Lessons of the English Revolution (Part 2): The response of the exploited

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ICC Intro

The first part of this article (in WR 323) by a close sympathiser of the ICC, examined the conditions for the bourgeois revolution in Britain and the lessons of the class struggle within decaying feudal society. This part looks in more detail at the political development of the class struggle in the early period of the English civil war leading to the formation of the Leveller movement.


From the start of the English civil war in 1642 the ruling class on both sides was acutely aware of the threat posed by the common people, and of the need for the skilful use of propaganda, lies, and repression to prevent the conflict between parliament and the monarchy from becoming a far more dangerous class struggle.

The majority of the landowning aristocracy sided with the king as the natural protector of its privileges, but the final formation of a royalist party was motivated as much by fear that a popular struggle led by parliament would lead to a threat to the whole existing order of society as by a desire to preserve the constitutional position of the monarchy. The coalition of interests in the parliamentary camp was equally conscious of the dangers involved in mobilising the common people, who it considered a threat equal to that of the royalist forces.

The objective of the bourgeoisie was to force the monarchy to concede political power to its representatives in parliament and to remove the barriers to capital's further expansion. The monarchy was understandably reluctant to lose its privileged position within the state, and despite extended attempts at a compromise, the bourgeoisie was finally forced to accept the need for a military confrontation. The first English civil war (1642-46) was initially an indecisive affair, partly due to poor organisation and strategy, but also to the continued desire of the bourgeoisie to find a compromise with the king that would avert a greater threat to private property.

Control of parliament and its army at this time was in the hands of the ‘Presbyterians' - the conservative City of London financial capitalists and those sections of the landed aristocracy opposed to the king - for whom any decisive victory against the monarchy would risk endangering their own interests. Opposition developed rapidly led by the ‘Independents' - the manufacturers, merchants and smaller capitalist gentry - who not only demanded a more determined war effort but also opposed the Presbyterians' attempts to establish a centralised religious regime, raising demands for religious freedom that gained them wider popular support.

By 1645 the Independents were strong enough to force out the Presbyterian military leadership and reorganise the parliamentary army under Fairfax and Cromwell, whose victory at the battle of Naseby effectively ended any military threat to parliament's supremacy. From this point on the English civil war was mainly a struggle for power between the different factions within the parliamentary camp, but above all it was a fight by the ‘men of property' to suppress the growing threat of an organised and politically conscious revolutionary movement from below.

The response of the exploited to the war

For the poor peasants and landless wage labourers the burning issues were not the constitutional controversies fought over by royalists and parliamentarians, but poverty, unemployment and the destruction of their livelihoods. The whole period from the 1620s to the 1650s was one of extreme hardship for the exploited: in 1639-40 the English economy entered into a deep depression; political instability in 1641 and 1642 exacerbated already worsening conditions, and the final outbreak of war brought about a general collapse of the economic life of the country. Prices of food and other vital commodities rose steeply, both armies freely plundered, and the poor bore the huge burden of additional taxation imposed to finance the war efforts of both sides.

The 1640s saw a continuation of the struggles of the previous decades, with widespread riots against enclosures in many parts of the country. In the towns there were riots of apprentices, and as early as 1640 London was the scene of frequent ‘traitorous and riotous assemblies' and of ‘base people tumultuously assembled'.[1] Some of these struggles were directed at particularly hated royalist landowners, which the bourgeoisie tried to channel into support for parliament, and some violence was targeted at ‘papists and malignants', promoted by anti-catholic propaganda campaigns and scare stories of ‘papist plots'. But despite this the bourgeoisie remained very wary of encouraging the struggles of the exploited and above all conscious of the potential threat to its own interests: in 1642 Pym, the bourgeoisie's great parliamentary leader, warned the House of Lords against the dangers of "tumults and insurrections of the meaner sort of people", adding ominously that "what they cannot buy...they will take."[2]

The ‘tumults' continued with little interruption during 1642 and 1643 despite attempts to suppress them, and petitions to parliament expressed the fear - and threat - that the dire need of the people would drive them to more violent and desperate action.

There was little popular support for the war, and the peasants and labourers, artisans and apprentices, who formed the bulk of both armies mostly fought only when conscripted. As the supply of volunteers dried up and desertions grew, the ruling class was forced to make strenuous efforts to whip up enthusiasm through the use of religious propaganda. This initially had some success, but both sides and especially parliament increasingly had to resort to forced service (‘impressment'), which provoked serious resistance. The reorganisation of the parliamentary army under Independent leadership led to the creation of the ‘New Model Army'; a disciplined and highly motivated force which enjoyed freedom of discussion among the rank and file and became a hothouse of radical and dissenting views.

With the breakdown of press censorship and traditional methods of social control there was a tremendous explosion of debate and discussion, with a vast number of pamphlets and leaflets suddenly made available to the masses. In response to deepening misery, and as yet lacking the political language in which to express their needs and demands, the common people turned to religious mysticism, and there was a remarkable flowering of millenarian sects after 1640, which signalled an awakening of class consciousness. Although there was no explicit challenge to the existing order in the sects' pronouncements at this stage, their emphasis on the equality of all human beings, and their closeness to the radical traditions of the Lollards and Anabaptists (see WR 323), was enough to immediately alarm the ruling class.

As economic conditions worsened, the grievances and demands of the common people became sharper and more concrete. There was a growing recognition in petitions and pamphlets that the interests dominating parliament were waging war for their own interests and that parliament had deceived and lied to those it claimed to represent:

"We trusted you with our estates and you have rob'd, plundered and undon us; we trusted you with our freedomes and you have loaded us with slavery and bondage, we trusted you with our lives and by you we are slaughtered and muther'd every day. . . . You have fought for our liberties and have taken them from us. You have fought for the gospell and you have spoyl'd the Church, you have fought for our goods and you have em and you have fought to destroye the kingdom and you have done it...."[3]

There was a renewed and more intense outburst of religious sectarian activity in 1646 that indicated a deepening of class consciousness, partly of necessity in response to the increasingly hysterical political attacks of the ruling class. But more significantly some radicals on the left wing of the Independents began to deepen their critique of the Presbyterian-dominated parliament and to develop rationalist and materialist arguments for political reform.

The radicalisation of the petite bourgeoisie and the formation of the Leveller party

In the absence of support for the war among the common people, the bourgeoisie's main allies were the petite bourgeoisie; the independent small producers, shopkeepers and tradesmen who shared many of its economic grievances against the monarchy, and particularly the Puritan elements who acted as an ideological vanguard against the king under the banner of religious freedom. But, hard hit by the collapse of trade and disillusioned with parliament, some elements of the ‘middle sort' began to question in whose interests the war was being fought.

Largely in response to increasing repression a radical tendency cohered around John Lilburne, Richard Overton, William Walwyn and others. Influenced by the arguments of the bourgeoisie's own political theorists, these radical writers asserted that the people were the source of all political power, and that parliament should therefore be directly answerable to the people who elected it, and protect the inalienable rights and liberties of all ‘freeborn Englishmen'.[4] They also expounded the myth of the ‘Norman yoke', which maintained that the English were a conquered people who had been deprived of their rights and liberties by the Norman conquest and held ever since in bondage by tyrannical usurpers.[5] Following the unprecedented popular campaigns against Lilburne's imprisonment in July 1646, this radical tendency was transformed into a mass movement, known from the accusation of its enemies as the ‘Levellers'.[6]

The Levellers in effect became the third party of the English revolution after the Presbyterians and Independents. They had a national presence, with their own weekly newspaper - significantly called The Moderate - to co-ordinate their activities, and were well organised. By 1648 they were established at ward and parish level in their City of London stronghold, with regular meetings of supporters and organisers, including women activists. The Levellers pioneered the use of mass political propaganda techniques, agitated inside the parliamentary army where they gained a significant influence, and sent their militants to intervene across the country.

Leveller manifestos and statements called for the dissolution of the current House of Commons, the abolition of the House of Lords, religious toleration, freedom of the press, equality before the law and the ending of trade monopolies. However, the movement was politically heterogeneous. The leaders were radical democrats who defended the right of every individual to private property and consistently denied that they believed in common ownership or the ‘levelling' of estates, as their enemies claimed.[7] The Leveller programme expressed the interests of the ‘middle sort' in society, voicing their economic grievances and calling for parliamentary and legal reforms that would defend the security of their property, but even this programme went beyond the limited objectives of the bourgeoisie faced with the threat from the class struggle. There also appears to have been a ‘centre' of the Leveller movement around Walwyn and others who were more sympathetic to the goal of common ownership, and there was certainly a left wing closer to the needs and demands of the landless wage labourers and poor peasants which under the influence of the class struggle gave rise to the ‘True Levellers' or Diggers who defended a communist vision.[8]

The conditions mature for a revolutionary movement

By the end of the first civil war in 1646 the bourgeoisie had achieved its main objectives: the monarchy had been militarily defeated; many of the obstacles to capital's advance had been swept away, and state power was in the hands of the capitalist class. But it now found itself confronted by those classes who had suffered acute hardship during the war, whose taxes had financed parliament's war effort, and who were now demanding their share in the fruits of victory. In particular it was confronted by a highly organised and politically conscious army of peasants and labourers that it had itself mobilised, but which was now putting forward its own militant demands. To concede these demands would risk further opening the floodgates of class struggle and threaten the foundations of the new capitalist order. Instead, the bourgeoisie attempted to remove the specific threat by disbanding the army, which only had the effect of uniting the movement and confirming to the common people that the victory achieved was not their victory.

Between 1647 and 1649 the deepening class consciousness of the exploited and oppressed classes was transformed into a revolutionary movement that developed simultaneously in the army, in London and in many areas throughout the country, which for several years seriously threatened to push the bourgeoisie's revolution far beyond the point its originators wanted and to challenge the foundations on which the bourgeoisie was attempting to stabilise the state.

The third part of this article will examine the development of this revolutionary movement from 1647 and the lessons of its defeat, focusing on the achievements of its most advanced political minorities.  

MH 19/5/9

see also

The conditions for the bourgeois revolution in Britain: the class struggle within decaying feudal society

Lessons of the English revolution (part 3): The revolutionary movement of the exploited (1647-49)

[1] David Petegorsky, Left-wing democracy in the English civil war, Sandpiper, 1999, p.69. This article draws extensively on Petegorsky's clear Marxist analysis of the civil war, first published in 1940.

[2] Petegorsky, p.70.

[3] The generall complaint of the most oppressed, distressed commons of England complaining to and crying out upon the tyranny of the perpetuall parliament at Westminster (1645), quoted in Petegorsky, p.74.

[4] See Walwyn's England's Lamentable Slaverie, October 1645.

[5] See A Remonstrance of many thousand citizens by Richard Overton and William Walwyn, July 1646.

[6] The term ‘leveller' was first used in the Midlands revolt of 1607 to refer to those who levelled hedges during enclosure riots. Lilburne preferred the name ‘agitator', but the majority of the leadership eventually accepted the popular label.

[7] Which is why the political legacy of the Levellers has been claimed by the libertarian right as well as the ‘democratic socialist left'. Lilburne was the most consistent in rejecting the accusation of ‘levelling' but other leaders notably Walwyn appear to have been more sympathetic.

[8] Marx considered the Levellers as one of the first examples of a "truly active communist party" in the bourgeois revolutions (Moralising criticism and critical morality (http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1847/10/31.htm)). It has been unconvincingly claimed he was really referring to the True Levellers or Diggers (eg. Marxists Internet Archive). But it should be clear from this article that the Levellers were not an organised party of the working class, which was still at an early stage of its formation, and were unable to provide revolutionary leadership to the radical petite bourgeoisie. It is unlikely Marx was referring to the Diggers, who were more correctly a small communist fraction that came out of the Leveller ‘party', and were probably unknown to him at the time.