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

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"The new tyrants which have driven out the old are in all things so bad or worse than the old tyrants were, only they have, or pretend to have, a better faith and a new form of tyranny." (Anon, Tyranipocrit Discovered, 1649) 

ICC Preface

The year 1649, a full circle of 360 years ago, saw two momentous events in the class struggle. On the one hand, the English bourgeoisie, led by parliament and the forces around Oliver Cromwell, took the unprecedented step of executing King Charles I and instituting a republic. Though the English republic was shortlived, its proclamation was a powerful statement of the political victory of the rising bourgeoisie over the decaying feudal aristocracy and its monarchical form of government.

In April of that same year, however, another, apparently marginal development showed that the rule of the bourgeoisie, which was only just consolidating itself, was also fated to be a passing moment in history. Inspired by the communist ideas of Gerrard Winstanley, William Everard and others, a group of ‘True Levellers' or ‘Diggers' began cultivating the waste land of St George's Hill in Surrey. Soon to be followed by similar groups elsewhere in the shires of England, the True Levellers took on this name because while the radical party of the Levellers had demanded an extension of political democracy well beyond the limits that Cromwell was prepared to tolerate, Winstanley and his comrades considered that the essentially political revolution that had just taken place would only institute a new form of oppression and exploitation unless private property was abolished and the earth became a common treasury for all mankind. Like Babeuf and others on the extreme left of the French revolution over a hundred years later, they thus prefigured the revolution of the proletariat and the perspective of replacing capitalism with communism.

The article that follows, written by a close sympathiser of the ICC, examines the economic and social background to the English revolution. A further article will look in more detail at the radical political and intellectual developments which the revolution brought into existence.


The class struggles most commonly known as the ‘English Civil War' (1642-1651) constitute one of the earliest and most decisive episodes in the epoch of bourgeois revolutions that gave rise to modern capitalist society. The outcome of these struggles - which included military, political and religious conflicts throughout the British Isles, as well as three separate civil wars and the temporary replacement of the English monarchy with a republic - was a decisive victory for the ascendant capitalist class, removing the barriers to capital's unfettered growth and ensuring the supremacy of its interests within the state. So decisive was this victory that in 1660 the monarchy could safely be restored without undermining any of capital's fundamental gains.

But the Restoration was also necessary to try to put the lid back on the Pandora's box of class struggle. As only a small minority in feudal society, the bourgeoisie was forced to mobilise other oppressed classes and strata in order to wage its military struggle against the monarchy. But the demands of the oppressed and exploited for a share in capital's victory and for more radical political, economic and religious change went far beyond the bourgeoisie's own very limited objectives and posed a serious threat to the new capitalist order. In the rapids of revolution, with the breakdown of traditional methods of social control and repression, there was a brief but spectacular flowering of radical ideas, sects and movements, in which the most politically advanced minorities of the exploited masses boldly challenged the basis of the bourgeoisie's power in the existence of private property, and fought to articulate an alternative political programme based on common ownership and the abolition of class society.

The struggles of the exploited in the English civil war were eventually defeated by the new bourgeois republic through a judicious use of lies and repression, and having thus ensured capital's ‘peaceful' advance for over a hundred years, the English bourgeoisie tried hard to expunge the very idea of violent revolution from its history; to this day it prefers to celebrate the so-called ‘Glorious Revolution' of 1688 that merely settled the arrangements for the efficient running of the capitalist state.

The class struggles in mid-17th century in Britain were thus a formative experience for both the rising bourgeoisie and the embryonic proletariat, and are still a source of valuable lessons today; not least because they show how from the moment of its birth the proletariat has struggled to become conscious of its own interests as a revolutionary class within capitalism and fought to create a classless, communist society.

This article examines how the conditions for the bourgeois revolution in England matured within decaying feudal society.

The expropriation of the English peasantry and the painful birth of the proletariat

The massive class confrontations of the 1640s in the British Isles were only the culmination of class struggles within decaying feudal society over the previous three centuries.

By the 14th century the foundations of the feudal system had been undermined throughout western Europe, creating the conditions for the emergence of a new mode of production. The first signs of capitalist production appeared as early as the 14th and 15th centuries in the city states of Italy, followed in the 16th century by the Netherlands provinces of the Spanish empire. In England serfdom disappeared in practice by the last part of the 14th century, hastened by the Black Death which created a scarcity of labour and made land freely available, loosening feudal controls over tenants. The immense majority of the population then became free peasant proprietors, albeit still under feudal trappings.

For capitalist accumulation to take place it was first necessary for a supply of workers to exist, free to sell their labour power to those who owned the means of production. Such a labour supply did not exist in feudalism, so it was first necessary to forcibly tear these free peasant proprietors from their ownership of any means of subsistence, along with the minimal guarantees of existence afforded by remaining feudal arrangements. The history of the rise of capitalism, therefore, is nothing less than the history of the expropriation of the peasantry and their ejection onto the labour market as "free, unprotected and rightless proletarians".(1) For Marx, England demonstrated this brutal process in its classic form.

Apart from a brief time after the Black Death when wages were high, the history of the English peasantry in the three centuries leading up to the civil war was one of progressively worsening conditions. To profit from the rising price of wool in the late 15th and early 16th centuries, the feudal lords, with the connivance of the bourgeoisie and the support of the state, dissolved their bands of feudal retainers and drove the peasantry from the land, enclosing common lands to transform arable land into sheep walks. This process was redoubled in the wake of the Reformation of the 16th century when the monarchy plundered the lands of the Catholic church and dissolved the monasteries, throwing many thousands more onto the labour market.

But this new class of landless labourers, excluded from the ownership of their land and able to subsist only by the sale of their labour power, could not possibly be absorbed by existing capitalist production. Thousands robbed of their mode of life were turned out onto the road, forced to migrate to the expanding towns and cities where growing populations meant that labour was cheap and wages low.(2) From the moment of its birth, the proletariat not only experienced the brutal degradation of its living conditions, but was treated as a most dangerous threat to feudal society, provoking a raft of vicious legislation designed to punish the dispossessed for the ‘crime' of their own dispossession: "Thus were the agricultural folk, firstly forcibly expropriated from the soil, driven from their homes, turned into vagabonds, and then whipped, branded, tortured by grotesquely terroristic laws into accepting the discipline necessary for the system of wage labour."(3)

This forced transformation of the peasantry into a class of landless wage labourers was not without its story of resistance; in the period following the Black Death, revolt smouldered beneath the surface of decaying feudal society throughout western Europe, periodically breaking out into open rebellions like those of the textile workers in Italy and Flanders in 1378 and 1379, and in Paris in 1382. There were a number of local uprisings in England in the same period, including the great peasants' revolt of 1381, which was provoked by attempts to collect a poll tax, although its main demand was for the abolition of serfdom against the attempts of the feudal nobility to reassert control over the peasantry and to restrict the wages and mobility of landless wage-labourers. This insurrection displayed a high level of organisation, with two armies converging on London, drawing in the urban population and spreading to the north and east of England before being crushed.

Such revolts were typically defensive in their demands, opposing attacks on what were perceived as traditional communal rights and seeking to return to a lost, often romanticised past. In England this took the form of demanding a return to ‘true English freedom' that supposedly existed before the Norman Conquest, and the call for a struggle of ‘freeborn Englishmen' against ‘alien tyranny' was an enduring theme of English radical thought.(4) Often there was also a strain of what Engels called ‘peasant-plebeian heresy', expressing demands which went far beyond the bourgeoisie's own opposition to the feudal church to demand the restoration of ancient Christian equality among the classes:

"To make the nobility equal to the peasant, the patricians and the privileged middle-class equal to the plebeians, to abolish serfdom, ground rents, taxes, privileges, and at least the most flagrant differences of property - these were demands put forth with more or less definiteness and regarded as naturally emanating from the ancient Christian doctrine."(5)

There had always been a strain of popular anti-clericalism and religious mysticism in England. The Lollard movement, which began as a middle class reform movement in the mid-14th century, contained a strongly subversive peasant-plebeian element, and the Lollard preacher John Ball played a leading part in the 1381 uprising, preaching a sermon which included the famous question that has echoed down the centuries: "When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?" (i.e. ‘when Adam dug, and Eve spun, where then were the nobility?'). Because the propertyless masses were outside of feudal and even embryonic bourgeois society, their heresies tended to throw into question private property itself, anticipating at least in visionary form a future society without classes. John Ball was reported to have preached that: "things cannot go right in England and never will, until goods are held in common and there are no more villeins and gentlefolk, but we are all one and the same."(6)

Lollard preacher John Ball played a leading part in the 1381 uprising, preaching a sermon which included the famous question that has echoed down the centuries: "When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?" (i.e. ‘when Adam dug, and Eve spun, where then were the nobility?'). Here it is reproduced by William Morris.

After the 1381 revolt was put down, popular resistance in England went underground, although Lollard ideas remained influential despite measures to suppress them. In fact, accusations of Lollardy or Anabaptism tended to be made loosely against any expression of religious or political dissent. Class tensions remained very close to the surface of feudal society in this period, exacerbated by acute economic hardship, and further uprisings occurred, this time more explicitly against land enclosures, in the mid-16th and early 17th centuries.



John Ball and the peasants revolt


Ultimately the revolts of the peasantry in decaying feudal society were limited by the historical conditions in which they took place. The peasantry was not a revolutionary class bearing new relations of production; on the contrary it was doomed to disappear with the remorseless advance of capitalism, and its agonising transformation into a class of wage labourers was still underway. But by the 16th century we can distinguish the first struggles of the emerging proletariat, expressed in a communist vision whose highest point of clarity was to be found in the programme of Thomas Münzer and his party in the German Peasant Wars. This vision, spread by German refugees fleeing persecution, took root among the propertyless masses in the British Isles.

The rise of the bourgeoisie and its political struggle against the feudal state

If the first precondition for capitalist accumulation to take place was a supply of ‘free' labour robbed of any means of production of its own, the second was the existence of a class who owned money and the means of production, and who were hungry to increase the value of the capital they had appropriated by buying the labour power of others. This new class was based on two main kinds of capital: agricultural and industrial.

In the 15th century, some feudal landowners in England began to use their land for profit, getting rid of their bands of useless feudal retainers and employing wage labourers. By enclosing the common lands and applying improved methods of cultivation to raise productivity, they revolutionised agricultural production; which also had the effect of further impoverishing the great mass of the agricultural population. With the rise in prices for agricultural products, these landowners or gentry were transformed into a wealthy class of agricultural capitalists.

Industrial capital grew outside of the restrictions of the feudal towns and guilds, accelerated by the destruction of rural domestic industry which created a new home market, supplied by the forced migration of proletarians to the expanding towns and cities. Prices rose rapidly during the 16th century, enriching the new class of merchants and middlemen who were the agents of this growth: the burghers or bourgeoisie. From a relatively backward European economy exporting raw materials, England turned into a manufacturer and exporter of finished goods to the continent, and following the discovery of America and the opening up of the world market, English pirates and merchants began to plunder the New World and to penetrate India, Russia and the Middle East, funded by the new money-markets of the City of London.

This bourgeoisie was an ambitious and energetic class, aware that it was the bearer of a new, dynamic society and supremely confident of its ultimate victory. Initially it was able to consolidate its position in feudal society without an open confrontation with the state, using its economic power to constantly revolutionise production and undermine outmoded social relations. But at every turn it found its advance blocked by the feudal institutions and laws that defended these relations: landowners keen to enclose more common land found themselves thwarted by the ‘commission for depopulation'; manufacturers seeking to maximise profits by reducing wages were prevented by ‘orders-in-council', and merchants and industrialists found their expansion into new markets blocked by the crown's monopolies. If it attempted to evade the crown's decrees, the bourgeoisie faced prosecution in its courts, and it was subject to arbitrary taxes like ‘ship money' to fund the crown's foreign adventures in which it had no say. Clearly, if it was to realise its destiny as a dominant class, the bourgeoisie had to remove all these obstacles to capital's advance and assert the supremacy of its own interests within the state.

This inevitably meant a struggle against the power of the monarchy that lay at the centre of the whole oppressive system of state control. Under the Tudors and Stuarts (1485-1649), the English monarchy tried to place itself in the driving seat of the new productive forces, concentrating power in its own hands at the expense of the already weakened nobility, while at the same time attempting to erect barriers against capitalist development. In this way, the monarchy was for a time able to breathe life into a system on the verge of collapse, but by hastening the decline of the nobility the monarchy destroyed its principal ally against the bourgeoisie, thus ensuring its own ultimate downfall, while its centralising measures provided the necessary foundations of the modern capitalist nation state. To the extent that it helped to destroy vestiges of feudalism and further reduce the power of the nobility, the bourgeoisie was for a time prepared to tolerate the monarchy's centralising role, while conducting its own struggle for supremacy as a long drawn out campaign rather than in a direct assault, with the overall aim of transferring effective power to Parliament.

At a deeper level, the bourgeoisie found its advance impeded by the conservative ideology that underpinned the largely static feudal order, enforce by an authoritarian church that interfered in every aspect of social and economic life. At a time, for example, when the bourgeoisie was fighting to establish the absolute right of an individual to dispose of their private property as they saw fit, the institutions of the feudal state asserted that this right must be subordinated to medieval conceptions of social obligation and to the needs of the Crown. What the bourgeoisie required was a transformation in religious and philosophical thought that would sanction its own activity and justify the division of society into classes.

The 16th century saw important developments in philosophical method and scientific enquiry which only served to undermine the authority of the feudal Church and provide a powerful rationale for capitalist development. The growth of the productive forces itself led to great advances in exploration, astronomy, medicine and mathematics, and promoted the growth of secular and humanist ideas. In the sphere of religious thought, the Protestant Reformation also signified the decay of feudalism and the weakening grip of the church on social and economic life. While the religious conflicts of 15th and 16th century Europe certainly had an independent and complex life of their own, we can say that Protestantism as a movement represented an adaptation of religious thought to the new mode of production. It preached the pursuit of economic self-interest rather than social obligation, and the virtues of individual responsibility, self-discipline, hard work and thrift, thus providing a perfect rationale for the bourgeoisie's pursuit of profit. The bourgeoisie's adoption of this ethic as a vehicle to advance its own interests helped weld it into a disciplined force determined to carry through a political revolution against the old order, with the Puritan movement in particular acting as the ideological vanguard of the bourgeois revolution in England.

Capital also demanded an army of labour whose members were both submissive to authority and unquestioning of their position in the new order; or at the very least unable to effectively protest. This required new, more effective forms of ideological control over the proletariat and again, with its repressive insistence on discipline, hard work and self-denial, the bourgeoisie found in Protestantism the perfect rationale for imposing this control. The Protestant ethic also set itself firmly against medieval conceptions of charity for the poor, believing poverty to be the result not of circumstance but of moral failing, thus sanctioning the division of society into classes as Divine Will and amply justifying repressive measures against ‘idle' proletarians.

Ideologically armed, the bourgeoisie was still only a very small minority within feudal society and needed to mobilise the support of other classes and strata in order give it the necessary weight in its political struggle against the forces of the monarchy. It was not possible for the bourgeoisie to mobilise other classes and strata around economic and political grievances alone; above all it was by exploiting the widespread religious conflicts of the period. The very real persecution of Puritanism by the authoritarian Church enabled the bourgeoisie to present its own political struggle against the monarchy as a popular struggle for free expression and religious toleration, and by exaggerating the threat of Catholic plots and whipping up widespread fear of ‘popery', at certain crucial moments it was able to rally large sections of the population whose material interests would otherwise have allied them with the Crown.

Given that religious differences broadly reflected the uneven development of capitalism, their exploitation inevitably emphasised the nationalist character of the English bourgeoisie's struggle against the monarchy. Support for the Reformation was strongest in the economically advanced south and east of England, and in the Scottish Lowlands, while the reaction against it came largely from the north and west, Ireland and the Scottish Highlands, where the influence of feudal and pre-capitalist societies still dominated.(7) The threat - both real and exaggerated - of an alliance between the monarchy and the forces of Catholic disaffection, and fear of foreign intervention by its French and Spanish rivals, was to play a powerful role in determining the English bourgeoisie's policy at crucial moments during the civil war. In a deeper sense, these nationalist conflicts were an integral part of the bourgeois revolution, and specifically of the English bourgeoisie's struggle for supremacy in the British Isles with the aim of establishing itself as a leading economic power on the world stage.


By the end of the 16th century the conditions for the bourgeois revolution were maturing in western and northern Europe. In 1588, following a popular uprising against the feudal absolutist Spanish monarchy, the bourgeoisie in the Netherlands successfully established an independent republic. In England, capitalist accumulation was well established and the rising capitalist class was advancing on all fronts. But it had not yet achieved a definitive victory: the feudal state still defended outmoded feudal relations and obstructed the advance of capital; the monarchy remained reluctant to concede political power to the men of property, and the archaic social doctrines of feudalism defended by an authoritarian church lingered to impede the growth of the productive forces. The immediate aim of the bourgeoisie was to force the monarchy to give up power to its representatives in parliament and remove these barriers to capital's further expansion.

The same forces that created the conditions for the bourgeois revolution also gave birth to a new class of landless wage labourers, the forerunner of the industrial proletariat. This class was still at a very early stage of its formation, but it constituted a significant weight within society and was capable of intervening in the class struggle to defend its own interests. From all its experience of suppressing the class struggle in decaying feudal society - the peasants' revolts of the 14th century, the peasant-plebeian heresies of Lollardy and Anabaptism, uprisings against enclosures in the 16th century - the ruling class as a whole was well aware of this threat from below, and consequently of the need for the skilful use of propaganda and lies, and repression when necessary, in order to prevent the political struggle between the forces of the monarchy and the bourgeoisie from becoming a far more dangerous popular movement.  

MH 31/3/9

see also

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

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


1 Marx, Capital, vol. 1, Pelican, 1978, p.876.

2 By 1642 London was the largest city in Western Europe. This was despite the fact that the death rate was higher than the birth rate; in other words its growth as a metropolis was only possible because it acted like a demographic drain, sucking in thousands of newly created proletarians from the rest of Britain and Ireland, who died in their droves. This hints at the agony hidden behind the phenomenon of ‘the expansion of the towns and cities'.

3 Marx, Capital, vol 1, Pelican, 1978, p.899. Bourgeois historians generally ignore the expropriation of the English peasantry or hide it in plain sight among a mass of other phenomena. One recent historian who does refer to it, correctly identifying it as part of the same brutal process as the better-known ‘Highland Clearances', does so only in order to deplore its damaging effect on ‘the national consciousness' and ‘sense of British nationality' (Norman Davies, Europe, A History, Oxford University Press, p.632).

4 The leaders of the 1381 revolt stated that they recognised only ‘the law of Winchester' - probably a reference to the era of the Anglo-Saxon king Alfred the Great- and would pay no tax ‘save the 15ths which their fathers and forebears knew and accepted.' In East Anglia there were demands for a return to ‘county kings' that had last existed in the 7th century (Paul Johnson, A History of the English People, Weidenfeld and Nicholson,1985, pp.143-4).

5 Engels, The Peasant War in Germany (

6 In the Chronicles of Jean Froissart, Penguin, 1968, p.212. See also Norman Cohn, The Pursuit of the Millennium, revised edition, OUP US, 1970, pp.198-204.

7 In northern and western England there was a series of uprisings against the Reformation in the 16th century, including the 1536 Pilgrimage of Grace, the 1549 Cornishmen's Revolt and the 1569 Rising of Northern Earls, all of which ended in defeat. Ireland also saw a series of revolts. On the other hand, Robert Kett's 1549 rebellion in Norfolk represented frustration with the slow pace of change. In the Lowlands of Scotland, where English influence was strongest, the Reformation resulted in the establishment of a form of Calvinism (Presbyterianism) as the official religion, although economically the region remained a feudal society within the separate kingdom of Scotland.

Historic events: