Image of Hammer and Sickle

New Communist Party of Britain


1599 - 1658

by C E Gore

OLIVER CROMWELL, the leader of the English Revolution, died on 3 September 1658. Cromwell, the MP for Huntingdon, was the leading Parliamentary commander during the English Civil War which began in 1642 and ended in 1649 with the trial and execution of Charles Stuart and the abolition of the monarchy. The Republic of England, or Commonwealth as it was styled in English, was proclaimed soon after.

The fighting had taken a fearful toll in lives and property in England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland. The death toll including civilians came to around 870,000, some 11.6 per cent of the pre-Civil War population. Material damage was immense, particularly in Ireland.

In 1653, Oliver Cromwell became head of state, the Lord Protector. Scotland had been brought under Commonwealth control. Royalist hopes of a counter-revolution were crushed with the defeat of their forces at the Battle of Worcester in 1651.

The democratic movement born from the New Model Army, the Levellers, was crushed by Cromwell’s supporters and the most militant regiments sent to Ireland - in a reconquest whose brutality is remembered to this day. Attempts to set up farming co-operatives by the Diggers, another group born from the Army, were also suppressed.

The republic Cromwell led included England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland as well as colonies in New England and the Caribbean. During its brief life the Commonwealth became a force in Europe. Culturally it inspired the great poetry of Milton and Marvell and other radical and pacifist religious movements like the Quakers who are still with us today.

Oliver Cromwell died on 3 September 1658 and was succeeded by his son, Richard. He was neither a politician nor a soldier. Unable to reconcile republican generals with the demands of the rich merchants and landowners to curb the influence of the New Model Army, Richard Cromwell resigned the following year. The government collapsed and the monarchy was restored in 1660.

Oliver Cromwell’s death had been the occasion of genuine mourning. His funeral, modelled on that of the King of Spain, was the biggest London had ever witnessed.

Two years later his body was dug up and ritually hanged in public at Tyburn. Those still alive who had signed Charles Stuart’s death warrant were hanged, drawn and quartered. And the “good old cause” they had fought for was buried with them.

It was clear that a great revolution had taken place. It is equally clear that it was incomplete.

The question of power had been decided between 1640 and 1660. Charles I head had been cut off, his bureaucracy destroyed, the independent judicial and financial power of the church hierarchy abolished, and the great feudal landlords expropriated, pillaged and forced to sell their estates.

Power had been transferred from lords, prelates and crown to the big City bourgeoisie and the progressive gentry - from those who based their influence on the extent of their territories and the size of their following in men to those who based it on money.

The revolution had broken down most of the restrictions on free internal buying and selling, even of land; and once the artificial barriers protecting feudal property had been cast down the triumph of the bourgeoisie was assured.

But it was not quite so simple as that. From the start there had been contradictory elements in the English revolution, owing to the very fact that it was a bourgeois revolution.

The bourgeoisie in Parliament coming forward as the defenders of their own liberties, had spoken on behalf of the people of England: later, in order to win the military struggle against the king and the feudalists, they had been compelled to put arms into the hands of wide sections of the peasantry and artisans. This created the danger that the petty bourgeoisie might wish to carry the bourgeois revolution beyond the limited objectives which the bourgeoisie had set themselves, might attack not only feudal property but all big property as such.

This the “Levellers” had, in fact, done, and from 1647 onwards there had been a serious threat of democratic revolution, which the bourgeoisie had only held in check, first, by the military dictatorship of Cromwell, then by compromise with their defeated adversaries and the restoration of the old monarchy, house of lords and church to guarantee the new social order, to fuse the remnants of the old with the new ruling class. The “Leveller” attack on tithes made the purchasers of impropriations see unsuspected virtues in the old church government.

So Charles II came back to England in 1660 as defender of the essentials of the revolution against attack from the Left, rather than as a representative of the old order. Yet the attempt was made, in the interests of “continuity” and “order” to fit the old constitution to the new balance of forces, to pretend that no revolution had taken place.

No terms were demanded of the new king; there was a “gentleman’s agreement” as to what he might not do, and Charles, who was an able man and did not want “to go on his travels again”, had the sense and skill to abide by the essentials of this unwritten compromise.

C E Gore

The Communist International

Organ of the Communist International

No 10, November 1938