Saturday, 27 December 2014

The Levellers: Radical Political Thought in the English Revolution Rachel Foxley , Manchester University Press, 2013, ISBN: 9780719089367; 304pp. Price: £70.00

Given the recent flood of academic books on or around the subject of the English revolution as John Rees points out in his review for the IHR (Institute of Historical Research) it is a little surprising that this book is “the first full-length study of the Levellers for fifty years not since H. N.Brailsford’s The Levellers and the English Revolution was published in 1961”.

The absence of a systematic study of this important political group is to found not so much in history as in politics. While some historians would like to keep politics out of history, there is and has been a profound link between a rightward shift in academic circles and the type of history being studied and written about today

Certainly, in my field of study, a veritable historian’s war has existed for well over fifty years. While the battle lines maybe a little blurred at times when the smoke clears the debate has mostly taken the form of an attack on any kind of Marxist interpretation of historical events.

It is not within the scope of this review to examine the revisionist revolt whose origins can be traced all the way back to G R Elton, but the central focus of this disparate group of historians has been to attack any Marxist conception of the historical study. The downplaying of the Levellers role in the English Revolution is a by-product of this attack.

As Rachel Foxley points out in her introductory chapter on ‘The Levellers and the historians’ ‘The revisionist historians who have rewritten the history of the seventeenth century have questioned almost every aspect of the historical reputation of the Levellers’ (p. 3).

It is open to question to what extent Foxley herself has adapted to this revisionist assault. One criticism of the book is her concentration on Leveller political theory to the detriment of their economic and social base. Foxley is in a historiographical sense part of the post-revisionist approach.

However, she does insist that ‘revisionist treatments of the later 1640s cannot wipe out the contribution of the Levellers to the radicalisation of parliamentarian political thought’.

Foxley does not see the Levellers as an independent group of radicals or revolutionaries but places their politics within a broad parliamentarian alliance. This view would not look out of place amongst other revisionist historians. She then appears to contradict herself by saying that we should not ‘dissolve them into an undifferentiated part of that complex political world’ (p. 6).
As John Rees correctly points out that this “approach which Foxley criticizes runs the risk of producing the effect that the philosopher Hegel describes as ‘ night in which all cows are black’, meaning that it is impossible to differentiate the object of study from its background[1].

Given the limits of this review, it is impossible to give sufficient justice to all the arguments presented by Foxley in the book. However, there are some areas which need further comment.

Foxley is correct to emphasize the originality of Leveller thought. She opposes that view that the Levellers merely adapted arguments found within parliament’s supporters. Despite their independence, the Levellers clearly had alliances with many disparate political groups and people.

The complicated relationship between the Levellers and other political and religious groups and individuals makes it extremely hard to gauge both the size and influence of the Levellers. This anomaly has been seized upon by many conservative historians to dismiss the group as irrelevant.

One of the strengths of the book is that probes these relationships and attempts to explain them within the revolution itself. Given the complexity of this work, you feel that Foxley’s work on the Levellers is far from over.

Foxley clearly sees the Levellers as radicals and not revolutionaries.  There is a tendency within her work to see the Levellers as making things up as they went along. To some extent this is correct. The Levellers and their leader did react to casual events and cut their cloth accordingly.

But the Leveller ideology was not just product or pure expression of spontaneous developments. It is true it was adapted “in the midst of a political crisis not in the seminar room, ” but Foxley does not attempt to place the Levellers on a more objective basis.

On my part, the Leveller’s were part of a broader and international movement that sought in a limited way to move away from a biblical explanation of political social and economic problems. This is not to say as some left historians have done that they were proto-Marxists but they should be seen as a group of individuals who sought to go beyond previously held beliefs.
As the Marxist political writer David North says “Until the early seventeenth century, even educated people still generally accepted that the ultimate answers to all the mysteries of the universe and the problems of life were to be found in the Old Testament. But its unchallengeable authority had been slowly eroding, especially since the publication of Copernicus's De Revolutionibus in the year of his death in 1543, which dealt the death blow to the Ptolemaic conception of the universe and provided the essential point of departure for the future conquests of Tycho Brahe (1546-1601), Johann Kepler (1571-1630) and, of course, Galileo Galilei (1564-1642). Intellectually, if not yet socially, the liberation of man from the fetters of Medieval superstition and the political structures that rested upon it, was well under way. The discoveries in astronomy profoundly changed the general intellectual environment”. [2]

In much of their political thinking, the Levellers were the forerunners not only of the 18th century Enlightenment but of the socialist movement.

While in a limited sense Foxley places the Levellers within the dynamic of the revolution. She highlights the most significant moments of the revolution that involved the Levellers. She challenges previously held views that the Levellers did not attract a mass audience for the views.

The July 1646 publication of the Remonstrance of Many Thousand Citizens Foxley believes ‘was the first Leveller text to make a claim to a mass following, a significant moment in the genesis of the group.'(p. 36).

Foxley also contests the view that the Levellers were solely driven by religious thought.  Of course, it is understandable that the political thought of the day would be heavily cloaked in religious garb as she states ‘There is simply no need to go hunting in covenant theology or congregational practice for Leveller political ideas of equality or “democracy,” or for a prototype of the Agreement of the People.'

For me, the best or most interesting chapter is the ‘Levellers and the army.' Perhaps the most hotly challenged area of Leveller historiography has been the extent of Leveller influence in the New Model Army.  Anyone who has argued that the Levellers had significant influence in the army is accused of falling victim to the “fallacy of social determinism.”

Austin Woolrych 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 hotbed of sectaries and radicals.” If this is true then did Putney actually drop from the skies? Is there no connection between the activity of the army before Putney and during? Surely history is not just a series of unconnected episodes.

Again according to Woolrych “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 Sex by 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-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’?

If ever an area of academic study needed more work it is the examination of the politics of the New Model Army. As Rees says that with “Independents, other army activists, and the Levellers all existed on a political spectrum in which it is difficult to cleanly separate one set of ideas or personnel from another.”

Other conservative historians have been “prominent in seeking to challenge the nature and extent of Leveller penetration of the army, certainly before the high summer of 1647. John Morrill argues that Leveller rhetoric was fundamentally opposed to a standing army and that Lillburne’s own experience made him suspicious and out of touch with its rank and file, Mark while Kishlansky has suggested that “the dynamics of army relations with parliament could be explained adequately in terms of the military’s own sense of its honour, its legitimate demands as an army, and its own experience in war and peace’.

Foxley believes this is “unjustified in the light of ‘the petitioning campaign of spring 1647, the pre-existing cooperation between the core of Leveller leaders, and the growing consistency of concerns and demands in the sequence of joint and individual works associated with the Leveller leaders’ (p. 153).

Foxley’s work on the Putney debates is hampered by the constraints of the publishers. They could have perhaps given her more pages. However, she presents great proof of Leveller influence on the Grandees of the army and the contacts between the ‘civilian’ Levellers and the military radicals. She concludes that ‘the revisionist story about Putney and its aftermath cannot easily account for these continuing connections’ (p. 159).

This has still not stopped the political and historical blindness of some revisionist historians towards the Levellers from believing that the Levellers “were exterior to the army.”

As John Rees points out 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 “. [3]

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).

One aspect of the Levellers underplayed in the book were their relationship with Cromwell and their inability to go beyond their own social base.

Leveller ideas had their roots primarily in the lower strata of society, as Cliff Slaughter states “they become anathema to the victorious upper-middle classes. It was as necessary for Cromwell to crush the Ranters as to liquidate Lilburne’s Levellers and Winstanley’s Diggers. A few selections from their tracts will show their lack of appeal to class so enamored of compromise (with its ‘betters,' of course) as the British bourgeoisie”[4]. This would also explain that after the 1650s the Levellers all but ceased to exist

One of the compound and exciting chapter in the book is The Laws of England and the free-born Englishman.  Given Foxley’s extensive research on this matter, it is little surprising that she makes little use of Soviet historians work on the English Revolution.

One historian comes to mind is Evgeny Bronislavovich Pashukanis. In his work Revolutionary Elements in the History of the English State and Law 1927 postulates that much of Lilburne’s theory on state law was adopted at a later date by the English bourgeoisie  according to Pashukhanis “ John Lilburne in his work, The Fundamental Laws and Liberties, incidentally formulates two classical principles of the bourgeois doctrine of criminal law: no one may be convicted other than on the basis of a law existing at the moment of commission of the act, and the punishment must correspond to the crime according to the principle an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. Lilburne himself was, of course, the first man in England to succeed in being served with an indictment.”


It is a fact that that this book was primarily targeted at academic circles. It is perhaps natural given the compound nature of the subject material. However, the book should be of concern to all history students both of a left or right persuasion. Foxley’s book should be seen as a significant contribution to placing the Levellers in their proper revolutionary context. Hopefully, when the book is published in paperback, a reasonable price would mean it getting the wider reader ship it deserves.


1 John Rees, review of The Levellers: Radical Political Thought in the English Revolution, (review no. 1519)
 Date accessed: 27 December 2014
[2] Equality, the Rights of Man and the Birth of Socialism By David North  24 October 1996
[3] John Rees, review of The Levellers: Radical Political Thought in the English Revolution, (review no. 1519)

[4] Cliff Slaughter Religion and Social Revolt from Labour Review, Vol.3 No.3, May-June 1958, pp.77-82.