24 May 2010

Left Wing Politics and the English Civil War

My main source for this article is David Petegorsky’s Left Wing Politics and the English Civil war. My purpose in this article is to examine the development of class consciousness in society at the very beginning of capitalism.

In the 16th and 17th centuries, at the end of the Feudal period of history, a number of social changes (some having their origins earlier) can be seen:

1. the increasing importance of people in the towns whose wealth and influence depended not on land but on capital. Wealth was replacing birth as the road to privilege.

2. The shrinking of ecclesiastical power and the increase of the secular state.

3. After the Black death (1347) a shortage of labour power resulted in the enclosure of land and the disappearance of serfdom. Along with the infant capitalist class an infant working class dependant entirely on selling their labour power emerged.

5. The power of the nobility was waning, the Tudors having weakened it by using the new middle class as advisors (such men like Wolsey and Moore had no feudal armies at their command)

6.This situation, with a waning nobility and a rising bourgeoisie left the King in a strong position to hold the balance of power. The monarchy was threatened by the rising middle class and attempted to maintain the old order.

Feudal philosophy subordinated individual ambition to the requirements of social order and so had become a break on progress. The new capitalist class demanded individual freedom to dispose of their resources..

So by the time of the civil war the new middle class was increasingly campaigning against the tyranny of the old order. What the parliamentary side was fighting for therefore was freedom from the controls that had been placed on the infant capitalism by the Tudors and the Stuarts, both attempting to maintain the old order.

This is the freedom that the bourgeois revolution seeks to attain, the freedom to exploit capital and the freedom of every individual to rise in society by their own efforts and not the privilege of birth. This was the motive for the civil war.

But as David Petegorsky says “But what the middle class sought for itself it was anxious to deny others. For itself it demanded freedom from restriction and interference; for the proletariat it wanted a discipline as rigorous as that from which the middle class was striving to escape.”

The role of religion was important to the rise of early capitalism. The development of Puritanism contained within it the concept that the righteous were to be rewarded on earth. Thus the rich were deserving of their wealth and the poor by implication deserving of their poverty. It is instructive how this essentially religious doctrine still informs even fundamentally secular societies like Britain today (it is even more evident in the USA).

Of course the above paragraph is a simplification of the doctrines of Puritanism but it is the one that above all else supported the development of the capitalist system. Puritanism gave the bourgeoisie a justification both of their own wealth and their oppression of the poor.

So by 1640(after 11 years of Charles I ruling alone) parliament was increasingly acting against the King, for example:
the impeachment of Laud And Wentworth (who help the king rule without parliament)

Declaring Ship money illegal followed (Ship money was traditionally levelled on coastal towns. Charles II wished to extend it inland). This ultimately led to the attempted arrest of the Five members.

These were the essential events that lead to Charles raising his standard in Nottingham on Aug 22 1642.

Initially the war was indecisive mainly because it was led by the aristocracy who were nervous of removing the King. The grand Remonstrance shows this nervousness, by only blaming the ‘papists and bishops’ for the faults of Charles’ reign.

But at the same time the effective authority moved from the landed gentry capitalists to the financial interests of the city as they were paying for the war.

In parliament the new capitalist class began to fashion society as they wished it by removing the feudal breaks on the economy and the power of the aristocracy whilst continuing to suppress the poor. The power of the church was also attacked

Religion was at the time part of the warp and weft of society and by demanding freedom of conscience in matters of religion they were in fact demanding the right to question the assumptions of the existing order and the right therefore to freedom of speech and expression.
This is how freedom of religious conscience has to be understood in the context of the time. These currents lead to the dissenters fearing the centralised forces of anti-royalist aristocrats.

In Parliament this led to an initial victory for the house of lords Angered by the indecisive leadership Cromwell forced through an ordinance that founded the New Model Army. He also forced through A Self Denying Ordinance that forced the aristocratic generals to resign their commissions. This took the army out of the control of the Lords.

But this was a war of minorities the common people were not interested in joining the fight and the authorities on both sides had to resort to impressments. This eventually resulted in the generation of revolutionary fervour amongst the common people. The pressed soldiers united around the common demand that forced service be forever outlawed.

The rank and file of the army soon recognised that the Freedom and Liberty that the capitalist farmer talked of meant unrestricted rights to exploit them. To the merchant it meant the right to build his wealth on the labour of others and to the owners of property it meant passing laws to further protect their property.
To the common people it meant freedom from fear, insecurity and release from poverty. To the artisan and petty tradesman, peasant or agricultural labourer it was freedom from those very freedoms demanded by the wealthy.

Initially the use of vague ill defined terms like freedom and liberty allowed considerable support of parliament but by the early 1640’s the worsening economic situation began to cause dissent. Poverty and destitution became ‘epidemical’ as one pamphleteer said and by 1643 the Venetion Ambassador observed “ It is now impossible for the poor to live in this kingdom”

The chaotic situation encouraged the landowners to enclose more land leading to even more misery amongst the poor, who initially turned to religious mysticism and an increasing belief that the end of the world was coming and with it their ultimate removal from this vale of tears to a blissful life with the creator. This was a response to Puritanism that told them that the wealthy were the elect of God and that they, the poor were not elect and therefore damned.

Later this turned itself into practical political demands. The poor began to claim that all men were equal before God denying the doctrine of predestination and claiming that salvation lay not in knowledge of the scriptures (as the Puritans claimed) but through mystical revelation.

This resulted in the rise of itinerant worker preachers who called upon their followers to hold all things in common and accept no authority over them excepting God himself.

Such was the extremity to which people were driven that ‘riotous assemblies of townsfolk were recorded in Lambeth and Southwark and the apprentices rioted in London.

In the countryside peasants pulled down fences and levelled enclosures. Such an explosion of sectarian activity public discussion and action inevitably led to the development of radical movements by 1647-9.

Parliament was forced to state that power resides with the people, although they equated the people with parliament. Thus the individualism of the Puritans began to be expressed by the levellers as the inalienable rights of all individuals. Even scientific materialism seems to have its beginnings here in a pamphlet by Overton

‘...Man is a compound wholly mortall contrary to that common distinction of soule and body and that the present going of the soule into Heaven or Hell is a meer fiction’.

By 1645 the demands of the common people were being expressed in more categorical terms. There was an increasing consciousness that Parliament was fighting for the rights of the bourgeoisie and for no-one else.

Overton (already cited), Walwyn ,Lilburne and others were rapidly developing the theoretical arguments that would form the basis for the stand of progressive forces in London and in the army. But they spoke for the petit bourgoisie and failed to develop a truly proletarian ideology. However by 1646 the arguments were essentially secular (although still often couched in religious terms).
Essentially these new democrats were trying force onto parliament the controls that parliament had already used to control the King. They demanded that parliament should rule in the interests of all and not just in the interests of the bourgeoisie.

But while recognising that a just society could not allow social inequality they put their faith in a written constitution the first version of which had appeared by 1647. There was little attempt to analyse the origins of power or its historical development.

By 1647 the army was being paid low wages irregularly if at all. Industry was at a very low ebb and peasants were suffering insecurity. excessive rents and poor harvests. As a result of Leveller activity these streams of discontent crystallised into a vigorous movement for social change that threatened to push the revolution further than the original makers were prepared to let it go.

This is of course the dilemma faced by every bourgeois revolution, namely a reliance on those elements that were eventually to form the proletariat in order to remove the powers of feudalism. They had no intention of allowing to the poor the freedoms it claimed for themselvesf. In fact it can be claimed that all bourgeois democracies have come into being on the backs of the very class they determined to exploit and that the revolution itself was the bourgeois’ first act of exploitation.

The rank and file of the New model army consisted of peasants, labourers artisans and apprentices. Theywanted a share in the ‘liberty’ they had been fighting for. and the common people had suffered the privations any civil war brings and none of the expected improvements.
A number of events clearly show this unrest among the poor:

Riots in many parts of the country and an increase in political consciousness
Labour began to be organised e.g the London apprentices were organised enough to present a demand for monthly holidays.

Demands for work amongst the unemployed and petitions from the rural poor.

The army meanwhile was becoming the most revolutionary force in the land. Cromwell and Ireton moved to disband it and sent some regiments to Ireland. In fact Cromwell’s war in Ireland can be seen at least in part as a method of diffusing opposition and consolidating the power of capital.

In November 1647 The Army council published the Agreement of the people:

The Agreement of the people
First draft 1647
Stating that sovereign power should reside in the people rather than with the discredited King or Parliament, the original Agreement consisted of four clauses:
1. The peoples' representatives should be elected in proportion to the population of their constituencies;
2 The existing Parliament should be dissolved on 30 September 1648;
3 Future Parliaments should be elected biennially and sit every other year from April to September;
4. The biennial Parliament (consisting of a single elected House) should be the supreme authority with powers to make or repeal laws, appoint officials and conduct domestic and foreign policy.

Constraints were to be placed on Parliament:
not to interfere with freedom of religion;
not to press men to serve in the armed forces;
it could not prosecute anyone for their part in the recent war;
it was not to exempt anyone from the ordinary course of the law;
all laws passed by Parliament should be for the common good.

Cromwell moved to suppress this, prevented its ratification by the whole army, and arrested the ringleaders.

In October the Army convened to debate the constitution at Putney and the class divisions are clearly seen. These debates were recorded by stenographers and exist to this day. They are easily found in full online. http://courses.essex.ac.uk/cs/cs101/putney.htm

In this debate Ireton said
“All the main thing I speak for is because I would have an eye to property.”
He was prepared to concede the rights of the common people to:
“to air and place and ground and the freedom of highways and other things to live among us” but the shaping of public policy must remain the exclusive privilege of
“the persons in whom all land lies and those in corporations in whome all trading lies”

He feared that:
“ you may have such men chosen or at least the major part of them (as have no local or permenant interest) why may not these men vote against all property?”

To which Thomas Rainsford of the levellers replied
“For really I think that the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live, as the greatest he; and therefore truly, sir, I think it's clear, that every man that is to live under a government ought first by his own consent to put himself under that government; and I do think that the poorest man in England is not at all bound in a strict sense to that government that he hath not had a voice to put himself under;”

But he was anxious to nevertheless support the protection of the owners of property

“To say because a man pleads that every man hath a voice (by right of nature) that therefore destroys by the same argument all property- this is to forget the law of God. That there’s a property, the Law of God says it; else why hath God made the law ‘Thou shalt not steal’?”

We can see though that the Leveller programme. Although caring for the landless poor did not really argue for their rights. Only for the peasantry and petty freeholders.

So between 1647-9 we see Cromwell determined to suppress the aspirations of what we can reasonably describe as the developing proletariat as more peasants were thrown off their land by enclosure this element was growing.
In Jan 1648 a pamphlet called ‘The warning Teares of the oppressed’ was published. The propertyless classes where increasingly finding the Leveller programme inadequate. In fact the levellers, recognising a new threat from the left began to demand that parliament did not ‘abolish property’.

The propertyless landless poor were beginning to see that the Levellers had nothing to offer them and that the only solution was a system of common ownership. From the beginning these ideas were dismissed as they so often are today as Utopian quoting scripture “The poor ye have always with you”.
From the beginning the apologists of capital were ‘relaxed about people becoming extremely rich’.

There followed a period of repression, ordinances against heresy (beliefs declaring the equality of all were banned) and the press was censored heavily.

But despite their lack of success at the time the Levellers did actually predict the radical liberalism that is the foundation of the modern state. After the restoration many of the levellers set sail for the American colonies, taking their ideas with them. Ideas that form the bedrock of the American constitution.

By now many Levellers saw clearly that the criterion by which social institutions should be judged was not their formal constitution but their operative effect. Even today we can see that the ideas of the levellers even when enshrined in formal constitutions like that of the USA cannot challenge the essential power of the capitalist over society. That role had to come from elsewhere from the landless poor who only had their labour power to sell – the growing proletariat.

The Diggers, consisting of that very growing proletariat were the only group that could challenge the state. They did so but only briefly, but their story remains an inspiration and Gerard Winstanley produced the only genuinely proletarian theory to come out of the civil war.

In a very short time Winstanley’s ideas develop from mystical to rational theology.

“For reason tells him ‘is thy neighbour hungry and naked today, do thou feed him, it may be thy case tomorrow and then he will be ready to help thee”

This is the reciprocal altruism that paleoanthropologists tell us was the basis of early human organisation.

By 1649 Winstanley’s moral and spiritual ideas were being transformed into the primitive communism of Digger theory. He also considered property to be a sin

“…So long as such are rulers as calls the land theirs upholding this particular propriety of mine and thine, the common people shall never have their liberty, nor the land ever freed from troubles, oppressions and complainings”

Only if the earth is made a common treasury can the misery of mankind be removed.

He even points out that it is only the poor, the common people (who are not in his terms corrupted by the ‘sin’ of property) that can achieve this transformation of society. His theory is however fundamentally Utopian because it refuses to recognise that such a revolution was unlikely to be achieved without some level of violence. He does however demand that the poor should refuse to work for the landowners but instead work the common land together. However as with Peasant’s revolt, in the end they hoped to win by appealing to the better nature of their oppressors.

The demand for common property was not entirely new however, there are traces of it in the Peasant’s Revolt when the slogan ‘When Adam Delved and Eve span who was then the Gentleman?’ was abroad. But until the Diggers, communism did not achieve a social form and was often simply a demand for the return of the common land that had been enclosed. The idea of common ownership did not crystallise until the appearance of Winstanley’s tract.

But there is no notion of economic development in his ideas, simply a recognition of the morality and justice of them. In demanding the destruction of property he is fundamentally reactionary because he is not looking forward to an age of prosperity for all but rather a return to what he would call ‘man’s original state’. But Winstanley’s ideas were the beginning of a train of thought that led ultimately to The Communist Manifesto and in Engels’ work ‘The origin of the Family Private property and the State’.

The importance of the diggers for me is that they actually, if only for a short time, acted out their ideas. They also show us that even at the beginning of capitalist ascendancy in this country the class forces were already acting, the contradictions of the system were already clear and a first tentative step had been made to rid mankind of tyranny and oppression. It shows us that even at its very beginnings the capitalist system contained within it the seeds of its own destruction and already the role of the proletariat in that destruction was being hinted at.

These forces are even more visible today, however capitalism is no longer a new revolutionary force in society but is, as was Feudalism before it a break on the progress of humankind.


  1. An excellent essay, Anne. And I was really interested in the Diggers - I seem to have missed that bit out in History at school because I ended up doing political and economic history of the 18th and 19th century which was boring as f00k and led to me failing to get my O Level! :o)

    I am going to have to go away and find some more to read about the Diggers now.

    As an aside, I watched "Capitalism: A Love Story" by Michael Moore the other night. Aside from making me shout at the television every two minutes, it really did bring it home in words of one syllable the extent to which we have been shafted primarily by Wall Street and in particular the likes of Goldman Sachs... and everything else knocks on from that.

    Now Michael Moore can be an anoying bugger, but he came up with a line towards the end of the film which I thought was brilliant:

    "I refuse to live in a country like this. And I'm not leaving."

    There was much talk on UT last night about revolution and blood on the streets. Perhaps it will happen, although frankly I sincerely hope it doesn't because, from my somewhat ill-informed point of view, and as said in your article here, Anne, the poor will ultimately pay the price of revolution anyway.

    But I think each of us has to proselytize as much as we possibly can, and go for the hearts and minds. One of the things that upsets me so much these days is what I call Thatcher's Children - you see them on all the union and immigration threads, the "I'm all right Jack" brigade who have bought into the 80s mantra of Greed is Good and think it is their absolute right to tread on as many faces as they need to in order to make it to the top, while paying as little tax as they can legally get away with, and fuck everyone else.

    Absolutely no concept of the complexities of society and social justice whatsoever, as they upgrade their iPhones and buy a new model BMW just because it is better than their neighbour's one.

    Now sadly these are the kinds of people who seem to make up the majority now. But I like to think of them as poor deluded souls rather than intrinsically wicked. And I think that little by little, one by one, trying to explain to them why consumerism isn't the be-all and end all, why working towards an equal society will benefit them as well as benefitting the underclass, why concern for others will ultimately bear fruit as people aim for full employment, comparing our "basket of crabs" (translated from the French, but I think it is a great description) way of getting to the top at all costs ultimately leads to misery - what use is a five bed colonial-style detached property if you have to live in a gated community, too frightened to go outside for fear of being attacked or robbed, or burgled while you are out, because there are people starving at your gates?

    God I'm waffling on now. But I hope you get what I mean.

    All good, thought-provoking stuff anyway.

  2. BB The poor paid the price of the bourgeois (anti -feudal) revolution because it only produced political liberation.

    A socialist revolution has to produce ecconomic liberation which of course means no more poor people.

    The revolution is not complete only a socialist revolution can truly liberate us. But it has to maintain political liberation or it won't work.(eg Soviet Russia, China, Cuba etc etc)

  3. Precisely Anne - but does it need the raising of a blood-dripped flag to do it? Are there not softer means of bringing about revolution?

    I am a buddhist and thus a pacifist idealist, so don't expect anything sensible out of me on that score :p

  4. No it doesn't necessarily involve that. Sadly the greedy bastards in power aren't likely to give up without a fight.

    I don't like the idea of that either but as I consider poverty and starvation as acts of violence I do see it as self defence which of course means the minimum violence necessary.

    I mean those greedy bastards who dream up 'dead peasant' schemes are not going to just hand over the keys are they?

    After all consider this - I had a best friend as a child who was a Jewess, we both know what would have happened to her if we had not fought nazi Germany.

    I hate violence but when it comes to defending the weak the vulneral and the defenceless if there is no other way - I'll fight.

    You could always man the first aid station :)

  5. God, yeah, the dead peasant schemes. That was one of the most disgusting, sickening things I had ever heard of.

    We will work you into the ground, won't give you adequate health insurance, and the insurance companies will deny you funding anyway through some loophole or other, and if you die as a result, we win megabucks.


  6. Thanks A42 - I hope you make Sheffield if you do it will be my pleasure to buy you a drink and dinner.

    I'll be delighted to read and comment on the above when I am little less assaulted.


  7. Very interesting article. Had a think about it and what really strikes me is that the ideas of the revolution lasted and evolved over many centuries and in many countries, even if the revolution itself didn't last that long.

    I find it difficult to know whether the violence that followed those ideas propagated them, or whether those ideas would have eventually taken root, anyway.

    There was a man called Syed Ahmad Khan in 19th century India, who bemoaned the futility of what in English history is known as "The Indian Mutiny". He knew that the revolutionaries glorified pre-colonial rule:

    "The rule of the former emperors and rajas was neither in accordance with the Hindu nor the Mohammadan religion. It was based on nothing but tyranny and oppression; the law of might was that of right; the voice of the people was not listened to"

    Instead, he argued that educating the masses was the only way that they would achieve freedom and not through an armed uprising.

    I've always liked this quote of his, from the last few years of the 19th century:

    “A man may die, nations may rise and fall, but the idea lives on.”

  8. Habib -
    "A man may die, nations may rise and fall, but the idea lives on"

    Yes indeed - that reminds of the line from the ballad of Joe Hill
    "the part they cannot kill goes on to organise"

    You can't kill an idea - in fact the harder they try to kill it the more resilient it seems to become.