Monday, 1 October 2018

The Oliver Cromwell Statue “Controversy”

‘And if a history shall be written of these times and transactions, it will be said, it will not be denied, but that these things that I have spoken are true.’

“I will not cozen you by perplexed expressions in my commission about fighting for King and Parliament. If the King chanced to be in the body of the enemy, I would as soon discharge my pistol upon him as upon any private man; and if your conscience does not let you do the like, I advise you not to enlist yourselves under Me.”

It would appear that every year a story appears in the right-wing press regarding the merits of the statue of Oliver Cromwell situated outside Parliament in London. This year is no exception.

The Sunday Telegraph ran an article called “ Parliament's statue of Cromwell becomes the latest memorial hit by 'rewriting history' row”. 

The article's author Patrick Sawer must have had a slow day in the office because in the article he says a bitter row has broken out between historians.

This is stretching things a bit. The one historian quoted by the newspaper is a one Jeremy Crick, described as “a social historian” has called for the statue to be pulled down.

His justification for this being Cromwell’s anti-religious zeal and comparing Cromwell to the actions of the Taliban. He says “Its banishment would be poetic justice for his Taliban-like destruction of so many of England’s cultural and religious artefacts carried out by his fanatical Puritan followers.”

It is hard to take Crick seriously. Even a cursory search would find that he has written next to nothing on Cromwell and is hardly a world authority on Cromwell and the English revolution. It would seem that the only thing Crick specialises in is the calling for “unloved statues” to be pulled down.

Source of controversy

It must be said the English bourgeoisie has always an ambivalent and contradictory attitude towards Cromwell and for that matter the English revolution. While playing lip service to the fact that he was the father of Parliamentary democracy albeit with a bit of military dictatorship thrown in they have always been wary of drawing attention to their revolutionary past. They would prefer that people saw Britain’s history as being tranquil. That any change that took place was of a gradual nature and progress was peaceful through class compromise without the violent excess of revolution. This illusion is more important in light of today's explosive political and economic atmosphere.

If Cromwell were alive today, he would be a bit angry at this attitude given that today’s modern bourgeoise owes everything it has to his leadership during the English revolution.

Marxist’s, on the other hand, have no ambivalence towards the great bourgeois revolutionary, and workers and youth as the Russian revolutionary points out can learn a lot from his leadership

“In this way, Cromwell built not merely an army but also a party -- his army was to some extent an armed party and herein precisely lay its strength. In 1644 Cromwell's “holy” squadrons won a brilliant victory over the King's horsemen and won the nickname of “Ironsides.” It is always useful for a revolution to have iron sides. On this score, British workers can learn much from Cromwell. 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 organisation and a religious organisation could exist without destroying the military organisation. 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 the field of battle.”[1]

While it is a bit much to call this a controversy, it does beg the question why does it keep coming up. Firstly the issue of the English revolution has never been a mere question of studying a past event; it is because many of the significant problems that were discussed and fought for on the battlefield are still contemporary issues. What do we do with the monarchy, the issue of social inequality addressed by groups such as the Levellers? Until these and many more are resolved, we will keep getting more stories calling for Cromwell’s statue to be removed.