Sunday, 19 December 2010

The Experience of Defeat

“Corporal Perkins was the next – the place of death and the sight of his execution was so far from altering his countenance or daunting his spirit that he seemed to smile upon both, and account it a great mercy that he was to die for this quarrel, and casting his eye up to his father and afterwards to his fellow prisoners (who stood upon the church leads to see the execution) set his back against the wall and bade the executioners shoot.”

On May 17th 1649, three Leveller soldiers were executed on the Orders of Oliver Cromwell at Burford. This event marked both the military and political defeat of the Levellers and brought to a close the first stage of the English bourgeois revolution.

Like many events involving uprisings of the peasantry, petit bourgeoise or even the working class this particular brutal suppression of the Levellers has mostly been ignored by historians.

As the socialist writer, Dudley Edwards wrote in 1947  “nowhere is this remoulding of history more apparent than in the history of those revolutionary upsurges where a new ruling class has taken over power or where oppressed common people have taken up arms to destroy their masters. Whole revolutionary movements disappear under the pen of the historian, only to be rediscovered generations later. Lies and truth are entangled so closely that the concept of impartial ‘historical truth’ becomes meaningless. The unsuccessful risings of the peasantry and the working class are stamped on so viciously and so thoroughly that their spokesmen, even if they survive, are unable to speak in their defence before the bar of history”.[1]

The Levellers began life as a loose connection of political radicals seeking to influence the course of the English bourgeois revolution. In 1641 such were the divisions in society that Richard Baxter, a leading Puritan clergyman of the time, put the division clearly:

“A very great part of the knights and gentlemen of England adhered to the King, moreover, most of the tenants of those gentlemen and also most of the poorest of the peoples whom the others call the rabble did follow the gentry and were for the King. On Parliament’s side were (besides themselves) the smaller part (as some thought) of the gentry in most of the counties; and the greatest part of the tradesmen and freeholders and middle sort of men, especially in those corporations and counties which depend on clothing and such manufactures.”[2]

Baxter alluded to the basic class divisions in Stuart society at the beginning of the English revolution. It is true that the bourgeoisie appeared on both sides of the barricades. The social differences in the army broadly reflected those in society's Ann Talbot states “there were gentlemen and landowners on the parliamentary side in the civil war and small farmers and artisans on the royalist side. She believed that it was a bit much to expect a “chemically pure revolution in which the members of one social class lined up one side of the barricades and those of the other on the opposite side.”

As Cromwell famously said, “ I had rather have a plain, russet-coated Captain, that knows what he fights for, and loves what he knows, than that you call a Gentleman and is nothing else”.
The problem for Cromwell is that the Leveller leadership took him at his word. From the beginning of the war, the Levellers under the leadership of John Lilburne would pursue a  diametrically different perspective to that of Cromwell and other leading members of the bourgeoisie.

As the war proceeded, the Levellers were able to articulate the political, social and even economic aspirations of soldiers of the revolution. Cromwell’s dilemma is that he needed these radicals to pursue a war to the end against the king but did not want to let the Leveller radical agenda to be accepted by the New Model. He was class conscious enough to see where this could end. A far more radical revolution than he intended.


The high point of this divergence was at the Putney debates. What took place at Putney was probably the most significant political ambush in history. The debates were the culmination of nearly a decade of social conflicts which were fought inside and outside the army.

These social conflicts were on view at Putney thanks to the Shorthand of William Clarke. Amazingly the debates were not publicised which is a little strange given the fact that both sides in the discussion had extensive use of printing presses. The papers recording the debates were lost until 1890 when transcription was discovered in the library of Worcester College, Oxford, by the historian C.H. Firth and subsequently published as part of the Clarke Papers.

The debates at Putney like the event at Burford were a culmination of the divisions that had been festering between three different political tendencies. The Levellers, Presbyterians and the Independents. In the run-up to Putney, The New Model Army published a declaration denouncing Denzil Holles and the leaders of the Presbyterian faction in Parliament. 22 July 1647, a group of London apprentices responded by invading the House of Commons, threatening Independent MPs.

In March 1647, Holles denounced the soldiers who petitioned Parliament as "enemies of the state". This resulted in the politicisation of the Army during the spring and summer of 1647 and its alliance with the radical Leveller movement. In June 1647, Holles was foremost among the Eleven Members whose suspension from Parliament and impeachment was demanded by Army leaders. In response, Holles called for the mobilisation of the London militia against the New Model Army, but when General Fairfax led the Army into London in August 1647, Presbyterian opposition quickly melted away. Most of the Eleven Members fled to the Continent. Holles went to Normandy, where he remained for almost a year.

Leon Trotsky describes the growing political antagonisms beautifully at the time “Any historical analogies demand the greatest caution especially when we are dealing with the seventeenth and the twentieth centuries; yet nonetheless one cannot help being struck by some distinct features that bring the regime and character of Cromwell's army and the character of the Red Army close together. Admittedly, then everything was founded upon faith in predestination and upon a strict religious morality; now with us, militant atheism reigns supreme. However, running beneath the religious form of puritanism there was the preaching of the historical mission of a new class, and the teaching on predestination was a religious approach to a historical pattern. Cromwell's fighters felt themselves to be in the first place puritans and only in the second place soldiers, just as our fighters acknowledge themselves to be above all revolutionaries and communists and only then soldiers. However, the points of divergence are even greater than the points of similarity. The Red Army formed by the party of the proletariat remains its armed organ. Cromwell's army, which also embodied his party, became itself the decisive force. We can see how the Puritan army began to adapt parliament to itself and revolution.

The army obtained the expulsion of the eleven Presbyterians, that is, the representatives of the right-wing, from parliament. The Presbyterians, the Girondists of the English revolution, attempted to raise a rebellion against parliament. A truncated parliament sought salvation in the army and thus all the more subordinated itself to it. Under the pressure of the army, and particularly of its left and more resolute wing, Cromwell was compelled to execute Charles I. The axe of revolution was bizarrely intertwined with psalms. But the axe was more persuasive. Then Cromwell's Colonel Pride surrounded parliament and ejected eighty-one Presbyterian members. Of parliament, there remained but a rump. It consisted of Independents, that is, of supporters of Cromwell and his army; but for just this reason Parliament, which had waged a colossal struggle against the monarchy, at the moment of victory ceased to be a source of any independent thinking and force whatsoever. Cromwell was the focal point of both the former and the latter, and he rested directly upon the army, but in the final analysis, drew his strength from his bold solution of the fundamental tasks of the revolution. A fool, an ignoramus or a Fabian can see in Cromwell only a personal dictatorship. But in fact here, in the conditions of a deep social rupture, a personal dictatorship was the form taken on by the dictatorship of a class which was, moreover, the only one capable of liberating the kernel of the nation from the old shells and husks. The British social crisis of the seventeenth-century combined in itself features of the German Reformation of the sixteenth century with features of the French Revolution of the eighteenth century. In Cromwell, Luther joins hands with Robespierre. The Puritans did not mind calling their enemies philistines but the matter was nonetheless one of class struggle. Cromwell's task consisted of inflicting as shattering a blow as possible upon the absolutist monarchy, the court nobility and the semi-Catholic Church which had been adjusted to the needs of the monarchy and the nobility. For such a blow, Cromwell, the true representative of the new class, needed the forces and passions of the masses of people. Under Cromwell's leadership, the revolution acquired all the breadth vital for it. In such cases as that of the Levellers, where it exceeded the bounds of the requirements of the regenerate bourgeois society, Cromwell ruthlessly put down the “Lunaticks.”

There are many reasons for the demise of the Levellers. At Burford, they were clearly defeated by superior military forces. Cromwell was clear that who controlled the army controlled political developments. As Trotsky points out, the Cromwell leadership was the form taken on by the dictatorship of a class which was, moreover, the only one capable of liberating the kernel of the nation from the old shells and husks.

It is without question that the Levellers had widespread support. The work of John Rees in both his PhD dissertation and book has proved this. Before Burford, there had been many demonstrations of Leveller influence outside and inside the army. The sea-green colours had been raised at Ware, and the leaders had been immediately shot.

There is no doubt that the demise of the Levellers was a defining moment in the history of the English revolution. After Burford the most politically conscious Levellers became Quakers. It still took the English bourgeoise over a century to finally consolidate political power.

As Dudley Edwards most perceptively put it “most of them were small independent tradesmen, tenants, farmers, artisans and some casual labourers. Their mode of existence did not reunite them in civilian life in large industrial enterprises as is the case with the modern working class. Once outside the army, economic necessity forced them back to an isolated petit-bourgeois way of earning their livelihoods which made effective mass organisation impossible. While it is just conceivable that the Levellers might have seized power for a short time, they could not have prevented the establishment of a capitalist Britain. As Marx later pointed out to the early working-class movement of the last century: “Man makes his history but only within certain limits.” These limits are set by the level of development of the productive forces of a given epoch. Only if those revolutionary soldiers could have linked with a great mass movement of the people would it have been possible to set up a genuinely democratic republic. No heavy industry existed, no large-scale factories had yet been built, no widespread and rapid system of transport had developed and, therefore, the proletarian had not yet appeared on the historical scene. Since none of these necessary economic conditions yet existed, a Levellers’ government could have done little to change the march of events”.

[1] The Last Stand of the Levellers-
[2] Sources and Debates in English History, 1485 - 1714