The Levellers, formed out of the explosive tumult of the 1640s and the battlefields of the Civil War, are central figures in the history of democracy. In this thrilling narrative, John Rees brings to life the men—including John Lilburne, Richard Overton and Thomas Rainsborough—and women who ensured victory and became an inspiration to republicans of many nations.
From the raucous streets of London and the clattering printers’ workshops that stoked the uprising, to the rank and file of the New Model Army and the furious Putney debates where the Levellers argued with Oliver Cromwell for the future of English democracy, this story reasserts the revolutionary nature of the 1642–51 wars and the role of ordinary people in this pivotal moment in history.
In particular Rees places the Levellers at the centre of the debates of 1647 when the nation was gripped by the question of what to do with the defeated Charles I. Without the Levellers and Agitators’ fortitude and well-organised opposition history may have avoided the regicide and missed its revolutionary moment. The legacy of the Levellers can be seen in the modern struggles for freedom and democracy across the world.
History and Revolution: Refuting Revisionism, edited by Mike Haynes and Jim Wolfreys and published by Verso in 2007, collects essays on the English, French, and Russian Revolutions and the body of revisionist historiography — developed or publicized by historians like François Furet, Simon Schama, Orlando Figes, and Conrad Russell — that dominated public conception of them during the high years of "the end of history."
"Revisionism generally shares a view of revolutions," the editors write, "as, to paraphrase George Taylor, political acts with social consequences rather than social acts with political consequences."
The lasting achievement of revisionist historiography of the French Revolution has been to discredit the idea that the event brought about a change in France's social order. Against the "determinism" of social explanations of historical change, which focus on class antagonisms, revisionists emphasize the primacy of the political. Their tendency to see revolutions as narrow political events rather than broader social transformations means that extraordinary circumstances — war, famine, counter-revolution — figure little in explanations of why protagonists sometimes act in ways which would otherwise be considered extreme or intolerable. The focus on elite activity and the attempt to establish a causal link between ideas and events leaves little room for the active role played by groups who do not form part of the elite. Popular insurgencies, violence and insurrection are no longer integral to revolutionary change but an unnecessary distraction, or worse, a reactionary brake on modernization and peaceful reform.
In the book's final chapter, reprinted below, Daniel Bensaïd takes on some of the broader themes of the revisionist literature, picking up Marx's figure of the old mole to trace the persistence of revolution during even the most apparently static of times.
Christopher Hill's 1984 The Experience of Defeat: Milton and Some Contemporaries — out in a new edition from Verso — follows out of Hill's account of the radical ideas that animated the English Revolution, and Milton's relation to them; which he had developed in The World Turned Upside Down (1972) and Milton and the English Revolution (1977). "My concern," Hill writes in the introduction, "is not so much with the fate of radicals after the restoration, but to study how some individuals coped with the experience of living through a revolution which they initially welcomed, and with the defeat of that revolution — a defeat which for some of them occurred before 1660."
In the excerpt below, Hill examines the relationships between the radicals, the army, and "the people" that developed in the "fluid society" of the 1650s — and how they changed as it came to an end.
One point that forced itself upon me whilst writing this book was the continuing importance of the Army for the radicals. Their ideas could have emerged only in the fluid state of society which existed during the revolutionary decades. We should not underestimate — as historians perhaps too easily do — the significance of rank and file and junior officers in London as members of gathered congregations, often as preachers themselves around whom such churches formed. Outside London it was normally under the Army’s protection that separatist churches and groups could gather and survive. The Digger community at Cobham lasted as long as it had Army backing; and no longer. In January 1650 Winstanley was still hoping for Army support, and even in 1652 he appealed to Cromwell. The Ranters drew on support from Army officers in their brief heyday. That the "northern Quakers" owed much to Army protection is clear from Fox’s Journal, and from the Nayler Debates in 1656. Removing the garrison from Bristol in 1654 at once reduced support for the Quakers. In Ireland it was in the Army that Quakers "found their greatest response." When Burrough and Howgil were expelled from Ireland in 1656, the guards taking them to the coast "were loving to them and suffered them to have meetings where they came."
June 15, 2017
London, United Kingdom
National Portrait Gallery - Ondaatje Wing Theatre, London