The greatest long poem in the English language is avowedly apolitical. Its purpose is to:
“...assert eternal providence
And justify the ways of God to men.”
It was written by Milton, a revolutionary republican, after the collapse of the English commonwealth and the restoration of the monarchy. It is called ‘Paradise lost’.
Marxists look at the English Revolution of 1640-1660 as a bourgeois revolution. By that we mean that it cleared the way for the development of capitalism in this country. That, of course, was not what motivated the revolutionaries. Cromwell and Milton were both burning with a sense of the justice, and indeed convinced of divine support for their cause. That was what made them such outstanding revolutionaries. It was Milton’s unflinching devotion to the ‘good old cause’, his total idealism, unwavering commitment to human freedom and hatred of tyranny in all its forms that makes him attractive to revolutionaries today. And Milton, as well as being the second greatest poet of the English language, remained a revolutionary by instinct till his dying day. He was born four hundred years ago on December 9th 1608.
One of the abiding principles that drove Milton on was his defence of freedom of religion. Since all the political debates were conducted in religious terms, he was actually defending the principle of freedom of thought and speech. Milton is often described as the puritan poet. If this is intended to characterise him as an orthodox Presbyterian or Calvinist, then that is quite wrong. The Presbyterians represented the conservative wing of the Parliamentary cause, a wing that was constantly trying to come to a compromise with King Charles (See http://www.socialist.net/oliver-cromwell-english-revolution.htm ).
Milton actually went blind while working to make the republic a success. When Milton made his international reputation as Commonwealth Secretary for Foreign Tongues it was as the man who stood before the world and justified the rightness and the necessity of the execution of the King. He was the great defender of regicide. Regicide was not generally supported among the Calvinists internationally. The Dutch and the Scots were appalled at the execution of the King. The reason was not far to seek. The Calvinist churches in Holland and Scotland, like any established church, were the foremost pillars of political authority. They supported the principle of monarchy. When Charles’ head was cut off, all political authority was challenged. As far as everyone knew this was unique, even impossible. Nobody had ever tried to do this before.
Milton hated monarchy as an impediment to free thinking and he hated the established church, whether High Anglican or Calvinist, for the same reason. The Presbyterians were trying to impose their own dogmas upon the people:
“New presbyter is but old priest writ large,” he warned after the victory of the Parliamentary cause. (‘On the new forcers of conscience under the Long Parliament’)
Since church or chapel was the main place where ordinary people got their information, and were handed down their opinions of what was right or wrong, any established church was a very effective form of thought control. They were natural enemies of independent thought. He commonly spoke of the salaried clergy, whom he despised, as “wolves.”
In a sonnet praising Cromwell for his military prowess against the cavaliers in 1652, he went on to appeal to him to preserve the principle of free thought and speech:
“...Yet much remains
To conquer still; peace hath her victories
No less renowned than war: new foes arise
Threatening to bind our souls with secular chains:
Help us save free conscience from the paw
Of hireling wolves, whose gospel is their maw.”
One of the gains of the Revolution was to break the stranglehold of the established church and of its thought police. Another and related victory was to destroy the King’s censorship. This resulted in a flood of pamphlets written by the common people, not only discussing and criticising every religious tenet and premise under the sun but also some advocating atheism, full democracy and communism. This is what happens when people are allowed to think for themselves, and Milton was all in favour of it. In the seventeenth century that was a very revolutionary position to adopt.
John Milton had links with the radical underground among the London poor and incorporated some of their beliefs in his own writing. Though his poems are well known and his pamphlets largely forgotten, he was a prolific pamphleteer and contributor to the free discussion allowed by the commonwealth. For instance in a pamphlet called ‘The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates,’ a defence of popular government, he held that, “All men naturally were born free.”
But he cannot be regarded as a consistent democrat. The reason for this is that the English Revolution was quite narrowly based. Apart from critical support from radical democrats (called the Levellers) among the urban poor till they were defeated by Cromwell in 1649, Parliamentary support was mainly based on ‘the middling sort.’ (See http://www.socialist.net/the-english-civil-war-and-the-levellers.htm) Milton saw huge swings in public opinion in his lifetime, including widespread support for the restoration, and perceived the common people as fickle. He at first supported Crowell dissolving Parliament and taking power into his own hands as Lord Protector for this reason.
Most people were illiterate and, in rural areas, isolated and influenced if not dominated by church and squire in their village. Milton, like other advanced thinkers on the Parliamentary side, was an advocate of extensive programmes of education, but he saw rural backwardness and prejudice as an obstacle to the triumph of his own beliefs and of popular rule.
Milton was at his best when he had his back to the wall. In 1659 and 1660 it became obvious that the monarchy would be restored with the return of Charles II. He chose this time to write six pamphlets against the principle of monarchy, thus putting himself in the firing line. Short of signing Charles’ death warrant, Milton was the man most associated with the supreme ‘crime’ of regicide. And the return of the King was a return to barbarism. The monarchists wreaked their revenge with the horrible torture of hanging, drawing and quartering. This involved, among other things, ripping out and displaying the entrails of the still-living victim.
When the King returned, Milton went on the run. We don’t know how a famous blind man could conceal himself for months in danger from the threat of assassination as well as of execution. His survival is a great tribute to his courage and that of the friends who sheltered him.
Milton accepted that the good old cause had been defeated, though it was a shattering blow to him. That is why he wrote ‘Paradise lost,’ to reconcile himself to the defeat of all his hopes. But he was utterly convinced he and the cause he had supported had been right, and remained defiant against the monarchist reaction to the end. His revolutionary instincts died hard. His sympathetic depiction of Satan in the early books of ‘Paradise lost’ as an intractable heroic rebel against the absolute monarchy of God in heaven was seen by many as undermining the supposed central message of the poem. William Blake, himself a revolutionary democrat and a big fan of Milton, wrote “He was a true Poet, and of the Devil’s party without knowing it.”
Finally he achieved a certain tranquillity and pride in his achievements and his place in history. His last major poem was about a blind man, a rebel badly treated by his own people. ‘Samson Agonistes’ gets his own back against the Philistines who had blinded him. Moreover in Milton’s version of the tale, only the wealthy establishment are crushed when he pulls the temple down around him, while the poor Philistines standing outside are spared.
The achievements and aspirations of the republicans were systematically falsified by the victorious monarchists. More than that, the revolutionary traditions of England were denied. The English Revolution became ‘the great rebellion’, while the ‘glorious revolution’ was the term used for the overturn in 1688. In fact 1688 marked the final victory of the capitalist oligarchy. The smooth transition from James II to William was only possible because the real revolution had fatally undermined the social foundations of the old order long before.
Engels tried to revive the old submerged English revolutionary tradition. He wrote in the ‘Northern Star’ (the organ of the British Chartists, the mass working class movement for democracy) in 1847 in reply to Louis Blanc, a French radical who claimed all revolutionary ideas came from France: “And, as far as ideas are concerned, those very ideas, which the French philosophers of the 18th century — which Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot, D'Alembert, and others, did so much to popularise — where had these ideas first been originated, but in England? Let us not forget Milton, the first defender of regicide.”