Category Archives: English Civil War

Reappropriating the Bourgeois Revolutions

“We have it in our power to begin the world over again.” -Tom Paine, Common Sense

here is a rather amusing predicament a student of bourgeois revolutions will notice upon first foraying into online research databases for primary documents. The databases you frequent, and are in many cases forced to use, hold  a noticeable connection to modern libertarianism and whig liberalism. Revolutions of peasants and merchants are now revolutions of only ingenious merchants; of Locke and Hobbes, and not Lilburne or Winstanley. A professor and I were in one particularly odious case forced to print off John Milton’s Eikonoklastes (in which Milton defends tyrannicide and lampoons the historically stagnant) from the “Online Library of Liberty” (a collection of scholarly works on individual liberty and free markets, as the header proudly proclaims), much to our own perturbation.

One finds this elsewhere, as the popularly published and circulated history of the American revolution is extraordinarily conservative and deterministic with some notable exceptions such as Zinn and Linnbaugh, amongst others. A statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest (the first grand wizard of the Klu Klux Klan) stands proudly in Memphis, but there is only one statue of Tom Paine (author and catalyst of American revolutionary nationalism) in the United States in a small New Jersey town. The peasant rebellions subsequent to the American victory are a mere footnote in history textbooks, only glossed over in most junior high and high school level history courses while the story of George Washington and an unlucky cherry tree endures in cultural memory.

Consistent with the bourgeoisie’s own narrative of its historical finality, the fire of the 17th and 18th centuries has been turned into a stone buttress holding up modern capitalist mythos of free enterprise and personal liberty. To such gentrified narratives, Milton’s Areopagitica is a treatise exclusively on modern freedom of speech and the press, the Leveller’s Agreement of the People is merely anticipatory of American radicalism, the Diggers an insignificant minority, the English Revolution (sorry, the English Civil War) a battle to get rid of an ineffective and catalytic king (Russel), and the Ranters didn’t even exist at all.

The gentrification, or revision as author James Holstun calls it, of the bourgeois revolutions is a two-way street, however, with many leftists rejecting the revolutionary legacy of the English Revolution (for Cromwell and Ireland), the American Revolution (for slavery) and the French Revolution (for  the “Reign of Terror” and Napoleon). Such an ideological decision plays into the hands of modern counterrevolutionaries who endeavor to appropriate revolutionary history.  The history of class struggle and warfare, even if the victors are the left’s contemporary enemies, is by right the area of Marxists and Marxist critics. There is no doubt that the bourgeois revolutions advanced through crippling dialectical contradictions (between liberty and slavery, for example), and Marxists must never let bourgeois theory escape from these historically objective contradictions. Such an activity, however, requires an appreciation of the movement of these revolutions down class lines and their ultimate failure to fulfill their most radical goals—requiring mass repressions of radical peasants and workers in each case.

At the heart of historically highlighting the bourgeois revolutions is the central thesis of a modern Marxist approach – revolutions are what change history. Mass movements of people, not singular heads of government, forge in the fire of violent upheaval the existing social order. The Bourgeois revolutions do not suggest the eternal triumph of the bourgeoisie, as many mainstream critics and historians have sought to prove through historical revision and post-modern diffusion. They are, instead, proof of the universality of class struggle, the power of the working classes, and the greater trend of humanity towards the democratization of production. To write off the bourgeois revolutions as historically necessary and inevitable is not only lazy Marxist analysis but it also silences the voices that actively fought against both feudalism and emergent capitalism. To ignore the struggles of peasants and workers in an era before developed capitalism and Marxism is to rob ourselves of a rich history and context for the establishment of our current struggles and dynamics. It is to chain Marxist analysis to the material conditions of the 19th century, an idea Michael Foucault and other post-modernists have endeavored to  establish for several decades; and an idea we must continue to oppose.

Let us then appropriate in this essay, as the bourgeois revolutionaries did in their revolutions, history. Just as Milton would highlight the democratic “nature” of the English people in Saxon times, let  us tell a history that leads to an understanding of these revolutions developed for many decades by Marxist historians across field and era. An understanding that renders the revolutions as a crucible where revolutionary anti-capitalist voices erupted from anti-royal struggles and were violently silenced by emergent capitalist states; revealing, in turn, the true nature of modern capitalist states and mythos.

Armed with Book and Lance: England and the Danger of Peasant Power

 “For the army are acted by their own principles; they are an army that  understands themselves.” -John Saltmarsh, A Letter from the Army, on the New Model Army

Perhaps the most obvious positive outcome of the bourgeois revolutions was the destruction of the feudal mode of production and the states that supported it. In England, in spite of the ultimate failure of the Commonwealth, the bourgeoisie continued to reign supreme into Restoration England, orchestrating the dubiously titled “Glorious Revolution” when fears of James II’s tolerance of Catholicism was used to bring about liberal reforms. England had become, as author J.G.A Pocock alludes to in The Machiavellian Moment, a society where economic stability was tied to political stability, where stability was tied to the prosperity of all: a convenient ideological strand given the frightening upsurge of peasant consciousness and resistance during the interregnum.

There are two things of import in highlighting this ideological turn in the restoration era bourgeoisie in England. First, the feudal economic system was undone. No longer did a King hold the leash of a parliament, long, short or in between; parliament now held the leash of King and Queen rather tightly, as the Glorious Revolution illustrates. Second, the economic stability of capitalist England was tied to political stability (read Pocock’s chapters “Court, Country and Standing Army” and “Virtue, Passion and Commerce”) to nurture the later blooming English fear of chaos caused by violent revolution, manifested in Alexander Pope’s rational exultation of inaction in his Essay on Man, Samuel Butler’s lampooning of puritan revolutionaries in his Hudibras, rabid anti-Jacobin tracts, and fearful early-Victorian tracts on continental upheaval (1848). Just what had happened in England during its revolution to elicit such fearful sentiments from the triumphant bourgeoisie and their culture? That, in our effort to render the bourgeois revolutions as class wars alight with ultimately snuffed out peasant consciousness, is worth answering.

The English Revolution is remarkable for its firstness in executing a king, and paradoxically, the revolution’s fairly conservative goals. The poetry of Andrew Marvell and John Milton (Marvell’s Horation Ode, Milton’s 16th Sonnet) reflect a deep anxiety with the violent revolution that killed 100,000 in a nation of five million. The political developments of the period (the Presbyterian parliament, the general unpopularity of the commonwealth government, and the ultimate betrayal of the military in the Restoration) show a keen conservative discomfort with what the revolution had uncovered; notably an English heritage of peasant revolt and consciousness, found politically in 1381 and even in literature in Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene.

The Commonwealth government, despite its enemies’ accusations, advocated itself for fairly conservative measures. Cromwell, and his fellow Grandees (landed gentry and other nobleman of the New Model Army, of which Cromwell was one, who opposed the agitators at Putney) advocated for very little past greater representation and parliamentary autonomy. That’s not to say, however, that radical and future-looking rebel voices didn’t emerge. In fact, the English Revolution is remarkable for the level of dialogue modern readers can find, be it through the Clarke Papers (which record, by quote, the Putney Debates) or the political tracts of Winstanley, Lilburne, Milton, Presbyters, Grandees, Fifth Monarchists and beyond, all of which survive to this day.

These tracts were read by an ever-diversifying populace. When John Milton was born in 1608, approximately 30% of the population in England could read, by the time he died, in 1688, nearly 50% of the society could read. What is the function of this change? Put simply, revolution and puritan egalitarianism (two connected concepts, no doubt), and what Jurgen Habermas would call the public sphere. Gone were the days of Latin texts read by only a handful of souls deciding the fate of an entire nation. In revolutionary England, working class New Model soldiers read and circulated texts, arguing with each other on points of organization, terror, and agitation. These texts, of course, were written in the vernacular. They were printed by the hundreds and thousands with ease. Political consciousness in peasants, women (see: Lucy Hutchenson, Anne Trapnell) and urban proletariat soared. Bibles were read by everyone in a pike battalion and everyone in a parish. The same anti-slavery verses that would so attract radical African slaves to the old testament worked unfiltered through the minds of revolutionary puritans via the Geneva Bible.

Of course, this consciousness and ideology wouldn’t be worth very much if it was not itself conscious of its own potential for realization. This potential was elicited, rather unwittingly, by the Grandee officers who gave the same peasants who had rebelled in 1381 pikes and muskets to do battle against the King. The New Model had, by its very own organization and revolution in military leadership and command, toppled one of the most powerful monarchs in the world. This experience, as James Holstien highlights in Ehud’s Dagger, garnered a previously unseen level of communal consciousness. At Putney, a debate between New Model radicals and Grandees, battalions elected their very own agitator to represent their interests. Agitators verbally acknowledge in the debates that they speak not for themselves but for their troops. This, fundamentally, was revolutionary democracy. Without the legitimacy of state and constitution, New Model soldiers struggled against what they saw as Grandee betrayal.

Predictably, Cromwell and Ireton (a frequently quoted Grandee from the Clarke Papers) responded to these agitator’s cries for universal suffrage with accusations of anarchism and banditry. Cromwell retorted to Rainsborough, the oft quoted agitator, by claiming, “No man says that you have a mind to anarchy, but that the consequence of this rule tends to anarchy, must end in anarchy.” Ireton condemned the leveling ideology at the meeting by asking, “by what right may I not take your property?”

These responses to peasant power, in letter and musket, is anticipatory of the universal repressions of peasants and workers subsequent to each major bourgeois revolution. Critically, we see a keen tension between what the bourgeois revolutions produced as bi-product and what they were prepared to procure politically. Elevated consciousness in the peasants and the wars they were willing to wage to bring together ideal, both religious and political, and reality, posed a grave danger to the triumphant bourgeois state of England. It is for this reason that repressions occurred, and that even through restoration and glorious dynasty change, the bourgeoisie continued to reign supreme in England; in stability, profit, crushing urbanization, and growing inequality.

We must never silence the voices of these agitators because they are inconvenient to our analyses, both left and right. The bourgeois revolutions were not simply anti-feudal, inevitable struggles born of inherent contradiction, nor were they wars for universal freedom and liberty. In between lies a world of both Grandee and Agitator, where both parties battled, and the latter lost. This battle and its belligerents are not insignificant. In the battle, many aspects of modern bourgeois democracy and the mythos that supports it were forged. The martial metaphor, as will be elucidated, is apt indeed.

A Republic of Burned Letters

“-no man hath a right to an interest or share in the disposing of the affairs of the kingdom… that hath not a permanent fixed interest in this kingdom.” -Ireton, Putney

The battles and its ultimate outcome is worth stopping upon, to illustrate how the failures of the bourgeois revolutions to meet their revolutionary ideals can be used as a catalyst in understanding the dominance and weaknesses of modern bourgeois mythos.

I had previously mentioned Jurgen Habermas’ concept of the public sphere and highlighted then only the core and mostly well-respected movements of his theory; chiefly that in Early Modern Europe you see the emergence of a republic of letters (not his term, but a popularly used one) in which textual voices discoursed over vast geographical distance critical problems and issues in society, philosophy, and so on. What many Marxist critics notice upon reading Habermas (a Frankfurt Marxist himself) is that the idea is too glorified, that Habermas believes too strongly that this system actually worked to any measurable degree.

I do not dispute the idea of the public sphere, but I do agree with other critics that Habermas’ vision of it is too idealized. The public sphere functioned down class lines, and was, as alluded to above, working in a society where only half of the population knew how to read and write. We must guard cautiously against dubiously claiming the public sphere was anything more than an inter-bourgeois mode of critique and debate. Clearly, as we will revisit and hash out below, many voices in emergent bourgeois society were crushed utterly and violently.

In England, many leveling New Model soldiers refused to go to war in Ireland, earning them jail and expulsion from the army. The Diggers, lead by Gerrard Winstanley, numbering only 50, were attacked by hired thugs of landed gentry (on whose land they lived on the outskirts of) and were eventually dissolved forcefully by Thomas Fairfax and Commonwealth soldiers, with their crops torn out, their hovels burned, and their common buildings torn to the ground. Radical preachers were thrown in prison by a parliament preaching religious freedom. Licensing of texts continued in spite of John Milton’s famous protestation Areopagitica. Perhaps most famously but least importantly, Christmas was cancelled due to peasant revelry and the associated sinning.

Clearly, this was a society much to John Milton’s liking; a society where a privileged, intellectual few men made the decisions for an entire nation, and not a society were millions discoursed on national policy free from repression. What we see in England is, as Pocock is right to trace, republican governance in the true Roman and Greek sense; as Vladimir Lenin was astute to point out, freedom for wealthy men, and not plebs, lest we find ourselves in tyranny (or anarchy, as Cromwell suggested at Putney). Indeed, this was, explicitly, what Milton and many other Commonwealth intellectuals (such as Marvell) advocated for. The rule of the rich was universally preferable to the rule of the emotional and chaotic “thralls” (as Milton called the working class in his Readie and Easie Way).

As many recent scholars have been right to point out, the American revolutionary generation inherited much from its English younger brother. Ben Franklin reflects in his autobiography reading Milton’s political tracts in his grandfather’s library. Tom Paine quotes Milton’s Satan in Common Sense, and Lilburne was widely read. Interestingly, the repression of emergent peasant radicalism was not transcended by a purely temporal shift forward (as a Whig historian might suggest). We see in the Whiskey Rebellion and more particularly Shay’s Rebellion, opposition to the failure of even the Constitutional (as opposed to the confederated) government to achieve the aims of revolutionary peasants and workers met with violent repression instead of an open republican hand or even a concession like the tribune or plebeian council.

In France we find an extremely similar story. The sans-culottes, essentially rioting urban proletariat, were originally used and championed by the Jacobins and their leader Maximilian Robespierre. It was the sans-culottes who most vigorously defended the “terror” against reactionaries and enemies. When Robespierre was executed himself and the Directorate rose to supremacy, the sans-culottes were repressed violently as remnants of a chaotic and tyrannical period. Those two words associated with peasant power should be familiar to you at this point. The offspring of Greco-Roman republicanism shared its deep fear of true democracy and the crucible of plebian control.

“The secret in freedom lies in educating the people, whereas the secret of tyranny is to keep them ignorant.” – Maximilien Robespierre

In total, studying the true, if often not recounted, nature of the bourgeois revolutions; in their deep fear of true democracy and in their brutal repression of emergent peasant power, we find a fruitful theoretical avenue for understanding the formation of modern bourgeois states and their mythos. A Marxist will be eager to use the simple fact that the bourgeois revolutionaries never attempted to provide true democracy or freedom. They never sought to hear the voices of every citizen, and this is flagrantly obvious with the tangential study of bourgeois repressions of peasant movements in each major revolution found above. In spite of capitalist mythos of unlimited freedom and a republic of letters, the history of the revolutions alone (to say nothing of imperialism) proves these to be completely false and even never explicitly desired by the founding fathers in each case.

Given what we have highlighted above, we must refute both whig and crude marxist renderings of the bourgeois revolutions that leave them a lifeless husk of nebulous progress and inevitability. What we find in a true study is quite the opposite – a period alight with bloodshed, rebellion, revolutionary discourses, and tyrannical bourgeois republicanism; where each tract and battle titled the scales of history. Critically, we find in the bourgeois revolutions as an almost unintentional bi-product the empowering of peasants past what the bourgeois leaders were comfortable with. We see peasants and urban proletariat waging war against capitalism as well as feudalism, and forming their own independent organizations with their own representatives.  Their voices are important for us now, in light of whig history coming from both left and right, we find in history that the contradictions of capitalism have not moved an inch. From 1640 to today, from Lilburne to Hampton, the bourgeoisie maintains its deep fear of a people’s tyranny, repressing violently any who would suggest something more; any who would suggest for true universality and not the universality of Rome and Athens, who would endeavor to fulfill the true promise of the revolutionary movements in England, France, and America. Such is the function of the bourgeois state from its inception as we have seen above, but in the history of its forging, what we have endeavored to reappropriate to the history of class struggle, we can find in their own deeds the means for procuring an end of true, universal “liberty, equality, and fraternity.”

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Dreaming of Another World: Revolutionary Puritanism in England


“Was the earth made to preserve a few covetous, proud men to live at ease, and for them to bag and barn up the treasures of the Earth from others, that these may beg or starve in a fruitful land; or was it made to preserve all her children?” -Gerrard Winstanley, The New Law of Righteousness

https://rlv.zcache.com/letter_i_medieval_monogram_vintage_initial_statuette-r0a3155c6fc5849d18474e628703936c8_x7saw_8byvr_324.jpg n a damp prison cell in the Tower of London  in the year 1677, a portly Evangelist sat defiantly in his cell writing what would become, next to the bible, the most published and read book in the English language. He had been arrested countless times subsequent to Charles II’s Restoration, each time suggesting to his judge what Joey Strummer would later defiantly yell in his 20th century punk song “Clampdown,” to double the prison sentence. The man, in a statement quoted in Martin Luther King Jr’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” preferred to“-stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience.” The book he wrote was about a dream, a dream about a man named Christian defeating all obstacles on a perilous but ultimately successful journey to the gleaming citadel of heaven. The man, of course, was John Bunyan. The book was his masterpiece, Pilgrim’s Progress. 

I use this anecdote of a dreamer in prison in response to the shocked and amused
“why?” I get every time I express my passion for the radical puritan literature that erupted from the English crucible of the 1640s and 50s. Today, the perception of 16th through 18th century puritanism in the consciousness of the left and modernity at large is one of scornful amusement, and justifiably so given modern developments. The descendants of puritanism, modern day radical Protestants, have been unkind to the legacy of Bunyan and his dreamer.

However, in the world of Bunyan and Winstanley the vocabulary of radical religiosity was at once religious and political, personally empowering and collectively egalitarian. In this extraordinary time where feudalism fell to parliamentarian liberalism, revolutionary puritanism became in England a way of critiquing emergent capitalism on radically equal spiritual grounds.  The puritan experience was congruent with Christians’ in Pilgrim’s Progress: reading a book, looking at the world around, and asking “-what shall I do?” The revolutionary generation that Bunyan was but the latter bookend was marked by a different kind of puritanism from that which we are familiar with today; a puritanism that gave voices to the voiceless, namely women, preached radical economic equality begotten out of spiritual sameness, and one that rendered property and ownership as the root of sin on earth.

Anna Trapnel, Fifth Monarchist Prophetess

The dialectical nature of radical Puritan thought attacked one firmly held belief of historical import – the inherent inequality between social strata of men and women. In the radical puritan thought system, the body was annihilated and replaced with the fervent soul; a soul that suggested total equality divorced from physical and mental limitations often fraudulently ascribed to women in the period (and ours). It is no coincidence that in the English Revolution countless female political actors emerged from enforced silence to the center of movements through the avenue of spirituality. The spirituality of Puritanism, at the time, was a legitimated vocabulary that opened the door to the creation of discourses of struggle for women, namely for the purposes of this post Anna Trapnel.

A modern reader of Anna Trapnel, a fifth monarchist prophetess, may wonder if she was mentally insane. She writes fervently, like Bunyan, about hearing voices so loud as to turn her head. Yet, her textual constructions (Notably “A Narrative of Her Journey Into Cornwall”) and her visions were of a dual nature. On one hand her visions were orthodox and apocalyptic, typical for the period amongst puritan radicals. On the other, they pit a woman against the highest secular powers on earth; priests, kings, lords, and land-owners. Her most famous vision came at the very location where Charles I had lost his head, a vision that warned against the resurgence of tyranny and anticipated that Caesarian, Cromwellian bolt of lightening Marvell describes in his Horation Ode. She would fast for weeks on end, a radical divorcement from material reality, but she would always return to it in the visions that were produced from her periods of fasting. When she was arrested for disturbing the peace in Cornwall (preaching), she responded to her accusers with verses and parables; much like Jesus in his Roman trial. Throughout her career as a prophetess, we find keenly secular critiques in the form of visions rooted deeply in biblical precedent. (See Holstun’s chapter on Anna Trapnel in Ehud’s Dagger for more, citation below).

Anna Trapnel teaches the modern reader to dig deeper into Puritanical thought beyond the immediate facade of radical religiosity. For Trapnel as for Bunyan, Winstanley and others, Puritanism was a mechanism for critiquing society, a dialectical antithesis to a thesis of equality that formed the synthesis of the rule of the saints. These saints were without gender. Through visions and biblical citation, Anna Trapnel gained a secular voice through deep religiosity, and she was able to construct a validated discourse with which to clash with the ruling class of her society. The opportunity to construct socially antithetical discourses in direct opposition to secular powers gave voice to the voiceless, power to the powerless, and in doing so, rendered all of society as made up of equal members. Marxist critics of the period must be vigilant, as Holstun reminds us, not to simply render Trapnel’s voice as a product of bourgeois individuality, but rather as a point in the spectrum between individual empowerment and societal equality. Holstun concludes, “If we reduce the civilian an Army radicals at Putney to possessive individualists, we overlook the democratic and collectivist currents inside seventeenth-century radicalism, which never quite died” (256).

The legacy Holstun alludes to is a truly remarkable part of Puritan thought and revolution in Early Modern England. Puritanism gave voice to the voiceless and opened the door to the creation of discourses antithetical to worldly power, and just what they said is still relevant to contemporary struggles against strictly gendered societies obsessed with mammon. Much of the radical egalitarian ideology of 1648/9 came out of the New Model Army, an army of radical parliamentarians with a significant puritan leaning. Cromwell lead this army to smashing victories over the king at Marston Moore and elsewhere; surely a sign, as Cromwell noted, of God’s favor. Unfortunately for Cromwell, the New Model knew a different kind of providence than he, one that made them all equal and members of a democracy of  God, pike and musket.

At Putney soldiers met with Cromwell and his leadership to discourse and debate over the “disunity” of the parliamentarian cause. Cromwell, in motions similar to those of modern moderates, scolded the New Model for promoting faction and disunity. His solution, of course, was to submit to New Model authorities. Each regiment elected agitators to speak for them and agitate for their goals. If one reads the Putney Debates, one finds agitators cautiously unwilling to speak on behalf of their soldiers, reflective itself of an emergent communal power in the New Model. Both of these concepts were important, community and power, for the Putney agitators and for modern critics looking for a cast shadow on political developments in the 18th century. The soldiers were not solely a collection of individuals but something more; they were a community whose power superseded that of a single arm or pike; and they knew it.

Thomas Rainsborough, one of the more memorable agitators of the New Model at Putney, elucidates:

“For really I think that the poorest hee that is in England hath a life to live, as the greatest hee; and therefore truly, Sr, I think itt 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 at all bound in a strict sense to that Government that he hath not had a voice to put Himself under.” (Rainsborough, Putney Debates)

Rainsborough knew by his very presence at Putney that a man’s voice was not simply his own but that of his entire class. Through the Puritan creation of alternative discourses Rainsborough moved, if only for a moment, into something profound and historically unique; a critique of emergent, victorious English capitalism. Rainsborough and his agitators were the voice of the voiceless, a struggle opened by radical puritanical egalitarianism and taken forward perhaps most famously by New Model Colonel, Gerrard Winstanley.

The resurgence of the popularity of Gerrard Winstanley in the general public and critical circles in the wake of the Occupy movements is telling of the character of the Colonel’s ideology. Winstanley is undeniably a proto-marxist, a socialist without Marx, and a class warrior on the historical frontier of emergent capitalism. Yet, as we must not forget, Winstanley was a fervently religious man and a devout puritan. His motivation to creating a common treasury of earth through his communist Diggers was a vision. He, like Bunyan and Trapnel, heard divine voices speak to him in times of trouble.

Yet, Winstanley’s religious, critical analysis leads him to make cutting critiques of capitalism and authority; be it King or lord (or Lord Protector, for that matter). Winstanley wrote several letters to the Council of State (of which Milton was the Latin Clerk) urging them to fulfill revolutionary promises, elucidating with precision the theme I am highlighting throughout – Puritanism as a mechanism for critiquing the emergent bourgeoisie and their counterrevolution. In his famous “Declaration of the Poor Oppressed People of England, Winstanley declares, “And we look upon that freedom promised to be the inheritance of all, without respect of persons; And this cannot be, unless the Land of England be freely set at liberty from proprietors, and become a common Treasury to all her children.” Winstanley reached a new synthesis of puritanism in conflict with bourgeois society in the crucible of English revolution. Not only is he speaking on behalf of a class and not a denomination or sect, but Winstanley looks at his society (like Bunyan’s Christian) and highlights the problem – inequality. It is inequality that makes the revolutionary promises of Cromwell and his Council impossible. While Lords are left to tyrannize the working classes, no rule of the saints can truly be procured. In short, Winstanley was right. The promises of saintly equality were impossible while the land was divided and profited from by a select few.

We must guard against rendering Winstanley as a “man ahead his time,” however. Winstanley was but one man who cast a literary shadow in writing, but he was emblematic of a movement that bursts through the cracks of history at Putney, Whitehall and even Milton’s Pandaemonium. Puritanism, first through the creation of egalitarian discourses for both male and female, and secondly through the emergent consciousness of community, power and inequality in New Model struggle, became capitalism’s first resistance movement. Winstanley was not an aberrant lifestylist, as some Trotskyists claim (http://www.marxists.org/archive/james-clr/works/1949/05/english-revolution.htm), but a man born from an army of consciousness and struggle.

 photo diggers_zpse5ded43b.png

Winstanley and his Diggers did not only attack  inequality, however, and this is perhaps the greatest contribution of English puritanical radicalism through the precision of hindsight; they attacked what they saw as the root of all inequality – property. Bunyan’s “Vanity Faire” is a commodity market, Christian’s chief enemy Apollyn offers Christian a higher wage for him to desist form his journey to the Celestial City, Milton’s Mammon is obsessed with gold and its procurement, and Winstanley’s Biblical analysis dating back to Cain and Abel sees ownership as the root of all sin on earth.

Winstanley is perhaps the most emblematic of the puritanical impulse to see property as the root of sin on Earth. Winstanley writes, “So long as the earth is intagled and appropriated into particular hands and kept there by the power of the sword……so long the creation lies under bondage.” As Winstanley’s career advances towards the ultimate forceful dissolution of his Diggers we see a developing understanding of the violence inherent in the system (to quote the Anarcho-Syndaclist peasant in Monty Python and the Holy Grail). Winstanley sees not only inequality as a problem but identifies its main cause; the ownership of property and the system built to enforce it. Inequality does not simply exist in Winstanley’s analysis, it is enforced by sword and fire. Winstanley and the agitators at Putney made class struggle central to a developing puritan understanding of saint and society; one tempered by their experiences with the property holders of their society.

Winstanley, like later Marxists, would see the specter of property as theft. Winstanley’s historical firstness is key here, and it suggests that a unique collision of material circumstances produced his forward-looking ideology; chiefly the collision of puritanical egalitarianism and the capitalist state it helped create on the battlefield. Winstanley, Rainsborough, Bunyan, Trapnel and others are evidence that the Puritanism of England was not simply a catalyst in the creation of bourgeois, humanist ideology and the republicanism that would take hold in the Americas and Western Europe. At work in the Puritan experience in the New Model and early modern English society at large was burgeoning radicalism. A radicalism that would be repressed in 1649 in England, 1786 in the United States, and 1794/5 in France. Of import is the fact that these movements were suppressed by emergent capitalism by force, and was not simply a product of bourgeois liberalism. I can say without flinching that Winstanley and his Diggers are the roots of modern British Socialism, if not international socialism; and the grounds for such a statement are in Winstanley and other radical Puritan’s rendering of property as the cause of inequality and sin. Winstanley concludes,

“For though you and your Ancestors got your Propriety by murther and theft, and you keep it by the same power from us, that have an equal right to the Land with you, by the righteous Law of Creation, yet we shall have no occasion of quarrelling (as you do) about that disturbing devil, called Particular propriety: For the Earth, with all her Fruits of Corn, Cattle, and such like, was made to be a common Store-house of Livelihood to all Mankinde, friend, and foe, without exception.” (Winstanley, Declaration).

Winstanley looks to the Peasant Rebellion of 1381 as a historical lesson, that the lords attained their wealth by the sword and with the sword they will keep it. This, in short, is the experience of radical puritan elements in the English Civil War. 1649 would see the Levellers and Diggers disbanded, executed and imprisoned. The common treasury would be taken away to private cellars, Trapnell would be thrown in prison along with Bunyan, left only with his literary dreamer defeating what Bunyan could not in physical reality. Winstanley’s ideology evolves through material struggle, a pedagogical process for future generations who would carry on his work. Winstanley began with the belief that his Diggers could coexist with Lords and manors, but later, as illustrated in this quote, realized that struggle was necessary; and struggle he did, through scriptural critiques and communal living. In summary, Puritan radicalism in England must be understood as a struggle within a unique, period, and religious vocabulary that procured material struggle between newly forming proletariat and bourgeoisie. Of this struggle we find the creation of radical, inclusive discourses, emergent class-consciousness and the rendering of property as the root of all of Earth’s ills.

The historical struggle of the radical puritans in early modern England gives valuable insight to the movements of today that struggle still with lords and manors of different character but identical nature; those who would keep their property by murder and theft and deny the people their common treasury. From that which we started we shall end, as there is no finer example of the puritan radical experience than that of Bunyan’s Christian, shedding tears over the present state of things but ultimately struggling against it through dangerous adventure. To Bunyan as it was to Winstanley and as it is to us today, the common treasury is but a dream. As Bunyan proved with his prose, Trapnell with her prophecy, Rainsborough with his pike, and Winstanley with his pen, to dream is a first step well taken towards the procurement of a rule of the saints.

Further Reading

Dunn, Alastair. The Great Rising of 1381: The Peasants’ Revolt and England’s Failed Revolution. Stroud, Gloucestershire: Tempus, 2002. Print.

Habermas, Jürgen. The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 1989. Print.

Hill, Christopher. Puritanism and Revolution: Studies in Interpretation of the English Revolution of the Seventeenth Century. New York: St. Martin’s, 1997. Print.

Hill, Christopher. The Century of Revolution 1603-1714. London: Routledge, 2002. Print.

Hill, Christopher. The English Bible and the Seventeenth-century Revolution. London: Allen Lane, 1993. Print.

Hill, Christopher. The World Turned Upside Down; Radical Ideas during the English Revolution. New York: Viking, 1972. Print.

Holstun, James. Ehud’s Dagger: Class Struggle in the English Revolution. London: Verso, 2002. Print.

Petegorsky, David W. Left-wing Democracy in the English Civil War; a Study of the Social Philosophy of Gerrard Winstanley,. London: V. Gollancz, 1940. Print.

Pocock, J. G. A. The Machiavellian Moment: Florentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Republican Tradition. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 2003. Print.

Winstanley, Gerrard. The Complete Works of Gerrard Winstanley. Ed. Thomas N. Corns, Ann Hughes, and David Loewenstein. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2009. Print.

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Filed under Capitalism, Class, Dialectics, Early Modern, English, English Civil War, Gerrard Winstanley, John Bunyan, Literature, Puritanism

Predestined to Revolution: Puritan Rhetoric and Themes in Tom Paine’s Common Sense

Common Sense: http://www.ushistory.org/paine/commonsense/

Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God: http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1053&context=etas

A Model of Christian Charity: http://religiousfreedom.lib.virginia.edu/sacred/charity.html

            homas Paine’s Common Sense is one of the greatest insights into the revolutionary fervor that swept the American Colonies in the 18th century and the revolutionary sentiments expressed in the prose give keen details on what drove the colonists to take up arms and fight the most powerful Empire of their time. Common Sense was widely read by Americans, and its impact on the formation of the United States cannot be overlooked. Yet, Common Sense is itself profoundly impacted by the hundreds of years of colonial history that lead up to that revolutionary moment. In Common Sense,  Paine appeals to many different Americans; ranging from utilizing biblical criticism to harkening back to the days of the pagan Roman Republic. Yet throughout all of these appeals a common thread is woven through them all. This common thread is the American experience of the Puritan dynamic, or the Puritan influence on the radicalism of Paine; but more specifically, the Puritan elements in how Paine envisions America and what modes of persuasion he chooses to use. By studying rhetorical similarities between Jonathan Edward’s “Sinner’s in the Hands of God” and Paine’s Common Sense, and analyzing the thematic similarities between John Winthrop’s “A Model of Christian Charity” and Paine’s depiction of American Destiny and equality, a greater understanding of the Puritan influence on Common Sense can be gained. The inherent messages of Puritanism, from Winthrop’s concept of the city on a hill, to the violent urgency of Jonathan Edwards polemical orations, are profoundly ingrained in Common Sense. Common Sense influenced American political formation just as Common Sense was influenced by the radical Puritan conceptions of urgency, inevitability, destiny and equality.

Jonathan Edward’s “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” and Common Sense are at first glance utterly opposed to opposed to one another, and ideologically they certainly are. Yet rhetorically, the two documents share much common ground. The concept of urgency in Puritanical writing is due to the ever-present ideas of doom and judgment within Puritan thinking. The urgency of the situation each author sees his audience in is found throughout each document, and this sense of urgency is used as persuasion within both pieces. Edwards expresses a uniquely puritan concept of urgency by writing, “How can you rest one moment in such a condition? Are not your souls as precious as the souls of the people at Suffield, where they are flocking from day to day to Christ?” (329). In this passage, Edwards implores the audience to not wait even “one moment” and suggests that those who value their souls must do something immediately or suffer eternal damnation. This also introduces an interesting contradiction within Edwards, and that is the all-powerful nature of god seems to defeat the concept of urgency being necessary, and this is where Edwards brings in the threat of heinous fates to those who do not seek out god to overcome this contradiction. Edwards reasserts this point by stating that those that do not seek forgiveness immediately are subjecting themselves to nothing less than spiritual destruction. Paine uses a similar construction, writing “Wherefore since nothing but blows will do, for God’s sake, let us come to a final separation, and not leave the next generation to be cutting throats, under the violated unmeaning names of parent and child” (40). This passage paints a picture of the urgency that Paine has portrayed throughout the piece, as Paine weaves present and future as if they are directly related to their actions in this moment. Paine also introduces the idea of the society, or future society, which depends on these actions. This is Paine’s use of some terrible fate to befall the land if his readership does not act immediately. Paine suggests that violence will come upon their children if the readership does not do something this instant about English tyranny, and those who do not act with urgency are subjecting their children to violence. In this rhetorical interpretation, Paine has made loyalists and non-revolutionaries as those who would allow future generations to suffer violence under the boot of the English King because of their own timidity or idealistic lack of historical urgency just as Edwards has portrayed those who do not seek salvation as those who do not value the precious nature of their souls. Paine uses the threat of British violence and Edwards uses the specter of an ultimately powerful and wrathful god, both as a means to the end of creating a profound sense of urgency within each piece. The idea of urgency is a fundamental pillar with which the rhetorical argument of each piece is built, and while Paine rejected fervent religious ideology as expressed in Edwards, here we see him utilizing a distinctly Puritan tool of persuasion, that of the great urgency all sublunary souls find themselves in. This urgency is contradicted with the inevitability of salvation, damnation and Revolution, and the same contradiction is found within Common Sense.

The concept of inevitability is one that profoundly impacts both Common Sense and “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” The inevitability of judgment and the anxiety that went along with that is steeped in Puritan writing as seen in Bradstreet, Rowlandson and many others. Puritanism is rife with contradiction, and the relationship between urgency and inevitability is another example of this, as Earthly actions do not impact salvation under their predestined ideology, yet Edwards stresses the urgency highlighted above. In perhaps the most famous words of the speech, Edwards compares all humans to a spider upon a thread. Edwards writes, “The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you and is dreadfully provoked” (325). Edwards has established a situation in which a sinner’s destruction is inevitable, and the soul’s eternal punishment hangs upon a thread tied to an all-powerful God’s whims. The language is highly Puritanical as no human can know the whims of god, yet it is “dreadful” to “provoke” such an all powerful entity. Edwards manifests the contradiction highlighted earlier; on one hand, an all powerful god has the audience members hung over the pits of hell in which they might be dropped at any moment, and on the other, they must repent and seek Christ; suggesting that they have some level of control. This contradiction can be found in Common Sense as Paine uses the same metaphor and adjusts it to his purpose. Paine writes, “Emigrants of property will not choose to come to a country whose form of government hangs but by a thread, and who is every day tottering on the brink of commotion and disturbance; …inhabitants would lay hold of the interval, to dispose of their effects, and quit the continent” (43). Paine once again associates a possible outcome with what will happen if the American people do not cut off the British government “hang(ing) but by a thread.” Paine establishes a set of circumstances that will not only hurt the American people but result in the destruction and abandonment of their lands, much like how Edwards establishes a cruel fate for the spider upon the string. In many ways Paine has taken Edward’s canonical metaphor and turned it on its head, with the American people taking up the role of an all-powerful god, holding the fate of the teetering British Colonial Government in their hands. To oppose the inevitable destruction of the fraying thread holding British rule in America together, is to oppose a historical certainty to Paine, yet Common Sense is filled with a desperate sense of revolutionary urgency highlighted above. Thus Paine is an author of dynamic character, accepting both enlightened secularism with one stroke of the pen, and utilizing famous puritan metaphors and concepts such as urgency and inevitability with the next.

Common Sense cannot be limited to the rhetorical realm, however, as the document is extremely political and nationalistic. Paine fills the prose with enlightenment concepts such as democracy, republicanism and checked authority; yet Paine invokes the deeply puritanical concepts of destiny. John Winthrop elucidates the concept of the destiny of the American people perhaps more famously than any other Puritan writer. His “A Model of Christian Charity” outlines the great idealism that swept puritan communities when they first established colonies in the new world. Undoubtedly, the ideals expressed in Winthrop were never fully realized, yet this incubatory conception of American destiny and nationalism were to have a profound impact on their future manifestations found in Common Sense. Winthrop writes, “We shall find that the God of Israel is among us, when ten of us shall be able to resist a thousand of our enemies; … For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill”(135). This is a canonical passage that illustrates with keen precision what Edwards conceives the new land of the puritans to be. Firstly, this new world is one that will be above, quite literally within Winthrop’s metaphor, the rest of the civilized world. The puritans will live on “a city on a hill,” for the rest of the world to behold as the god that is amongst its people will empower these people to fantastical feats. Secondly, this new civilization has a unique transformative power to all of the world. This moment is unprecedented to Winthrop, as he compares Puritans to the Israelites of nearly 4000 years ago, illustrating the two people’s shared destiny and potentiality for world changing power. Paine uses this exact logic in his appendix to the third edition of Common Sense. Paine writes, “We have it in our power to begin the world over again. A situation, similar to the present, hath not happened since the days of Noah until now” (63). Here Paine takes Winthrop’s concept and revitalizes it for the American revolutionary generation. Paine, like Winthrop, calls upon ancient biblical references to, in Paine’s case, demonstrate the climactic historical nature of the American Revolutionary moment. Paine also uses Winthrop’s concept of the potentiality of the American people to impact the entire world. To Paine, the American people have it within their power to forge not only their own nation but a new world entirely. This elucidation by Paine is similar to Puritan expressions of their shared destiny in the new world upon establishing colonies in New England. Thus, Winthrop’s earliest constructions of American Nationalism and destiny laid a sturdy foundation from which subsequent manifestations of nationalism and destiny in American literature and political dialogue would base themselves upon, and this influence is found in Paine’s portrayal of the American revolutionaries as holding the power to remake the world within their hands.

Yet another contradiction inherent in the American puritan experience was the spiritual equality preached by Protestantism opposed to the fundamental Puritan idea of predestination. Winthrop navigates intricately through this contradiction in his work. Winthrop writes, “From hence it appears plainly that no man is made more honorable than another or more wealthy etc., out of any particular and singular respect to himself, but for the glory of his Creator and the common good of the creature, man” (126). Winthrop is creating a very fine distinction between earthly successes and spiritual successes in this passage, suggesting indirectly a certain level of equality between all humans. Any earthly success is merely for the glorification of the community and god, and does not show anything about the true nature of the successful person. Indeed, Puritan thought would evolve to consider economic success as a marker for elect status, yet in this early stage Winthrop is elucidating a more idealistic view. Because of the contradiction highlighted above, Winthrop toes around advocating for any kind of economic equality but instead says that the class differences that defined colonial society were simply “for the glory of his creator.” In this construction, Winthrop has established a relationship in which humans are equal by birth, unequal by function and “god.” From a modern perspective, the contradiction seems inherent. If all members of the “city on the hill” are born equal, why are some better off than others? This is a critical question that is still asked in America, and Paine suggests an answer very much in line with Winthrop. Paine writes, “Mankind being originally equals in the order of creation, the equality could only be destroyed by some subsequent circumstance; the distinctions of rich, and poor, may in a great measure be accounted for, and that without having recourse to the harsh, ill-sounding names of oppression and avarice” (24). Interestingly, from a man who would go onto participate in the French revolution, Paine’s argument concerning equality in Common Sense is much in line with Winthrop’s. The precise relationship outlined in Winthrop is outlined in Paine; that is, that ‘all men are created equal’ and the inequalities seen in any capitalist society stem from something else. Paine does not invoke any holy base for hierarchy or even argue that it serves a function in society as Winthrop does, but cryptically claims inequality can be “accounted for” without considering “oppression and avarice.” This passage is perplexing, even within Common Sense, as it is unusually lacking in specifics; as compared to Paine’s amazingly detailed analysis of British naval might. The perplexing nature of the passage is a product of the contradiction highlighted above manifested in Paine’s own time of the growth of southern slavery. Thus equality of birth is stressed by both authors, yet neither author can go any further with this idea due to the inherently contradictory nature of Puritanism and in Paine’s time, the contradiction of American revolutionary rhetoric and slavery.

Thomas Paine’s Common Sense is as revolutionary as it is indebted to past expressions of American mythology such as Jonathon Edwards “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” and John Winthrop’s “A Model of Christian Charity.” By highlighting the presence of rhetorical urgency and inevitability in both Edwards and Paine, and analyzing the political presence of destiny and equality within Winthrop and Paine, a greater understanding of the Puritan influence on Common Sense emerges. Common Sense marks a unique departure from Puritanism that is at the same time heavily indebted to the Puritan foundational ideology that permeates American culture. The fundamental radicalism of the Puritan experience laid the groundwork for the development of a revolutionary movement in the colonies. The questions of individualism and communalism, equality and hierarchy, and predestiny and duty still pervade American society to this day. All of these questions arose in the Puritan period, and they are reckoned with precision in Paine’s Common Sense. In this one mass appeal, Paine brilliantly uses multiple influences to create a synthesized call for revolution. In Paine’s hybridization of enlightenment thinking and age old Puritanical rhetoric and themes, the American Revolutionary generation found the blade with which to cut the thread holding King George the Third over the pit of bloody revolt.

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