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Revolution: The World Turned Upside Down


Revolutions happen. Between 1639 and 1651 England went through a fundamental and irreversible social revolution. The event is popularly known as the English Civil War. However it was not just one civil war but three; the first English Civil War took place between 1642-6, the second English Civil War occurred between 1648-49 and the third, which incorporated conflicts in Wales, Scotland, and Ireland ended in 1651 when the forces of Prince Charles were destroyed at the battle of Worcester.

And it was not 'civil'. Quite the reverse: it was violent and bloody with some 200,000 deaths. It is estimated that England suffered a 3.7% loss of population and Scotland a loss of 6%, while Ireland suffered a loss of 41% of its population. This is in contrast to the 3% of the British population that died in the First World War, (Stephen Mortlock, DEATH AND DISEASE IN THE ENGLISH CIVIL WAR, Biomedical Science, 1 June 2017).

For Marxists the English Civil War constituted a revolution, although liberal historians had been referring to the Civil War as a revolution long before the historian Christopher Hill published his 1940 pamphlet 'The English Revolution, 1640'. The French Bourgeois historian, F. Guizot, had no qualms in referring to the English Civil War as a revolution in his pamphlet "History of the English Revolution of 1640: From the Accession of Charles I to his death'. When Karl Marx reviewed Guizot's pamphlet he headed his own article 'England's Seventeenth Century Revolution' (Politisch-├ľkonomische Revue, No. 2, February 1850). Engels was to refer to the English Civil War as the "Great English Revolution" in ANTI-DUHRING (p. 27, 1872). The 19th century historian S. R. Gardiner wrote 'The Constitutional Documents of the Puritan Revolution, 1628-1660' in 1889. Eduard Bernstein, published his 'Cromwell & Communism: Socialism and Democracy in the Great English Revolution' in 1895, a few years after he had begun his revision of the 'Marxism' of the Second International.

The Socialist Party of Great Britain had described the period of Civil war as a "Revolution" in an article entitled PAST CLASS STRUGGLE of May 1919. The article said:

"At the outbreak of the Revolution the parties taking part were : The Court Party, the lords and large landed proprietors ; the merchants ; the small farmers or country squires ; the town shop-keepers ; the political adventurers or opportunists ; and underneath all the poor of town and country".

In its 'SPEAKER'S HANDBOOK' (December 1982), the Socialist Party of Great Britain was quite clear that the 17th century English Civil War was a revolution. On the question of revolution, it stated:

"The English Revolution was the political expression of the bourgeoisie that they would no longer tolerate an absolutist, feudal monarchy and wanted freedom for the development of trade and industry. To which end they enlisted the support of smallholders, yeomen, burghers and others in a civil war and a prolonged campaign, until in the end a compromise was reached in the settlement of 1688, when a constitutional monarchy was formed".

The English Revolution saw two sections of the ruling class, Crown and Parliament, struggle for state power, particularly over the questions of taxation (Ship Tax), economic freedom to develop trade and industry, and prohibition in the granting of monopolies by the King in exchange for revenue. The result of this class struggle was to throw up all kinds of radical constitutional, religious and economic ideas. More importantly the revolution laid the foundations for an agrarian and industrial revolution and the expansion of capitalism through foreign trade. Money, for example, could be directed by Parliament to the formation of the Royal Navy to protect trade routes, take out competition, notably the Dutch, Spanish and the French, set-up strategic spheres of influence like ports and islands, and to protect the slave trade and other interests of merchant capitalism.

The consequence of defeat for Charles I, and his belief in the Divine Right of Kings to rule in an absolutist manner, was brutal. Having lost the war, King Charles was put on trial for his life. The court verdict and execution in January 1649 was a revolutionary act. At the end of the four-day trial, 67 commissioners stood to signify that they judged Charles I had:

"Traitorously and maliciously levied war against the present Parliament and the people therein represented".


"This Court doth adjudge that he the said Charles Stuart, as a Tyrant, Traitor, Murderer and Public Enemy to the good people of this Nation, [and] shall be put to death, by the severing of his head from his body"

The following day, the swing of the executioner's axe ended the Divine Right of Kings and its justification to rule as the Monarch saw fit, although the 'English Revolution' was not successfully concluded until the "Glorious Revolution" of 1689 and the Reform Act of 1832. Only then did the capitalist class have political power and representation.

In his critique of Guizot's book on the English Revolution, Marx made the following comment:

"M. Guizot finds it superfluous to mention that the subjection of the crown to Parliament meant subjection to the rule of a class. Nor does he think it necessary to deal with the fact that this class won the necessary power in order finally to make the crown its servant. According to him, the whole struggle between Charles I and Parliament was merely over purely political privileges. Not a word is said about why the Parliament, and the class represented in it, needed these privileges. Nor does Guizot talk about Charles I's interference with free competition, which made England's commerce and industry increasingly impossible; nor about the dependence on Parliament into which Charles I, in his continuous need for money, feel the more deeply the more he tried to defy it. Consequently, M. Guizot explains the revolution as being merely due to the ill will and religious fanaticism of a few troublemakers who would not rest content with moderate freedom. Guizot is just as little able to explain the interrelationship between the religious movement and the development of bourgeois society. To him, of course, the Republic [Cromwell's] is likewise the work of a mere handful of ambitious and malicious fanatics". (England's Seventeenth Century Revolution, 1850).

Contemporaries recognised the English Civil War as a revolutionary event, in which families were divided and people took up arms against each other. Victory for the Parliamentarians led to the Crown and the House of Lords being abolished, to be replaced by a republic and military dictatorship. The Church of England and its Bishops and clergy were overthrown and the liberty of conscience established (except, that is, for atheists and Catholics). The Civil war also created a proliferation of radical ideas, what the poet John Milton called the "womb of teeming birth" (To the Parliament of England).

The World Turned Up-Side down

Revolution is a very dangerous word. It conjures up in the mind, violent direct action, street barricades and, firing squads. So too does the expression "A world turned upside down", which is in itself a description of a revolution. "The World Turned Upside Down" is an English ballad published in the mid 1640s as a protest against the puritanical policies of Parliament relating to the celebration of Christmas. Ironically it was the tune played by the military band of General Cornwallis's defeated army after surrendering to the American revolutionaries at Yorktown in October 1781. More importantly it was referred to by the Digger, Gerard Winstanley. In his 1649 pamphlet, 'A Watch-Word to the City of London and the Armie' he wrote:

'Freedom is the man that will turn the world upside downe, therefore no wonder he hath enemies'.
(quoted in Early Modern Capitalism: The Diggers and Community of Goods, Ariel Hessayon, Journal for the Study of Radicalism, Vol. 3, No.2, 2009, 1-50).

And the Diggers were to have "enemies" for transgressing private property rights; the local gentry, the parsons and the New Model Army.

The phrase "A World Turned Upside Down" was used by the historian Christopher Hill as the title of his 1972 book describing the radical ideas of the 17th century. Hill wrote:

"What was new in the seventeenth century was the idea that the world might be permanently turned upside down: that the dream world of the Land of Cokayne or the kingdom of heaven might be attainable on earth now" (p. 17).

In a subsequent book, A NATION OF CHANGE AND NOVELTY (1990), Christopher Hill showed, against the revisionists of the 1980s and 1990s, that the term 'revolution' was in usage in the 1640s and used to describe the events covering the English Civil War. After carefully reading the texts of published pamphlets and books of the time, Hill concluded:

"The idea of revolution as a significant political transformation thus appears to have emerged during the interregnum" (p. 97)

He went on to remind the reader:

"Things precede words. Men and women find words to say what they have done or experienced in the process of doing it, or after they have experienced it" (p.98).

The Levellers acted before they had a word for what they were doing. And the Diggers did not produce pamphlets on digging the ground they just dug; a form of desperate direct action in the face of poverty and starvation. Or as Goethe remarked: "In the beginning there is the deed" (Faust).

Christopher Hill may be out of fashion with 17th-century scholars, but he is poorly understood by the revisionists like P. Kishlansky and Earl Russell, who opposed the Civil War as a significant revolution. Hill offered a method of engaged and radical scholarship in reading original texts. Hill skilfully used and arranged primary sources to make an argument against his opponents to which they had no answer. (For an account of the revisionists of the English Civil War see G. Kennedy, RADICALISM AND REVISIONISM IN THE ENGLISH REVOLUTION, in HISTORY AND REVOLUTION: REFUTING REVISIONISM, eds. M Hayes and J Wolfreys, Verso, 2007).

Turning the world upside down is to look at society from the perspective of the dispossessed, the poor, the down-trodden, and the ruled: history from below. And from this perspective someone can change their life completely, change their thinking and actions. Someone could become a leveller wanting the vote or it could be the pivotal moment of revolution when, for a Digger, production for profit is displaced with production for social use in common within a classless community of free men and women. In the context of the time, it meant wanting the vote without the imposition of the property qualification and pushing private property towards moneyless common ownership: revolutionary ideas, indeed.

Tom Spence, the English Jacobin, was to use the expression The World Turned up-side down' in the title of his 1805 pamphlet. He said:

'Upside down is after all a relative concept. The assumption that it means the wrong way up is itself an expression of the view from the top...We may be too conditioned by the way up the world has been for the last three hundred years to be fair in those in the seventeenth century who saw other possibilities. But we should try' (C. Hill, THE WORLD TURNED UPSIDE DOWN, p.312).

Limitations of the Levellers and Diggers

However, the world of the Levellers and diggers could never be permanently turned upside down. The Levellers were a minority within the New Model Army and the army was under the control of the 'Grandees' (as the Leveller, John Lilburne mockingly called them), county gentlemen like Cromwell and Ireton. Revolutionary ideas within the army were eventually suppressed by the firing squad. The Army commanders Thomas Fairfax and Cromwell were worried at the strength of support that the Levellers had in the Army, so they decided to impose The Heads of the Proposals as the army's manifesto instead of the Levellers' Agreement of the People. They ensured complete obedience within the army through the execution of leading levellers at Burford (1649).

Equally, the economic forces at the time acted against the Diggers. One of the principle grievances of the Diggers was the loss of common land through enclosure or "hedging. During the 17th century the practice developed of obtaining authorisation by an Act of Parliament. Initiatives to enclose came either from landowners hoping to maximise rental from their estates, or from tenant farmers anxious to improve their farms. Areal calculations show that England was already at least 75 per cent enclosed in I760, but only 47 per cent enclosed in I600 (THE CHRONOLOGY OF ENGLISH ENCLOSURE 1500 TO 1914, J. R. Wordie, THE ECONOMIC HISTORY REVIEW, vol. 36, no.4 1983 pp 483 to 505).

Enclosures and forced eviction formed a propertyless working class described by Marx in CAPITAL as a class free in the double sense of the word; free from the means of production and free to sell their labour power as a commodity in exchange for a wage (Chapter 6 THE BUYING AND SELLING OF LABOUR POWER pp 164-165). Property was everywhere conceived as private property and protected by the machinery of government, including the armed forces of the State. The peasants and small holders thrown off the land would become a new and exploited industrial working class (W. Hasbach, A HISTORY OF THE ENGLISH AGRICULTURAL LABOURER, 1908).

It is worth concluding with Marx:

"The transformation of scattered private property, arising from individual labour, into capitalist private property is, naturally, a process, incomparably more protracted, violent, and difficult, than the transformation of capitalistic private property, already practically resting on socialised production, into socialised property. In the former case, we had the expropriation of the mass of people by a few usurpers; in the latter, we have the expropriation of a few usurpers by the mass of the people" (CAPITAL vol. 1, Historical Tendency of Capitalist Accumulation Chapter XXXIII, p. 715).

Socialists look forward to one more revolution not just an English revolution. We look forward to a world socialist revolution. A change from a class society to a classless society: a change from capitalism to socialism. A revolution established, not by violence, but by the political and democratic action of a socialist majority with the revolutionary use of the vote rather than the swing of an executioner's axe. Goods and services can be made freely available in accordance with the principle 'from each their ability, to each according to their needs'. "Socialised property" or the common ownership and democratic control of the means of production and distribution by all of society is only a revolutionary vote away.

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