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

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’.

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