ohn Lilburne is the undoubted hero of the
English Revolution. The other prominent figures on the revolutionary
side scarcely compare. I leave aside Colonel William Rainsborough,
one of the most radical figures amongst the officers, whose
assassination deprived the revolution of one of its greatest
Cromwell is, mistakenly, often applauded on the left, presumably
for his role in establishing and maintaining a republican
form of government and his part in the regicide of Charles
I. The real Cromwell is far removed from the picture painted
of him by his supporters. He was an authoritarian and a counter
revolutionary. He viewed the world entirely from the perspective
of the propertied classes and saw the inequalities of 17th
century society as perfectly natural and God-given.
In a sense Cromwell was the inventor of British imperialism,
war with the Dutch over commercial interests and the dispossession
of the Irish. In Ireland Cromwell's policy was shocking to
contemporary observers, never mind the standards of our own
day. The execution of prisoners who had surrendered when their
chance of resistance had not completely disappeared was against
the generally understood laws of war and yet Cromwell did
it. The massacre of civilians had happened on the continent
of Europe during the Thirty Years War but had been largely
absent from the conduct of the Civil War in Great Britain.
The Irish were murdered not just because they were Catholics
(there had been Catholics fighting on the Royalist side in
England) but also because they were not seen, by Cromwell
and Ireton (his son-in-law), as fully human as their English
neighbours. The Irish were killed or displaced - "To Hell
or Connaught". The vacant land was then planted with either
army veterans or Presbytarian Scots settlers (and thereby
hangs a tale). Many native Irish found themselves as virtual
slaves in the West Indies or part of the growing Diaspora
across the globe, which was an intentional result of English
policy. Cromwell clearly understood the classical dictum that
war abroad distracts from misrule at home, since many of the
more radical regiments, which threatened Cromwell's power,
were either bribed with Irish lands or distracted from demands
for social and political change by a war against unbelievers
on the other side of St Georges Channel.
Gerard Winstanley was one of the prominent leaders of the
Diggers or True Levellers, who led the direct action of cultivating
the common land at St Georges Hill in Surrey before they were
suppressed with the support of local landowners including
Sir Francis Drake, the Lord of the Manor of Kingston. Winstanley
is often seen often seen as one of the founders of English
socialism. Actually Winstanley was more of a religious visionary
than a political leader. He was more of a precursor of the
king of spiritually inspired communes that have been such
a feature of America up to the present day.
Although Christian socialism has been an important influence
on the Labour Party and trade unions it has tended to be practical
and social reformist rather than utopian. Robert Owen's experiment
in socialism at New Lanark was motivated by a belief in rational
social engineering rather than spiritual mysticism. If the
Diggers have any modern counterparts it is on the New Age
fringes of the environmentalist movement.
No John Lilburne gets my vote as the Great Briton, of the
sixteen hundreds at least. Lilburne was born in 1615 into
a fairly prosperous but non-noble type of landowning family
that was becoming increasingly important in Parliament and
wider English society. The family even had a coat of arms
and Lilburne often showed himself proud of this gentlemanly
As a younger son he had no estate to inherit and he had to
make a way for himself and was apprenticed in London. The
apprentices were often people very like him, the younger sons
of the gentry with a little education and experience in the
use of arms.
Lilburne interested himself in religion, reading and attending
sermons and lectures. He also became increasingly caught up
in the political ferment of the times. In his late teens Lilburne
was involved in the distribution of literature smuggled in
from Holland. In 1638 Lilburne was jailed and whipped.
When the Civil War broke out between Parliament and King
Lilburne enlisted in the parliamentary army. He was wounded
at the indecisive battle of Edgehill. At the Battle of Brentford,
where the Trained Bands (in effect the London militia), turned
back the King's forces from the city, Lilburne fought with
great bravery but was captured and carried off to Oxford,
where the King was based. Lilburne was sentenced to death
but a threat from his side that Royalist prisoners would be
killed in reprisals saved his life. He spent a year in prison
and was badly treated but he was then exchanged and released.
Then the political struggle began in earnest. Lilburne placed
himself on the radical and egalitarian wing of the revolution.
Originally close to Cromwell he became more and more alienated
from him. Lilburne became a leader of the Levellers and produced
pamphlets and petitions presenting their case. Although there
has been an academic debate about just how far down the road
towards manhood suffrage the Levellers were prepared to go,
for example, would servants be allowed to vote? There can
be no doubt that if the Levellers had triumphed the history
of Britain would have been very different. Probably no restoration
of the monarchy and a more 'modern' state than the one we
Lilburne's platform was, in some senses, individualist and
liberal but it had a radical and egalitarian edge. The poor
could claim just as much a stake in the political system and
also the same right to assert their voice as those with property.
It is not likely that those with a vote would continue to
tolerate the massive maldistribution of wealth that existed.
The rich knew this. To give the power to vote to the modest
folk, many of whom had put their lives at risk during the
war against the King would have led to as much a social as
a political revolution.
From the Levellers onwards the message was clear, if political
power was equally distributed how could economic and social
power remain unequally distributed? Democracy and social democracy
were always linked. The Chartists drew just the same conclusion.
Give the people the power and they will use it. During the
19th century, across western Europe, the demand
of working people for the vote was rooted in exactly the same
The Levellers had considerable support in the army, particularly
amongst the rank-and-file but also many of the officers. Mutiny
broke out when several of the Leveller regiments were threatened
with service in Ireland. It was suppressed with some loss
of life at Burford and elsewhere.
Lilburne was at the centre of the writing of The Agreement
of the People, which was, in many senses, the precursor
of The Declaration of Independence and also the author
of England's New Chains, an indictment of Cromwell's
Protectorate. He was as persecuted under the new commonwealth
as under the old monarchy. Imprisoned, exiled to Holland under
pain of death and deported to Jersey he was not wanted in
the new republic of the wealthy. Of course those who had concentrated
wealth and power in their hands would stop being republicans
as soon as it suited them. As the radicalism of the revolution
ebbed away Lilburne turned into an embittered and broken man
and sometime before his death, in 1657, he became a Quaker,
a member of that most passive and apolitical of sects.
As Lilburne put it, "And posterity we doubt not shall reap
the benefit of our endeavours, what ever shall become of us."
We are his posterity, the man who has been rightly described
as England's first democrat. Let us now take down that statue
of Cromwell in Parliament Square and raise up a monument to
a Free-born John.
Pauline Gregg's biography, Free-Born John is published
in paperback by Phonenix Press
Eduard Bernstein's book, Cromwell and Communism is
published in paperback by Spokesman books
An interesting Lilburne themed album has been produced by
Rev Hammer on Cooking Vinyl