*THE GREAT, GREAT, GREAT, GREAT GRANDDADDY OF MODERN REVOLUTIONARIES- English Revolutionary Oliver Cromwell
Click on the title to link to a "Wikipedia" entry for Oliver Cromwell.
THE GREAT-GREAT-GREAT GRANDDADDY OF MODERN REVOLUTIONARIES
GOD’S ENGLISHMAN-OLIVER CROMWELL AND THE ENGLISH REVOLUTION. Christopher Hill, Harper Torchbooks, New York, 1970
The late eminent British Marxist historian Christopher Hill, more noted for studies (to be reviewed later, elsewhere) of the ‘underclass’ in the English Revolution of 1640-1660, has written a serviceable biography of the outstanding bourgeois leader of the English Revolution-Oliver Cromwell. Professor Hill in his analysis displays Cromwell ‘warts and all’ in order to place him in proper historical perspective. Other biographers, particularly British biographers, seem to have never forgiven Cromwell his ‘indiscretion’ of beheading Charles I and therefore dismiss his importance in the fight for bourgeois democracy. Professor Hill has no such inhibition.
This writer’s sympathies lie more with the social program put forth by John Lilburne and the Levellers and the social actions of Gerard Winstanley and the True Levellers (or Diggers) on Saint George’s Hill. Hill’s studies of those movements and others, as expressed in the religious terms of the day, initially drew me to the study of the English Revolution. Nevertheless, those plebeian-based programs in the England of the 1600’s were more a vision (a vision in many ways still in need of realization) than a practical reality. Even Cromwell’s achievements were a near and partially reversible thing. Such are the ways of humankind’s history.
For leftists Cromwell therefore is not the natural hero of that Revolution. However, his role as military leader of the parliamentary armies when it counted, his fight for the political supremacy of the rising bourgeois class to which he belonged and his practical discrediting of the theory of the divine right of kings-by beheading the defeated king- Charles I place him in the pantheon of our revolutionary forbears. For today’s leftists these are the ‘lessons’, so to speak, that we can learn from Cromwell’s struggle.
The English Revolution was by any definition a great revolution. It is therefore interesting to compare and contrast that revolution to the two other great revolutions of the modern era- the French and the Russian. The most notably thing all three have in common is once the old regime has been defeated it is necessary to reconstruct the governmental apparatus on a new basis whether parliamentary rule, national assembly rule or soviet role. The obvious contrast between revolutions is what class takes power- patricians or plebeians? That has been the underlying strain of all modern social revolutionary movements. Who holds power at the end of the process is a different and separate question, generally not to the liking of leftists trying to push the revolution forward.
Cromwell, unlike Napoleon or Stalin, was from the beginning both a key military and political leader on the parliamentary side. Moreover, in the final analysis it was his skill in organizing the New Model Army (from his famous "Ironsides" troops ) that was decisive for the parliamentary victories. Thus, the army played an unusually heavy role in the political struggles, especially among the plebeian masses which formed the core of the army (through the ‘Agitators’). In an age when there were no parties, in the modern sense, the plebeian base of the army is where the political fight to extend parliamentary democracy was waged. That it was defeated by military action led by Cromwell at Burford in 1649 represented a defeat for plebeian democracy. In that sense Cromwell also represented the Thermidorian reaction (from the French Revolutionary period represented by the overthrow of Robespierre and Saint Just by more moderate Jacobins in 1794) that has been noted by historians as a condition that occurs when the revolutionary energies become exhausted. Thus, Cromwell is central to the rise of the revolutionary movement and its dissipation. For other examples, read this book.
NOTE- The above review has not dealt with Oliver Cromwell and the Irish question. The central importance of Cromwell in his time was his role in the development of parliamentary supremacy, the revolutionary role of armed forces in the conflict with the old regime, and discrediting the theory of the divine right of kings. For those efforts his rightly holds a place in revolutionary history. Cromwell’s Irish policy, if one can call the deliberate military subjugation of a whole people and indiscriminate slaughter a policy, was ugly. This writer makes no apologies for it. Note well, however, that no British political leader, up to and including Mr. Tony Blair, has had a good policy on the Irish question. That is a question that British and Irish revolutionaries will have to deal with when they take power and finally make some retribution for the wretched history of Irish-English relations.