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The Levellers in the English Revolution

(January 1976)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.85, January 1976, p.29.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The Levellers in the English Revolution
edited by G.E. Aylmer
Thames and Hudson, £1.95

With a divided, debating Army taking so considerable a part in the Portuguese turmoil, Professor G.E. Aylmer’s collection of English Civil War documents comes as timely reminder that an English army once took crucial part in a revolution, and in a struggle for the liberties of the common people.

One of a series Documents of Revolution Professor Aylmer’s book is about the Levellers, a movement active and influential in 17th century army and popular life. The period swarms with groups, sects, independent congregations, communities and prophets ‘new inspired’: an energetic demand for reform – political and social – was manifest everywhere.

The very plentitude of pamphlets, proclamations, reprinted sermons and speeches probably explains why so much that went on then remains obscure or hidden; why what comes out of the researchers’ ‘lucky dip’ can baffle so many commentators; and why the Levellers have received most attention – for though moved, like most, by deep, abiding responses and beliefs, they marshalled their major agitations, inside and outside of the Army, around demands for reforms recognisable to radicals in subsequent centuries.

In an introduction to the documents, Professor Aylmer summarises the life of that valiant Leveller, John Lilburne, from 1630 when he was apprenticed to a London cloth merchant through to his death in prison in 1657, aged but 42 or so. Throughout, Lilburne was the scourge of Royalist and Presbyterian, of the wealthy businessmen and the great landowners, and was the hero of the common soldiers and common people. The rise of the Levellers to the high point of the year 1649, when their emblem, a sea-green ribbon, was on helmets, hats, caps and bonnets everywhere, is concisely and adequately summarised.

Throughout, Professor Aylmer is fair, even sympathetic to the Levellers – but orthodoxy keeps breaking in. Overall, of course, in the way he approaches his subject: he seems certain that no radical or plebeian revolution could possibly have succeeded, then, or at any other period, except perhaps, in our own present times. Directly, he has two interesting criticisms to make of the Levellers. Their tactics were clumsy, since ‘they could not win by consent of the upper classes, but made no preparation for insurrection’; and ‘their economic ideas were unconstructive’. They wanted an ‘ideal world of owner-occupiers on the land, plus self-employed craftsmen and independent traders’. The term ‘owner-occupiers’ here is, in the context of its time, misleading, but, this aside, it may well be asked what was wrong about striving for such a society? Especially as these were the sort of people who gave support to the Levellers and other forward movements, and wore the sea-green ribbons on their caps, and in their hearts, for the next century and more.

Selected studies must necessarily exclude much. Much more seriously they must snap the sequence of events, because they can take no account of what went before or what followed after. Drag a normally stagnant village pond and seeming-strange creatures and things come to the surface. But they were already there, and will be there long after the surface has become placid again. Whenever the pond of society is convulsed into motion, similar creatures and things will come to the surface, and those who know only the pond’s calm and composed surface, will be startled, and sometimes afeard.

Professor Aylmer quotes Edward Sexby’s words at the great Army debates at Putney:

‘We have engaged in this kingdom and ventur’d our lives, and itt was all for this: to recover our birthright and privilages as Englishmen.’

His hearers knew what he meant – do we? This caveat apart, Professor Aylmer provides a useful outline of the Leveller movement and an informative collection of documents for both general reader and specialised student.

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