The Anti-Democratic Origins Of Capitalism: The English Revolution (Liberalism Part II)

See Part I.

What were the circumstances out of which modern Liberalism was born? What real world events and interests influenced John Locke in writing his founding Liberal document The Second Treatise on Governement, with its rallying cry of “Sanctity of Property”.

The major series of events that took place in that era was, of course, the English Revolution. There is no doubt it was a significant step forward in the liberation of the masses. It was a progressive move forward against the tyranny of The Great Spirit of Disparity — what We call today Our Supreme Executive. The English Revolution “was in itself a moral as well as an economic revolution,” wrote renowned British historian Christopher Hill in his small but important book aptly titled The English Revolution. He notes the conventional appreciation and nostalgia the masses have for their “freedoms” and “rights”, albeit a bit more plainly than most Christians would like to admit:

We can be skeptical and tolerant in religious matters, not because we are wiser and better, but because Cromwell, stabling in cathedrals the horses of the most disciplined and most democratic cavalry the world had yet seen, won a victory which for ever stopped men being flogged and branded for having unorthodox views about the Communion service.

This is a true sentiment for the modern masses, and true enough in reality. And certainly We find this to be a loss for Our class; exercising a free hand against the lower orders is always a stimulating pleasure and a satisfying exhibition of domination. At the same time, We appreciate the fact that Cromwell also saved Us from the “most disciplined and democratic cavalry the world had yet seen”. Is that not the archetypal Liberal?

The Revolution, like most major events, was a complex affair with many twists and turns; enemies with overlapping interests, and allies with opposing ones. This is a brief sketch of modern democratic capitalism’s undemocratic beginnings, thus inevitably We omit many players and events in such a short post, but We hope the essence of Our argument becomes clear.

Paradoxically, like all the revolutions that brought about modern Democratic Capitalism, the various classes of the English variety fought for what they believed were already their rights, (which will come to be called Liberal capitalism). Most of those involved were not thinking of revolution but believed they were asserting rights they had already possessed. They did not necessarily fight for democracy, and nor for liberation from class (ie, true freedom). When they did appeal to liberty, it was mostly for their own class and not for those below them.

Christopher Hill writes in The World Turned Upside Down of Marchamont Nedham, journalist, propagandist for both sides, and appointed to an official post by Cromwell. Nedham wrote “when we mention the people, we do not mean the confused promiscuous body of the people”. Army chaplain Edward Bowles said, “I am far from a monster of democracy”. He was chaplain to the commanders of Parliamentary forces, and was accused of Royalist sympathies such that Cromwell brought complaints against him in the House of Commons. Bowles later resigned. “That which I call to the people for is but a quick and regular motion in their own sphere,” He said.

Many in the Army rank and file, for their part, wanted forests to be sold to pay their wages, but the poor knew that enclosure followed sales. These latter, the poor and lowest of peasants, came the closest to advocating true liberty, while others sided with the Royalists, who hoping their customary hold on land would be protected under the ancien regime. The struggles were by no means primarily about true liberation, though many believed that was what they were fighting for. The ignorance of the participants in the revolutionary struggle, and their focus on tradition (even as they up-ended it) ensured that they carried the ruling class virus with them.

Religion was being replace as an organizing principle by an economic one that greatly favored the commercially positioned. Thus economic liberalization paralleled religious liberalization. The Presbytarians were the party of the big merchants and the business-minded aristocracy. “The Presbyterian Edwards gave as one of the ‘heresies’ . . . the view that ‘by natural birth men are equally and alike born to like property, liberty and freedom.'”

The Independents, who tended to be Puritans — and one of any number of radical sects — were the party of the smaller gentry, yeomen, artisans and peasants. This rabble made up the revolutionary New Model Army. They were the original homely “everyman” of democratic lure. The crux of the increasingly fractious relationship between the rising bourgeoisie and the rabble was between those who wanted to win the war completely and those who wanted compromise with the King and his Royalists.

What were the “people” fighting for if not to abolish kings and liberate society? Therein lay the tension between the Parliament and the military leadership on the one hand and the army and the greater population on the other.

“If we beat the King ninety and nine times, yet he is King still,” said the Earl of Manchester, Cromwell’s general. “My Lord,” Cromwell replied, “if this be so, why did we take up arms at first?”

The New Model Army was revolutionary because these were citizens-soldier fighting for their “freedoms”. Up until then armies were more like mercenary militias, and were usually raised from the ranks of the poor, unemployed or imprisoned, with no personal interest involved except for pay. But this army was different. This was not a mercenary army fighting for a King, or putting a rebellion down in a near-by town.

Parliament, facing a more experienced military in the Royalist opposition, was forced to call upon the “citizens” of England to “throw off tyranny”. These men had a personal commitment to their cause. It was the masses’ own destiny that was their end. Unlike mercenary armies of the day, they did not go in for looting and were disciplined in the field. They were a professional fighting force. Now they were taking matters into their own hands at a time when one still had masters to obey. In church, they elected their own preachers, breaking the homogeneity of a unified message approved of by ruling class authorities. Many conservative Parliamentarians vigorously opposed the New Model Army’s creation.

The New Model Army’s commander Sir Thomas Fairfax and his successor Oliver Cromwell were thoroughly supportive of the Parliamentarian cause. They certainly were a progressive force as far as Liberal evolution goes. Fairfax was an excellent general  but not a politician. Cromwell was both. He promoted officers based on merit, not on birth. He allowed free discussion among his men. Cromwell supported religious toleration though preferred Puritans for his army because they shared the same motivations and enthusiasm. This won him the enduring love and loyalty of the troops. Indeed, “Cromwell,” writes Christopher Hill, “had to fight those of his superior officers who would not adopt the democratic method of recruitment and organisation whose advantages he had shown.”

Thus, Cromwell walked a tightrope between keeping his army focused on winning the rebellion against the archaic forces that stood in the way of Liberal Capitalism, while keeping said army from revolting against their new overlords. Hill notes in The English Revolution:

Such were the difficulties the bourgeoisie experienced even at the beginning of its career; it needed the people and yet feared them, and wanted to keep the monarchy as a check against democracy — if only Charles I would act as they wanted him to, as Charles II, by and large, later did.

Despite these difficulties, the enthusiasm and self-imposed discipline of the New Model Army was too much for the Royalist forces of mercenaries. Charles surrendered to the Scottish army, where he thought his prospects for some kind of settlement was better. But he was promptly sold to Parliament.

After having vanquished the Royalists, the strained relationship between the bourgeois leadership of Parliament and the rank and file of the New Model Army (the petty bourgeois) climaxed to the breaking point. Parliament attempted to evade its promises to the Army, including paying its wages, and providing indemnity for acts taken during the course of war. Their plan was to send this gaggle of the lower orders to put down rebellion in Ireland. Thus the democratic Army was ordered to crush the democratic aspirations of the Irish, even as the grandees (as the privileged military and Parliamentarians were called by the rank and file) demanded liberty and sanctity of property for themselves (which was most of the rank and file’s objective as well). The big bourgeoisie showed little interested in the problems that were being expressed in the Army and society. In fact, they were terrified of this New Model Army.

Historian Eduard Bernstein writes in Cromwell and Communism:

Now that the King had been reduced to military impotence, the majority of the Parliamentarians soon lost their enthusiasm for their own victorious Army, with whose whims they were too well acquainted, and to whom nearly a year’s pay was owing. They sought to lessen its influence by disbanding some of the regiments and distributing the rest in different places. But the leaders and the soldiers realized the meaning of this intention, and answered the move by constituting themselves into an independent force.

As Hill put it, “. . . once the fighting was over, the ‘Presbyterian’ compromisers began to raise their heads again, inside and outside Parliament.” The grandees had begun negotiating with the King in secret. The growing distrust of, and discontent with, Parliament inspired the creation of the Army Council . Each regiment chose Two officers to represent them called “Agitators”.  The army had become an independent force from the Parliament.

Meanwhile, in London, a political movement sprung up that was allied to the New Model Army. Like Army, it was made of the petty bourgeois, small producers, shopkeepers and mechanics. They wrote pamphlets in support of radical liberty: extension of suffrage, religious toleration, complete free trade for small producers, reform of debtors’ law, and extension of the parliamentary franchise, among other things. They urged the New Model Army to stand their ground.

After eleven MPs were expelled from Parliament for suspected intrigue with the King, a cavalry detachment of the New Model Army, led by a Leveller sympathizer seized the King In 1647. That same year the Army occupied London. To allay the growing animosity of the Army toward Parliament, the grandees agreed to hold debates at Putney. It was in consideration of a proposed constitution written by the Levellers and presented by the  of the Army Council called Agreement of the People. The conservative factions countered with the Heads of Proposals. It was written and argued by Henry Ireton, Cromwell’s son-in-law and general. Ireton promoted The Heads of Proposals as moderate compared to the Agreement. It called for the maintenance of the monarchy and episcopacy, and a far more limited franchise.

The two most quoted words from the debate succinctly lays out the essential conflict:

Colonel Thomas Rainsborough, for the Independents (and Levellers) in the Army:

I think that the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live, as the greatest he; and therefore truly, Sir, I think it’s clear, that every man that is to live under a government ought first by his own consent to put himself under that government; and I do think that the poorest man in England is not bound in a strict sense to that government that he hath not had a voice to put himself under.

Henry Ireton spoke for the Grandees:

No person hath a right to an interest or share in the disposing of the affairs of the kingdom, and in determining or choosing those that shall determine what laws we shall be ruled by here — no person hath a right to this, that hath not a permanent fixed interest in this kingdom.

The refrain “what hath we fought for?” rang out. The Agreement of the People was written off as “utopia” (see this Yale lecture). There was to be no final resolution to the Putney debates.

Bernstein writes, “Cromwell could not declare unequivocally for the abolition of the King’s prerogative, so long as he was himself negotiating with the King.” At any event, fortunately for big bourgeois, the King had escaped, some say with the help of Ireton and Cromwell, though there was no proof. This effectively closed down the debates. The  army forced was to close ranks in order to put down the Second Civil War, and the rank and file lost the initiative. Or did it?

The New Model Army was still a hotbed of radicalism. Before going to war once again, the leaders wanted to reaffirm their control of the Army and stamp out Leveller radicalism. Meanwhile, among the civilian population, the Agreement of the People was spreading far and wide. The Levellers were rock stars. And hostility to Cromwell and the grandees only grew. John Lilburne, pamphleteer and one of the leaders of the Leveller movement, along with others, began calling Fairfax, Cromwell, Ireton and others traitors. Cromwell, Bernstein writes,

now perceived that measures would have to be taken to cope with this agitation. He had hesitated long enough to call Charles personally to account, probably because he still shrank from this extreme step, and, moreover, had not the requisite legal means, but the Army were clamouring loudly for “justice”, and the revolt of a large section of the Army would inflict the gravest injury on him and his party.

It was agreed at Putney that regiments of the Army should meet to sign a declaration of loyalty to Fairfax as Commander in Chief of the Army and the Army Council. They rendezvoused at Corkbush Field. When Fairfax and his staff arrived, Colonel Rainsborough tried to present him the Agreement of the People but was brushed aside. Fairfax rode along the ranks as he read the declaration. Most of the assembled soldiers signed the declaration, being promised that it was easier to present a united front to Parliament for pay, etc. They had arrived at the field with copies of the Agreement in their hats which they discarded when ordered.

Two unauthorized regiments appeared on the scene, also with the Agreement in their hats and slogans that read “England’s Freedom” and “Soldier’s Rights”. The Grandees ordered the them to remove those papers. Many refused, whereupon an officer rode among them tearing them the soldiers’ hats. Some say it was Oliver Cromwell, some say not, but who had the clout and assurance He commanded? Three “ringleaders” were arrested out of the group. They drew lots for random punishment. The two shot the loser. His name was Richard Arnold. The Levellers and Army’s last bid for real power collapsed, though the Levellers would continue their activities.

Less than two years later The King was beheaded. The monarchy and the House of Lords were abolished, and Parliament suppressed dissent. John Lilburne was sent to the Tower of London. Limited Liberalism triumphed with the short-lived Commonwealth and Cromwell’s Protectorate dictatorship. In 1660 the monarchy was restored and the  surviving regicides who signed Charles’ death warrant were executed.

Thus, big bourgeois was “liberated” and the rabble held in check.

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