New Communist Party of Britain
TODAY, the Communist Party celebrates one of the greatest events in Britain's revolutionary history, the three hundredth anniversary of the English Revolution. When the growing capitalist class, the poor farmers and craftsmen, led by Oliver Cromwell, shattered the system of feudalism, and executed King Charles I in the process, reigning monarchs and ruling nobilities everywhere saw the pattern of future history unfolding. The name of Cromwell was reviled, then, as much as Stalin's is today, by the ruling powers of the old and doomed order of society. The English Revolution is "great", because it broke the barriers to man's advance. It allowed the capitalist class to open the road leading to modern large-scale industry. It permitted science to serve the needs of the new, capitalist society. And, because of these developments, it provided the basis on which, for the first time, a new class, the working class, began to grow, to organise and itself to challenge the prevailing system of society. Capitalism, at first progressive, in so far as it led the way for technical advance, developed to the point limited by its own structure. It became, as feudalism was before it, a barrier to the further advance of man. It ceased to serve a useful purpose. It had built up enormous productive forces, but was incapable of providing the majority of the people with a decent standard of life. Throughout the world, the working class, with the Communist Party at its head, now goes forward to put an end to capitalism and to build Socialism. The English Revolution set this train of historic events in motion. That is why our Party is proud to honour its memory.
When the executioner, holding the head of Charles Stuart high above the crowds thronging Whitehall, pronounced the ancient formula: "Behold the head of a traitor!", a cold shudder ran down the spine of every constituted authority in Europe. That was on January 30, 1649--three hundred Years ago--but they have never been properly warm since. For that moment marked one of the turning points of history, the definite and unqualified emergence into full daylight of a revolution whose consequences are still by no means exhausted.
It was not merely that a king had been put to death by his subjects: that was not an uncommon happening. In England, too, kings had been deposed and afterwards murdered, as were Richard II, Edward II, and Henry VI. But here was a new class coming to the front, demanding political power and challenging in the most decisive and symbolic way an order of society and a conception of authority that had existed unchallenged for a thousand years.
It was feudal England that perished that day on the scaffold in the person of England's last feudal king. For the monarchy had a double character: practically the king was the effective head of the feudal State. He commanded its armies, he presided at its Council, the judges and officers of State were his servants. But besides all this he was in a sense a sacred figure. " Such a divinity doth hedge a king ", Shakespeare had written only half a century earlier. In 1649 the king still retained some of his divinity, a relic of times far older even than feudalism, when the king was actually both god and man. So Charles, in his last words, scornfully declared: "A subject and a sovereign are clean different things." Yet the very act of his execution was already making his belief a thing of the past. For the new class, the merchants and manufacturers and gentry, with the yeoman farmers and craftsmen behind them, stood for a quite different conception.
They declared that the people were the source of all power and that kings and governments existed only for and by the consent of the people. It is true that for many of them "the people" meant the people with property: that is a point to which I shall have to return later. My present point is that by putting Charles on ,trial and executing him by due process of law the new ruling class overturned all the old conceptions of kingship and put in its place the revolutionary idea that the king is merely a part of the apparatus of the State, who may be tolerated or dispensed with according to their needs and wishes. In 1649 the king was inconvenient to this class, and monarchy was abolished. In 1660, when it appeared likely to be a useful weapon against the danger of a rising of the masses, it was restored -- on conditions.
In 1688 the person of the monarch was changed by Act of Parliament and still more stringent conditions were imposed. And today, a corrupt and decaying capitalism finds it convenient, while not, of course, allowing the monarchy any real power; to glorify and refurbish it, to give it a new halo of bourgeois sanctity, in order that it may act as a rallying point for reaction and a bulwark against the rising power of the working class. In this the bourgeoisie denies its own revolutionary past, but it cannot undo it. They themselves destroyed the sanctity of kings and it cannot be recreated. Meanwhile the work they began remains to be finished by others. The object of this pamphlet is to tell the story of the English Revolution, to show what was done and how, and to indicate something of what, still remains to do.
The English Revolution neither began nor ended on that January afternoon, and to understand it we have to go back quite a distance into the past. England in the Middle Ages was a feudal country -- that is to say, a country where the land was held by lords and worked by serfs, where, in fact, the serf-lord relationship was the basis of society. And this society had naturally a corresponding form of State machine, with the lords as the ruling class and the king at the head as the greatest of all feudal magnates.
Gradually, as towns grew new classes came into the picture, craftsmen, traders, industrialists. And with the growth of industry, especially of the cloth industry, many of the landowners changed, too. Instead of living on their estates in the old feudal way, surrounded by their retainers and serfs, they began to grow wool, corn, and other things for sale, and to employ wage labourers. All these classes in town or country, depending on money and on producing goods for sale, naturally had quite different interests from the lords whose wealth and power came from the ownership of feudal estates. As the new classes grew, feudal society began to decay, yet the new and the old existed for a time side by side, And the rising bourgeoisie, as we can call them conveniently, supported, and were supported by, the power of the monarchy.
This was natural so long as they were too weak to aim at power for themselves. But as feudal society decayed the feudal monarchy changed also, and, instead of protecting the rising bourgeoisie, began to be a burden upon them, barring their advance. While they in turn, growing stronger, became impatient of restraints they had previously tolerated. A revolutionary crisis developed, in short, because the rulers could not continue to rule in the old way and the ruled were unwilling to go on being ruled in the old way. This was the point reached early in the seventeenth century when the Stuarts came to the throne.
The issue on which the struggle turned was that of property. The "sacred" feudal monarchy claimed the right to dispose of the property as well as the lives of its subjects. The bourgeoisie, to whom money was even dearer than life, stood firm for their absolute right to property. This meant in practice that they should only pay such taxes as were agreed to by Parliament--and that more and more on the condition that government policy followed lines which they approved. At the same time they were demanding the stopping of all sorts of practices by which the king used feudal laws in new ways so as to skim off for himself and his nobles and courtiers the cream of the profits which the merchants and manufacturers were now making. James I and Charles I after him tried by every sort of means to avoid giving way to these demands, and to govern in the old feudal way against the wishes of the property-owning classes.
For eleven years, from 1629 to 1640, Charles managed without a Parliament. Then a rebellion in Scotland forced him to call one, and the famous Long Parliament began its sittings in November of that year. It is at this point that the active stage of the English Revolution began. The Long Parliament in its first year swept away the machinery by which the king had governed, executed his principal Minister, attacked the State church and abolished many of the feudal restrictions from which they had suffered. But it must be noted that what was abolished was what oppressed mainly the well-to-do: the demands of the masses for the abolition of tithes and of the game laws, or for greater protection for copy-hold tenants or for the stopping of enclosures, went unsatisfied.
For over a year Charles gave way sullenly, step by step. Then, after a futile attempt to overawe Parliament by armed force, he left London and both sides began to prepare for war. In the war that followed, though it seemed on the surface to be fought largely over religion, and though political parties often took a religious disguise, the real class and revolutionary nature of the struggle is easily apparent. On the side of the king was the bulk of the older nobility, especially from the still warlike North and from Wales and Western England. These nobles with their servants and tenants and many of the more old-fashioned gentry formed an army still essentially feudal.
The forces on the other side were more complex. No revolution in history has ever been made by one class alone, but always by an alliance of classes. These classes begin with a common immediate aim, but as the struggle develops their interests tend to conflict and their ways to diverge. It is this fact which gives to all revolutions, and especially to all bourgeois revolutions, the peculiar character of their internal development. So here the progressive gentry and the merchants and manufacturers of the towns could not long have withstood the forces of the king without drawing behind them the mass of the radical artisans, small traders, and yeomen farmers. And to do this they had to fight under the slogans of freedom and democracy. In this way the keenest, most active and most politically awakened sections of the population were drawn headlong into the struggle against the monarchy.
At first the king, whose men were better trained and more accustomed to war, had the better of the fighting. His victory seemed certain and the richer gentry and the great London merchants who formed the right wing of the Parliamentary alliance (they are known to history as the Presbyterians) began to look for a way out. They did not want to defeat the king, only to clip his wings a little and find an early compromise.
Against them the Left (the "Independents"), led by Cromwell, stood for an all-out war. And Cromwell and his friends saw that for this a real People's Army was needed. So was born the famous New Model Army which was able to set against the daring and experience of the king's soldiers a disciplined resolution and a deep political conviction that soon made them invincible.
For the first time England saw an army where a poor man ("a plain russet-coated captain") could rise to a positions of command, and where there was, a thing previously undreamt of, open political and religious discussion with all ranks meeting on equal terms. This army democracy reached its highest point when the rank and file of each regiment appointed delegates, Agitators as they were called, who sat alongside the higher offcers to form the Council of the Army. It was at once the best disciplined land most democratic army that England had ever known. It is not surprising that this New Model smashed the Royalists at Marston Moor, Naseby, and other battles till, by the spring of 1636, the war was over and Charles himself forced to surrender. From this point the Revolution entered a new stage.
So far there had been two parties--the Presbyterians representing the rich landowners and merchants; and the Independents, in whose ranks were included the more progressive gentry and industrialists as well as the increasingly revolutionary "lower orders", the farmers and the craftsmen.
The issue between them had been: How should the war be fought? Now that the war was over a new issue appeared: What kind of a peace should be made and how far was the revolution to go? This is a development of a kind we find it rather easy to understand today.
On this issue a new political party of the left appeared--the Levellers, standing for the exploited small producers and rapidly coming into conflict with the gentlemen Independents or 'Grandees', the group who gathered around Cromwell. The Levellers demanded a wide democratic franchise, full religious toleration, democratic control of the army, abolition of tithes and of all taxes except one on property, limitation of the monopoly rights enjoyed by the great London companies and protection for small farmers and tradesmen. They embodied these demands in a programme called The Agreement of the People, which they demanded should be adopted as a basis for a new constitution.
For three years there was a bitter and complicated struggle. The Presbyterians, still strong in Parliament, wished to prevent any further revolutionary advance because they could see already that their property rights were beginning to be in danger. The Levellers tried to push forward to full political democracy as a means of improving the conditions of the masses. The Grandees, between the two, had certainly no sympathy with Leveller aims but frequently needed their support, especially since the soldiers of many of the best regiments were Levellers almost to a man. Charles, who though a prisoner remained king and still hoped to be able to regain power, made every possible use of this conflict to play off one party against the others.
By 1648 he had succeeded in winning over the Presbyterians, playing on their fears of the Levellers and the Army, and was able to begin a new war in alliance with the Scots. In this crisis the gap between the Levellers and the Grandees, who in the autumn of 1647 had been disputing bitterly over the question of democracy, was temporarily closed, and the whole Army turned in a cool fury to meet this treacherous attack.
In Kent, Essex, and Wales Royalist risings were crushed, and in a swift and brilliant campaign Cromwell smashed a Royalist Army which had invaded the North of England from Scotland. Victorious, the soldiers returned to London in no mood for trifling, though many believed that the death of Charles might still be avoided. Charles himself quickly destroyed that belief. He had learnt nothing from his second defeat but began his intrigues all over again. This was more than the Army could endure.
The Presbyterians in Parliament, however, were still preparing to compromise. By what is known as Pride's Purge they were expelled, and the remaining Independents passed a resolution declaring: "That the people are, under God, the original of all just power; that the Commons of England, in Parliament assembled, being chosen by and representing the people, have the supreme power in this nation; that whatsoever is enacted or declared law by the Commons in Parliament assembled, hath the force of law, and all the people of this nation are concluded thereby, although the consent of the King, or House of Peers be not had there unto." With the Army leaders they began to prepare for the trial of Charles as a traitor to and an enemy of the people of England. After his execution the monarchy and the House of Lords were formally abolished and England was proclaimed a republic or Commonwealth.
Here, thought Cromwell and his fellow Grandees, the Revolution should end. What was now needed was a firm, stable Government on " sound" lines to restore normal conditions and to protect property. But for the Levellers the execution of Charles was only a beginning.
In the last months of 1648, needing all the allies they could find against the Royalists and Presbyterians, the Grandees had agreed in principle to accept The Agreement of the People with some small changes. Now they felt strong enough to go back on their undertaking. A new body, the Council of State, dominated by the Army officers, was set up, and to this all effective power passed.
The Levellers began an intensive campaign for their policy. In the Army they were still strong and in London they had the enthusiastic support of the lower classes. Elsewhere in the country their influence was not nearly so great. On March 20 the Leveller leaders, Lilburne, Overton, Walwyn, and Prince were arrested in their houses at daybreak and dragged before the Council of State. They refused to recognise its legal right to examine them and were sent to the Tower without any definite charge being laid against them.
Widespread protests and riots in London were followed by mutinies in the Army. Several regiments refused orders to go to Ireland. A regiment of Dragoons mutinied in London and were only overpowered by superior force. In May an even more serious rising took place. Several regiments stationed at or near Salisbury mutinied and marched north to meet others under a Captain Thompson. Some units were dispersed by Government troops. The rest met at Burford on the Upper Thames. Here they were surprised at night by a strong force commanded by Cromwell in person, and scattered or surrendered. Two hundred under Thompson held together, rode north, and captured Northampton. Here they were surrounded by overwhelming forces and had to surrender. Thompson alone cut his way out and continued for several days a single-handed struggle that ended only with his death.
The defeat of the Levellers in the Army put an end to any hopes they might have had of ultimate success. In London they were still strong enough to secure the acquittal and release of Lilburne when he was brought to trial in October, but the tide was flowing against them. Nor was their backing in the country wide enough to make them dangerous once the movement in the Army had been crushed.
The final blow came when the regiments most affected were sent to Ireland to suppress the rebellion there. It was by diverting their energy into a colonial war that the struggle for democracy at home was finally defeated. This is certainly one of the instances Marx had in mind when he declared that no nation which oppresses others can itself be free.
A word should perhaps be said about Cromwell's part in all this. To the Levellers he seemed a mere betrayer: today we can see that things were not so simple as that. True, he hated and feared the Levellers because they threatened the interests of his class. "I was by birth a gentleman", he declared. "You must cut these people in pieces or they will cut you in pieces." But it is also true, as he proved during the Civil War and many times afterwards, that he was sincerely concerned for the victory of the revolution up to the point which he thought it could safely go. And there is no doubt that he believed that the Levellers, by trying to push it beyond that point, were creating the danger of a counter-revolution and the destruction of the Commonwealth. In this he was probably correct.
The tragedy of the Levellers is that though their objectives were those of the future they had to base themselves on a class - the small independent producers - that already belonged to the past. There was not at that time in England a developed working class which alone could have afforded a firm basis for a fully democratic revolution such as they desired.
The tragedy of the Levellers was part of the tragedy of the Revolution, as a whole. Though their defeat was inevitable it also involved the ultimate defeat of the Commonwealth and the restoration of the monarchy. For without their courage and enthusiasm the new regime could not survive long enough to win the support of the majority of the nation.
It did last for another ten years. Cromwell revealed an extraordinary talent for political manoeuvre, for the delicate balancing of opposed class forces one against another. This and the continued loyalty of the Army, with the confusion and disunity of the opposition, were sufficient to maintain the Commonwealth in being so long as he lived. But he was never able to give it a firm and permanent political basis. He is often described as a dictator, but this is untrue. He always hoped to give the Commonwealth a regular Constitution and made repeated attempts to do this. They failed because of narrow class foundations on which it rested. On his death the whole unstable structure collapsed.
Faced with growing disorder which threatened a new revolution from below, the upper classes bethought them of a king whose coming might ensure social stability and protect them from this worst of all dangers. So the Restoration of 1660 was the work of a new alliance of all the propertied classes; the old nobility, now very much weakened, as well as the new money-making nobility and gentry, the merchants, and the industrialists.
The Revolution in its first stage had destroyed feudalism and cut the road for capitalism to advance to power: now the Restoration in its turn helped to provide the conditions for a continuation of that advance. At bottom it was a sequel rather than a reversal, and, though Charles II was restored to the throne of his father, it was with very different powers and at the head of a very different social order. The truth of this was shown in 1688 when James II, not realising the nature of the change that had taken place, tried to stage a counter-revolution. In a very short time and without serious difficulty he was sent packing and a new king, William III, was appointed by vote of Parliament, upon terms that made it clear that he was the mere servant of the men of property. From this time the way was clear for the Industrial Revolution and the full development of capitalism as we know it today.
On the face of it, it seems a gloomy story: so much heroism, so many sacrifices, so much glory, and at the end of it - Capitalism. But that is only one side of the picture. And much as we hate capitalism because we have suffered from its cruelty and oppressions, we have to remember that nevertheless capitalism is an advance on feudalism. It is a higher form of social life, it gives freedoms and opportunities that, however limited, were previously unknown.
If the Revolution in the Seventeenth Century had failed, England's development would have been set back for generations, perhaps centuries. The country would have become cramped and stagnant, with every economic advance held back, perhaps rather as Spain was decaying at this very time. As it was, the Revolution not only set England on the path of rapid economic advance, it also helped to shake the power of the old regime throughout the world. Without it the American Revolution could hardly have taken the shape it did, and its influence on the French Revolution, though less direct, was scarcely less profound. Above all, the victory of capitalism opened the path to Socialism, which could never have developed directly from feudal society.
We have to understand that what happened three hundred years ago was not a socialist revolution that failed but a capitalist revolution that succeeded. It was by their very victory that the capitalists created the working class and the conditions in which it in turn can advance to victory. It is important to note also that even in the middle of the bourgeois revolution Gerrard Winstanley and the Diggers, a group of primitive Communists, worked out a conception of Socialism and a criticism of the still immature capitalism of the time which we recognise as a remarkably foresighted anticipation of the essentials of our own Socialist conceptions.
Nor is this all. As I said earlier, the Revolution could not be carried through without arousing the masses. For the first time in our history great numbers of people took an active part in national politics, which previously had been regarded as the preserve of a select few. The bourgeoisie were forced to open the battle for democracy, and once that battle was opened it, must continue to final victory, though democracy becomes in the process something which they fail to recognise as democracy at all, as we very well see today.
The Levellers were defeated, but they first introduced a new conception into politics--the conception of democracy as the continuous activity of the whole people. In doing so they made themselves the first of a glorious' succession that has continued unbroken right down to our own time: the masses who fought against "Popery and wooden shoes" at the close of the seventeenth century, the Wilkesite Radicals, the English and Scottish Jacobins, the Reformers of the age of Cobbett, the Chartists, the early Socialists, and the Communists today all draw their inspiration from their predecessors and ultimately from the Levellers. And because they developed their democratic ideas in the middle of a revolution they were broad, living ideas.
Democracy for them was not a mere counting of votes, it was the all-round struggle for a better life. It was freedom in arms, the will of the common people to stand together and fight for their rights. It is assuredly no accident that the very heart and centre of this revolutionary democracy lay in the rank and file of the New Model Army. The Levellers could be defeated but what they stood for can never be defeated and is today visibly approaching victory. Three hundred years ago, then, the bourgeoisie began a revolution in England. It made real and solid gains -- it cannot, I believe, be disputed that the condition of the common man was appreciably better in the century after the Revolution than it had been in the century before -- and if it only partly succeeded this is because the bourgeoisie by its very nature as an exploiting class can never finish the revolution it must begin. That is our job.
We have, in Marx's words, "to win the battle for democracy ". And we have to win it in opposition to that very class which began the battle but which in its decline becomes increasingly reactionary and parasitical. That is why the celebration of the Tercentenary of the English Revolution is left to the Communist Party as the representative of the working class. We celebrate it best by carrying its work forward in our new conditions, and we help ourselves to do this by studying and profiting from the splendid lessons given us in democracy by our forefathers three hundred years ago.
First published by Farleigh Press 10/12/1948.