The purpose of this article is to firstly examine current attitudes amongst politicians as regards the Levellers that is the 17th century radicals, not the musicians. The second part will examine current historiography. This article was prompted firstly as the result of a trip to St Mary’s Church in Putney which has an exhibition on the Putney Debates 1647. The information on Leveller involvement in the debates (which was considerable) was largely dominated by politicians and historians with close association with the British Labour Party and historiography is dominated by a Whig Interpretation of History.
A second prompting came from a correspondence with Christopher Thompson. In previous emails Thompson has opposed the use of the word revisionist to describe current historiography regarding the Levellers and the English revolution in general. For the sake of argument I will call the new generation of historians who have written anything on the Levellers as Post Revisionists. While the majority of these historians writings share many of the characteristics of the previous generation revisionist historians the point would be to examine whether they are a disparate group just revisiting old ground, are they saying something new and do they share a common view.
The Levellers are according to one writer are “frequently claimed by the left”. Nominally this statement is true but it is far too simplistic. While it would be correct to say that historians generally define their attitude to the English Civil War by their attitude to the Levellers, this can also be said of politicians as well.
When recently carrying out some research into current positions on the Levellers a surprises came up. As far as I can ascertain no right wing historian or politician has ever claimed the Levellers and what they fought for their own historical and political ends.
So imagine my surprise when the Conservative MP Douglas Carswell put in a claim. In a post on his blog, he attacks David Dimbleby's Age of Revolution episode on BBC which made the common notion that the Levellers belong to the left.
He writes “The photography may have been great, but the script was lazy. Assessing the civil war, battle re-enactment enthusiasts explained they'd have backed the Levellers and the Parliamentary cause because they "vote Labour". The idea that the Levellers belong to the contemporary left is simply wrong. The Levellers wanted to radically disperse power away from remote and unaccountable elites. They wanted lower taxes, more trade, and a less belligerent foreign policy. Most of all, they felt that those who make the law should be accountable to those who live under it.
“Yet Labour is the party of a remote, detached Europhile elite; of the Human Rights establishment and remote EU commissars; of the quango state with its army of executive appointees; of overbearing, intrusive government. Charles I would have felt quite at home. Which party, on the other hand, devolved control over economic things in the 1980s, giving people - not planners - control over their lives? Which party today proposes a radical decentralisation of power and localism? Which party is looking to make politics and public services more directly accountable to the people? The Conservative party is the party of the Levellers “.
Carswell, in his book called The Plan with the Tory MEP Daniel Hannan, expands further on his remarks by arguing that Conservatives “are now the champions of radical decentralisation”. Significantly The Plan includes a tribute to Benn (who has championed the Levellers cause and spoke at many meetings on the subject). Carswell is not the only Tory to praise Benn. According to one writer “David Cameron at the Woodstock Literary Festival, was asked which books had influenced him. He named 1984 by George Orwell, and then a book by the man who used to be seen as the figurehead of the "loony left". The other [book that most influenced me] was Tony Benn's book Arguments for Democracy, a very powerful book which makes the important point that we vest power in people who are elected, and that we can get rid of, rather than those we can't”.
The fact that the Tories are so comfortable adopting the Levellers mantle says a lot about how close the Labour Party are to the Tories both politically and on a growing number of historical issues such as the Levellers.
Douglas Carswell explains this new found camaraderie “Historically, it was the left that sought to disperse power among the people. This high-minded aim informed and elevated the English radical tradition over the centuries. It was the cause of the Levellers and the Chartists and the Suffragettes, the cause of religious toleration and meritocracy, of the secret ballot and universal education. The left is right to take immense pride in these achievements, which almost no one now questions. These days, though, the radical cause should have different targets. The elites have altered in character and composition. The citizen is far less likely to be impacted by the decisions of dukes or bishops than by those of Nice or his local education authority. The employees of these and similar agencies are, today, the unaccountable crown office-holders against whom earlier generations of radicals would have railed. Yet, with some exceptions – among whom, in a special place of honour, stands Tony Benn – few contemporary British leftists show any interest in dispersing power when doing so would mean challenging public sector monopolies. The left, in short, has let the standard of radicalism slide from its fingers. The question is whether the right will snatch it up”.
While Benn has feigned surprise at the Tories claim he has in the past been on favourable terms with a number of leading Tories. On one such issue he wrote in the Sunday Telegraph in The words of Chris Marsden “to justify his backing right-wing Conservative David Davis in the Haltemprice and Howden by-election. Davis forced the election by resigning as an MP in protest at the passing in parliament of Labour’s bill extending detention without trial for terrorist suspects to 42 days. Benn was one of a handful of Labour time-servers who hailed Davis for championing civil liberties, praising him on Sky News and speaking at what was advertised as a debate to launch Davis’s campaign on June 20.Given the character of Davis’s politics—and those of Benn—it was appropriate that the meeting was held at Hymer’s College private school, with annual fees of around £8,000 a year and possessing its very own Masonic lodge and Army Cadet Force detachment. Around a hundred people heard Benn say of “David’s courage” in opposing 42 days’ detention that “people will look back in the future and say ‘thank God.’ ”
In general political writings on the Levellers have been dominated by the Labour Party and specifically its Fabian wing of who Benn is a leading representative. Speaking about British Fabianism, Leon Trotsky wrote: “Throughout the whole history of the British Labour movement there has been pressure by the bourgeoisie upon the proletariat through the agency of radicals, intellectuals, drawing-room and church socialists and Owenites who reject the class struggle and advocate the principle of social solidarity, preach collaboration with the bourgeoisie, bridle, enfeeble and politically debase the proletariat.”
What is any serious student of the subject of the Levellers to make of all this. Anyone who knows the history of the Levellers this is not a simple question in fact it is very complex. From the above MPs mentioned few people will get any sense of the revolutionary process (which the Levellers took part in) that brought Oliver Cromwell to power as England’s first non-royal head of state. For Tory MPs many of whom would lack any kind of historical knowledge on this matter there is a tendency to gloss over the revolutionary nature (in the 17th Century) of the Levellers. Perhaps most importantly they stay deathly silent on their social writings.
Would for instance Mr Carswell really agree with the egalitarian sentiment of Thomas Rainborowe a leading Leveller at the Putney debates who said "I think that the poorest he that is in England hath 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 that government; and I do think that the poorest man in England is not at all bound in a strict sense to that government that he hath not had a voice to put himself under." Lest it be forgotten the Levellers also took part in a successful revolution and fought a successful civil war and cut off a kings head.
To some extent this confusion, distortion and outright falsehoods is not just the result of a few MPs that appear out of their depth on the subject of the Levellers. The problem stems from the fact that current historiography is dominated by a number of conservative historians who have mostly either written the Levellers out of history or have when they have mentioned them is to attack any Marxist understanding of them. This decades-long attack on Marxism has had a detrimental effect on the quality of writing not just on the Levellers but writing on the English Civil War itself.
The problem in finding what new historiography is is a bit difficult. The simple way would be to examine all that has been published in say the last decade or so. Things are complicated by the fact that in most universities most of the reading lists are dominated by ‘old’ writings and historians. So the second part of this article will be a mixture of the two.
Who were the Levellers? The Levellers are probably most known for their part in the Putney Debates 1647 According to Martin Kettle” As CB Macpherson showed more than 40 years ago, the Putney debates are an intense, undistracted and potent discussion about who should be included in the franchise and who should not. There were, Macpherson argued, four main positions at Putney. Position number one limited the vote to owners of freehold land worth 40 shillings a year and freemen of trading corporations; this was the position supported by Oliver Cromwell and Henry Ireton, the key officers at Putney. Position two limited the vote to all male householders assessed for relief of the poor, excluding servants and those receiving alms; this was the position supported by the Agreement of the People, the army manifesto that formed the initial agenda at Putney. Position three gave the vote to all men except servants and alms-receivers; this was supported by most of the Leveller participants at Putney. Position four gave the vote to all men except criminal and delinquents; this position was supported by some Levellers at Putney. Yet even Rainborowe makes clear at one stage in the debate that he does not want to create a democracy in which "the poor" outvote "the people". According to Macpherson, in the England of the 1640s, position one would have given the vote to 212,000 men: position two to 375,000; position three to 417,000; and position four to around 1,170,000. Macpherson has had his critics down the years, but his essential schema remains an essential starting-point for an understanding of what did happen at Putney - and what didn't”.
While post-revisionist historians have downplayed the extent to which the Levellers were involved in the army pre-Putney it is clear from such petitions that sections of the army were becoming far more aware of its own position in politics and within society.
A much more radical tract was in print by 29 October entitled A Call to all soldiers of the Army by the Free People of England which was a defence of the radical regiments and demanded a purge of Parliament amidst a call for the agitators to meet as an ‘exact Council’ and to act with the ‘truest lovers of the people you could find’. One of the main aims of the document was to expose the “hypocrisy” and “deceit” of Cromwell and Ireton.
The General Council of the new Model army resided in Putney church essentially to discuss the Levellers Agreement of the People from 28th October to 11 November1647. According to H N Braislford ‘When one compares these debates with those of its sittings at Reading in July, it is clear that in three months the temper and outlook of the army were changed. At Putney the mood was sultry and tense’. While it true that the grandees and the agitators were moving roughly in the same direction in July by October a huge chasm was to open up between them.
The Levellers had other ideas and their disagreement with Cromwell stemmed from their social position rather than in any tactical nuances. In that sense it is important to view the Levellers in the context of the period. It is clear that much of what the Levellers fought for was incredibly radical for its time. The Levellers appeared and were in fact organised as a political party in the years 1645-46. They were responsible for many of modern day political techniques such as mass demonstrations, collecting petitions, leafleting and the lobby of MPs. Their strength mainly lay in London and other towns and had quite considerable support in the army. The movement was an extremely disparate group containing groups such as the Diggers or as they have called the True Levellers and Ranters who were on the extreme left wing of the Leveller movement.
The main 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 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 layer which made up the Levellers themselves.
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 which essentially was not different from that of Cromwell. 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.
This contradiction caused some tension between their concern for the poor and their position of representatives of the small property owners. 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 reformed on the basis of some basic ‘native rights’ safeguarded even from a sovereign parliament: religious toleration, no tithes. The attack on parliament as 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 limitations of the Leveller program was cruelly exposed in a very famous exchange between Colonel Rainborowe, leader of the Levellers in parliament and H. Ireton, Cromwell’s son in law. 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 ‘freeborn 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 that 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’.
To put it more simply the generals deliberately exaggerated the radicalism of the Levellers in order to label them extremists and to mobilise their own supporters against them. Cromwell correctly recognised that if the franchise was widened it would threaten his majority in parliament. Again Hill explains ‘Defending the existing franchise 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 persons in whom all lands lies and those 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 for 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 argument.
Cromwell was acutely aware that the ideas of the levellers and other smaller groups such as the Diggers were becoming a dangerous business. Cromwell said of what he call the “lunatics”, “you must break these men or they will break you”The importance of the levellers and to some extent the Diggers that they represented the aspirations of the poorest section of society. They were not a mass movement of the poor. While their ideas had very explosive social implications, the necessary objective conditions did not exist at the time.
One thing characterises most of the old revisionist's historians is their attack on the Marxist conception of revolution. Part of this process is to down play the role of semi-revolutionary groups such as the Levellers.
For instance when the Leveller mutiny at Burford took place revisionist historians such as Ian Gentles have challenged the premise that Burford represented nothing but a minor skirmish. He “claims that only a minority of the men in three (not four as Brian Manning alleges) of the troops of Ireton's regiment joined the Leveller inspired mutiny at Burford”. Ian Gentles article tends to downplay a Marxist analysis of the English revolution. To back this claim up he says that there was widespread popular support for Royalist although he does point out that not one of Charles 1st subjects risked their necks to save him.
Brian Manning countered this attack by explaining that never believed that this was a chemically pure revolution. The Revolution was a complex development and class relations were in a state of flux.
Gentles does make one point that to my mind never been successfully countered by historians who are sympathetic to a Marxist historiography of the English Revolution. Why were there no major uprisings, riots or revolts before and during the Civil war?
This point was answered by the Russian writer Evgeny Pashukanis “Here we encounter a fact imposing a characteristic imprint on the whole course of the first English Revolution: it was not accompanied by any significant agrarian movement. Proceeding from the Levellers, the attempt to transform the political structure of England of that day into a consistent bourgeois democratic condition was never supported by a massive peasant uprising. For this of course there were fully sufficient reasons. In the first place, by that time serf dependence no longer existed in England. Almost everywhere the corvée had been replaced by money rent. The cause of the greatest discontent had therefore been eliminated. In the second place, the class divisions of the English peasantry, about which we spoke above, had gone rather far by the time of the Great Revolution. A rich upper stratum, separated from the general mass, tried to improve its farming at the expense of the less wealthy strata. Winstanley, the leader and ideologist of the “Diggers”, who attempted to realize something like agrarian communism, thus draws this contradiction between the rich freeholders and the poor: “they (the freeholders) exhaust the common pastures, put an excessive number of sheep and draft animals on them, and as a result the small renter and peasant farmer hardly manage to feed their cows on the grazing ground.” The rich upper strata of the country took an active part in the destruction of the old common system, in particular the enclosure of the common lands. In this instance, it united with the landowners against the rural poor”.
Ann Talbot also makes a significant point on this matter. Religious dissent is a complex religious and intellectual tradition that owes its origins, in part, to the radical elements of the English Civil War such as the Levellers, who argued for greater equality. But it also encompassed the merchant and manufacturing classes in their fight against the aristocracy. It espoused ideas of the freeborn Englishman resisting the arbitrary powers of his masters and praying in his nonconformist chapel. It was expressed in books such as John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress (1678), the allegorical tale of a Christian's journey to the Celestial City. There was also a Millenarian tradition based on a literal understanding of the Book of Revelations and the establishment of a New Jerusalem. The imagery was a reflection of deep objective changes in society that also expressed the subjective striving for a better future".
One such revisionist historian who has challenged the above premise is Conrad Russell who in his Origins of the English Civil War sought to explain the civil war from the standpoint of the Nobility not from any socio economic changes. Jim Holstun described Russell’s book as a “manifesto for historical revisionism”. Holstun went on to point out that Russell sought another way to explain the social changes that were taking place in the English revolution. That historians should concentrate on the upper yeomanry, the middling sort of people. Russell would often make the remark that he was not conversant with the terms feudalism and capitalism.
Austin Woolrych tends to down play the role of social forces in the debates but not to be extent of Mark Kishlansky who completely rejected what he called ‘social determinism’. Woolrych somewhat contentiously states that the army had refrained from political activity despite the tendency of the Presbyterians both religious and political to portray it as a “hot bed of sectaries and radicals’. If this is true then did Putney really drop from the skies? One cannot but disagree with the attempt of Woolrych to down play the movement of contending social forces in the run up to and during Putney.
While you cannot fault Woolrych for his erudition and his books are worth reading not so much for his analysis but for the tremendous usage of empirical material. His major weakness is he sees the debates at Putney in terms of individuals, if Wildman had done this, if the Levellers had not opposed the Grandees which is fine but if this appreciation of the individual is not coupled to a understanding that these people represented not only themselves but contending class forces then this tends to diminish the historical understanding.
In one passage Woolrych again tries to separate the debate at Putney from the general discussion within the army and outside it. ‘Anyone who strains to hear the voice of the soldiery in the Putney debates should be aware that, apart from one brief interjection by an unnamed agent, the only troopers who spoke that day were Sexby and Everard, and on the other two days recorded by Clarke the only others who opened their mouths were Lockyer and Allen. No agitator of a foot regiment is known to have spoken. Out of just fifty officer-agitator of a foot regiment is known to have spoken. Out of just fifty officer-agitators listed in October, twelve spoke in the course of the three-recorded days five of them only once, and very briefly. We should be very cautious about treating the Putney debates, wonderful as they are as the typical voice of the army”.
While it is true that the ordinary soldiers were thin on the ground the politics that were debated at Putney had a deep resonance inside the army. Even Woolrych is forced to describe such incidents where ‘open incitements to mutiny, and were already bearing poisoned fruit. Fairfax had lately ordered Colonel Robert Lilburne’s foot regiment to Newcastle, for sound military reasons but a party of new agents bearing copies of the Case of the Armie overtook it and urged it not to let the army be divided. Thereupon its soldiers turned back, held an unauthorised rendezvous and refused to obey their officers. Other regiments were in a state of incipient mutiny before the debates at Putney were would up’.
Perhaps the most cynical of the revisionist historians is Mark Kishlansky who says ‘Much has been written about ideology of the army, but most of it misconceived. A principle reason for this has been historians have assumed that the lowly social origins of many of the officers created a commitment to radical ideology. This is false on both factual and logical grounds. There were men of low birth among the new Model’s officers, and much has been made of Pride the drayman and Hewson the cobbler more still might be made of obscure officers like Sponger and Creamer whose surnames suggest backgrounds in trades and service. The army also contained a Cecil, a Sheffield, and three colonels who were knights. Yet careful study of the armies social origin, which lends support to the view that they were more traditional in nature (of solid status in rural and urban structures) still does not meet the real objection to existing interpretation- the fallacy of social determinism’.
In this quote Kishlansky is clearly having a dig at Christopher Hill who was the main advocate of a materialist view of History. While Kishlansky is perhaps the most vocal exponent of this view it is the prevailing academic view that there was no rising bourgeoisie and that people from different social classes can be seen on both sides. As can be seen earlier Russell places Cromwell as a figure from the declining gentry rather than the rising middle class.
This view has been opposed by A Talbot “Hill, of course, was well aware that there were gentlemen and landowners on the parliamentary side in the civil war an small farmers and artisans on the royalist side he had read enough Marx and Lenin to know that one could not expect a chemically pure revolution in which the members of one social class lined up one side of the barricades and those of the other on the opposite side. However, he was sensitive enough to his historical sources to detect the social currents that brought people of diverse social backgrounds into struggle against the king and well-grounded enough in history to identify new and revolutionary ideas in the curious and archaic guise which they appeared- as ideologists of the revolution ransacked the Bible and half understood historical precedent for some kind of theory to explain what they were doing’.
Hindsight is always a great general after the events at Putney Cromwell moved decisively against his two main enemies the Levellers and the King while Cromwell’s individual qualities came to the fore in this time it is undoubtedly that because he was a part of a rising and somewhat small social class that saw the King as an obstacle to its rise as rulers of England that he moved in the way he did. The debates at Putney if nothing else gave us proof that the ideas that were discussed there highlighted the actions different class forces. They gave us a documentary evidence that contrary to the revisionist the main motor force in history is the struggle of contending class forces.
What can be said of the new generation of historians that write on the English Revolution? Much of the new historiography has been dominated by television orientated historians I will concentrate on what they have put down on paper. While it would be correct to say that these modern historians are not a homogeneous bunch again one common thread to their writing is an antipathy towards Marxist historiography.
Tristram Hunt is a British Historian who is intimately tied to the apron strings of the British Labour Party. While I am in general not against political historians it is after all useful as E H Carr was fond of telling people to take note of the bees buzzing in historians head. But when a reputable and severe historian starts passing off historical articles as nothing more than party propaganda for a very right wing Labour government then I get nervous.
Despite his or her political views, a serious historian should have a large degree of objectivity and an independence of spirit. Hunt has none of these. In fact, he is a very great danger of becoming severely compromised by his association with the Labour Party.
His biography in Wikipedia makes interesting reading “born 31 May 1974) is a British historian, broadcaster and newspaper columnist. He also lectures on Modern British History at Queen Mary, University of London.Tristram Hunt read history at Trinity College, Cambridge and the University of Chicago, and was for a time an Associate Fellow of the Centre for History and Economics at King's College, Cambridge. His PhD, Civic thought in Britain, c.1820- c.1860, was taken at Cambridge and was awarded in 2000. Before this, Hunt had worked for the Labour Party at Millbank Tower in the 1997 general election; he also worked at the Party's headquarters during the following 2001 general election.
“Hunt was a fellow of the Institute for Public Policy Research and is on the board of the New Local Government Network (2004). He has made many appearances on television, presenting programmes on the English Civil War (2002), the theories of Isaac Newton, and the rise of the middle class, and makes regular appearances on BBC Radio 4, having presented broadcasts on such topics as the history of the signature. Hunt is an active New Labour supporter and Trustee of the Heritage Lottery Fund and has a column with the UK Sunday paper The Observer. He wrote an essay in the New Statesman comparing Cromwell's Republic to the Islamic fundamentalism dominant in Afghanistan at that time.”
Hunt seems to be a subscriber to the Whig interpretation of England’s historical past that was free of social upheaval and when it did have a revolution that Hunt admits to it was an orderly one such as the glorious revolution of 1688 but as Ann Talbot points out. “The sense that in Britain things were done differently and without continental excess was not entirely new. Burke had expressed it in his Reflections on the French Revolution, but there were plenty of voices to gainsay him and the social disturbances in the years of economic upheaval that followed the Napoleonic wars were a testimony to the contrary. Luddism, anti-corn law agitation, the anti-poor law movement, strikes and most of all Chartism demonstrated that Britain was not an island of social peace.
"Nonetheless the Whig interpretation of history had deep roots in the consciousness of the British political class. The visitor to Chatsworth House in Derbyshire can still see in the grand entrance hall a fireplace inscribed with the legend “1688 The year of our liberty.” It refers to the “Glorious Revolution” when James II quit his throne and his kingdom overnight and William of Orange was installed as king. This was the kind of palace revolution that the British ruling class increasingly preferred to look back on rather than the revolution in the 1640s when they had executed the king, conveniently overlooking the fact that James would not have run if he had not remembered the fate of his father—Charles I”.
It would seem that his main agenda is to defend Social Democracy from its opponents both left and right. He is hostile to Marxism and is joining a long list of historians seeking to discredit its ideas under conditions of growing capitalist instability and social inequality. Fearing that once again the ideas of Marxism could gain a powerful hold on the working people.
Hunt is probably most well-known for his writings on the English civil war. He has been giving access to substantial resources from various sources. The BBC gave him a four-part series on the Civil War and his thoughts have been published quite freely in print. His viewpoint is largely from the standpoint of the monarchy and adds his voice to a number of revisionist historians that saw the civil war as an argument between nobles and not of revolutionary change and the establishment of a republic.
This leads me onto John AdamsonI had intended to try and analyse Adamson approach to the Levellers and make some general points regarding his place in current civil war historiography. This method I must say hit the buffers straight away as I have not found a tremendous amount of his writings on the Levellers to do so. In fact if you examine his most latest work The Noble Revolt which runs to over 700 pages the Levellers are not mentioned once and there is only two page references to John Lilburne. On page 117 Lilburne is curiously named not as a Leveller but as a “Puritan layman”.
Adamson is another post revisionist historian who shares Hunt’s view Cromwell, it can be argued could be better understood as a representative of the declining gentry rather than the rising bourgeois. Adamson believes that Cromwell never intended a revolution and come to think of it neither did those around him but “wished merely to restore what they believed to be the ancient constitution of the kingdom. The whole unpleasant episode could have been avoided if only Charles I had been a little wiser”.
Another aspect of current historiography regarding the Levellers has been the attempt to downplay the influence of this group. Recently John Morrill and P Baker have sought to challenge the level of civilian Leveller influence in the New Model Army by “ arguing that internal army discontent, rather than the machinations of Lilburne and Richard Overton, was behind the appearance of so-called ‘new agents ’ –unofficial agitators of at least five horse regiments – and The case of the armie “
On the other hand according to Baker “ The contentions of this body of work are not universally accepted, however, and scholars like Ian Gentles, Barbara Taft, and Austin Woolrych have continued to see the Levellers as a more cogent group who played a major role in the process of army politicisation”.
The Paper by Elliot Vernon and P Baker called What was the first Agreement of the People tends to argue that the Levellers were far from a cogent group but were in fact part of a far larger political grouping centred on the Independent Alliance. Having read very little on this matter for me the jury is still very much out on this matter but here is what they say to back up their thesis.” the very concept of ‘the Levellers ’, in the sense of a political group which, in Taft’s opinion, existed from mid-1646 ‘as a distinct party with a programme and an organization to advance it ’, is problematic in itself. As is now well documented, at the level of nomenclature, any talk of ‘the Levellers ’ before the Putney debates is a terminological anachronism, for although the word had been used to describe enclosure rioters earlier in the century, it was not first used as a proper noun until 1 November 1647.21 Naturally, the absence of a name does not preclude the existence of such a grouping, and a small number of individuals, including Overton and William Walwyn, evidently came together in the mid-1640s through their involvement in a petitioning campaign in support of Lilburne and their common belief in religious toleration.22 For both Gentles and David Como, the triumvirate of Lilburne, Overton, and Walwyn were sufficiently interconnected by 1645 or 1646 to constitute the leadership of an identifiable group with their own distinctive political agenda.23 Yet, and in common with Kishlansky,24 we maintain it remains difficult to distinguish members of this group from the much larger alliance of political and religious Independents, sectaries, and self-styled ‘ well-affected’ Londoners who banded together at the same time through their support for the New Model Army and common hostility to Presbyterianism”.
One thing I will say about Baker and Vernon’s argument is that it does counter the revisionist’s argument that the Levellers were and insignificant group. In fact the more you look it they were a significant political force who in the end were defeated by Cromwell who controlled the army.
In conclusion the purpose of this article is to try to provide a more precise understanding of the Levellers. I am not arguing that all current historians are a bunch of right wingers or that they have nothing to say on the Levellers. It would be correct to say that they are not a wholly homogeneous group but one characteristic does shine through and that is their hostility to a Marxist approach to civil war historiography.
NB In a note to Christopher Thompson this is only the start of many articles on the Post-revisionist historians. As he can appreciate this is a large subject.
1. Douglas Carswell blog can be found @http://www.talkcarswell.com/show.aspx?id=1316
2. Cameron joins Daniel Hannan in Tony Benn fan club Posted by Andrew Sparrow Friday 18 September 2009 guardian.co.uk
3. A jewel of democracy Tristram Hunt The Guardian, Friday 26 October 2007
4. Leon Trotsky Writings on Britain, Volume 2, New Park, London 1974, p. 48
5. Don't romanticise PutneyThe Putney debates: The true lessons of 1647 are that in the end, it all comes down to practicalities and power.Martin Kettle guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 31 October 2007 12.30 GMT
6. Evgeny Pashukanis Revolutionary elements in the History of the English State and Law 1927
7. The Noble Revolt John Adamson.
8. What was The First Agreement of the People P Baker and E Vernon The Historical Journal 2010.