I Come To Bury Cromwell Not Praise Him

‘Cromwell was about 50% saint and about 50% serpent.’

Ronald Hutton,

Cromwell’s task consisted of inflicting as shattering a blow as possible upon the absolutist monarchy, the court nobility and the semi-Catholic Church, which had been adjusted to the needs of the monarchy and the nobility. For such a blow, Cromwell, the true representative of the new class, needed the forces and passions of the masses of people.’

Leon Trotsky

‘In dispersing parliament after parliament, Cromwell displayed as little reverence towards the fetish of “national” representation as in the execution of Charles I he had displayed insufficient respect for a monarchy by the grace of God. Nonetheless, it was this same Cromwell who paved the way for the parliamentarism and democracy of the two subsequent centuries. In revenge for Cromwell’s execution of Charles I, Charles II swung Cromwell’s corpse upon the gallows. But pre-Cromwellian society could not be re-established by any restoration. The works of Cromwell could not be liquidated by the thievish legislation of the restoration because what has been written with the sword cannot be wiped out by the pen.’

Leon Trotsky

If the historian Thomas Carlyle were alive today, he would have sent a strongly worded email to the Bristol University Professor Ronald Hutton asking why he had heaped a further dead dog on top of the great leader of the English bourgeois revolution Oliver Cromwell.

In a recent BBC History magazine article called The dark truth about Oliver Cromwell, Hutton claims that “The victor of the Civil Wars described himself as pious, honest and selfless. But, as all too many victims of his lies and malice would have attested, the reality was often more sinister”.[1]

The purpose of his BBC article was not to make an objective assessment of Cromwell but has more to do with the fact that Hutton has a book on Cromwell coming out in August.[2]

The last few decades have seen a veritable production line of studies examining every facet of the main leader of the English bourgeois revolution. In the past three decades alone, he has been the subject of five full-length biographies, three studies of his career as a soldier, and a further three major collections of essays.

Hutton is a capable historian, so why would he adopt the attitude of a Sun Newspaper journalist when assessing Cromwell. One reason is that he can get away with it. It is a rare event today when a historian challenges the work of a fellow historian. History has become far too polite. Long gone are the great debates of the past. Today’s historians are far too comfortable and passive.

Hutton’s essay has all the hallmarks of a provocation which he knows will go unanswered. A second reason and Hutton is correct to say that so little is known about Cromwell that it is easy to make outlandish comments on his character without too much come back.

Hutton’s new book on Cromwell does not appear until August of this year, but it is clear from his previous work on Cromwell that he is unlikely to produce an objective biography of Cromwell based on the previous historiography. Hutton rejects the notion that Cromwell can be best understood from this objective standpoint.

While it is hoped that Hutton’s new book does place Cromwell within the complex events that are known as the English Revolution, given that his BBC History Magazine does not, I will not hold my breath.

Hutton knows he cannot just trash the memory of Cromwell. In his essay, he pays lip service to Cromwell’s many attributes but adds, “all this is quite familiar to scholars of the period, but my research also revealed less attractive – and less often noticed – aspects of Cromwell’s personality. One is his relentless pursuit of self-promotion. He grabbed the attention of the Long Parliament, almost as soon as it was elected, by speaking on behalf of the famous radical Puritan John Lilburne, who had been imprisoned by the royal government. Cromwell had never met the man, but that did not prevent him from using his misfortune as an opportunity to further his career”.[3]

The rest of Hutton’s article continues trashing Cromwell’s reputation. He rehashes previous vitriolic attacks on Cromwell, saying that “Cromwell prepared his soldiers to inflict violence and retribution before the assault by quoting a biblical text which called for the cleansing of the land of idolators, declaring of Catholic images that “they that make them are like unto them” and so should be destroyed with them. His notorious massacre at the Irish town of Drogheda, later in his career, was long presaged”.

Buzzing Of The Bees

Despite it going out of fashion, I still find it important to establish what the great English historian E. H Carr said was going on inside a historians head. What if any bees are buzzing around Hutton’s head?

The first thing that strikes you about Hutton’s work is his underestimation of the damage revisionist historians have done in their Marxist and Whig historiography attacks. In his book Debates in Stuart History, according to Mark Stoyle, “Hutton argues that the ‘revisionist’ wave of the late 1970 s was the product of specific developments within the culture of academic life over the previous fifteen years: citing, in particular, the expansion of higher education, which prompted a novel disposition among academics ‘to establish new work by questioning received views’; the sudden availability of fresh sources; and ‘the general distrust of established values which developed during the 1960s.”

Stoyle says that  “Hutton’s argument that revisionism was not so much a specifically right-wing attack on the left, as is sometimes claimed, but was rather a rebellion by young historians of widely differing political views against those senior academics — almost all from comfortable backgrounds, but of far-left inclinations — who represented the historical establishment. The fact that the young Turks — mostly political liberals, who ‘included no Marxists or radical socialists’ — were so quickly labelled as ‘revisionists’ by their opponents was indicative of how some senior left-wing academics saw the battle, for, as Hutton notes, the term ‘revisionist’ had ‘commonly been employed during the … 1970 s by Marxists across the world to describe those who adulterated and betrayed true doctrine’.

What the revisionists eventually succeeded in doing was to demolish the ‘socialist modernisation of the Victorian historiographical achievement’ which had been crafted by historians such as Christopher Hill over the previous 30 years. But, partly because of their differences in emphasis, partly because of the sheer complexity of the picture which they had uncovered, the revisionists failed to establish a new consensus of their own”.[4]

It is no accident that Stoyles praises Hutton’s latest book as both seem to adopt a lot of the right-wing wing revisionists hostility to Marxist historiography. While  Hutton does note somewhat perceptively that those right-wing revisionist historians who sought to demolish Marxist historiography had nothing but hot air in which to replace it. Hutton’s complacent attitude towards these historians further legitimises their anti-Marxism.

To conclude, I will review Hutton’s new book at a later date. Those who want a more objective assessment of Oliver |Cromwell would do well to examine t the work of the great Marxist revolutionary Leon Trotsky, who said of Cromwell,” In this way, Cromwell built not merely an army but also a party — his army was to some extent an armed party and herein precisely lay its strength. In 1644 Cromwell’s “holy” squadrons won a brilliant victory over the King’s horsemen and won the nickname of “Ironsides.” It is always useful for a revolution to have iron sides. On this score British workers can learn much from Cromwell. The observations on the Puritans’ army made by the historian Macaulay are here not without interest”.[5]

[1] BBC History Magazine-8 Jul 2021-Ronald Hutton.

[2] The Making of Oliver Cromwell-Ronald Hutton.

[3] BBC History Magazine-8 Jul 2021-Ronald Hutton.

[4] Debates in Stuart History by Ronald Hutton-Review by: Mark Stoyle-The English Historical Review-Vol. 121, No. 491 (Apr., 2006), pp. 540-542 (3 pages)

[5] Leon Trotsky’s Writings On Britain-Two traditions: the seventeenth-century revolution and Chartism- https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/works/britain/ch06.htm

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