed commission of Levellers and Independents had prepared the new “Agreement”, which the Levellers were anxious should be signed at once by the general staff of the Army, the soldiers and members of Parliament, and then sent round the country for the signatures of all the Well-affected. With this purpose in view, Lilburne had the Agreement printed, but already difficulties were arising with the general staff. The question of the limits of religious tolerance was again discussed at great length, and in view of what has been said respecting the nature of the different sects, it will be understood why the middle-class elements sought to draw a line beyond which toleration should not extend. On December 21st a compromise was made, that all Christian sects which did not disturb the public peace should not be interfered with by the State, Roman Catholics and episcopal State Churchmen excepted; but that in all “natural”, that is secular, matters the decision should rest with Parliament. In those exceptional cases which the “grandees” demanded should be punished by State tribunals instead of the ordinary Courts, a compromise was reached, whereby these cases were limited to acts committed by State officials in contravention of their duty. But the stumbling-block was the dissolution of Parliament. Throughout Cromwell was against the idea of fixing an early date for this, and although upon this point he was in a minority on the Council of Officers, events turned out in accordance with his anticipations. He succeeded in imposing his views that the revised “Agreement” should not be sent forthwith to Parliament for signature and subsequent circulation, but should be further considered, and that so much of the “Agreement” be circulated as Parliament should deem fit.

When Lilburne and his friends perceived that this was to be the end of the matter, they retired, with bitter reproaches, from the conferences about the middle of January 1649. They were so far right that Parliament on January 20th shelved the “Agreement” of the officers by declaring that it would “take it into consideration as soon as the necessity of the present weighty and urgent affairs would permit”, and with this the officers were satisfied.

It must, however, be admitted that Cromwell was right and that the time for the dissolution of Parliament had not arrived. The elements hostile to the Independents and the Army were too numerous to risk the experiment of a new election. Even in such counties as Norfolk and Suffolk, most of the middle class and the gentry were opposed to the Independents and the Army, and these classes constituted a difficult problem for Cromwell, as they set the example in most of the counties, and, like the peasants, were anxious to get rid of the military burden. It was necessary to placate them, and the extreme demands of the Levellers did not assist this object. Gardiner ascribes the revulsion of feeling in the Eastern Counties and other places directly to the increase of “fanaticism”, that is, radicalism, which had driven the possessing and business classes into the ranks of the Presbyterians and Royalists. [5] Where Lilburne and his friends saw nothing but malevolence, falsehood, and self-seeking in Cromwell, there was, together with his ambition and class prejudices, a strong inclination to shape his conduct according to the possibilities of the moment. He was the practical politician par excellence; the Levellers were the ideologues of the movement. They started from abstract political theories, and accordingly saw facts through the spectacles of these theories; but Cromwell, whose whole being was alien from abstract thinking, saw things as they really were at any given moment better than they. In a word, he was far superior to the Levellers as a practical politician, although they deserve the credit of having in the course of this revolution championed with vigour the political interests of the contemporary and the future working class. So long as the fight was against the forces of the old regime, the Levellers could and, in fact, did show the way again and again, but the moment these old forces were vanquished and the new forces proceeded to arrange matters after their fashion, the suppression of the Levellers became a political necessity. The hour of the class for which they fought had not yet struck.

The first edition of the new Agreement of the Levellers was followed on May 1, 1649, by a second edition, which was again issued from the Tower, wherein Lilburne and his friends were once more incarcerated. Here it is fitting to pause in the record of events in order to discuss these important documents, which anticipate in many respects the Contrat Social.

According to the Agreement, which had been printed not only as a pamphlet but also as a manifesto that could be exhibited as a placard, the supreme authority of the nation should be vested in a representative body of four hundred members, and “all men of age” and not in receipt of wages or alms should, “according to natural right”, be eligible to vote for or sit as members of this assembly. Wage-earners in town and country were thus excluded from the suffrage. It should be borne in mind that the workers of that period formed an undeveloped and socially insignificant class, and an industrial proletariat in the modern sense of the word did not exist. The journeymen in the handicrafts were usually in the transition stage between apprentice and master. To extend the suffrage to the agricultural labourers would, in the then circumstances, have strengthened the reactionary party.

It is interesting to note that during the debates between Cromwell and the Levellers universal suffrage was condemned on the ground that it would lead to anarchy, and in a Cromwellian newspaper the Levellers were called “these Switzerizing anarchists”.

The Agreement advocated annual Parliaments, the members of which were not to be eligible to sit in the two succeeding Parliaments. Salaried State officials were not to be eligible, and lawyers sitting in Parliament were not to practise. No coercive laws respecting religion should be enacted, and there should be no religious tests. Each parish should elect its own minister, but no one should be compelled to contribute towards his maintenance. A conscientious objection to military or naval service should be respected. All tolls, taxes, and tithes should be abolished within a short fixed period, and be replaced by a direct tax on every pound’s worth of real and personal estate. In his pamphlet, England’s New Chains Discovered, which is by way of a commentary on the Agreement, Lilburne is plain-spoken on the subject of indirect taxes. The Levellers, states this pamphlet, had “resolved to take away all known and burdensome grievances”, of which the pamphlet enumerated “Tythes, that great oppression of the counties, Industry and hindrance of tillage; excise and customs, those secret thieves and robbers, drainers of the poor and middle sort of people, and the greatest obstructors of trade, surmounting all the prejudices of ship money, patents and projects before this Parliament. Also to take away all monopolizing companies of merchants, the hindrances and decayers of clothing and clothworking, dying and the like useful professions ... They have also in mind to provide work and comfortable maintenance for all sorts of poor, aged, and impotent people.” All privileges were to be cancelled, and a national militia was to take the place of the standing Army, the decision as to war resting with Parliament. Each county should select its own officials; the laws were to be printed in English, and all complaints and prosecutions to be dealt with only by a sworn jury of twelve citizens of the district. Measures should be taken to ensure work and decent maintenance to the poor, the aged, and the sick.

The demands set out above constitute a remarkable programme for the time in which it was formulated. It was the more formidable in that it shunned all communist-Utopian speculations, which found champions enough in the camp of the Levellers. Communism made no appeal to the town population, which did not yet possess an industrial proletariat. At the most, communistic proposals might have attracted the rural workers at certain times. In fact, there is no instance during the Great Rebellion of an independent class movement of the town workers, although during the zenith of the movement there were several attempts at agrarian communist risings.

In some historical works the Levellers are depicted as religious sectarians, who exceeded the Puritans in fanaticism, but the Agreement does not support this suggestion. It postulates a greater measure of religious toleration than was conceded by any other parties of the time. Certainly the writings of individual Levellers contain numerous texts from the Bible, but this is not remarkable in a time when the Bible was the only book that had great weight with the mass of the people. Moreover, these texts never relate to religious dogmas. On the other hand, the Levellers were frequently accused by their contemporaries and opponents of atheism, and there is proof of the existence of a widespread rationalism or deism in their ranks. There is, in any case, good ground for the statement of other historians that the Levellers originally called themselves rationalists to mark that they recognized the authority of reason alone.




1. Quoted in John Lilburne’s The Legal Fundamental Liberties of the People of England Revived, Asserted, and Vindicated.

2. These names played in the English Revolution the part played in the French by the word “patriot”. They were commonly used for the adherents of the people’s cause. The Royalists and their supporters were generally called “Malignants” by the opponents.

3. This is the first appearance in modern history of the idea of applying direct legislation to a great State question. The French Revolution, at its zenith, as is well known, brought forward a similar proposal.

4. Hobbes is particularly annoyed because the City, as a whole, supported the Rebellion for a long time. The work from which quotation has been made, even more than his Leviathan, reveals the narrow-minded champion of aristocratic absolutism. Thus he castigates the “Little Parliament” for making marriage a civil act. The Puritan democrats who were in the majority in that Parliament were more liberal in Church matters, and more advanced in secular questions than their opponents, the enlightened statesmen and philosophers, The reforms civic, ecclesiastical and legal, which they initiated were in the main highly creditable to them and as, for example, their decision to codify civil law, anticipate the most famous enactments of the Convention of 1793. After an existence of six months, the “Little Parliament” was dissolved, amid the rejoicings of the classes and the castes, the lawyers, whose interests and privileges had been in jeopardy, celebrating the event by a huge drinking bout in the Temple. See Exact Relation of the Transactions of the Late Parliament, London, 1654, printed in Somer’s Tracts,, pp.266-284,

5. Loc. cit., vol.iii, p.175.


Last updated on 21.11.2002