Fighting to win a social revolution

Doing war differently

Does today’s workers’ movement need its own ‘self-denying ordinance’? Mike Macnair looks to the lessons of the New Model Army

April 3 2015 was an anniversary which will pretty certainly be forgotten by the media - but which should be remembered by the workers’ movement and the left. It was 370 years since the final passage, on April 3 1645, of the ‘self-denying ordinance’, first proposed in December 1644, which removed members of parliament from their existing military commands or civil offices (with certain exceptions).1 The limited purpose was as a means of shaking up the army command. It was connected to the creation of the ‘New Model’ army, which was agreed on February 17.2

On its face, the self-denying ordinance was a mere technical step in the conduct of the war between king and parliament. It might also be seen as merely a manoeuvre in the faction fighting between ‘Presbyterians’ (advocates of established Scottish-style church government for England, but also commonly supporters of a negotiated peace with the king) and ‘independents’ (advocates of religious toleration for Protestant churches independent of the state, but also commonly advocates of a decisive military defeat of the king).3

In reality it was a lot more. The New Model ordinance and self-denying ordinance marked a fundamental transition of the English civil war. Before this transition, it was a politico-religious rebellion against the king, led by aristocrats and in process of failing: like the Bohemian (Czech) rebellion at the beginning of the Thirty Years War in 1618-21, or in France the 1620s Huguenot (Protestant) rebellions or the 1648-53 ‘Frondes’ (rebellions led by lawyers and by aristocrats).4 With the creation of the New Model Army, the English war became unequivocally a social revolution based on the ‘middling sort’, like the Dutch revolt from the early 1570s onwards. The English revolution would be temporarily victorious and go all the way to the execution of the king and abolition of the monarchy in 1649. Though it ended in political defeat with the 1660 restoration of the monarchy, important aspects of its changes in military affairs, land tenure, taxation and government finance, persisted in the restoration, and others foreshadowed changes introduced after the revolution of 1688, which shaped the modern British state.

To say that the English civil war became a social revolution requires an outline of the social order which it overthrew.


Medieval society was, in its own self-image, divided into ‘those who fight’ (aristocrats, including the later medieval and early modern ‘gentry’), ‘those who pray’ (clerics), and ‘those who work’ (peasants and urban artisans).

‘Those who fight’ and ‘those who pray’ were both clear groups of exploiters: the gentry living off rents and other feudal dues, the clergy living off tithes and other ‘customary rights’, as well as off rents of land given to churches and monasteries as endowment.

‘Those who work’ were more ambiguous. Both peasant and artisan communities tended to polarise between, on the one hand, rich business - or farmer - employers, who were proto-capitalist exploiters, and, on the other hand, poor small operators; with, below even these, two groups - the first, youth in apprenticeships and domestic service, and the second, an underclass which could only survive by casual work for wages, theft or begging. In practice, the peasants and artisans were usually ‘represented’ by the wealthier among their number.

Peasants were sub-divided into two status groups. Villeins or serfs were technically owned by their lords, though, unlike classical (or early modern colonial) slaves, the lords could not kill or maim them and could only sell them together with the land to which they were attached.5 Peasant revolts in the 1300s-1400s destroying records, landlord difficulties in holding onto tenants after the 1348-49 plague and subsequent recurrences that killed off a lot of the population, and so on, had by the 1630s resulted in villeins becoming rare and confined to remote areas like Devon and Cornwall.6 Free peasants were, obviously, those who were not villeins. The difference was not a wealth difference: in the 1200s-1300s, when villeinage was commonplace, villeins were often financially better off than free tenants.7

In theory, though practice was a lot messier, land was held by ‘tenures’ which carried obligations and rules specific to these groups: ‘chivalry’, ‘serjeanty’ and related tenures were ‘military tenures’, which carried an obligation, if called up, to do military service for the king or lord; ‘frankalmoin’ or ‘free alms’, and ‘tenure by divine service’ were tenures specific to the church; ‘socage’ was a free peasant tenure, with a liability to pay a (low) fixed rent and related duties; ‘villeinage’, later called ‘copyhold’, was originally a villein tenure, and had higher and more variable rents and duties; ‘burgage’ was an urban borough tenure, like socage, but subject to variable local rules of the individual borough.

Again in theory (and once more practice was a lot messier) the lay statuses were inherited from the father: if your father was gentry, you were gentry; if he was a burgher, you were a burgher; if he was a peasant, you were a peasant; if he was a villein, you were a villein. Clergy status was not in theory inheritable, even after the reformation allowed the clergy to marry.

The distinctions were only actually policed at certain limited points (less in England than elsewhere). Lords of manors tried to keep control of their villeins (or, in the later period, at least to extort money for charters enfranchising them). Boroughs were concerned to police the boundaries of borough citizenship, which gave the right to trade within the borough and to vote. And a limited class of the top landlords, the peers, were entitled to titles (duke, earl, etc) and to individual summonses to parliament, where they would sit in the House of Lords. So here too who exactly was a peer had to be policed.

But the younger sons of gentry, or even of lords, might be apprenticed to burghers and become citizens; the same was true of the children of peasants. Government officials, soldiers in wartime and lawyers might rise through success and royal favour into the peerage. Indeed, very successful armed robbers might pass into the gentry (and vice versa gentry under pressure evolve into mere armed robbers). And so on.

All three groups had a degree of local self-management of their own affairs: the peasants in the village (and in the manor court, over which the lord or his steward presided, but in which the ‘suitors of the court’, the wealthier peasants, gave the judgments); the urban artisans in borough institutions; the clergy in monastic and cathedral chapters and in periodic diocesan or province-wide meetings; the gentry in county and ‘honour’ courts.

But this self-government was subject to the obligations, both material and jurisdictional, owed to feudal superiors, to kings and to the ecclesiastical hierarchy, going up to the pope. It was also dominated by local customary rules, which might control, in the countryside, what exactly was planted and when; in towns, the precise quality and means of production of goods.8 Such obligations and customs bore heavily on both lower landlords and better-off peasants who wished to ‘improve’ (often at the expense of their neighbours), and similarly on putting-out merchants and successful artisans who wished to expand their business operations at the expense of their competitors.

Customary property

The jurisdictional and material claims, and the local customary rules, were all alike ‘consuetudines’ - ‘customs’ in the same sense that modern ‘customs duties’ are money payments. They were all alike property rights of their holders, whether the holder was the king, a bishop, a private lord or a borough or trading corporation. Equally, many property rights in land were, in substance, rights not to the immediate physical control of the land, but to rents and related rights derived from the land in the hands of peasant (or, in the towns, artisan) tenants. Today rights to rents are understood as the consequence of ownership of the physical land, the landlord being paid under a contract for letting the tenant use the land; then such rights were seen in terms much more similar to rights to ecclesiastical tithes (which had often been sold off or leased to laymen anyhow9) or to such duties as ‘cheese weighage’ (paid on cheese imported into London) and so on, which persisted into the early modern period.10

The king’s feudal rights over his tenants ‘in chief’ - those who held land or related rights directly from him by military tenures - were also property rights. The most important in the military tenures was wardship: the right if the tenant died leaving an heir who was under-age (below 21) to take the profits of the land until the heir reached 21, and to sell (or give away) the marriage of the heir. Tenants in chief of the king, whether military or other, were also liable to pay 33% of the land value for licence to sell or otherwise transfer it. These rights, the feudal ‘casualties’ or ‘incidents’, in the 1630s brought in between £66,000 and £83,000 a year - around 10% of total royal revenue.11 Lesser lords had similar property rights over their tenants - if they had kept records to prove the relationship. But if the sub-tenant held anything in chief of the crown by military tenure, the king took the wardship of the body of the heir (and the right to sell their marriage) by prerogative right.12

In the result, by the early 1600s, private feudal tenurial claims were rare; but the crown (or, in the terminology invented in late medieval Italy and beginning to be used in early 17th century England, ‘the state’)13 had a fundamental interest in the continuance of the feudal order, on which it depended for a large chunk of its revenue. The crown similarly, but for different reasons (to preserve the peasantry as a source of healthy recruits for armies), had interests in limiting ‘depopulating enclosures’ and in preserving the manorial courts, an activity to which it applied the resources of the Court of Star Chamber (abolished in 1641).14

Moreover, the form of the reformation in England was not to abolish the ecclesiastical customs, jurisdictions and so on, but to centralise them in the hands of the crown, which took over the old papal jurisdictions.

‘No bishop, no king, no nobility’ was a slogan attributed to James I; it was around this idea that Charles I and his supporters were able to mobilise opposition to the parliamentary reformers in 1641-42, to the point of civil war.15 Thus, for example, ‘moderate,’ later royalist, gentleman-poet MP Edmund Waller commented in the debate on episcopacy:

I look upon Episcopacy, as a Counter-scar[p], or outwork, which if it be taken by this assault of the people, and withall this Mysterie once revealed, that we must deny them nothing when they aske it thus in troopes, we may in the next place, have as hard a taske to defend our propriety, as we have lately had to recover it from the prerogative.16

The point is simple. The ‘presbyterian’ alternative to episcopacy threatened the landlord class with that terrible danger, ‘democracy’ - and with it the chance that, if the ‘customary’ property, including jurisdictions, of crown and the bishops were overthrown, the very similar ‘customary’ property of the smaller squire and the parson would soon also be threatened.

The implication is that, so long as aristocrats retained the leadership of movements of revolt, they would tend to seek not a decisive outcome, but a compromise of some sort with the old regime; whether this was a peace deal with the existing king (as in England and France) or an alternative king (as in Bohemia).

It would be a mistake to imagine that the official (burgher, ‘bourgeois’ or ‘cit’) leaderships of the corporate towns, or of the great merchant companies like the East India or Merchant Adventurer Companies, were any more apt to seek a decisive outcome. In the 1000s-1100s urban communes were certainly regarded by kings, lords and clerics as a subversive phenomenon.17 But by the 1200s they were already being integrated as a subordinate part of the general social order: they received legal privileges, in exchange for accepting constitutions which made them take (as far as possible) an oligarchic form, and allowed intervention by royal lawyers in case they got out of hand.18

The legal privileges, therefore, were consuetudines like those of the lords and the clerics: I have already referred to a (minor) example: London ‘weighage’. If ‘No bishop, no king - no king, no property’ threatened squire and parson, they also threatened mayor, alderman and corporate monopolist with what came to be called ‘levelling’. In the process of revolutionary and counterrevolutionary mobilisation in 1640-42 the ‘parliamentarians’ did win control of most boroughs and especially (and decisively) of London; but the process often involved the overthrow of existing borough leaders by ‘outsiders’ basing themselves on the middle and lower orders of the borough population.19

Social relations

Before the self-denying ordinance it was a commonplace that armies should be led by aristocrats. This is, of course, an aspect of the idea of the society as constituted of ‘those who fight, those who pray and those who work’: while peasants may be grunt soldiers, the officers have to be aristos and the generals should surely be royals or peers ... We are concerned here with an aspect of the practices which constituted feudal social relations.

The material basis of these practices was, on the one hand, that ‘classical’ domestic chattel slavery disappeared, and with it disappeared its conceptual converse: the Roman idea that the true elite was a real leisure class and work of any sort degrading neg-otium (un-leisure).20 And, on the other hand, that in medieval society occupational specialisation commonly, though not absolutely, required beginning specialist training well before puberty; besides, the later Roman empire had imposed inherited status on a number of trades.21 This combination of practical necessity and inherited law was then ideologised as the idea of inherited natural aptitudes to specific productive and elite activities. The literature, for example, contained numerous ‘lost heir’ stories, in which an aristo child dispossessed by scheming step-parents, wicked uncles, etc, ended up displaying their true nobility.22

Alongside the idea of hereditary right stood, in medieval society, the idea of personal sanctity, which formed the legitimation of the claims of ‘those who pray’ to theirconsuetudines. But, as the Waller speech quoted above indicates, the reformation had already to a considerable extent desacralised the clerisy as an estate: James I’s, Waller’s and similar defences of episcopacy are not like Thomas More’s sacral defence of the papacy and the autonomous clerisy in the 1530s, but rather a pragmatic defence of aristocratic property. Indeed, the attempts of the government of Charles I to restore the power, privileges and coherence of the clerisy as an estate, by sparking revolution in Scotland, triggered the fall of the regime.

The choice that faced the ‘parliamentary side’ in 1644-45 was, then, either to seek a compromise with the king23 by preserving the idea that military leadership belonged to the aristocracy, who would inevitably hold back from outright victory for fear of ‘no king, no property’. Or to adopt some principle other than hereditary aptitude as the basis of the right to command, in the hope of getting a military leadership willing to go for broke, to fight through till final victory.

The break was not just in immediate officer personnel. In the first phase of the civil war, on both the king’s side and the parliamentary side, regiments and armies had been raised in the localities and to a considerable extent on the basis of landlords ‘calling upon’ their tenants and other dependants.24 This was not ‘classical feudalism’, where land-holding in military tenure entailed an obligation to do military service. But it did have about it elements of the ‘bastard feudalism’ of the later middle ages, in which the crown contracted with aristos to provide soldiers, who were to some extent drawn from local areas of the influence of the particular contractor.25

The New Model meant, in contrast, a centralised army with centrally appointed officers and common uniforms (the English soldier’s red coat, in use until khaki took over in the 1880s, originated with the New Model). It was a Rechtsmacht,a law-army, constituted by the legislative power and tending towards the construction of a Rechtsstaat, a law-state - reflected even when the army made coups against the parliament, in overt discussion of written constitutions.

The army’s financing changed, too. To force through General Fairfax’s and the House of Commons’ choice of officers against the opposition of the House of Lords, the Common Council of the City of London, which was to lend £80,000 for the new army, made the loan conditional on Fairfax’s proposals going through: a creditors’ army.26 In April 1646, the parliament adopted for the first time the method of issuing assignable government debt securities, which had been pioneered by the later medieval Italian city-states, and previously adopted by the Dutch, thereby creating a government securities market - one of the fundamental institutions of the modern bourgeois state.27 Loans to government thus become a species of ‘property right’ - and, once the system developed more fully after 1688, begin to constitute abstract capital more generally.


What was the new principle of officer selection expressed by the self-denying ordinance and New Model ordinance? The answer was competence without regard to heredity: that is, it was the social principle described by Napoleon Bonaparte as la carrière ouverte aux talents - ‘career open to talent’: in modern society ‘equality of opportunity’ or ‘meritocracy’.28

‘Equality of opportunity’ or meritocracy, as a general principle of social ordering, grows out of the competitive relations which existed in medieval society within the communities of ‘those who work’ and especially within the boroughs, more specifically within the specific trade guilds. The artisan who is good at his trade attracts more business and succeeds, and so on ... Out of this urban view of the world comes the 18th century celebration of “civil society”, called by Hegel more transparently bürgerliche Gesellschaft: bourgeois, or urban, society. The urban principle of partial competition and market selection by competence, by becoming a principle of army officer selection, escapes its regulated confines in the urban interstices of feudalism and mutates into a general principle of social ordering.

It was precisely this new principle that was and remained afterwards inspiring as an alternative to feudalism’s ideas of natural hierarchy. It was expressed, for example, in old junior New Model officer, and later republican activist, Richard Rumbold’s statement in his scaffold speech at his 1685 execution for treason: “I am sure that there was no man born marked by God above another; for none came into the world with a saddle on his back, neither any booted or spurred to ride him.”29 The tag had antecedents in the work of Venetian republican ideologist Paolo Sarpi; Rumbold’s speech was to be quoted by American revolutionaries ... 30

The self-denying ordinance and New Model Army’s shift onto a new social paradigm was decisive for the English civil war, and opened the way temporarily to the Commonwealth - which in turn in some ways provided a model for the eventual revolution in the 1690s. But the new principle of ‘equality of opportunity’ (or whatever formulation) ebbed and flowed over the next 250 years, even in the army. The peacetime army officer corps remained a place providing jobs to those among the younger sons of the gentry, who seemed less likely to do well in business, the church or the law, while serious wars forced the principle of competence back to work. In a sense, then, the new principle of the self-denying ordinance looked far into the future.

New Model left?

I said at the beginning that the anniversary of the self-denying ordinance was one which should be remembered by the workers’ movement and the left. At one level the point is merely one of understanding British history; of understanding the bourgeois revolution; and of understanding social revolutions in general.

There is, however, perhaps a more immediate relevance to the modern workers’ movement and left. The problem which faced those who set out to resist royal absolutism and its efforts to restore the clerical power in the Netherlands, France, Germany, Bohemia and England in the 16th-17th century was that their traditional leaders and institutions were tied to the monarchies and the old order by way of their own customary property rights; and were therefore prone to compromise with the old order in ways which led in practice to defeat.

The way out of this problem turned out to be to break decisively with the ‘estates’ conception and its associated idea of hereditary military, political or leadership competence, and embark instead on a new approach to military leadership, and thence to political leadership - what has come in modern times to be called equality of opportunity. The resistance could not do without officers and institutions of command: without these institutions, no coordinated resistance was possible, but only localised disorders. But it could change the principle of selection - and by doing so create an inspiring image of the alternative.

Having described the problem in this way, it should be apparent that the workers’ movement and the left is faced with a closely analogous problem - albeit at an earlier stage of its struggles against the endeavours of the neoliberals to use strong-state methods to restore the old capitalist order. Our traditional leaders and traditional methods of leadership, this time because they are committed to career leaderships based on competence, on the ‘career open to talent’, ‘equality of opportunity’ or meritocracy within the workers’ or left organisations and parties, are tied to the old capitalist order by the similarity of their claims to careers and to private rights to control information to those of the capitalist managerial class.

The result is to disable mobilisation for resistance to the neoliberal ‘counter-reformation’. Resistance is disabled at an earlier stage than the misgivings which crippled the Bohemian or Huguenot revolts or the Frondes or that threatened to cripple the parliamentary side in the English civil war. It is disabled because the endeavours of the officials to retain control against the lay members operate to split any movement that might develop (as not only the Labour Party and the trade unions, but also each little group like the Socialist Workers Party, Socialist Party in England and Wales, Counterfire, the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, and so on, seeks to have a front ‘campaign’, which its officials can control by apparatus means). And it is disabled equally because the endeavour of the officials to maintain their positions by control of information, and so on, sterilises discussion and decision-making for the ranks and leads the ranks to demobilise.

Contrary to the anarchists, libertarians, movementists, ‘network’ advocates and so on, the modern workers’ movement and left can no more do without leaders and institutions of leadership than the New Model Army could do without officers. Leaders and institutions of leadership are necessary elements in the process of decision-making for collective action, a means by which we can ‘boil down’ the multiple possible decisions into real choices. But what we can do is change the principle of selection: to abandon the idea that leaders are leaders because of their competence and that, therefore, they are entitled to a career as leaders and to control of information.

And maybe this means that to create a real radical alternative to the liberal reaction the workers’ movement will need its own self-denying ordinance: for the existing leaders to step down or be sacked to make way for those prepared to break with managerialism and meritocracy.



1. www.british-history.ac.uk/no-series/acts-ordinances-interregnum/pp664-665.

2. www.british-history.ac.uk/no-series/acts-ordinances-interregnum/pp614-626.

3. Eg, ANB Cotton, ‘Cromwell and the self-denying ordinance’ History No62, pp211-31 (1977); I Gentles The New Model Army Blackwell 1992, chapter 1.

4. Bohemian revolt: JV Polišenský The thirty years war (translator R Evans) London 1971, chapters 1 and 4. Huguenot revolts and Frondes: D Parker The making of French absolutism London 1983, pp50-59 and chapter 3.

5. PR Hyams King, lords and peasants in medieval England (Oxford 1980) discusses the legal doctrine. The underlying agrarian evolution is discussed by R Faith in The English peasantry and the growth of lordship (London 1997).

6. R Hilton Bond men made free Abingdon 2003; EB Fryde Peasants and landlords in later medieval England Stroud 1996; JH Baker The common law tradition London 2000, pp325-34.

7. M Prestwich Plantagenet England 1225-1360 Oxford 2005, pp446-51. The issue is, however, debated: see EB Fryde op cit pp12-17.

8. Agriculture: J Goodacre The transformationof a peasant economy Aldershot 1994, chapter 3, and cf D Parker Class and state in ancien régime France London 1996, pp48-74 (in France such controls continued down to the revolution of 1789); towns: J Davis Medieval market morality Cambridge 2012, and cf S Ogilvie State corporatism and proto-industry Cambridge 1997 (dynamics of the regulated regime, as it persisted in 17th-18th century Württemberg).

9. RC Palmer Selling the church Chapel Hill 2002, introduction and chapters 2, 4 and 8.

10. ‘Cheese weighage’ Mayor of London v Hunt (1681-82) 3 Levinz 37, 83 English Reports 565; cf more generally F Gunning A practical treatise on the law of tolls London 1833.

11. M Braddick The nerves of state Manchester 1996, pp10-12, 72-76 gives outline figures. The major source of royal income was the customs in the modern sense, duties paid on imports and exports; but the loss of the feudal revenue without replacement would still have produced a major gap.

12. Discussion for the 13th century in SL Waugh The lordship of England Princeton 1988; discussion of 16th century legal doctrine in M McGlynn The royal prerogative and the learning of the Inns of Court Cambridge 2003; 16th-17th century royal administration: HE Bell An introduction to the history of the court of wardsand liveries Cambridge 1953.

13. Invented in late medieval Italy: A Harding, ‘Origins of the concept of the state’ History of political thought Vol 15 (1994), pp57-72; J Kirshner (ed) The origins of the state in Italy, 1300-1600 Chicago 2009. Use of the concept in England, primarily by way of ‘reason of state’ - eg, C Condren, ‘Reason of state and sovereignty in early modern England: a question of ideology? Parergon Vol 28 (2011), pp13-18.

14. JE Martin Feudalism to capitalism Basingstoke 1986, chapter 8.

15. A clear recent discussion in C Holmes Why was Charles I executed? London 2006, chapters 3 and 4.

16. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography ‘Waller, Edmund, poet and politician’. A variety of similar formulations are cited at various points in the additional chapters in C Hill Intellectual origins of the English revolution revisited Oxford1997,and in C Holmes op cit.

17. ME Tigar and MR Levy Law and the rise of capitalism (New York 2000), part 1, though one-sided, can serve as a counter to the more predominant view of (conservative, etc) historians that early urban institutions were not subversive.

18. Pre-revolutionary 17th century political ideas and related legal doctrine are discussed in PD Halliday Dismembering the body politic Cambridge 1998, chapter 2.

19. B Manning The English people and the English revolution London 1991; and cf R Brenner Merchants and revolution Cambridge 1993, parts 2-3; PD Halliday op cit chapter 3.

20. Cf P Brown Through the eye of a needle Princeton 2012, chapter 1.

21. Training before puberty: both cavalrymen and archers began training at age seven. Discussion of the Roman legal sources in A Swiętoń, ‘Some elements of centrally planned economy in the late antiquity?’ Revue Internationale des droits de l’Antiquité No54 (2007), pp503-17. It is highly likely that the late antique state was not capable of enforcing these laws; the point is that the medievals will have inherited them as a component of the constitution of their own self-conceptions.

22. Eg, the stories discussed in NJ Menuge Medieval English wardship in romance and law Cambridge 2001.

23. In fact, Charles turned out to be wholly unwilling to compromise with anyone.

24. CH Firth Cromwell’s army York 1962, pp15-28. On the military effects cf C Holmes op cit pp82-86.

25. See, for example, MA Hicks Bastard feudalism Abingdon 1995.

26. I Gentles op cit p19.

27. www.british-history.ac.uk/no-series/acts-ordinances-interregnum, pp846-47. Cf D’M Coffman, ‘Credibility, transparency, accountability and the public credit under the Long Parliament and Commonwealth, 1643-1653’ in A Leonard and L Neal (eds) Questioning credible commitment Cambridge 2013, chapter 4; Netherlands: MC ‘t Hart The making of a bourgeois state Manchester 1993, chapter 6; Italian city states: L Pezzolo, ‘Bonds and government debt in Italian city states, 1250-1650’ in WN Goetzmann and KG Rouwenhost (eds) The origins of value Oxford 2005, chapter 8.

28. ‘Meritocracy’ was coined by M Young in The rise of the meritocracy (London 1958); cf Young’s acerbic 2001 comment on Blairite meritocracy: www.theguardian.com/politics/2001/jun/29/comment; and A Allan, ‘Michael Young’s The rise of the meritocracy: a philosophical critique’, British. Journal of Educational Studies No59 (2011), pp367-82 (drawing attention to the changed meaning of meritocracy in post-Thatcherite Britain).

29. State trials Vol 9, column 882.

30. D Adair, ‘Rumbold’s dying speech, 1685, and Jefferson’s last words on democracy, 1826’ The William and Mary Quarterly 3rd series Vol 9 (1952), pp525-26. On Sarpi, cf also WJ Bouwsma Venice and the defence of republican liberty Berkeley 1968.