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IN PART one of this feature based on John Rees's new book about John Lilburne and the Levellers, we rediscovered the leftist Lilburne, affirmed his democratic credentials and learned there was no working class, as we would understand it, in 17th century England.
In the final part, Rees addresses the importance of Lilburne today, for activists and the electorate, when the call for meaningful democratic participation is stronger than ever.
James Florey of Veterans For Peace UK asks how relevant is John Lilburne and his work today?
As with any historical experience, it's always that part of it is relevant and part of it isn't.
The Levellers’ fight against royal monopoly of trade hasn't really got a lot to say. But much more important than that is that this is not only the origin of democratic ideas that are still clearly contested in the modern world. They are the origin of popular political organisation.
So, some things they were doing for the first time — political petitioning, with the purpose of political mobilisation, pamphlet writing, mass protest, political organisation inside the armed forces.
I work with Stop the War and The People's Assembly Against Austerity. We petition all the time.
The invention of the internet has reinvigorated the petition. The convention where you have to get 100,000 signatures to be debated in the Commons, the Levellers would have been very familiar with that.
It’s not a law, so Parliament can choose whether or not to do it, the Levellers would have been familiar with that kind of parliamentary evasion.
So, the business of popular political mobilisation, that’s a Leveller invention. And popular political organisation of a group of like-minded political radicals who were in the business of publishing and mass mobilisation, that is a Leveller idea too.
And so any revolutionary group today, any political party today, any mass campaign today, is using some form of that Leveller inheritance.
Modern day armed forces dissenters, specifically those members of Veterans For Peace UK who conceived and organised the Putney Debates 2017, feel an affinity with the Agitators of Cromwell’s New Model Army. Considering the fallout from the Ware Mutiny, during which Cromwell rode into the ranks, sword drawn, ordering the soldiers to remove from their hat bands pieces of card bearing the words: “England’s freedom, soldiers’ rights,” can I ask what was the Agitators’ view of Cromwell, really?
Mixed. And Lilburne’s attitude was mixed. Lilburne was a political ally of Cromwell’s from when he joined the Eastern Association in 1642 after he was freed from Oxford Prison. He was a political agent working for Cromwell against his enemies in the Eastern Association for three years.
And even right towards the end, after Ware, he’s writing to Cromwell saying: “I would never hit you when you’re down” and that’s the point. It’s a Leveller/Cromwell alliance that actually gets rid of the King.
So, they always have a view of Cromwell that he’s with us but against us — he’s against us but with us. And they’re always calculating in this phase, is he against us or is he with us? They’re always trying to work enough political pressure to force him onto their side.
So, it’s like the left’s attitude towards trade union leaders. You don’t think of a trade union leader, even a trade union leader who sells out a strike, like you think of an employer.
So, however bad, say, I don’t know, Len McCluskey might be, he’s not Bill Gates. And they [the Agitators] will have been even more aware of that kind of distinction than we are because they have had their lives in this guy’s hands.
James Florey also asks why John Lilburne has been forgotten.
The English state and the English Establishment treat the English Revolution very differently from how the US treats its revolution or the French treat theirs.
In the US there is masses of stuff about the founding fathers, about the Boston Tea Party, about Paul Revere, about George Washington and on and on.
I’m not saying the US ruling class is recommending revolution, but they’ve managed to institutionalise the idea of the American Revolution and that’s one way of defusing its radical charge.
If you go to US, the battlefields and sites of the American Revolution and, in France, of the French Revolution are “museumised,” are preserved, are celebrated.
In England, they tried to build a motorway through the Battle of Nasebury’s field.
Now why is that different? I think for this reason. The English Revolution was the first and it was followed by a Restoration, so in 1660 the Stuart monarchy comes back. So it becomes dangerous, if not fatal, to be associated with the “good old cause.”
And from very early on, a process of eradicating the marks of that revolution takes place. The English Establishment is constructed upon a peace deal essentially sealed in the Glorious Revolution of 1688 — glorious because it doesn’t involve any unpleasantness like the original — between the old landed aristocracy and the new capitalist bourgeoisie, who will become a kind of joint and indistinguishable ruling class, neither of which has any interest in remembering how they got here in the first place.
So, restoration leads to suppression of memory, whereas the later revolutions in the United States and France are institutionalised as a moment of national formation and national pride. So they are dealt with very, very differently.
Of course, when we talk about the Levellers, we’re not talking about the English Revolution as a whole, so they have a statue of Cromwell if you go and stand outside the Houses of Parliament.
Now that was a fight. It’s not an official government statue. It was erected in the 1880s. The Victorians developed a cult of the English Revolution. So, there’s a partial, later accommodation of the English Revolution in Cromwell, but of course, with the Levellers, we’re talking about the radicals and that never gets memorialised.
I interviewed Christopher Hill some years ago [author of the classic book on the era The World Turned Upside Down] and he said that, when he began to write about the English Revolution, he had to ask for permission to quote from Edward Hyde, Charles I’s key adviser, and his History of the Rebellion.
It’s still published by the Clarendon Press — Edward Hythe was made Earl of Clarendon — but they refused him permission for the quote because he’s a Marxist.
Why wasn’t Lilburne just assassinated in prison? These things go on today.
It’s hard to do that to someone who’s already politically prominent, which Lilburne was from the get-go. And because of Old Palace Yard. [Lilburne had been followed by an adoring crowd and, when gagged until his mouth bled to prevent him from addressing them, he threw leaflets from his pockets into the throng].
That’s when he becomes “Freeborn John.” He becomes even more famous when he’s fighting with the Royalists in Westminster Hall in the December days that drive Charles I out of London and he’s even more famous when he’s captured at Brentford.
So, it would be like bumping off Julian Assange — without flattering Assange too much there.
Philip Clarke, of Veterans For Peace UK, asks: “Do you see any modern day equivalents to the Levellers? Perhaps look at comparing the pamphlets of the 1640s to modern day social media.”
Yes, I think the interesting thing about this is that the Levellers were doing their pamphleteering at a time of a communications revolution.
The printing press had existed for 150 years. That wasn’t new. But the ability to produce uncensored material, that only happened in 1642.
Everybody recognises there’s this massive expansion of pamphleteering, not just radicals, everybody. And I guess we’re living in a communications revolution of a different sort, which has some of the same characteristics, ie, it’s more open to ordinary people.
There’s still a hierarchy and we shouldn’t get confused that Facebook is some democratic space which isn’t controlled by corporations. There’s an algorithm which stops you getting to too many people. On Twitter there isn’t an algorithm but, with all the qualifications, it is a more open platform than printing because to the individual it’s relatively cost free.
Why did you write this book, John?
I’ve always been interested, since I was a teenager, in the English Revolution and I’ve always meant to write more about it.
Then I had the opportunity to do the doctorate on the Levellers at Goldsmiths University. So this is a product of the research I did then. I hope the book is written accessibly enough so that people who don’t know John Lilburne can get something out of it.
John Rees’s book, John Lilburne and the Levellers: Reappraising the Roots of English Radicalism 400 Years On, is out now.
Part one of Alison Banville’s interview with John Rees in yesterday’s Star can be found at mstar.link/ReesLevellersInterviewPt1.
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