Radical has a special meaning in English political history. It describes those whose instincts were democratic although they did not espouse the idea of a full male adult suffrage let alone a suffrage which included women until very late in their existence. But what they all had was a desire to see political power taken from the few and given to many more. Their means of doing this was not to overthrow Parliament but to make it responsive to the interests and needs of the general population, something which was to be achieved by devices such as broadening the franchise, ending rotten boroughs, annual parliaments. As for the monarchy, this might be allowed or not, but if it was to continue the powers of the crown had be emasculated. With few exception such as Gerrard Winstanley and his Diggers, they were not socialists or egalitarian in a general sense. The sort of people who became radicals were typically men with some material independence and education such as tradesmen and those educated at non-conformist colleges. Constitutional reform – in which they had a naive trust as a panacea for all the ills they wished to mend – was what they sought, not social revolution.
The English radical emerged in the struggle between Charles I and Parliament. The group which gave the strongest voice and effect to the new radical was the Levellers. They were a disparate and ever shifting crew, drawing their support primarily from the ranks of the Parliamentary armed forces (especially after the New Model Army was formed in 1645), small tradesmen, journeymen and apprentices. However, they also included those from higher social classes, their most famous leader, John Lilburne, being the child of minor gentry.
What the Levellers were most certainly not, were the thorough going democrats and proto-socialists portrayed by the likes of Tony Benn and Bill Bragg. Rather they were men who would have fitted much more comfortably into the ideological sleeve of Margaret Thatcher than that of social democracy.
Their opponents attempted to portray the Levellers as social revolutionaries who would take the property of the rich, most particularly their land, and give it to the poor. Hence the epithet of Leveller which originated as a term of abuse. But the Levellers consistently denied that they had any such programme and were staunch defenders of the right to property. They might best be characterised as radical democrats with a very strong libertarian streak. Indeed, so far were they from being proto-communists that they had an almost sacramental belief in the individual’s right to personal property.
Intellectually, they started from the view that all Englishmen had a birthright which entitled them to have a say in who should govern them, although at times they accepted that the birthright might be breached through dependence on a master or by receiving alms. More importantly, their ideology contained the germ of the idea of a social contract between the people and those who held power, an idea which was to come to dominate English political thinking for the next century or so through the philosophy of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke.
The Levellers were, with one or two exceptions such as Richard Overton, who was a deist at best and an atheist at worst, or John Wildman, who was a libertine and chancer, religious. But their belief had a strong vein of rationalism in it. They saw God not as the often cantankerous and domineering supernatural being of traditional Christianity, but as a rational intelligence who entered every man and allowed him to see what was naturally just and reasonable. For the Levellers, it seemed a natural right – a rational right – for a man to have a say in who should hold power and what they should do with the power.
The Levellers were happy to use historical props such as Magna Carta and the legend of Norman oppression when it suited them, but their rationality led them to question how men were governed from first principles. One of the Leveller leaders Richard Overton actually called Magna Carta a “beggarly thing” and went on to comment:
Ye [Parliament] were chosen to work our deliverance, and to estate us in natural and just liberty, agreeable to reason and common equity, for whatever our forefathers were, we are the men of the present age, and ought to be absolutely free from all kinds of exorbitancies, molestations or arbitrary power. (A Remonstrance. Tracts on Liberty in the Puritan Revolution)
More balanced was his fellow Leveller William Walwyn:
Magna Carta (you must observe) is but a part of the people’s rights and liberties, being no more but what with much striving and fighting, was wrested from the paws of those kings , who by force had conquered the nation, changed the laws and by strong hand held them in bondage. (England’s Lamentable Slaverie, Tracts on Liberty in the Puritan Revolution.)
To call the Levellers a political party in the modern sense would be misleading. Yet they were the closest thing to it both then and, arguably, for several centuries. Their tactics and organisation were modern – the use of pamphletering and newspapers, the ability to get large number of supporters onto the streets (especially in London) at the drop of a hat, the creation of local associations. Much of this was the work of Lilburne, a man of preternatural obstinacy, courage and general unreasonableness. It says much for the restraint of the English elite of the day and respect for the law that he was not killed out of hand. It is difficult to imagine such behaviour being tolerated anywhere in Europe in the seventeenth century.
Lilburne by every account of him was a most difficult man – it was said that his nature was so combative that he would seek a quarrel with himself if he were alone – ‘Jack would fight with John’. Yet this man, who came from a very modest gentry background, remained alive despite challenging the authority of first the king and then during and after the civil war, Parliament, Cromwell and the Commonwealth. He thus carried on this mortally dangerous behaviour for almost a generation. To the end of his life in 1657, he was thought dangerous enough to imprison.
Lilburne first came to notice for seditious speeches and writings in the 1630s. For that he was whipped from the Fleet to the Palace Yard where he was stood in the stocks. Whilst in the stocks, he removed copies of the pamphlets which had caused his punishment and threw them to the crowd. That little episode will give a good idea of the Lilburne’s general mentality. He was an extreme example one of those necessary unreasonable men without whom nothing great gets done.
From the time of his flogging onwards, Lilburne’s career was one of studied defiance of authority. He was one of the most potent pamphleteers England has ever seen. For more than a decade, he produced a flood of writings guaranteed to inflame virtually anyone in public authority in the land. He faced down judges in the most powerful courts in the land. He controlled the London mob consummately. He treated the greatest men in the land as equals. In any other place on the planet at that time, he would have been dead meat before his career as an agitator began. But not in England. He might be flogged. He might be put in the stocks. He might be imprisoned. He might be tried twice for his life. But what 17th century England would not do was unreservedly murder him.
The Levellers developed an increasingly sophisticated political programme in a series of documents known as The Agreements of the People. These Agreements dealt extensively with political representation and structure. They were also very successful in creating a sense of historic grievance and an enemy. They did this by portraying 1640s England as having declined from a golden age of freedom to an oppressed land and people under the heel of the Normans and their French successors.
The Levellers time was brief. They were a serious political force for, at most, the years 1646 to 1649 and that is probably being a mite too generous. They failed utterly in the end, not least because they were unable to carry the army, especially the junior officers, with them. But they were important both for giving voice to the ideas and creating many of the practices on which modern politics is founded.