Monday, 30 August 2010


This a correction to my blog Supplementary Notes for a further Article on the True Levellers Part Two. I have already apologised to him for the error.

Christopher Thompson Wrote:

Keith Livesey has given some details of his ideas for working on the Levellers here. I was surprised to see my 1980 Past and Present article cited as the basis for a claim that Petty had supported a restricted franchise in the Putney debates of October, 1647 on the first Agreement of the People. In fact, I argued that Petty's position had changed: he came to it as a supporter of manhood suffrage but, towards the end of the debate, sought consent on a more restricted franchise excluding Royalists, servants and other dependents.

My argument was a criticism of the claims of C.B.Macpherson that the Levellers were consistent supporters of a restricted franchise. But it must be said that the view held then that the First Agreement of the People was a Leveller document no longer seems tenable. Elliot Vernon and Philip Baker have recently argued in The Historical Journal (Volume 53. No.1 (March, 2010), Pp.39-59) that the document was the product of a group of London radicals, including Maximilian Petty, around Henry Marten and not a Leveller tract at all.

This means that the assumption upon which Macpherson, Keith Thomas, Monk, Aylmer and I worked was wrong. I am grateful for their research on this point.

Friday, 20 August 2010

A reveiw of the Light Shining in Buckinghamshire by Caryl Churchill

The Play Light Shining in Buckinghamshire by Caryl Churchill recently came to an end at the Arcola Theatre in London. The play was generally well received and deservedly so. The Financial Times said, “Churchill shows us an age of unbelievable fluidity in the social order...” The play reminds us sombrely that such moment of potential pass: they either come to nothing in the first place, or the old order is soon restored. Michelle Terry and Helena Lymbery each excel in the Putney sequence”.

The play is set amidst the English Civil war, so knowledge of this event is a must before seeing or reading the play. The blurb for the play by Churchill sets the scene “1649. After years of bloody civil conflict, an exhausted England is in the hands of radical extremists. Turning the country upside down, Parliament’s soldiers kill the King and take power into their own hands. Theirs is a war to establish Heaven on Earth. This is the story of the most terrifying decade in our history. Struggling to find a voice in the face of unspeakable suffering, a group of ordinary men and women cling to the belief that they will be shown a glimpse of unspeakable, transcendent glory”.

Having not been performed for a good while the play marked as one writer put it “a major UK revival of Churchill’s seminal play brought to the stage by Polly Findlay and the stellar creative team behind Thyestes (Arcola) and Eigengrau (Bush)". The play was written in 1976 also marked Churchill’s first collaboration with the Joint Stock Theatre Group.

One word of warning the play as far as I can see does not follow any chronological order. One critic cautioned that audiences may “find themselves disoriented by the swirl of events and even by the style of storytelling. In all productions, it seems that six actresses and actors repeatedly switch roles while playing dozens of characters. Identification is often deliberately blurred.

Churchill throughout her career to date has tackled complex historical questions in a simple but thought provoking way. Earlier plays have included “Fen" which was about farm workers in England and "Mad Forest" during the Romanian revolution. She has also not been scared to use different theatrical techniques such as the use collage form.

The play reflects that much of the writing of the Levellers and the Diggers was couched in the language of religion. Which was to be expected. This taken from the Digger Pamphlet The Light Shining in Buckinghamshire “JEHOVAH ELLOHIM Created Man after his own likenesse and image, which image is his Sonne Jesus, Heb. I. verse 2. who is the image of the Invisible God: now Man being made after Gods image or likenesse, and created by the word of God, which word was made Flesh and dwelt amongst us; which word was life, and that life the light of men, I Joh. 2. this light I take to be that pure spirit in man which we call Reason, which discusseth things right and reflecteth, which we call conscience; from all which there issued out that golden rule or law, which we call equitie: the sum me of which is, saith Jesus, whatsoever yee would that men should doe to you, doe to them, this is the Law and the Prophets; and James cals it the royall Law, and to live from this principle is calld a good conscience: and the creature Man was priviledged with being Lord over other inferior creatures, but not over his own kinde; for all men being a like priviledged by birth, so all men were to enjoy the creatures a like without proprietie one more than the other, all men by the grant of God are a like free, and every man individually, that is to say, no man was to Lord or command over his own kinde: neither to enclose the creatures to his own use, to the impoverishing of his neigh- bours, see the Charter, I. Gen. from 26. vers. to the end of the Chapt. and see the renewing of the Charter to Noah and his Sons, Gen. 9. from the I. vers. to the 18.

That Levellers and Diggers couched their writings in religious flavouring does not detract from the important calls for further democracy and increased social equality. According to Marx, they were not the only ones to do so “Cromwell and the English people had borrowed from the Old Testament the speech, emotions, and illusions for their bourgeois revolution. When the real goal had been achieved, and the bourgeois transformation of English society had been accomplished, Locke supplanted Habakkuk. Thus the awakening of the dead in those revolutions served the purpose of glorifying the new struggles, not of parodying the old; of magnifying the given task in the imagination, not recoiling from its solution in reality; of finding once more the spirit of revolution, not making its ghost walk again”.

The play does have a contemporary feel to it. The questions of democracy and of social inequality, the treatment of women, wars and revolution and the subjugation of Ireland are in many senses still with us. I am not the only one who feels this “The temptation to look for reflections of the present in the past is always strong, and you can find such thoughts in any period if you look hard enough. The historian Barbara Tuchman, in her book A Distant Mirror, saw the 20th century reflected best by the wars, plagues and schisms of the 14th. Watching Caryl Churchill's remarkable 1976 play Light Shining in Buckinghamshire, which revolves around the millenarian hopes and anxieties of the Diggers, Ranters and Levellers of the English Civil War, it's impossible not to hear pre-echoes of our own times, at the end of the millennium. It's impossible, too, not to see some contemporary applications in Churchill's picture of the agonies of a dispossessed, politically excluded class. This was shown by one new radical group such as The Land Is Ours, who occupied the Guinness Brewery site in Wandsworth earlier this year”.

Perhaps the play's greatest service is its attention to history. The title is taken from one of the lesser known Diggers tracts. Churchill manages to accurately weave real events and words spoken at the time. By far the strongest part of the play is the partially verbatim transcript of the Putney Debates of 1647, which saw rank and file soldiers and commoners argued for a broadening of the democratic franchise and an end to social equality which were opposed by Cromwell and Ireton leaders of the Grandees.

The only criticism I have of the play is that it perhaps glorifies the Levellers and Diggers a little too much. Which is perhaps the result of the influence of the SWP whose former member John Rees was an advisor.

In my opinion, a more serious evaluation should be made. The Levellers appeared to take on many of the characteristics of a political party in the years 1645-46. This is a contentious issue and has been disputed. They were the radical wing of the Independent coalition and were responsible for many of modern day political techniques such as mass demonstrations, collecting petitions, leafleting and the lobby of MPs. As an aside William Clarke who provided us with the report of the Putney Debates was an avid collector of books, pamphlets and leaflets found in his collection was over eighty Leveller pamphlets. The Levellers strength mainly lay in London and other towns and had not an insignificant support in the army.

The central plank of its manifesto was the call for a democratic republic in which the House of Commons would be more important than the House of Lords. A Leveller would have a wanted redistribution and extension of the franchise, legal and economic reform on behalf of men of small property, artisans, yeoman, small merchants, and the very layers which made up the composition of the Levellers themselves.

The Levellers themselves were part of a group of men that sought to understand the profound political and social changes that were taking place at the beginning of the 17th century. They were the true ‘Ideologues of the revolution’ and had a capacity for abstract thought. Levellers also wished to democratise the gilds and the City of London, a decentralisation of justice and the election of local governors and stability of tenure for copyholders. While the Levellers were sympathetic to the poor, which stemmed from their religion they had no programme to bring about social change, they never advocated a violent overturning of society. Their class outlook, that being of small producers, conditioned their ideology. At no stage did the Levellers constitute a mass movement.

The contradiction between their concern for the poor and their position of representatives of the small property owners caused some tension. They had no opposition to private property and therefore they accepted that inequalities would always exist, they merely argued for the lot of the poor to be made more equitable. One of their members John Cooke explained “I am no advocate for the poore further then to provide bread and necessaries for them, without which, life cannot be maintained, let rich men feast, and the poore make hard meale, but let them have bread sufficient”.

Knowing that they could not come to power through the presently constituted electorate the Levellers attempted to find constitutional ways of getting round it. A draft constitution produced in 1647 called the Agreement of the People declared that the state had broken down in civil war and must be refounded on the basis of certain fundamental “native rights” safeguarded even from a sovereign went against one of the most fundamental reasons for the war in the first place. The Agreement amongst other demands, called for biennial parliaments, franchise reform, only those who contracted into the new state by accepting the agreement were to have the vote.

The one real chance the Levellers had to put their ideas into practice was to gain control of the army. The development of the new model army was central to the outcome of the English Civil war, who controlled the army-controlled state power. The Levellers had agitated for the arrears of wages to be paid and that indemnity for actions committed during the civil war be granted. This agitation had won them considerable support in the army.

At the Army Council debate at Putney held in the October/November of1647 came the Levellers opportunity. The limitations of the Leveller program was cruelly exposed in a very famous exchange between Colonel Rainborowe, leader of the Levellers in Parliament and Henry Ireton, Rainborowe stated that “The poorest he that is in England has a life to live as the greatest he and therefore every man that is to live under a government ought, first, by his own consent. To put himself under the government”.

This seemed all very democratic but ‘free born Englishmen’ excluded servants and the poorer sections that did not constitute ‘the people’. Christopher Hill says “The Leveller conception of free Englishmen was thus restricted, even if much wider than the embodied in the existing franchise. Their proposals would perhaps have doubled the number of men entitled to vote. But manhood suffrage would have quadrupled it. The generals, generally horrified, pretended at Putney that the Levellers were more democratic than they were”. In the end, as Churchill writes in the Play the only thing the Levellers got out of Putney was the promise of Cromwell to take things to a committee.

To put it more simply the generals deliberately exaggerated the radicalism of a majority of the Levellers to label them extremists and to mobilise their own supporters against them. Cromwell correctly recognised that if the franchise were widened, it would threaten his position in parliament. Again Hill explains “Defending the existing franchise Cromwell son in law, Henry Ireton rejected the doctrine ‘that by a man being born here, he shall have a share in that power that shall dispose of the lands here and of all things here’. The vote was rightly restricted to those who ‘had a permanent fixed interest in this kingdom’. Namely, ‘the person in whom all lands lie and that incorporation’s in whom all trading lies”.

Ireton claimed the present House of Commons represented them and went on to ask by what right the vote was demanded all free Englishmen. If by natural right, taking up the Levellers point that they should be free. Who could freely dispose of their own labour? Then Ireton could see no reason why men had as much natural right to property as to the vote. He went on to point out that if you give them the vote, then they will be the majority in parliament and they will give equal property rights to everybody. This argument completely confused Rainborowe and undermined his case.

Cromwell was acutely aware that the ideas of the Levellers and the smaller groups within them such as the Diggers were becoming a dangerous business. Cromwell said of what he called the ‘lunaticks’ “You must break these men, or they will break you” Cromwell declared. By May 1649 the Levellers had been defeated in battle, and their influence in the army and in civilian life disappeared.

In many respects, the true revolutionary of the civil war was Cromwell and his New Model Army. While not agreeing with the revisionists that the Levellers were an insignificant movement, they should not also be hyped into something they were not. They were primarily a movement of the lower middle class that sought to extend the franchise on a limited basis. The reason this failed was that the social and economic basis for their ideas had not yet developed in this sense their egalitarian ideas were a foretaste of future social movements, not communistic but more in the tradition of social democracy.

The play works on many levels. People without a knowledge of the Levellers will get a lot out of it. The more academically minded person will also have their intellect satisfied. I would recommend the play whole heartedly.

Thursday, 5 August 2010

The Spartacus Wars by Barry Strauss

On one level The Spartacus Wars by Barry Strauss is an excellent introduction to understanding Spartacus and the most famous slave revolt in history. The book is well researched and not bogged down with footnotes and is certainly not a dense academic tome. As one reviewer said, “In the Spartacus War, Barry Strauss presents a historical portrait of Spartacus to a mass audience”.

Strauss was not just content with researching his subject from the confines of Cornell University but made numerous trips to Italy and the countryside which saw many of the battles.

He is no tourist historian, and his knowledge of certain areas clearly stands out in the book. Barry Strauss clearly displays an admiration for Spartacus. For Strauss Spartacus was no ordinary Slave but a “murmillo gladiator”. Strauss also describes Spartacus battlefield tactics “not as intuition but reveals that the former slave had served as a Thracian auxiliary to the Roman army where he learned about Roman military tactics”.

Strauss makes a good case for his version of events. I say his version because in this area of historiography information is in very short supply and his book will undoubtedly be challenged. There also are a lot of ifs and maybe again because of the shortage of information on Spartacus and his battles.

Having said this Strauss does make a good account of himself. One writer said in a review “Not content to give the evidence, Strauss usually picks a version of the events and backs it up, or works from multiple hypotheses; for instance, he writes: "As an astute judge of character, Spartacus might have chosen some men without prior military experience to lead units of his army."

Strauss mixes his interpretations with a useful knowledge of the history and background of the period.

Spartacus down the centuries

Unlike many figures from ancient times, Spartacus has a resonance down the centuries even today his name is used by anyone who purports to fight “tyranny and totalitarianism”. Even the most right-wing figures had claimed Spartacus for themselves according to The Sunday Times review by Mary Beard “When Ronald Reagan addressed the British parliament in 1982, he used Spartacus, the Roman rebel slave, as a symbol of the fight against. For Reagan, Spartacus stood for the struggle of western democracy against Soviet oppression.”

However, it is on the left both politically and historically that Spartacus lies. He was principally an egalitarian, all the loot captured from the Romans was shared amongst his troops. Karl Marx said that Spartacus inspired people in the battle against Capitalism in his words he described him as “a great general, a noble character, a genuine representative of the ancient proletariat”. These sentiments were echoed by Vladimir Lenin co-leader of the Russian Revolution. A hundred years earlier the great Voltaire called Spartacus’s rebellion “the only just war in history”.

Spartacus and that Movie

In truth, many people's understanding of Spartacus is coloured by the Hollywood movie starring among others Kirk Douglas. In many ways, the film itself was a struggle against “oppression” not Roman but American Capitalism. The 1960 Kirk Douglas film was in reality based on a struggle against McCarthyism. The film was based on the book by one blacklisted author, and the screenplay was written by another.

According to David Walsh writing in the “Kirk Douglas was impressed with Kubrick and brought him on as director of Spartacus, which Douglas starred in and produced. Kubrick replaced Anthony Mann, who had already shot the beginning and several scenes. Though a cut above the usual big-budget historical films, and with a worthy subject--the massive slave revolt in ancient Rome--it still suffered from the bloatedness and heroics of most Hollywood epics. Kubrick described himself as a "hired hand," and had significant differences with Douglas. It was not a happy time creatively for him. But Spartacus showed the studios that Kubrick could be a responsible Hollywood director, and, conversely, demonstrated to Kubrick that his place was not in Hollywood. His disillusionment with the studio system brought him to England, where he made Lolita (1962) and settled for the rest of his life”.

In an interview given to publicise the book Strauss elaborates further on the movie, Yerxa: Who was the "real" Spartacus, and how does he compare to Kirk Douglas's character in Stanley Kubrick's 1960 film?

Strauss: “Perhaps the most surprising thing is that the Kubrick film isn't complete fiction, but offers some historical truth. The fact is that Spartacus really was a slave and a gladiator in Capua, Italy, and he actually did lead a revolt. As the movie shows, it started in the kitchen of the gladiatorial barracks with the men using basic kitchen utensils to fight the guards and break out. And it's even true that Spartacus had a ladylove as he did in the movie. But there are some real differences as well. The movie Spartacus was born a slave and was the son and grandson of slaves, but the real Spartacus was born free. He came from Thrace, roughly equivalent with today's Bulgaria. And far from being a lifelong opponent of Rome, he started out as an allied soldier in the Roman army. He fought for Rome. His fate, ending up as a slave and gladiator, was quite unexpected and quite unjust. The Romans themselves admitted that Spartacus was forced to become a gladiator even though he was innocent”.

Real Events

Strauss makes clear that there is a problem writing on Spartacus and that is that the majority of evidence of the slave rebellion led by Spartacus 73BC, was written more than 100 years after the event. Most of this was written by Roman historians who were far from objective. Straus also makes clear that political issues were in play. Although that is not to say that some Roman historians were favourable to Spartacus, Strauss says “I was personally struck by the degree to which later Roman writers presented him as a good guy,” .“They respected him and blamed themselves for the war.” The historian Plutarch writes “And seizing upon a defensible place, they chose three captains, of whom Spartacus was chief, a Thracian of one of the nomad tribes, and a man not only of high spirit and valiant, but in understanding, also, and in gentleness superior to his condition, and more of a Grecian than the people of his country usually are.”

In fact, I thought Strauss could have made more use of Plutarch, in his book on Roman History, the Life of Crassus: “The insurrection of the gladiators and the devastation of Italy, commonly called the war of Spartacus, began upon this occasion. One Lentulus Batiatus trained up great many gladiators in Capua, most of them Gauls and Thracians, who, not for any fault by them committed, but simply through the cruelty of their master, were kept in confinement for this object of fighting one with another. Two hundred of these formed a plan to escape, but being discovered, those of them who became aware of it in time to anticipate their master, being seventy-eight, got out of a cook's shop chopping-knives and spits and made their way through the city, and lighting by the way on several wagons that were carrying gladiators' arms to another city, they seized upon them and armed themselves. And seizing upon a defensible place, they chose three captains, of whom Spartacus was chief, a Thracian of one of the nomad tribes, and a man not only of high spirit and valiant, but in understanding, also, and in gentleness superior to his condition, and more of a Grecian than the people of his country usually are.”
Another reviewer also tackled the subject of Roman historians “What preoccupied serious Roman historians, looking back to the rebellion, were two political issues. First, why did it take the Roman forces two years to crush this band of runaways and their hangers-on, as they wandered to and fro around Italy? (The answer must be that, to begin with, the senate underestimated the danger and sent second-rate generals with untrained armies to deal with it.) Second, which Roman commander ultimately gained most, in honour, prestige and career advantage, from finishing off Spartacus’s uprising? Was it Crassus (played by Laurence Olivier in the film), who infamously crucified the defeated rebels, by the thousand, all along the Appian Way? Or was it Pompey the Great, who hurried back from his campaigns in Spain, and tried to rob Crassus of the credit by wiping out a stray group of runaways and claiming the victory for himself”?

In The Spartacus War, Barry Strauss makes the point that it is neither Crassus who led the victorious war against Spartacus or Pompey who came in later came out with any credit or prestige with history both have been largely forgotten yet it is the loser Spartacus who is arguably the more famous and certainly looked up to.

Another reviewer makes the point that “Both Crassus and Pompey, were as doomed as Spartacus: Crassus was soon to be massacred in a battle against the eastern Parthians (a much more formidable enemy than Spartacus), while Pompey was brutally decapitated in his civil war against Julius Caesar. The political future lay elsewhere, with the one-man rule of the first emperor Augustus. Ironically, it was Augustus’s undistinguished father, Octavius, who, 10 years after Spartacus’s death in 71BC, finally crushed the last remnants of his supporters, still living rough (and annoying the local population) in southern Italy”.

The book is not without its weaknesses. Not even a good military historian as Strauss undoubtedly can paper over large gaps that appear in the Spartacus evidence. In fact reading Strauss, you almost get to feel his frustration as well as your own in attempting to understand Spartacus’s motives.

Reviewer Tony Williams also makes this point “of why they revolted in the first place. Strauss is simply not terribly clear. Spartacus was “a man of destiny,” the author tells us. He was a “man of passion, thirsting for freedom.” But the revolt was neither to free slaves generally nor to escape into freedom far from the clutches of the Roman Republic. If we learn little of the why Strauss does not fall short on the how of the Spartacus revolt”.

This frustration was shared by many who reviewed the book in the mainstream press one writer asked “What, for example, were Spartacus’s strategic plans? Once he had broken out of the gladiatorial barracks at Capua, and gathered together a sizeable force of other runaways, why did he march all the way north to the Alps, then all the way back down south again? Was this, as I half-suspect, aimless wandering with no game plan at all? Strauss is more generous, and guesses that Spartacus was let down by his followers: they took one look at the mountains they would have to cross if they were to make their way to freedom in the north, as Spartacus planned, and beat a hasty retreat”.

Clearly, Strauss has his own ideas on what motivated Spartacus. Strauss portrays Spartacus wife as having significant influence on his motives, but little or no evidence exists to back this up. In fact, we do not even know her name. Some things are contradictory in the book. While describing what were revolutionary acts Strauss clearly downplays the revolutionary aspect of Spartacus. Strauss makes no suggestion that Spartacus had any revolutionary plan to abolish slavery as an institution. But that is not really the point. Spartacus was not a conscious Marxist revolutionary wanting overthrow the Roman State.
It was just that objectively Spartacus could not take the revolution further than he did. While you get to learn little of Strauss’s own political leanings he has made some wayward comparisons between the rebellions which he describes as probably the most successful insurgencies in world history. He has also made parallels between the slave revolts American ‘War on Terror’.

“It’s the story of an insurgency like ours in Iraq and Afghanistan,” Strauss says. “The great power can’t fight him, because it’s bogged down in another war. The war is a test of the great power's moral fibre. And a charismatic leader inspires men to fight using liberation theology like jihad. The similarities leap off the page."

While comparisons with the United States imperialism and the Roman Empire are fraught with danger, I would draw the line to say there is any comparison between Spartacus and a bunch of clerical fascists like the Taliban.