Saturday 14 March sees the Lilburne 400 conference in London. The Leveller leader should be remembered for many reasons, not least his commitment to building revolutionary organisation, says John Rees
As historical co-incidences go, it’s a big one. Just as a global debate about freedom of speech and religious tolerance is underway, this year marks the 400thanniversary of the birth of Leveller leader John Lilburne. If there were no other reason for remembering Lilburne it would be timely to recall that the freedom of speech which he did so much to establish as part of the modern political lexicon arrived as an indistinguishable part of freedom of religious expression against the state church.
Secularists, especially in the wake of the Paris killings, would have us believe that freedom of speech and religious belief are opposites. But in the English Revolution of the 17thcentury, and for the most radical revolutionaries of those days, the Levellers and the Diggers, they were in most cases inseparable.
I have made this case at greater length in a forthcoming edition of History Today, so I will not repeat the arguments here. Instead I want to make two other points. One is about Lilburne’s commitment to organised politics. The other is about the historical memory of Lilburne.
John Lilburne was a charismatic, stubborn, brave and outspoken rebel. His ally, the regicide Henry Marten, joked that if John Lilburne were left alone in the world, John would argue with Lilburne and Lilburne would argue with John. Honest John was self-deprecating enough to tell the joke, in print, at his own expense. But his personal qualities could not have allowed him to play the central role that he did in the course of the revolution unless they were bent to the purpose of creating organisation like the Levellers.
In the Levellers we see the very beginning of modern radical political organisation. At their height the Levellers were organised in geographical units, sometimes in the wards of the City of London, sometimes in towns across the country where they had support. They chose committees to run their business. Their treasurers raised dues. They ran illegal presses. They printed petitions and demonstrated in Westminster to get them heard in Parliament. They organised in the Parliamentary Army, among the elected representatives of the regiments, the agitators (meaning agents at the time). They had a civilian paper, the inappropriately named The Moderate, and a short-lived army paper, Mecurius Militaris, or The Army Scout. They were, in short, though a minority, one of the driving forces of the revolution.
The Levellers were not a party in the modern social democratic or Bolshevik sense of the term. In modern terms they were somewhere between a movement and a party, though their core organisation ran with considerable purpose and discipline. But in pre-20thcentury usage ‘party’ had this broader meaning, even for Marx and Engels at the time they wrote the Communist Manifesto. This is why they referred to the Levellers as the first modern party.
None of Lilburne’s remarkable achievements would have been possible without this organisation behind him. To take only one example: Lilburne spent time in jail in all but four of the twenty years between 1637 and 1657. His words would never have been read without the network of secret printers, the hawkers (often women) who distributed his pamphlets and broadsheets, the Levellers of the army and the City who protested to free him. The fact that his name was known, and that it continues to be known, was to do with the magnifying effect that political organisation provided.
Which brings me to the second point. Lilburne’s memory, and the history of the Levellers, is much contested. Liberal, left and Marxist historians, pre-eminently Christopher Hill, Pauline Gregg, Lilburne’s biographer, and H N Brailsford, author of The Levellers and the English Revolution, did much in the middle 50 years of the last century to uncover and bring to light the history of the Levellers. But for a generation after that the ‘revisionist’ school of historians did much to reinter Lilburne and the Levellers. This school is, in the way of academic fashion, now being replaced by a post-revisionist, though not necessarily Marxist, rediscovery of the Levellers.
But the memory of the Levellers has never been just the prerogative of academic historians. Left wing activists, trade unionists, writers and artists, historical re-enactors have all played their role in keeping Lilburne and the Levellers in the public consciousness. Historians have sometimes denigrated these forms of recovering our history. And it is certainly possible to enumerate the inaccuracies of, for instance, a film like Cromwell (1971) where the Levellers gather in scenes with more than a whiff of the Longbridge car factory mass meetings about them.
But, for all that we can learn from historians, it is also true that the cultural and political transmission of the memory of the Levellers often had more essential truth to it than some of what some historians, particularly those on the farther flung shores of revisionism, have written. Montague Slater’s novel Englishmen with Swordsor Don Taylor’s radio series God’s Revolution for instance will stand are both artistic and historical achievements. And, as importantly, if history is not to be mere antiquarianism it must find its way, however carefully mediated, into politics.
Next month’s John Lilburne 400 anniversary conference seeks to bring these strands together. Historians who have produced some of the best modern accounts of the Levellers will rub shoulders with politicians and activists and with writers like Martine Brant and Peter Flannery who made the TV series The Devils Whore.
It’s a moment to recall a debt owed by every generation of radicals to our founders. ‘Long live Free-born John’ was a cry heard more than once in the streets of London in the English revolution. It should echo still.
Don’t miss these upcoming events
- The John Lilburne 400thanniversary conference. More information and online booking. Download the programe.
- Lilburne night at the CWU training centre in Alvescot on the evening of the annual Levellers’ Day march. More information and online booking.
- The annual Levellers’ Day march in Burford.
- Caryl Churchill’s drama about the English revolution, Light Shining in Buckinghamshire, at the National Theatre. Book online.
- A reading of the Putney debates at the National Theatre on the day of the general election.
- ‘Civil Wars, ancient and modern’, a platform discussion at the National Theatre with John Rees. More information and online booking.
John Rees is a writer, broadcaster and activist, and is one of the organisers of the People’s Assembly. His books include ‘The Algebra of Revolution’, ‘Imperialism and Resistance’, ‘Timelines, A Political History of the Modern World’, ‘The People Demand, A Short History of the Arab Revolutions’ (with Joseph Daher) and ‘A People’s History of London’ (with Lindsey German). He is co-founder of the Stop the War Coalition.