Neil Faulkner looks at how even the most radical bourgeois forces, if they are to preserve their property and status, must break the momentum of the movement that has brought them to power.
The New Model Army’s victory at Naseby in June 1645 was decisive. Within a year, all Royalist armies and garrisons had been liquidated. Parliament had won England’s revolutionary civil war.
Victory had been made possible by the mobilisation and arming of ‘the middling sort’. The lower ranks of the Army were dominated by small property-owners. Among them were many members of radical politico-religious sects that favoured far-reaching democratic and ‘levelling’ reforms.
The Presbyterian gentry who formed the majority in Parliament had always regarded the New Model Army as a regrettable necessity. Their immediate priorities in 1646 were to disband the Army, reach a settlement with the King, crush politico-religious dissent, and thereby end the revolutionary process. As big property-owners, they feared radicals more than Royalists.
The soldiers faced either dispatch overseas to fight a dismal war in Ireland or immediate demobilisation without pension or other provision. Their pay, moreover, was months in arrears. These economic grievances meshed with hopes for greater democracy.
Each regiment elected two ‘agitators’ to voice its demands and co-ordinate political action with other regiments. The Army activists also formed close links with the Levellers, a radical democratic party with a strong base in London and other towns. The most prominent Leveller leader was ex-soldier John Lilburne.
Army leaders like Cromwell were torn. As gentry, their social instincts were conservative and they supported political moves to reach a settlement with the King. But as the officers of a revolutionary army, they had to respond to rank-and-file pressure and were less willing than most MPs to make concessions to the defeated Royalists.
The political conflicts of 1646-1649 therefore involved four distinct forces. The Royalists wanted to reverse the outcome of the Civil War. The Presbyterians wanted a settlement with the King to create a conservative regime of big property-owners. The Independents – the Army leaders and a small minority in Parliament – vacillated between compromise and revolutionary action. The Levellers – backed by the London crowd and much of the Army rank-and-file – were pushing for thoroughgoing democratic change.
By October 1647, the Levellers were strong enough to force a public debate on the Army leaders. ‘I think that the poorest he that is in England has a life to live as the greatest he,’ explained the radical officer Colonel Thomas Rainsborough during the Putney Debates; ‘the poorest man in England is not bound in a strict sense to that government that he hath not a voice to put himself under.’
‘No-one,’ replied Henry Ireton, speaking for the generals, ‘has a right to … a share … in determining of the affairs of the kingdom … that has not a permanent fixed interest in the kingdom … that is, the person in whom all land lies, and those in the corporations in whom all trading lies.’
What was England to become? Either a radical democracy of small property-owners, or a conservative constitutional monarchy dominated by big landowners and merchants.
The matter was unresolved when the King escaped from captivity and launched a second civil war. The Royalists were joined by Presbyterians in Scotland, Wales, and many parts of England. But the New Model Army crushed all its enemies in a whirlwind campaign in the summer of 1648.
In the face of attempted counter-revolution, and under continuing pressure from below, Cromwell and the Independents now swung over to revolutionary action.
In December 1648, the Army carried out a second revolution. Colonel Pride deployed a unit of cavalry to bar leading conservatives from the House of Commons. The Presbyterian-dominated ‘Long Parliament’ was transformed into an Independent-dominated ‘Rump’.
The King was then tried, condemned, and publicly executed in Whitehall as a traitor to the English people on 30 January 1649.
But having crushed the Right with the support of the Left, the Army leaders – whose position amounted to a precarious wobbling between the two – now moved against the Levellers.
‘I tell you, sir,’ proclaimed Cromwell at a meeting of the ruling Council of State, ‘you have no other way to deal with these men but to break them or they will break you.’
The Leveller leaders in London were arrested and imprisoned in the Tower, and a mutiny of rank-and-file soldiers was crushed and four of its leaders shot in the churchyard at Burford in Oxfordshire.
The repression of spring 1649 broke the back of the mass movement which had powered the English Revolution ever since Jenny Geddes threw a stool at the Dean of St Giles at a church service in Edinburgh in July 1637.
The action of the middling sort had been decisive at several national crises of the Revolution and in hundreds of local struggles between Royalists and Parliamentarians across Britain. Again and again, either as urban crowds or New Model soldiers, the common people had acted collectively to drive the struggle forwards.
The defeat of the popular movement was therefore a turning-point for the Revolution – the point at which its forward momentum was ‘frozen’ by military dictatorship from above.
The rule of the Army leaders after 1649 rested on a narrow social base of minor landowners, merchants, and officers. The majority of big property-owners were hostile. The majority of small property-owners sank back into passivity and obscurity after the defeat of their party.
The Army even fell out with the purged Rump Parliament. But new elections failed to produce a tractable assembly. So the military dictatorship was formalised: in 1653, Cromwell became ‘Lord Protector of the Commonwealth’, and in 1654, England was divided into military districts ruled by major-generals.
The system became increasingly unpopular and unstable, especially after Cromwell’s death in 1658. The Army was unable to broaden its social base because the propertied classes remained resentful of military rule and suspicious of the radicals it harboured.
When General George Monck, the relatively conservative Army commander in Scotland, launched a coup in early 1660, resistance melted away. He entered London and invited the son of Charles I to assume the throne as Charles II.
The Restoration was, in effect, a coup of the New Model Army against itself. What made it possible was the hollowing out of the revolutionary movement of which the Army was the supreme expression.
Bourgeois revolution is a highly contradictory process. It involves mass action by small property-owners in the interests of big property-owners. Only in this way can sufficient revolutionary force be generated to break the power of the feudal-absolutist state.
But the democratic and ‘levelling’ aspirations of the mass movement trigger deep-rooted fears among big property-owners. This often causes would-be bourgeois revolutions to abort. This was as true of the radical Reformation in Germany in the 1520s as it was of the Europe-wide liberal revolutions of 1848.
The size and character of the mass movement is of decisive significance. Revolutions are punctuated by successive crises. At each crisis, revolutionary and counter-revolutionary forces engage in a direct clash. Whether the revolution goes forwards or into reverse depends upon the outcome.
At some point, however, even the most radical bourgeois, if they are to preserve their property, must break the momentum of the mass movement from below which has brought them to power. When they do this, they expose themselves to resurgent counter-revolution.
It is for this reason that the Restoration of 1660 proved not to be the final settlement that England’s men of property hoped for.
Neil Faulkner is a freelance archaeologist and historian. He works as a writer, lecturer, excavator, and occasional broadcaster. His books include ‘A Visitor’s Guide to the Ancient Olympics‘ and ‘A Marxist History of the World: from Neanderthals to Neoliberals‘.
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