Monday, 20 June 2011

The Leveller Revolution: Radical Political Organisation in England, 1640–1650, by John Rees - published by Verso Books, price £25.

It is hard to believe as Michael Braddick points out in his excellent review[1] that this book is the first full-length study of the Levellers since 1961. Having said that John Rees new book more than makes up for that. The Leveller Revolution is a tremendous advance in our understanding of the Leveller movement and its place in the English revolution.

Over the last five years or so interest in the Levellers both mainstream and in academia has grown significantly. The Leveller Revolution follows on from a growing number of studies such as Rachel Foxley’s book The Levellers: Radical Political Thought in the English Revolution. The Agreements of the People, the Levellers, and the Constitutional Crisis of the English Revolution, Vernon, Elliot, Baker, P to name just two.

Media Interest

This interest has been reflected in the response to Rees’s book from mainstream and academic media with reviews in the Financial Times, TLS, and The Spectator magazine just to name a few. Why the interest as Braddick poses? One reason being is that the left learning sections of the media inside and outside academia have always had a fascination with the Levellers. The right seeks to tie the Levellers to the Labour Party and dampen any talk of revolution[2].

Another reason is that the problems that the Levellers grappled with in the 17th century are unfortunately are alive and kicking in our own century. A third reason for such interest in the book and this is not to denigrate the book which is of a very high standard or the integrity of the author but the book does appear at a very precipitous time in so much that capitalism is going through a great crisis and what usually happens is that  working people start looking for answers to today’s problems in the past. It is, therefore, important for a historian to present and objective account of any subject they write about. Rees manages a pretty good job.

Much of the groundwork for this new book was done in Rees’s own Ph.D. thesis[3] unfortunately his new book is only partially based on that but nonetheless it deepens our understanding of these revolutionaries and most importantly counters decades of conservative revisionist historiography.

The book works well on several levels. It does not give a general history of the English revolution but it does give a significant understanding of the revolution that coursed through 17th century England. It reads like a novel but maintains a very high academic standard.

Second, only to the Russian Revolution, I doubt there has been a decade of revolutionary struggle that equals 1640-1650 of the English revolution. This decade produced a revolutionary army the likes the world had not seen. An entire army had, in another historical first, elected its own representatives from every regiment, challenged their commanders and altered the entire political direction of the revolution.
A republic was fought for and established. The House of Lords was abolished. A king was executed by his people for the first time in history. As for the national church, it was reorganized and its leader the Archbishop of Canterbury tried and executed.

As the regicide, Thomas Harrison said, “It was not, a thing done in a corner.” A group of revolutionaries was born that sought to establish a society based on communistic lines and their theoretical writings and perspectives proceeded the development of Marxism by some three hundred years.

The Levellers

The political movement known as the Levellers appeared in the early days of the revolution. Despite small in numbers, they played a pivotal role in the character and direction of the Revolution.

While it is correct to say, the Levellers appeared during the revolutionary decade 1640-1650 Rees has opposed the prevailing view that they had no history before that. This point has proved most controversial because up and till mow there has been little evidence to counter this view. And it is not just conservative historians that have this view.

The book challenges historians to study more of how the Levellers organized. While acknowledging the difficulty researching underground activity from this far in the past Rees believes it is still possible and backs this assumption up with evidence and presents it in a very convincing way.

Rees’s book also counters some historians who have tried to present the Levellers as just a loose collection of radicals. Rees provides extensive evidence to the contrary. While not being a party in the modern sense they nonetheless were a well organised and strongly coherent group. One strength of the book is how Rees traces how the Levellers used secret printing presses and how they utilised churches as bases for their political activity.The congregation of these churches were not passive by standers but circulated radical Leveller pamphlets and books.

As Rees puts “by 1646, the group ‘both in the eyes of their opponents and in the internal ideological support they deliver to each other, is a functioning collective organization’ (pp.142-4).

Rees correctly centers the activity of the Levellers around its leader John Lilburne. From a very early stage in the revolution, Lilburne saw the importance of underground printing [4].

In a few short years, Lilburne had become widely known especially in London as a radical against the king. He was imprisoned by Charles I for distributing illegal pamphlets in the late 1630s.

Perhaps the most important aspect of the book is Rees’s uncovering of the huge amount of material that was printed illegally by the Levellers. Rees is convinced that these radical pamphlets pushed the revolution in a leftward direction. The early part of the revolution saw the growth of a republican movement with Henry Marten who was a Leveller sympathizer being the first MP to advocate a republic
.
To describe the movement as a party is perhaps premature but nonetheless they took on many characteristics of a party that would not look out of place today. As Rees says there was then a ‘dense fabric of political opposition in the capital during the early days of the Revolution, and in some cases from before that, from which the Levellers emerged as an organised current. Underground activity in churches and taverns, combined with the secret printing and petitioning activity … provided a schooling in organised politics which would feed into the foundations of the Leveller movement. The point where meetings in churches and taverns spill over into mass street demonstrations is possibly an early decisive moment of transition. This is the point where clandestine or semi-clandestine activity becomes irrefutably public opposition to established authority’ (p.65).

Rees’s research has given us a far closer approximation as to the class character of the Levellers. While it is correct to characterize them as revolutionaries they were a movement of the petit bourgeoisie and not the what could be loosely termed at the time the working class.

For the Russian Marxist Evgeny Pashukanis “the Levellers undoubtedly were a petit-bourgeois party. While some historians protest that capitalist relations were not that developed to describe them as such I believe that there were sufficient bourgeois-capitalist relationships, at the 1640s to warrant such a claim[5]

Their call for suffrage was not universal although even their call for a wider franchise was a revolutionary demand. They were a minority and could not mobilize the one class that would have given the poorer sections of society against Cromwell and his bourgeois allies. Much of their social composition was made up of the “middling sort” of lesser gentry, merchants, and craftsmen that made up the same social base as Cromwell.

Historiography and Revisionism

It would not be too controversial to say that Historians over a long period of time have underestimated the size and importance of the Levellers and other radical groups to the English revolution
.
The nineteenth-century Whig historians such as Thomas Babington Macaulay was deeply hostile to any revolutionary movement. This conservative historian had profound difficulty in understanding the revolutionary actions of Oliver Cromwell or for that matter the class forces he represented. He could only offer the ‘incurable duplicity’ of the latter of Charles 1st

Macaulay reason for the radicalism in the army as ‘the refractory temper of the soldiers’, who were ‘for the most part composed of zealous republicans’
.
Many historians followed Macaulay’s lead into the 20th century in dismissing the Levellers. Probably the most important aspect of this book is to challenge this revisionist onslaught.

Current historiography has certainly carried over much of the worst traits of Whig attitudes towards the Levellers. Some have ignored them completely such as John Adamson others have portrayed them as having little or no influence on the outcome of the war. John Morrill mentioned them twice in his book The Revolt of the Provinces.

There have been oppositional voices. Edward Vallance has uncovered a persistent influence of John Lilburne’s politics on radicals in the 1700s. He concludes ‘historians have undervalued the degree of intellectual sympathy and continuity between the radicalism of the seventeenth century and that of the eighteenth’.[6]
The Conservative orientated revisionist’s downplaying of the significance of the Levellers was really a by-product of their assault on Marxist historiography. It is a shame that Rees does not go into greater detail the political basis of such revisionism. In his Ph.D. thesis, he believes “the revisionist challenge to liberal and left interpretations of the English Revolution synchronised with almost suspicious exactitude with the end of the post-war boom and the abandonment of the welfare state consensus. This change, beginning in the mid-1970s, achieved its electoral representation when Margaret Thatcher became prime minister of Britain in 1979 and Ronald Reagan president of the US in 1980[7]

He continues “In a way, revisionism was never only about the English Revolution. Very similar arguments were deployed at much the same time about the French and the Russian Revolutions. Moreover, the revisionists depended on a wider conservative turn in social theory. The Althusserian school of the 1970s, which became the post-structuralist school, which became the post-modernist school which fed the ‘linguistic turn’, provided a theoretical tool-box for the revisionists and those that came after them.

Perhaps the most often cited attack on the Levellers is that they had no representation in the army. This downplaying of the army radicalism was led by Mark Kishlansky, Rees answers this
“In my opinion the revisionist insistence that the Levellers were exterior to the army is overstated.  Many Levellers were of the Army themselves. Lilburne had an exemplary and widely publicised military record. But Lilburne was not alone in this. Leveller William Allen served in Holles’ regiment. Leveller printer William Larner served as a sutler in Lord Robartes’ regiment. Thomas Prince fought in the London Trained Bands until he was injured at Newbury in 1643. John Harris ran an Army printing press. Leveller ally Henry Marten had close engagement in military affairs in London and eventually raised his own regiment in Berkshire. Thomas Rainsborough and his brother William were Leveller sympathisers. Edward Sexby was a central figure in the actions of the Agitators. Army chaplains Jeremiah Ives and Edward Harrison supported the Levellers. This list is indicative but far from exhaustive. It does not include most of the figures directly involved in the mutinies at Ware in 1647, and at Bishopsgate and Burford, both in 1649. These connections add weight to Foxley’s observation that the Putney debates ‘marked not the end but the beginning of a potentially fertile alliance between civilian Levellers and army radicals’ and that this ‘reverses the picture painted by the standard revisionist historiography’ “(p. 158)[8].

Roll of Women

I am glad that Rees spends some time on the role of Leveller women during the English revolution. Rees explains that not only ‘mechanicals’ could be found preaching but a significant number women (p.63).
History and for that matter historians have not been kind to women who took part in political activity on both sides of the English Civil War. There is a dearth of material on women’s struggle now. As far as I can ascertain no major biography exists of two of the most important Leveller women Katherine Chidley and Elizabeth Lilburne.

Women Levellers mounted large-scale demonstrations and organised petitions in favour of social equality. They were met with differing levels of brutality depending on which class they belonged to. overall middle class women were treated with derision but largely no violence was committed against them. This is not the case with the poorer sections of the women’s movement who were often treated severely by MP’s and soldiers alike.” Many were thrown into prison, mental institutions, or workhouses. Middle class women were simply escorted away by soldiers and told to 'go back to women's work”. One MP told them to go home and wash their dishes, to which one of the petitioners replied, “Sir, we scarce have any dishes left to wash”’ (pp.290-1).

Leveller women did not fight just as individuals. According to historian Gaby Malhberg the wives of leading figures of the English revolution “formed their own networks, discussing political issues in the absence of their husbands. Edmund Ludlow recorded, for instance, that he had little hope of a pardon from the King because the wife of his fellow republican Sir Henry Vane had informed Elizabeth ‘that she was assured [General George] Monke’s wife had sayd she would seeke to the King, upon her knees, that Sir Henry Vane, Major Generall [John] Lambert and myself should be hanged.”

This extraordinary revolution radicalized many women into political action. As Rees points out one of John Lilburne’s most important collaborators, Katherine Chidley, also emerged from the context of the gathered churches. She published a remarkable defense of independent congregations, and religious leadership by the socially inferior, including women, becoming a key figure in Leveller publishing and organizing (pp.38-40).


Conclusion

It is not an accident that Rees who is a radical today has donated so much of his time to the Leveller movement. In his latest book, he states “I have tried to…examine the Levellers as a political movement integrating activists from different constituencies, and creating still broader alliances with other political currents, for the joint pursuance of revolutionary ends. (Rees, The Leveller Revolution, p. xx)

In many ways, this is the perspective of the current SWP. Rees who is an ex-member of the Socialist Workers Party SWP) still observes its attitude towards historical events. The SWP from the very beginning of their development adopted the British Communist Party approach to historical events. The English Labour history industry has presented several books and essays that see an unbroken historical line of English radicalism.
As Ann Talbot succinctly put it “the Communist Party sponsored a form of “People’s History, which is typified by A.L. Morton’s People’s History of England in which the class character of earlier rebels, revolutionaries and popular leaders was obscured by regarding them all as representatives of a national revolutionary tradition. This historical approach reflected the nationalism of the bureaucracy, their hostility to internationalism and their attempts to form an unprincipled alliance with the supposedly democratic capitalists against the fascist Axis countries. People’s history was an attempt to give some historical foundation to the policies of Popular Front—the subordination of the working class to supposedly progressive sections of the bourgeoisie and the limiting of political action to the defence of bourgeois democracy—which provided a democratic facade to the systematic murder of thousands of genuine revolutionaries, including Trotsky. It was the approach that Christopher Hill was trained in, along with E.P. Thompson, Rodney Hilton and Eric Hobsbawm, who were part of the Marxist Historians Group and came under the influence of Maurice Dobb and Dona Torr”.

This viewpoint has even been adopted by a historian who has no attachment to the SWP, Ed Vallance’s book A Radical History of Britain and David Horspool’s The English Rebel are two that come to mind. It is a perspective that says the English working class is inherently radical and revolutionary and does not need a Marxist scientific world outlook.

I and John have clear and unbridgeable differences both politically and historically but this does not stop me recommending his book to the widest audience possible. I Hope it starts a much-needed reinvestigation into this most important political tendency. It is hoped that Rees’s book is translated into many languages and published in many countries as possible. Differences aside it is a very important book.










[1] Mike Braddick-Times Literary Supplement-March 24th, 2017
[2] Jeremy Corbyn is taking Labour back to the 1640s-David Horspool-The Spectator-Jan 2017.
[3] http://research.gold.ac.uk/10465/1/HIS_thesis_Rees_Thesis_2014.pdf
[4] See Secret Printing, the Crisis of 1640, and the Origins of Civil War-David R Como, Past and Present 2007
[5] Evgeny Pashukanis Revolutionary Elements in the History of the English State and Law (1927)
[6] E Vallance, ‘Reborn John? p. 21
[7] Leveller organisation and the dynamic of the English Revolution John Rees Doctoral thesis, Goldsmiths, University of London, 2014.
[8] Review of The Levellers: Radical Political Thought in the English Revolution
Rachel Foxley by John Rees- http://www.history.ac.uk/reviews/review/1519
Manchester, Manchester University Press, 2013, ISBN: 9780719089367; 304pp.; Price: £70.00


Post a Comment