Eduard Bernstein

Cromwell and Communism

Chapter XII
Historical Significance of Lilburne and the Levellers

HISTORICAL research during the nineteenth century has removed many of the distortions which hitherto disfigured the image of Cromwell as handed down by his contemporaries. The victor of Dunbar no longer appears to us to-day as the double-tongued schemer, as he was considered by many of his brothers-in-arms, as the “great impostor”, who for. the mere gratification of his ambition would not scruple to tread underfoot what but yesterday he had passionately upheld. Gardiner’s book has dispelled almost the last doubts in this respect, and explained many changes hitherto unaccounted for in Cromwell. The various forces, influences, and circumstances which determined Cromwell’s actions are more clearly analysed, and assigned with greater chronological accuracy than ever before. It appears on almost every occasion that Cromwell’s “deception” turns out to be justifiable opportunism. But what Cromwell gains as a man and a politician he loses as a revolutionist. Whenever the struggle against effete powers threatened to assume a revolutionary aspect, we see him frequently irresolute and even pusillanimous; in every instance he is impelled to decisive action by outside forces. During the period from 1646 to 1648, in every respect a revolutionary epoch, he is inferior, in perceiving the political measures required and grasping a new situation, to others, more especially to the Levellers. The plebeian-radical elements in the Army and in the civil population became prominent during this time, and determined the course of the Revolution. The Levellers among the people and the Agitators in the Army were the first to recognize the necessity of dealing sternly with the anti-revolutionary forces, as they were also foremost in perceiving that so long as the Revolution accepted the irresponsible position of the King, and treated him as a prisoner of war instead of as a prisoner of the State, the issue of the struggle remained in doubt.

But among the Levellers themselves Lilburne was remarkable for his democratic instinct and political sagacity. He was a political doctrinaire, and as such was necessarily one-sided. Yet this theorist had a keen insight into many things, and in not a few points held his own against statesmen. Thus, for instance, he wrote as early as in 1646,when none of the leading politicians had contemplated an attack upon the House of Lords: “All legislative power in its own nature is merely arbitrary, and to place an arbitrary power in any sort of persons whatsoever for life (considering the corruption and deceitfulness of man’s heart, yea, the best of men) was the greatest of slavery; but the claim of the Lords is not only to have an arbitrary power inherent in themselves for life, but also to have it hereditary to their sons, for ever, be they knaves or fools, which is the highest vassalage in the world.” [1] It was not until three years later that the “grandees” of the Army and Parliament found that he was right, and abolished the House of Lords. We have also seen how his inveterate suspicion of arbitrary power extended to Parliament itself, and how fiercely he opposed the attempted establishment of the “rule of the sword”, although he himself was in constant touch with the democratic elements in the Army. We will give one more quotation. In his pamphlet An Impeachment of High Treason against Oliver Cromwell he says : “If we must have a King, I for my part would rather have the Prince [2] than any man in the world because of his large pretence of right, which if he come not in by conquest, by the hands of foreigners – the bare attempting of which may apparently hazard him the loss of all at once by gluing together the now divided people to join as one man against him – but by the hands of Englishmen by contract upon the principles aforesaid – the principles of the Agreement of the People – which is easy to be done, the people will easily see that presently thereupon they will enjoy this transcendent benefit, he being at peace with foreign nations, and having no regal pretended competitor, viz., the immediate disbanding of all armies, garrisons, and fleets, saving the old cinque-ports ... whereas for the present army to set up the pretended Saint Oliver or any other as their elected King, there will be nothing thereby from the beginning of the chapter to the end thereof but wars and the cutting of throats year after year; yea and the absolute keeping up of a perpetual and everlasting army under which the people are absolute and perfect slaves.” [3]

“It is impossible”, Gardiner adds, “to treat the man who could write those words as a mere vulgar broiler.” If Lilburne deceived himself in believing that the prince could sincerely subscribe to his Agreement of the People, he was right in predicting that the military dictatorship would not end the contest, and most apposite in describing the dangers of this dictatorship. As a politician he showed himself to be far ahead of the “Fifth Monarchy” men, who held fast to the external sign of the republic.

Here are a few more opinions on Lilburne:

Lilburne knew fear so little that he was ready at all times to fight against any odds. [4]

Lilburne was naturally of an undaunted courage and an acute understanding. He defied all consequences, nor was terror in any instance able to alter his resolution and perseverance. Lilburne was a man of generous birth and ardent disposition; in addition to which his habits were of no common order. [5]

And Mr. C. H. Firth, in the Dictionary of National Biography, writes at the conclusion of an exhaustive article on Lilburne:

Lilburne’s political importance is easy to explain. In a revolution, where others argued about the respective rights of King and Parliament, he spoke of the rights of the people. His dauntless courage and his powers of speech made him the idol of the mob. With Coke’s Institutes in his hand he was willing to tackle any Tribunal. He was ready to assail any abuse at cost to himself, but his passionate egotism made him a dangerous champion, and he continually sacrificed public causes to personal resentment. It would be unjust to deny that he had a real sympathy with sufferers from oppression or misfortune; even when he was himself an exile he could interest himself in the distresses of English prisoners of war, and exert the remainder of his influence to get them relieved. In his controversies he was credulous, careless about the truth of his charges, and insatiably vindictive. He attacked in turn all constituted authorities – Lords, Commons, Council of State, and Council of Officers – and quarrelled in succession with every ally.

A life of Lilburne published in 1657 supplies this epitaph

Is John departed and is Lilburne gone!
Farewell to Lilburne, and farewell to John;
But lay. John here, lay Lilburne here about,
For if they ever meet they will fall out. [6]

This does not do full justice to Lilburne. In reply to the charge of quarrelsomeness he could fairly appeal in his Vindication (1653) to the fact that all his lawsuits and conflicts turned on important questions of right and of the commonweal. He was, in fact, the ideal “champion of right”, and as he was hot-tempered into the bargain, he could hardly avoid falling from one conflict into another. He had the makings of a first-class lawyer. But just as, despite his military abilities, he was the implacable foe of military domination, so, notwithstanding his legal knowledge, he was the sworn enemy of the legal profession.

The times were troubled, and whoever championed, as Lilburne did, the cause of the common people “could not but attack, one by one, all the constituted authorities”. His hostile attitude towards the “constituted authorities” in no wise differs from that of popular tribunes in other revolutions. We may call him a demagogue in the same sense in which Marat, Desmoulins, and O’Connell were demagogues, and in this category he is second to none. He was a brilliant speaker, wielded the sword and the pen with equal courage and skill, and while some of his comrades in the struggle may have surpassed him in learning (though he was by no means ignorant) and others in consistent radicalism, none among them combined so many brilliant qualities of a popular agitator as this man whom even Hume calls “the most turbulent but the most upright and courageous of human kind”. He united the inflexible sense of justice of an ideologist, the resolution of a war-tried revolutionary, and the keen judgment of a practical politician. For all this he was sometimes unjust to Cromwell. He represented another class and different principles from Cromwell’s, and he would have been deficient in loyalty had he judged the actions of those in power by any other standard than the principles of the class he championed. A party zealot engaged in continuous strife must be forgiven if he falls short of the impartiality of the historian. Nor have wise politics ever been a strong point with democratic parties. Cromwell himself was devoted body and soul to the cause of the propertied classes, and as such was deficient in his handling of the very question in regard to which Lilburne showed up to advantage. Cromwell beheld in the class division of human society, into aristocracy, bourgeoisie and workers, and the contemporary respective legal positions of these classes, the inviolable “natural” order of things.

A nobleman, a gentleman, a yeoman, “the distinction of these”: that is a good interest of the Nation, and a great one! The “natural” Magistracy of the Nation was it not almost trampled under foot, under despite and contempt, by men of Levelling principles? I beseech you, For the orders of men and ranks of men, did not that Levelling principle tend to the reducing of all to an equality? Did it “consciously” think to do so; or did it “only unconsciously” practise towards that for property and interest? At all events what was the purport of it but to make the Tenant as liberal a fortune as the Landlord? Which, I think, if obtained would not have lasted long! The men of that principle, after they had served their own turns, wd then have cried-up property and interest fast enough! This instance is instead of many. And that the thing did “and might well” extend far, is manifest; because it was a pleasing voice to all Poor men, and truly not unwelcome to all Bad men. [7]

Thus said Cromwell in his speech of September 4, 1654, when opening the first Parliament of the Protectorate. In his speech on the dissolution of this Parliament on January 22, 1655, pointing once more to the danger threatening from the “Levellers”, Cromwell said: “It is some satisfaction if a Commonwealth must perish, that it perish by men and not by the hands of persons differing little from beasts. That if it must needs suffer, it shd rather suffer from rich men than from poor men, who, as Solomon says, ‘when they oppress leave nothing behind them, but are a sweeping rain’.” [8]

These words of “Self in the highest”, as Lilburne nicknamed Cromwell years before his coup d’état, characterize Cromwell’s bourgeois opinions, and also indicate that even in 1655 the “Leveller” movement still continued to smoulder under the ashes. This was not surprising, as the causes of discontent, instead of diminishing, were constantly multiplying. Unfortunately, it is very difficult to obtain an impartial account of the strength and extent of the movement. There is no doubt that it found supporters in the North of England, as emissaries carried the doctrines of the Levellers into the remotest counties. It is, however, very difficult to estimate the degree of cohesion that existed among the supporters of the movement. None of the Leveller publications throws any light on this question, the movement produced no historian, and the accounts of its opponents are extremely inaccurate and contradictory. The expression “Leveller” itself was no strict party term. It signified an equalitarian in the sense of a revolutionary, and was therefore indifferently applied to commotions which had very little, if any, connection with political struggles, but which were of an exclusively local character, produced by discontent with local occurrences, whereas Lilburne and his colleagues repeatedly repudiated the description of Leveller precisely on account of its crude equalitarian connotation. They were democrats, but ought not to be regarded as brutal revolutionaries. It is therefore almost impossible to distinguish mere revolts, to which levelling tendencies were imputed, from movements connected with the party of the democratic Agreement of the People. The attitude towards the Agreement of the People is the attribute of the political Levellers’ movement.

For a comparatively short time, viz., from the middle of the year 1648 to the autumn of the year 1649, information about the movement is forthcoming from a journal, which was described as the organ of the Levellers, and which within certain limits may be so regarded, as it reproduces most of the proclamations and pamphlets of the Levellers published during that time, and so far as it exhibits any tendency at all, represents that of the Levellers. Strange to say, this paper, though the organ of the most extreme political party of the period, bears the singular title of the Moderate. But this name was neither meant in an ironical sense nor was it chosen in a hypocritical spirit. It indicates the calm and impartial style in which the paper was written. Far from smacking of sans-culottism, as the elder Disraeli asserts in his Curiosities of Literature [9], we have nowhere met with a single phrase that could be remotely compared to the vulgar and obscene passages commonly found in the contemporary Royalist press, the Man in the Moon, Mercurius Elencticus, etc.

The Moderate was one of the first papers to publish explanatory leading articles, or at least the embryo of such. Several of its numbers open with disquisitions on political and even economical problems, and I venture to reproduce these articles so that the reader may judge whether we are justified in describing the Moderate as the pioneer of the Labour Press of our days. The issue of September 4 to 11, 1649 (No.61), commences as follows:

Wars are not only ever clothed with the most specious of all pretences, viz., Reformation of Religion, The Laws of the Land, Liberty of the Subject, etc., though the effects thereof have proved most destructive to them, and ruinous to every Nation; making the Sword (and not the people) the original of all Authorities, for many hundred years together; taking away each man’s Birth-right, and settling upon a few, a cursed propriety (the ground of all Civil Offences between party and party) and the greatest cause of most Sins against the Heavenly Deity. Thus Tyranny and Oppression running through the Veins of many of our Predecessors, and being too long maintained by the Sword, upon a Royal Foundation, at last became so customary, as to the vulgar it seemed so natural (the onely reason why the people at this time are so ignorant of their equal Birth-right, their onely Freedom). At last Divine Providence crowned the slavish people’s attempt with good success against this potent Enemy, which made them Free (as they fancied) from their former Oppressions, Burdens and Slaveries; and happy in what they could imagine, the greatest good, both for their Soul and Body. But Pride, Covetousness, and Self-Interest (taking the advantage of so unvaluable a benefit). And many being tempted to Swim in this Golden Ocean, the Burthens and Oppressions of the people, are thereby not onely continued, but increased, and no end thereof to be imagined. At this the people (who cannot now be deluded, will be eased, and not onely stiled, but really be the original of all Lawful Authority) begin to rage, and cry out for a lawful Representative, and such other wholesome Laws as will make them truly happy. These not granted, and some old Sparks being blown up with the Gales of new Dissentions, the fire breaks out, the wind rises, and if the fewel be dry and some speedy remedy be not taken for prevention, the damage thereby may be great to some, but the benefit conceived greater to all others.

This line of argument sounds very modern. The world moves but slowly, and it gives a feeling of humility to realize how old political wisdom is.

Mr. Isaac Disraeli is annoyed because the Moderate, in its issue of July 31st to August 7, 1649, when some robbers were executed for cattle-stealing, blames the institution of property for the death of these people, arguing that if no private property existed, there would have been no need for them to steal for their living. The article states: “We find some of these Fellons to be very civil men, and say, That if they could have had any reasonable subsistence by friends, or otherwise, they should never have taken such necessitous courses, for support of their Wives and Families. From whence many honest people do endevor to argue, that there is nothing but propriety that is the loss of all men’s lives in this condition, they being necessitated to offend the Law for a livelihood, and being; and not onely so, but they argue it with much confidence, that propriety is the original cause of any sin between party and party, as to civil transactions. And that since the Tyrant is taken off, and that Government altered in nomine, so ought it really to redound to the good of the people in specie; which though they cannot expect it in few yeers, by reason of the multiplicity of the Gentry in Authority, command, etc., who drive on all designes for support of the old Government, and consequently their own interest and the people’s slavery; yet they doubt not, but in time, the people will herein discern their own blindness, and folly.”

From the reports of the Moderate, as well as from other contemporary newspapers, it appears that the Leveller movement was not confined to London and its immediate neighbourhood and the Army, but also had followers in the country. Very interesting in this respect is a correspondence from Derby, in the issue for the last week of August 1649, particularly because we find mentioned in it a class of workers who are nowhere else mentioned in connection with this movement, viz., the miners, who had appealed to Parliament for redress in connection with a dispute with the Earl of Rutland, and the correspondence states that they were determined, if Parliament did not do them justice, to have recourse to “Natural Law”. Their number, including friends and sympathizers, was said to be twelve thousand, and they threatened, in default of a hearing, to form a resolute army. “The party of the Levellers in Town”, the article continues “promises them assistance in the prosecution of their just demands.” But a few days later, a letter from the “Freeholders and Mineowners, etc.”, of the Derbyshire mining district, published in a Cromwellian paper, states that the miners numbered at most four thousand, and that the Levellers did not have a dozen followers in Derby.

Moreover, the miners were accused of having repeatedly sided with the King, while the far more numerous freehold-farmers and mine-owners supported Parliament. This provoked a reply, in No.61 of the Moderate, which asserted that the above-mentioned letter was a fabrication of the Earl of Rutland and his agents; that the farmers and small owners had nothing to do with it. As to siding with the King, it had been stated in the original petition of the miners that the Earl of Rutland, then Mr. Manners, had repeatedly driven miners from their work, with the aid of Cavaliers, and when they complained, had sought to throw suspicion on them by false charges.

No.63 is the last issue of the Moderate. On September 20, 1649, Parliament enacted a press law, which re-established the system of licences, and prescribed severe penalties for the publication of abusive and libellous paragraphs. This undermined the position of the paper. On the other hand, negotiations had just been resumed between the Levellers and representatives of the Army and Parliament, with a view to reaching a compromise, so that it is by no means unlikely that the Moderate ceased to appear because the need for a special organ of the Levellers no longer existed. As a matter of fact, the Moderate reported on September 1st (and its report is confirmed by the Perfect Weekly Account, a paper which was more sympathetic with the Parliamentary party) that four representatives each, of Parliament, the Army, and “those called Levellers”, had held prearranged conferences in order to arrive at a mutual understanding, and if possible a settlement of all differences. “Time will soon show what will be the outcome of all this.” No compromise was effected, but it seems that, after Lilburne’s acquittal in October, a kind of truce followed, as during the subsequent years the Levellers adopted an expectant attitude.

The Moderate contains a variety of other interesting notices and reports, which do not bear directly upon our subject. It consisted of a sheet of eight pages, small quarto size, the chief contents being the news of the day. It lasted for over a year, from July 1648 to the end of September 1649. No complete series of its numbers is extant; they are found, singly and scattered, among the collections of pamphlets of the so-called King’s or Thomason Library in the British Museum.

The whole newspaper is steeped in the sectarian characteristics of the Leveller movement. With all their sympathies for the poorest classes in society, the Levellers do not constitute a class movement. They are the extreme left of the middle-class republican, or, more correctly, middle-class democratic party formation of the period. Like all extreme parties, they tend here and there to overstep the boundary at which they stand, but they remain finally in the middle-class camp. With the class divisions existing in England, as we have studied them, such was bound to have been the case. The class development of the industrial workers had not yet reached a point favourable to the formulation of demands which would have outbid those of the middle-class parties, and among the country population, the peasantry was so preponderant that even Democracy could not advance beyond an agrarian programme suitable for small peasant proprietors. At the end of the seventeenth century – 1688 – Gregory King estimated the number of peasant freeholders at 160,000, and of peasant tenants at 150,000, in addition to 4,500 families of the nobility and 12,000 families of the gentry, together with 364,000 agricultural labourers and servants and 400,000 cottar tenants and poor persons. In view of these class divisions among the country population, a formidable agrarian movement was out of the question, especially as there was still much common land in England available for squatters. Not until the restoration of the monarchy, and especially after the second revolution, were conditions created which, under favourable political conditions, might have produced a revolutionary agrarian movement.

The eighteenth century, with its many commercial wars and the enormous extension of English colonial possessions, both of which absorbed a considerable portion of the vigorous members of the population, was, on the whole, sterile ground for the political as well as the social reform movement.

Engrossed in making money, the middle classes tolerated the anomaly of a king governing in their name, in conjunction with a renascent aristocracy, recruited by the sons of kings’ mistresses. They tolerated an electoral system which excluded from the franchise a large section of wealthy citizens belonging to their own class. Isolated voices which protested against such anomalies were silenced by the intrigues of the two aristocratic parties and the sensations of foreign wars, while the industrial working class, which was increasing rapidly, engaged in sporadic revolts which bore no trace of their own political aspirations. Not until the end of the Napoleonic wars was there a political reform movement, which resulted, after 1832, in extending the franchise to the lower middle classes, separating the plebeian and proletarian elements and forming the great Chartist Party, which in the nineteenth century took up the cause at the point which the Levellers had reached in the middle of the seventeenth century. The Chartists are throughout the heirs of the Levellers. Their People’s Charter; although demanding adult suffrage in response to the higher level of economic development, is in no other respect more advanced than the “Agreement of the People” of the Levellers, which Carlyle ridiculed as a premature “Bentham-Sieyes constitution”, but which its author, John Lilburne, was more justified in describing as the legal foundation of popular freedom. And just as the Chartists issued from the Levellers, so the great English Utopist of the nineteenth century, Robert Owen, is in direct line from the “True Levellers”. He himself was wont to appeal to John Bellers as his predecessor, but we shall see that Bellers himself stood on the shoulders of Gerrard Winstanley and a Socialist who, seven years after Winstanley, made a considerable advance from Utopian communism to the modern idea of co-operation.




1. Lilburne, A Whip for the Present House of Lords.

2. Subsequently Charles II.

3. Vide Gardiner, History of the Commonwealth, vol.i, p.178.

4. A. Bisset, Omitted Chapters of the History of England, vol.i, p.145.

5. W. Godwin, History of the Commonwealth.

6. From The Self-afflicted Lively Described, London, 1657.

7. Carlyle, Cromwell’s Letters, Speech II.

8. Speech IV.

9. Disraeli ridicules the sub-title of the Moderate, viz., “impartially communicating martial affairs to the kingdom of England”, saying that probably the men of the Republic had evidently not yet had time to obliterate the monarchical title from their colloquial style. But, in point of fact, the Moderate came out in the summer of 1648, when England was still a kingdom, as an opposition paper to the Moderate Intelligencer, which bore the same sub-title.


Last updated on 21.11.2002