Source: International Socialist Review, Vol.19 No.1, Winter 1958, 28-29.
(William F. Warde was a pseudonym of George Novack.)
Transcription/Editing/HTML Markup: 2006 by Einde O’Callaghan.
Public Domain: George Novack Internet Archive 2006; This work is completely free. In any reproduction, we ask that you cite this Internet address and the publishing information above.
by Joseph Frank
Harvard University Press. Cambridge, Mass. 1955. 345 pp. $5.
This scholarly work presents the history of the Leveller movement through a study of all the available writings of its chief leaders: John Lilburne, Richard Overton and William Walwyn.
The Levellers were the most energetic, resolute and uncompromising representatives of the plebian forces in the English Revolution from 1640 to 1660. Their religious, political and economic ideas expressed the interests and outlook of the artisans, apprentices, shopkeepers and similar lower middle-class and working-class elements in the cities and the yeomen in the country districts. They were the stubbornest fighters for the program of revolutionary democracy.
They did not hold the most extreme positions in the social conflicts of that period; the farthest left was occupied by the dispossessed peasants who formed the agrarian communist sect of the Diggers. By contrast, the Levellers were opposed to “making all things common,” defended the rights of private property, and called for free trade.
The Leveller party had a short life. It began to take shape in 1646, went through three years packed with upheavals, and then was crushed by Cromwell’s dictatorship in 1649. Nevertheless, its political and historical significance cannot be judged by the brevity of its existence. During that crucial period the Levellers were strong enough to propel the revolution forward through their mobilization of the masses in the struggles and by the pressures they exerted from the left upon the bourgeois Grandees headed by Cromwell.
Many of the demands which the Levellers first formulated and put forward have become a permanent heritage of the democratic rights of the people.
The Levellers called for sweeping democratization of both Church and State. Among the religious reforms were full freedom of religious belief, separation of Church and State, the suppression of tithes; among the political reforms were a constitutional republic, annual election of a Parliament responsible to the people alone, general manhood suffrage; among the legal reforms, the right to a trial by jury, no star-chamber hearings, no capital punishment or imprisonment for debt; among the civil rights, freedom of the press and no license on printing.
Although they have since become commonplace, in their day such doctrines were audacious revolutionary innovations which their advocates like Lilburne and others paid for with tortures, fines and prison terms.
The Levellers started as a propaganda group and transformed themselves into a party as their mass influence extended and the revolutionary movement mounted. They were the first popular revolutionary party in English history, playing a role comparable to that of the Sons of Liberty in the First American Revolution. They were essentially a party of mass action. Like Tom Paine, their leaders addressed themselves first and foremost to the common people, educating, arousing, guiding and organizing them for direct intervention on the key questions of the hour.
The party was centered in London but extended throughout England. The author cites exceedingly interesting contemporary testimony on the organization and methods of operation of their party apparatus: the regular meetings of their top political committee, the work of their Agents, the collection of funds, their printing problems, etc.
The mass petition was the principal means they used to inform and arouse the people. These petitions containing the demands of the people were widely circulated for signatures, submitted to Parliament, and backed up by meetings and demonstrations.
The Levellers were the first to encourage women to participate in political activity. In one of the petitions offered in their name the women asserted that they had “an equal interest with the men of the nation in its liberties and securities.” They did not go so far, however, as to ask for woman suffrage. The Levellers likewise linked themselves with the rank-and-file insurgents of Cromwell’s New Model Army. They supported elections of soldier’s delegates and the agitation of the soldier’s committees which took up their grievances and favored a popular militia, democratically controlled. Most of the Agitators in the revolutionary army either belonged to the Levellers or were inspired by their ideas.
Both the Cromwellians and the Levellers moved forward to a Republic. But each strove for a new government modelled upon the different class interests they fought for. The Cromwellians wanted a bourgeois regime in which sovereignty was concentrated in the hands of the large property owners. The Levellers demanded a democratic republic based upon the power of the people and responsive to their demands.
The irrepressible conflict between the big bourgeoisie and squirearchy headed by Cromwell and the plebian forces in the country and the army led by the Levellers came to a showdown in 1649. The discontent in the army broke out into mutiny. Cromwell was overheard to say: “There was no other way to deal with these men, but to break them to pieces ... if you do not break them, they will break you.” This he proceeded to do. While Parliament tried the Leveller leaders for sedition, Cromwell crushed the revolt of the Agitators in his regiments.
Upon the consolidation of Cromwell’s dictatorship the Levellers declined, disintegrated and disappeared as an organized force. During the 1650’s their leaders either retired from revolutionary politics, returned to their businesses and made money, or else became absorbed in religious mysticism.
The author approaches the Levellers and interprets their movement from the standpoint of an academic liberal. But his careful documentation of their ideas and activities makes this work valuable to anyone interested in seeing how a radical party of the petty-bourgeois democratic type is formed.
Although the Levellers were active for only a few years on the stage of history, they left a durable imprint on the development of democratic thought. Overton, for example, was the author of Man’s Mortallitie, one of the earliest materialist works in English. The Leveller movement illustrates how a revolutionary group which itself never attains the heights of power can nevertheless profoundly affect the course of a great revolution and fertilize progressive tendencies for centuries thereafter.
The spirit of that “good old cause” is movingly conveyed by the last words addressed to his supporters by Richard Overton:
“If I have been a little too sharp in my advice and admonishment, impute it I pray you to the heat of my zeal and ardent affections to the promotion of that Cause; for truly to me it is as the life of my life; without it I’m nothing, with it I live.”
Last updated on: 11.2.2006