Eduard Bernstein

Cromwell and Communism

Chapter XV
Peter Cornelius Plockboy

IN 1659 two pamphlets were published in London, the author of which signed himself Peter Cornelius van Ziirickzee. They were ascribed for a long time to Hugh Peters, Cromwell’s former field-chaplain and secretary [1], but they originated, as a matter of fact, from a Dutchman named Pieter Corneliss Plockboy, of Zierickzee, which at that time was a very important commercial town in the province of Zeeland. One of these pamphlets was originally intended for Oliver Cromwell, with whom the author stated he had had personal relations; but Cromwell having meanwhile died, the author dedicated it to Richard Cromwell and Parliament. It contains proposals for the establishment of the Republic and internal peace (abolition of tithe and of any State religion, equal rights for all Christian sects, free speech, etc.), and while interesting for the style of its argument, is outside the scope of our discussion.

Not so the second pamphlet. Its somewhat prolix title runs as follows: “A Way propounded to make the poor in these and other nations happy by bringing together a fit, suitable and well qualified people unto one Household government or little Commonwealth. Wherein every one may keep his propriety and be imployed in some work or other, as he shall be fit, without being oppressed. Being the way not only to rid those and other Nations from idle, evil, and disorderly persons, but also from all such that have sought and found out many inventions to live upon the labour of others. Whereunto is also annexed an invitation to this Society or little common-wealth.” [2]

The annexed “invitation” is from people who supported the project and had subscribed some hundred pounds towards it. They speak of the author as “our friend Cornelius”. At the end of the pamphlet it is intimated that all who are interested in the project may learn the address of the author from the publisher, Giles Calvert, with whom we have already become acquainted. Hence there can be no doubt whatever that the project was designed to be carried out forthwith. It was not a dream of the future, but “practical” socialism, to be realized by the devisers themselves. But the originator and his associates actually appealed to experience gained. The contributions asked for were to be administered by trustworthy persons until the association to be founded could properly stand on its own legs. The English supporters of the cause say on this point: “Which we believe may soon be from the credible information of divers persons, relating that many hundreds in Transylvania, Hungaria, and the Valtsgraves Countrey, from a small beginning have attained, not only to a very comfortable life among themselves, but also ability of doing much good to others, not of their Society.”

The instances quoted refer to the dispersed remnants of the Moravian Anabaptist communities, whose communism eventually found a footing in England. It is true that the end of the Republic, which came soon after the pamphlet appeared, shattered the hopes of the plan’s supporters, but the ideas behind the proposal had taken root in the minds of some Englishmen, and have influenced the evolution of ideas in England

It was natural enough that England should receive an impetus from Holland, which was then the most advanced country in economic respects in Europe, but the Dutch origin of the proposals imparted to them an air of modernity, which heightens their importance in this investigation. As one might expect, the economic aspect is stressed, while the religious argument occupies a secondary place. The first part of the pamphlet, which elaborates the actual plan, is purely sociological; it is only in the second part, which is a kind of corollary, that Christian charity and the moral doctrines inculcated by Christianity are appealed to.

Plockboy commences as follows: “Having seen the great inequality and disorder among men in the World, that not only evil Governours or Rulers, covetous Merchants and Tradesmen, lazie, idle and negligent Teachers, and others, have brought all about under slaverie and thraldom: But also a great number of the common handycraft men, or labourers (by endeavouring to decline, escape, or cast off heavy burthen) do fill all things with lyes and deceipt, to the oppressing of the honest and good people, whose conciences cannot bear such practises, therefore have I (together with others born for the common welfare) designed to endeavour to bring four sorts of people, whereof the World chiefly consists out of several sects into one Familie or Household-government, viz. Husband-men, Handy-crafts people, Marriners and Masters of Arts and Sciences, to the end that we may the better eschue the yoke of the Temporall and Spirituall pharaohs, who have long enough domineered over our bodies and souls, and set up again (as in former times) Righteousnesse, love and Brotherly Sociablenesse, wh. are scarce anywhere to be found, for the convincing of those that place all greatnesse on1y in domineering, and not in well-doing, contrary to the pattern :and doctrine of the Lord Jesus, who came not to be served but to serve, and gave his life a ransome for many.” [3]

Here follows a diatribe against “those that are called spiritual persons or Clergymen, who perswade people (that they may the more willingly drudge for them) to believe that they take care of their souls (as if they cd love the soul wh. they cannot see, and have no compassion on the body wh. they see).” [4]

This is the introduction to the project, which may best be described as a socialistic community with limited private property. Exploitation is abolished within the pale of the association, but not property, which is to be allowed to continue in accordance with the tenth commandment. Whatever anyone has contributed to the company in the way of land, money, or movable goods, shall be put to his credit and shall be secured to him, but he shall receive no interest. In the event of his death, unless he should bequeath his property to the Company, his children and relatives shall inherit all that stands to his credit. Anyone resigning his membership is bound to give notice to the effect, and whatever stands to his credit will then be returned to him, if under £100, as soon as he desires it, if over £100 within one year, “paying them a quarter of the summe presently (if they desire it) that so none may be hindered to leave the Society”.

If the Company is disturbed or broken up by tyranny, the cash assets and the real property shall, after satisfying all creditors, be distributed, in equal shares, exclusively among the poor members who have nothing standing to their credit, and any poor relatives of other members. Young people who desire to leave the Company (whether to marry non-members or for other reasons) shall receive on leaving a proportionate share of the surplus realized since the date of their birth or joining, or if no surplus should have been made, an amount to be fixed by the Company.

To begin with, a fund is to be collected by suitable persons, as “fathers” of the Company. Out of this fund two large houses are to be bought or erected, one in the City of London, which is to be large enough to accommodate twenty to thirty families, and which is to serve as a warehouse containing shops of all kinds, and a second and larger one in the country, near to a river, which is to be the centre of production and the common residence of the association, for agriculturists, mechanics, teachers, and seamen.

Between this house and the river there is to be sufficient space to serve as a “key”, and if practicable, the house is to be so situated that it can be isolated from the surrounding parts by a drawbridge.

The house is to be “built after a convenient manner, with public and private places for freedom and conveniency”. It is to contain “a chamber and a closet for every man and his wife, with a great Hall, to lay all things ready made in order, a place to dress victuals, another to eat together, a third for the children, also Cellars to keep meat and drink in, a place for the sick, one for the Physicians and Chyurgeans, furniture and medicines, one other for all kind of usefull (as well naturall as Spiritually Books, Maps and other instruments belonging to liberal Arts and Sciences”.

The managers and officials are to be elected by the members to serve for one year, so that no official hierarchy may be established. The manager of the stores is to be changed each six months, and the cash-box is to have three locks, and be placed in the custody of three persons holding one key.

As few rules as possible are to be fixed, and each member is to enjoy the maximum liberty compatible with the common weal. All things are to be free to them that is not contrary to the “Kingdom of God” and Reason.

It is recommended that at first chiefly unmarried persons should be brought into the Society, so “that with laying out little money may presently be on the getting hand”.

As regards production itself, six hours a day shall be the rule for all members of the Society, to be worked, at the option of the members, either three hours in the morning and three in the afternoon, or (which many might prefer, especially in hot summer) six hours in the morning; Sundays always excepted in this as in other cases. However, workers whom the Company might employ by contract are to work twelve hours a day until they are “fit and willing to come unto us”. The best men are to be selected for foremen, who are also to six hours.

Each of the members employed in the City warehouse is to work for a period at the country settlement, in order to increase his technical knowledge and to enjoy other benefits.

All children are to be taught two or three trades. With the prospect of having to work no more than six hours daily, their lot would be enviable compared with that of children in the world outside. In their leisure hours they might study arts and sciences at their free choice. For children still being taught in school, the number of hours of work in trade or agriculture is to be three. All this is to apply equally to rich and poor.

The girls, too, are to learn proper trades as well as domestic work, so that if at any subsequent period they should leave the Company they may find their living in the world.

The author goes on to show that the Society is bound to prosper economically, and to go on increasing in extent, for the following reasons: “The first is that there will not be overasking in price, but all will be sold at the lowest rate; ... The second is that we, dwelling at a cheaper rate and living less costly, can make all things better at the price.”

The author describes all the advantages of co-operative economy, and of combination in agriculture and industry; he shows how one branch of production dovetails into another and how the extension of one will entail that of another; how the multiplicity of the branches of the system would be a guarantee for the stability of the concern. He paints an alluring picture of its gradual expansion, and shows how even shipbuilding is to be carried on. Boats for deep-sea fishing as well as vessels for the exportation of manufactured goods to the Continent would be built in their own dockyards.

In the actual domestic arrangements, joint management would be advantageous in every respect. In the first place through lightening the work. “Everyone shall be able quietly to do his work ... 25 women in our Society, when all things are done orderly, shall have no more business to trouble their heads with, than one woman in her own private family.” [5] Besides the quiet and ease ... it will also be very profitable to dwell together.” If a hundred families live together twenty five women can do the work which otherwise a hundred would have to do; the other seventy-five could do productive work, which many of them would prefer. And even in other respects economy could be effected. Instead of a hundred fires, perhaps four or five “great fires” only would be required: one in the kitchen, one “where the children are”, etc. Moreover, as far as their own consumption might not be covered by the productions of their own industry, they could purchase more cheaply by buying wholesale. In this way a co-operative system and the combination of agriculture and industry would be remunerative in every respect. “Whereas the Traders in the World do oppress their workmen, with heavy labour and small wages, instead thereof with us, the gain of the tradesmen will redound to the benefit and refreshment of the workmen.” Tradespeople in the world are always in suspense “betwixt hope and fear”, while in the Society everyone “is quietly to mind his own business”.

The Society need not fear any competition. Even if other dealers, in order to entice customers from the association, were to refrain from charging exorbitant prices which is to be desired in every respect), the advantages of working on a large scale would enable the association to produce cheaper than they. They ought, however, to be careful to avoid repelling users by doctrinary fads. If, for instance, a purchaser desired to have articles of clothing trimmed ornamentally, they ought not to offend him by pointing out that finery is sinful Plockboy adds humorously that it is certainly a great pity Adam ate of the tree of knowledge, but we should never be able to cure men of their love of finery except by example and education. The refusal to make finery would also be impolitic for this reason, that if the young people brought up in the association should subsequently have to seek work, they would have much less chance of finding it if they did not know how to make finery.

The members themselves, however, should dress as plainly as possible, but those who have the means of doing so should not be debarred from having their clothes made of a better material, in order that – if for no other reason the poor might recognize him as a person from whom they might justly expect help.

Some of the further advantages offered by the association would be, that young people need not get married prematurely, as was but too frequently done, simply in order to avoid slavish dependence on the parents – they might choose their partners for their life with deliberation and with full liberty, as they need not marry members; the teachers in the association would not be under the necessity of teaching, for the sake of their livelihood, things which they did not believe themselves, as there would be no coercion of conscience, all sects being afforded equal rights; and no one need entertain any fear of sickness or as to his support in old age, or as to the welfare of his children after his death.

In the same way as the association was to trade with the outside world , and open its schools to outsiders for payment, their physicians and surgeons too were to afford medical aid to outsiders, to the rich for remuneration, to the poor gratis; and while some were visiting patients, other medical men would be at home at certain hours in order to give advice to visiting patients.

Rich people who desired to enjoy the advantages of life in company might live with the association as boarders for the cost of their maintenance. If, for the sake of good example, they were willing to join in doing some work, they might, in return, receive gratuitous lodging and clothing. In every sixth and every twelfth month of the year accounts were to be balanced and a part of the surplus realized distributed, in order to enable members to give to the poor, make presents to friends, and the like.

The association was also to build a large meeting hall, with seats arranged in ascending tiers, each seat to be fitted with a desk for reading or writing. In this hall lectures, discussions, etc., would be held, in which non-members also might take part, and all might freely express their opinions. Meals would eaten joyously with an absence of ceremony. The waiting at table would be attended to by the young people alternately, in order that none might give himself up to false pride.

In conclusion, seventy-two trades are mentioned to which the society would be of advantage. The author then continues: Our Society being settled in order (as a nursery) about London, to imploy the poor, we may have a second about Bristole, and another in Ireland, where we can have a great deal of land for little money; and plenty of wood for building of Houses, Ships, and many other things.”

In the second section, which contains the religious and moral arguments in favour of the project, the following passage is particularly characteristic: “This Society or fellowship hath not alwaies been so rare, and so thin sowen, but was very rife in the primitive times, till the enemies of the first innocencie did insinuate themselves thereunto, whereby the life wh, men were bound to live, as in obedience to the laws of Christ, began to be accounted such as a man may chose whether he wd imbrace or no, and take up a meritorious and supererrogatory life, comprising such a sanctimony or holyness, as was more than necessary to Salvation ... wh. opinion gave a beginning to many orders of lazie and wanton beasts (I mean monks and the like) and of many thousand fables and cheats.” [6]

This was written in 1659. Three years later Plockboy, had meantime returned to Holland, reappeared with a project for an economic association, to be established in the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam in America. It is related that Plockboy, with twenty-four companions, received a loan of £1,500 from the Amsterdam municipal authorities on their joint security, and thereupon issued the invitation. The enterprise did not prosper, as the colony of New Amsterdam was soon afterwards captured by the English and renamed New York, after the Duke of York, who subsequently ascended the throne as James II.

Plockboy was a clear-headed person, and his economic insight was considerable. Apart from the fact that his proposal deliberately aimed at the combination of agriculture and industry, it also contains an attempt to establish what may be called a more intimate organic connection between town and country, so that, although the differences are not removed, the division of labour is placed on a more rational footing, production being reserved to the organized colony, and the exchange of commodities being reserved to the town establishment. Moreover, Plockboy made a definite stand against the ascetic tendencies which prevailed among the great bulk of the communists of the period, and which had so far formed one of the most salient characteristics of communism, with which everybody would have to reckon. There is a certain irony in his remarks to his followers that they were acting against their own interests in declining to make articles of luxury, and that the world could not be altered in this way. But he is not prompted solely by commercial considerations. Among the subjects to be cultivated in the colony, there figures in his scheme, next to the sciences and other “liberal arts”, music, which many Quakers condemned, while others would only suffer it so far as it applied to singing hymns. In short, it is a contemporary and countryman of Rembrandt and Jan Steen whose temperament we are analysing; his proposals bear no trace of the desire to flee from the world, but, on the contrary, are redolent of a healthy enjoyment of the world. He relies, in nine cases out of ten, upon the economic advantages derived from production organized on a large scale, upon mass operations in production and trading. In the latter respect he anticipates the departmental store of modern times. What is the town establishment of the association with its many shops but the germ of modern establishments, such as Selfridges or the Magazins du Louvre?

This brings us to another aspect of the scheme. What it sheds in the way of Utopian thought it makes up for in commercialism. It produces to make a profit, and notwithstanding all its regulations for the benefit of the poor, it is more distinctly a trading, or even a joint-stock company, than any other communistic scheme of the period. The other schemes were designed for religious ends and in antagonism to the world. If they nevertheless became commercialized, this was contrary to the original intention, and in the nature of an historical accident. In Plockboy’s scheme the opposition to the “world” had not quite disappeared, but it was greatly toned down. It was, in fact, not religious at all, and has little reference to the mode of life of the members. Plockboy’s quarrel with the surrounding world is mainly of an economic nature. He desired to free the members of this commonwealth from economic exploitation, from people “who live on other men’s labour”. The colony would leave everyone free to seek happiness in his own way – in heaven, and, apart from questions relating to production, to the best of his ability, also on earth. He expressly laid it down that liberty should prevail wherever necessity did not ordain otherwise. Another remarkable feature is the provision which facilitates withdrawal for those who wished to part from the Company. The Company is intended to make things better than they are in the world, but the members are not to be deprived of the advantages of the world.

Given such an outlook, concessions to the commercial spirit of the period were inevitable. Nevertheless, we do not detect in Plockboy’s proposal any retrogression as compared with his communistic predecessors and contemporaries. In fact, just the reverse. We have seen that all the communistic enterprises of the time ended by becoming commercialized, and at best they were isolated communities which managed better and accomplished more than the outside world, but they competed with it and frequently proved themselves very able competitors.

All this information was available to Plockboy, who must have been aware of the practices of some of these communities. It was no small achievement, even for a native of the most highly developed commercial country of the age, to have learned all the lessons that could be imparted thereby, and to have based his schemes on the logic of undeniable facts. Socialism has to take account of a commercialized state of society, and Plockboy is the first whose guiding principle is to anticipate developments rather than lag behind. But his ideas could not be realized except by means of a co-operative association organized on a large scale. Plockboy may well rank among the pioneers of the modern idea of co-operation.




1. Thomason, bookseller and book-collector, to whose diligence, as a collector, we are indebted for the preservation of most of the pamphlets of those times, put on the pamphlet with which we are here concerned: “I believe this pamphlet is written by Hugh Peters, who has a servant named Cornelius Glover.” Under Charles I Peters lived much in Holland, and maintained close relations with the sectarians there.

2. By Peter Cornelius van Zürick-Zee.

3. p.1.

4. p.4.

5. p.10.

6. p.31.


Last updated on 21.11.2002