RSS FeedRSS FeedLivestreamLivestreamVimeoVimeoTwitterTwitterFacebook GroupFacebook Group
You are here: Platypus /What makes a history Marxist? An interview with John Rees on The Leveller Revolution

What makes a history Marxist? An interview with John Rees on The Leveller Revolution

Efraim Carlebach

Platypus Review 120 | October 2019

On Wednesday, August 28th, 2019, Efraim Carlebach interviewed John Rees, historian, activist and lead organizer of Counterfire, about his book The Leveller Revolution and the memory of the English revolution today. The questions were prepared with Richard Rubin. What follows is an edited transcript of the interview. During the interview, Boris Johnson announced the prorogation of the British Parliament, provoking comparisons to the English civil war. A postscript on the Brexit political crisis is appended.

Efraim Carlebach: How does this book relate to your political background in Marxism? Were you interested in the English revolution before that or did this interest come out of your education in Marxism?

John Rees: I had always been interested in the English revolution, long before I became more generally political. I had a pretty good facsimile reproduction of the Agreement of the People[1] when I was in my early teens, if not before then. I have always thought of it as a fascinating and dramatic episode in English history, so I was drawn to it from an early age. In terms of becoming a Marxist, I think I was a Marxist before I joined the Socialist Workers Party (UK).

EC: When was that?

JR: In the mid-1970s, I went to Portsmouth Polytechnic to do a politics degree. I don’t think I joined the SWP until my third year at Portsmouth. I certainly had read Marx’s early writings and his political writings, as well as other Marxists before then. I would have considered myself a Marxist in a general way. I knew a lot of SWP members, because it had a big branch bothin the college and in Portsmouth generally. On the economics part of my degree a lecturer turned up called Peter Griffiths, who had won the Smethwick constituency in the 1964 general election against Patrick Gordon Walker, the Labour party candidate, with an unofficial slogan, “If you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Labour.” Some other Labour party members and I organised a very successful boycott of his lectures, and the SWP members were involved supportively in that. That was the point where I joined the SWP.

EC: For Marxists, the English revolution is seen as part of the epoch of bourgeois revolutions. How was the topic of bourgeois revolutions dealt with in the SWP of the late 1970s?

JR: There was never a party line on that kind of question; there were just people who were interested in that particular part of history. Norah Carlin was the principal and most experienced historian dealing with those issues. Later, when I was running the Marxism conference, I got to know Brian Manning — who I think joined the SWP in the end. He was an incredibly serious historian and one of the best historians of the English revolution. For a number of years, I invited Christopher Hill to speak and I was involved in publishing a collection of unpublished articles with him, as well as republishing some of his earlier works that were out of print. I think we invited Ann Hughes to speak at one point. I just reached out to some of the best-known Marxist historians. Manning had a particular view of how the English revolution happened. Some people were influenced by that and some had disagreements in the normal way.

EC: The central argument in your book is that the Levellers were a distinct political grouping and not just an inconstant wing of the parliamentary party. Why do you think other historians “tend to dissolve Leveller organisation into the wider spectrum of radical parliamentarianism”?

JR: There is a wide spectrum of thought here. Let’s take it in two parts. First, there is the revisionist period. In a general push to diminish the revolutionary nature of the events of the 1640s, some revisionists also wanted to diminish the role of the explicitly revolutionary wing, to minimise its impact and to claim that it was not a coherent movement. I think we are now in a post-revisionist moment and the high tide of revisionism is long gone among working historians in the area. In general, this is a moment when it has been possible to re-emphasise and recover interest in the Levellers, to take them more seriously and to regard them as a more effective political force than the revisionists wanted to. Sometimes that comes with the thought that the entire radical wing of the parliamentarian cause was one thing and that the Levellers can be placed within that broader spectrum, but without necessarily emphasising their organisational or ideological distinctness. That is still a step forward from where we were with the revisionists, and those historians would be quite critical of the revisionists, but I think they don’t go far enough in recognising the distinctness and effectiveness of the Levellers. However, the work they have done has actually helped recover the history of the Levellers in a very important way.

EC: It seems that the revisionists’ neglect of the Levellers, if we can put it in political terms, is a right-wing response to minimise the political stakes of the 1640s and 1650s. Yet, clearly, some left-wing and Marxist historians have not placed the same emphasis on the Levellers that you have.

JR: Who do you mean?

EC: From Marx and Engels through to Christopher Hill.

JR: In Marx and Engels it is pretty clear, but you have to remember that they were dealing with very limited sources. The Putney debates — which are an absolutely critical source if you are going to talk about the Levellers — were not discovered until 1890. Lewis Dyve’s prison diary, which records all his interaction with John Lilburne, was not discovered until Peter Young came across it in a west-country bookshop in the 1960s. I’m not sure when the catalogue of the Thomason tracts was published. Considering how limited the materials were, I think Marx and Engels were very prescient about the Levellers.

Christopher Hill and some later historians in the Communist Party tradition — C. L. R. James makes this point, and I think it is at least partly true — preferred the Diggers, because they could be represented as precursors of communism. They raised the property question directly, whereas the Levellers took artisanal small property ownership as a given. I think that appealed more to Hill. Certainly, The World Turned Upside Down is directly a response to the explosion of different radical ideas in 1968, which led Hill to present the explosion of radical ideas in the late 1640s and to assess the groups involved not in terms of their organized political ability to change the course of events, but in ideological terms. The Ranters expressed libertarian ideas about sexuality and the Diggers expressed ideas in terms of communism. That is a legitimate thing to do and The World Turned Upside Down is a powerful book, but it is only one aspect of it. That aspect attracted Hill for two different reasons: a longer-term commitment to the Communist Party version of revolutionary politics and as a response to ’68. But Hill also edited and brought to publication Brailsford’s book, The Levellers and the English Revolution. He might legitimately have thought that all that could be said had been said by Brailsford and you would not be slighting the Levellers if you thought that your contribution was to bring that book into the world. It is an outstanding piece of work. Everybody who writes about the Levellers stands on Brailsford’s shoulders.

People often raise the question of the Diggers in meetings, and I always say that we don’t have to choose. In the 1640s there couldn’t be a coalescence of a practically effective movement with ideas about common ownership; there wasn’t the social base for it. The working class didn’t exist; that was a later development. But we don’t have to make that choice. We can be the inheritors of both the Levellers and the Diggers, so setting up an opposition now is daft.

EC: You mentioned revisionist history and we have been discussing Marxist history. The historiography is often divided into Whig, Marxist and revisionist. I wonder what makes a history Marxist. Does it mean focusing on particular groups? For Hill, establishing a Marxist history of the English revolution meant a critique of Whig history. What is the Whig interpretation of history, and why was it important for Hill to begin with its critique?

JR: When I interviewed Hill, he said that when he came into these debates the big thing was the Whig interpretation. It was the dominant interpretation. Its key idea is the inevitability of the ascent of parliamentary sovereignty and parliamentary government, as the end point of history. Obviously, if you are a Marxist, you will want to engage with and critique that interpretation. It involves a partial truth, but it has big lacunae, in terms of the limits of parliamentary democracy, then and now, and its neglect of plebeians and even the “middling sort” as a driver of historical events. That is obviously where Hill, A. L. Morton and the CP historians came in.

EC: Is a Marxist history, then, the corrective assertion of the plebeian elements in the revolution? One often comes across phrases — in Hill and others — about “social history” or “history from below.”

JR: I never worry about that stuff really, and I don’t think Hill or Brian Manning did either. The sensible way to proceed — I think this is how Marx and Engels proceeded — is to develop a methodological view: historical materialism or dialectical materialism, whatever you want to call it. Then you approach any material with that framework in mind, but you have to be able to go where the material leads you. Engels warned that you can’t start forcing the historical material into a readymade format. I took that approach with my book. Of course, I had read a lot of the secondary material, but I wanted to go where the historical archive and contemporary material would take me. I didn’t want my own framework, never mind debates with other Marxists or currents, to determine where the history would go. After you’ve done that, you can demarcate it and illuminate it by — in a relatively minor way — dealing with other currents and approaches. As far as I am concerned, what makes something Marxist is that it is the application of that method. I have done a lot of work on that in The Algebra of Revolution: The Dialectic and the Classical Marxist Tradition.

EC: You reflect on methodology and other approaches at the end of your book, where you cite a revisionist criticism of Marxist history for being merely “Whig history with statistics” — or, we might say, “Whig history with new archives”. What is your response to that criticism?

JR: Whig history is a teleology; Marxism can never be that. Therefore, this book, above all, is to do with political agency and political organization, and what its limits were in those historical circumstances. That is a completely different approach to Whig history. It is not centered on Parliament. I am researching another book now that will be centered on some of the parliamentary radicals, but this book is not about that. Parliament features only in relation to the broader extra-parliamentary movement.

EC: You mentioned that Whig history is “teleological” and Marxist history isn’t. Another term associated with Whig history is “progress.” Hill writes, “The Whigs stress the progressive nature of the revolution,” but he is also ambivalent about that. He says that the 17th century was progressive, but that he was not “approving.” Terms such as freedom, history and the Left, come from the liberal tradition. I think of Hegel’s famous line that “The History of the world is none other than the progress of the consciousness of Freedom.” The idea of progress in history emerges for the first time with the modern bourgeois revolutions. How do you relate to those ideas, given that critique of Whig history? Is there progress in the 17th century, and if so, what does that mean?

JR: It is always conditional, partial and contradictory. The practical way this often comes out in discussions is about Cromwell and his role in Ireland. Is the Cromwell that formed the Eastern Association, led the New Model Army and said that he would as soon discharge his pistol upon the king “as upon any private man” a progressive figure? Yes, he is. He wanted an end to absolute monarchy and some kind of parliamentary sovereignty — not necessarily a democratic sovereignty. That is a step forward over absolute monarchy. But then people say, “What about Cromwell in Ireland?” You have to ask what kind of progress we are talking about. We are talking about the imposition of another form of minority class rule. As Marx says, all existing movements have been in the interest of minorities. This is one minority replacing another — a capitalist minority replacing a feudal minority — so why would you expect anything else but empire? Parliamentary sovereignty at home and empire abroad: that’s what capitalism does — what one of the better forms of capitalism does, actually. It is obviously going to be a bloody and contradictory form of progress. It is not going to be the emergence of a realm of freedom or an end to exploitation and oppression. In these revolutions that is not the issue, so any form of progress that we talk about is going to be qualified and contradictory. The art is to explain where those contradictions lie, how they came about and how they operated. The defeat of the Levellers by Cromwell is part of that story.

EC: You said that Cromwell is progressive but in contradictory ways, and that there are limits to him. You raised Marx, saying that the new form of rule is a partial class rule. That raises this question of society as a whole. The concept of society as a totality emerges in the modern era of bourgeois revolution for the first time. You reminded me of certain arguments in Hill and Marx. Hill says, “The struggle of the bourgeoisie was progressive, representing the interests of the country as a whole”. Similarly, Marx, comparing the English revolution of 1648 and the French revolution of 1789, says, “They were not the victory of a particular class of society over the old political order; they were the proclamation of the political order for the new European society… these revolutions expressed the needs of the whole world.” How does that perspective — that the revolutionary transformation of the 17th and 18th century expressed the interests of the whole of society, and indeed the whole world — relate to this idea that its progressive character was partial and contradictory, expressing a limited class interest?

JR: There are two senses in which that is answerable. First, every revolution, certainly in its initial phases — Engels makes this point — represents the vast majority of the society against an isolated ruling clique. That was true in every revolution you care to mention. The existing ruling class lost the ability to command wider support in society and was extraordinarily isolated. The 11 years of personal rule (1629-1640) made that clear in the case of Charles I. I open my book with the period in which he is losing control of London and Parliament, which is just one of those moments. There is the sense of a class alliance stretching from the richer merchants and moderate parliamentarians down through the plebeian classes, to an extent, mobilised against the old order.

Then there is a broader historical question about whether the society is going to become modern and capitalist or be thrown back to feudal patterns. That is what I think Marx is referring to when he talks about the interests of the whole world. It is in the interests of the whole world, including, actually, the labouring classes. If you want to play the old child’s game, “Which period of history would you like to live in?,” as an oppressed and exploited individual, you would probably take living in modern Dagenham over living in a feudal village in the 17th century. In that sense there is broad historical progress, but it is never without cost. It is not a classless society, nor is it without exploitation and oppression, which occur in different forms. In that sense you have to describe it as a contradictory and contested process, and not just the Whig ascent.

EC: The idea that the new society is not classless raises a contentious aspect of the historiography of the 17th century, namely to what extent there is a separate class interest within the parliamentary movement, and specifically whether there is a “working class,” however defined. Eduard Bernstein, in his book Cromwell and Communism (1895) — part of Kautsky’s series on “precursors to modern socialism” — argues that in 17th century England, “an industrial proletariat in the modern sense of the word did not exist.” This leads him to say of the Levellers, “they do not constitute a class movement. They are the extreme Left of the middle-class republican [or]… democratic party.” What do you make of Bernstein’s argument? How do you approach this issue of class interests in the 17th century?

JR: Bernstein is right about the working class. There are people working for wages then, but they are a much lower percentage of the society than they are today. They were not urbanised, they were not in large collective workplaces, and they had no organization and distinct political consciousness. In any modern sense, you can put that aside. But they are not unimportant. At times, sections of them even form an independent force in the Clubmen movement,[2] which just wanted to be left alone to get on with working, but they don’t have an effective political programme that can address the national crisis sweeping society. Where there are elements of collective organisation, you see exactly the weakness that Bernstein is pointing to.

Then there is the question of locating the Levellers. They were part of a much broader spectrum of people, who were described and described themselves as “the middling sort,” distinct from wage labourers, vagabonds, servants and peasants, who still formed a huge chunk of the society, and distinct from court monopolists, very rich merchants, courtiers and the landed aristocracy. The middling sort are also called the “well affected,” a term which meant the same in the English revolution as the word “citizen” did in the French revolution. To delineate them religiously, they were Puritans. They were the centre of the opposition to the court.

As today, being a middling sort implies internal gradations, so there are inevitably problems of definition at the fringes. Bernstein is right that the Levellers are part of that broad alliance, but in the quote that you read, he does not point to their distinctiveness, which is important. Nearly all of their leaders are former apprentices — second sons, who will not inherit land — and religious radicals. There are very clear sociological markers, not absolutely unique to them, but distinguishing them from the broader spectrum of the middling sort in some very important ways. There are distinct economic and sociological elements locating them at a particular point in that class. They are also distinct from others in politics and organization. Everybody knows this: their enemies in the middling sort and among the royalists know it, and refer to them in this way; and they know it and refer to themselves in this way too.

EC: While you focus on how the Levellers distinguished themselves through their methods of organization, Bernstein distinguishes them here as “the extreme Left.” “The Left” is another term specific to bourgeois revolutions, emerging in the French revolution — it would make no sense to apply it to the War of the Roses, for example.

JR: It is reasonably apt here, I think.

EC: What does “the Left” mean in the context of the English revolution?

JR: The Levellers have a programmatic commitment to democracy. Importantly, the leading parliamentarian political figures of the middling sort don’t have that, or only have it periodically and opportunistically. The Levellers develop a written programme in which democracy is absolutely central. That is where the divide comes under the republic: a parliamentary, but military republic under Cromwell, or a democratic republic with a democratic popular mandate under the Levellers. That is the origin of modern Left politics. That’s where it all starts. There is a lot else that comes later, but if you trace it back, there is not a lot previous to the Levellers, politically, ideologically and organizationally.

EC: You identified the Left with democracy. To what extent is the Left about history?

JR: In what sense?

EC: In the sense of historical possibilities.

JR: If you want a brief definition of modern, i.e. Marxist, socialism, it would be, or could be said to be democracy extended into the realm of the economy. Parliamentary and bourgeois democracy is democracy excluded from the realm of the economy and socialism is democracy extended into the realm of the economy. You can see what a touchy subject that was in the Putney debates. That is exactly what Ireton and Cromwell react to: if you give the poor the vote, they will use it to take property off the rich. Ireton says that all he has is “an eye to property,” and you can’t have people who do not have property voting. That is the entirety of the debate at Putney. Every time Jeremy Corbyn mentions nationalization, you get the same reaction. It is one of the great continuities. It is the unanswered question at Putney, and it is still the central question.

EC: To push on this question of property, Bernstein has a chapter called “Communists and Atheist Tendencies in the Leveller Movement,” which gets at what is programmatically different about the Levellers. He argues there that such “proposals are all in harmony with the nascent capitalist system, the idea stressed that inventions which tend to increase production are bound to improve the situation of the poorer classes.” To what extent is the Levellers programme and their social aims coherent with the emergence of free civil society, of bourgeois society? You mentioned earlier that for the Levellers, small property holding was taken for granted. Does that trouble this distinction between Cromwell and the Levellers in the Putney debates over the question of property?

JR: No, because it emerges not in that form, but as a question of what the effect of democracy will be. If pushed — though I can’t recall a moment where they are pushed to state it like this — the logical Leveller answer would be that we can have democracy and private property. These are all essentially apprentices, freemen, small artisans, etc. They rail against the court monopoly, against which the emergence of private property and free markets is a progressive move. I think Hill puts this brilliantly in The Century of Revolution: in the 17th century, you washed with monopoly soap, you drank monopoly beer, your pots and pans were made by monopoly copper makers and books were a monopoly of the Stationers’ Company. Everything you touched was a monopoly and, ultimately, a court monopoly, because they derived from royal charters. Having lived so long with the history of free markets, it is hard to imagine a totally controlled, state and court-dominated economic structure, but that is what they faced. The Levellers railed against the existence of monopolies in the name of the ability of people like them to just finish their trade and produce stuff, without court approval and membership of the livery companies. It doesn’t seem like it to us, because we know the end of the story, but that is a step towards human freedom compared with the feudal structures. For the Levellers, democracy and free markets were not opposites but correlates.

In that sense they are not wrong to think that this will benefit everybody, and it certainly can be portrayed that way. However, a lot of Leveller rhetoric exceeds those parameters. When Thomas Rainsborough says at Putney, “the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live, as the greatest he,” he does not just mean small producers there. “The poorest he” is not the small producers, but the masterless men, the vagrants, the people pushed off the commons and people in prison for debt, in whose favour the Levellers constantly speak. Like many bourgeois revolutionary movements, they appeal to the masses below them socially, in order to mobilize them against the old order, and they probably aren’t aware of the incipient contradiction between the emergence of free markets and this project. They don’t think that this is going to create a mass working class that is exploited and oppressed; they don’t see that. That contradiction doesn’t exist for them. Overthrowing that old court-monopoly-dominated order is a step towards human freedom, albeit not the kind of liberation that perhaps the Levellers imagined it would be.

EC: To what extent are the social aims of the Levellers and Cromwell compatible?

JR: They are certainly compatible. They part company over how extensive enfranchisement will be and whether, when push comes to shove, enfranchisement is necessary at all. For Cromwell, parliamentary sovereignty is necessary, even under the military republic. He sustains that view to the point where he refuses the crown, which is a decision in favour of parliamentary rule, however rumpified[3] and curtailed, and against the return of monarchy.

EC: In the Putney debates, did the Levellers see enfranchisement as a necessary condition for freedom — to be able to produce themselves freely in society? Does the idea that “the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live, as the greatest he” necessitate enfranchisement through the state, or is there a concept of freedom in civil society which doesn’t at that time necessitate universal suffrage, as we perceive it looking back?

JR: I think they took it all as a piece. I don’t think the idea of civil society would have meant much to them in those terms. Legal freedom, which we might now partially equate with the conditions of civil society, was important, but if you offered Lilburne jury courts and the right to expression, but not the vote, it would not have been an acceptable situation. However, that was acceptable to some radicals. The republic did that to a certain extent, but it did not involve a democratic polity, so Lilburne and Overton rejected it. That’s why they ended up in the Tower [of London].

EC: Why were Cromwell and Ireton opposed to extending the franchise?

JR: For the reasons given at Putney: they thought that extending the franchise to non-property-holders would destabilise the state, lead to mob rule and the levelling of estates, and was a kind of “communist threat.”

EC: Not long after the Putney debates, there is an argument about whether to dissolve Parliament after Pride’s purge. When discussing this, Bernstein defends Cromwell’s position:

“It must, however, be admitted that Cromwell was right and that the time for the dissolution of Parliament had not arrived. The elements hostile to the Independents and the Army were too numerous to risk the experiment of a new election… [Cromwell] was the practical politician par excellence,” whereas “the hour of the class for which they [the Levellers] fought had not yet struck.” Later, he remarks: “To extend the suffrage to the agricultural labourers would, in the then circumstances, have strengthened the reactionary party.” There is a political question there.

JR: That is a possible result. Really, we are looking at how revolutions — Engels makes this point — stretch the elastic of the possible to its fullest extent, so they are almost bound to recoil. We are discussing how that recoil happens. Nobody is in charge of it; it is an outcome of political battles, essentially the battle between the Levellers and the Independents. It is probably true that the republic stood on too narrow a social base to last for very long, so we are discussing how the republic dies. It might be true that it would have died anyway under the Levellers, but it would have died better; it would have died as a democratic experiment, not as a period of military rule that collapses in on itself. Perhaps the historical possibilities are either an experimental democratic republic, which echoes down the ages, or the military republic that we actually had under Cromwell, which still had a historical charge — “The good old cause” echoed in America and in France — but is a less clear historical precedent as a republic than the Leveller version might have been. We are moving into the area of speculation here, but if you approach it not as a closed issue or inevitability, but as an open possibility, as Bernstein raises it, then that would be a better formulation than endorsing Cromwell’s version as the only historical possibility.

EC: There is an echo of that idea, which you attributed to Engels, of revolutions throwing up forces that exceed the boundaries of that revolution, leading to a recoil, in Trotsky’s discussion of the English revolution in Where is Britain Going? He says, “A fool, an ignoramus or a Fabian can see in Cromwell only a personal dictatorship… Under Cromwell’s leadership the revolution acquired all the breadth vital for it. In such cases as that of the Levellers, where it exceeded the bounds of the requirements of the regenerate bourgeois society, Cromwell ruthlessly put down the ‘lunaticks’... The revolutionary realist, Cromwell, was building a new society.” What do you think of Trotsky’s argument and how does it relate to this question of what is politically possible?

JR: Trotsky’s formulation is a slightly more rhetorical version of Bernstein’s point. I get the point. This is how the bourgeois revolution turned out, and we want to defend the achievements of the bourgeois revolution and the revolutionary leadership from their detractors. In broad terms and in relatively general articles, that is what they are doing. I think, if you examine it more closely, that the kind of framework I am talking about is important. They are dealing with an attitude towards finished events, but we are discussing what the possibilities might have been at any particular point in time. I don’t think it is particularly sensible to refer to the Levellers as ‘lunaticks’. Is that in quotation marks?

EC: Yes, although he doesn’t necessarily reject the description.

JR: I think the quotation marks suggest that for Cromwell they were a lunatic fringe, not that Trotsky is necessarily endorsing that. Those comments are working in a different register and for different purposes than the kind of more detailed discussion that we were having.

EC: Earlier, you mentioned that the Leveller programme, the Agreement of the People, probably doesn’t have the social base to hold up in the 1640s and 50s, but many similar things do seem possible in the American and French revolutions a century later. If those ideas were almost utopian in the mid-17th century, when did that stop being the case?

JR: This is why this discussion is quite important. I think it didn’t have the social base, but I don’t think it was far off being politically actionable. It is very interesting that the final version of the Agreement of the People is accepted by Parliament, albeit the Rump Parliament, but then it is put aside. There were other versions, the so-called “Officers’ Agreement” and Jubbes version, etc. Those ideas aren’t actioned and probably couldn’t have been sustained, but it is not that far from their minds either. Cromwell and Ireton are opposed to it at Putney, but they are palpably engaged with it, because the forces that are raising it are quite significant. As always happens, activists invent ideas under the pressure of events and then they become part of an accepted political vision. With the Levellers’ ideas, John Locke codifies them, so it is not surprising that they become the intellectual mainstay of subsequent revolutions.

EC: Locke is often considered the philosopher or theorist of the Glorious Revolution (1688-89). If the Levellers were politically successful in the 1640s and 50s, and had led to a “better death” of the republic, as you put it, what would that mean for 1688? Is 1688 a revival of the republic, which collapsed with the restoration in 1660? If Leveller ideas are picked up in John Locke, how does the period we are discussing relate to the Glorious Revolution?

JR: The heavy lifting is done by the civil war, the revolution and the republic. That is the volcanic explosion. These are the aftershocks, where the society has a continual series of adjustments to what it is willing to institutionalize out of the revolution, and what it is going to reject. Ultimately, the Stuart monarchy is rejected, and a very different monarchical regime is accepted, but essentially it is the beginnings of a constitutional monarchy and parliamentary sovereignty. It is true that the monarchy is restored, which is a counterrevolution, no doubt, but it is restored under very different circumstances. It is always interesting that the Declaration of Breda, Charles II’s manifesto for returning, said “I’m only going to punish seven people.” The entire country had been convulsed for 20 years and these are the people who executed his dad. When they actually get into power and the Cavalier Parliament returns, many more than seven are punished, but the opening bid is very restricted. There is some good recent historiography on this. The royalists are keen not to relive the debates of the 1640s and 1650s, but to move on.

EC: In recent historiography, one book that stands out is Steven Pincus’ 1688: The First Modern Revolution, which was reviewed in The Platypus Review by David Black, a historian associated with the Marxist Humanists. He argues: “By the time William was finally confirmed as a de jure as well as de facto constitutional monarch, the program of James Harrington had been largely fulfilled. Left historians’ dismissal of the Glorious Revolution on the grounds that it did not reopen the Leveller debate over extended and universal suffrage misses the point that Commonwealth radicals such as Harrington in the 1650s, much like the radical Whigs of the 1680s and 1690s, saw the popular content of the state as less important than the subjection of the state to civil society and the rule of law.” This goes back to the earlier question about suffrage and the freedom of civil society.

JR: What you get is parliamentary sovereignty, but parliamentary sovereignty isn’t the same as democracy. Parliament was, until way later, a collection of landowners and businesspeople. The debate is about the rule of law and the subjection of the monarchy to parliamentary sovereignty. The new ruling class wants political power; it does not want to be troubled with the old order. It wants to subjugate the monarchy to its will as expressed in a parliament of landowners and businesspeople. This is why suffrage is a huge question for the working-class movement and any radical movement from then on, from John Wilkes through to the Chartists and the Suffragettes, until we finally get universal suffrage in 1928. So Black is right to say that. But what does civil society mean? What are we talking about? It’s not really a Marxist term. Civil society disguises certain forms of class rule. What are we talking about with that form of class rule? That is what I’m getting at. We are talking about parliamentary sovereignty, which in this case institutionalizes the particular deal that was done as a result of the revolution between the landed aristocracy and the emerging, eventually industrial, bourgeoisie.

EC: Democracy, then, seems like the political thread between the advent of constitutional monarchy and the emergence of the working class as a political force with the Chartists. In Marx and Engels’ article “England’s 17th century Revolution” (1850), reviewing Guizot’s history of the English revolution, they criticize Guizot for confusing and conflating the 19th and the 17th centuries. Universal suffrage is one of those issues that is specific to the 19th century. Why do Marx and Engels emphasise this point of not conflating the 19th and 17th centuries?

JR: Well, it is probably not sensible to double guess exactly what Marx and Engels were thinking, but I would have thought they were referring to the nascent bourgeois revolutionary experience being very different from the radical and parliamentarian opposition in the 19th century — not to confuse the original revolutionary explosion with later elements of parliamentary reform. I guess that they are saying don’t try to dress up much more moderate and, in some cases, middle-class elements, who are interested in parliamentary reform in the 19th century, with people who, to quote Lilburne, fought it out with “Swords point, and to the Butt end of the Musket,” in the civil war.

EC: So how has the question of democracy changed?

JR: Well, it becomes bifurcated. There is a middle-class reform movement which is interested in wider middle-class participation in Parliament. That is one debate. Then there is a much more explosive debate about universal suffrage and the enfranchisement of the working class, both between the working-class movement and the middle-class reformers, as well as within Chartism, which has a kind of moderate-radical split.

EC: Is that bifurcation present in the 17th century, or only in the 19th century?

JR: I suppose you could say the Putney debates are a precursor to that, but between those two points the working class has emerged, and that is a pretty critical question. Drawing an uncomplicated line of descent would probably be unwise.

EC: In your description of the Levellers there is something familiar about their type of Left-wing organisation and activity, organising activists and being on the fringes of society. In a way, given the state of the Left, it is easier for us to imagine the Levellers in the 17th century, than it is for us to imagine a mass socialist party, something like the German Social-democratic Party at its height. Why do you think that is?

JR: I’m not sure that is the case. Corbyn’s Labour party is suddenly a much more mass institution than it was before. It is very dominant in the mood of the labour movement and closely allied to the trade unions. That is a formation probably closer to the SPD than we have been for a very long time. Outside of revolutionary periods, the far Left will always have something of that characteristic. You are right, when writing the book, some aspects of what they are doing — petitioning and printing — struck me. Funnily enough, the internet age has reproduced those practices. When I entered politics, there wasn’t as much petitioning as there is now. There wasn’t a No. 10 website[4]. The Levellers would have recognised both the existence of that and the ability of the authorities to do nothing about it, if they didn’t want to. Julian Assange banged-up for leaking government documents would not have been a surprise to them.

So, there are parallels, but I am slightly careful with this business. These were also intensely religious people and it takes a lot of emersion in the history to get your head round that. Perhaps, if you are close to the Muslim community, there is an element of that, but you would struggle to find people on the Left who could feel sympathy very much for Robert Overton debating the mortality of the soul to a thousand people in Spitalfields. That is a pretty strange activity.

EC: Do you think the religious aspect of the 17th century can be separated from its politics?

JR: No. While, organizationally, you feel the distance between us and them is very narrow, that is a big difference. But there are places in the world where you would be very well armed by working to understand how religious and political motivations interact. We are not living in quite as secular an age as people like to believe sometimes, but in Britain, I think you have to work hard to understand how intertwined those things were. The easiest way to understand it is that the Church of England was performing the functions of a landowner, a tax gatherer, a censor, an educationalist and a media outlet. Therefore, if you were in dispute with the Church, you weren’t just arguing over theological niceties, you were arguing about how society was run. So, the institutional side of it is easier to get your head round; the fact that that is inevitably mixed with actual theological debates is more difficult.

EC: In parts of the Muslim world today, politics and religion seem tied up in a similar way. Some on the Left might say that the religious expression is just a cover, and what is actually important is the political content. Do you think that in those contemporary cases politics and religion can be separated?

JR: I think that is true, but crude. Politics is inevitably bound up with religion, but for religious people those religious terms are important. You couldn’t just say to a Hamas activist, “What you are really interested in is national liberation, and can’t we just put aside all this stuff about Allah?” Even if the original statement is true and it is a national liberation movement, it is a national liberation movement in a different ideological construction than a secular one and, while you don’t have to agree with that, you have to take it seriously.

EC: I guess the point is that we are familiar with a religious aspect in right-wing politics today, but how does it relate to the Left?

JR: Well, as I say, there are a lot of national liberation movements that, certainly in the Arab world, have that characteristic. You have to take that seriously. It is not the end of the discussion, but if you don’t take the division between Sunni and Shia seriously in the Middle East, you aren’t going to get very far.

EC: My last question is about the memory of the English revolution. We have discussed the influence of the English revolution on the American and French revolutions. I came across this anecdote from John Adams’ diaries where he visits Edgehill and Worcester[5] with Thomas Jefferson. Adams writes: “Edgehill and Worcester were curious and interesting to us, as scenes where freemen had fought for their rights. The people in the neighbourhood appeared so ignorant and careless at Worcester, that I was provoked and asked, ‘And do Englishmen so soon forget the ground where liberty was fought for? Tell your neighbours and your children that this is holy ground; much holier than that on which your churches stand. All England should come in pilgrimage to this hill once a year.’ This animated them, and they seemed much pleased with it. Perhaps their awkwardness before might arise from their uncertainty of our sentiments concerning the civil wars.” There is this sense already towards the end of the 18th century that the memory of the English revolution has gone subterranean. What happened to that memory and how do we stand in relation to it today?

JR: It is fundamentally a product of the restoration of the monarchy. In the restored monarchy, the memory of republicanism and the radical republicans is suppressed. That is the difference in the way in which the memory is recorded here. In America, the revolution is part of the national curriculum. In France, the revolution is a big part of the national curriculum from an early age. In Britain, you can only study it as one part of one option at A-level, and there is no official memorialization. If you go to America, the sites of the revolution are national monuments. We tried to drive a motorway through the battlefield of Naseby. Winston Churchill twice tried to name a battleship Cromwell, but the monarchy simply vetoed that idea. Therefore, the revolution in this country is a very intermittent signal, which is transmitted, essentially unofficially, by the Left, by the trade union and labour movement, by artists, by people who have simply become fascinated by it and by historians, but all outside of any official memorialization. That is the condition we are in. When I wrote this book, there had been no book on the Levellers, partly as a result of revisionism, since Brailsford in 1975.

But you are right that, even though it is an intermittent transmission, the force of that is huge. Of course, Thomas Jefferson was distantly related to Lilburne and for generations there was a male child in the Jefferson family whose middle name was Lilburne. The estate in Virginia was called Edgehill. There was a very strong connection with America. Two of the regicides, Edward Whalley and William Goffe, were hidden in America by colonists and the writ for them by Charles II could never be fulfilled, because they could never be captured. There were women in the back roads of New England christening their children Oliver in the American revolution after Cromwell. Edward Sexby is sent off to France and translates the Agreement of the People into French. The revolt in Bordeaux is the first where the red flag is used as a symbol. If you work hard enough you can find those forms of transmission. Edward Legon’s new book, Revolution Remembered: Seditious Memories after the British Civil Wars, teases out how that sort of process worked, verbally as well as in written materials. I believe that John Wilkes owned original Lilburne pamphlets.

EC: Considering the importance of the American and French revolutions for the Chartists and for Marx, the memory goes through the international bourgeois revolution and comes back to England via America and France under the conditions of the 19th century.

JR: Exactly. It is very important to get the international thing. If you just look at the revolution in the national frame, you would miss the most important repercussions.


As we were speaking, Boris Johnson, the British Prime Minister, announced that he was going to prorogue Parliament, to suspend its session for five weeks. Johnson’s decision, largely, it is thought, is intended to scupper plans by MPs to stop him delivering Brexit, come what may, on 31 October. I wrote to John Rees later that day to get his thoughts on the current political crisis in the light of our discussion of the English revolution. What follows is my questions to Rees and his response, which initially appeared as an opinion piece in The Guardian on 29 August, and a slightly edited version of which is reproduced here with permission of the author. – EC

EC: Boris Johnson argues that prorogation is needed to bring in a new legislative programme, correctly noting that this is the longest parliamentary session since the Long Parliament in the English civil war. While prorogation is constitutionally regular, in the current political climate of the Brexit crisis, some hear echoes of the dissolution of Parliament during the political crisis of the mid-17th century, usually comparing Johnson to Charles I — although Cromwell purged and dissolved Parliament, too. Lindsey German of Counterfire has commented, “The last person who did this lost his head. That was back in the 1640s.” In the English revolution, Parliament was sometimes a tool for the revolution against the king and sometimes an obstacle to it, needing to be purged by revolutionary forces. While Brexiteers will claim that Johnson is defending the democratic mandate of the referendum against a recalcitrant Parliament seeking to stop Brexit, others will say that Johnson is attacking parliamentary democracy. The Left has also been split over whether to overturn the referendum and back Remain or support some sort of Brexit. The crisis of democracy seems to be a common symptom of the post-neoliberal realignment of capitalist politics. For example, in America, Donald Trump is seen simultaneously as a champion of democracy and its destroyer. Is Johnson comparable to Charles Stuart or Oliver Cromwell? Does the English revolution have anything to tell us about this moment? You said in our discussion that democracy defines the Left. Where does democracy lie in this political crisis? And how should the Left respond?

JR: While we might not be on the verge of an absolutist King Boris dictatorship, some deeper parallels are worth investigating. [The conflict between Charles I and Parliament] had been decades in the making and was detaching the court government from even its natural supporters among the gentry. The government of Boris Johnson is indeed a court clique, unsecured from its natural moorings in the wider political establishment. Long before Johnson uttered his government’s expletive-laden two-word manifesto, “Fuck business”, it was clear that Brexit and big business were incompatible. The Tory party leadership, and hence the government, had been captured by a Brexit-obsessed minority of a minority. For the first time since the Tory party split over the Corn Laws in the mid-19th century, it was no longer the more-or-less united political representative of corporate Britain.

Here’s a second parallel with the pre-civil war political atmosphere: a strong sense that more talk is useless... There is a palpable sense that action is required, even action that breaks the bounds of the previously constitutionally acceptable. If Johnson’s court is seen to act decisively while their opponents look as if they are playing the old establishment game of manoeuvre, compromise and legalistic prevarication, it can appear that the court clique are the insurgents and the opposition is the establishment. When, after the 11-year dictatorship, Charles I was eventually forced to call parliaments again, there was a radical mood among MPs and an insurrectionary mood among the London crowd. Masses of Londoners gathered outside the Palace of Westminster, while inside, MPs, including those previously imprisoned by Charles, demanded both that the king’s advisers be put on trial for treason and that he grant effective parliamentary sovereignty.

As the crowds once again surge around Westminster, there may be a lesson there. In the 1640s, all previous political differences of the amassed opposition had to be subordinated to the aim of getting rid of Charles I’s regime... Today, both Johnson and his opponents lay claim to having the backing of the people – who truly does so is yet to be fully tested. But when democracy is imperilled, its salvation may depend on the public’s willingness to demand their rights. When it came down to it, the emerging democrats of the 17th century fought their autocratic foes under battle flags inscribed with the Latin tag ‘salus populi suprema lex’ — the safety of the people is the highest law. That may still be the most enduring lesson of the events of the 1640s.| P

[1] The Agreement of the People (1647-49) was the principal constitutional manifesto associated with the Levellers.

[2] Clubmen were bands of local defence vigilantes during the English Civil War who tried to protect their localities against the excesses of the armies of both sides in the war.

[3] The Rump Parliament was the English Parliament after Colonel Pride purged the Long Parliament, on 6 December 1648, of those members hostile to the Grandees' intention to try Charles I for high treason.

[4] A website where you can petition the British Government.

[5] Sites of important battles in the English civil war.

Leave your comment

Your Name(required)