Time to celebrate our own revolution?
The French are proud of their bourgeois revolution and celebrate it. Why do we pretend we never had one and why do we vilify the man who led it?
Today, on 3 September, 352 years ago Oliver Cromwell died. Despite being the leader of the English bourgeois revolution – the first in the world - which transformed Britain’s historical trajectory, he is someone we appear to want to disavow like a disreputable relative. British historians still insist on calling our revolution the ‘Civil War’(1642-51). Every year the French celebrate Bastille Day - the anniversary of the symbolic storming of the Parisian citadel on 14 July 1789; the rallying call of that revolution was adopted as their national anthem. They are proud of that legacy and celebrate it, despite the fact that it unleashed unprecedented violence and the bloodbath of the ‘Terror’. We are ashamed of our revolution so we prefer the euphemism ‘civil war’, which bowdlerises that momentous event. Novels and most historical narratives written about the period since glorify the Cavaliers and romanticise the aristocracy while denigrating the ‘vulgar and brutal’ Roundheads and the ugly and ‘tyrannical’ figure of Cromwell. The old ruling classes, despite their defeat, were able to impose their interpretation on the narrative. There are only two statues or monuments to his memory (one in front of Parliament and one in Manchester) and none, as far as I am aware, to the revolution in the whole of Britain.
Few leaders and no revolutions are pure, ideal or completely virtuous; what matters is their historical significance and the role they have played in changing society for the better. Cromwell we know was certainly no paragon in this respect. His suppression of the really radical elements within the revolution and his, later, brutal oppression of Catholic Ireland sullied the ideals and aspirations of the revolution. He also became increasingly reactionary in power and turned on the more progressive elements in the New Model Army, extirpating any attempts to build a truly more just and egalitarian country. All that, though, should not blind us to the extraordinary changes he did usher in and the role the revolution played in releasing those bourgeois forces which later made possible Britain’s industrial expansion, transforming it into the ‘factory of the world’. He was the founder of the Republican Commonwealth – England’s first Republic. He was certainly no dyed-in-the-wool revolutionary, even from the outset, nor was he a leader of the oppressed, but he did have a strong sense of the injustice prevailing in the country. As late as 1650 he said, ‘the law as it is now constituted serves only to maintain the lawyers and to encourage the rich to oppress the poor.’ We perhaps also need to remember, as another positive example of Cromwell’s rule, that in 1656 he was responsible for re-admitting Jews into England for the first time since they were expelled in 1290 under Edward I.
In order for the merchants, traders and gentry to push through the radical changes they desired, they had to enlist the support of the general populace if they were to achieve success, but it was an uneasy alliance. Well before 1642 piecemeal enclosures had forced thousands off the land, excessive taxation and exploitation had also played their parts in driving people from the countryside into the cities. These were people full of anger, frustration and class hatred who readily embraced the Cromwellian revolution as a means of getting even with their oppressors and ushering in a more just political system. They formed a sort of masterless, anarchic army of the poor with no roots and nothing to lose. Cromwell’s New Model Army was the most democratic army the world had seen, with ‘agitators’ appointed to regiments (comparable with the Commissars in the Bolshevik Forces). The army became a university for the soldiers – there were avid debates, radical political groupings and fiery preachers. Officers were obliged to win the respect of their men if they didn’t wish to be demoted or removed.
As the historian Christopher Hill points out, there were actually two revolutions taking place during the sixteen forties - a revolution within the revolution. From around 1645 to 1653 ‘there was an overturning, questioning and revaluing of everything in England,’ he says.
Cromwell was the man who created the conditions that allowed the common people to express their own ideas for social change. The revolution provided the space and opportunity for the expression and development of radical and truly revolutionary ideas. Ideas which had been fermenting among the people for decades before Cromwell’s rule now began frothing in earnest. Groups like the Levellers, Diggers and Ranters attempted to impose their own solutions on the problems of their time. The fact that Cromwell led a successful revolt against the corrupt and privileged feudal aristocracy and wrested power from the king, demonstrated to the people that radical change was possible. With each Parliamentary victory, the people saw that their oppressors and even the monarchy itself could be defeated; the world could be ‘turned upside down’.
Although the Parliamentary Army was made up of officers largely from the bourgeoisie, many of the foot soldiers were ordinary men who were fighting for other things - justice and equality and a better quality of life for their class. It could be said that this army was more representative of a cross section of the population than any other national body before or since.
The revoloutionary period of the 1640s was also a time of unprecedented religious debate. The church, whose hierarchy identified with the king, was as hated as the aristocracy itself. It was corrupt, autocratic and levied its own taxes through the tithe system. Already before Cromwell, there was a strong tradition of fiery anti-clericalism and the revolution only provided it with more oxygen.
It was a period, as Hill describes it, ‘of glorious flux and intellectual excitement’, when everything must have seemed possible. The brief years of the revolution ushered in the most extensive liberty of the press, more than had been experienced before or would be afterwards. It brought with it a complete breakdown of censorship and the demise of the hated church courts. Judges no longer went on circuit for fear of their lives. This anti-clericalism and explosion of radical thinking laid the foundations for the ideas of revolutionaries like Tom Paine and the Chartists, generations later.
Despite his maltreatment by history, Cromwell was voted one of the ‘top ten Britons of all time’ in a 2002 BBC poll. However, he and the English Revolution need to resume a place of honour in our history books and their achievements given due prominence.
In a couple of decades we will be coming up to the 400th anniversary, so surely now is the time to renew the campaign to have England’s Civil War renamed as the English Revolution and ensure that it is celebrated as something for us all to be proud of – the precursor of our present day freedoms and parliamentary democracy and as a needful reminder that we once lived in a republic and perhaps now is the time to reignite the campaign for a new one!