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INTERVIEW 'It’s one thing to say I want democracy. It's another to go into the streets, to organise crowds and force it'

JOHN REES talks to the Star about the left's rediscovery of John Lilburne and whether a working class existed in 17th-century England

JOHN REES, national officer of the Stop The War Coalition, political activist and historian, has just had published his new book John Lilburne and the Levellers: Reappraising the Roots of English Radicalism 400 Years On.

As a long-time admirer of Lilburne, the Agitators of the New Model Army and the civilian Levellers, I was eager to talk to him about their struggles to establish a democratic republic, their legacy, and their relevance today in these times of great social and political upheaval; times in which grassroots political activism is forcing change at the highest levels.

I took with me questions from members of Veterans For Peace UK, which organised the Putney Debates 2017 event at which Rees recently spoke.

I also asked my former history and politics tutor at Goldsmiths College, Professor Alan Downie (also one of Rees’s supervisors for his PhD on the Levellers which became his book, The Leveller Revolution, which Verso published last year) what he would like to ask him.

Hi John, is there any new material on Lilburne in your book?
There is, yes. A lot of stuff has been published in academic journals which isn’t really available to the public. I did my own research and turned up a few interesting things.

I wrote the book because the last general history of the Levellers was written by HM Brailsford in 1961 and Pauline Gregg’s biography was also published in 1961. So there hasn’t been a new biography of Lilburne since then.

Since the ’60s there’s been a huge debate about the Levellers in which the so-called “revisionist” historians have attempted to overturn a lot of the things that Brailsford, Gregg and Christopher Hill [author of classic text The World Turned Upside Down] were talking about. So, in part, the book attempts to re-establish a left interpretation of what the Levellers were doing.

I wanted to ask you about that. Lilburne is claimed by right-wing libertarians. Can you talk about re-establishing the leftist Lilburne?
Some people on the right, like the MEP Daniel Hannan, are big fans of Lilburne. [Hannon is president of the Institute For Free Trade and member of the Alliance of Conservatives and Reformists in Europe].

The grain of truth is this: the English revolution is a seminal moment in the establishment of capitalism in this country, and the Levellers certainly were small property holders themselves.

And they certainly were against monopolies. But what they meant by monopoly was that the economy was structured so that the crown had the right to grant a monopoly to chartered companies, and it was only if you were part of that company that you could legally pursue that trade. So it was a semi-feudal economic structure in which the crown had the right to grant you the ability to earn your living.

The Levellers wanted to bust open the monopolies and wanted a free market. But in doing so they were trying to break down the power of the crown.

Now, of course, people who love a free market today are not trying to break any of this power down; they’re trying to re-establish the people who came to power because of the English revolution and other developments.

So, in context, what the Levellers were trying to do was a radical thing. De-contextualised, and the same thought repeated 400 years later is not a radical thing. So, it’s a warning against de-historicising what they were doing.

And then there’s the bit the right-wing just don’t like at all, which is that these people were involved in the business of popular mobilisation, against governmental power, for the right of free speech, the right of political organisation, the right to demonstrate; and that is still contentious.

But libertarians would applaud that wouldn’t they?

You find lots of libertarians who are, in principle, in favour of free speech but when it’s radical political forces exercising that right against existing authority, they tend to be not so keen on it.

What the Levellers represented was small producers and ordinary artisans trying to break into an economy which was controlled by the most powerful corporations and the crown. So their argument for a free market was a kind of anti-authority, radical argument against what existed, which was very controlled.

Of course, formally, you could say it’s the same thing; the Levellers wanted a free market — Hannan and Ukip want a free market — but there was no such thing, and never had been a free market when the Levellers were trying to break down royal authority.

After 400 years of capitalism it’s really not a radical thing to say anymore because all the powers that exist in this society are trying to defend the free market.

You have to ask, do these people repeating these phrases, do they really stand in relationship to power in this society in the same way the Levellers stood, or are they actually people who, if repeating the same words, are backing up that power?

Here’s a question from Professor Alan Downie at Goldsmiths College: “I always think the central question about Lilburne is whether, and in what sense, he was a democrat rather than a petty bourgeois reformist humanitarian?

Lilburne’s claim to being a democrat is pretty well established. When the Levellers advanced The Agreement of the People, when they argued at Putney that the franchise should be at least massively extended, if not universal — not including women but male universal suffrage — you have to say that in a society where there had never been any democracy whatsoever, that was a pretty radical democratic stance.

And the language Thomas Rainsborough uses at Putney: “For truly I think that the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live as the greatest he,” and that any man who puts himself under a government should have a hand in choosing it. That is really where democratic language first enters English politics, without a doubt.

Is it fully formed? No, because something just after birth doesn’t look like it does when it’s grown up as an idea and they were the first people to do that. So their formulation of democracy wasn’t as full or explicit as it later became.

But it is the identifiable infant; and what’s more important than that, in a way, is that the method of attaining democracy was popular mobilisation.

These were people who were not in the business of begging for reform; they were in the business of mobilising as many people as they could to force change. And that is a democratic strategy as well as a democratic demand.

It’s one thing to say I want democracy; you can plead for it, you can beg for it, you can petition for it, you can have a word in the ear of the powerful or you can go into the streets with petitions and pamphlets and organise crowds and try and force it. Or indeed mutiny in the army. So, I would say, both in aim and method, they were primitive democrats, if you like, but they were democrats.

Downie also wanted to ask you about the franchise debate at Putney and whether the word “servants” included all those who sold their labour — ie, the proles?

You can’t seriously talk about a working class in 17th-century England, if by that you mean a collectively present and conscious group of wage earners.

There were people who worked for wages but they were not drawn together in huge factories. They weren’t in huge conurbations because outside London they barely existed. London was only 350,000 people — the whole population of England was five million.

So the whole idea of mass collective withdrawal of labour, strike action — the characteristic tool of an organised working class — just didn’t exist.

So, what did exist? You have landowning aristocrats and the monarchy; you have very a big merchant class, not producing in factories but trading, by and large. Then you have — locked out of a system dominated by landowning aristocrats and big merchants granted royal monopoly — you have artisans and journeymen, which were the characteristic class of the Levellers.

These are people who are producing in their own home; they are composed of the master, his wife and his family and apprentices who lived in the house. So, for the apprentices, who were probably the most volatile part of the working population, there’s no such thing as going home from work; you don’t go to work. You are living in the workplace.

Lilburne and [the English pamphleteer] Richard Overton were apprentices. William Walwyn [also a pamphleteer] was a merchant venturer.

Beneath them are the people who can’t get into being apprenticed: domestic servants, people doing day work for wages. But they have no collective ability to organise so the effective oppositional class is the class of yeoman farmers, where Oliver Cromwell comes from, and the masters and apprentices in the city. They are all the locked out class. They’re relatively well off; they’re a literate class, but they are the opposition. So, you can’t map the Levellers in a straightforward way onto the modern working class; it doesn’t work.

And that is why they are for democracy but not for equality, because they are themselves small property owners. So, that’s the kind of social structure you’re dealing with.

That’s why the English revolutions and the French and US one have a different profile to the Russian or the Spanish revolutions because of the classes that were fighting. They’re not fighting to abolish the order of classes.

In part two, published in tomorrow’s edition, John Rees talks to Alison Banville about the importance of Lilburne today.

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