BBC: Tony Benn on The Levellers in the English Civil War

Tony Gosling tony at
Mon Jan 19 01:07:31 GMT 2015

The Levellers and the Tradition of Dissent
By Tony Benn - Last updated 2011-02-17
The Levellers were early christian radicals whose 
ideas helped to shape the American and French 
revolutions, and inspired generations of socialists.

The right to a say in government

The issues raised in the historic conflict 
between Charles I, resting his claim to govern 
Britain on the divine right of kings, and 
Parliament - representing, however imperfectly, a 
demand for the wider sharing of power - concerned 
the use and abuse of state power, the right of 
the governed to a say in their government, and the nature of political freedom.

They found spokesmen in John Lilburn, Richard 
Overton, William Wallwyn, Gerard Winstanley and others...

The Levellers grew out of this conflict. They 
represented the aspirations of working people who 
suffered under the persecution of kings, 
landowners and the priestly class, and they spoke 
for those who experienced the hardships of 
poverty and deprivation. They developed and 
campaigned, first with Cromwell and then against 
him, for a political and constitutional 
settlement of the civil war which would embody 
principles of political freedom, anticipating by 
a century and a half the ideas of the American and French revolutions.

Freedom of speech

The Levellers found spokesmen and campaigners in 
John Lilburn, Richard Overton, William Walwyn, 
Gerrard Winstanley the True Leveller or Digger, 
and others. These men were brilliant pamphleteers 
enjoying a short-lived freedom to print, publish 
and circulate their views at a time when 
censorship was temporarily in abeyance, and 
printing presses newly cheap and easy to set up.

They developed their own traditions of free 
discussion and vigorous petitioning and used them 
to formulate and advance their demands.

The Agreement of the People

The Levellers' demands were encapsulated in a 
remarkable document called An Agreement of the 
People outlining a new and democratic 
constitution for Britain. The preamble to the 
third draft of this Agreement, published on May 1 1649, states that:

We, the free People of England, to whom God hath 
given hearts, means and opportunity to effect the 
same, do with submission to his wisdom, in his 
name, and desiring the equity thereof may be to 
his praise and glory, agree to ascertain our 
Government to abolish all arbitrary Power, and to 
set bounds and limits both to our Supreme, and 
all Subordinate Authority, and remove all known Grievances.

And accordingly do declare and publish to all the 
world, that we are agreed as followeth:

1. That the Supreme Authority of England and the 
Territories therewith incorporate, shall be and 
reside henceforward in a Representative of the 
people consisting of four hundred persons, but no 
more; in the choice of whom (according to 
naturall right) all men of the age of one and 
twenty yeers and upwards (not being servants, or 
receiving alms, or having served with the late 
King in Arms or voluntary Contributions), shall have their voices...

'Freeborn Englishmen'

The Levellers held themselves to be freeborn 
Englishmen, entitled to the protection of a 
natural law of human rights which they believed 
to originate in the will of God - rights vested 
in the people to whom alone true sovereignty 
belonged. These sovereign rights were only loaned 
to Parliament, which should be elected on a wide 
popular franchise and hold the people's rights in trust.

The Levellers' debt to the Bible

Oliver Cromwell: a deeply religious man, who like 
the Levellers drew political inspiration from the 
well as reflecting the clash of interests between 
17th century haves and have-nots, the Levellers' 
ideas can be traced right back to the teachings 
of the Bible. The conflict in the Old Testament 
between the kings and the prophets, between 
temporal power and the preaching of 
righteousness, lay at the heart of the arguments 
in the English revolution - both the one between 
the King and Parliament, and that between Cromwell and the Levellers.

The deep conviction to be found in the Old 
Testament that conscience is God-given, or 
derives from nature or reason and must be supreme 
over man-made law, was the foundation of the Levellers' political creed.

They noticed that when Jesus Christ, the 
Carpenter of Nazareth, was asked by one of the 
scribes what commandment was the first of all, he 
replied that after the commandment to 'Love thy 
God', the second was to 'love thy neighbour as 
thyself. There is none other commandment greater than these'.

The relation of Master and Servant has no ground in the New Testament...

The Levellers took from these texts the idea of 
man's relationship with God as a person-to-person 
relationship, neither needing nor requiring us to 
accept the intervention of an exclusive priestly 
class which claims a monopoly right to speak on 
behalf of the Almighty - still less of a king claiming a divine right to rule.

Leveller pamphlets abounded with religious 
quotations. As they read it, divine teaching 
expressly prohibited the domination of man by man. As one Leveller put it:

The relation of Master and Servant has no ground 
in the New Testament; in Christ there is neither 
bond nor free... The common people have been kept 
under blindness and ignorance, and have remained 
servants and slaves to the nobility and gentry...


A 'common storehouse for all'

A detail from an anti-Ranter pamphlet, summing up 
the religious radicals' rejection of the 'old 
Diggers, or True Levellers as they described 
themselves, went even further and advocated 
absolute human equality - including equality 
between men and women - and at the same time 
anticipated today's environmental and green 
movements in seeing the earth as a precious 
'common storehouse for all'. The Digger leader, 
Gerard Winstanley, wrote in his pamphlet The True 
Levellers' Standard Advanced, published on April 26th 1649.

In the beginning of Time, the great Creator, 
Reason, made the Earth to be a Common Treasury, 
to preserve Beasts, Birds, Fishes and Man, the 
Lord that was to govern this Creation; for Man 
had Domination given to him, over the Beasts, 
Birds and Fishes; but not one word was spoken in 
the beginning, that one branch of mankind should 
rule over another ... And that Earth that is 
within this Creation made a Common Storehouse for 
all, is bought and sold, and kept in the hands of 
a few, whereby the great Creator is mightily dishonoured...

The Digger Gerard Winstanely refusing to doff his 
cap in deference to General Fairfax (contemporary 
the ideas of the Levellers were considered 
extremely dangerous by those with a vested 
interest in the preservation of privilege, property and power.

By 1650 the Levellers' movement had been 
effectively crushed. Cromwell's Commonwealth 
represented a formidable advance compared to the 
reign of King Charles which preceded it. But it 
did not - and in terms of its historical and 
industrial development probably could not - adopt 
the principles that Lilburn, Overton Walwyn, and 
still less Winstanley, were advocating. Ten years 
later came the Restoration of Charles II. In 1688 
Britain witnessed the shadowy beginnings of a 
constitutional monarchy which had little in 
common with real political democracy.

Declaration of Independence

A Leveller manifesto: the text of a speech by 
William Everard to the Army 'Grandees' in 1649.
But the elimination of the Levellers as an 
organised political movement could not obliterate 
the ideas which they had propagated. From that 
day to this the same principles of religious and 
political freedom and equality have reappeared again and again.

When the American Congress set out their 
political principles in the Declaration of 
Independence on July 4th 1776, the ideas were 
taken straight from the English Levellers a century and a quarter before:

We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all 
Men are created equal, that they are endowed by 
their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, 
that among these are Life, Liberty and the 
Pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these 
Rights, Governments are instituted among Men 
deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the governed.

Politics is really about education, not about propaganda.

The Americans had also drawn heavily on the 
writings of Tom Paine, who was a direct heir of 
the Leveller tradition, and whose Rights of Man 
also won him a place in the history of the French 
Revolution (he was elected a Deputy to the first 
French Constituent Assembly surmmoned to 
implement the principles of 'liberty, equality 
and fraternity'). The English reformers of the 
early 19th century also drew many of their ideas 
and language from the Levellers' mix of Christian 
teaching, religious and political dissent, social 
equality and democracy. It fired the imagination 
of generations of Congregationalists, trade union 
pioneers, early co-operators, Chartists, and socialists.

And so it will always be. For politics is really 
about education, not about propaganda. It is 
about teaching more than management. It is about 
ideas and values and not only about Acts of 
Parliament, political institutions, and 
ministerial office. The Levellers, thank God, still teach us that.

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