David Horspool

Power to the people | 5 January 2017

The brave, ill-fated Levellers — who campaigned for universal suffrage and the abolition of the Lords — have always been heroes of the radical left

Power to the people | 5 January 2017
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The Leveller Revolution

John Rees

Verso, pp. 400, £

Jeremy Corbyn will probably enjoy this book — which doesn’t mean you won’t. Asked to name the historical figure he most admired when first standing for the Labour leadership, Corbyn answered that

in English history a very interesting character is John Lilburne.Very interesting character, because of the way he managed to develop the whole debate about the English civil war into something very different.

Lilburne, who should certainly be better known, was a leader of a group that came to be called the Levellers, which flourished at the height of England’s civil strife in the 1640s, and whose radical, democratising politics has sporadically appeared on the agenda of the left, invoked as the ‘Good Old Cause’, ever since. As much as a Bennite reincarnation or yet another roll of the Marxist-Leninist dice, it is the ‘Good Old Cause’ that Corbynism represents: the simple, appealing, occasionally rather frightening idea of ‘power to the people’ (in the words of another 1970s radical, Citizen Smith).

John Rees, whose academic credentials are burnished for the Momentum generation by his prominent role in the Stop the War coalition and the People’s Assembly Against Austerity, has thus produced a book with more than a touch of contemporary resonance. But The Leveller Revolution, to Rees’s great credit, makes almost nothing of those echoes, allowing readers to join the dots themselves. This is a scrupulously researched, carefully told narrative, and a work of impressive scholarship. It goes some way to recasting our view of what Rees calls, with an assurance that dismisses the complaints of those historians who have alleged there was no such thing, ‘the English Revolution’.

His stated aim is rather less ambitious, and rather drier, ‘to write a political history that focuses on the construction of Leveller organisation’. In many senses, this is actually harder to achieve, because the Levellers never became what we would recognise as a political party (no such group existed at the time of the civil wars, when all affiliations were loose and liable to fracture along various fault lines: even the divide between Royalist and Parliamentarian was not unbridgeable). And unlike later groupings, be they Tory, Whig or Labour, the Levellers cannot in any real sense be said to have been reborn as something else, even if some of their ideas, from universal (or at least ‘manhood’) suffrage to the abolition of the House of Lords, long outlived them.

Nonetheless, Rees makes a very good fist of showing how the loose coalitions that formed around radical London churches, and whose ideas and arguments poured out of samizdat printing presses, really did amount to a coherent group, with shared ideas, working practices and networks. Some historians may object to his repeated use of the term ‘future Leveller’, which can smack too much of history as destiny for some tastes (how could they be any such thing, as they didn’t know what a Leveller was yet?); but Rees shows too that men and women who joined together around shared ideals in the 1640s could also drift apart, as their interests or beliefs diverged. There was nothing set in stone about any of this unpredictable episode.

The Levellers’ story is a very dramatic, even heroic one, in which brave men and women risked their lives for ideas so unusual that many of their opponents could barely comprehend them. Rees is capable of evoking the passions of the period, and the personalities who thrust themselves to centre-stage, but on occasion he allows the academic to muffle the radical too comprehensively.

I could have done with even more of the irrepressible Lilburne, whom Rees describes first emerging into public consciousness when he was arrested for being part of a group distributing prohibited pamphlets. Aged only 20, he set the tone for a career of defiance, refusing to recognise the court of the Star Chamber before which he was arraigned, enduring 500 strokes of the lash, and then continuing to speak out even as he was placed in the pillory. When he was ‘gagged so roughly... “as if he would have torne his jaws to peeces”’ he first managed to distribute copies of the banned pamphlet secreted on his person, and then ‘continued to stamp his feet until the two hours allotted for his time in the pillory had passed’.

There may be a little exaggeration involved in this account, deriving in part from Lilburne’s own testimony: Rees has Lilburne placed in the stocks (feet confined), which would have freed his hands to do the pamphlet-chucking, and the pillory (hand and heads confined), when he would have been able to stamp his feet, but as one imagines he was in one or the other, then both displays of defiance might not have been possible. That detail aside, Rees also uncovers the stories of less celebrated Levellers, including women such as Katherine Chidley, ‘one of the earliest and foremost examples of the participation of women in public affairs’ when she published an attack on a prominent Presbyterian’s argument against religious toleration.

Rees is careful not to overstate the role of the Levellers in the English Revolution. Ultimately the forces of conservatism that Oliver Cromwell periodically and then comprehensively embraced had more influence on the outcome of Parliament’s victory in the civil war. But at the height of their influence, as crowds turned out in force to attend a popular Leveller funeral, or Levellers in the Army pushed for Charles I, that ‘man of blood’, to be held to account, they did change the course of history.

The Levellers have sometimes been dismissed by revisionist historians as having had a negligible effect on the 1640s, and of being too disparate a group really to be discussed as a political entity at all. On both counts, John Rees shows that, if the Levellers’ explosion into the political mainstream was brief, it was bright. Jeremy Corbyn should be so lucky.