The Putney Debates

In late October and early November 1647, St Mary’s Church in Putney was the setting for passionate debate between the officers of the New Model Army led by Oliver Cromwell, and the “agitators” of the rank and file soldiers with their unofficial spokesman, Thomas Rainborough. “They discussed the future of England, indeed the very meaning of England.” (1)

The Putney Debates have been much discussed and interpreted. Aneurin Bevan, founder of the National Health Service published an article under the name “Thomas Rainborough” and summarised the debates in the “single, brilliant chiasmus of two breaths” (1) which appears under the title of this blog.

This blog considers the economic and political world created by neoliberal theory and practice, because with the systemic capitalist crisis caused by neoliberalism we have returned to that same place where Rainborough argued against Ireton and the men of property. As ordinary people participate in “the Arab Spring” or “Occupy Wall Street” or protest against “austerity measures” and unemployment we become acutely aware that we have been here before, that the struggle is always to stop the men of property from dividing the world into two parts: one tiny and obscenely wealthy, the other the majority of us either already and forever deeply impoverished or increasingly so.

Speaking for the  officers in St Mary’s Church, Cromwell’s son-in-law Henry Ireton made clear,

“All the main thing I speak for, is because I would have an eye for property.”

and Colonel Rich added that if the propertyless four fifths of the kingdom voted, they might legislate

“that there shall be an equality of goods and estates.”

For the agitators – and for the majority of us – Thomas Rainborough explained the corollary that if only rich men ruled then

“the one part shall make hewers of wood and drawers of water of the other [four], and so the greatest part of the nation be enslaved.

Occupy Wall Street would argue that the four-fifths is now 99%

(1) Linebaugh and Rediker, The Many Headed-Hydra, Ch 4. This excellent study of the hidden history of the Revolutionary Atlantic is quoted extensively here.

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