Friday, September 05, 2008


Oliver Cromwell


by Andy Brooks

OLIVER CROMWELL, the leader of the English Revolution, died on 3rd 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 harshness is remembered to this day by the Irish people.
Attempts to set up farming co-operatives by the Diggers, another group born from the Army, were also suppressed.
The republic that 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.
Oliver Cromwell died on 3rd September 1658 and was succeeded by his son, Richard. The new Protector 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 hunted down and hanged, drawn and quartered. A few managed to flee abroad never to return but the “good old cause” they had fought for was dead and buried. It was clear that a great revolution had taken place. It is equally clear that it was incomplete.

OLIVER CROMWELL undeniably played a pivotal role in the English Revolution and today’s bourgeois historians tend to assess the republic that Cromwell led solely in terms of his military leadership and his Puritan personality. But if Cromwell had fallen in battle during the civil war another would have taken his place. We can only speculate on what would have then have happened but we can be sure that the fundamental direction of development would have remained the same.
The short-lived Republic of England was notable because it was the outcome of class struggle; primarily that of the rising bourgeois class against the feudal elements headed by the King. It only won because of the mass support of working people, the apprentices, artisans and small farmers who swelled the ranks of the New Model Army that crushed the Royalists.
The New Model Army was a revolutionary force in itself. Though led by Cromwell and other senior officers who the rank-and-file dubbed “Grandees”, the army was a hot-bed of radical thinking which produced the Leveller movement which campaigned for social reform, a free parliament and a wide electoral franchise.
All 17th century governments claimed divine authority. Charles Stuart and his bishops turned to scripture to justify the “divine right” of kings while Puritan preachers just as easily found chapter and verse in the Bible to justify the toppling of tyrants.
But the Commonwealth claimed its authority came from the “people” – unlike Venice which was a republic solely of rich merchants or the Netherlands which was based on feudal provinces and a near-hereditary head of state from the House of Orange. The Commonwealth drew up representative constitutions, which would have been remarkable had they been implemented and it showed a degree of tolerance, almost unknown in any other part of Europe, to all Protestant sects and Jews, though not to Anglicans or Catholics who were synonymous with Royalists as far as most Puritans were concerned.
But who were these “people”? They certainly weren’t those the Levellers championed who angered Cromwell as much as the Royalists
The Leveller case was put by Colonel Thomas Rainsborough who said: “For really I think that the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live, as the greatest he; and therefore truly, Sir, I think it’s clear, that every man that is to live under a government ought first by his own consent to put himself under that government; and I do think that the poorest man in England is not bound in a strict sense to that government that he hath not had a voice to put himself under.”
While Henry Ireton, a Grandee, who was also Cromwell’s son-in-law, replied that: “no man hath a right to an interest or share in the disposing of the affairs of the kingdom... that hath not a permanent fixed interest in this kingdom”.
Only in the Army did Cromwell accept promotion by merit alone – a radical concept for those days and one which is still not applied in the British armed forces today. But he regarded the Levellers’ egalitarianism as dangerous and absurd. Dangerous because it threatened private property. Absurd because if people who paid no taxes and without a stake in the country could vote, like poor tenants or servants, they would vote for their masters and this would lead to the restoration of the monarchy that so much blood had been spilt to end.
“What is the purport of the levelling principle but to make the tenant as liberal a fortune as the landlord. I was by birth a gentleman. You must cut these people to pieces or they will cut you to pieces,” Cromwell declared.
Nor were they the entire bourgeoisie. The merchants and landowners opposed the King’s autocracy in Parliament but were divided on what they wanted to put in its place. Some wanted to end the monarchy altogether from the start. Others, like Cromwell only came to this conclusion after Charles Stuart had shown by his deceit and readiness to plunge the country into further bloodshed that only his execution could end the conflict.
But many favoured what they called a “mixed” monarchy in which Parliament, drawn almost exclusively from the wealthy, would wield the power in conjunction with a monarch bereft of feudal privilege but retained to uphold the principle of inherited wealth.
This is what they hoped for when their “Convention Parliament” recalled the second Charles from his exile in 1660. This was what they achieved when that Parliament deposed his brother James in 1688 and put William of Orange on the throne in what they called the “Glorious Revolution”.
Today the bourgeoisie would like us to forget Cromwell and the republic he led even though the basis of their power begins with the English Revolution. But since 1649 all monarchs remember that they have a joint in their neck as the Marxist historian Christopher Hill put it. And we remember Cromwell and those epic days of the 17th century as the time when the power of a tyrant was smashed by the might of a people in arms.