Uncovering the history of the English Revolution

Issue: 155

Richard Bradbury

A review of John Rees, The Leveller Revolution: Radical Political Organisation in England, 1640-1650, Verso (2016), £25

There is a moment in the play Not Such A Tory Land, by Exeter’s Riversmeet Productions, when John Milton gives the audience a history test: “How many of you”, he asks directly, “were taught about ‘An Agreement of the People’ in history lessons?” At every performance the affirmative answers, if any, have been few and far between. This demonstrates in sharp fashion both the paucity of and the ideological selectivity of much history education, and also the important work that remains to be done as part of any attempt to retrieve the legacy of the English Revolution.

Like past attempts—Christopher Hill’s The World Turned Upside Down, Brian Manning’s The English People and the English Revolution, David Petegorsky’s Left-wing Democracy in the English Civil War and Ehud’s Dagger by James Holstun, to name just a few—John Rees’s The Leveller Revolution represents a major contribution to our understanding of the English Revolution and an equally valuable intervention into the interpretation of the events of the period 1640 to 1660.

For as long as I’ve been involved in debates about the English Revolution much similar ground has been trodden and retrodden. Debates range from the simple and obvious to more profound questions: How do we name this period? Do we call it the English Revolution, the English Civil War or, even most egregiously, the Interregnum? Did the radical wing of the revolution that features in the works named above even exist? And, if it did, does the legacy of the ideas and actions of the revolutionaries have any lasting resonance or relevance? None of this is of a simply historical nature. It is shot through with political implications: about the nature of British society and its “democracy”, about the forms political change can take, about how that change can come about.

One of the great achievements of John Rees’s book is that we can now lay at least one of these arguments to rest. Ever since Hill’s work on the radical wing of the revolution, right wing and conservative historians have queued up to attack the significance, the influence and even the very existence of the Levellers, the Diggers and the many other groups that constituted the revolutionary wing. With the appearance of this book, with its exhaustive account of the Levellers, the forms their influence took, and their longer-term significance, any attempt to rewrite the history to exclude them can be dismissed as wilfully ignorant or equally wilfully driven by conservative political motives that will discredit it as history—not that this will stop them, of course.

One of the other great merits of John’s book is that it allows the Levellers to speak for themselves. Too often the condescension of interpretation intervenes between them and us, to tell us what they really meant. By quoting directly and extensively from the sources our sense of who these people were expands and deepens. When this is combined with the meticulous research that characterises the book as a whole, we are able to see these all too often neglected or ignored figures as complex actors attempting to transform the despotic rule of the Stuarts and to reconstruct society so that the words of Thomas Rainsborough—fittingly quoted on the cover of the present volume—might become a reality: “I think that the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live, as the greatest he”.

This work also changes our sense of how we might make sense of the historical and political past. John makes great use of the Clarke Papers and the Thomason tracts, a collection of over 20,000 tracts and pamphlets made between 1645 and 1660, to reveal a fascinating and illuminating resource frequently neglected or—even more commonly—just ignored. Anyone among the readers of this book who has kept copies of leaflets they wrote or distributed in the past will be familiar with the ways in which they carry the smell and the feel of the moment in the way that more “official” accounts do not. They may also be familiar with the ways in which these same documents are a bulwark against the efforts to airbrush the activities of those agitating for change from below.

Alongside this exemplary scholarly work John also reconstructs the history of these remarkable women and men and their relationships and connections to one another. It is a great joy to see almost-forgotten or ignored figures being restored to their place in the history of the campaigns and struggles for a better world. What emerges from this process of biographical reconstruction combined with the reproduction of political documents and manifestos is a sense of the political development of these people in the course of struggle. As the revolutionary upheaval deepens and spreads, their ideas have to respond to the changing situation. The book’s rather unfashionable chronological approach to the events demonstrates in a clear fashion how the ideas and the actions of the Levellers developed and evolved. As this happens, what in other hands might have been a rather abstract account of the processes of revolution becomes a drama filled with actors who often look much like us.

They are not, of course, the same as us. The Levellers lived in a very different time and their ideas were often infused with religious beliefs at some distance from those of many of us today. But the analogies can be useful provided we see them as such rather than as blueprints.

What also emerges from this work is a history of the ways in which the figures—some familiar, some less so—were bound together over time and experiences into a network that was capable of organising, most importantly, among the people of London and among the soldiers in the army so that at crucial moments of both crisis and possible advance there was a mechanism available that could turn ideas into action. Here, again, the analogy is useful. We need today to build these networks in which debate and activity combine to develop our collective sense of the directions in which to take political struggle forward. At the same time, it is important not to over-emphasise the analogy because—again—we live in very different times and the mechanisms by which those networks are built will take other forms and carry different content. Nevertheless, the narrative of the ways in which these people were bound to each other and were sometimes pulled apart reminds that at the heart of every movement there is a collective of activists. As John writes in the introduction, this book is “primarily a political history that focuses on the construction of Leveller organisation” but it also gives us “some deeper sense of the Levellers as an effective and socially rooted organisation”. Today, the task of building an organisation similarly positioned is the obvious but unspoken analogy here.

It is important to stress that this is not a general history of the English Revolution. It is designed as a history and defence of one current within the revolution, and as that The Leveller Revolution is a success that I would expect to see taking its place alongside the writings of those other historians named above. It should not, though, be the last word from our side on the English Revolution. There is work of similar scope, depth and commitment to be done on the other groups and tendencies, so that our sense of the richness and complexity of the revolutionary process becomes ever more developed. In this sense this book is both a major step forward in our understanding of our revolutionary history and also a foundation stone on which, I hope, we can build in the future.

Richard Bradbury currently works for the Open University, and in mental health. He is the author of Not Such a Tory Land.