Marxist essays on the English Revolution

Issue 

Liberty Against the Law: Some Seventeenth Century Controversies
By Christopher Hill
Allen Lane, 1996. 354 pp., $50 (hb)
Reviewed by Phil Shannon

The 17th century in England boasts its famous names. Shakespeare was still writing in the early decades, Dick Turpin was robbing stagecoaches, pirates roamed the main, Sir Walter Raleigh was discovering the tobacco leaf in Virginia, and Oliver Cromwell's parliament cut off the head of the king.

All this and much more is the subject of Christopher Hill's latest book. The much more, as one expects from this brilliant Marxist historian of the English Revolution, is the class struggle of that century and its revolutionaries — Levellers, Diggers, Ranters, Quakers too.

Hill takes issue with the conservative, dunderheaded historians who write exalted prose about the winning of English freedom and liberty in the 17th century. The revolutionary years of the 1640s and 1650s did swap parliament for king as the ruling regime, says Hill, but the real liberty that was won was the freedom for the rich merchants and landlords to acquire and concentrate ownership of private property, to accumulate capital.

They also won the "democratic right" to elect a parliament which represented the propertied ("free") classes and legislated for their wealth and against the poor. Not surprising, really. This was a bourgeois revolution, after all.

The propertyless, who fought for the revolution to win their own freedom and a commonwealth in the literal sense of that word, were robbed of the spoils. Feudalism, king and court were toppled in a great revolution, but there was also another struggle going on.

Landlords, big farmers and the newly victorious mercantile and industrial capitalist class first used, then turned against, their peasant allies who, through "enclosure" by the wealthy landowners, lost their customary rights to use common land. The dispossessed rural poor became subject to wage-slavery with only one "freedom" left, the "freedom" to sell their labour power to an employer. Or starve. That's capitalist freedom for you, in a desiccated, aflatoxin-ridden nutshell.

Hill examines both the hopes that the mass of the people had during the century, and how they planned to realise them. His aim is to capture the voice of the inarticulate majority — as reflected in popular ballads, as filtered through "elite" culture and as broadcast in the political writings which flourished when censorship collapsed in the face of revolutionary turbulence.

Shakespeare, with some sympathy, hinted at the popular yearnings and passions, though he was limited by his dependence on royal patronage and court favour. Bunyan and Milton, writing during the revolutionary decades, could be more forthright. Milton was critical of the court for its "fraud, titles and flattery", Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress was an anti-enclosure allegory.

Robin Hood ballads had a resurgence in the 1650s. Hill cites his historian-comrade, E.J. Hobsbawm, on social bandits like Robin Hood, who were revered as "not criminals but heroes, champions, avengers, fighters for justice, perhaps even leaders of liberation".

With varying degrees of ambiguity and popular support, other outcasts and outlaws also symbolised resistance to the authority of church, state and wage-slavery. Vagabonds and beggars were seen as a threat to the social order through "infecting the people with a dislike of the government" (Samuel Butler, agreeing with this threat).

Gypsies were regarded as "an offence to wage labour and wealth generation". Pirates were popular for their democratic discipline, election of officers, communal sharing of loot and liberation of slaves. Highwaymen often cultivated a dashing, romantic Robin Hood image.

Various political forces tried to realise, or quell, the popular emotions and subversive aspirations. Oliver Cromwell, regicide and leader of the anti-feudal revolution, had all the contradictions of a bourgeois revolutionary. He formed the relatively democratic and radical New Model Army from peasants and middle-class elements, which was the decisive military factor in breaking the resistance of the court and nobility.

A man of wealth himself, however, Cromwell purged the army and took the revolution down the path of "freedom" to make profits. He suppressed the more radical revolutionaries and unleashed renewed bloodletting in Ireland, a key to England's imperial future of colonial conquest.

To the left of Cromwell were the middle-class Levellers, would-be egalitarians who, by accepting the sanctity of private property, were forced to exclude from "the people" the non-propertied, servants, paupers and women. The Diggers, who engaged in communal cultivation of the commons, did not succumb to this fate (apart from excluding women, which all political forces did). Their leader, Gerrard Winstanley, wrote an eloquent pre-Marxist communist program for the abolition of private property in land and of wage labour.

The revolution of 1648-49 had not gone far enough, he argued. It was not enough just to get rid of the king. Not just the tyrant but all tyranny, whether of monarchy, property or wage labour, must be removed. His arguments had wide influence amongst the oppressed — one pamphleteer in 1647 grasped the essence of class exploitation with his succinct message to the poor about the rich that "your slavery is their liberty, your poverty is their prosperity".

This stuff scared the pants off the once revolutionary capitalist class, which now had economic and political power. The result was the usual — suppression of their former allies and a new class war. Diggers, Levellers and the practitioners of cultural revolution through free love, the Ranters, were all wiped out from 1649 to 1652. Quakers discovered the prudent virtues of pacifism.

Despite some repetition, Hill's essays are well worth luxuriating in and learning from. The revolution was historically progressive. The world had been turned upside down, and though it was set to spinning on a new class axis which still denied common wealth in favour of private wealth, the working class had been born and with it the spectre of a further, socialist, upheaval.

Some (from what Sir Walter Raleigh called "the choicest sort of people, the better, nobler richer sort"), however, seem determined to take us back to the worst of that century.

Hill muses on society's treatment, then and now, of vagabonds, the homeless, the out-of-work poor — "some may see evidence of progress in the fact that we no longer flog the impotent poor out of town". We hit then with budget black holes instead. "Progress of a sort", as Hill says ironically. Socialist levellers, communist diggers — you are needed again.