Britain's first revolutionaries

Freedom is a world turned upside down


THE REVOLUTION allowed many people to express dangerous ideas that questioned the accepted order. In the top corner is the title page of a Levellers pamphlet

IN JANUARY 1649 King Charles I was found guilty of being a "public enemy" and his head was chopped off. Parliament declared the monarchy to be "unnecessary, burdensome, and dangerous to the liberty, safety and public interest of the people" and the monarchy was abolished-as was the "useless and dangerous" House of Lords.

Even though later the monarchy would be "restored", the notion that it had the "divine right" to rule was severed forever along with Charles's head. It was the climax of the English Revolution. The revolution, which was carried through between 1640 and 1660, convulsed society from top to bottom.

On the one side there were the "cavaliers"-the reactionary army of Charles I and the established church and old landowners. On the other side there was the "roundhead" army-fighting for a coalition of interests grouped round parliament which were looking for some alternative to the old decaying order. The most determined section, led by Cambridgeshire landowner Oliver Cromwell, pushed to establish one of the world's first states based on capitalist principles.

But the revolution also drew in people outside the ruling class, such as the "middling sort" of yeoman farmers, minor gentry, small producers and the masses of the town and country poor. These had their own aims.

The English Revolution was not simply about establishing capitalism in Britain-if that was so, today's ruling class would celebrate it instead of trying to play it down. The revolution unleashed radical forces which wanted to go far beyond the limitations laid down by the powerful people who sat in parliament. Important amongst them were two groups-the Levellers and the Diggers. These were Britain's first revolutionaries.

AT THE start of the revolution the parliamentary forces were a loose number of units grouped round landowners loyal to parliament. Oliver Cromwell knew this was not good enough. His genius was to form a revolutionary "New Model Army" where promotion came through ability, not birth. As Cromwell put it, "I had rather have a plain russet coated captain that knows what he fights for and loves what he knows, than that which you call a 'gentleman' and is nothing else."

Cromwell saw that, to win, the army had to believe in what it was doing. He encouraged religious "free thinkers", and employed radical preachers who spoke about visions of a new, equal society. Parliament put up with this when the army was winning against the king. But it did not like the radical ideas that were forming as a result. The cavalry regiments elected "agitators" to press home their demands. They made Cromwell form an Army Council, where the officers sat with democratically elected delegates.

Out of this tumult came the Levellers. As their name denotes, they wanted change to go much further than Cromwell or parliament were prepared to go. The Levellers were on the far left of the revolution, even though most were of the "middling sort" and stopped short of challenging the right of private property. But they railed against the gap between the rich and the poor.

As a Leveller soldier wrote, "The great ones of our age add house to house, land to land, nay thousands to ten thousands, while the poor of the Kingdom are ready to starve." They demanded annual parliaments, an extension of the vote, an end to the power of the church, law reform and a republic. The Levellers also churned out pamphlets and sent out speakers to make sure everyone knew what was at stake.

The Levellers were at the forefront of the discontent when parliament tried to disband troublesome parts of the army and send other sections to colonise Ireland in the spring of 1647. This sparked widespread anger. Soldiers refused to do either until their demands were met. Oliver Cromwell was forced into debate with the Levellers at the Army Council in Putney in October and November 1647.

The "Putney Debates" revolved around the Levellers' radical political constitution, the Agreement of the People. But Cromwell showed he was not prepared to attack the privileged after getting rid of the king. Oliver Cromwell moved to crush the radicals. He locked the London Levellers up in the Tower of London. And when a 1,000 troop mutiny broke out, Cromwell and his right hand man Fairfax set out to crush it. They launched a surprise attack on the mutineers in Burford, Oxfordshire, in the spring of 1649 and killed four Leveller leaders, effectively putting an end to the movement, though not its ideas.

At the same time as the Leveller inspired troops were mutinying, a much smaller but no less significant action was taking place. In April 1649 a group of local people, under the leadership of Gerrard Winstanley, occupied a patch of common land on St George's Hill in Surrey. These were to become known as the "Diggers". They declared their intention to plant the waste land and not to pay any rent to the landowner. They then called on poor people everywhere to do the same.

This direct action came against a backdrop of mass starvation brought on by successive crop failures. It was a protest of the poor demanding a radical direction to the new society that was being formed. As Winstanley wrote, "The poorest man hath as true a title and just right to the land as the richest man."

The Diggers argued that they had supported parliament in the civil war, and rejoiced that the king and lords had been abolished, but that the "common people that have suffered most in these wars" were still under the knuckle of landlords and clergy. Winstanley argued, "That top bough is lopped off the tree of tyranny, and the kingly power is cast out. But, alas, oppression is a great tree still, and keeps off the sun of freedom from the poor commons still."

The Diggers said to the poor, who had been swept off their land by the big landlords and were now forced to sell their labour power, that there could be a society in which "none then shall work for hire, neither shall give hire". They told the peasants that there could be a society where they no longer had to go to the landlord "in as slavish posture as may be, with cap in hand, and bended knee, crouching and creeping".

WINSTANLEY WAS the Diggers' theoretician. He was a product of the revolutionary period he lived through, but also ahead of his time. He wrote in religious terms, claiming that he had been given his programme in a vision. But when faced with the accusation that his beliefs would destroy religion he replied, "It is very true." He warned the "gentlemen of parliament and army", "I tell you, and your preachers, that scripture which saith, 'The poor shall inherit the earth', is really and materially to be fulfilled. The time is very near...I tell you Jesus the head Leveller."

Winstanley reckoned that if every poor person took over the land and grew food then they would not need to work for the rich. It was a call for a kind of general strike. If they also refused the pay rent then the parasites at the top of society would eventually wither away as a class. A new world would be born, organised around common ownership, collective production for the meeting of need. "All the commons and waste ground in England, and in the whole world, shall be taken in by the People in righteousness...and that the earth must be set free from intanglements of Lords and Landlords, and that it shall become a common treasury to all." It was an early socialist vision.

Unfortunately 17th century England did not have the capability to deliver the society Winstanley agitated for-unlike the plentiful world we live in today. The St George's Hill Diggers were expelled by thugs organised by the local landowners, who trampled their crops and pulled down their dwellings. There were other Digger communities set up in southern England but they too did not last long. However, the new rulers did fear the "communism" the Diggers represented. Winstanley was tapping into a real resentment amongst the poor. As a London paper commented, "What this fanatical insurrection may grow into, cannot be conceived."

The Diggers' significance lies in the ideological challenge they represented to those at the top of society. It is up to us to today to fight for the society the Levellers and the Diggers were groping towards. As Gerald Winstanley argued, "Freedom is the man that will turn the world upside down."