John Rees’s new book on the Levellers illuminates a neglected era of radical history, says Andrew Murray writing in today’s Morning Star
The Levellers’ Revolution by John Rees (Verso Books, £25)
THE ELITE in most countries inculcate an ambivalent relationship with the revolutionary past.
But few go as far as the British in actually denying its existence and books still appear with titles like How Britain Never Had a Revolution.
Only, of course, it did. The civil wars of the 1640s constituted a profound social transformation, marked by the shattering of the coercive apparatus of royal absolutism and culminating in the trial, conviction and execution of King Charles I. This last was an event not only unprecedented but also entirely unthinkable just a few years before it happened. That is the stuff and the way of revolutions.
The English revolution lies much further in the past than others — notably the French and Russian —which have entered history as general landmarks in human progress. With ideological positions swaddled in religious discourse, its message was never universalised in the fashion of the revolution over the Channel 150 years later.
As a result, the democratic and popular impulse behind the revolution and the republic was long denied and absorbed into Whig history as an unfortunate exception to the otherwise peaceable and constitutional evolution of English liberty.
Twentieth-century Marxist historians, led by Christopher Hill, brought the events within the scope of historical materialist analysis, establishing a class perspective which subsequent challenges have far from unseated.
But prior to the publication of the superb The Levellers’ Revolution by John Rees, there has been no general history of the Levellers, the mass-based democratic wing of the revolutionary movement, since HN Brailsford’s book written nearly 60 years ago.
In meeting this deficiency Rees does a service not just to our history but to all contemporaries interested in what the lineaments of a revolutionary organisation might look like.
“In origin and orientation the future Levellers focussed on popular politics and popular mobilisation,” Rees writes. “Who had ever advocated such a thing before? There, surely, is the source of a vital democratic tradition.”
Rees’s focus is on the development of the organisation of the Levellers, an approach which brings out clearly the historic novelty of the movement.
Their roots are found in the taverns, churches and narrow streets of a crowded London and their branches extended, at their peak, into the heart of the New Model Army, with Agitators closely connected to the Levellers. They extended the audience for radical democratic ideas throughout this unprecedented fighting force.
How this movement grew is the story Rees tells with an acute eye for both its detailed development — not easy to fully reconstruct — and for the imprint of its leading personalities like the perpetually tempestuous John Lilburne, the radical MP Henry Marten and Richard Overton. Nor does he neglect the role played by Leveller women such as Katherine Chidley.
Rees’s lucid prose moves the story along swiftly, drawing heavily on the vast and unique legacy of pamphlets the Levellers left behind, not to forget the long-forgotten transcripts of the Putney debates, where Democracy had it out with Order as to whose new England was being born.
The Levellers emerged from the interstices of controversies about the scope and extent of the social change the civil wars were leading to.
They challenged those who wished to confine the outcome of the conflict within the narrowest possible dimensions, preserving the monarchy along with all the other essentials of social hierarchy, including tightly state-regulated religious observance.
No part was left for the common people.
They represented the extreme edge of democratic politics, urging no compromise with the king or the conservative elements in the Commons and advancing demands which in some cases, such as universal manhood suffrage, were so advanced as to not be fully realised for more than another 250 years.
Their methods too — pamphlets requiring the preservation of illegal presses, amply documented by Rees — were ahead of time.
Rees summarises the Levellers’ strengths as “their political judgement of the threats and possibilities inherent in the situation [being] largely accurate” and that “they commanded sufficient organisation of a kind no other political actor possessed and which was capable of acting effectively.” Here, in the roughest sketch, is the idea of a political vanguard of a subordinate class.
Rees notes that “when the Levellers appealed to their core constituency they appealed down to those whose lives were wrecked by war and taxes, oppressed by tithes and monopolies, leeched on by lawyers and prelates.” These were the popular levels locked out by City government and oligarchy.
And even as the revolution retrenched, the Levellers still led these elements in retreat, surely one of the hallmarks of a serious revolutionary organisation. They continued to produce analytical pamphlets, “could petition and protest repeatedly on a mass scale” and could inspire three mutinies in the army.
That they were derided in Cromwellian propaganda as “women, boyes, Mechanicks and the most sordid sediment of our Plebians” tells its own story.
However, this book is not a work of political analysis alone. It is also a flesh-and-blood story, with personalities, episodes, dramas, confrontations, heroism and betrayals.
In telling it so well, Rees retrieves the struggle of the Levellers from relative shade to the benefit of the revolutionary tradition as a whole.
He admits that the scope of the book did not permit dealing with debates about “the class structure of early modern England or the way in which these classes were politically represented.”
That’s a shame, since such contextualisation could only deepen our understanding of a revolution with so many claimants to being its social locomotive — the merchant class, a faction of the nobility, the London masses, or all of the above.
That, perhaps, is a further work. In the meantime, no socialist or democrat should advance into an uncertain 2017 without reading this one.
• The Levellers’ Revolution is available at a special discount price of £12.50 until January 1, details: versobooks.com
Andrew Murray is a contributor to 21centurymanifesto