Wednesday, 31 January 2018

John Lilburne and the Levellers-Reappraising the Roots of English Radicalism 400 Years On-Edited by John Rees-© 2018 – Routledge-158 pages

"Though we fail, our truths prosper" - John Lilburne.

"That an inequitable thing it is for one man to have thousands, and another want bread, and that the pleasure of God is, that all men should have enough, and not that one man should abound in this worlds good, spending it upon his lusts, and another man of far better deserts, not be worth two pence, and that it is no such difficulty as men make it to be, to alter the course of the world in this thing, and that a few diligent and valiant spirits may turn the world upside down, if they observe their seasons, and shall with life and courage ingage accordingly."

--- attributed to William Walwyn

'Each generation ... rescues a new area from what its predecessors arrogantly and snobbishly dismissed as 'the lunatic fringe,"' Christopher Hill 

The essays contained in this book are primarily the product of a conference held at Bishopsgate Institute to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the birth of John Lilburne leader of the Leveller Party. The remit of this new book is a daunting one. To reappraise any historical topic or figure is usually a fraught undertaking to do so after 400 years have passed has to be applauded. This article will examine the extent the authors of these essays have achieved this aim.

The central thrust of this collection of essays is to establish John Lilburne (16151657), or 'Freeborn John' as the central revolutionary figure of the English Revolution. The book also contends that his party the Levellers played a significant part in this glorious revolutionary period.

The subjects covered in the book range from an examination of Lilburne's writings and ideas, the role he played as a lead activist in the revolutionary drama. Personal and political relations with his wife Elizabeth are examined, his exile in the Netherlands, and contentious decision to become a Quaker.

If Thomas Carlyle was correct about removing the dead dogs from Cromwell's reputation, the same could be said about Lilburne. Looking back, it is hard to believe that Lilburne was such a feared figure and was subjected to "sophisticated propaganda campaigns". Out of all this Lilburne has, according to Mike Braddick, become the 'celebrity radical'.

On a more serious note, The book is also testimony to the strength and contemporary nature of his ideas. As Edward Vallance points out, it is debatable whether the radicals of the eighteenth century or even nineteenth-century would have been so radical without Lilburne laying the foundations for their revolutionary activity.

The last decade or so has seen a significant rise in the interest in John Lilburne and his Leveller Party. In the last few years alone there have been four significant studies beginning with Elliot Vernon, and P. Baker's the Agreements of the People, the Levellers, and the Constitutional Crisis of the English Revolution followed by Rachel Foxley's The Levellers: Radical Political Thought in the English Revolution. John Rees's The Leveller Revolution. A further examination of the Levellers will be released at the End of October by, Gary S. De Krey Following the Levellers, Volume One, volume two will be released in 2018.

All these studies attempt to answer one primary question How radical were the Levellers. This is a contentious issue even today?  Out of these studies and I am well aware of generalising too much there appear to be two strands. One takes a more cautious and conservative approach this is represented by the essays contained in Elliot Vernon and P. Baker's The Agreements of the People, the Levellers, and the Constitutional Crisis of the English Revolution and more radical approach as represented by these essays.

The Paper by Elliot Vernon and Phillip 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 more significant political grouping centred on the Independent Alliance. They argue that" 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 organisation 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 Nov. 1 1647.

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 was sufficiently interconnected by 1645 or 1646 to constitute the leadership of an identifiable group with their 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. They banded together at the same time through their support for the New Model Army and common hostility to Presbyterianism" [1].

Another question that comes to mind is what accounts for this plethora of studies. Which mostly have taken on the revisionist historiography. The historian Christopher Hill answered this when he was asked in 1992 How do you see the development of the debate around the English Revolution over recent years? Would you agree that the revisionists have taken some ground?

He replied "They have made a lot of useful points, but their more extreme views are now being attacked by the younger generation of historians. Although the revisionists had all sorts of useful ideas, they had a narrow political approach in that they tried to find the causes of the English Revolution solely in the years 163941. This simply assumes what you are setting out to prove. If you look just at those years then, of course, it is a matter of political intrigue and not long-term causes.

"I think people are reacting against that now. The better of the revisionists are themselves switching around a bit. John Morrill, for instance, who thought everything depended on the county community and localism, is now taking a much broader point of view. Moreover, Conrad Russell has become aware that long-term factors must be considered he does not like it, but he recognises that religion has some long-term effects on what happened in 1640, a rather elementary point but he left religion out altogether in the early days. Now he has bought it in. He still leaves out the cultural breakdown in the society of that period, but he is moving a bit. I think a consensus will arise and then there will be another explosion in 20 years or so. These debates occur regularly ever since 1640 people have been arguing about what it was all about". This analysis is being vindicated today.

Also, I believe the attempt to reappraising both Lilburne and the Levellers is a partial reflection of contemporary events. We are, after all witnessing social upheavals that have few parallels in history. Maybe the fact that we could be on the brink of a nuclear war between North Korea and America has sharpened a few minds.

Again when Hill was asked why he wrote a particular book, he said: "there was no direct connection to events going on around him, but he did admit there was no conscious decision to write the book because of the events at the time, but inevitably as I wrote, I was seeing analogies between the 17th century and contemporary events all the time".

Introduction: John Lilburne, the Levellers, and the English Revolution by John Rees

The writer John Rees is quickly becoming a leading expert on John Lilburne and the Levellers. Rees acknowledges in this introduction that despite being called Levellers at the Putney Debates of 1647, they were, in fact, a recognisable political entity well before that.

It was clear very early on that Lilburne, and his Leveller's represented a force that went well beyond their class base. Moreover, their propaganda began to reach a broad section of society. You only have to funerals of Levellers that were killed by Royalists such as Thomas Rainborough or Levellers killed by Cromwell to see that the sheer size of these funerals indicates a level of support beyond their class.

Lilburne was a member of the gentry. As Rees points out, this was a "discontented and volatile group". Lilburne and his fellow Levellers could have a reasonably comfortable life, but they choose to tackle injustice poverty and a lack of democracy by carrying out political agitation.

Rees correctly points out that Lilburne's ability to reach a broad audience was done not just with his physical bravery and undoubted talent as an agitator but helped enormously by the growth of new technology such as the colossal growth of secret printing.

He sums up "How Lilburne's reputation and the history of the Levellers have come down to us is long, complex and contested. There has never been a moment when it has not interacted with contemporary politics or refracted through modern political debate. In Reborn John? Edward Vallance charts the first of these great transitions as radicals and others in the eighteenth century debated the lineage of the first modern revolutionary leader and the movement he represented".

Chapter 1: John Lilburne and the Citizenship of 'Free-born Englishmen' (Rachel Foxley)

This essay was not written for the Conference; it is, in fact, a reprint from 2004. It is quite ironic that as Foxley wrote this essay back in 2004, citizenship rights were being attacked all over the world. Many people were and are still being stripped of their citizenship by governments who have cynically used the Magna Carta to do this.

People seeking to defend these rights could do no better than study Lilburne's struggle to establish them in the 17th century. As Foxley correctly brings out in her essay.Lilburne had used the Magna Carta to justify extending citizenship rights to a broader section of the population. His battle-cry for democracy was a progressive one in that it sought to eradicate social relations based on Feudal laws and social customs.

As Hoffman and Read point out "In the context of medieval England itself, the social reality behind the formal rights of freemen and the continuing struggles of the peasantry was revealed in the Peasants' Revolt of 1381, 166 years after the Magna Carta. Led by Watt Tyler and Jack Straw, 60,000 peasants marched on London to demand the abolition of serfdom, tithes, and the poll tax. The rallying cry of the peasants was the rhyme "When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the Gentleman?"

Nevertheless, the formal rights and freedoms, and constraints on arbitrary power, enunciated in the Charter also contained universal content. Essentially, they gave early expression to the assertion of the inherent rights of man, however necessarily constrained and formed within the current historical realities and class relations of the early 13th century England. These political rights were the subject of centuries of struggles waged by the masses against the property-owning classes in England, the Continent and, later, America[3].

When Lilburne fought for his and other citizenship rights, his ideas were also were constrained and formed within the current historical realities. These realities were not products of his gifted mind but reflected material reality.

Foxley correctly points out that there is no consensus amongst historians as to what Lilburne meant by citizenship.  "Lilburne's writing emerges out of the context of parliamentarian argument during and after the rst civil war. There has been a tendency to classify political theories of the early to a mid-seventeenth century in England by asking whether they resulted from historical or theoretical modes of thought". Alternatively, put another way does social being determined social consciousness.

This subjective was taken up by the Russian Marxist Evgeny Pashukanis who pointed out "the contrast between the Levellers and those movements which sought social revolution and attacked the existing property relations was, so to speak, confirmed. However, this was only the case if we are to be satisfied by the consideration of ideological formulae and not the objective meaning of the given revolutionary movement. The ideology of the Levellers was a typical bourgeois ideology, and the overwhelming majority of the Levellers acted as defenders of the principle of private property and this by no means contradicts the fact that the victory of the Levellers' movement should have objectively led to the most decisive infringement on the right of feudal property. Moreover, this success and this victory could not have found its expression other than in the elimination of feudal ownership. Therefore, when the opponents of the Levellers accused them of attacking property, and of favouring communism, this was not merely slander. It was a statement of uncontested fact that for the privileged feudal owners, the radical democratic transformation for which the Levellers strove would have presented a most real threat. The affirmations of the leaders of the Levellers, concerning their adherence to the principle of private property, were a very weak consolation. And, on the contrary, the preaching of the communality of ownership and the clouded communist ideology of the extreme left leaders of the German peasant war, was, in fact, less of a threat to embryonic capitalist social relationships, but was instead the banner of the implacable, most consistent opponents of feudal ownership and all serf and semi-serf relationships. It is here that it seems possible for us to find a series of elements which bring the two movements closer together even though they are so different in their ideological bases".[4]

Like many of the historians who have contributed essays to this collection, Foxley believes that the Levellers were radical to a degree, but she does not believe they were revolutionary. She tends to separate the ideas developed by the Levellers from their material base in society. Foxley is correct to point out that revisionist historians have not only attacked Marxist conceptions of the Leveller's 'The revisionist historians who have rewritten the history of the seventeenth century have questioned almost every aspect of the historical reputation of the Levellers'. How far Foxley intends to go in defence of the Leveller's is another matter.

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

As John Rees correctly points out that this "approach 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.

Chapter 2: Lilburne, Toleration and the Civil State (Norah Carlin)

Norah Carlin who wrote the Causes of the English Civil War and has published much on religious toleration during the English revolution correctly states in this chapter that Lilburne was a man of profound principle and unlikely to compromise on the matter of perspective or strategy.

Carlin's chapter covers a subject that has been widely neglected by modern-day historians that is religious toleration. As she correctly points out in a previous essay,

"out of the Independent and Separatist congregations of London, there emerged in 1646, under attack from the Presbyterians, a movement for religious toleration. As the Presbyterians organised for their attempted coup in 1647, it became evident that this movement would have to defend civil liberties as well, for one of its leaders, John Lilburne, was thrown into prison for his writings.  Moreover, as the soldiers of the New Model Army began to organise spontaneously in their defence against disbandment, a group of those active in the movement turned to address the army and work among the soldiers for a new constitution that would guarantee both religious and civil liberties. This is the group known to their contemporaries and history (though they disliked the name themselves) as the Levellers.[5]

The amount of irreligion in the English revolution has been contested by numerous historians. Christopher Hill in his pamphlet Irreligion in the Puritan Revolution quoted Richard Baxter who believed that those who rejected mainstream religion were 'a rable' "if any would raise an army to extirpate knowledge and religion, the tinkers and sow-gelders and crate-carriers and beggars and bargemen and all the table that cannot read. Will be the forwardest to come in to such a militia" It is understood Baxter argued for their suppression with violence if necessary.

Carlin's viewpoint and many other aspects of the Leveller's philosophy has as John Coffey mentions in his paper Puritan and Liberty "fallen on hard times". Meaning that the sustained attack of the revisionists has won the day. Carlin rejects this premise.

Carlin-like Coffey believes that the revisionist historians have deliberately downplayed the extent of religious toleration argued by groups such as the Levellers. Carlin brings out that Leveller views on toleration were not confined to their own organisation but spread to the New Model Army whose airm "is to over throw Presbyterie, or hinder the settlement thereof, and to have the Independent government set up, we doe clearely disclaime, and disavow any such designe; We onely desire that according to the Declarations (promising a provision for tender consciences) there may some effectuall course be taken according to the intent thereof; And that such, who, upon conscientious grounds, may differ from the established formes, may not (for that) bee debarred from the common Rights, Liberties, or Benefits belonging equally to all, as men and Members of the Common wealth, while they live soberly, honestly, and inoffensively towards others, and peaceably and faithfully towards the State".[6]

Carlin's work on toleration of the various religious groups is a refutation of the current wave of revisionism which seems to reject everything that has been written on the Levellers from a left viewpoint. Carlin has held a relatively consistent position on the Levellers. She perhaps holds the most orthodox Marxist positions on their development and class outlook. Her article Marxism and the English Civil War should be the starting point for any discussion on the English revolution.

While not agreeing with every statement, she makes her views on the Levellers are worth a read and study. She believes that far from being a radical wing of the Independents she belives the Levellers "broke with Puritan politics and even with Puritan language to develop a secular and democratic perspective. Their main social base was the small independent producer, and their most important achievement was their intervention in the army in 1647, which forced Cromwell and the army officers at least to listen to them for a few months. Their programme, designed to separate political power from wealth, foreshadowed the nineteenth century People's Charter, and their organisation in the City of London on a ward-by-ward basis with weekly subscriptions, a central committee, a regular newspaper and door-to-door canvassing was the seed from which all grassroots organisations were to spring" [7].

Her summation of the Levellers is also significantly different from many contemporary radical historians in that she believes that "It is wrong to see the Levellers as simply the most revolutionary section of the bourgeoisie. Both their social criticism and their political principles were opposed to the continued growth of capitalism. That the reforms they proposed could not have stopped the development of capitalism in practice is another matter. The least that can be said of the Levellers is that they made a long-range social forecast of an era of exploitation, oppression and imperialism, and tried to stop it from happening. In doing so, they left a legacy of organisational and political principle which bore fruit in the development of Chartism and the nineteenth-century working-class movement. They deserve, at the very least, our recognition of their struggles" [8].

Chapter 3: Women and the Levellers: Elizabeth and John Lilburne and their associates (Ann Hughes)

This chapter is a long-overdue appreciation of not only Elizabeth Lilburne but other women Levellers. The Leveller women were the backbone of the movement. It is safe to say that the influence of the Levellers would not have been so significant without the political work of female Levellers. Indeed without the intervention of his wife Lilburne himself would have been killed.

Studies of the role of women during the English revolution both in the past and present have been few and far between.  Ann Hughes's last book, Gender and the English Revolution, was an attempt to rectify this anomaly.

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 at this time. As far as I can ascertain no significant biography exists of two of the most famous Leveller women Katherine Chidley and Elizabeth Lilburne. It is only now that Lucy Hutchinson is now getting serious attention. For the last few hundred years, she has only been known as the wife of Col Hutchinson.

While being part of the Leveller movement of the party they were in some respects an independent movement themselves. It is high time that a serious study of the women who took part in the English revolution.

After all, as one Leveller petition put it "have we not an equal interest with the men of this Nation, in those liberties and securities contained in the Petition of Right, and the other good laws of the land? Are any of our lives, limbs, liberties or goods to be taken from us more than from men, but by due process of law and conviction of twelve sworn men of the neighbourhood" [9]?

Leveller women did not fight just as individuals. According to historian Gaby Malhberg the wives of leading figures of the English revolution "formed their networks, discussing political issues in the absence of their husbands."

If their male counterparts underestimated women Levellers, this was nothing to the treatment they received when they started to carry out political agitation independently.

When Women Levellers mounted large-scale demonstrations and organised petitions for social equality, they were met with differing levels of brutality depending on which class they belonged. Overall, middle-class women were treated with derision, but mostly no violence was committed against them. It 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 quietly escorted away by soldiers and told to 'go back to women's work".

While it is difficult to gauge the size of the support for the women Levellers, one cannot be blind to the fact that when The Levellers organised petitions, ten thousand Leveller women signed them. Many of these petitions were calling for equality with men as this quote states: 

 "Since we are assured of our creation in the image of God, and of an interest in Christ equal unto men, as also of a proportionable share in the freedoms of this commonwealth, we cannot but wonder and grieve that we should appear so despicable in your eyes as to be thought unworthy to petition or represent our grievances to this honorable House. Have we not an equal interest with the men of this nation in those liberties and securities contained in the Petition of Right, and other the good laws of the land? Are any of our lives, limbs, liberties, or goods to be taken from us more than from men, but by due process of law and conviction of twelve sworn men of the neighbourhood? Moreover, can you imagine us to be so sottish or stupid as not to perceive, or not to be sensible when daily those strong defences of our peace and welfare are broken down and trod underfoot by force and arbitrary power" [10].

To conclude even the small amount of research needed for this article has uncovered that for historians who like a challenge detailed study writing of the radical women of the 17th century will in the future provide us with a much deeper understanding of the radical Women today who are still struggling for social equality today could do no worse than study the struggles of the women Levellers.

Chapter 4: Lilburne and the law (Geoffrey Robertson)

Robertson concentrates in this chapter not so much on Lilburne's political activity but his impact on English law. It is hard not to agree with Ed Valance that "his legal struggles exerted a tangible influence on British law, helping to change legislation relating to libel, the power of juries and even the legal status of slaves on British soil" [11].

It is again ironic that the very democratic rights that Lilburne fought for are coming under sustained attack today. As Robertson warned, "in a country where Parliament is now the sovereign, that any attempt to pass laws that deny to the people the rights which "Freeborn John" extrapolated from the Great Charter to a jury trial, access to justice, free speech and to call government to account will be struck down by the High Court because they are rights which may now be implied from the Australian Constitution.  You cannot have a true democracy without Magna Carta's guarantee of the rule of law" [12].

Chapter5: John Lilburne as a revolutionary leader (John Rees)

John Rees points out in this chapter that Lilburne was many things to many people. To say that he was a complex character would not be an overstatement.As Rees brings out despite his many weaknesses he was a man of profound principles "I walk not, nor act, from accidents," but from principles, and being thoroughly persuaded in my soul they are just, righteous and honest, I will by God's goodness never depart from them, though I perish in maintaining them."

Rees is correct to call Lilburne a revolutionary leader of what was a revolutionary movement or party. Rees believes that Lilburne far reacting to events in an empirical way had a strategic sense in that his writings and ideas were a guide to action, not the other way around. Rees's work in this chapter is an extension of his PhD thesis[13]. Rees has sought to oppose some prevailing views of the Levellers one such attitude is that Levellers had no history before the 1640s. This point has proved most controversial because up and till now there has been little evidence to counter this view.

Rees's also counters some historians who have tried to present Lilburne as a leader of a free 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 firmly coherent group.

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 organisation'.

Perhaps Rees's most salient point in the chapter is at the end when he points out that Lilburne had no revolutionary precedent for his actions.

Chapter 6: Print and principles: John Lilburne, civil war radicalism and the Low Countries (Jason Peacey)

Peacey has written extensively on the secret and not so secret printing world of the Levellers, and it is an area that requires a lot more work to give us an even more precise evaluation of the Levellers and their influence.

While ground-breaking is perhaps an overused word in the lexicon of English revolution studies, it is justified in Peacey's case. In many ways, the study of the printing capabilities of the Levellers holds many secrets to their popularity and their influence.
Like many historians in this book Peacey has challenged many of the conceptions held by revisionist historians. Many of these revisionists have sought to downplay not only the radicalism of the Levellers but also an influence as Dr David Magliocco points out in his review of Peacey's Print and Public Politics in the English Revolution.

"Historians to have long been fascinated by the mid-century collision of print and revolutionary politics. Thus whilst acknowledging that this field has been 'hotly contested', Peacey boldly claims that it has, nonetheless, been 'inadequately conceptualised'. At one level then this work is a counter-blast to the preceding claims of revisionism. Alongside their insistence that printed sources could not provide access to historical truth, revisionists questioned earlier assumptions about the social depth and geographical reach of early modern political culture. 

The print itself, and the revolutionary politics it had been associated with, were both written out of their accounts of the mid-17th century. Certainly, as Peacey recognises, revisionism itself now occupies an increasingly marginalised position. Social historians, for instance, have demolished the notion of an apolitical (but silently conservative) 'country'.

Similarly, post-revisionists have demonstrated the importance of print in fostering ideologically-engaged publics. While acknowledging these advances, Peacey takes both groups to the task. Social historians, he claims, have failed to connect local and national contexts and to properly integrate print into their accounts. Post-revisionists, for their part, have been unwilling to tackle the issue of reception, while concentrating on explicitly 'public' genres within print" [14].

Peacey points to another area that needs to be studied, and that is Lilburne's and the Levellers debt to the Dutch and their radical pamphlets culture. Lilburne drew a lot from the work of the Dutch.

Chapter 7: The resurrection of John Lilburne, Quaker (Ariel Hessayon)

There is no small degree of controversy surrounding Lilburne's conversion to Quakerism. The historian Christopher Hill believes that after the defeat of the Levellers many former Levellers joined the Quakers.

As Hill says "The spread of Quakerism, emptying the churches of Anabaptists and separatists, witnessed both to the defeat of the political Levellers and the continued existence and indeed an extension of radical ideas". Hessaayon believes Hill's comments were an "overstatement." Hessayon believes that although Lilburne may have changed movements, Lilburne was still Honest John Changing one shirt for another.

Chapter 8, Reborn John? The eighteenth-century afterlife of John Lilburne.

As Christopher Hill correctly observes 'Each generation ... rescues a new area from what its predecessors arrogantly and snobbishly dismissed as 'the lunatic fringe".

The purpose of Ed's chapter is to examine Lilburne's political afterlife. He does a superb job. The fact that Lilburne and his work have endured down the centuries is not solely due to his personality or his undoubted courage and sacrifice.

Vallance is clear not to personalise his struggle but attempts to place it in a more objective light. "there is a danger that in emphasising the separateness of historical epochs, historians have undervalued the degree of intellectual sympathy and continuity between the radicalism of the seventeenth century and that of the eighteenth. We do not need to invest in a grand narrative of an English' radical tradition' to acknowledge that the English Revolution of the seventeenth century had both intellectual and practical consequences for the eighteenth century. A life which ended in political retreat in Eltham in 1657 was resurrected in the 1700s to take up the 'temporal sword' once more.


This collection will be of enormous interest to academics, researchers, and readers with a general interest in the English Civil War and the radical political tradition. Hopefully, with the book being published in paperback, at a  reasonable price would mean it is getting the more large readership it deserves.

As  AL Morton said, "A Party that held the centre of the stage for three of the most crucial years in our nation's history, voiced the aspirations of the unprivileged masses, and was able to express with such force ideas that have been behind every great social advance since their time, cannot be regarded as wholly a failure or deserve to be wholly forgotten".

[1] The Agreements of the People, the Levellers, and the Constitutional Crisis of the English Revolution- Authors: Vernon, Elliot-Editors: Baker, P. (Ed.)
[2] The Historical Journal, vol 47 December 2004.
[3] The Magna Carta and democratic rights. By Richard Hoffman and Mike Head .15 June 2015.
[4] Evgeny Pashukanis-Revolutionary Elements in the History of the English State and Law (1927)
[5]Norah Carlin-The First English Revolution-First published by Socialists Unlimited for the Socialist Workers Party in April 1983. -(April 1983)
[6] A Declaration, or Representation from his Excellency, S. Tho. Fairfax, and of the Army under his Command.;view=fulltext
[7] Marxism and the English Civil War-(Autumn 1980) From International Socialism 2: 10, Autumn 1980, pp. 106128. 
[8]   Marxism and the English Civil War-(Autumn 1980) From International Socialism 2: 10, Autumn 1980, pp. 106128. 
[9] To the Supreme Authority of England, the Commons Assembled in Parliament. The Humble Petition of Divers Well-Affected Women of the Cities of London and Westminster, the Borough of Southwark, Hamlets and Parts Adjacent. Affecters and Approvers of the Petition of Sept. 11, 1648. (May 5, 1649)
[10] Ibid., 11 1648. (May 5, 1649)
[11]Reborn John? The Eighteenth-century-Afterlife of John Lilburne-by Edward Vallance
[13] Leveller organisation and the dynamic of the English Revolution. [14]

Monday, 29 January 2018

Interview With Historian Marcus Rediker

Marcus Rediker has kindly answered a few questions regarding his work. His new book is The Fearless Benjamin Lay published by Verso. 

My review of the book is linked @

Q How did you come to write about Lay. Was it something you had always aspired to?

I first learned about Benjamin Lay in the 1990s as Peter Linebaugh, and I worked on a book entitled The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic (2000).  We were interested in cycles of rebellion that erupted around the Atlantic in the 1730s, the 1760s, the 1790s, and wondered if slave revolts helped to generate new abolitionist ideas.  Lay’s radical anti-slavery book, All Slave-keepers that keep the Innocent in Bondage … Apostates (1738), reflected his consciousness of the rising tide of resistance.  After I learned about Lay and his acts of guerrilla theatre, I thought to myself, this man deserves a book of his own.  Some twenty years later, he got it.

Q. The connection between Lay and the English Revolution and its radical wing is fascination, could you elaborate more?

The religious radicals so lovingly chronicled by Christopher Hill in The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas in the English Revolution (1972), provide the essential context for understanding the life and ideas of Benjamin Lay.  Among the Levellers, Diggers, Ranters, Seekers, Muggletonians, and yes, the early Quakers were many antinomian radicals, people who felt that the gift of God’s grace had placed them above man-made law, which was created by wicked rich people for their own purposes anyway.  Lay carried a revolutionary body of ideas – about democracy, equality, and human rights – into the eighteenth century and included within it the principles of anti-slavery.  I, therefore, call Lay “the last radical of the English Revolution.”  He connected that revolutionary era to the late eighteenth-century “age of revolution,” which encompassed major uprisings in America, France, and what became Haiti.  He embodied the long underground life of radical ideas.

Q In my review I cite Lay as a figure of the Enlightenment. Do you agree?

I agree, Lay is definitely a man of the Enlightenment, but not the usual one we think of when we use that term – the movement that emerged in the late eighteenth century among white, male, elite thinkers in France and across Europe.  Lay was enlightened much earlier and in a different way, not in the salons of Paris or London – rather on deep-sea sailing ships and on the docks of Barbados, where he heard about and witnessed the horrors of slavery and turned decisively against them. Lay, in my view, is a representative of “enlightenment from below.”  He was one of many working people who took a different route to a vision of a more humanitarian future.

Q The genre history from below is one you use a lot. Could you describe the pros and cons of such a genre? Do you feel it has a future?

This is a well-established way to view history, especially in the UK.  A key text, as you know, is Edward Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class (1963).  Its strengths have included a broader, more inclusive, more democratic vision of the past and an ability to understand both the experiences and the contributions of ordinary working people in the unfolding of history.  Its weaknesses have been an occasional tendency not to concentrate on class as a relationship, which always requires looking at history “from above,” especially if one wants to understand the operation of power.

I am much encouraged about the future of history from below.  As new movements from below arise around the world around the many-sided issue of inequality, all seeking in one way or another “power to the people,” the demand for this kind of history is bound to increase.  If we want a new kind of society, we are going to need a new history to guide us.

Q What is your next project?

I am writing a play entitled “The Return of Benjamin Lay” with my friend, the distinguished playwright Naomi Wallace.  History from below meets theatre from below!  My next history book project will be a study of work at sea in the age of sail.  This will be a voyage through the oceans of world history with Herman Melville as my shipmate.  I will use his sea-novels to explore the issues of labour, class, and power at sea.

Sunday, 7 January 2018

The Fearless Benjamin Lay: The Quaker Dwarf Who Became the First Revolutionary Abolitionist Hardcover – September 5, 2017, by Marcus Rediker Verso.

“The barbarities and desperate outrages of the so-called Christian race, throughout every region of the world, and upon every people they have been able to subdue, are not to be paralleled by those of any other race, however fierce, however untaught, and however reckless of mercy and of shame, in any age of the earth”.

William Howitt: “Colonisation and Christianity: A Popular History of the Treatment of the Natives by the Europeans in all their Colonies.” London, 1838,

The just man who is resolute
will not be turned from his purpose
either by the rage of the crowd or
by an imperious tyrant.

Horace-Quoted by Lay’s biographer Roberts Vaux

It is a pretty safe bet that people reading this excellent biography of the Quaker radical Benjamin Lay will not have heard of him or his exploits. Hopefully because of Marcus Rediker’s hard work and perseverance more people will now know of this extraordinary figure.

Lay was Quaker Dwarf who took an active anti-slavery stance; he was attacked and ostracised by the early Quaker movement of which large sections not only supported slavery but made them very rich. Rediker has campaigned for Lay’s rehabilitation. Finally, in 2017, the Abington Quakers of Pennsylvania recognised him as “a Friend of the Truth”. London Quakers followed suit by declaring “unity” with Lay’s spirit.

Rediker response to this development was “ I was, quite frankly, moved to tears. The recognition represented a profound, heartfelt act of retrospective justice because Lay had been unjustly disowned in the first place. It was a symbolic rejection of what a previous slave-owning generation of Quakers had done, and it was simultaneously an affirmation that Benjamin Lay’s values matter to the Abington and North London communities. I learned during my research that Lay dearly loved his fellow Quakers—at least those who did not own slaves—and that his exclusion was terribly painful to him. It was therefore deeply touching, 279 years later, to know that he has been brought back into the fold. This act would have meant everything to him”.[1]

Rediker continues “the significance is two-fold. First, this is a significant step by Quakers to reckon with their own slave-owning past. As such, it is exemplary for the US and the UK as nations. Second, the decision advances the process of restoring Benjamin Lay to his rightful, prominent place in the history of Quakerism. This, in turn, feeds a broader effort to restore him to his proper position in American, British, and world history.

Rediker’s book is a well written and methodically researched book. Rediker is very good at exposing the essential contradiction at the heart of the Quaker movement in that its origins came about during the English revolution. Many Quaker constituted a radical wing of the revolution and had an anti-slavery stance yet large sections of its membership did not oppose slavery, kept slaves and profited by them.

The modern-day recognition of Lay has tended to gloss over the poor treatment dished out to Lay by his peers. For instance, when Lay published his book All Slave Keepers that keep the innocent in bondage: Apostates,  He was attacked in Philadelphia by Quakers who declared ‘That the author is not of their religious community; that they disapprove of his Conduct, the Composition and Printing of the Book’.

It must be said that Lay’s book is not an easy read and you have to give Rediker his due for not only reading it but chronicling Lay’s life and struggle in this highly readable book. Despite only measuring four foot two inches Lay was a formidable campaigner who sought the emancipation of all enslaved people around the world. One of Lay’s tactics was to perform guerilla theatre.

As Rediker states in his book “Benjamin began to stage public protests against the "men of renown," to shock the Friends of Philadelphia into awareness of their own moral failings about slavery. Conscious of the hard, exploited labour that went into making seemingly benign commodities such as tobacco and sugar, Benjamin showed up at a yearly Quaker meeting with "with three large tobacco pipes stuck in his bosom." He sat between the galleries of men and women elders and ministers. As the meeting ended, he rose in indignant silence and "dashed one pipe among the men ministers, one among the women ministers, and the third among the congregation assembled." With each smashing blow, Benjamin protested slave labour, luxury, and the poor health caused by smoking the stinking tweed. He sought to awaken his brothers and sisters to the politics of the smallest, seemingly most insignificant choices”.[2]

It would not be an overstatement to say that Lay led a diverse life. He worked as a shepherd, glove maker, sailor, and bookseller. His worldview was a complex mixture of  Quakerism, vegetarianism, animal rights, opposition to the death penalty, and abolitionism. Lay while being anti-slavery was not anti-capitalist. He did shunn the trappings of wealth that his business acumen brought him. While in America he lived in a cave with a library of two hundred books.

Lay’s significance was that he was one of the first radicals to call an end to all slavery in whatever form it took. He refused to consume anything produced by slave labour.As Rediker outlines in the book Lay was opposed by a significant section of Quakers, who had grown fat on slavery. As Rediker points out, these Quakers played a massive part in the bloody rise of American capitalism. The New England Puritans and Quakers became some of America's most significant industrial leaders.

As Karl Marx wrote “The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement, and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black skins, signalized the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production. These idyllic proceedings are the chief momenta of primitive accumulation.[3]

Early Capitalism

Rediker has made his name writing popular histories of mutinies, pirates, slaves and revolts at sea. The majority of his work has examined the rise of early capitalism and the part played by the merchants and workers. He correctly states that the rise of early capitalism owed a massive debt to the movement of trade around the world. As Rediker brings out in his book the treatment of slaves by the early capitalists Quakers  reminds one of Marx’s famous phrase “If money, according to Augier,  “comes into the world with a congenital blood-stain on one cheek,” capital comes dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt”. [4]

We owe a debt to Rediker in that he life has sought to establish the correct place the sea has played in the rise of early capitalism. As the Russian Marxist writer Isaac Rubin elaborates “Mercantilist policy, which accelerated the breakup of the feudal economy and the guild crafts, corresponded to the interests of the commercial bourgeoisie and merchant capital. Its main objective was to foster rapid growth of foreign trade (together with shipping and such exporting industries as woollen textiles), striving, in particular, to reinforce the influx of precious metals into the country, which in their turn accelerated the transition from a natural to a money economy. It is therefore understandable that mercantilist literature focused its attention primarily on two, closely inter-related problems: 1) the question of foreign trade and the balance of trade, and 2) the question of regulating the circulation of money. We can distinguish three periods in the way the solution to these problems was approached: a) the early mercantilist period, b) the period of developed mercantilist doctrine, and c) the beginnings of the anti-mercantilist opposition”.[5]

This opposition took many forms, but the most striking came from the early stirrings of the working class for better working conditions and social equality.Most of these stirrings took the form of strike action. These strikes as Rediker points out were not in factories but on ships, “the first strike was not in a factory or an office. It was not even on land. In 1768 sailors “ went from ship to ship and took down the sails. That is called striking the sails. Out of that collective action, the term strike was born ”.The ship and the sea are dynamic places of struggle,”. “These people were on the cutting edge of developments between capital and labour in the 17th and 18th centuries. These ships were a precursor of the factory. The ship itself was the most important machine of its day. One of the primary experiences of people who worked on ships was collective cooperation. This was a place where waged workers were assembled in a complex division of labour. “Once they were assembled they began to define their cooperation in different collective ways. So we get a very rich and still not fully understood the history of mutiny, piracy and desertion. “Sailors were in many ways the first international labour force”.

The Enlightenment

That Lay was an enlightened figure for his time goes without saying. What connection Lay had with other figures of the Enlightenment is a complicated subject, and it is one hopefully Rediker explores at a later date.  According to Anthony Comegna, “Benjamin Lay and other radicals were vectors of connection and causation in the world’s great unknown Enlightenment. Beneath the gilded lush layers of philosophes and statesmen that litter our history books were the slave rebels, the servile insurrectionists, the outcasts and arsonists, the common rabble out of doors and on the docks, and even the lone Quaker dwarf abolitionist. These people and much more built their own kind of Enlightenment from below”.[6]

This theme of history from below runs through all of Rediker’s books. In his book Outlaws, he describes a  figure like Henry Pitman whose journal was the basis for Daniel Defoe’s novel Robinson Crusoe. Defoe’s book despite being a ripping yarn also glorified Britain's slave trade.

As Rediker explains “One of the things about my research that continually delights people is to find out about how democratically pirates lived. There is history from below of democracy that has many sources other than the philosophers of the enlightenment.

The English Revolution

Another theme that runs through Rediker’s books is that of the English Revolution. This theme also runs through his biography of Lay.Rediker explains Lay’s deep connection to the radicals of the English revolution. “I’ve identified five major influences, and the first and the most important of these was a specifically radical variant of Quakerism. Now Quakerism goes back, actually, to the English Revolution. It began as one of many radical Protestant groups. The others were the Levellers, the Diggers, the Seekers, the Ranters. The Quakers are all part of this. Those groups arose during the English Revolution when royal censorship broke down as the king, King Charles I, and Royalists did battle with Oliver Cromwell and Parliamentary side. These radical groups really burst into print in that situation, offering from below their own solutions to the problems of the day”.

He continues “Quakers were part of this, and there was a man named James Naylor, who was an especially radical Quaker. I basically argued in my book that Benjamin Lay channelled this early generation of Quakers. They were very activist. They performed street theatre. They were very confrontational. He managed a couple of generations later to reach back to them in order to revive that spirit of Quakerism.

“In any revolutionary situation there are always people who want to go further,” he said. “Often there are retrenchments where those who had originally made the revolution are excluded. In the American revolution slaves and urban protests involving mixed racial crowds created the momentum and some of the ideas of the revolution.

“But around 1773-74 the elites like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson got control and started to define notions of citizenship that would exclude the motley crew. Citizenship then was based to a large extent on property rights, with all the links that have to race, class and gender. The people who had actually destabilised society in the new world were left out. That is what I call the American Thermidor. It is a process that many revolutions go through.”

History From Below

Sometimes it is difficult when reading a well-established historian to hear the buzzing of the bees. This is not the case with Rediker, who manages to write of complex historical processes with a style of historical writing that is easy on the eye without dumbing down the history.

Having looked at and read some of Rediker’s books he has adopted the “history from below” genre and has rescued some exciting and important figures from what the British historian E.P. Thompson called the "enormous condescension of posterity," and restored to their proper place in the historical record. EP Thompson is an apparent influence but then so is the historian Christopher Hill. Hill wrote of the 17th-century English revolution. From a historiography point of view, Rediker is closer to Hill than Thompson. Hill was extremely complimentary of Rediker’s work.In this review of another historian Hill wrote, “Rediker describes the transition in the early eighteenth century to more capitalist relations in merchant shipping—wage labor replacing profit sharing, stricter discipline brutally enforced, cost-cutting by merchants at the expense of the living standards of seamen—and the growth of organized resistance by seamen, from collective protests, strikes, and mutinies, with piracy as the ultimate resort. The relative egalitarianism and democratic organization of pirate ships was a logical outcome of this situation: so were the utopian pirate communities established on Madagascar and elsewhere, where traditional hierarchical deference was forgotten. Defoe in his History of the Pyrates (1724) made much of such points in order to criticize aspects of English capitalist civilization that he disliked. Defoe “wrote a great deal about buccaneers and sided with them,” says Ritchie, making the same point rather differently. He “had a dyspeptic view of the new financiers and the world of stocks, bonds, and jobbers.” But Defoe had spent a good deal of time talking to retired pirates”[7].

Rediker like Hill not only wrote about radicals who had largely been forgotten by historians if not history itself but also Rediker wrote a period that was defined by Hill as-as a critical stage in the transition from feudalism to capitalism—a stage that Rediker would also research and evaluate throughout his career.

"I intended to apply the bottom-up approach to doing history that had been pioneered by Thompson and Hill to other contexts," and along with Peter Linebaugh, my colleague and writing partner since [graduate] school, I wanted to update our understanding of radical activity past where Christopher Hill had left the subject in The World Turned Upside Down—both in chronological terms, past the English Restoration, and, in geographical terms, encompassing the entire Atlantic."

Like Hill Rediker’s writing still has a contemporary feel to it. The Many-Headed Hydra (2000), which he co-authored with Linebaugh found its way into the discussion of the 2000s Occupy movement.


Despite Lay being of small stature, being only 4 feet 7 inches and suffering from a congenital growth disorder he was a giant of a man in many other ways. Thanks to Rediker’s book Lay can be an inspiration to today’s generation struggling against oppression and social inequality.

As Rediker states “We have now a very big historical debate going on. It's going on in the streets, it's going on in publications, it's going on around dinner tables: Who deserves to be called a hero of American history? We’ve had a lot of direct action with Confederate generals, we've had armed battles over this matter in Charlottesville. I think Benjamin Lay shows that there are people, frequently unknown, who embody higher ideals and reflect some of the better possibilities for example, within American life, so that someone like Benjamin Lay, someone like Frederick Douglass, someone like Harriet Tubman. This is a real value of history from below”.[8]

[2] Excerpt from Chapter Three, “Philadelphia’s ‘Men of Renown’”
[3] Capital-Karl Marx
[4]Capital -Karl Marx  Chapter Thirty-One: Genesis of the Industrial Capitalist
[5] A History of Economic Thought. Conclusion-Isaak Illich Rubin 1929-
[7] Success Story-Christopher Hill-