Thursday, 23 June 2011

Historians on the Levellers and the English Revolution 1642-1652

by Chris Thompson

I am afraid that it is not true to claim that there was a dearth of works on the Levellers before Christopher Hill and other members of the Communist Party’s Historians’ Group began work to rescue them from historical oblivion or that this was the responsibility of Whig historians. S.R.Gardiner considered the Levellers’ influence in the period from 1647-1649 in some detail in Volume IV of his history of the English Civil War and in his biography of Oliver Cromwell: the first Agreement of the People, now known to be the product not of Leveller thinking but of a group of radicals around Henry Marten, appeared in 1889 in his Constitutional Documents of the Puritan Revolution.

It was C.H.Firth who edited and published The Clarke Papers, which throw such light on relations between the leaders of the New Model Army, the Agitators and Levellers, between 1891 and 1901. Eduard Bernstein’s book, Cromwell and Communism; socialism and democracy in the great English Civil War was published in German in 1895 and in an English translation in 1930. G.P.Gooch’s work, The history of English democratic ideas in the 17th century, first appeared in 1898 and T.C.Pease’s book, The Leveller Movement; A Study in the history and political theory of the English Great Civil War, was published in 1916. Margaret James’s book, Social Problems and Policies during the Puritan Revolution 1640-1660, was published in 1930 as was J.W.Gough’s article, ‘The Agreements of the People’ in History in the following year. The truth is that there had been a significant amount of work done on the Levellers long before they attracted the attention of Christopher Hill or of the Communist Party’s Historians’ Group.

It is true that there were Marxist historians of importance working in the pre- and post-Second World War periods. But, by the early-1970s, their influence was largely spent as far as the early modern period was concerned as was that of Lawrence Stone. Marxist influence had never been overwhelming or absolutely predominant even if it had attracted the support of, perhaps, a third of the specialists in this period. Hugh Trevor-Roper, J.P.Cooper and J.H.Hexter had seen to that. ‘Revisionism’ in the sense you use the term was born in the late-1960s and was itself defunct by the early-1990s.

To be a non-Marxist is not to be a ‘revisionist’. Personally, I prefer a situation in which a range of influences and trends shape the historiography of the period before, during and after the struggles of the 1640s and 1650s in the British Isles. Critical attacks on Kishlansky, Morrill and Russell will not revive historical materialism of the kind advocated in the 1950s and 1960s. The Levellers were an interesting phenomenon and important for their ideas amidst the competing political and religious debates of the late-1640s but their support was relatively small and they were gone in the space of a very few years. Such a transient phenomenon deserves serious historical evaluation rather than hagiography.