Eduard Bernstein

Cromwell and Communism

Chapter VIII
Atheistic and Communistic Tendencies in the Levellers’ Movement

We have referred to Henry Marten as a “heathen”. But notwithstanding all his friendship for the Levellers, Marten was never one of them.

As a representative of advanced rationalism among the Levellers, special mention should be made of Richard Overton, who, with W. Walwyn and T. Prince, frequently figures in company with Lilburne as signatory of their political pamphlets. We have seen that he was mentioned for his profane sentiments in the pamphlet against Walwyn, as a subject of natural detestation, and in his case we are in a better position, than in Walwyn’s, to determine the justice of the accusations brought against him. He wrote a small pamphlet on the immortality of the soul, which gives full information on this matter, and it is interesting to recognize in Overton the first representative of the school of thought which combined systematic rationalism, or even materialism, with political and social radicalism in England. He forms in this respect a characteristic pendant to Hobbes, his contemporary, who grafted upon the stem of philosophical materialism the doctrine of political absolutism and State religion. But the philosophic radical representative of the interests of the lower classes has passed into oblivion, mainly because, after the Revolution, social radicalism for a long time manifested itself in religious movements only. It is therefore very difficult to discover any exact particulars as to his personality. Godwin assumed, erroneously [1], that Richard Overton was a brother of Robert Overton, the friend of Milton (and the republican partisan of Cromwell before he became Lord Protector and Dictator); but all that Professor D. Masson, Milton’s biographer, knows about him is that he was “a printer and assiduous publisher of pamphlets”. At any rate he was an indefatigable Leveller, and we shall again meet with him in that capacity later on.

The first edition of Overton’s pamphlet appeared anonymously in 1643. Amsterdam is named on the title page as the place of publication, but there is good reason to believe that it was printed in London. At that time the Presbyterians were still predominant, and a manifesto of their conclave against contemporary unbelief and heresy attacks this pamphlet: “The chief representative of the tremendous doctrine of materialism, or the Denial of the Immortality of the soul, is ‘R.O.’”, the anonymous author of the tract on Man’s Mortality – the title of the first edition.

The title of the completely revised second edition, which appeared twelve years later, in 1655, in London, reads as follows: “Man wholly mortal, or a Treatise wherein ’tis proved, both Theologically and Philosophically, that as whole man sinned, so whole man died; contrary to that common distinction of Soul and Body; and that the present going of the Soul into heaven or hell is a mere fiction: And that at the Resurrection is the beginning of our immortality; and then actual condemnation and Salvation and not before. With Doubts and Objections answered and resolved, both by Scripture and Reason; discovering the multitude of Blasphemies and Absurdities that arise from the Fancie of the Soul.”

As will be seen from the title, a last concession is made to the supernatural idea; a resurrection at the end of time is admitted. But Godwin is hardly wrong in concluding, from the fact that Overton treats this subject quite superficially, that he maintains the doctrine of the Resurrection simply for the purpose of forestalling the charge of propagating crass atheism. It has no connection whatever with the argument on the main question. [2]

The “theological” ground for this main argument consists in a number of Biblical texts cited by Overton, referring to a complete perishing after death, while he declares that other texts which apparently imply the contrary are based on false readings or misinterpretations of the original text. Thus, on the title page, verse 19 of the third chapter of Ecclesiastes: “For that which befalleth the sons of men befalleth beasts; even one thing befalleth them: as the one dieth, so dieth the other; yea, they have all one breath; so that a man hath no pre-eminence above a beast: for all is vanity.”

The “philosophical” proof is of an entirely different nature. It is thoroughly scientific, as far as this was possible in those times. From the development of the psychical activity in the developing human being – ascending from the infant to the adult man, descending thence to the age of second childhood, and modified in the sick – Overton demonstrates the impossibility of the separation of soul and body. He compares man with animals, and shows from many examples that nearly all of his mental capacities are likewise found in animals, merely differing in degree, and in not being in the latter combined in equal fullness. If, therefore, the human soul can survive the decay of the body, the soul of the animal also must be immortal. With keen logic he demonstrates, from pathological conditions, etc., that if the soul is something independent of the body, man ought to have, not one soul, but a large number. Most categorical are his statements as to corporality in general: “The form”, he writes, “is the form of the matter, and matter is the matter of the form; neither of themselves, but each with the other, and both together make one Being.” [3] In another place he writes: “All that is created is material; for that which is not material, is nothing”. [4] Overton quotes, in support of his views, many passages from Greek and Roman classics, which suggests that he was an uncommonly well-read man. From the quotations given the reader will scarcely be surprised to learn that this publication made considerable stir; in fact, the author appears to have given great offence to his pious fellow-citizens, while on the other hand his work seems to have had a highly stimulative effect on unprejudiced spirits; thus, for instance, Masson considers it probable that Milton arrived at his views on death through Overton.

As regards Walwyn, Overton’s associate, no independent writings by him, on religious and political questions, are extant. A reply from his pen to Kiffin’s pamphlet is on strictly defensive lines. It repudiates, in general terms, the charge of irreligion and of revolutionary communism, so that nothing definite can be gathered from it in any direction. The same may be said of a publication which appeared under the initials “H.B.”, The Charity of Churchmen, whose author, a certain Doctor Brook, declares that he feels bound to stand up for Walwyn, who was confined within prison walls. The conversations quoted by Kiffin had certainly taken place, but Walwyn’s utterances had been exaggerated by Kiffin in a partisan spirit. As both apologies appeared at the time when Walwyn was confined in the Tower awaiting his trial, not much weight is to be attached to this mode of refutation. All that can be inferred from them is that Kiffin’s charges may possibly have been exaggerated in certain respects, but in substance were not mere fabrications. On the contrary, persons are named who are said to have been present during the conversations in question.

As we are not so much concerned with the precise phraseology as with the general tendency of these conversations, we will now consider how Walwyn is alleged to have endeavoured to corrupt the young people who frequented his house.

It is said that he questioned the young men: “How can you prove that the Bible is God’s Word?” “What better proof have you for the divine authorship of the Bible than the Turk has for his Koran?”

He is said to have taken the young people on Sundays to the various churches, one after another, to let them hear how the preachers of the one inveighed against those of the other, pointing out to them the contradictions and absurdities in the sermons, and after having thus prejudiced them against religion in general, representing “the great mysteries of life and salvation through Jesus Christ as well as the doctrines of justification through His death, resurrection, sanctification, and condemnation by His spirit as mere fancies, as ridiculous, nonsensical, vapid, and empty conceptions”, to have embarked upon a criticism of the various political and social systems.

He was specifically accused of having said to some pupils that there was “more wit in Lucian’s dialogues than in the whole Bible”, that the Proverbs and Psalms were composed by kings, solely for their own ends, that the Song of Songs was a poem written by Solomon about one of his whores, that hell is nothing but the bad conscience of evil men in this life, and that it was inconceivable that God should torment men throughout all eternity for a short period of sinful life. King David and the patriarch Jacob had been a couple of sly foxes and cunning knaves. It was absurd to engage in continuous prayer, and the only true religion consisted in helping the poor. The Protestant priests were most of them greedy fellows; even the Catholics had not been as bad as they were to the poor. He could not blame the Irish for their rebellion, they were right in demanding liberty for themselves. It is laid to Walwyn’s charge, as a particularly heinous offence, that he even defended suicide, whereby a friend of his wife, who suffered from an incurable disease, had actually been encouraged to kill herself.

So much for Walwyn’s “soul-destroying” atheism. Now for his communism.

The associate of Lilburne, whom Freeborn John so warmly defended, is said to have expressed himself as follows concerning the “disproportion and inequality of the distribution of the things of this life”:

“What an inequitable thing it is for one man to have thousands and another want bread! The pleasure of God is that all men should have enough, and not that one man should abound in this world’s goods, spending it upon lusts, and another man (of far better deserts and far more useful to the commonwealth) not to be worth twopence.” He wishes that “there was neither pale, hedge, nor ditch in the whole nation”, and says that “the world shall never be well until all things be common”. It would not by any means be “such difficulty as men make it to be to alter the course of the world in this thing; a very few diligent and valiant spirits may turn the world upside down if they observe the seasons and shall with life and courage engage accordingly”. To the objection that this would upset all and every Government, he answered: “There would then be less need of Government; for then there would be no thieves, no covetous persons, no deceiving and abuse of one another, and so no need of Government. If any difference do fall out, take a cobbler from his seat, or any other tradesman that is an honest and just man, and let him hear the case and determine the same, and then betake himself to his work again.”

Have not these sentiments a decidedly modern ring about them?

However, Walwyn’s views have been preserved for us by his opponents, and, like Overton’s treatise – of which the first edition appeared before the outbreak, and the second after the suppression of the Leveller movement – have no direct connection with this movement itself. As party leaders, Walwyn and Overton, as well as Lilburne, appear to have confined themselves mainly to political matters and to have treated religion as a strictly “private affair”.

But the movement itself was not exclusively concerned with political questions. The masses, as a rule, will not be inspired with enthusiasm for political reforms unless these appear to them a means for improving their own material position; and the Leveller movement was no exception to this rule. As long as it was confined to portions of the Army and of the London populace, its political character was uppermost, but when it spread into the country, it at once assumed the character of a “social-democratic agitation”.

A striking illustration of this, and of how it was customary for the Bible to be quoted on every occasion and for meanings to be read into the text, is supplied by a pamphlet written by a Leveller and entitled Light Shining in Buckinghamshire, or the discovery of the main ground, original cause of all the slavery in the world, but chiefly in England, presented by way of Declaration of many of the well-affected in the country, to all the poor oppressed countrymen of England, and also to the consideration of the present army under the conduct of Lord Fairfax”, 1648. The motto of this pamphlet runs as follows: “Arise, O God, judge Thou the earth”, and at the very commencement it says: “All that which is called Magistracie is from the king’s Patent, and his is from the devil; for the king’s predecessor, the outlandish bastard William, came to be king by conquest and murther; now murtherers are, saith Jesus, the devil’s children, for, saith He, the devil was a murtherer from the beginning and he abode not in the truth; now kings are utterly against the truth and persecutors of the saints, for, saith Jesus, they shall bring you before kings, so that Kings are enemies unto the Kingdom of Christ”. [5]

The argument is as bold as the quotations, but it shows how it was sought to prove everything from the Bible. The pamphlet goes on to say: “And, therefore, those called the Levellers, their principles to free all alike out of slavery, are most just and honest in reference to the matter of freedom, for it is the end of redemption by Jesus to restore all things.” [6] Who required a king at all? is a question put by the unnamed author, who then proceeds to show that it is the rich, the nobility, the priests, and the “horseleech” lawyers who require the protection and countenance of a king, but not the real people. He adds that what “honest people” desire is

  1. “A just portion for each man to live, so that none need to beg or steal for want, but everyone may live comfortably.”
  2. “A just rule for each man to go by, which rule is to be found in Scripture.”
  3. Equal rights for all.
  4. Government by “Judges called Elders” elected by the people.
  5. A commonwealth after the pattern of the Bible. “Now in Israel, if a man were poor, then a publicke maintenance and stocke was to be provided to raise him again. So would all Bishops’ lands, Forrest lands, and Crown lands, do in our land, which the apostate Parliament-men give one to another, and to maintain the needlesse thing called a king, and every seven years the whole land was to the poor, the fatherless, widows and strangers, and at every crop a portion allowed them. Mark this, poor people, what the Levellers would do for you.[7]

The rest of this remarkable pamphlet constitutes a keen and apposite criticism of the situation and political constitution in England, and in conclusion there appears in leaded type the ominous verse from the twelfth chapter of the first book of Kings: “What portion have we in David? Neither have we inheritance in the son of Jesse: to your tents, O Israel.”

The little pamphlet must have been received very favourably, as three months after a sequel appeared, entitled More of the light shining in Buckinghamshire. It describes how the people had been robbed of their natural inheritance and enslaved by the Norman conquest, and subsequently by the usurpations of the lords, by illegal enclosure of lands and similar means. The remedy was not to revert to the state of things preceding the Norman conquest, but to build up a state of true equality and justice, and do away with all kinds of kings and vice-kings. A third pamphlet was promised to show how this could be done.

But no such pamphlet seems to have appeared, or at least not under the same title. However, we shall soon see that the author, or the group to which he belonged, had worked out elaborate schemes in support of their proposals. First of all, we would mention two features which the pamphlets referred to have in common with quite a number of pamphlets issued at that period.

The first and more general characteristic is the extremely hostile language used towards the monarchy, the nobility, the Church, and the rich class, but particularly towards the lawyers. No epithet seems too strong to be used against them – the most common, recurring in innumerable writings, is “these caterpillars of society”. It seems that they were bitterly hated by a large part of the population, and evidently not without good cause, inasmuch as they were the ready tools of the great land-robbers, ever prepared to give legal sanction to their acts of spoliation, while turning a deaf ear to the cry of the robbed and oppressed without means to pay. [8] And how jealously did they, as a caste, guard their privileges, the right to fleece as they pleased those seeking justice. We have already mentioned that not the least important reason for the collapse of Barebone’s Parliament was that it designed to replace the tangle of statute law by a codified system of law and thus clip the nails of the legal profession. When questioned in Parliament, about that time, by Edm. Ludlow, one of the republican generals, Cromwell named as one of the obstacles to a drastic reform the resistance of the lawyers, “the sons of Zeruiah”. “As soon as we speak of improving the laws they cry out that we propose to destroy property.” [9] Even Cromwell dared not incur the enmity of bigots.

The second popular slogan of the period is the denunciation of existing property as the fruit of “Norman law”, which was merely the law of a conqueror. There is extant a whole literature of popular pamphlets, which are variations on this subject, and which of course are chiefly written by Levellers or other extreme Independents. [10] But abolition of the “Norman law”, as urged in these pamphlets, meant abolition or, at least, revision of the existing conditions of property – the word property being chiefly or exclusively understood to mean landed property. The English Levellers, without having studied Brissot and Proudhon, came to the conclusion that the land belonged by right to the nation, and regarded landlordism as “robbery”.

It was chiefly literature based on these premises that championed the cause of the landless and the expropriated in this Revolution, which, historically considered, was a revolution of the possessing classes: a struggle for the emancipation of proprietors – landholders – from the surviving remnants of feudal burdens on the land. But this was not all. When once society had been aroused, other elements came to the surface and formulated comprehensive proposals for social reform; side by side with the revolutionary socialists of the time we also find “State Socialists” or Social Reformers.

We may consider as such, for instance, P. Cllamberlen, physician, an Independent of French extraction, who in 1649 published a pamphlet entitled The Poor Man’s Advocate, in which a most remarkable proposal was made for solving the social question of the period. It bears the sub-title “A Samaritan England” and its motto is “Bonum quo communius eo melius”. The author advocates the nationalization of all land that had hitherto been Crown or Church land, or other forfeited land, as the PATRIMONY OF THE POOR. All these estates and other public property should be thrown together into a great national “Stock”, as a treasure for the poor, and administered on communistic lines, by an organization having a thoroughly democratic constitution and accessible to all, and for the chief direction of which a responsible supervisor was to be appointed. Otherwise, Chamberlen proposes to leave society as it is, except that all restrictions on industry and commerce are to be removed, all articles of food and raw materials are to be admitted into the country duty-free, and similarly, all manufactured products are to be exported free, and no duties are to be levied except on the exports of the former and the imports of the latter. As the reader is no doubt aware, the last mentioned proposals were the demands of the more radical mercantilism which was then coming to the fore. But Chamberlen does not stop there. “Provide for the poor and they will provide for you, crush the poor and they will crush you”, is the warning which he addressed to the politicians. He combats the assertion that the poor (meaning not actual mendicants only, but the poorer classes generally) can be brought to reason by hunger and coercive laws only, and that they become lazy if protected against extreme want, and insolent and rebellious if not kept down by force. The economical policy which was carried through in France, half a generation later, by Colbert, is outlined in this pamphlet in every point, except that it is chiefly directed here to the semi-communistic institution of a national “stock”. This national “stock” was to be used to build roads and canals, create manufactures, introduce improved machinery, establish schools and technical institutes for the instruction of the people; in short, it was to serve as a lever for raising, together with the situation of the lower classes, the general level of culture in the country. Chamberlen does not confine himself to mere general indications, but proceeds at once to calculate the financial probabilities of his project, which is in every way an interesting example of the mighty impetus which the Revolution had given to the minds of men. Although the author was not himself a Leveller, and is never mentioned in connection with Levellers, he nevertheless appears to have been closely allied with them.

His treatise was published by Giles Calvert, who published most of the Levellers’ pamphlets, and whose name figures as that of a co-editor on the title page of the third edition of the Levellers’ Agreement of the People, which appeared on July 23, 1649. Perhaps it would not be altogether erroneous to regard it as an endeavour to provide a sociological supplement to the Agreement, which, as regards the main question with which it deals, merely lays down a general principle.

Other writings that may be referred to in this connection are some of the tracts of Samuel Hartlib, or Hartlieb, a learned Protestant German Pole, whose parents, under the pressure of Jesuitical dominion, had migrated from Poland to West Prussia. Hartlieb went to England about 1630, and became active as a diplomat and as the promoter of all kinds of movements that aimed at the common weal. He made translations into English of various writings of Comenius, the famous pedagogue of the Bohemian Brethren (1592-1671), besides himself writing various essays on education. Keenly interested in the better cultivation of the soil, he established a small model farm and published popular works on agriculture as practised in Flanders, bee-keeping, fruit-growing, etc. In recognition of his merits, the “Long Parliament” granted him in 1646 a pension of £100 sterling, which in the following year was raised to £300. But Hartlieb’s boundless liberality, which extended to numerous Protestant and sectarian refugees, and which had exhausted his own property, still kept him poor, and when towards the end of the Republic the payment of the pension fell into arrears, the plight of this unselfish man became deplorable. Though afflicted with a painful disease (calculus), he literally had to beg in order to procure the barest necessaries of life for himself and his family. The restored monarchy was still less eager to pay Hartlieb the arrears of his pension, and he died in extreme want in 1662. He had maintained relations with the most eminent men in England. Milton dedicated to him an essay on Education, and a similar tribute was paid by William Petty, whose talent Hartlieb had been quick to recognize. The great Comenius wrote that he did not know of anyone who equalled Hartlieb in the extent of his knowledge.

Hartlieb’s first original work is his treatise, conceived in a Utopian form, on the State as a promoter of industry, entitled “A description of the famous Kingdom of Macaria; showing its excellent government, wherein the Inhabitants live in great Prosperity, Health and Happiness; the King obeyed, the Nobles honoured, and all good men respected. An example to other nations. In a Dialogue between a Scholar and a Traveller.” [11]

The book is dedicated to Parliament, and Hartlieb observes that he has set forth his ideas in a fiction as “a more mannerly way”, following the example of Sir Thomas More and Bacon. But Macaria (the word is Greek and signifies “Place of Bliss”) is written with a severely practical aim. It does not describe an imaginary society, but presents definite institutions and laws – in sufficiently general terms to admit of their being readily applied to the conditions of that time. Briefly summarized, they amount to this, that the State should control and promote production, and that property should entail the discharge of certain obligations, under penalty of its forfeiture to the community. The government of Macaria consists of five departments (“Councils of State”), composed of the most competent citizens, devoted to agriculture, fishery, commerce and trade on land, maritime commerce, and the colonies (“new Plantations”) respectively. Of course these officers are represented as fulfilling their tasks in a most exemplary manner, stimulating progress and improvement in every direction. Consequently there is general prosperity, science flourishes, the poorer members of society are provided for in the best possible way, etc. The fundamental idea is that the State should be an economic institution. Hartlieb held fast to this idea throughout his whole life; “Macaria” figures in his letters almost to the very last. [12]

However, in those later days he coupled the “Macaria” project with another scheme, viz., the formation of an association of lovers of physical sciences, which were then totally neglected at the Universities. This plan was realized before Hartlieb’s death by the foundation of the “Royal Society”. But Hartlieb could not succeed in gaining influential support for his other project. Even the suggestion to make a small commencement in the chief branch of production, i.e. agriculture, was coldly received, as he found to his chagrin, when, after having published several works on improvements in the cultivation of the soil, he brought out, in 1651, an Essay for Advancement of Husbandry-Learning or Propositions far the Erecting of a Colledge of Husbandry.

Notwithstanding the sensible and practical arguments used by Hartlieb in recommending this proposal, nearly two hundred years elapsed before it was realized in England. We mention this essay because its sub-title, which recurs in many other writings of Hartlieb’s, foreshadows the title of John Bellers’ proposal, which will be dealt with hereafter. Hartlieb’s agricultural essays and proposals have been highly commended in works of modern agriculturists.

Another of Hartlieb’s suggestions was the compilation of a State “Book of Addresses” for traffic in goods, employment registry, etc., where inventories and registers should be kept of all goods, persons, offices, and situations, etc., and where any desired information should be given to all applicants, to the rich against payment of a penny or twopence, “but to the poor all shall be supplied gratis”. Hartlieb also advocated the free interchange of all inventions – in which respect he himself set the example – and finally there is extant “an opinion” by him on a project for a land (agricultural) bank. Although these proposals are all in harmony with the nascent capitalist system, the idea is stressed that inventions which tend to increase production are bound to improve the situation of the poorer classes, and that the State should step in where the capabilities of the individual do not suffice to realize this object.

But the literature of the time did not always stop short at proposals compatible with the existing order, and this brings us to the communistic sect of the “True Levellers”, as they first called themselves in a spirit of revolutionary defiance, or “diggers”, as the people and contemporary writers nicknamed them.




1. History of the Commonwealth, vol.iv, p.280.

2. There is a connection only in so far as it is shown that the existence of a soul without a body being impossible, there could be no Purgatory or the like, where disembodied souls were supposed to pass after death. No other immortality of the soul than by the raising up of the whole man is possible, and until this happened the whole man that died, soul as well as body, is dead. “On the whole, were it not for the appended concession of a Resurrection, or New Creation, and an Immortality somehow to ensue thence, the doctrine of the Tract might be described as out-and-out Materialisrn. Possibly, in spite of the concession, this is what the author meant to drive at” (Masson, Life of Milton, vol.iii, p.157).

3. Second Edition, p.10.

4. p.21.

5. p.3.

6. p.6.

7. p.6.

8. “Would it not be a notable booty for the soldiers”, we read in the last quoted pamphlet “when so many cheating lawyers are together at the Term, to drive them out, or else strip their long-tailed gowns over their ears? O soldiers, you could never do a better piece of service than to put down the lawyers.”

9. Edm. Ludlow, Memoirs, vol.ii, pp.46-51.

10. Three such pamphlets against the “Norman law” are reproduced in the Harleian Miscellany,, p.36ff., vol.viii, pp.94ff., and vol.ix, pp.90ff. The name of the author is John Hare.

11. London, 1641 (reprinted in vol.i of the Harleian Miscellany, pp.580ff.).

12. In 1659, to his great mortification, a diffuse and bombastic parody of Macaria, entitled Olbia (The Happy One), was published in his name, without his knowledge or authority, which served to mystify even some of his friends.


Last updated on 16.3.2003