Friday, September 08, 2006

Oliver Cromwell: knocked them about a bit

by Andy Brooks

OLIVER CROMWELL, the leader of the English Revolution, died on 3rd September 1658. He led the parliamentary forces to victory in the English Civil War which began in 1642 and ended with the trial and execution of the king, Charles Stuart, in 1649. He presided over the establishment of the Republic of England, or Commonwealth as it was styled in English and in 1653 he became head of state, or Lord Protector. Cromwell’s death was marked by genuine mourning throughout the country. His state funeral was the biggest London had ever seen. Two years later the Stuart royalty were back.

Today Cromwell’s death passes largely unnoticed apart from the annual ceremony organised by the Cromwell Association near the parliamentary leader’s statue in Westminster. Gone, but not quite forgotten.

Marie Lloyd, the Victorian musical hall queen, sang about “the ruins that Cromwell knocked about a bit”. Elvis Costello wrote Oliver’s Army, a sardonic song about the modern British Army in 1979, and a radical punk rock band took the name of Cromwell’s New Model Army for their own. The name of Cromwell is preserved in the streets of London. Countless books, articles and novels have been written about his life as well as two feature films and a number of television documentaries and every year enthusiasts re-enact the major battles of the civil war.

And the resonance of the English Revolution is heard on the streets today. The Quakers we meet on the peace demonstrations were founded by George Fox, whose pacifist beliefs were borne out of the violence of the revolution. Robert Owen, the founder of the Co-operative Movement, and William Morris, the Victorian socialist and artist, were both influenced by the writings of Gerrard Winstanley, the leader of the Diggers, the “True Levellers” whose attempt to establish co-operative farms in Surrey and other parts of the country were suppressed during the Commonwealth.

To the Irish, Cromwell is the tyrant who stamped the boot of England on Irish soil with a ferocity not seen again until the Easter Uprising of 1916. For romantic socialists Cromwell represents the well-to-do Puritan merchants and landowners who dominated the Army Council – the Grandees who crushed the Levellers and the rest of the democratic movement in the army.

an upstart?

Monarchists see Cromwell as an upstart general who made himself dictator through the might of his New Model Army. For some Protestants Cromwell is still a religious reformer who fought for freedom of conscience for all faiths apart from Catholicism. Many in the Jewish community still remember Cromwell as the leader who allowed Jews to live, worship and work in England for the first time since the pogroms of 1290. But for the bourgeoisie Oliver is best forgotten, even though their ascendancy began when their ancestors took up the gun in the 1640s.

The ruling class abhor revolutionary change today because it threatens their own domination so they naturally deny that their class ever came to power through it in the first place. For them the English republic is an aberration, a temporary blip in the steady advance of bourgeois progress which is the myth they teach us in school. If they elevate anything at all it is the “glorious revolution” of 1688 when the last of the Stuarts was deposed and replaced by a king of their own choosing. Though not as bloodless as they claimed – plenty was shed in Ireland – the establishment of a monarchy that was the gift of parliament was achieved without the involvement of the masses, which was precisely what was intended.

The problem was simply that the most advanced section of the bourgeoisie in the 17th century, the “Independent” faction led by Cromwell, was unable to maintain stability after the death of their most prominent leader. The real victors were those who styled themselves as English “Presbyterians” who fought the king not for a republic but for a “mixed monarchy” – an oligarchy still headed by a king who ruled through a parliament of the merchants, bankers and landowners and an established Church, like that in Scotland, that was free of the trappings of feudalism.

That’s what they thought they got when Charles II returned in 1660. When they realized their mistake William of Orange and his Dutch army were invited in to make sure it didn’t happen again.

But the torch of the English Revolution lit the fires that were to erupt a century later in the British colonies of North America and the flames quickly spread to France and ignited the French Revolution.

Cromwell was a reluctant republican who only embraced the views of the militant Levellers after the upsurge of renewed civil strife in 1648 due to Charles Stuart’s intrigues and double-dealing convinced him that there would never be peace as long as this “man of blood” lived.
Cromwell’s positive role, was recognised by Stalin who told the novelist H G Wells in 1934 that: “The Communists base themselves on rich historical experience which teaches that obsolete classes do not voluntarily abandon the stage of history. Recall the history of England in the 17th century. Did not many say that the old social system had decayed? But did it not, nevertheless, require a Cromwell to crush it by force?”

Though Cromwell abolished the established Church and guaranteed the right for all sects to pray as they saw fit, he was not a social reformer and thought the Leveller ideas absurd and dangerous. But basic bourgeois rights, particularly the absolute right to property and the end of feudal duties, were won during the English Revolution in a fight that involved masses of working people empowered for the first time in their lives.

In 1948 British communist leader Harry Pollitt said:

“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.”