Past Class Struggles

As was pointed out in a previous article, early England was Feudal, and under the Manorial system rural England was composed of estates divided among villeins (a particular kind of peasant proprietors), who owed certain services to their lords.

The growth of commercialism broke up the Manorial system and introduced the Capitalist system. The foundation of the Capitalist system was laid by divorcing the labourer from the soil, i.e., converting the peasant into a “free” labourer.

Feudalism rested upon the reciprocal duties of lord and peasant or villein. The rise of the trading and manufacturing class brought about the need for a large number of labourers who could be exploited without restriction. In order that the commercial or capitalist class could become the supreme class in society the serf had to be converted into a free labourer—free of all feudal ties and relying only on wages for his living.

The commercial class, who had acquired money through trade, had steadily grown and permeated the existing system to such an extent that it was gradually breaking the bonds of Feudalism. In this the trading class were assisted by the great feudal lords themselves, who, while despising trade as vulgar, coveted its riches.

But the starting-point of capitalism was the free labourer. The landed proprietors, to get money, leased their lands and commuted labour rents into money rents. The rise of woollen manufacture on the Continent brought about a corresponding rise in the English wool trade. Then the great landowners commenced enclosing the common lands and evicting the peasants to make room for sheep. At the same time the suppression of the monastries and the break-up of the bands of feudal retainers, drove thousands of other people to seek employment under the growing new conditions.

In these various ways the principle raw material of capitalism—the free labourer, who must work for wages or starve—was produced.

The whole system of government, however, was built upon the feudal organisation and the Court was in control. As the capitalist organisation was breaking up the feudal, it became necessary for the moneyed class to obtain supreme control of social affairs in order to sweep away the privileges and restrictions that were hampering its development. Society had to be reorganised, politically and religiously, to conform with the new economic organisation.

The religious change took the form of the Protestant Reformation, Catholicism, with its many fast days and ceremonials, was inimical to commercialism, hence the fight of the commercial class for political power was suffused with the glamour of a new religion. Freedom of contract in earthly affairs was bolstered up by the plea of freedom of judgment in affairs spiritual.

During feudal times a struggle had been going on between the Court party and the great nobles. In 1215 the nobles forced from John the concession of the “Great Charter,” the gist of which was that the sovereign could not levy taxes himself, payments having to be granted by a council of barons and bishops. In 1265 the town element (representatives of shires and boroughs) was introduced into this council of Parliament. The succeeding history is that of the struggle for supremacy of Parliament against the royal power.

The merchants, embittered by the harassing and interrupting of commerce by enemy ships and the waste of money on foreign wars, time and again refused to grant the necessary subsidies and Parliament was dissolved. But the emptiness of the regal treasury always compelled the sovereigns to re-assemble Parliament.

By the time the bourgeois had arrived at wealth, then, and desired to become the ruling power, the Crown had secured the powers of government into its own hands, but at the same time, the necessities of the regal exchequer had compelled the feudal party to concede certain privileges and powers to the new class, and in this way the former helped to dig its own grave.

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.

The actual struggle commenced in 1642, when the Commons strove for the right to control the militia, and so take the military power out of the royal hands. In spite of the refusal of Charles to grant this request the militia were rapidly enrolled and lord lieutenants appointed.

The Lords desired to limit kingly power, the Commons to abolish it. In the early part of the war the Lords or Presbyterian party predominated and the policy of compromise was adopted. Underneath the Lords, however, were the Independents, growing daily in strength, menacing the policy and position of the Lords, and eventually compelling them to go over to the Court.

The Independents appealed only to Reason. Institutions, laws, customs everything, was by them brought before the bar of Reason and called upon to order itself according to the will of man, i.e., mercantile man. Equality of Rights, the “just” distribution of social property, was their cry. Let us hear Guizot speak of them.

“There was no contradiction between their religious and political systems ; no secret struggle between the leaders and their men ; no exclusive creed, no rigorous test rendered access to the party difficult; like the sect from which they had taken their name, they held liberty of conscience a fundamental maxim, and the immensity of the Reforms they proposed, the vast uncertainty of their designs, allowed men of the most various objects to range beneath their banners ; lawyers joined them in hopes of depriving the ecclesiastics, their rivals, of all jurisdiction and power; liberal publicists contemplated by their aid the formation of anew, clear, simple plan of legislation, which should take from lawyers their enormous profits and their immoderate power. Hanington could dream among them of a society of sages; Sidney of the liberty of Sparta or Rome; Lilburne of the restoration of the old Saxon laws; Hanison of the coming of Christ; even the non-principle of Henry Martyn and Peter Wentworth were tolerated in consideration of its daring ; republicans or levellers, reasoners or visionaries, fanatics or men of ambition, all were admitted to make a common stock of their anger, their theories, their ecstatic dreams, their intrigues ; it was enough that all were animated with equal hatred against the cavaliers and against the presbyterians, would rush on with the same fervour towards that unknown futurity which was to satisfy so many expectations.”

History of the English Revolution,” Guizot, p. 216.

The principal figure in this party was Oliver Cromwell, a country squire of Hundingdonshire. Cromwell was a descendant of the unprincipled adventurer chosen by Henry VIII. as his chief instrument in the confiscation of the monastic lands, in which, process Cromwell the elder succeeded, by embezzlement, in amassing an enormous amount of wealth. Cromwell’s parents had further augmented the monastic spoils by the profits derived from a lucrative brewery business. Such were the origin and connections of the man who was to lead the wealthier merchants to victory.

He organised a band of religious zealots drawn from the ranks of farmers and tradesmen, who contributed much to the earlier successes of the Parliamentary forces and also considerably exalted the power of their commander.

As the war progressed the Independents gradually gained the ascendant, and Charles I. was executed Jan. 30, 1648.

By 1649 the Independents had become strong enough to declare a commonwealth with a single House of Commons and Council of State, Cromwell managing to manoeuvre himself into the position of Lord Protector. The final working out of this was that all the executive power was centred in his hands. Then commenced the much desired epoch of the Merchants.

The commercial wars of Cromwell are described by Gibbins as follows :

“He (Cromwell) demanded trade with the Spanish colonies, and religious freedom for English settlers in such colonies. Of course his demands were refused, as well he knew they would be. Whereupon he seized Jamaica (1655) and intended to seize Cuba; and at any rate succeeded in giving the English a secure footing in the West Indies. He seized Dunkirk also from Spain (then at war with France, with a view of securing England a monopoly of the Channel to the exclusion of our old friends the Dutch. . . . Not content with victory in the West, Cromwell, with the full consent of mercantile England, declared war against the Dutch, who were now more our rivals than our friends. It would have been perfectly possible for the English and Dutch to have remained on good terms ; but the great idea of the statesmen and merchants of the 17th and 18th centuries was to gain a sole market and monopoly of trade, and so the Dutch had to be crushed. . . . Cromwell succeeded in his object. He defeated the Dutch and broke their prestige in the war of 1652-54, and designed to win their trade by the Navigation Acts of 1651. The contest between the English and Dutch for the mastery of the seas was already practically decided by the capture of New Amsterdam (New York), and the subsequent wars of Charles II. reign, completed the discomfiture of Holland.”—”Industrial History of England,” p. 123.

The defeat of the Dutch gave the English merchants the carrying trade of the Baltic and the Mediterranean. The Navigation Acts of 1651 referred to above set forth that all goods brought to England must be carried in ships of the actual country manufacturing the goods. As the Dutch had been previously the principal carrying nation, this was a direct blow at their supremacy, and also an indication of the growing power of the English mercantile marine.

Cromwell died in 1658, and shortly after the Royalist element began to regain a little power and succeeded in obtaining the recall of Charles II., but with greatly reduced royal power. This sovereign, more wily than his father, played into the hands of the wealthy class and was thereby enabled to enjoy a life of luxury. He pursued a foreign policy similar to that of Cromwell, enlarging the sphere of action of the merchants. He died in 1685, and his successor, James II., too thick headed to recognise the trend of the times, tried to restore the old supremacy of the Court.

In the meantime the French had grown in power and began to threaten the commercial position of England. William of Orange drew the attention of the English on account of the skilful way in which he harassed France. In consequence of this, and of the dissatisfaction aroused by the conduct of James, William was invited to the English throne in 1688. He landed with a force of Dutch, and with the help of the merchants and landowners defeated the Royalist forces.

William was presented with the “Declaration of Rights,” after signing which his coronation was celebrated.

In the “Declaration of Rights” was incorporated the principles of the now all powerful capitalist class. The two chief points were—

“The raising and maintenance of a standing army to be the prerogative solely of Parliament.
Levying of taxes or loans without consent of Parliament to be illegal.”

The early part of the Revolution had witnessed the desire of the revolutionary Bourgeois to abolish kingly power, but they soon found that such a measure was not entirely in their own interests. The mass of the people, seeing old habits and customs so ruthlessly jettisoned, began to question even the right of private property! During the expedition for the conquest of Ireland undertaken by Cromwell in 1629, a body known as the Levellers broke out into open insurrection, demanding “true and perfect freedom in all things.” This outbreak was crushed, but it frightened some of the “eternal laws of reason” out of the capitalists, hence their acquiescence in the restoration of the shadow of kingship.

The successful culmination of the rebellion put the rising capitalists in a position to reap to the full the advantages of the new system of colonisation and unlimited competition. It brought to the English working class a depth of misery and slavery hitherto unknown.