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

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Between 1647 and 1649 the deepening class consciousness of the exploited masses in England was transformed into a revolutionary movement that for a time challenged the very foundations of the state the rising bourgeoisie was trying to consolidate.

At its highest points this movement showed an extraordinary capacity for self organisation, creating democratic organs that anticipated the formation of workers' and soldiers' councils in the Russian revolution, and gave rise to pioneering communist minorities who defended a practical programme to abolish private property and establish common ownership through the revolutionary action of the exploited masses.

The third and final part of this series by a close sympathiser (see WRs 323, 325) examines this revolutionary movement and its relevance for today.

The proletariat's capacity for self organisation:  the formation of soldiers' councils

The initial focus of the movement was in the army, where the rank and file quickly became a powerful revolutionary force.

Having created the New Model Army to secure its victory over the monarchy, the bourgeoisie found itself confronted by a highly motivated and well-disciplined body of armed labourers and peasants, which considered itself not as ‘a mere mercenary army' but as a force created by parliament to defend ‘the people's just rights and liberties' (A representation of the army, June 1647). When the Presbyterian-controlled parliament tried to disband part of the army without backpay and send the rest to invade Ireland, the rank and file reacted swiftly by creating their own democratic organs, electing delegates or ‘agitators' to represent their views. The army agitators were well organised, forming committees from which a central council was drawn, and highly active, organising meetings and demonstrations and maintaining contact with the civilian population and the Leveller movement. From protests over army grievances they moved rapidly to a much broader attack on parliament with demands for constitutional change, and it was the agitators who took the initiative during 1647 in seizing the king and occupying London to throw the Presbyterians out of parliament.

The Levellers were quick to grasp the power of this force to effect radical change and intervened towards the rank and file movement. Lilburne was particularly active among the most radical agitators, emphasising the importance of winning the support of the common people and of regularly re-electing delegates to prevent their corruption. Relations between the army agitators and civilian Levellers became close, particularly in London where, also under Lilburne's influence, militant apprentices appointed their own agitators. This collaboration resulted in military support for the Agreement of the People, a proposed new democratic constitution for the state.

The revolutionary movement in the parliamentary army achieved a very high level of organisation, and should be seen as an early struggle of the modern proletariat; for Marx, soldiers' pay was the first form of wage labour, and the New Model Army was a creation of the capitalist class.  The appearance of soldiers' councils composed of revocable delegates in the mid-17th century English revolution is a very early demonstration of the capacity of the working class to spontaneously organise itself, to unify its struggles through its own centralised organisation, and actively extend these struggles to other sectors.

The cunning and ruthlessness of the bourgeoisie faced with the threat of revolution

For the ruling class, this alliance of a radicalised army rank and file with the civilian Leveller movement raised the spectre of an armed struggle for political power by the exploited masses. It was vital to retain control of the army, and so, having failed to prevent the rank and file from organising, it was necessary to defeat the movement from within. Only the left-wing of the bourgeoisie had the necessary credibility and intelligence to do this.

There were real and important differences between the main factions of the bourgeoisie in this period, which saw a struggle for power between the Independents and the army led by Cromwell, and the Presbyterians, who were trying to secure their position by making a settlement with the monarchy. The Independents, backed by industrial, manufacturing and smaller capitalist farming interests, became increasingly alarmed at the strength of the Presbyterians, fearing that they would undo the work of the revolution. For their own part the Presbyterians, backed by large landowning, commercial and financial interests, feared that any extension of the revolution would put their own position and privileges at risk. The majority of the Independents were quite prepared to restore the king, but faced with the Presbyterians' alliance with the royalists, the faction around Cromwell decided to use the army to force parliament into a compromise. This meant first curbing the army's radicalism.

Cromwell and the Independents were just as concerned to defend private property but were better placed to deal with the threat from below. Cromwell himself, the great bourgeois leader of the English revolution, personifies the ruthlessness as well as the pragmatism and flexibility of the capitalist class, proving himself to be a supreme political opportunist prepared to use any means to make England safe for the men of property, from intriguing with the king to purging parliament and negotiating with the Levellers. Eventually he was even prepared to execute the king, famously declaring "we will cut off his head with the crown upon it". But he remained utterly consistent in his determination to keep control of the army and use it to crush any movement that ventured to challenge the authority of the state.

The rank-and-file-controlled councils were neutered by absorbing them into a ‘general council of the army' controlled by the officers, who vetoed any proposals for decisive action, and then, when it appeared that the Agreement of the People would be endorsed by the whole army, rather than one mass gathering as the agitators proposed, a series of separate meetings were held instead. In this way, the most radical minority of agitators around Lilburne was skilfully isolated and the army's adoption of a radical democratic programme averted. The mutinies that arose in some of the more radical regiments were then swiftly suppressed.

This was by no means the end of the threat from the army rank and file, but by sabotaging the soldiers' councils from within, and successfully isolating and defeating the most advanced elements, the bourgeoisie had acted decisively to banish the spectre of a self-organised revolutionary army leading the struggles of the exploited against the whole existing order.

The intransigence of the bourgeoisie, and its political opportunism towards the radicals, was highlighted in the army council's debate of the Agreement, held in late 1647. Here the Levellers argued for an extension of the vote to all men, not just property owners, on the basis of their ‘natural right' as ‘freeborn Englishmen'. As the Leveller Rainborough put it, "...the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live as the greatest he." The Independents, acutely aware of the threat from below, immediately saw in these apparently moderate democratic reforms a challenge to bourgeois order, Cromwell warning ominously that the consequences would be ‘anarchy'. The Levellers insisted that they had no intention of challenging the right to private property, but the bourgeoisie's intransigence forced them into taking up a more radical stance; after all, what had the common people fought for if their rights and liberties were to be denied them in the interests of securing the rights of property? This surprisingly open debate on the future constitution of the state formally ended with concessions on both sides, but the bourgeoisie had no intention of compromising its class interests, and Cromwell later, with characteristic bluntness, let slip its true fear and hatred of the exploited masses, when he warned the new English republic against the Levellers:  "I tell you ... you have no other way to deal with these men but to break them in pieces. If you do not break them, they will break you."

The extension of the struggle to other sectors and the development of political consciousness

With the temporary defeat of the radical movement in the army, the focus of the revolutionary wave shifted to the struggles of the labourers in the towns and cities and the poor peasants in the country. Struggles were continual, particularly in the north, midlands and west, after the disastrous harvest of 1648 led to widespread hunger and unemployment and food prices rose to famine levels. With increasing desperation, petitions to parliament highlighted acute economic distress rather than political issues, demanding urgent social reform rather than constitutional change and threatening direct action if these demands were ignored. In London, the largest centre of the growing proletariat, there was a development of political consciousness, particularly among the apprentices and young unemployed. The poor peasants and small farmers also became more articulate in their protests.

The Levellers' propaganda began to reflect this spontaneous expression of class consciousness, demanding measures to help the poor and supporting the struggles of the peasantry by including opposition to land enclosures in their programme. The Levellers also extended their activities, sending emissaries to all parts of the country, and strengthened their organisation.

Throughout this period there was a concerted effort by the ruling class to crush the Leveller movement and suppress all radical propaganda. This determined campaign of repression, which was to be greatly intensified after the establishment of a republic, finally convinced a sizeable section of the radical movement that it was impossible to achieve their aims by peaceful means and that direct action leading to the forcible seizure of power was necessary instead. The political programme of the Leveller movement still reflected the interests of the petite bourgeoisie, the peasants and tradesmen who deeply feared the loss of their land and livelihoods and determinedly opposed any perceived threat to property, but the repeated denials of Leveller leaders that they stood for common ownership suggests that they were coming under increasing pressure from the propertyless masses, and a significant current within the movement began to argue that the problems of poverty and oppression could not be solved until private property had been abolished and a system of common ownership established.

Democracy is a mask to hide the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie

Perhaps the most valuable legacy of the English radicals is their fearless exposure of the rule of the capitalist class, from the very moment of its ‘heroic' victory, as a new form of tyranny masked by hypocrisy and maintained only by force.

In April 1648 the alliance of a large part of the Presbyterians with the royalists and a Scottish army plunged the country into a second, counter-revolutionary civil war. Faced with this common danger, parliament and the army temporarily entered into a political truce. This had the effect of diverting the revolutionary movement, but when the war was won the Levellers renewed their agitation for acceptance of the Agreement, without which, they argued, even if the king was executed and power devolved to the army, "our slavery for the future...might be greater than ever it was in the king's time." (The legal fundamental liberties, 1649).

When parliament persisted in negotiating with the king, the Independents around Cromwell realised that order could only be guaranteed by directly seizing power and executing the king. To gain the necessary popular support, through a series of cynical manoeuvres they allied themselves with the Levellers, apparently accepting their programme. The forcible removal of the Presbyterians from parliament in December 1648 (‘Pride's Purge') in effect placed the army in power through a military coup d'etat. There followed the public trial and execution of the king, the abolition of the monarchy and the House of Lords, and finally in May 1649 the proclamation of a republic.

The Levellers and army radicals now realised that they had been duped. The Independents adopted some reforms without conceding any power whatsoever to the people:  "We were before ruled by a king, lords and commons, now by a general, a court martial and house of commons; and we pray you what is the difference? " (Richard Overton, The hunting of the foxes, March 1649). The Levellers began to urge the army rank and file to reappoint their agitators and re-form the elected army council. The bourgeoisie's response was to arrest Lilburne and three other Leveller leaders and imprison them in the Tower of London.

The situation came to a head in the early months of 1649. Unrest again spread in the army in response to further plans for an invasion of Ireland, with those troops refusing to serve dismissed without pay. 300 threw down their weapons and declared they would not go abroad unless Leveller political demands were met. Open mutiny broke out in London, for which six men were sentenced to death and one, Robert Lockier, was executed, his funeral becoming a massive popular demonstration with thousands wearing the Levellers' colours. Revolutionary ferment grew rapidly. In May the Levellers issued a new Agreement and a more serious revolt broke out in the army. The soldiers in revolt issued a manifesto demanding the implementation of the Agreement and the release of Leveller leaders. Cromwell and Fairfax acted swiftly to prevent the mutiny spreading to London, finally crushing the revolt at Burford.

The swift action of the bourgeoisie again removed the immediate threat, but massive struggles continued:  at the time of the confrontation at Burford there were reports of 1500 ‘Clubmen' marching from the south-west to support the Levellers; in the summer of 1649 there was a serious rising of Derbyshire miners against their conditions of labour, and in September the garrison at Oxford rose in mutiny. Attempts at armed revolt continued despite mounting repression during 1649, but the collapse of the Oxford mutiny effectively marked the end of the revolutionary wave of struggles.

The emergence of communist minorities defending the interests of the proletariat

At its highest point in early 1649 the revolutionary ferment gave rise to small political minorities defending the world view and historic interests of the emerging proletariat. These minorities tended to emerge from the left wing of the Leveller movement, like the group of advanced rural Levellers who published Light Shining in Buckinghamshire, but the most politically significant were the Diggers around Gerrard Winstanley.

The story of the Diggers has since passed into folklore. In April 1649 a small band began to dig on St George's Hill in Surrey. They issued a manifesto, The True Levellers Standard Advanced, and called on others to cultivate the wastelands in common. They called themselves True Levellers but began to be called Diggers.[1] News spread rapidly, leading the Levellers to issue denials that they would ‘level men's estates'. Delegations were sent to gather support and other Digger colonies appeared across the country. Persecuted by the men of property, the Surrey Diggers were finally driven off at the end of March 1650.

There is a risk that this story portrays the Diggers simply as a failed utopian experiment, which ignores the real, lasting political significance of the group around Winstanley.[2] While it's true that they had little practical impact on the English revolution, it was the Diggers, primarily through the writings of Winstanley, who more profoundly than anyone else in the 17th century identified the root of exploitation in the new capitalist society, and set out a practical programme to abolish private property and establish common ownership through the revolutionary action of the exploited masses.

For Winstanley, private ownership of the means of subsistence, which excluded the common people from their rightful access to the soil, was the key to understanding history and the foundations of society. Having taken the land by theft and murder, the owners of property had erected a system of law and government that protected their privileges by the ‘power of the sword', aided by the hypocritical doctrines of the church. Wage labour ensured the oppression of the propertyless:  "The poor men by their labours ... have made the buyers and sellers of land, or rich men, to become tyrants and oppressors over them" (The new law of righteousness, January 1649).

By going to the root of exploitation, Winstanley, more than any other radical writer at this time, was able to expose the real nature of the civil war as a struggle for economic and political supremacy between the monarchy and the rising gentry, who had enlisted the common people by promising their freedom from oppression. But private ownership of land remained, and the common people therefore remained in bondage; their freedom could only be achieved by abolishing private property and restoring common ownership.

Winstanley was convinced that there was a law of development that made the disappearance of private property certain: "as everything hath his growth, reign and end so must this slavery have an end", and the force that would abolish this system was arising from the "lowest and most despised sort of people" (The new law, etc). He did not stop there. Moving in a matter of months from religious mysticism to practical communism under the influence of the class struggle, he recognised that the world could be changed only through the direct action of the masses, initially by withdrawing their labour, refusing to work for the landlords and gentry, and collectively cultivating the common lands (which at this time made up about a third of all land in England). But this was to be only the first practical step in the complete transformation of the economic foundations of society, a transitional stage towards restoring the earth as ‘a common treasury for all'. The role of the Diggers was by their direct action to rouse the masses to effect their own emancipation.

Uniquely in the 17th century, therefore, Winstanley offers not only a vision of a future communist society but also a thoughtful consideration of the methods by which it can be achieved and the practical issues involved, together with an optimism that this task is within the capacity of human beings, all founded on an analysis of the development of society. With hindsight of course we can see that he was over-optimistic about the potential of the historic period to create communism. Capital's transformation of the productive forces was barely underway, and the industrial proletariat hardly yet existed. It was simply not clear to radicals at the time that the English revolution presaged an epoch of unprecedented economic expansion led by the new exploiting system. Moreover, the programme of the Diggers demanded a level of organisation of the landless wage labourers that did not yet exist, and their proposed revolutionary transformation, if attempted, would have very quickly posed the question of the seizure of state power, with which, due to Winstanley's rejection of violence as a method, the movement was ill equipped to deal.

After the collapse of the Digger movement, in The Law of Freedom (1652), Winstanley tried to more fully develop his vision of a future communist society with a set of constructive detailed proposals. But by this time the revolutionary wave had ebbed and he was forced to accept the failure of the propertyless masses to transform society. Significantly, this work was dedicated to Cromwell, who alone, Winstanley claimed, had the power to effect the change his measures required. In the political counter-revolution that followed the defeat of the revolutionary wave, Winstanley abandoned political activity, and the subsequent influence of the Diggers appears to have been minimal.[3]  But by attempting to tackle the practical problem of how communism could be brought about, and by recognizing that the initiative for transforming society had to come from the propertyless classes, Winstanley was the most advanced pioneer of the proletariat and its historic struggle for communism until the French revolution.


With the defeat of the revolutionary movement, England was made safe for capital's ‘peaceful' advance, and the bourgeoisie entered into an historic partnership with the landowning aristocracy to exploit the ensuing opportunities for plunder and profit. In 1660 the monarchy was restored without undermining capital's fundamental gains and in the so-called ‘Glorious Revolution' of 1688 the ruling class finally settled the arrangements for the efficient running of the capitalist state.

But the Restoration was also necessary to put an end to the political instability and social disorder that was the legacy of the revolutionary movement. The men of property had been given a terrible fright that they would not forget, and from then on everything the bourgeoisie did was informed by an acute awareness of the threat from below. The tactics it used to defuse the threat from the soldiers' councils in 1647 would also serve as a model for the counter revolutionary strategies subsequently adopted by capitalist states:  the use of agents to sabotage the movement from within; appearing to go along with the movement until it felt strong enough to crush it; agreeing to demands while emptying them of their radical content; manoeuvring behind the scenes until it had deployed all its forces, and then acting decisively to crush any sign of dissent to send a lesson to the entire class.

The revolutionary movement of the exploited in the English civil war suffered from the almost complete absence of a working class able to impose itself on society, which inevitably gave it a certain backward-looking character, and many of its most valuable lessons were effectively lost by the time an organised workers' movement emerged in the 19th century. Nevertheless, the work of Winstanley and the Diggers also shows that from the moment of its birth the proletariat has struggled to become conscious of its own interests as a revolutionary class within capitalism and has fought to create a classless, communist society.

Today, a full 360 years later, the epoch of bourgeois revolutions has long ago definitively ended, along with capitalism's progressive development of the productive forces.  Faced with the unimagined barbarism of decadent capitalism, and its equally unimagined degradation of the planet as it sinks further into decomposition, we can stand up with the Diggers and the English radicals of 1649 and affirm that the struggle of the proletariat is indeed a struggle to destroy the roots of exploitation and finally restore the earth as a common treasury for all.  

MH 31/10/9

see also

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

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

[1]  The name Digger first appeared during the enclosure riots of 1607 in a manifesto issued by ‘The Diggers of Warwickshire to other Diggers'. See David Petegorsky, Left-wing democracy in the English civil war, p.164.

[2] For example, a recent Guardian advert for the DVD of Kevin Brownlow and Andrew Mollo's film Winstanley (1975), describes its subject as "a tragic, perennially relevant story of dashed hopes" (the film itself is a serious and beautifully recreated historical account, well worth seeing).

[3]  The only one other known text of the English revolution to defend a similar position is Tyranipocrit Discovered (1649), which has been described as "one of the most remarkable pamphlets of the whole period"(Petegorsky, p.232). The anonymous author calls for economic equality rather than common ownership, but is very clear in its exposure of the role of religion in providing the hypocritical justification for state tyranny, creating the Tyranipocrit of the title.