[Classics] Where is Britain Going?

6. Two Traditions: The Seventeenth-Century Revolution and Chartism

The editor of the Daily Herald recently expressed his doubts as to whether Oliver Cromwell could be called a “pioneer of the labour movement”. One of the newspaper’s collaborators supported the editor’s doubts and referred to the severe repressions that Cromwell conducted against the Levellers, the sect of equalitarians of that time (communists). These reflections and questions are extremely typical of the historical thinking of the leaders of the Labour Party. That Oliver Cromwell was a pioneer of bourgeois and not socialist society there would appear to be no need to waste more than two words in proving. The great revolutionary bourgeois was against universal suffrage for he saw in it a danger to private property. It is relevant to note that the Webbs draw from this the conclusion of the “incompatibility” of democracy and capitalism while closing their eyes to the fact that capitalism has learnt to live on the best possible terms with democracy and to have taken control of the instrument of universal suffrage as an instrument of the stock exchange. [1*] Nevertheless British workers can learn incomparably more from Cromwell than from MacDonald, Snowden, Webb and other such compromising brethren. Cromwell was a great revolutionary of his time, who knew how to uphold the interests of the new, bourgeois social system against the old aristocratic one without holding back at anything. This must be learnt from him, and the dead lion of the seventeenth century is in this sense immeasurably greater than many living dogs.

Following at the tails of those living non-lions who write leading articles in the Manchester Guardian and other Liberal organs, the Labour Party leaders generally counterpose democracy to any sort of despotic government whether “the dictatorship of Lenin” or “the dictatorship of Mussolini”. The historical mumbo-jumbo of these gentlemen is nowhere expressed more clearly than in this juxtaposition. Not because we are in hindsight inclined to deny the “dictatorship of Lenin” – his power was, through its effective influence on the whole course of events in an enormous state, exceptional.

But how can one speak of dictatorship while passing over its social and historical content? History has known the dictatorship of Cromwell, the dictatorship of Robespierre [1], the dictatorship of Arakcheev [2], the dictatorship of Napoleon I [3], and the dictatorship of Mussolini. [4] It is impossible to discuss anything with a crackpot who puts Robespierre and Arakcheev on a par. Different classes in different conditions and for different tasks find themselves compelled in particular and indeed, the most acute and critical, periods in their history, to vest an extraordinary power and authority in such of their leaders as can carry forward their fundamental interests most sharply and fully. When we speak of dictatorship we must in the first place be clear as to what interest of what particular classes find their historical expression through the dictatorship. For one era Oliver Cromwell, and for another, Robespierre expressed the historically progressive tendencies of development of bourgeois society. William Pitt, likewise extremely close to a personal dictatorship, defended the interests of the monarchy, the privileged classes and the top bourgeois against a revolution of the petty bourgeoisie that found its highest expression in the dictatorship of Robespierre.

The liberal vulgarians customarily say that they are against a dictatorship from the left just as much as from the right, although in practice they do not let slip any opportunity of supporting a dictatorship of the right. But for us the question is determined by the fact that one dictatorship moves society forward while another drags it back. Mussolini’s dictatorship is a dictatorship of the prematurely decayed, impotent, thoroughly contaminated Italian bourgeoisie: it is a dictatorship with a broken nose. The “dictatorship of Lenin” expresses the mighty pressure of the new historical class and its superhuman struggle against all the forces of the old society. If Lenin can be juxtaposed to anyone then it is not to Napoleon nor even less to Mussolini but to Cromwell and Robespierre. It can be with some justice said that Lenin is the proletarian twentieth-century Cromwell. Such a definition would at the same time be the highest compliment to the petty-bourgeois seventeenth-century Cromwell.

The French bourgeoisie, having falsified the revolution, adopted it and, changing it into small coinage, put it into daily circulation. The British bourgeoisie has erased the very memory of the seventeenth century revolution by dissolving its past in “gradualness”. The advanced British workers will have to re-discover the English revolution and find within its ecclesiastical shell the mighty struggle of social forces. Cromwell was in no case a “pioneer of labour”. But in the seventeenth-century drama, the British proletariat can find great precedents for revolutionary action. This is equally a national tradition, and a thoroughly legitimate one that is wholly in place in the arsenal of the working class.

The proletarian movement has another great national tradition in Chartism. A familiarity with both these periods is vital to every conscious British worker. The clarification of the historical significance of the seventeenth-century revolution and the revolutionary content of Chartism is one of the most important obligations for British Marxists.

A study of the revolutionary era in Britain’s development, which lasted approximately from the enforced summoning of parliament by Charles Stuart until the death of Oliver Cromwell, is necessary above all in order to understand the place of parliamentarism and of “law” in general in a living and not an imaginary history. The “great” national historian Macaulay vulgarised the social drama of the seventeenth century by obscuring the inner struggle of forces with platitudes that are sometimes interesting but always superficial. The French conservative Guizot approaches events more profoundly. But either way, whichever account is taken, the man who knows how to read and is capable of discovering under the shadows of history real living bodies, classes and factions, will be convinced from this very experience of the English revolution how subsidiary, subordinate and qualified a role is played by law in the mechanics of social struggle and especially in a revolutionary era, that is to say, when the basic interests of the basic classes in society come to the fore.

In the England of the 1640s we see a parliament based upon the most whimsical franchise, which at the same time regarded itself as the representative organ of the people. The lower house represented the nation in that it represented the bourgeoisie and thereby national wealth. In the reign of Charles I it was found, and not without amazement, that the House of Commons was three times richer than the House of Lords. The king now dissolved this parliament and now recalled it according to the pressure of financial need. Parliament created an army for its defence. The army gradually concentrated in its ranks all the most active, courageous and resolute elements. As a direct consequence of this, parliament capitulated to this army. We say, “as a direct consequence,” but by this we wish to say that Parliament capitulated not simply to armed force (it did not capitulate to the King’s army) but to the Puritan army of Cromwell which expressed the requirements of the revolution more boldly, more resolutely and more consistently than did Parliament.

The adherents of the Episcopal or Anglican, semi-Catholic Church were the party of the court, the nobility and of course the higher clergy. The Presbyterians were the party of the bourgeoisie, the party of wealth and enlightenment. The Independents, and the Puritans especially, were the party of the petty bourgeoisie, the plebeians. Wrapped up in ecclesiastical controversies, in the form of a struggle over the religious structure of the church, there took place a social self-determination of classes and their re-grouping along new, bourgeois lines. Politically the Presbyterian party stood for a limited monarchy; the Independents, who then were called “root and branch men” or, in the language of our day, radicals, stood for a republic. The half-way position of the Presbyterians fully, corresponded to the contradictory interests of the bourgeoisie – between the nobility and the plebeians. The Independents” party which dared to carry its ideas and slogans through to their conclusion naturally displaced the Presbyterians among the awakening petty-bourgeois masses in the towns and the countryside that formed the main force of the revolution.

Events unfolded empirically. In their struggle for power and property interests both the former and the latter side hid themselves behind a cloak of legitimacy. This is put quite well by Guizot:

“Then commenced between the Parliament and the King, a conflict previously unexampled in Europe ... Negotiations were still continued, but neither party expected any result from them, or even had any intention to treat. It was no longer to one another that they addressed their declarations and messages; both appealed to the whole nation, to public opinion; to this new power both seemed to look for strength and success. The origin and extent of the royal authority, the privileges of the Houses of Parliament, the limits of the obligations due from subjects, the militia, the petitions for the redress of grievances, and the distribution of public employments, became the subjects of an official controversy, in which the general principles of social order, the various nature of governments, the primitive rights of liberty, history, laws, and customs of England, were alternately quoted, explained and commented upon. In the interval between the dispute of the two parties in parliament and their armed encounter on the field of battle, reason and learning interposed, as it were, for several months, to suspend the course of events, and to put forth their ablest efforts to obtain the free concurrence of the people, by stamping either cause with the impress of legitimacy ... When the time came for drawing the sword, all were astonished and deeply moved ... Now, however, both parties mutually accused each other of illegality and innovation, and both were justified in making the charge: for the one had violated the ancient rights of the country, and had not abjured the maxims of tyranny; and the other demanded, in the name of principles still confused and chaotic, liberties and a power which had until then been unknown.” [5]

As the storm of the Civil War began to break, the most active Royalists left the House of Commons and the House of Lords at Westminster and fled over to Charles’ headquarters at York: parliament split as in all great revolutionary periods. Whether the “legitimate” majority was in this or that event on the side of revolution or on the side of reaction does not in such situations decide the question.

At a certain moment in political history the fate of “democracy’ hung not upon parliament but – however terrible this might be to scrofulous pacifists! – upon the cavalry. In the first stage of the war the king’s cavalry, at that time the most considerable section of the army, filled the horsemen of Parliament with terror. It is worthy of note that we encounter the same phenomenon in later revolutions, especially during the American Civil War where the Southern horse had in the first phase an indisputable superiority over the horse of the Northerners; and most recently in our own revolution, in the first period of which the White cavalrymen dealt us a series of cruel blows before the workers could be taught to sit firmly in the saddle.

The horse is by its origin the most aristocratic branch of arms. The royal cavalry was far more cohesive and resolute than the hastily and haphazardly recruited parliamentary riders. The horse of the Southern states was the innate branch of arms for the planter and plainsman whereas the commercial and industrial North had to learn the horse from scratch. Finally, with us the very hearth and home of the cavalry was in the steppes of the South-East, the Cossack Vendée. [6] Cromwell very quickly realised that the fate of his class would be decided by cavalry. He said to Hampden: “I will raise such men as have the fear of God before them and make some conscience of what they do; and I warrant you they will not be beaten.” [7]

The words that Cromwell addressed to the free landowners and artisans that he had enlisted are in the highest degree interesting: “I will not cozen you by perplexed expressions in my commission about fighting for King and Parliament. If the King chanced to be in the body of the enemy, I would as soon discharge my pistol upon him as upon any private man; and if your conscience will not let you do the like, I advise you not to enlist yourselves under me.” [8] In this way Cromwell built not merely an army but also a party – his army was to some extent an armed party and herein precisely lay its strength. In 1644 Cromwell’s “holy” squadrons won a brilliant victory over the King’s horsemen and won the nickname of “Ironsides.” It is always useful for a revolution to have iron sides. On this score British workers can learn much from Cromwell.

The observations on the Puritans” army made by the historian Macaulay are here not without interest:

“A force thus composed might, without injury to its efficiency, be indulged in some liberties which, if allowed to any other troops, would have proved subversive of all discipline. In general, soldiers who should form themselves into political clubs, elect delegates, and pass resolutions on high questions of state, would soon break loose from all control, would cease to form an army, and would become the worst and most dangerous of mobs. Nor would it be safe, in our time, to tolerate in any regiment religious meetings at which a corporal versed in scripture should lead the devotions of his less gifted colonel, and admonish a back-sliding major. But such was the intelligence, the gravity, and the self-command of the warriors whom Cromwell had trained that in their camp a political organisation and a religious organisation could exist without destroying military organisation. The same men who, off duty, were noted as demagogues [2*] and field preachers, were distinguished by steadiness, by the spirit of order, and by prompt obedience on watch, on will and on the field of battle.”

And further:

“But in his camp alone the most rigid discipline was found in company with the fiercest enthusiasm. His troops moved to victory with the precision of machines, while burning with the wildest fanaticism of Crusaders.” [9]

Any historical analogies demand the greatest caution especially when we are dealing with the seventeenth and the twentieth centuries; yet nonetheless one cannot help being struck by some distinct features that bring the regime and character of Cromwell’s army and the character of the Red Army close together. Admittedly, then everything was founded upon faith in predestination and upon a strict religious morality; now with us militant atheism reigns supreme. But running beneath the religious form of puritanism there was the preaching of the historical mission of a new class, and the teaching on predestination was a religious approach to an historical pattern.

Cromwell’s fighters felt themselves to be in the first place puritans and only in the second place soldiers, just as our fighters acknowledge themselves to be above all revolutionaries and conununists and only then soldiers. But the points of divergence are even greater than the points of similarity.

The Red Army formed by the party of the proletariat remains its armed organ. Cromwell’s army, which also embodied his party, became itself the decisive force. We can see how the puritan army began to adapt parliament to itself and to revolution. The army obtained the expulsion of the eleven Presbyterians, that is, the representatives of the right-wing, from parliament. The Presbyterians, the Girondists [10] of the English revolution, attempted to raise a rebellion against parliament. A truncated parliament sought salvation in the army and thus all the more subordinated itself to it. Under the pressure of the army, and particularly of its left and more resolute wing, Cromwell was compelled to execute Charles I. The axe of revolution was bizarrely intertwined with psalms. But the axe was more persuasive. Then Cromwell’s Colonel Pride surrounded parliament and ejected eighty-one Presbyterian members. Of parliament there remained but a rump. It consisted of Independents, that is, of supporters of Cromwell and his army; but for just this reason Parliament, which had waged a colossal struggle against the monarchy, at the moment of victory ceased to be a source of any independent thinking and force whatsoever.

Cromwell was the focal point of both the former and the latter and he rested directly upon the army, but in the final analysis drew his strength from his bold solution of the fundamental tasks of the revolution. A fool, an ignoramus or a Fabian can see in Cromwell only a personal dictatorship. But in fact here, in the conditions of a deep social rupture, a personal dictatorship was the form taken on by the dictatorship of a class which was, moreover, the only one capable of liberating the kernel of the nation from the old shells and husks. The British social crisis of the seventeenth-century combined in itself features of the German Reformation of the sixteenth century with features of the French Revolution of the eighteenth century. In Cromwell Luther [11] joins hands with Robespierre.

The Puritans did not mind calling their enemies philistines but the matter was nonetheless one of class struggle. Cromwell’s task consisted of inflicting as shattering a blow as possible upon the absolutist monarchy, the court nobility and the semi-Catholic Church which had been adjusted to the needs of the monarchy and the nobility. For such a blow, Cromwell, the true representative of the new class, needed the forces and passions of the masses of people. Under Cromwell’s leadership the revolution acquired all the breadth vital for it. In such cases as that of the Levellers, where it exceeded the bounds of the requirements of the regenerate bourgeois society, Cromwell ruthlessly put down the “Lunaticks.” Once victorious, Cromwell began to construct a new state law that coupled biblical texts with the lances of the “holy” soldiers, under which the deciding word always belonged to the pikes.

On 19th April 1653 Cromwell broke up the rump of the Long Parliament. In recognition of his historical mission the Puritan dictator saw dispersed members on the way with biblical denunciations: “Thou drunkard!” he cried to one; “Thou adulterer!” he reminded another. After this Cromwell forms a parliament out of representatives of God-fearing people, that is, an essentially class parliament; the God-fearers were the middle class who completed the work of accumulation with the aid of a strict morality and set about the plunder of the whole world with the Holy Scriptures on their lips. But this cumbersome Barebone’s Parliament [12] also hampered the dictator by depriving him of the necessary freedom of manoeuvre in a difficult domestic and international situation. At the end of 1653 Cromwell once again purged the House of Commons with the aid of soldiers.

If the rump of the Long Parliament dispersed in April had been guilty of deviating to the right, towards deals with the Presbyterians – then Barebone’s Parliament was on a number of questions inclined to follow too closely along the straight road of Puritan virtue and thus made it difficult for Cromwell to establish a new social equilibrium. The revolutionary realist, Cromwell, was building a new society. Parliament does not form an end in itself, law does not form an end in itself, and although Cromwell himself and his “holy” men regarded the fulfillment of divine behests to be ends in themselves these latter were merely the ideological material for the building of a bourgeois society. In dispersing parliament after parliament Cromwell displayed as little reverence towards the fetish of “national” representation as in the execution of Charles I he had displayed insufficient respect for a monarchy by the grace of God.

Nonetheless it was this same Cromwell who paved the way for the parliamentarism and democracy of the two subsequent centuries. In revenge for Cromwell’s execution of Charles I, Charles II swung Cromwell’s corpse up on the gallows. But pre-Cromwellian society could not be re-established by any restoration. The works of Cromwell could not be liquidated by the thievish legislation of the Restoration because what has been written with the sword cannot be wiped out by the pen. This, the converse of the proverb, is far truer, at least so far as the sword of revolution is concerned.

As an illustration of the inter-relations between “law” and “force” in an era of social overturns the Long Parliament will always retain an especial interest, undergoing as it did for twenty years all the vicissitudes of the course of events, reflecting in itself the shocks of class forces, truncated from the right and the left, first rising up against the King, then receiving a slap in the eye from its own armed servants, twice dispersed and twice recalled, now commanding and now demeaning itself, before finally obtaining the opportunity of passing the act of its own dissolution.

Whether the proletarian revolution will have its own “long” parliament we do not know. It is highly likely that it will confine itself to a short parliament. However it will the more surely achieve this the better it masters the lessons of Cromwell’s era.

On the second and genuinely proletarian revolutionary tradition we shall here say but a few words.

The era of Chartism is immortal in that over the course of a decade it gives us in condensed and diagrammatic form the whole gamut of proletarian struggle – from petitions in parliament to armed insurrection. All the fundamental problems of the class movement of the proletariat – the inter-relation between parliamentary and extra-parliamentary activity, the role of universal suffrage, trade unions and co-operation, the significance of the general strike and its relation to armed insurrection, even the inter-relation between the proletariat and the peasantry – were not only crystallised out of the progress of the Chartist mass movement but found out their principled answer. Theoretically this answer was far from always irreproachable in its basis, the conclusions were not always fully drawn and in the movement as a whole and in its theoretical expression there was much that was immature and unfinished. Nonetheless the revolutionary slogans and methods of Chartism are even today, if critically dissected, infinitely higher than the sickly sweet eclecticism of the MacDonalds and the economic obtuseness of the Webbs.

To use a hazardous comparison then, it can be said that the Chartist movement resembles a prelude which contains in an undeveloped form the musical theme of the whole opera. In this sense the British working class can and must see in Chartism not only its past but also its future. As the Chartists tossed the sentimental preachers of “moral force” aside and gathered the masses behind the banner of revolution, so the British proletariat is faced with ejecting reformists, democrats and pacifists from its midst and rallying to the banner of a revolutionary overturn.

Chartism did not win a victory not because its methods were incorrect but because it appeared too soon. It was only an historical anticipation. The 1905 revolution also suffered defeat. But its tradition lived on for twelve years and its methods were victorious in October 1917. Chartism is not at all liquidated. History is liquidating Liberalism and prepares to liquidate the pseudo-Labour pacifism precisely so as to give a second birth to Chartism on new, immeasurably broader historical foundations. That is where you have the real national tradition of the British labour movement!


1*. It is curious that, two centuries later, in 1842 in fact, the historian Macaulay as an MP protested against universal suffrage for the very same reasons as Cromwell. – L.D.T.

2*. Macaulay means revolutionary agitators. – L.D.T.


1. Leader of the left wing of the Jacobin coalition in the French Revolution. Called for the king’s execution. Became head of government in the second period of the revolution from 1793 to 1794 characterised by the dictatorship of the petty bourgeoisie supported by the working masses of the capital. He organised the Reign of Terror but was overthrown on the 9th Thermidor (27th July, 1794) by a counter-revolutionary coup and was executed.

2. Alexei Arakcheev was Russian War Secretary and later chief minister from 1812 to 1825 under Alexander I. He kept a meticulous control on every aspect of Russia’s internal affairs and was given the highest responsibility by the Tsar. He designed the so-called “military settlements” where army units were employed in farming on special estates. This and other measures required a high level of bureaucratic and repressive administration which earned Arakcheev notoriety and hatred.

3. Napoleon I (Bonaparte) (1769-1821) was born in Corsica. He joined the French army in 1785 and took part in the Corsican rising of 1789. He turned against the Jacobins during the bloody purges of 1792. His military victories as a General in Italy and Egypt won him popularity and in his coup d’état on 18th Brumaire (9th November, 1799) he made himself Consul and then Emperor. His subsequent brilliant military campaigns consolidated the bourgeois revolution in France and helped to break down feudalism in Europe.

4. Benito Mussolini (1883-1945), the fascist dictator of Italy who started political life as a right-wing socialist who fervently supported the Italian war effort. Following the First World War he extended his extreme nationalism to organising an anti-labour paramilitary terrorist movement, the Fascists or blackshirts. After the betrayal of the revolutionary working class in 1920-21 by the reformists and centrists he obtained the backing of the Italian bourgeoisie and formed a Bonapartist government. By 1926 he finally abolished every trace of bourgeois democracy and freedoms. Having liquidated the organised labour movement he embarked on an imperial policy, bloodily seising Abyssinia in 1935, sending armies to Spain and occupying Albania in 1939. In 1940 he led Italy into the Second World War in alliance with Hitler. After defeats in Greece and then in Italy he resigned in 1943. With the defeat of Nazi forces in Italy he was captured and hanged by partisans. [Note by TIA: Actually Mussolini started his career before World War I as an ultra-leftist who became editor staff of Avanti, the paper of the Italian Socialist Party. After the beginning of the war he became a rabid agitator for Italy to enter the war on the side of the Entente after receiving money from British and French agents to set up a pro-war paper. – cf. Angelica Balabanoff, My Life as a Rebel, New York 1938.]

5. Guizot, History of Charles I and the English Revolution, translated by Scoble 1854.

6. A region of Western France which during the French Revolution was economically backward and dominated by the clergy. It became the basis of two counter-revolutionary revolts in October 1793 and the summer of 1795 backed by royalist agents. The Vendée was not fully pacified until 1800 when Napoleon sent a strong expedition to the area and did a deal with the royalist church leaders.

7. Cited in Guizot’s History.

8. Ibid.

9. Macaulay, History of England (1889 ed.), p.60.

10. A group of deputies in the French Legislative Assembly of 1791, most of whom came from the Gironde district around Bordeaux. Led by Brissot, Roland and Vergniaud they opposed the revolutionary methods of rule imposed by the Jacobins. They represented the reformist elements of the middle class and were hostile to the Jacobins’ appeals to the masses. They were overthrown by the Jacobins on 2nd June 1793, and on 31st October all the leaders of the Gironde were executed.

11. Martin Luther (1483-1546) was the original leader of the Protestant reformation. Though from a poor peasant background, Luther received a degree from the University of Erfurt in 1503 and was ordained a priest in 1507. Shocked by the corruption of the clergy and the sale of indulgences or pardons from the effects of sin, he nailed his famous 95 theses to the Church door at Wittenburg. This brought him into conflict with the papacy and made him the champion of its opponents and of those who looked to the authority of the Bible, which he translated into the German vernacular. At the Diet of Worms in 1521 he refused to accept the supremacy of the hierarchy over the church. A social conservative who opposed peasant risings against feudal oppression, Luther nevertheless represented an important break with the power of superstition and its political expression.

12. This assembly of 1653, named after one of its members, was one of Cromwell’s attempts to establish an alternative form of political rule after he had executed the King and driven most of his opponents from Parliament. Most of its members represented various Puritan religious groups and as a result had little contact with political realities, so it was soon dissolved by Cromwell.

Join us

If you want more information about joining the IMT, fill in this form. We will get back to you as soon as possible.