Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Oliver Cromwell and the English Revolution

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 in1649 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 smashed 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. 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 was succeeded by his son, Richard. Richard 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 invoked 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. All who had signed Charles Stuart’s death warrant, apart from a handful that managed to flee the country, 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.
For communists the English Revolution is a paramount importance. It influenced the thinking of the American revolutionaries. The Victorian utopian socialist and co-operator, Robert Owen, embodied some of the ideas of the Digger philosopher, Gerrard Winstanley, in his writings. Even today the question of the monarchy and the House of Lords is still unresolved.
The conflict was fought on class lines. Or as Puritan preacher Richard Baxter put it at the time:

“A very great part of the knights and gentlemen of England . . . adhered to the King . . . And most of the tenants of these gentlemen, and also most of the poorest of the people, whom the others call the rabble, did follow the gentry and were for the King. On the Parliament’s side were (besides themselves) the smaller part (as some thought) of the gentry in most of the counties, and the greatest part of the tradesmen and freeholders and the middle sort of men, especially in those corporations and counties which depend on clothing and such manufactures…Freeholders and tradesmen are the strength of religion and civility in the land; and gentlemen and beggars and servile tenants are the strength of iniquity

Cromwell’s reconquest of Ireland was condemned by the Levellers. Looking back on it Marx wrote:

The 1641-52 uprising was provoked by the colonialist policy which the English absolute monarchy pursued in Ireland, and which was continued during the English bourgeois revolution by the English bourgeoisie and the “new” nobility. The majority of the insurgents were Irish peasants led by the expropriated clan chiefs and the Catholic clergy. The Anglo-Irish nobility, descendants of the first English conquerors who had become related to the Irish clan elite and adopted many Irish customs and habits, also participated in the uprising.
In October 1642, the insurgents formed the Irish Confederation in Kilkenny. A struggle went on within it between the indigenous Irish, who stood for Ireland’s independence and action both against the Long Parliament and the English Royalists, and the Anglo-Irish aristocrats, who endeavoured to come to terms with Charles I on the condition that they would be allowed to keep their estates and receive a guarantee of freedom of worship for Catholics. The latter gained the upper hand and a treaty was signed with a representative of Charles I.
After the rout of the Royalists in England, Oliver Cromwell, the Lord Protector of the new bourgeois republic, organised an expedition to Ireland on the pretext of suppressing a Royalist revolt there but in fact with the aim of reducing her to colonial submission and plundering the land. He hoped that by confiscating Irish lands he would solve the problem of paying the creditors of the republic, the officers and men in the army.
In 1649-52, the Irish uprising was brutally suppressed; the garrisons and population of entire towns were destroyed, the Irish were sold en masse into slavery in the West Indies, and Irish lands were confiscated and handed over to new English landlords. These actions of Cromwell and his successors did much to prepare the ground for the restoration of the monarchy in England in 1660.

Though the Stuarts came back the last of them was deposed in the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688. Often said to be neither glorious nor a revolution it certainly could not have happened at all without the revolutionary upheaval during the Civil War.

Marxist historian Christopher Hill later wrote:

Nor was it a war of the rich only. All sections of society in southern and eastern England brought in their contributions to help to win the war, for in the overthrow of the old regime men saw the essential preliminary condition of social and intellectual advance. Many of those who fought for Parliament were afterwards disappointed with the achievements of the revolution, felt they had been betrayed. But they were right to fight. A victory for Charles I and his gang could only have meant the economic stagnation of England, the stabilisation of a backward feudal society in a commercial age, and yet necessitated an even bloodier struggle for liberation later. The Parliamentarians thought they were fighting God's battles. They were certainly fighting those of posterity, throwing off an intolerable incubus to further advance. The fact that the revolution might have gone further should never allow us to forget the heroism and faith and disciplined energy with which ordinary decent people responded when the Parliament's leaders freely and frankly appealed to them to support its cause.

This, perhaps, is the real significance of the “good old cause” and why it’s still relevant for us today. On the 300th anniversary of the execution of Charles Stuart and the proclamation of the republic Communist leader Harry Pollitt would say:

"When the growing capitalist class, the poor farmers and craftsmen, led by Oliver Cromwell, shattered the system of feudalism, and executed 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".