Monday, 5 October 2015

The Election of Jeremy Corbyn and “The rebirth of the Levellers”

It would not be an overstatement to say that the election to the leadership of the Labour party of Jeremy Corbyn is an event of some significance. Corbyn has been the unwitting benefactor of the enormous social hostility aimed at the growing enrichment at the expense of millions of working people by a handful of the super-elite. There is, without a doubt, something rotten in the state of Britain. 

A tremendous amount of newspaper columns, most of it pretty puerile has drawn attention to Corbyn's left-wing politics.  As Julie Hyland correctly points out "Corbyn's history is steeped in opportunist petty-bourgeois politics. For all his votes against aspects of Labour policy, he has been a loyal defender of the party throughout his 32 years on Labour's backbenches. No one can seriously propose that this party—which, in its politics and organisation and the social composition of its apparatus, is Tory in all but name—can be transformed into an instrument of working-class struggle. The British Labour Party did not begin with Blair. It is a bourgeois party of more than a century's standing, and a tried and tested instrument of British imperialism and its state machine. Whether led by Clement Attlee, James Callaghan or Jeremy Corbyn, its essence remains unaltered".[1]

 One of the more interesting articles which appeared as a byproduct of Corbyn's election victory was by the historian Edward Vallance in the Guardian newspaper.[2] The purpose of my article is to tackle the issues raised by Vallance's article rather than a polemic against Corbyn's politics. As in politics so in history, principled considerations need to guide any analysis.  

 His article took note of an interview with the New Statesman in which Corbyn sought to trace his radicalism back to mid-17th-century England.  The interviewer asked Corbyn what historical figure he most identified with. It was not surprising that he named John Lilburne.

 I am not against modern-day political figures identifying with historical figures or having a good grasp of history, but much historical water has passed under the bridge since 1640 and secondly to compare Corbyn's opportunist petty-bourgeois politics with the revolutionary Levellers. Their leader John Lilburne is a little disingenuous.

John Lilburne was the de facto leader of the Levellers who appeared in the mid-1640s and were England's first radical political party. 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 MP Henry Marten described Lilburne saying "If the world were emptied of all but John Lilburne, Lilburne would quarrel with John and John with Lilburne."

 The 'movement' contained other smaller groups of radicals such as the Diggers known as the True Levellers and Ranters who were on the extreme left wing of the Leveller movement. As Valance correctly points out "Lilburne would forge a career as one of the most prominent radical figures of the period. Along with the works of other writers, notably Richard Overton, William Walwyn and John Wildman, Lilburne's ideas formed the intellectual basis for what came to be known as the Leveller movement".[3]

 How radical were the Levellers has preoccupied historians and some politicians for centuries?  This task has been more difficult with the Leveller's legacy being claimed by fascists such as the BNP[4], and the semi-fascist UKIP[5] have adopted them as their own.  UKIP MP Douglas Carswell wrote on his blog that he thought the Levellers were proto-Conservatives who favoured the small government, low taxes and free trade. 

Would, for instance, would Carswell 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 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." I doubt it somehow.

It was correct for the early Marxists to look at the early plebeian movements as precursors of the modern socialist movement. What needs to be clarified is what a modern socialist movement looks like. The Communist Party Historians Group (CPHG) alongside numerous radical groups such as the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) tend to glorify the spontaneous movement of the "middling sort" and to link it to working-class struggles today as if there was some unbroken radical and democratic thread that would supersede the need for a scientifically grounded Marxist revolutionary party.

If there is to be a rebirth of the Leveller historiography, it must be done with a substantial appreciation of the historians and political figures that flowered during the Russian revolution. One such figure was Evgeny Pashukanis.[6] His area of expertise was legal history. His writings on the radical movements of the 17th century are perceptive and well worth a study but have been neglected by even today's left-leaning historians. He rejected crude historicism and opposed historians who saw the Levellers democratic demands as utopian.

Pashukanis saw the English Levellers and Diggers as "primitive precursors of Bolshevism". In the introduction to his Revolutionary Elements in the History of the English State and Law, one writer said "These movements were primitive because they articulated their demands chiefly in terms of bourgeois notions of distributive justice, yet they were also precursors of Bolshevism because they attacked existing property relations and recognised the necessity of forging political alliances with the urban workers and rank and file soldiers. In praising the informal nature of the Levellers' demands, and the democratic nature of their organisations, Pashukanis is drawing an explicit parallel between the Levellers' organisation and the structure of the Soviets of Soldiers' and Workers' Deputies of 1917. The Levellers' failure lay in the fact that they were betrayed by the upper strata of the peasantry, and that they were insufficiently prepared to resist the authoritarian opportunism of Cromwell and his generals".[7]

 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. It is very complex. You would search in vain amongst the MPs mentioned including Corbyn of 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. Many MPs would lack any kind of historical knowledge on this matter, and they would certainly downplay the revolutionary nature of the Levellers. And more importantly, they would stay deathly silent on their social writings.

Any serious student of the Levellers would have to contend with is the fact that modern-day historiography is still partially dominated by Fabianism.  In Putney, there is an exhibition on the Putney Debates of 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 more precisely the Fabians.

Any debate over the Levellers has been dominated certainly over the last century by figures in or around Social Democracy. Perhaps the most important figure has been Tony Benn. Who before his death spoke at a commemoration of Lilburne's birth?. As Julie Hyland noted "Benn prides himself on his "historical viewpoint". 

Through his father, the experiences of the 1930s became a formative influence on him politically. From this tumultuous decade of fascism, defeated revolutions, depression and war, he developed a loathing for class conflict. This reinforced his belief that parliamentary democracy and social reform were all that stood between Britain and chaos. [8]

Fabians such as Benn present the English revolution, not as a revolution and the Levellers are not seen as revolutionaries but mere radicals. 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."[9]

To conclude  "The interest in the radicalism of the English revolution is indicative of the current crisis in British political life ". This is certainly the most interesting and accurate sentence in the whole of Vallance's article. Can a study of the Levellers tell us anything about politics today? Firstly the fact that we are talking about the 17th-century English revolution and its radical wing at all is because the issues like what kind of democracy do we want, the rise of social inequality and how to tackle it and in general what kind of society do we want are contemporary. Given the explosive political situation today, it is understandable that the bourgeoisie is a little nervous over a discussion of the revolution of 1640. 

In many ways, the answer given to all these questions in many ways mirror the answers given by Cromwell and other bourgeois leaders of his day are similar to today's politicians both Labour and conservative. Cromwell opposed the abolition of private property and had no solution to the rise in social inequality other than to send his army against anyone that proposed it. For example, on May 17th, 1649, Cornet Thompson, Corporal Perkins and Private Church rank and file Levellers were shot at the hands of Oliver Cromwell troops.  Like in the 17th-century real wealth and the power that goes with it are still in the hands of a tiny, extremely wealthy elite who call the shots.

[1] The political issues posed by Corbyn's election as UK Labour Party leader14 September
[4] See Edward Vallance's book-A Radical History of Britain: Visionaries, Rebels and Revolutionaries - the men and women who fought for our freedoms
[8] The end of Fabianism in Britain-
[9] Where is Britain Going?Chapter IV -The Fabian “Theory’of Socialism