Sunday, 22 February 2015

A Critical Review of A People’s History of Scotland- by Chris Bambery Verso, 320pp, £12.99

It is usual for new history books to fall into two broad categories. One is the history book that has no obvious connection to recent historical or political events. The second is a book that is very political and is released to coincide with ongoing historical or political events. It is the second category that Chris Bambery’s new book falls into in that it is deeply connected to nationalist politics in Scotland.

As the title alludes this is a history of the ‘ordinary people’ of Scotland. According to one writer it “looks beyond the kings and queens, the battles and bloody defeats of the past. It captures the history that matters today, stories of freedom fighters, suffragettes, the workers of Red Clydeside, and the hardship and protest of the treacherous Thatcher era”.

I have a number problems with this book. To begin with Bambery never defines what he means by the people. Bambery’s somewhat unrefined thinking lends itself to him making empty generalizations. In the realm of philosophy these are known as abstract identities. What is bad about this type of imprecise thinking is that it presents according to  David North an “inadequate mental representations of reality: The material world simply does not consist of such internally undifferentiated phenomena”.[1]

Bambery promises us “a corrective to the usual history of kings and queens, victorious battles and bloody defeats.” The first hundred pages or so the author struggles to find any of these ordinary people. In fact the only ordinary people he finds were people who made the tactical difference at Bannockburn, because they were mistaken for reinforcements by the English troops.

Know Your Historian

Bambery’s choice of the genre of people’s history has become popular again. This form of historical study was made extremely popular by the Communist Party Historians Group. The problem is that pseudo left groups like the Socialist Workers Party which Bambery used to belong to have unfortunately assimilated worst aspects of this genre such as a nationalist outlook.

It is especially important when reading this kind of history that the reader knows the politics of the historian or as E H Carr was apt to say “Study the historian before you begin to study the facts. This is, after all, not very abstruse. It is what is already done by the intelligent undergraduate who, when recommended to read a work by that great scholar Jones of St. Jude's, goes round to a friend at St. Jude's to ask what sort of chap Jones is, and what bees he has in his bonnet. When you read a work of history, always listen out for the buzzing. If you can detect none, either you are tone deaf or your historian is a dull dog.[2]

I am not saying that Bambery is a dull dog but there is a surprising absence of both his politics and of the organisation he once belonged perspective on Scottish history. I find this a little strange despite his break with the SWP he does not say anything about their position regarding Scottish history.

Bambery has belonged to a number of pseudo left groups in the UK. He began as a member of the now defunct the International Marxist Group he then moved to the Socialist Workers Party. He resigned from the SWP in 2011 having served on their Central Committee and joined International Socialist Group. The SWP lost a significant number of its members to the ISG who were politically active in Scotland.

As far as I can tell Bambery shares much of the SWP positions on the recent independence campaign in Scotland.  The Socialist Workers Party (SWP) lined up behind the SNP in the Yes campaign, proclaiming separatism as the only basis on which to oppose austerity and militarism. Bambery despite leaving the SWP shares their perspective on Scottish separation.
The ISG’s latest articles go so far as to call for alliances with the SNP, asserting that “the Left will look like a backward break on the movement if it doesn’t initiate the support of the SNP where necessary”.[3]

The IMG alongside the SNP believe Scotland is a classless nation. Bambery ignores the fact that Scottish nationalism and the SNP has always had a pronounced right-wing element. "Class antagonism is a thing quite foreign to the Scottish spirit. It was unknown here until it was imported from England.... In Scotland there is no such inherent feeling of a separation between classes."[4]

Further Criticisms

Like I said above it is important to know the authors politics because in this case it so colours his historiography. While this is not an academic history of Scotland some of Bambery’s comments are less than precise and in a lot cases his history contains an absence of class based history. Bambery’s method has very little to do with historical materialism.

Given the sweep of history you could forgive the author for brevity when it comes to certain periods of Scottish history. But the price he pays is a lowering of a critical analysis of the movements and figures portrayed in the 330 or so pages.

Perhaps not so forgivable is his repeated glorification of myths and invention of traditions that permeate Scottish historiography. This flaw in Bambery’s approach is neatly captured by his statement,

‘Legends will appear throughout this book, and in a way it does not matter if they are real, because a legend can take on a life of its own and so inspire a future generation.’[5]

Bambery seems to have uncritically adopted Hegel’s words when he said  “Every nation has its own imagery, its gods, angels, devils or saints who live in the nation’s traditions, whose stories and deeds the nurse tells her charges and so wins them over by impressing their imagination.”[6]

The failure to critically examine these legends, or as one writer says  “to explore the complex and contradictory relationship between the history and the myth, prevents the book from becoming anything more than a greatest hits of radical – a slippery political term at the best of times – Scottish movements “. His decision after twenty three pages to recommend Mel Gibson’s film Braveheart because it gives “a good account of William Wallace’s life.” Backs this observation up.

Scottish Enlightenment

Bambery's gloriification of Scottish figures from history comes to the fore when dealing with the Scottish enlightenment. It is undoubtedly true that Scotland produced some important figures during the enlightenment period but even these figures were part of an international fraternity and many of them never conceived themselves as promoting nationalism. Bambery’s raising them above other European figures is both wrong and will increase nationalist sentiment.

People’s History Genre

For certain subjects the use of the genre people’s history or for that matter narrative history is both useful and enjoyable. Bringing to the attention of a wide audience people who history or for that matter historians have forgotten is both legitimate and needed. However it is not very useful when dealing with very complex historical processes. 

Bambery sees Scottish history through nationally tinted glasses. Its ruling elites were more democratic. Its enlightenment figures better and its working class more militant and left wing. This relentless populism flies in the face of history.

Bambery’s reckless promotion of Scottish exceptionalism tends to whitewash actual historical events.  After all even a leading member of the Scottish bourgeoisie Thomas Johnston was forced to describe the Scottish nobility as "a selfish, ferocious, famishing, unprincipled set of hyenas, from whom at no time, and in no way, has the country derived any benefit whatsoever". Bambery for some reason sought to cover up who Johnston was first describing him as a "19th-century historian" and only later identifying him as “Scotland's most charismatic Secretary of State”.

The English Bourgeois Revolution

Bambery’s nationalist outlook is reflected in the number of historical events that are not even attempted to be examined within their proper international context. Perhaps the most glaring one is Bambery’s attitude towards the English bourgeois revolution. Given the importance of this historical event it gets strangely very little space in the book.

Bambery given his extensive knowledge of the Communist Party’s use of the history from below genre would have known the tendency amongst Communist Party historians and other radical writers to portray radicals such as the Leveller as struggling against foreign invaders.

Ann Talbot writes “serious Marxist criticisms of Hill are that he always maintains an essentially national approach to the English revolution, which he does not place in an international context, and that he has a tendency to romanticise the religious movements of the period and to be too dismissive of their rational intellectual descendants such as Newton and Locke. In part these characteristics arise from the national orientation of his social class and reflect even in Hill vestiges of the Whig outlook that imagined a peculiarly English political tradition rooted in millennial seventeenth century visionaries like Bunyan that was entirely separate from Enlightenment thought. More significantly it reflects the influence of the popular front politics and national outlook of Stalinism”[7]. Bambery’s People’s history continues this attitude.

Unfortunately Bambery shares the same outlook as the Communist party. Except his nationalism is not English it is Scottish. In this book Bambery rejects the theory of the English bourgeois revolution. He puts forward the premise that the revolution was in fact a “war of three kingdoms”.

The central premise of this argument is succinctly described by Jane Ohlmeyer when she said “the English Civil War was just one of an interlocking set of conflicts that encompassed the British Isles in the mid-seventeenth century”[8]. I do not know Bambery that well to say that this has always been his take on the English revolution but it certainly was not his former party. It is not in the realm of this article to discuss at any length the extent that the SWP has moved away from the central premise of the English bourgeois revolution but the fact that Bambery held a revisionist and conservative position on this seminal event is an indicator of the type of dissent that has existed in the last decade inside the SWP.

Scotland as a Nation

The main theme of this book from the first few pages to the last is to give impression that Scotland from a very early period was a nation slowly making itself through its struggles against oppression. Bambery’s assertion is that ‘freedom was finally won on the field of battle at Bannockburn,’ the concept that Scotland was a nation before 1707 permeates a growing body of work of both politicians, writers and historians alike.

The different strands of Scottish nationalism believe that Scotland was a nation before the 1707 Act of Union. In their book Alan McCombes and Tommy Sheridan brag that “Scotland is one of the oldest nations in Europe”, [9]this belief that Scottish people have been oppressed for centuries is historically inaccurate and leads to the tendency for workers on both sides to the border to be played against each other.

Bambery plays very fast and loose with this history. It is clear that the Scottish bourgeoisie and aristocracy was in pretty bad shape before 1707. Before union the failure of the Darien scheme in the 1690s had a massive economic impact. The plan which was to build a predominantly Scottish trading colony in Panama ended in financial disaster for Scotland’s aristocracy and bourgeoisie.

While it true that large sections of the population opposed the union the bourgeoisie and aristocracy in Scotland clearly saw that their sectional interests were best served by union.

Writer Neal Ascherson stating, “It’s a cliché that the Scots ‘punched above their weight’ in the empire, and it’s misleading. They seldom competed directly with the English or Irish, but established distinct and almost exclusively Scottish fiefdoms: the fur trade, the tobacco trade, the jute industry, the opium business in China, the ‘hedge-banking’ outfits in Australia, the executive levels of the East India Company…. Scottish capital was thus a full partner in the expansion of British imperialism. This embraced deep involvement in the slave plantations of the Caribbean and American South.”

To conclude this has not been an easy book to review and given the wealth of history covered and in some cases not covered further articles on this subject will appear in the future. I do not feel the need to repeat my many criticisms of this book. I do like the genre of people’s history when it is done well but Bambery’s promotion of Scottish nationalism dressed up as Scottish history leaves a nasty taste in the mouth.






















[1]   A critical review of Daniel Goldhagen's Hitler's Willing Executioners By David North
 17 April 1997
[2] E H Carr What Is history
3 http://internationalsocialist.org.uk/index.php/2011/06/salmonds-majority-in-the-age-of-austerity/
[4] http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/1999/02/scot-f03.html
[5] A People's History of Scotland by Chris Bambery
[6] Hegel 1795 (Berne) The Positivity of the Christian Religion
[7] http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2003/03/hill-m25.html
[8] ://www.historytoday.com/jane-ohlmeyer/wars-three-kingdoms#sthash.vM6OYlyC.dpuf
[9] T Sheridan and A McCombes Imagine Edinburgh 2000, p180.

Sunday, 1 February 2015

Tom Reilly's Call For A Conference on Cromwell In Ireland

I would like to try to organise a seminar/debate/conference – call it what you like – to finally determine (inasmuch as we can from this distance) what actually happened at Drogheda and Wexford in 1649. This is in particular regard to the deliberate massacre of large scale unarmed and innocent civilians. I was wondering if you would be interested in helping me get this off the ground. I have no idea where to start.

Here’s the reason, in case you either don’t know, or forget:

In 2004, Folens published Earthlink 5th Class. On page 87 the following words are printed: ‘Cromwell captured Drogheda. About 3,000 men, women and children were killed.’ The Educational Company of Ireland released Timeline in 2008. A paragraph on page 223 reads, ‘He [Cromwell] first laid siege to Drogheda. He was determined to make an example of the town. When he captured it he slaughtered the entire population.’

You ALL know that this is wrong. We’re still teaching bullshit to kids in Ireland. Bullshit that engenders anti-British sentiment. Here in 2015! Seriously?!

As you can see I have copied several early modern experts with this message. Many of you might consider me to be a loud-mouth, obnoxious, insufferable loose cannon. Which is fine. My wife and kids know who I really am. But that's not the point. Surely historical integrity demands that we stop the rot here. This subject is still highly emotive where I come from. Anybody Irish will agree.

I fully expect this e-mail to be dismissed by most of you in the same way that my work has been and continues to be. I would be happy if you would prove me wrong. 


Please help me make a positive impact on what was such a negative part of Irish history so we can all finally move on. Because we haven't.

Sunday, 25 January 2015

Where Is A Trumpet Of Sedition Going


The beginning of a New Year usually warrants a list of intended resolutions. Normally I would ignore this tradition but it happens to coincide with the fact that A Trumpet of Sedition has had over 150,000 page views.

This seems a logical milestone to publish future intentions. This blog is just over five years old and hopefully over these five years it has progressed to reasonably high level and given my readers some satisfaction. The blog will continue much as before. I will continue to examine the latest historiography in the shape of book reviews. Some articles still need to re-written or updated but the general thrust of the blog will remain unchanged.


Mindful of making an announcement that might blow up in my face I would like to attempt a biography of the historian Christopher Hill. It is quite shocking that no conventional biography exists given his statue in study of early modern England. So any publishers out there interested in this project do not hesitate to email me otherwise it will be an Amazon selfie project

Monday, 19 January 2015

John Gurney Obituary

This is sad news. John Gurney the noted historian has died of cancer at the terribly early age of 54. I have enclosed this link from the Guardian . A further obituary will follow.

http://www.theguardian.com/theguardian/2014/dec/29/john-gurney-obituary.


Saturday, 3 January 2015

A Review: Charles I: An Abbreviated Life by Mark Kishlansky 144 pages Publisher: Allen Lane (4 Dec 2014) ISBN-10: 0141979836


“And thus said Shimei when he cursed, Come out, come out, thou bloody man, and thou man of Belial: The LORD hath returned upon thee all the blood of the house of Saul, in whose stead thou hast reigned; and the LORD hath delivered the kingdom into the hand of Absalom thy son: and, behold, thou art taken in thy mischief, because thou art a bloody man.—King James Bible 2 Samuel 16:7, 8. [1]

So ye shall not pollute the land wherein ye are: for blood it defileth the land: and the land cannot be cleansed of the blood that is shed therein, but by the blood of him that shed it.

—King James Bible Numbers 35:33. [2]

The above two quotes are not to be found in Mark Kishlanksy’s new biography of Charles I. Kishlansky does not believe that Charles was a “man of blood” on the contrary he believes that history and its historians have much maligned this monarch.
Kishlansky believes “Even his virtues were misinterpreted and scandalously reviled. His gentleness was miscalled defect of wisdom; his firmness, obstinacy; his regular devotion, popery; his decent worship, superstition; his opposing of schism, hatred of the power of godliness.”[1]

Kishlanksy’s book is an aggressive defence of both Charles and monarchy in general. As Charles said "Princes are not bound to give account of their actions, but to God alone" Kishlansky seems to take the quote and turns it into a historical perspective.
According to him “Charles I is the most despised monarch in Britain’s historical memory. Considering that among his predecessors were murderers, rapists, psychotics and people who were the mentally challenged, this is no small distinction.” Kishlansky concludes in this brief book that its protagonist has been misjudged.

Even though the English revolution was the most devastating in terms of people killed and politically interesting given that a reigning monarch was executed a republic declared and the House of Lords abolished you get little of idea of this in this short book. I know Kishlansky did not have much space but surely only one mention of Oliver Cromwell is a little mean.
Given that the English revolution was primarily a political and religious dispute Kishlanksy’s heavy emphasis on the subjective mistakes, misjudgements and general bad luck of the monarch is typical of his historical methodology. In many senses this biography is part political rehabilitation, part polemical essay rather than a history book

The book has only been released recently so it is a little premature to make an overall assessment of its reception in the media or amongst academic journals but some comments can be made.
Generally the book has been well received. Given the conservative nature of its author this is not surprising. For instance on Amazon “In Mark Kishlanksy’s brilliant account it is never in doubt that Charles created his own catastrophe, but he was nonetheless opposed by men with far fewer scruples and less consistency who for often quite contradictory reasons conspired to destroy him. This is a remarkable portrait of one of the most talented, thoughtful, loyal, moral, artistically alert and yet, somehow, disastrous of all this country's rulers”.

Of course it is Amazon’s right to promote the book any way it sees fit but as the above quote suggests this has gone beyond normal promotion.
Hopefully whoever wrote the media blurb was not a historian for it reduces history to the level of a Janet and John book.

Firstly it must be said that the men who opposed Charles both inside parliament and out were men of principle and fought for those principles through to the end.
Kishlanksy’s adoption of the bad man or men theory of history does not enlighten us about Charles or the men who fought him. In many ways Kishlanksy’s theory of history owes more to Hegel than it does to Marx. As we can see later Kishlansky is no friend of a Marxist understanding of history.

Kishlansky believes of Charles that “Beneath the reviled and excoriated king of historical reputation is a flesh-and-blood man trapped by circumstances he could not control and events he could not shape.” Kishlanksy’s belief that individuals are prisoners of objective forces also does not get us very far.
As Herbert Spencer wrote "You must admit that the genesis of the great man depends on the long series of complex influences which has produced the race in which he appears, and the social state into which that race has slowly grown....Before he can remake his society, his society must make him."[2]

Kishlanksy’s aim in this book is overturn centuries of this type of historiography produced in general to better our understanding of the civil war. He believes that the long held view of Charles and his reign has been distorted and the centuries long the historical narratives opposing this view is merely “parliamentarian propaganda”.
A major review of the book is to be found on the Guardian website. It is largely sympathetic of Kishlanksy’s’ view. Without examining in any detail what major historians have printed on the subject matter it produces quotes that back up Kishlansky hypothesis  “ GM Trevelyan thought him “selfish and stupid”, while the Ladybird biography of Oliver Cromwell leaps off the fence to inform six-year-olds that “King Charles was a very stupid man”. It then quotes Kishlansky uncritically saying “What began as propaganda has been transmuted into seeming fact.”

The guardian continues Kishlanksy’s theme that Charles was battling against bad luck all through his life “Whichever side you take, it’s hard to deny that Charles was plagued from early on by almost comical levels of bad luck. As a young man, his daring incognito voyage to Spain to woo the Infanta turned into a fiasco. Two decades later, not only would his armies suffer crippling losses at the battle of Naseby, but Charles’s own personal correspondence would be captured: the public revelation of his efforts to secure Catholic support against the forces of parliament would be a devastating blow to the king’s reputation. A botched attempt to attack and plunder Spanish shipping in the first year of his reign set the tone for later military ventures: ‘the winds, as always for Charles, were contrary’.[3]
Kishlanksy’s defence of Charles I is absolute and virtually unconditional. He rejects the standard view that Charles was intransigent. He believes that the king bent over backwards to conciliate and to compromise with parliament. Kishlansky is perfectly in his right as an established historian to counter prevailing historiography. It is a little surprising that he chooses to do so in such a limited space is surprising. I am not a professional historian but even I know that to overturn three centuries of historiography is going to take longer than 144 pages. As one writer puts it the “small amounts of evidence are made to bear an enormous argumentative burden”.

Even the sympathetic Guardian reviewer was forced to admit that Kishlanksy’s hoop jumping was in danger of turning his reconsideration of Charles into “whitewash”.
It is not in the scope of this review to go over Kishlanksy’s previous written work but it is clear from this new book that his place as a pioneer of a transatlantic revisionist interpretation of early Stuart history is secured.

Kishlansky joins a growing number of major historians such Kevin Sharpe, Conrad Russell and John Morrill. Who in one form or another rejected both the Whig and Marxist historians who had seen the Civil Wars of the 1640s as stemming from the growth of ideological opposition to the Stuart monarchs over the previous half-century,
The revisionist school seek to challenge the “ideological consensus” or as Kishlansky puts it the “fallacy of social determinism’ that has existed since1920s. These historians reject any serious economic or social analysis and argue that revolutions are nothing but the work of a tiny group of conspirators.

In any review I try to be as generous as I can and on the whole I would recommend this short narrative on the life of Charles I as a competent introduction to the subject. If that was all it was then I would have no trouble but as this is more a polemic than a history book it needs to be answered in the future in a more detailed manner.

 Notes


[1] A Sermon produced thirty years after Charles’s death
[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philosophy_of_history#History_as_propaganda:_Is_history_always_written_by_the_victors.3F
[3] Charles I: An Abbreviated Life by Mark Kishlansky – http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/dec/18/charles-i-an-abbreviated-life-king-mark-kishlansky-review

Thursday, 1 January 2015

Oliver Cromwell, the Levellers and the Putney Debates.


This article will seek examine the impact of the Putney Debates of 1647 on the thinking and actions of Oliver Cromwell. How did Cromwell defeat his Presbyterian enemies  before Putney and Leveller opponents after Putney?  
Why were the revolutionaries in the Leveller Movement not a sufficient enough political force to challenge Cromwell for power and therefore change the course of the revolution? It will also examine some revisionist attitudes to Putney. Originally published in draft form in 2010

Introduction

The Putney debates started on 28 October 1647. A Meeting of the army’s General Council of the Parliament’s New Model Army met to discuss the state of the revolution and more specifically The Levellers document The Agreement of the People and the more conservative document The Heads of Proposals.

According to Wikipedia the agreement was produced by “civilian Levellers or agitators and called for regular, two-yearly Parliaments and an equal distribution of MPs’ seats by number of inhabitants. It guaranteed freedom of conscience, indemnity for Parliamentarian soldiers and equality before the law”.

 A Counter document the Heads of Proposals was issued by the Grandees. A much more moderate document. "Heads of Proposals" was the document to be adopted later on by the Cromwell’s government. It recommended a written constitution and led to Cromwell being given powers that bordered on a dictatorship.

Oliver Cromwell came to the Putney debates in 1647 from a position of considerable political and military strength. Although the fact that he still needed to invite radical elements within the army to the Putney Debates meant that he and his general’s position of power had been far from consolidated.
Cromwell was well aware that the invitation of civilian Levellers meant that the discussion held at Putney would have a resonance far beyond the walls of Putney church. How much Cromwell was aware of the growing radicalisation of his army is open to conjecture. To what extent Cromwell read the volumes of letters sent to him from the various radical groups is again hard to fathom.

But even this conservative of men would have least noted with alarm the growing influence of radical groups such as the Levellers and Fifth Monarchists. After all one of his top general’s Thomas Harrison was a Fifth Monarchist supporter and shared similar religious and political positions. Cromwell also up until Putney had a reasonably close social and political relationship with one of the Leaders of the Leveller’s John Lilburne.

In the months leading up to Putney Cromwell and his generals faced a growing threat to their leadership. They faced a two pronged attack from the Presbyterians and the radical groups.

One of the most important radical tracts printed by 29 October was called A Call to all soldiers of the Army by the Free People of England which was a defence of the radical regiments and demanded a purge of Parliament amidst a call for the agitators to meet as an ‘exact council’ and to act with the ‘truest lovers of the people you could find’. One of the main aims of the document was to expose the “hypocrisy” and “deceit” of Cromwell and Ireton.

It must have been with extreme reluctance that Cromwell invited the agitators to Putney. In doing so his aim was to defeat these forces politically at Putney and then militarily later on.
Politically Cromwell was to the right of the English bourgeois revolution. In many ways his actions at Putney were largely opportunistic, he promised the Levellers to look into their demands but in reality he had no intention of adopting the Agreement.

He read very little outside of the bible and had only a superficial understanding of the radical tracts produced during the early period of the revolution. An interesting PhD dissertation topic would be to examine what was in his library at the time of his death.
It is clear that Cromwell at Putney completely underestimated his political opponents in the army. The documents presented by Leveller supporters in the army clearly shocked and dismayed this conservative of gentleman.

The debates brought to the surface deep seated ideas regarding property, democracy and the future course of the revolution. Political divisions were becoming sharper in the run up to the Putney Debates. Even deeper divisions among historians have meant that there is no agreement as to how radical the army was or when it started. This radicalisation for me did not fall from the sky. The ideas that came to fore at Putney were not only exacerbated by war , may have started as grievances over pay and condition, the fact of the matter is that these developed into broader political demands is because they were the product of a longer gestation.
As I said earlier there is little of no agreement among historians as to whether the radicalisation if it happened at all took place before or after 1647. A leading revisionist historian Mark Kishlansky classified has the period as marked by its “vaunted peace and harmony,”

The radicalisation brought about heated attacks on the army. Provoking one writer to say “it is objected to us, that we would have a toleration of all sectaries, schismatiques, heretiques, blasphemies, errours, licentiousnesse, and wickednesses.”[1]
This hostility to the radicalisation of the soldiers was given further political expression by the Presbyterian faction in parliament when it published its ‘Declaration of Dislike’ in the House of Commons. The document provocatively called the soldiers “enemies to the State and disturbers of the public peace”

The document represented a declaration of war against both independent and radicals alike. It was an expression growing class differences contained within and outside of parliament. As Austin Woolrych commented, “seldom can ten words have done more mischief than Holles’s ‘enemies of the state and disturbers of the public peace.’”[2]
There existed a growing nerviness inside the Presbyterian party within parliament that was caused by the growing calls inside the army for more democracy, protests against social inequality and an end to property. The statement that  “We were not a mere mercenary army, hired to serve any arbitrary power of a state, but called forth and conjured by the several declarations of Parliament to the defence of our own and the People's just Rights and Liberties.[3] Would have sent shockwaves through the Presbyterian Party.

After all the Presbyterian alongside the Independents had a lot to lose if Lilburne and his revolutionaries had their way. A large number of MP’s had grown rich out of the civil war and intended to keep their new found wealth come what may.

Many in Parliament had grown rich from the change of relations of land ownership, although the enclosure and the sequestration church holdings had begun before the civil war it was continued with during the first revolution with fresh impetus. The Long Parliament had got rid of the Episcopate and to administer its interests it organised a committee for the sale of church lands.

Often the officers and soldiers of the New Model Army were given permission to buy land cheap. Sometimes exchange for their unpaid salary and at half price. Fifth Monarchist’s like Lieutenant colonel Thomas Harrison became very rich out this process.
According to Evgeny Pashukanis “The Civil War between Parliament and the Crown thus had as a result the mass transfer of property (which was partly annulled upon the Restoration). Not less than half of all the movable property and half of the lands, rents and incomes of the noblemen who fought on the side of the Crown fell under sequestration. In order to raise the sequestration it was necessary to pay a composition in the amount of approximately one-fifth of the total value. Such an operation was conducted in 1644 on not less than 3,000 “gentlemen”. The direct profit from this measure was received by the Presbyterian party which then held sway in Parliament, a party whose members became rich buying land cheaply, squeezing out the Royalists who had fallen under sequestration, with money at usurious interest, and finally, releasing sequestration for a bribe. The corruption which developed gave one of the major trump cards to the Independents and their struggle against the parliamentary majority. In the interest of justice it should be noted that after this, when Cromwell’s army triumphed over Parliament, the Independent majority of the “Rump” began to engage in the same dirty business.[4]

Events Leading to Putney

It is extremely difficult to find in Cromwell’s early life an understanding of his actions at Putney. The Oliver Cromwell who was to occupy centre stage at Putney it can be said was not the same man who in early life would have followed under different circumstance a very pedestrian life.
He was born in Huntingdon, near Cambridge on April 25th 1599, four years before the end of Queen Elizabeth 1st reign. He was one of ten children only seven survived childhood and he was the only one to survive into adulthood. His mother Elizabeth had been widowed before she married Oliver’s father. She came from a respectable Norfolk family and had a small inheritance from her first marriage. Her family farmed lands near Ely cathedral.

Cromwell’s father, Robert was the second son of a knight and occupied a ‘median position in society’. In Cromwell’s own words ‘I was by birth a gentleman, living neither in any considerable height, nor yet in obscurity’. [5]Little is known about his early life although one suspect tale had him bloodying the nose of Charles Stuart Later to become King Charles 1. It would be feasible to argue that when he attended grammar school he would have come under the influence of the master Dr. Thomas Beard, who was a Cambridge graduate and a clergyman.
Beard had written on the question of the English church. He preached a puritan faith which put forward that mans rewards were to be found not solely in heaven but on earth as well. Beard wrote of kings and rulers that they were not only’ more hardened and bold to sin’ but were also want to ‘ boldly exempt themselves from all corrections and punishments due unto them’. Much of Beards strongly Calvinist and anti Catholic teachings would impact on Cromwell in later life.

From 1617-20 Cromwell studied law in London (this is hotly contested by some historians) where he may well of made acquaintances with many of the people who would later play an important role in the civil war. Of all the MPs between 1640-42 over 300 had been to one of the Inns of Court, one being Sir Thomas Fairfax who was a leading military figure. In 1621 he went back to Huntingdon where he concentrated on farming the family lands. At the age of 29 he became MP when he was elected as one of the two burgesses of Huntingdon. When Cromwell took his seat parliament was already in a state of flux over the question of the king’s prerogative and of parliament’s role in society. Previously six of Cromwell’s relatives had been imprisoned for refusing to pay the enforced loan demanded by Charles 1.
Antonia Fraser writes of this time quite perceptively ‘For him there were already in practice two divergent points of view-one basically royal and one critical of it- which may for convenience sake be termed parliamentary’. In 1640 he became MP for Cambridge and entered the short parliament, which was followed, by the Long parliament in the same year. He quickly became an important figure within parliament. He sat on 18 committees and moved the second reading of a bill calling for annual parliaments. Cromwell’s reading at this time was limited to the bible; the only other book he told people to read was Raleigh’s History of the World.[6]

It is not disputed that Oliver Cromwell was a powerful figure in 17th Century England. History imparted Cromwell with an extraordinary power and authority. He carried with him the hopes and aspirations of a new social class. Many historians have sought to obscure the inner social struggle that underpinned the ‘great drama of the seventeenth Century’. The 1640s began with a parliament that although saw itself as the main representing vehicle of the people it was based on a very narrow franchise. Its Lower House was three times as rich as the House of Lords. Yet it was still under the control of the King who could call it and close it as he choose.
Parliament began increasingly to need a defence against the king and began to create its own army. This army was at the beginning never seen as a threat or replacement to parliament. But it soon took on a life of its own and began to recruit into it the most courageous and resolute members of society. It is this reason that it was to become the most resolute prosecutor of the war against Charles 1.

It is not the fashion in today’s historiography to write about a religious outlook alongside a class one but it is high time this method was restored. Charles and his court were representatives of the Episcopal or Anglican religious order, alongside the Nobility and higher clergy. The Presbyterians were the party of the high middle class today, while the Independents were the party of the lower middle class. In a simple sense the Presbyterian stood for a limited monarchy, the Independents stood for a republic. “The contradictory position of the Presbyterians was a mirror of the contradictory position of the middle class in the fact that it oscillated between the nobility and the plebeians”.
Much of the time even overtly political and economic events were shrouded in religious language. Both sides believed they were acting legitimately and  according to Gods will.

The French historian Guizot perceptively writes ” “Then commenced between the Parliament and the King, a conflict previously unexampled in Europe ... Negotiations were still continued, but neither party expected any result from them, or even had any intention to treat. It was no longer to one another that they addressed their declarations and messages; both appealed to the whole nation, to public opinion; to this new power both seemed to look for strength and success. The origin and extent of the royal authority, the privileges of the Houses of Parliament, the limits of the obligations due from subjects, the militia, the petitions for the redress of grievances, and the distribution of public employments, became the subjects of an official controversy, in which the general principles of social order, the various nature of governments, the primitive rights of liberty, history, laws, and customs of England, were alternately quoted, explained and commented upon.

In the interval between the dispute of the two parties in parliament and their armed encounter on the field of battle, reason and learning interposed, as it were, for several months, to suspend the course of events, and to put forth their ablest efforts to obtain the free concurrence of the people, by stamping either cause with the impress of legitimacy. When the time came for drawing the sword, all were astonished and deeply moved ... Now, however, both parties mutually accused each other of illegality and innovation, and both were justified in making the charge: for the one had violated the ancient rights of the country, and had not abjured the maxims of tyranny; and the other demanded, in the name of principles still confused and chaotic, liberties and a power which had until then been unknown. When the time came for drawing the sword, all were astonished and deeply moved, now however, both parties mutually accused each other of illegality and innovation, and both were justified in making the charge: for the one had violated. The ancient rights of the country, and had no adjured the maxims of tyranny, and the other demanded, in the name of principles still confused and chaotic, liberties and a power which had until then been unknown”[7]

It is clear that Cromwell built not merely an army but also an armed party. In 1644 Cromwell's “holy” squadrons was given the nickname of “Ironsides.” Which was playing an independent political and military role in the English revolution.

The observations on the Puritans' army made by the historian Macaulay are here not without interest “A force thus composed might, without injury to its efficiency, be indulged in some liberties which, if allowed to any other troops, would have proved subversive of all discipline. In general, soldiers who should form themselves into political clubs, elect delegates, and pass resolutions on high questions of state, would soon break loose from all control, would cease to form an army, and would become the worst and most dangerous of mobs. Nor would it be safe, in our time, to tolerate in any regiment religious meetings at which a corporal versed in scripture should lead the devotions of his less gifted colonel, and admonish a back-sliding major. But such was the intelligence, the gravity, and the self-Command of the warriors whom Cromwell had trained that in their camp a political organization and a religious organization could exist without destroying military organization. The same men who, off duty, were noted as demagogues and field preachers, were distinguished by steadiness, by the spirit of order, and by prompt obedience on watch, on will and on the field of battle.” [8]

Cromwell, and his Grandees at Putney.

The General Council of the new Model army resided in Putney church essentially to discuss the Levellers Agreement of the People from 28th October to 11 November1647. According to H N Brailsford ‘When one compares these debates with those of its sittings at Reading in July, it is clear that in three months the temper and outlook of the army were changed. At Putney the mood was sultry and tense’. While it true that the grandees and the agitators were moving roughly in the same direction in July by October a huge chasm was to open up between them “.[9]
It is clear from the Clark papers or transcripts that Cromwell was no great theoretician, He was ambitious and with his class outlook had a tendency to develop his thinking and conduct on the spur of the moment. Cromwell at Putney had a significant amount of prestige amongst his men. Through a combination of persuasion and promises Cromwell had led his men to crush Royalist forces and his Presbyterian enemies. In doing this he was able to enlist the help of the Levellers who “were the first among the people and the simple soldier agitators in the army to understand the necessity of energetic opposition for the counter-revolutionary elements of Parliament.”[10]

It is ironic that the very organisation created by Cromwell the Council of the Army, where the agitators sat next to the officers and the generals gave him the most political trouble.
It is unclear how much Cromwell acted in a fully conscious matter in the political sense of word but according Pashukanis “One can have doubts about the degree to which Cromwell and the other leaders of the Independents truly wished to remain loyal to the Presbyterian majority in Parliament. But there is no doubt that the soldiers’ organizations never entered into their calculations for the purpose of their struggle with Parliament. It is one thing to put pressure on Parliament by relying upon a disciplined armed force subordinate to oneself, but entirely another thing to create an illegal organization embracing the mass of soldiers and awakening their independent activity, an organization which immediately and inevitably had to bring forth socio-political demands extending far beyond the ideas of the moderate Independents”.

He continues “In the English revolutionary movement of the seventeenth century we observed the struggle of these two movements, a struggle the fiercer because of the high degree of consciousness and political activity among the soldiers of Cromwell’s army. To transform them into submissive weapons of his moderate gentry-bourgeois policy was not an easy task. It is necessary to add still another fact to this. The officer corps of Cromwell’s army included a certain number of democratic elements (Pride, a former horse-cab driver; Rainborough, barge captain; Colonel Joyce, a former tailor etc.); moreover, many of them were convinced supporters of the extreme left movements”
As Pashkunis states before Putney Cromwell had no intention of taking on both the radicals within army and the Presbyterians. In fact there are significant indicators at the time that Cromwell in the spring of 1647 was thinking of leaving England to travel to the Europe to spread the protestant cause.

It was only when he realized that on May 25th and 27th both Houses adopted resolutions to stand down the army in Britain and send other parts of it to Ireland  that he sensed that the Presbyterian party was seeking to establish its control over both the army and parliament that Cromwell. He soon came to his senses.  It was only his decisive intervention with the support of the agitators and Levellers that the Presbyterians were defeated. Had it not been for this resistance the subsequent course of events would have been very different. And may well have changed the course of the English revolution.
After the Presbyterian party had been defeated That Cromwell turned to Putney and the appearance of two platforms – the conservative Heads of the Proposals, and the radical, expressed in two documents Case for Truly Standing Army and Agreement of the People.

It should be noted that the participation in the Council of the Army by “civilians”, i.e. of representatives of the London Levellers – Wildman and Petty could be seen as the first move towards the transformation of the army council into a revolutionary party and a party brisling with arms at that.
In order to prevent this Cromwell alongside Ireton and other Grandees. decided to divide the army and limit the influence of the Levellers.

He decided to call three separate meetings. He continually kept calling prayer meetings to dissipate the anger of the Radicals.
Cromwell’s’ manoeuvring could only go so far. Why were the Levellers unable to defeat Cromwell at Putney? As Pashukanis points out “The Levellers found their support among the peasants, small rentiers, craftsmen and workers. It is enough to recall the influence which they enjoyed in the London suburbs, in particular in Southwark, which was populated by weavers. However, their main support was the army. Here we encounter a fact imposing a characteristic imprint on the whole course of the first English Revolution: it was not accompanied by any significant agrarian movement. Proceeding from the Levellers, the attempt to transform the political structure of England of that day into a consistent bourgeois democratic condition was never supported by a massive peasant uprising”.

The Levellers undoubtedly were a petit bourgeois party. While some historians protest that capitalist relations were not that developed to describe them as such I believe that there was sufficient bourgeois-capitalist relationships, at   the 1640s to warrant such a claim.  
It is true that capitalist relations had not developed to a large extent into the English countryside, to such an extent demands could not enter into their programme for a general division of land, “an agrarian law”.

When Cromwell saw for the first time the Leveller tracts he knew what was at stake was not just a mere debate but who was to have power and what class would control it. He wasn’t the only one to recognise that Putney was a battle of contending social forces, Colonel Thomas Rainborowe in a little known passage from the Clarke Diary’s  cited ‘Sir, I see that it is impossible to have liberty but all property must be taken away. If you say it, it must be so. But I would fain know what the soldier hath fought for all this while? He hath fought to enslave himself, to give power to men of riches, men of estates, to make him perpetual slave. We do find in all presses that go forth none must be pressed that are freehold men. When these gentlemen fall out among themselves, they shall press the poor scrubs to come and kill one another for them’. Do these comments represent an individual or did his words echo a much wider yet unconscious expression that Putney represented not just the people that took part but had a broader significance in the army and within the country itself

While it took Cromwell a little while to understand what was going on at Putney when he saw the Levellers Pamphlet The Agreement of the People he reacted in this way on October 28th “These things that you have now offered, they are new to us: they are things that we have not at all (at least in this method and thus circumstantially) had any opportunity to consider of, because they came to us but thus, as you see; this is the first time we had a view of them. Truly this paper does contain in it very great alterations of the very government of the kingdom, alterations from that government that it hath been under, I believe I may almost say, since it was a nation –I say, I think I may almost say so. And what the consequences of such an alteration as this would be, if there were nothing else to be considered, wise men and godly men ought to consider. I say, if there were nothing else to be considered but the very weight and nature of the things contained in this paper. Therefore, although the pretensions in it, and the expressions in it, are very plausible, and if we could leap out of one condition into another that had so specious things in it as this hath, I suppose there would not be much dispute – though perhaps some of these things may be very well disputed. How do we know if, whilst we are disputing these things, another company of men shall not gather together, and put out papers plausible perhaps as this? I do not know why it might not be done by that time you have agreed upon this, or got hands to it if that be the way. And not only another, and another, but many of this kind. And if so, what do you think the consequence of that would be? Would it not be confusion? Would it not be utter confusion? Would it not make England like the Switzerland country, one canton of the Swiss against another and one county against another to go on along with it, and whether those great difficulties that lie in our way are in a likelihood to be either overcome or removed”.?
What was Cromwell’s aim at Putney?  According to B Coward Putney began ‘as an attempt by Cromwell to defend the strategy for a settlement he had followed ever since the end of the war and to defuse the recent Leveller attack on it. His main aim at Putney was to maintain the unity of the army behind a settlement programme based on the Heads of Proposals and his speeches at Putney are peppered with pleas to this effect “I shall speak to nothing but that, as before the Lord, I am persuaded in my heart tends to uniting us”. Cromwell throughout Putney sought that the army was pledged to keep the “engagements” that had bound the army since June. He had hoped that by debating with the Levellers that a common ground could be made between the heads of proposals and the Leveller’s statement the agreement of the people’.

The Levellers had other ideas and their disagreement with Cromwell stemmed from their social position rather than in any tactical nuances. In that sense it is important to view the Levellers in the context of the period. It is clear that much of what the Levellers fought for radical if not revolutionary for the time.
The Levellers appeared and were in fact organised as a political party in the years 1645-46. They were responsible for many of modern day political techniques such as mass demonstrations, collecting petitions, leafleting and the lobby of MPs. Their strength mainly lay in London and other towns and had quite considerable support in the army. The movement was an extremely disparate group containing groups such as the Diggers or as they have called the True Levellers and Ranters who were on the extreme left wing of the Leveller movement.

The main plank of its manifesto was the call for a democratic republic in which the House of Commons would be more important than the House of Lords. A Leveller would have wanted redistribution and extension of the franchise, legal and economic reform on behalf of men of small property, artisans, yeoman, small merchants, and the very layer which made up the Levellers themselves.
Levellers also wished to democratise the gilds and the City of London, a decentralisation of justice and the election of local governors and stability of tenure for copyholders. While the Levellers were sympathetic to the poor, which stemmed from their religion which essentially was not different from that of Cromwell. They had no programme to bring about social change; they never advocated a violent overturning of society. Their class outlook, that being of small producers, conditioned their ideology. At no stage did the Levellers constitute a mass movement.

This contradiction caused some tension between their concern for the poor and their position of representatives of the small property owners. They had no opposition to private property and therefore they accepted that inequalities would always exist, they merely argued for the lot of the poor to be made more equitable. One of their members John Cooke explained ‘I am no advocate for the poore further then to provide bread and necessaries for them, without which, life cannot be maintained, let rich men feast, and the poore make hard meale, but let them have bread sufficient’. Knowing that they could not come to power through the presently constituted electorate the Levellers attempted to find constitutional ways of getting round it.
The limitations of the Leveller program was cruelly exposed in a very famous exchange between Colonel Rainborowe, leader of the Levellers in parliament and H. Ireton, Cromwell’s son in law. Rainborowe stated that ‘The poorest he that is in England has a life to live as the greatest he and therefore every man that is to live under a government ought, first, by his own consent. To put himself under the government’.

This seemed all very democratic but ‘freeborn Englishmen’ excluded servants and the poorer sections that did not constitute ‘the people’. Christopher Hill argued that ‘The Leveller conception of free Englishmen, was thus restricted, even if much wider, than that embodied in the existing franchise. Their proposals would perhaps have doubled the number of men entitled to vote. But manhood suffrage would have quadrupled it. The generals, generally horrified, pretended at Putney that the Levellers were more democratic than they were’.
To put it more simply the generals deliberately exaggerated the radicalism of the Levellers in order to label them extremists and to mobilise their own supporters against them. Cromwell correctly recognised that if the franchise was widened it would threaten his majority in parliament. Again Hill explains ‘Defending the existing franchise Henry Ireton rejected the doctrine “that by a man being born here, he shall have a share in that power that shall dispose of the lands here and of all things here”. The vote was rightly restricted to those who “had a permanent fixed interest in this kingdom”. Namely, the persons in whom all lands lies and those incorporation’s in whom all trading lies’

Ireton claimed the present House of Commons represented them and went on to ask by what right the vote was demanded for all free Englishmen. If by natural right, taking up the Levellers point that they should be free. Who could freely dispose of their own labour? Then Ireton could see no reason why men had as much natural right to property as to the vote. He went on to point out that if you give them the vote, then they will be the majority in parliament and they will give equal property rights to everybody.  This argument completely confused Rainsborough and undermined his argument.
Cromwell was acutely aware that the ideas of the levellers and other smaller groups such as the Diggers were becoming a dangerous business. Cromwell said of what he call the “lunatics”, “you must break these men or they will break you”

Revisionism
The view that Cromwell’s role at Putney could be understood better within the context of contending social forces as been attacked by a growing number of revisionist historians. As early as the 1970s. The main purpose of this group has been to attack any conception that historical events can be best understood within the context of a socio-economic or even Marxist viewpoint.

One such revisionist historian who has challenged the above premise is Conrad Russell who in his Origins of the English Civil War sought to explain the civil war from the standpoint of the Nobility not from any socio economic changes. Jim Holstun described Russell’s book as a “manifesto for historical revisionism”. Holstun went on to point out that Russell sought another way to explain the social changes that were taking place in the English revolution. That historians should concentrate on the upper yeomanry, the middling sort of people. Russell would often make the remark that he was not conversant with the terms feudalism and capitalism.
Woolrych says “we should be very cautious about treating the Putney debates, wonderful as they are as the typical voice of the army”.  While it is true that the ordinary soldiers were thin on the ground the politics that were debated at Putney had a deep resonance inside the army. Even Woolrych is forced to describe such incidents where ‘open incitements to mutiny, and were already bearing poisoned fruit. Fairfax had lately ordered Colonel Robert Lilburn’s foot regiment to Newcastle, for sound military reasons but a party of new agents bearing copies of the Case of the Armie overtook it and urged it not to let the army be divided. Thereupon its soldiers turned back, held an unauthorised rendezvous and refused to obey their officers. Other regiments were in a state of incipient mutiny before the debates at Putney were would up’.

Mark Kishlansky writes ‘Much has been written about ideology of the army, but most of it misconceived. A principle reason for this has been historians have assumed that the lowly social origins of many of the officers created a commitment to radical ideology. This is false on both factual and logical grounds. There were men of low birth among the new Model’s officers, and much has been made of Pride the drayman and Hewson the cobbler more still might be made of obscure officers like Sponger and Creamer whose surnames suggest backgrounds in trades and service. The army also contained a Cecil, a Sheffield, and three colonels who were knights. Yet careful study of the armies social origin, which lends support to the view that they were more traditional in nature (of solid status in rural and urban structures) still does not meet the real objection to existing interpretation- the fallacy of social determinism’.

In conclusion hindsight is always a great general after the events. At Putney Cromwell moved decisively against his main enemy at the time the Levellers.  Cromwell’s individual qualities came to the fore in this time it is undoubtedly true.
The debates at Putney if nothing else gave us proof that the ideas that were discussed there highlighted the actions of different class forces each seeking to control the revolution. Clark  gave us a documentary proof that contrary to the revisionists the main motor force in history is the struggle of contending class forces.

Or put another way “The suppression of the May uprising of 1649 rendered the final blow to the Leveller movement. In Cromwell’s army was concentrated the most active and politically conscious part of both the peasantry, urban craftsmen and workers. There the Levellers had the basic mass of their adherents. The destruction of the Levellers in the army, therefore, signified the destruction of radical elements in the entire country. After this the revolutionary energy of the democratic strata was not directed along the lines of mass political struggle. It found its outlet partly in attempts at terrorist struggle in which, among others, Edward Sexby, one of the first agitators, was beheaded; partly in the religious movement of the Quakers among whom the Levellers’ leader John Lilburne ended his life. But neither of these directions presented any danger for the rich and the powerful. (Evgeny Pashukanis revolutionary Elements in the History of the English State and Law (1927)




[1] [1] Vox Militaris: Or an Apologetical Declaration Concerning the Officers and Souldiers of the Armie, under the Command of his Excellency Sr. Thomas Fairfax, (London: 11 August [Thomason]),
[2] Austin Woolrych, Soldiers and Statesmen),page  36-37.
[3] — From The Representation of the Army 1647
[4] Evgeny Pashukanis Revolutionary Elements in the History of the English State and Law (1927)
[5] On himself, speech to the First Parliament of the Protectorate, Sept, 1654. Antonia Fraser; Cromwell, Our Chief of Men.
[6] Cromwell, Our Chief of Men
[7] Leon Trotsky's Writings On Britain Chapter Two traditions: the seventeenth-century revolution and Chartism
[8] T.B. Macaulay History of England Chap. I, Before the Restoration
[9] The Levellers and the English revolution (1961)
[10] E. Bernstein, Socialism and Democracy in the Great English Revolution (1919), 3rd German edition, p.78. – See also E. Bernstein, Cromwell and Communism: Socialism and Democracy in the Great English Revolution (1930), Allen and Unwin, London [eds.]