Saturday, 24 November 2018

Review: The Common Freedom of the People: John Lilburne and the English Revolution-Michael Braddick-OUP, pp.416, £25

‘If there were none living but himself John would be against Lilburne, and Lilburne against John.’ Henry Marten

‘We are all in his debt: rather than rebuke him for his failings, we should honour him for his courage.’ Michael Braddick

Michael Braddick’s political biography of John Lilburne is a welcome fresh Perspective on the Leveller leader. It continues a recent trend of examining the Leveller movement and Lilburne’s place in the English revolution. Braddick’s book is a readable account of Lilburne’s life, and it is hard to believe the first biography of Lilburne to appear for nearly 60 years.

It is quite shocking to find that it was 1961 that H.N. Brailsford’s published his Levellers and the English Revolution (1961) a book-length study of the subject aimed at a general public.

Brailsford’s book is worth reading as John Rees writes “Brailsford’s was the first book-length account to fully integrate the economic, social and religious background of the Levellers with a description of the political dynamic of the revolution, the Levellers’ role as an organised revolutionary current within it and an estimate of the ideological advances that Leveller thought represented. If nothing else it was a considerable work of synthesis. However, it was more than this. Throughout the book, but particularly in the chapters on ‘The Leveller Party’ and ‘The Moderate’, Brailsford presented more forcefully than any writer before him a picture of the Levellers as a functioning political organisation of an entirely new type”.

On one level it comes as no great surprise that Lilburne has received much greater attention than before. Any study of Lilburne and the Leveller movement offers the historian a far greater insight into the complex issues of the English bourgeois revolution. On a another level, the plethora of recent studies is a response to the growing social polarisation existing in today's capitalist society. These books can give valuable advice to workers in order that they might prepare for the great struggles facing them today. Despite the passage of time many of the issues tackled by Lilburne and the Levellers are still with us today.

The book is well written and attempts to strike a balance between the minutiae of Lilburnes life with that of an objective assessment of the English revolution. Braddick manages this feat a few times but overall his objective understanding of the revolution and Lilburnes place in it falls short. On the other hand, the book is  “bright and accessible”, and maintains a high academic standard of both research and writing..

Braddick’s book compares well with John Rees’s last book The Leveller Revolution: Radical Political Organisation in England, 1640-1650. Rees’s book does benefit from his  2014 doctoral thesis which is well worth a read and deserves publication. Like Braddick Rees has to a lesser extent played down his analytical and thematic approach of a dissertation. However, both offer “an absorbing and fluent narrative of the political life of the foremost radical group to emerge during the English Revolution”.

While there are many similarities between the two books, there are some significant differences. I cannot speak for Rees, but I am sure he would not agree with Braddick’s assertion on page 298 that Lilburne was not a political theorist.

The more you read of Lilburne’s publications, the more confident the reader will become of how politically conscious Lilburne was. He did not merely react to events. On some occasions, anticipated the ebbs and flows of the revolution and acted accordingly.

He was highly conscious of his status as a gentleman. Like Cromwell he was acutely aware of his status “I was brought up well-nigh ten yeares together, in the best Schooles in the North, namely at Auckland and New Castle.” He claimed knowledge “in the Latin tongue”, and “Greeke also”.

Braddick has done extensive research including a significant study of the 20,000 pamphlets collected between 1640 and 1660 by the bookseller George Thomason held at the British Library.[1]

Like most of Braddick’s books, this one is written in short sentences. While not being narrative driven it does contain a large number of interesting facts that keep the reader honest. According to Russell Harris QC “It brings the judicial and penal infrastructure of the time alive with revealing glimpses of its main institutions. The Fleet, for example, was a prison run by private owners who built houses for the inmates within the grounds and then let them out at commercial rates. As long as the inmates were up to date with their rent, the warders were forbidden to enter the homes and prisoners could live a relatively normal comfortable domestic existence”.[2]

It is clear from Braddick’s book that John Lilburne was a fascinating, contradictory and complex character. Lilburne is second only to Cromwell in historical importance as regards the English revolution. Lilburne was the second son of a modest gentry family, sharing in many ways the class background of Oliver Cromwell. Braddick’s book is very good at showing how Lilburne’s experience of political activism sharpened and clarified his ideas.

Lilburne was the most high profile figure in the political radicalisation that went on during the English revolution. He could have chosen a relatively peaceful and prosperous life but instead chose a life that saw him accused of treason four times and put on trial for his life on numerous occasions twice acquitted by juries. His bravery in battle was only surpassed by Oliver Cromwell himself. He fought in major battles rising to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel.

To his credit, Braddick does attempt to give Elizabeth Lilburne more than a walk-on part in the revolution. There has, however, been a crying need to have a full-length study on the tremendous politicisation of women on both sides of the barricades.

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 to. Overall middle-class women were treated with derision, but mostly 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 quietly 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”’.

While the book correctly explores the extraordinary and dramatic life of 'Freeborn John and presents a picture of his political activism, it would be a mistake to believe that Lilburne and the Levellers were merely prisoners of the radical spontaneity that was produced by the revolution.

While it would be wrong to say that Liburne was communist or Marxist in his thinking and actions, he did attempt to guide his work with a historical understanding. These revolutionaries were handicapped by the fact that they had very little precedence for their actions and the ideologists of the revolution ransacked the Bible and half-understood historical precedent for some theory to explain what they were doing.

It would be fair to say that Lilburne and the Levellers in political terms punched way above their weight. Without land, established profession, or public office he succeeded in establishing a movement that was able many times to influence the course of a revolution. All this as Braddick states while seeming to have spent around 12-and-a-half years in prison or exile’.

As Marx said “the weapon of criticism cannot, of course, replace criticism of the weapon, material force must be overthrown by material force, but theory also becomes a material force as soon as it has gripped the masses. The theory is capable of gripping the masses as soon as it demonstrates ad hominem, and it demonstrates ad hominem as soon as it becomes radical. To be radical is to grasp the root of the matter. However, for man, the root is the man himself”.[3]

To some extent, Lilburne tried to understand the objective nature of his ideas. While Henry Marten’s quote ‘If there were none living but himself John would be against Lilburne, and Lilburne against John is not far off the mark, the fact that Lilburne and the other leading members of the Leveller wrote hundreds of publications established them as the central theoreticians of the revolution.

While Rees does not deny that the Levellers should be approached from the perspective of the history of ideas, he believes “they were activists, not utopian theorists, and they wrote and campaigned to achieve political change”.

Braddick’s Historiography

The publication of this book which is the first full-length biography of John Lilburne for over sixty years marks a significant shift in Braddick’s historiography. Despite having the secondary title of the book as John Lilburne and the English revolution, it is still unclear to the extent that Braddick believes there was an English revolution. If you go back to previous work such as his book God’s fury, England’s Fire which was heralded as a new history of the English Civil Wars Braddick advocated the theory that there was a “war of Three Kingdoms” not a revolution. This was the perspective adopted by Austin Woolrych's important book of six years ago, Britain in Revolution, 1625-1660. Woolrych believed that that the war began with the revolt of the Scottish Covenanters and ended in the Cromwellian conquest of Ireland. He believed that this was not an English revolution but the "war of three kingdoms".

For Braddick, “one vital feature of the period is that it generated ideas in politics, religion and natural philosophy that foreshadow the 18th-century Enlightenment. It was, he says, a time of "creative chaos". Indeed chaos and confusion dominate his story. The two sides in the war, he tells us, "consisted of complex coalitions of allies, with varying concerns and differing degrees of conviction and commitment". The Thomason tracts reveal a babble of discordant voices and conflicting viewpoints.

The moral he draws is disconcertingly postmodernist. After his long, carefully grounded, empirically based narrative, Braddick in his final paragraphs abruptly dissociates himself from the "hubristic pomp" of professional historians who seek a definitive account of the period. Instead, he plumps for indeterminacy. "Experiences of these conflicts," he declares, "were plural, ambiguous, divided and contrasting; their potential meanings equally diverse." They deserve to be remembered, he tells us in a one truly awful concluding sentence, "not for a single voice or consequence, but because they provide many pieces of knowledge for our discourse"[4].

Braddick believed the term “Leveller movement” was misleading and that the Levellers were not a party or a group. As John Rees writes  “Michael Braddick is similarly sceptical of the Levellers' ‘practical significance to the events of the 1640s’. No doubt this view in part explains the absence of a book-length study. It is, after all, hard to write a book about something that is supposed barely to exist.”.

Whether Braddick took this criticism to heart is another matter. His new book on Lilburne and the Levellers does seem to show a radicalisation of Braddick especially when it is rumoured that his next major project is a biography of Christopher Hill. A long overdue book if ever there was one.
Historical revisionism

There is one major flaw in this work, and it is the fact that Braddick, unlike John Rees, is extremely reluctant to take on a large number of conservative revisionist historians that have held sway in the last twenty or so years.

Much of the historiography of the later 20th century and early 20th century has been dominated by historians who argued that the war did do not have any long-term causes. Popularised by historians such Conrad Russell and John Morrill. There second argument primarily aimed at historians like Christopher Hill was that there was not English Bourgeois revolution some like John Morrill has gone so far as to deny any revolution took place.

In a 1994 article published in New Left Review, Morrill defended his historiography saying “It is unfair to say that Conrad Russell and I, for example, have denied that there is a social context of the revolution. Time and again, I have argued that the processes of social change occurring in the long sixteenth century created a new kind of political culture that helps to explain why England had the kind of civil war it had, though not whether it had a civil war. I have commented at length (in for example my 1993 volume The Nature of the English Revolution) on the changing nature of noble power, the homogenization of an elite culture based on land, literacy and the secularization of the wealth and authority of the Church; and I have argued that the process of social change (which I see in more neo-Malthusian terms than Brenner would ever allow) creates ‘contexts within which yeomen, husbandmen and labourers struggled to make free and informed political choices’ of a kind not possible in previous centuries. The English civil war was a different kind of civil war from anything that came before. Revisionism need not mean the lack of a social interpretation, so long as that means social contexts rather than social causes. Since Brenner is explicit that Merchants and Revolution do not argue for the inevitability of the Revolution, simply that a political collision between the monarchy and the landowning class was inherently likely, this fuzziness about what exactly he intends by ‘social interpretation’ is fairly debilitating”.[5]

This quote does give us a clearer picture of Morrill’s political and historical outlook. He was hostile to any Marxist interpretation of the English bourgeois revolution. In the above essay, he explicitly denies that there was any connection between economic development and its reflection on the ideas of men and women.

Morrill’s revisionism was significantly analysed in John Rees’s PhD thesis. It is a shame that the thesis was not published in book form because it offers one of the most political assessments of the origins of the revisionism.

According to Rees “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. One of the arguments made against the left by the revisionists was that they read their current political preoccupations back into history. However, if that was sometimes true of the left, it was also undoubtedly true of some revisionists. You can almost hear the snap of Gordon Gekko’s red braces in the background as J C D Clark quotes approvingly a letter to the Times Educational Supplement, British political science was particularly torpid until the electoral shock of 1979. Too many existing political scientists belong to the generation of 1968~a provenance that almost disqualifies them from a comment on late 20th-century politics. Revisionism drew on the work of, among others, Conrad Russell, Mark Kishlansky, Kevin Sharpe, John Morrill, and Peter Laslett.88 The major themes of revisionism were a stress on the accidental nature of the revolution rather than on its long-term social and economic causes; a localist denial of nationally operative causes of the revolution; an insistence that religious issues were more central to the revolution than previous historians had allowed; an attempt to deny that the revolution involved class conflict or that the mass of people had much impact on its outcome; a corresponding emphasis on ‘high politics’ as a key determinant of events.”[6]


As Rees correctly states “There can be no tradition and no debate where there is no knowledge”. It is therefore to Michael Braddicks credit that his new book has furnished us with a large amount of Knowledge about Lilburne and the Levellers.

Braddick’s book represents a significant contribution to our understanding of the English Revolution and valuable addition to our understanding of the English revolution.

The Common Freedom of the People is an important book. It draws on a wide range of sources but has a few flaws the biggest is his reluctance to take on the revisionist revolt. A minor but still annoying admission is that it does not have a bibliography. The book is highly recommended and should be on university booklists.

[3]A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right-
[5] Conflict Probable or Inevitable  John Morrill-
[6] Leveller organisation and the dynamic of the English Revolution-John Rees-