The Levellers Remembered
Cathy Augustine, LRC Co-Vice-Chair, looks at the significance of the radical movements of the English Revolution and how we can take inspiration from them today
On 17 May 1649 over three hundred Leveller soldiers were jailed in the church at Burford. Their ‘offence’ was to organise and campaign for radical ideas, for the principles of the English Revolution, and for taking a stand against what they saw as the betrayal by Oliver Cromwell of those principles. On Cromwell’s orders three of their number - Private Church, Corporal Perkins and Cornett Thompson – were taken outside to the churchyard and shot. It took almost 330 years for the significance of the Levellers movement to be recognised with an annual day of commemoration for those executed at Burford, and celebration of their radical ideas and influence.
The Levellers believed in democracy, equality, free speech, religious freedom and human rights, summed up by their belief that “all degrees of men should be levelled and an equality should be established”. As one of the Leveller leaders, Col. Thomas Rainsborough, said during the Putney Debates of 1647:
“The poorest he that is in England hath a life to live as the greatest he … I think it’s clear, that every man that is to live under a government ought first by his own consent to put himself under that government; and I do think that the poorest man in England is not at all bound in a strict sense to that government that he hath not had a voice to put himself under.”
Putney Debates, 1647
The movement demanded universal state schools and hospitals to be provided at public expense, three centuries before our welfare state was established. They called for a democratic republic, and a reformed House of Commons that represented the people, and not the vested interests of the ruling classes – over 100 years before such ideals emerged during the French and American revolutions, and two centuries before the Chartists reprised a number of the Leveller demands.
Their equivalent of social media was writing and distributing numerous pamphlets through their active network of branches, inside and outside the army, and mobilising around petitions which they presented to Parliament. Women were active in the movement and published pamphlets in their own names – unheard of up to that time.
In 1974, the Workers’ Education Association (WEA) Oxford Industrial Branch reclaimed this piece of history that seemed to be missing from public consciousness, by holding a meeting in Burford in remembrance of the Leveller soldiers executed there. Tony Benn was also instrumental in establishing this annual commemoration, spoke regularly at the event and wrote about the ongoing significance of the Levellers, saying: “They believed in the sovereignty of the people, were passionate in their commitment to religious toleration and succeeded in establishing democratic control of the military, at one stage, through their representatives who became known as Agitators - the political officers of the army.”
Since 1974, the event has been through highs and lows due to logistical challenges, the attitude of the local (Tory) council and even the excuse of a Royal wedding in 2018 to attempt to stop hundreds of socialists marching in memory of republicans. With delicious irony, this drew a large attendance determined to celebrate our radical history with a particularly enjoyable snub to the establishment.
During the course of a day of political debate, radical history, song and music, we also remember the Diggers or 'True Levellers', whose leader Gerrard Winstanley declared in April 1649: “In the beginning of Time, the great Creator Reason made the Earth to be a Common Treasury but not one word was spoken in the beginning that one branch of mankind should rule over another.” This sentiment is echoed in Clause IV of the Labour Party Constitution and celebrated by Leon Rosselson in his 1975 song “The World Turned Upside Down”.
Music is an important part of the day, this year the crowds joined in with local choirs the Sea Green singers and Didcot Red Kites performing in the churchyard and sending us off on the procession to the words of the Internationale. The march was led by Attila the Stockbroker and his band ‘Barnstormer 1649’ who also finished the event with a performance of their new album “Restoration Tragedy” including songs about key battles in the Civil War and characters in the radical movement.
Attila the Stockbroker is a punk poet, multi-instrumentalist musician and songwriter. He performs solo and as the leader of the band Barnstormer, who combine early music and punk. He describes himself as a "sharp tongued, high energy social surrealist poet and songwriter." And has also been called a modern day Ranter! In 2018 Attila, who has always been interested in the history of the radical movements spawned in the aftermath of the English Civil War, wrote and recorded an album, Restoration Tragedy on that theme, combining early music and punk. He changed the name of the band to Barnstormer 1649 (the year of Charles 1st's execution and the revolutionary uprisings by the Levellers and Diggers).
Speakers included Ian Hodson, National President of the Bakers Union, who drew comparisons between our struggles and aims today with those of the radical movements in the 1640s in a deeply divided society.
Describing Nigel Farage and Stephen Yaxley-Lennon as the Primark Oswald Mosleys of the 2019 European elections, Ian reminded us that the reason why they are here in our communities is to keep us divided. “They are the promoters and security blanket for the status quo – they don’t represent the working class.”
Political education can take place on many levels. Ian went on:
“It’s not talking to you today that’s important, it’s what you do when you go out of here, it’s when you go to the shopping centres and explain to people that actually we don’t have to have a society where they shut down libraries, a community where schools suffer from cuts – we can have a better society than that but you must tell them on the bus, when you pick your children up from the school yard to enlighten people and make them aware of the importance of being involved in the political system.
“There are more of us than there are of them, the problem is that they recognise their strength is keeping us in our place… Our strength comes from recognising that we win when we stand together – our history shows that.”
The following day, Ciaran Walsh, Radical Labour Historian and Performer, held one of his Oxford walking tours – with an extended section on the Civil War, the English Revolution and the Levellers, Diggers and Ranters. An excerpt of what he said:
“For me, the Levellers, viewed in the broad sense of a mass movement encompassing The Leveller Party, The Diggers and The Ranters, represent the passage from the medieval revolt or rebellion to the modern popular revolution organised on a mass base; aiming not just to challenge authority but to replace it.
“Trotsky and Hannah Arendt defined revolution as that social phenomenon that manifests when the poor, oppressed, excluded, exploited, and silenced (in short, the common people) burst onto the stage of history to change politics and society irreversibly. In this sense, the Levellers could be described as the first modern political party and mass social movement: from the constitutional reformism of Lilburne, to the direct action communism of Winstanley, to the antinomian anarchism of Abiezer Coppe. This is the tap root of modern socialist progressive politics and the labour movement.
“In the discourse of the establishment these men were protagonists in what the Earl of Clarendon described ‘The Great Rebellion’, while their own elitist palace coup of 1688 was dubbed ‘The Glorious Revolution’. How can you compare a cabal of pampered fops with these men; the truly glorious revolutionaries of our tradition?”
Thanks to a number of organisations that focus on keeping the Leveller flame burning brightly, an increasing number of books being published about their historic significance, events including Levellers’ Day in Burford, commemorations in Oxford, the Wigan Diggers Festival and the support of Trades Councils and TUs, the radical movements of the English Revolution are starting to receive the attention they have long deserved. John Rees, historian, broadcaster, political campaigner and writer, is co-author of A People’s History of London and author of The Leveller Revolution and Timelines: A Political History of the Modern World, as well as National Officer of the Stop the War Coalition and founding member of Counterfire. John is a regular speaker at Levellers’ Day, and instrumental in ensuring its continued place in our socialist calendar, building it into a festival for the many – to take inspiration from our socialist tradition and translate this into 21st century activism.