Eduard Bernstein

Cromwell and Communism

Chapter XIV
Political Philosophy of the Seventeenth Century. Hobbes and Harrington

THE literature of the great English Revolution is mainly a fugitive literature, that is to say, it arose from the necessities of the moment. This applies even to works which, like Milton’s The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates [1], treated their subject from more general points of view. A revolutionary literature may be said to have preceded the English Revolution in the realm of religion alone, and although religious questions were inseparable from politics, the works dealing with religion did not trench on the secular domain or question the existing social order. Men’s minds were not busy with theoretical speculations on the essence or the problems of the State, when the breach came between King and Parliament, and this constitutes one of the main differences between the English and the French Revolution. The latter was preceded by a body of critical literature which sapped the foundations of State and Society, while the former did not produce a special literature on political philosophy until after its close. It is true that we can detect the influence of the writings of Italian political philosophers, especially Machiavelli, of Buchanan, the Scotsman, and Grotius, the Dutchman, on the better-read among the party leaders, but, for the most part, wherever an appeal to ancient English law -real or supposed – did not suffice, the Bible was laid under contribution to sustain the revolutionary argument.

As literature lagged behind events, it is not surprising that the first important work to deal with the theory of government should be hostile to the Revolution. The partisans of the Revolution were far too busy meditating on practical measures to have any time to spare for theories concerning society and the State. Those of them who seized the pen did so in order to justify or criticize, as the case might be, certain measures and proposals. The first author to produce a profound work on the essence and foundations of the State was Thomas Hobbes, the famous philosopher of State absolutism. This work is the Leviathan, which appeared in 1651 in the English language. It was preceded in 1642 by an essay, De Cive, the fundamental ideas of which are reproduced in the Leviathan. We will therefore confine ourselves to a discussion of the social theory developed in the latter work, which exercised great influence on the sociological literature of the eighteenth century, and even in the nineteenth century influenced many socialists.

“Leviathan”, being an allusion to the mythical gigantic fish spoken of in the Book of Job, is intended by Hobbes to typify the State, or the power of the State [2], by which the “war of all against all” which would otherwise reign is reduced to a regular system, thus guaranteeing to man the secure enjoyment of the fruits of his labour or property.

“Leviathan” is the sovereign autocrat of the Commonwealth, and although Hobbes decidedly favours an absolute monarchy as the most suitable form of government, he nevertheless declares the theory to be equally applicable, whether the absolute sovereignty of an individual or that of an assembly is in question. But he is thoroughly opposed to a division of powers. The sovereignty is to rest with a certain person or body. He is, above all, anxious for order – in fact we might call him the philosopher of “order at any price”. With him all is subordinate to the sovereignty of the State, so much so that after the Restoration he, who himself was a thorough Churchman, was accused by the bishops of the State Church of being a “blasphemer”. It was not that he denied God – in spite of his materialism he stoutly maintained the existence of God [3] – but because (which in the eyes of the bishops, indeed, was much worse) he denied that the Church had any rights against the State. [4]

And in the same way, the most consistent exponent of State absolutism, temporarily even offended his royal pupil Charles Stuart, afterwards Charles II, because he did not derive the absolute power of kings direct from God, but founded it on purely utilitarian grounds. In his opinion, it is from God in so far only as it results from the nature of things which God has created, and is the most advantageous alternative to a self-abandoned state in which “one man is a wolf to the other” (homo homini lupus).

In Hobbes’ opinion the absolute power of the State is originally based either on submission to a conqueror or on contract. In both cases the power results from fear: from fear of the conqueror or from fear of the covetousness of others, from which the sovereign is deemed to afford protection. And in both cases the power, once conferred or acknowledged, is irrevocable; it is then vested perpetually in the sovereign, who may abandon it by voluntary surrender, but cannot be dispossessed of it. It is only when he proves incapable of affording legal protection and defending the country that the duty of submission lapses. The individual is indebted to the sovereign for any right legally exercised by himself, but there is no right against the sovereign. The so-called natural law governs relations outside the political right, but does not contravene it. Property exists solely by virtue of the political right. In the natural state all have an equal right to everything, and cunning or force, practised by one or many, determines the extent of individual possessions. “The inequality that now is has been introduced by the laws civil.” “The distribution of the materials of this nourishment (land, stock, rights of trading, etc.) is the constitution of `mine’ and ‘thine’ and ‘his’, that is to say, in one word propriety; and belonged in all kinds of commonwealth to the sovereign power ... From whence we may collect, that the propriety which a subject hath in his.lands, consisteth in a right to exclude all other subjects from the use of them; and not to exclude their sovereign, be it an assembly or a monarch.” [5]

From these and other passages concerning property from the Leviathan it is not difficult to draw socialistic inferences, although nothing was further from the author’s intentions than any socialistic application of his arguments. His ideas moved in an entirely different direction. Not by any means, however, in the region of pure speculation. On the contrary, these deductions, although formulated in an abstract manner, are intended to convey a very practical meaning bearing on the political struggles of his time. This is very obvious in the twenty-ninth chapter of his book, which treats of the causes of dissolution of a commonwealth. In discussing the various grievances of the supporters of royal power [6], Hobbes also describes as a great evil – as a “disease” of the political system – the difficulty of raising money for the necessary uses of the State, and more especially at the approach of a war. “This difficulty”, he continues, “ariseth from the opinion that every subject hath a propriety in his lands and goods, exclusive of the sovereign’s right to the use of the same.” [7]

This is the secret cause of the tears shed by good Mr. Hobbes over the theory of the sacredness of private property. He describes the excessive accumulation of money in the hands of a few, through revenue-farming and monopolies, as a disease of the State, and compares it to pleurisy in man: but it is only the simile that is remarkable, otherwise money is regarded as the “blood” of the social body, and no objection is raised to accumulation of property generally. He does not demur to extensive landownership.

However, questions of pure expediency cannot be raised into theoretical axioms with impunity, and thus “Master Hobbs” (Hobbes is but a Latinized form of the name) has not escaped the fate of being described after his death as a socialist and Utopist. In fact, it is only necessary to substitute “absolute sovereignty of the people” for absolute sovereign or absolute assembly, and the passages we have quoted become texts in a revolutionist’s handbook. But Hobbes, notwithstanding his materialism, is a Utopist even in his character as the philosopher of monarchical absolutism, because he derives this from “rights” which are problematical. It is true that in one passage (p.88) he says the Sovereign might delegate many of his rights to others, and yet remain suzerain, provided only that he retains control of the armed power, the raising of money and the right to decide what doctrines may be propagated; but he gives no indication as to how and under what circumstances this would be possible. On the contrary, he proceeds to impute the origin of the civil war to the propagation of the “opinion” that these powers were divided between the King, the Lords, and the House of Commons. Without the propagation of this opinion “the people had never been divided”.

Among the replies which Leviathan evoked from the contemporaries of Hobbes, undoubtedly the most important, as well as the only one that concerns us here, is Oceana, by James Harrington. Harrington cannot be called a socialist, any more than Hobbes, but he too, by his literary activity, exercised great and we may add legitimate influence on the evolution of socialistic ideas. In fact, we shall show that Harrington, with his good bourgeois sentiments, has more claim to a place in the history of socialism than many builders of socialistic “States of the future”.

But first of all a few facts about the man himself. James Harrington, born in 1611, was descended from a very well-to-do and respected family in Rutlandshire, which was related by marriage to many members of the higher aristocracy. In his youth he was exceedingly studious, and his seriousness is said to have extorted more respect from his parents than he vouchsafed to them. When grown to manhood, however, he developed a bright, cheerful temperament and a very ready wit. After having studied at Oxford University for several years, he travelled, in order to enlarge his knowledge by direct observation, in turn through Holland, Denmark, parts of Germany, France, and Italy, being particularly impressed with the Republic of Venice and its constitution. Returning to England, he devoted himself, as his father had meanwhile died, to the education of his brothers and sisters and stepbrothers and sisters, and for the rest busied himself with his studies and the management of his estates. While at The Hague he had made the acquaintance of Charles I’s sister, Elizabeth, wife of the fugitive “winter King” of Bohemia, and in England he became a frequent attendant at Court, although he made no efforts to secure any position there. These personal relations may have contributed to his taking no particularly prominent part in the struggles between King and Parliament, however much he sided with the Parliamentary party, as he openly acknowledged. When Charles I, after his arrest by resolution of Parliament, was confined in Holdenby in 1647, Harrington and Thomas Herbert were permitted to keep him company. Also in the Isle of Wight Charles had Harrington, among others, for a companion. Charles is said to have taken particular pleasure in conversing with him, except when the conversation turned on monarchy or republic, because Harrington did not disguise his sympathy for the latter. When finally Charles was brought to Windsor, Harrington was separated from him and arrested, because he refused to bind himself by an oath to disclose and frustrate any attempts at escape on the part of the King. But Ireton, whose influence was considerable, soon procured his liberation, and Harrington frequently visited Charles at St. James’, and finally accompanied him to the place of execution.

After the King’s execution Harrington retired for a time to his studies. The violent death of the King, whom he esteemed as a man, seems to have touched him very keenly, but it could not induce him to side against the Commonwealth. On the contrary, he employed himself during his seclusion by writing a work, designed to point a way out of the social confusion. This work is Oceana. Before printing it he showed it to several of his acquaintances, one of these being Major Wildman, to whom we have previously referred, and read a few passages of it to them. When at last he sent it to be printed, Oceana, concerning which all kinds of awful things had been reported to the Government by their informants, was confiscated at the printer’s and brought to Whitehall. In spite of all efforts, Harrington could not get it back, until at last he succeeded in inducing the all-powerful dictator, thanks to the advocacy of Cromwell’s favourite daughter, Lady Bridget Claypole, to himself order the return of the work. Subsequently, when Oceana appeared with a dedication addressed to Cromwell, the latter is reported to have said that he perceived the author would much like to lure him from his position of power, but he would not abandon, for the sake of a few sheets of paper, what he had obtained by the sword. No one could be more opposed than he was to the government of a single person, but he was compelled to assume the office of a High-Constable to avert social anarchy.

Oceana appeared in 1656, and at once produced various replies, nearly all of them coming from theologians. Harrington lost no time in answering his opponents, and his polemical writings, though somewhat diffuse, reveal him as an erudite and witty controversialist. The most important of these replies is The Prerogative of Popular Government, directed in the first part against the “considerations upon Oceana,” by Matthew Wren (son of the Bishop of Ely), and in the second part, against certain theologians, concerning the electoral systems of antiquity and in the early Church communities. A reply composed by Wren, published in 1659, and entitled For Monarchy, was answered by Harrington in a small satirical pamphlet, The Politicaster. Brief and full of irony is likewise his reply to the publication The Holy Commonwealth, which the devout Puritan, Richard Baxter, produced in opposition. to the “heathen” system of politics outlined in Oceana. [8]

At the request of some friends he issued in 1659 a compact but comprehensive essay on the principles developed in Oceana, entitled the Art of Law giving, and after this a publication, written in paragraphs, entitled Systems of Politics, which represents a still more concise rendering of Oceana. Among other writings by Harrington, we may mention particularly a collection of political aphorisms, a dialogue which develops the principles of Oceana in an argumentative form, and a treatise, Seven Examples of Political Constitutions from Old and Modern History.

In 1659 Harrington founded a Club for the discussion of his proposals, which Club, on account of the principle of alternate elections – “by rota” which plays a great role in Harrington’s ideal State, was called “The Rota”. Among its members were the most advanced democrats of the day, as well as many men of literary importance. Besides John Wildman, Maximilian Petty, the Leveller, and William Petty, who subsequently became so famous, it counted among its members the Republican Henry Neville, author of Plato redivivus, Major Venner, the “Fifth Monarchy” man, and Cyriac Skinner, Milton’s well-known pupil. [9]

To the restored monarchy Harrington was a “suspected” man, and about the end of December 1661, he who had accompanied Charles I, as a friend, up to the very scaffold, was suddenly arrested without ostensible cause, and kept in close confinement in the Tower. After considerable exertions by his sisters, an examination took place, which disclosed that information had been laid against Harrington, accusing him o£ taking part in secret meetings of representatives of all sections of the Commonwealth party, amongst others Wildman and Barebone, where the forcible re-establishment of the Republic had been discussed and a complete plan for the execution of this proposal had been concocted. But nothing further came of this examination; all his petitions for a regular trial to enable him to prove his innocence were unavailing, and when, at last, his sisters applied for a writ of Habeas Corpus, he was secretly removed in great haste, after more than a half-year’s close confinement without trial, and lodged in the bleak, rocky island of St. Nicholas. It was not until after he had contracted scurvy there that he was allowed, on heavy bail (£5,000), to sojourn within the forts of Plymouth. There he fell into the hands of a quack, who brought him to the very brink of death with monstrous doses of guaiacum, hellebore, and the like. Luckily, at the eleventh hour, his sisters obtained from the King an order for his discharge, and after using the waters at various spas Harrington returned to London, where he lived till 1677, but without ever completely recovering his health. While he was in Plymouth it was said that his illness had affected his reason, and in London also, although in conversations he expressed himself quite coherently, he was generally considered to be somewhat deranged on account of his remarks on the nature of his disease and physical law in general. He may have suffered from hallucinations, but, on the other hand, it is quite likely that those around him simply did not understand him, and took his figurative language literally. The commencement of an essay on the Mechanics of Nature was found among his posthumous papers. Although it contains some rather fantastical speculations upon the nature of his illness, which were inevitable in the then defective state of physical knowledge, it is so harmoniously arranged and finished as to suggest anything but madness. On the contrary, the first part contains many propositions which indicate a very keen intellect. Subjoined are a few specimens:

Nature is the Fiat, the Breath, and in the whole Sphere of her activity the very Word of God. She is a spirit, that same Spirit of God which in the beginning mov’d upon the Waters, his plastic Virtue, the “Dynamis” or “diaplastike”, the “energeia zotike”. She is the Providence of God in his Government of the things of this world, even that Providence, of which it is said, that without it a Sparrow cannot fall to the ground ... She is infallible ... yet she is limited, and can do nothing above her matter; therefore no Miracles are to be expected of her ... Nature is not only a spirit, but is furnish’d, or rather furnishes herself, with innumerable ministerial Spirits, by wh. she operates on her whole matter, as the Universe; or on the separat parts, as man’s body. These ministerial Spirits are certain Aetherial Particles invisibly mix’d with elementary Matter; they work ordinarily unseen or unfelt, and may be call’d Animal spirits ... Animal spirits, whether in the Universe, or in man’s Body, are good or evil spirits, according to the matter wherein and whereof they are generated. What is a good spirit to one creature, is evil to another, as the food of som Beasts is poison to man. ... Nothing in Nature is annihilated or lost, and therefore whatever is transpir’d, is receiv’d and put to som use by the spirits of the Universe.

So far it must be admitted that, apart from the term “spirit”, Harrington had arrived as near the materialistic mode of thinking as it was possible in those times. And even the most mysterious and fantastical sentence in this essay is framed on thoroughly materialistic lines of thought, as in fact Harrington says expressly in his introduction that, leaving aside all books and theories, he would picture Nature as “how she first came into my senses, and by the senses into my understanding”. This sentence runs as follows: “Animal spirits are ordinarily emitted, streaking themselves into various figures, answerable to little arms or hands, by wh, they work out the matter by Transpiration, no otherwise than they unlock’d it, and wrought it up in the body by attenuation, that is, by manufacture: for these operations are perfectly mechanical, and downright handy work as any in our shops and workhouses.”

Just as Harrington in this instance compares the “animal spirits” to arms and hands, so he appears to have occasionally used, in conversation with those around him, still more striking analogies, without always expressing himself so clearly as to make his hearers feel the force of the simile. Hence the reports that he had declared flies and bees that were buzzing about to be emissions of his brain, that he had professed to be visited by devils and angels, etc. Nothing in the essay would indicate such hallucinations; on the only occasion when terms like “angelic” and “devilish” occur, they are derived from the very effects of the “animal spirits” defined above or explained by them. In short, Harrington’s madness cannot be deduced from this essay. Thus much as to the author of Oceana. We will now proceed to the work itself and its subsequent amplifications.

As the title indicates, Oceana is a political fiction, the description, not of an actual State, but of a State as it should be. In this respect it therefore ranks among the “Utopias”. And yet its sole Utopian element consists in Harrington’s belief that, provided the existence of a State was not menaced by external force, its perpetual maintenance in a state of equilibrium would simply depend upon the proper constitution and arrangement of its parts. Apart from this, Harrington is remarkable for his historical mode of treatment, which represents a notable anticipation of the materialistic conception of history elaborated by Marx and Engels.

The State of “Oceana” is England – England as Harrington and his contemporaries knew it. Far from disguising this, Harrington is at pains to impress the fact upon the reader’s mind. “Oceana” was intended for immediate realization. All names in it are formed from the Greek or Latin so as to characterize, as distinctly as possible, the persons or places which they represent. Thus the name for England herself is “Oceana”. London is called by Harrington “Emporium”; Westminster (on account of the Abbey) “Hiera”; Westminster Hall “Pantheon”; King John is “Adoxus” (the inglorious); Henry VII “Panurgus” (the crafty one); Elizabeth “Parthenia” (the maiden); James I “Morpheus”; Bacon “Verulamius”; Hobbes “Leviathan”; Oliver Cromwell “Olpheus Megaletor” (the victorious and generous), etc.

The book is divided into four sections. The first deals with the various governments or political systems; the second with the most suitable mode of establishing a republic; the third with the model of a republic established on correct principles, that is to say, he pictures “Oceana” (England) as such a republic; and the fourth, by way of a supplement, describes some of the probable effects of the conversion of England into a Republic after the pattern of “Oceana”.

The Republic is conceived mainly as a republic of property owners. Among its institutions, the “Rota” and “Ballot” are really the most immaterial ones, although Harrington is fond of expatiating on them. He had seen them in operation in Venice, and the Venetian constitution, as being thoroughly adapted to the circumstances of that Republic, appeared to him next to perfect. But being well aware of the difference existing between the material basis of the Venetian Republic and that of the British insular realm [10], he ought to have reflected that in the case of England other means were available, to provide against an oligarchy, besides the voting by ballot and the “rota” prescriptions of the Adriatic Republic. However, he appears to have been dominated by the idea of proposing only such expedients as had been employed elsewhere, and for which precedents existed, and perhaps it is not his fault that far more discussion was provoked by his “rota” proposal than, for instance, by his “agrarian law”. This “Agrarian”, as he calls it, was intended to form the main safeguard against a relapse into monarchic or feudal conditions. It prohibited the holding of land producing more than £2,000 annually, and set limits on the principle of bequest in order to enforce this stipulation. Harrington calculated on the basis of the total income from land in England at that time that the number of landowners could not fall below five thousand, when his agrarian law was in operation, and this would preclude an aristocratic feudal rule and a monarchy supported by it. But he doubted whether the land would ever be owned by so few as five thousand persons, and confidently reckoned on a preponderance of small over large landowners in the ratio of at least three to one. This being so, he averred that the democratic character of the constitution would virtually already be determined, as “GOVERNMENT FOLLOWS PROPERTY”, or as we should say, the political constitution depends upon the distribution of property.

This is the basic idea pervading the whole of Harrington’s work, which he tracks down everywhere in history, and which enables him to advance extremely apposite explanations of historical events. Sometimes he indulges in truly ingenious predictions. In view of the economic structure of England as he knew it, he would naturally locate the centre of gravity in real property. He does not attach much importance to personal property, because it has “wings” – and this was undoubtedly true at a time when the great wholesale merchant was still a “Merchant Adventurer” and manufacture was as yet in its initial stages. Attempts to establish an aristocratic rule based on the mere possession of money had been rare and never successful, and it was only in countries where the population lived chiefly by trading, as in Venice and Holland, that the distribution of personal property might have the same importance as that of real property elsewhere. In the case of England, Harrington deduces the inevitability of a political revolution from the development of landownership under the Tudors. He shows how Henry VII, by abolishing feudal duties, altering the laws governing the transfer of land, and making laws to create an independent peasantry, had diminished the amount of feudal real property and increased the property of the “people”, that is to say, of the trading classes, thus fostering the very power which in the long run could not fail to become a menace to the Throne; how Henry VIII, by abolishing monasteries, while the nobility was on the down grade, had given a fresh impetus to this development, had thrown open to the “industry of the people” such rich “booty” that even under Elizabeth the change in the basis of power had led to an almost complete ignoring of the nobility by the advisers of the Queen; and how, finally, nothing was wanting for the complete overthrow of the Royal prerogative but that the people themselves should become aware of the power which resided in them. And then “a prince, as stiff in disputes as the nerve of monarchy was grown slack”, received from his clergy that unhappy encouragement which cost him his life.

“For the house of peers, which alone had stood in this gap, now sinking down between the King and the Commons, showed that Crassus was dead and the isthmus broken. But a monarchy, divested of its nobility, has no refuge under heaven but an army. Wherefore the dissolution of this government caused the war, not the war the dissolution of this government.” [11]

Harrington declared a restoration of the monarchy impossible except by means of a fresh readjustment of the conditions of ownership (the “balance of property”, as he calls it). Wise critics, like the elder Disraeli, have derided this, and pointed out triumphantly that but four years after the appearance of Oceana a restoration of the monarchy took place after all. [12] But this only shows that they misunderstood Harrington. What he maintained was the impossibility of abolishing the political rule of the middle classes, except by a material alteration in the balance of property, and this contention has been amply confirmed by history. Harrington was fully aware that there are mixed forms of government; he discusses quite a series of historical examples, but in these cases he always attempts to ascertain the class in which the centre of gravity of the government resided, and he determines its character accordingly. The final establishment of the parliamentary monarchy was a triumph for Harrington’s theory, not its refutation. [13] The failure of the attempt of the Stuarts to restore absolute monarchy justifies Harrington’s polemic against Hobbes.

He writes

To erect a monarchy, be it never so new, unless like Leviathan [i.e. Hobbes] you can hang it, as the country-fellow speaker, by geometry (for what else is it to say, that every other man must give up his will to the will of this one man without any other foundation?), it must stand upon old principles – that is, upon a nobility or an army planted on a due balance of dominion. [14]

The last remark is to be understood to mean that the army would consist of another tribe, and that the land on which at is settled would belong to the monarch, for instance after the manner of the Mamelukes in Egypt. Hobbes had ridiculed, among other things, the “Agreement State” as the Republicans conceived it, maintaining that law was based on the power of the sword, without which it would be a mere piece of paper. Harrington replies to this

But so he might have thought of this sword, that without a hand it is but cold iron. The hand which holds this sword is the militia of a nation ... But an army is a beast that has a great belly, and must be fed; wherefore this will come to what pastures you have, and what pastures you have will come to the balance of property, without which the public sword is but a name or mere spitfrog. [15]

In short, whoever had the means to send this animal with the large belly on the pasture, as the Grand Turk does with his Timariots, might laugh at the “Agreement State” too, but “if the landed property of the (feudal) nobility, stocked with their tenants and retainers, be the pasture of that beast, the ox knows his master’s crib; and it is impossible for a king in such a constitution to reign otherwise than by covenant; or if he break it, it is words that come to blows.” [16]

Harrington’s objection to Hobbes is confined to Hobbes as a politician. To Hobbes the philosopher he pays the highest respect. “It is true, I have opposed the politics of Mr. Hobbs ... with as much disdain as he oppos’d those of the greatest authors ... Nevertheless in most other things I firmly believe that Mr. Hobbs is, and will in future ages be accounted the best Writer, at this day in the world. And for his Treatises of Human Nature, and of Liberty and Necessity, they are the greatest of new Lights, and those wh. I have followed, and shall follow.” [17]

After dealing with Hobbes, Harrington proceeds to apply his definition of Will to history. In The Prerogative, etc., he writes: “The Law must proceed from the Will,” and Will “is not presum’d to be, much less to act without a mover ... the mover of the will is interest.” [18] It is therefore absurd to say of any form of government or constitution that it is the most natural. “Government” (always to be taken in the widest sense, as constitution), “whether Popular or Monarchical, is equally artificial; wherefore to know which is more natural, we must consider what piece of Art comes nearest to Nature; as for example, whether a Ship or a House be the more natural; and then it will be easy to resolve that a Ship is the more natural at Sea, and a House on Land.” ... “Each government is equally artificial in effect or in itself; and equally natural in the cause, or the matter upon which it is founded.” [19]

Harrington speaks of Machiavelli with the greatest veneration; with him he is always – the “admirable”, the “prince of political authors” [20]

Nevertheless, he asserts his own intellectual independence, and repeatedly corrects Machiavelli in the most felicitous manner. Thus, e.g., he writes in Oceana: “A people (says Machiavel) that is corrupt, is not capable of a commonwealth. But in showing what a corrupt people is, he has either involv’d himself or me; nor can I otherwise come out of the Labyrinth, than by saying, the Balance altering a People, as to the foregoing Government, must of necessity be corrupt: but corruption in this sense signifys no more than that the corruption of one Government (as in natural bodys) is the generation of another. Wherefore if the Balance alters from Monarchy, the corruption of the people in this case is that wh. makes them capable of a Commonwealth. But whereas I am not ignorant, that the corruption wh. he means is in Manners, this also is from the Balance. For the Balance leading from Monarchical into Popular, abates the Luxury of the Nobility, and, inriching the People, brings the Government from a more private to a more public Interest; wh. coming nearer as has bin shewn, to Justice and right Reason, the People upon a like alteration is so far from such a corruption of manners, as slid. render them incapable of a Commonwealth, that of necessity they must therby contract such a Reformation of manners as will bear no other kind of Government. On the other side, where the Balance changes from Oligarchical or Monarchical, the public Interest, with the Reason and Justice included in the same, becomes more privat; Luxury is introduced in the room of Temperance, and Servitude in that of Freedom ... But the Balance of Oceana changing quite contrary to that of Rome, the Manners of the people were not therby corrupted, but on the contrary adapted to a Commonwealth.” [21] The discovery of the revolutionary side of corruption is certainly no slight achievement.

We might quote many more passages to show that Harrington came as near to a scientific conception of history as was possible in the seventeenth century. In his frequent references to property as the sole basis of political and other institutions, he makes it clear that his conception of property is sufficiently elastic.

He says in his System of Politics: “Industry of all things is the most accumulative, and Accumulation of all things hates levelling.” The Revenue of the People “being the Revenue of Industry”, the risk that the people would submit to forcible Levelling is reduced to a minimum. This is a valid inference from contemporary conditions. And Harrington’s statement that the existence of a “gentry”, or a class of well-to-do proprietors, is not only not dangerous but even useful to the democracy, provided only that the greater part of landed property remains in the hands of small freeholders, is similarly justified with reference to the time when he wrote. Progress in agriculture was stimulated by the large estates. In Oceana Harrington assigns the highest praise to the man who could contrive to stop rent-racking by competition, while preventing neglect of rational cultivation of the soil.

In making the political constitution dependent on the balance of property Harrington is not blind to the fact that other factors, for instance the geographical situation of a country, may exercise a distorting influence on the political conditions; just as he deduces from the protected insular position of England the possibility of an undistorted development. We need not quarrel with Harrington because he understood the “people” to comprise the middle classes. The earning classes in Harrington’s time differed in the size of their property or income only; there were paupers, but not as yet a class of proletarians condemned to a state of permanent dependence. It its in this sense that Oceana classifies the populace.

The people in Harrington’s model republic are divided into “freemen” or “citizens” and “servants”, but the latter word is limited by the proviso, “while such”. “For”, he adds by way of explanation, “if they attain to liberty, that is, to live of themselves, they are freemen or citizens.” “Servitude”, ie. economic dependence, “is inconsistent with freedom, or participation of government in a commonwealth.” [22]

A further division of the people, adopted in “Oceana”, pertains to the size of their incomes, the dividing-line being £100. This is intended to be operative in the question of national defence. Persons enjoying incomes over £100 are obliged to serve in the cavalry, while those who earn less than 100 are to serve in the infantry. All men under thirty years of age are to belong to the field army, those over thirty are designated garrison service. In striking contrast to the Levellers, Harnngton will admit no exemptions; conscription must be universal if it is to form a safeguard against the appearance of anti-democratic tendencies in the armed force. For military reasons also he favours general conscription, as it is wasteful to try to conduct a war with a small army. The classification according to income, moreover, determines the electoral division. The class whose members have incomes over £100 elects, by direct vote, the Senate, which consists of three hundred members, and which discusses and proposes laws and regulations.

The popular assembly, constituting the “prerogative tribe” (the whole country is territorially divided into fifty “Tribes”, these into “Hundreds”, and these again into “Parishes”, all with self-elected officials), consists of six hundred elected by citizens with less than £100 income, and four hundred and fifty elected by citizens with over £100 incomes, so that the former have the majority. This popular assembly has the final voice in deciding the enactment of laws. Whatever it determines is the “law of the land”. If it rejects individual clauses only, these will be referred back to the Senate for reconsideration in order to be presented again, if thought fit, to the popular assembly in a modified form. Printed copies of each Bill are to be submitted to the popular assembly six weeks before they are introduced, but when it meets the popular assembly does not discuss; it merely votes. In proposing that each of the two classes of income shall elect their own special representatives, i.e. “class election”, Harrington’s object is not to secure a representation to the more prosperous class, but, on the contrary, to ensure that the less prosperous shall have a majority in the popular assembly. In a dialogue Valerius and Publicola, written in October 1659, in which he discusses the principles of “Oceana”, he shows that hitherto the British Parliament had consisted of members of the upper classes only, notwithstanding the partial franchise of the lower classes, and this not merely because of their dependence on the lords. Even apart from this, in a general election men of the well-to-do classes would in the main be elected. A stronger representation of the lower classes must therefore be ensured by a separate election.

For the rest Harrington considered the democracy sufficiently safeguarded by making the qualification for an elector to the Senate conditional on an income which should not be beyond the reach of any industrious and capable member of the community. He held it to be a useful stimulus to industry that certain posts of honour should be dependent on a certain income.

As a matter of course, schools, education in technical arts, cultivation of sciences, etc., would be amply provided for and industry fostered in “Oceana”, adequate provision being made for the aged and infirm. As we have already indicated, religious liberty too was to reign in “Oceana”. Again and again Harrington reiterates that political liberty cannot exist without religious liberty, and vice versa. This explains why Churchmen and Presbyterians assailed him so savagely. In turn he frequently makes theologians, and especially the theological faculty of Oxford, the target of his wit.

Before taking leave of Harrington we will quote just two more passages, demonstrating his historical foresight. He predicts the industrial supremacy of England over Holland in the following words: “In Manufacture and Merchandize the Hollander has gotten the start of us; but at the long run it will be found, that a people working upon a foren Commodity dos but farm the Manufacture, and that it is really intail’d upon them only, where the growth of it is native: as also that it is one thing to have the carriage of other men’s Goods, and another for a man to bring his own to the best market. Therefore nature having provided incouragement for these Arts in this nation above all others, where, the people growing, they of necessity must also increase) it cannot but establish them upon a far more sure and effectual Foundation than that of the Hollanders. [23]

Harrington explains the absolutism which prevailed in seventeenth-century France from the fact that the landlordism of the nobility was opposed by a strong, landowning hierarchy, which still sided with the monarch, while the great mass of the people were too deeply immersed in misery to think of asserting themselves politically. And he goes on to say: “If it is said that in France there is Liberty of Conscience in part, it is also plain that while the Hierarchy is standing this Liberty is falling, and that if ever it comes to pull down the. Hierarchy it pulls down that Monarchy also: wherefore the Monarchy or Hierarchy will be beforehand with it, if they see their true interest.” [24]

Some twenty years after this was written the “Edict of Nantes” was revoked. But when the people, that is to say the middle classes, had grown stronger, both the hierarchy and absolutism were overthrown.

Harrington has exercised a far greater influence on the revolutionary literature of the eighteenth century than is generally known. Authors have frequently made use of him without acknowledging it. It would be too discursive to pursue this further, but we may mention what David Hume said of Oceana: “Even in our time”, he writes, “it (Oceana) is justly admired as a work of genius and invention.” So late as in Sieyes’ writings the influence of Harrington’s teaching is unmistakable [25], and similarly in the case of St. Simon and his disciples. In this sense it will certainly be no exaggeration for us to describe him as a precursor, not in his postulates but in his theoretical expositions of modern scientific socialism.

The seventeenth century in England saw the birth of political economy. We have already pointed out that most writers on political economy of the period are more or less pronounced representatives of protection and mercantilism as, for instance, is Hobbes, and it is in the nature of things that as protection was to foster the industrial classes, while these were still the “people”, this protectionist literature bears a strongly popular or democratic stamp, and it is easy therefore to discover therein socialistic phrases. We believe, however, that we may safely content ourselves with the examples already given. Further, the question, “How are we to foster industrial progress?” goes always hand in hand with “How are we to provide for our poor?” and they both blend in the question, “How are we to educate our poor to agricultural and industrial activity?” Like P. Chamberlen, quite a series of other authors – economists and philanthropists – propose the establishment of industrial and agricultural Labour Colonies, which, in all cases, are to form model institutions of their kind. As may be seen from Sir Fr. Eden’s The State of the Poor, there existed already, at the end of the seventeenth century, quite a literature of proposals on this subject; they remained ineffective because the various parishes had neither the power nor the desire to give themselves up to such experiments, and the State had still less desire or time for it. Instead of this, the State, under the Restoration, solved the “poor” question by means of the “Laws of Parochial Settlement”, under which the poor, apart from other hardships had to bear the brunt of the disputes between the parishes as to who was liable to support them. But the history of the poor law since the Restoration, and of the first movements of the workers in the industries carried on by capitalists, ought to be discussed in connection with the development of the social conditions in England in the eighteenth century; we will therefore content ourselves here with these general suggestions.




1. Milton wrote this book in 1649 in defence of the trial of Charles I.

2. The full title of the work is Leviathan, or the Matter, Form and Power of a Commonwealth, Ecclesiastical and Civil.

3. Thus, for instance, he declared that to describe God as the world or as the “soul of the world” was to speak of Him unworthily and to deny His existence. If God were the world, He could not be the cause of the world. Not would it do to describe the world as eternal. “That which is eternal has no cause”, and so this doctrine would mean “to deny there is a God”.

4. In Pepys’ Diary we read under date September 3, 1668: “To my booksellers for Hobbs’ Leviathan, which is now mightily called for; and what was heretofore sold for 8/ I now give 24/ at the second-hand, and it is sold for 30s/, it being a book the Bishops will not let be printed again.”

5. Loc. cit., p.116.

6. Thus, among other things, the grievance as to “the immoderate greatness of a town, when it is able to furnish out of its own circuit the number and expense of a great army” – which, as we have seen, London had done in 1642. Further, the grievance as to “the liberty of disputing against absolute power, by pretenders of political prudence; which though bred in the most part in the lees of the people, yet animated by false doctrines, are perpetually meddling with the fundamental laws, to the molestation of the commonwealth” (p.152).

7. Loc. cit., p.151

8. Harrington was indeed, for his age, a “heathen”. In Oxford he was numbered among the pupils of Chillingworth, that most broad-minded theologian, and subsequently he advocated the most absolute toleration in religious matters. W.H. Lecky, in his History of Rationalism, names Harrington, Milton, and Jeremy Taylor as the most eminent authors who, at that period, championed the cause of toleration, the two last named more from the religious and the former from the political point of view. “Of the three”, he writes, “it must be acknowledged that the politician took by far the most comprehensive view. He perceived very clearly that political liberty cannot subsist where there is not absolute religious liberty, and that religious liberty does not consist simply of, toleration, but implies a total abolition of religious disqualifications. In these respects he alone among his contemporaries anticipated the doctrines of the nineteenth century” (chapter iv).

9. Milton himself was no friend of the rotation principle. He considered it unpractical and dubious for the times. In the second edition of his The Ready and Easy Way to Establish a Free Commonwealth he wrote: “This ‘wheel’ might prove a ‘wheel’ of principles.” Men who were indispensable at the moment might perhaps be replaced by incapable men. Milton’s work provoked a satire from the Royalist party entitled The Censure of the Rota upon Mr. Milton’s Book, etc., etc., being a fictitious report on a meeting of the Rota Club where Milton’s book is supposed to be discussed. It is reproduced in the Harleian Miscellany.

10. Thus he says in the very introduction, after pointing to Venice as an example of how favourable an insular position is for a republic: “And yet that, thro’ the streitness of the place, and defect of proper Arms, can be no more than a Commonwealth for Preservation: whereas this reduced to the like Government, is a Commonwealth for increase, and upon the mightiest foundation that any has bin laid from the beginning of the World to this day. The Sea gives law to the growth of Venice, but the growth of Oceana gives law to the sea.” Here we have, by the by, the forerunner of Rule Britannia.

11. Oceana, ed. Routledge, p.60.

12. Amenities of Literature.

13. He writes in 1659: “In the present case of England, Commonwealth men may fail thro’ want of art, but Royalists must fail thro’ want of matter; the former may miss thro’ impotence, the latter must thro’ impossibility” (Works, ed, 1737, p.540.

14. Oceana, p.61.

15. p.20.

16. Loc. cit., ed. Toland, p.257.

17. p.21.

18. Loc. cit., p.241.

19. p.381.

20. “A man may devote himself to death or destruction to save a Nation, but no Nation will devote itself to death or destruction to save mankind. Machiavel is decry’d for saying, that no consideration is to be had of what is just or injust, of what is merciful or cruel, of what is honorable or ignominious, in case it be to save a State or to preserve Liberty; wh. as to the manner of expression is crudely spoken. But to imagin that a nation will devote itself to death or destruction, any more upon Faith given or an Iagagement thereto tending, than if there had bin no such Ingagement made or Faith given, were not piety but folly ...”

“Corruption in government is to be read and consider’d in Machiavel, as Diseases in a, man’s Body are to be read and consider’d in Hippocrates. Neither Hippocrates nor Machiavel introduc’d Diseases into man’s Body, nor Corruption into Government, wh. were before their times; and seeing yep do but discover them, it must be confest that so much as they have don tends not to the increase but the cure of them, wh. is the truth of these two authors” (Harrington, A System of Politics, ed. Toland, pp.509, 514.)

21. Oceana, pp.64-65

22. Oceana, p.78

23. Oceana, p.211. Readers of Karl Marx’s Zur Kritik der politischen Oekonomie (Contribution to the Criticism of Political Economy) will remember a note on page 30, where a similar dictum by Petty is quoted. But Petty wrote his essays almost a generation later than Harrington, from whom he has quite obviously borrowed a great deal.

24. Harrington, ed. Toland, p.506.

25. The Consular constitution introduced by Napoleon Bonaparte on the 18th of Brumaire (November 9, I799) the so-called “Constitution of the year VIII”, has the same division as is found in Harrington’s Oceana, one legislative body, which is deliberative only, and the other which votes, and it is more than likely that Sieyès, from whom the original draft of this constitution emanated, had borrowed this division from Harrington. In other respects also his draft displays striking points of resemblance to the institutions described in Oceana. For instance, as regards Harrington’s favourite idea as to elections by rotation, and where it deviates from the original, it does not always improve on it from a democratic standpoint. The power of decision, in Sieyes’ draft, is vested in the executive power, and the number of voting legislators is reduced to three hundred, which considerably facilitates their being influenced by the holder, for the time being, of the executive power. But at any rate the powers of the executive are restricted by all sorts of safeguarding provisions, and both the deliberative and the voting body – the Tribunate and the Legislative – derive their mandate from the electors. Bonaparte caused all this to be struck out; he cared still less than Cromwell to have taken from him by a piece of paper what he had gained by the sword. But, more cunning than Cromwell, he let as much of the draft remain as was necessary to invest the legislative bodies with a semblance of independence from the holder of the sword, and this garbled rendering of “Oceana” was sanctioned by a plebiscite with 3,011,700 against 1,562 votes. According to it, a Senate consisting of sixty persons was to elect the members of the Tribunate and the Legislative from among the proposed candidates, but the Senate was nominated by Napoleon himself.


Last updated on 21.1.2004