THE LEVELLERS AND THE ENGLISH REVOLUTION,edited by G.E. Aylmer, CORNELL UNIVERSITY PRESS, NEW YORK, 1975
The names John Lilburne, Robert Overton and William Walwyn, key radicals in the leftist phase of the English revolution do not come to mind when thinking of the leaders of the English Revolution like Robespierre and Saint Just do for the French Revolution and Lenin and Trotsky do for the Russian Revolution, but they should. They represented the heart of the London-centered programmatically-based plebian urban artisan democratic opposition to monarchy and hierarchic rule. Although Oliver Cromwell is, from a military perspective at least, more justly recognized as a destroyer of the principle of monarchy from a historical perspective the documents of the Levelers presented here in detail represent a precious accrual of propaganda for all later democratic movements.
As far as the English revolution is concerned this writer’s sympathies lie with the democratic social program put forth by John Lilburne and the Levellers and the social actions of Gerard Winstanley and the True Levellers (or Diggers) on Saint George’s Hill. The English historian Christopher Hill’s studies of those movements and others, as expressed in the religious terms of the day, initially drew me to the study of the English Revolution. However, I believe that those plebian-based democratic programs in the England of the 1600’s were more a vision (a vision in many ways still in need of realization) than a practical reality. Even Cromwell’s achievements were a near and partially reversible thing. Such are the ways of humankind’s history.
The English Revolution was by any definition a great revolution. It is therefore interesting to compare and contrast that revolution to the two other great revolutions of the modern era- the French and the Russian. The most notably thing all three have in common is once the old regime has been defeated it is necessary to reconstruct the governmental apparatus on a new basis, parliamentary rule, assembly rule or soviet role, as the case may be. The obvious contrast between revolutions is what class takes power- patricians or plebeians? That has been the underlying strain of all modern social revolutionary movements. The defeat of the Levellers and their democratic program, based as it was on the relatively small urban artisan class and their supporters in the New Model Army demonstrates that they were just a little too early in the development of the capitalist modern world to succeed.
The editor has provided a good introduction to these documents which places the struggle for adoption of such Leveller programs as the various Agreements of the People in proper perspective for those not familiar with the details of the English Revolution. I note, as the editor does, that the New Model Army played an unusually large role in the political struggles, especially among the plebian masses which formed the core of the army (through the ‘Agitators’). In an age when there were no parties, in the modern sense, the plebian base of the army is where the political fight to extend parliamentary democracy was waged. That it was defeated by military action led by Cromwell at Burford in 1649 represented a defeat for plebian democracy. Thus, the political fortunes of the Levellers rose and fell with their influence in the army. In the latter revolutions mentioned above urban-based political parties turned that around and created armies as a sword of the revolution. Think of Trotsky's role in the Russian revolution. That is quite a different proposition. Read on.