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Volume 52 Number 28, November 19, 2022 ARCHIVE HOME JBCENTRE SUBSCRIBE

Taking the democratic revolution that began with the Civil War through to completion

375th Anniversary of the Putney Debates

The Putney Debates

375 years ago this October and November, a series of unprecedented debates were held at St Mary's Church in Putney in the midst of the English Civil War. The matter at hand was how the country would be constituted anew after the defeat of the King, central to which were the questions of rights, and of the nature of supreme decision-making power and where it lies.

The debates were organised in direct response to the political agitations of the most democratic elements of the revolutionary New Model Army, the Levellers, whose demands, put forward in the name of the people, were unacceptable to the army elite: Oliver Cromwell, Henry Ireton, and other senior "Grandees".

This elite belonged to and represented the rising landed gentry and mercantile classes, whose interests lay in seizing power for themselves and denying the broad masses any share in that power. These political personalities at the head of the army had hoped the debates would settle matters and effectively silence the voice for extending democracy, so that a peace settlement following Parliament's victory over the King could be found that was in their favour.

The Civil War had broken out in 1643 as a result of the clash between the mercantile class and landed gentry with the old feudal order headed by the King over the sovereign power. This clash became manifested as a battle for control between King and Parliament, and with the outbreak of open war, it was fought on the battlefield.

With the victory over the King's forces, the New Model Army, assembled by the Parliamentary forces to wage the war, became the means for holding power over the state. Indeed, it became a claimant to the sovereign power itself. Having removed King Charles from the custody of Parliament in June 1647, the army established its headquarters in Putney, close to the City of Westminster in London, as a seat of power.

Such contradictions between the army and Parliament, and within the army itself, are what led to the holding of the Putney Debates from October 28, 1647. The last straw was the publication by radical army agitators of the political pamphlet The Case of the Armie Truly Stated and the Levellers' draft constitution for the country, the Agreement of the People.

Cromwell chaired the debates, who, along with Ireton and other senior officers, formed one side in the debates. At that stage (before the beheading of Charles I in 1649) this side favoured retention of a monarchy with reduced powers. The other side of the debates were the Levellers, Apprentices, and other democratic groupings who put forward popular sovereignty and demanded extended suffrage, regular parliaments, and recognition of basic rights, such as equality before the law.

On the right to vote, leading Leveller Colonel Thomas Rainsborough said:

Page from the Putney debates record book, 1647, located at Worcester College, Oxford, MS 65 ff.34v-35r, showing the handwritten record of the conversation. Worcester College, Oxford.

"... really I think that the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live, as the greatest he; and therefore truly, ... I think it's 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..."

Ireton, for the Grandees, retorted:

"For my part, I think it is no right at all. I think that no person hath a right to an interest or share in the disposing of the affairs of the kingdom, and in determining or choosing those that shall determine what laws we shall be ruled by here - no person hath a right to this, that hath not a permanent fixed interest in this kingdom..." - by which he meant property. Suffrage should be restricted to landowners.

The democratic conception expressed by the Levellers was grounded in their doctrine of natural rights, an early expression of the modern definition of rights as held by all people by virtue of being human. Ireton, Cromwell, and the rest of the Grandees vigorously opposed this doctrine, as they knew it led to the end of themselves as embodying the supreme power at that time. Indeed, the Levellers' great contribution was to uphold neither monarchic nor parliamentary sovereignty, nor army rule, but that sovereignty should be vested in the people.

They declared inalienable rights such as freedom of conscience and equality before the law. Their notion of freedom was profound in the context of their time, including within it the right to participate in decision-making. To the new ruling clique, this threatened their very existence, and so in response they raised the spectre of "the mob" and "anarchy". Fearing the consequences of the debates treading on increasingly dangerous ground and undermining their authority, the Grandees suspended the debates on November 8. The escape of Charles from Hampton Court Palace three days later set the seal on this period of open discussion.

Hobbes, who was writing his Leviathan at the same time as these events (published just four years later), gave as the starting point of his political theory the "war of all against all" that he claimed arises out of human self-interest. An absolute and indivisible sovereign power was necessary to prevent the always-simmering state of civil war from boiling over. At the debate, Ireton likewise asserted that the need for strong government arises out of the need to maintain order.

Words of Colonel Rainsborough - The Putney Debates

Hobbes' new conception, which came to underpin the arrangements eventually found in the constitutional monarchy after the Restoration of Charles II in 1660 and the so-called Glorious Revolution of 1688, located the sovereign power in a symbolic person of state, representing a Covenant or agreement enacted between the ruling elites, the people and the state itself. The crucial feature of this conception is that the people hand over their ability to speak in their own name by this Covenant. It served to provide the veneer of legitimacy, purporting to represent the collective will, while in reality representing the interests of the new ruling class via its artificial person of state, the monarch.

This artificial person of state is the form of democratic personality given rise to at that time, which arose out of conditions of civil war, to manage the contending powerful interests while suppressing the popular voice, to halt the continuing battle of democracy. It is this system that still exists in the present, but which is now in utter crisis. Today, this personality reveals itself as anything but democratic. The mask is off, and indeed, the ruling elite barely follow their own constitutional theory, if at all. Pragmatism now dominates, and increasingly open rule by police powers.

For the first time, the Putney Debates elaborated a demand for sovereignty not to lie with Parliament or any other force, but with the people. That was defeated at that time. In a sense, the call was ahead of its time. Those radical democratic forces who gave the call were unable to bring into being such a form of democracy. But that battle of what the content of democracy is, and what form it should take opened up at that time. The powerful forces at that time, which were in the ascendency, had to resolve that battle in a way that kept the people out of power.

It is noteworthy that Lenin, in speaking of the significance of the 1917 Great October Socialist Revolution in Russia, said that this revolution undertook the task of completing the democratic revolution that got underway in England in the 1640s and the two subsequent decades. So this is very much the call of the times today, a call echoing through the intervening centuries, and especially the watershed moment of the Russian Revolution which is still in the making: for a directly democratic voice where people, speaking their own name, directly form their collective will, so that the supreme decision-making power is directly exercised by the whole polity. The modern world requires modern arrangements that give voice to the people and enable the people to be the decision-makers, so taking the democratic revolution that began with the Civil War through to completion. Only in this way can society recognise the rights of all, bring the enormous productive forces under control, and direct the economy to meeting the needs of the people.

For a transcript of the Putney Debates, see


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