The Levellers' light shines on
Some 365 years ago this weekend, soldiers known as “agitators” and their civilian supporters, sprang a political surprise of historic proportions. They openly challenged the leaders of the New Model Army about the future direction of the English Revolution.
Charles I, who had provoked a civil war against Parliament which had gone on for five years, was the army’s prisoner. Oliver Cromwell was still searching for a compromise with the king, whereby Charles would remain as a figurehead, constitutional monarch.
The agitators, elected representatives to an Army Council, wanted none of it. Influenced by a political organisation dubbed the Levellers by their opponents, the rank and file demanded a republican constitution – without the monarchy or the House of Lords.
And they set out their demands in what they called an Agreement of the People and produced it like a rabbit out of a hat at the Army Council that opened in St Mary’s Church, Putney, on 28 October 1647. Dominating the Putney debates, which went on until November 8, was the demand for the extension of the franchise.
The Agreement also raised for the first time the question of natural rights – those that come with being a human and not from the state. It put at the top of the agenda the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary. The Agreement suggested that power lay with the people and that parliament was subordinate to them.
The Agreement spread like wildfire throughout the army. John Lilburne, a leading Leveller also known as “freeborn” because he advocated natural rights, inspired a second version which was due to go before Parliament in January 1649. But this was overtaken by the decision to put Charles I on trial for treason against his people. The king was executed at the end of January. England became a republic. Monarchy and the House of Lords were abolished.
Within a few months, Lilburne and his supporters were themselves under arrest for treason. They published a third version of the Agreement in May 1649, smuggling it out of the Tower. Within a few weeks, a series of mutinies in the army saw many regiments adopt the Agreement and denounce Cromwell. The mutiny was put down at Burford in Oxfordshire and the Levellers crushed.
What can we learn from struggles and debates almost four centuries old? Surely, it is that the breakdown of power and state relations between classes is an opportunity to find new democratic solutions. The Levellers showed that it is possible to win support for a constitutional settlement that is revolutionary and looks to a future that does not yet exist.
Also significant is the fact that a revolutionary political settlement cannot be achieved through compromise. Although the Levellers did not succeed, the revolution was required to establish the triumph of parliament over absolute monarchy which, despite the restoration in 1660, remained the case.
The English Revolution was made on behalf of an emerging new capitalist class. The gentry, financiers and the big merchants held in check by the crown’s control over the economy and politics. They did not engage in civil war to share power with those below. Attempts by the Levellers to persuade Cromwell, the Grandees and Parliament to adopt the Agreement were doomed to failure.
Although the principles of the Agreement were eventually implemented in the American and French revolutions (with the US constitution referring to “self-evident” truths and “unalienable rights”) of the late 18th century and in Britain by 1867, the issues arise in a new way.
The representation the Levellers demanded has long been won. But the power remains elusive and out of reach. The present state is undemocratic and a pawn of corporate interests. An Agreement for our century is needed that looks forward to a new page of democracy.
* The New Putney Debates sponsored by Occupy London’s working groups are getting under way. Sunday’s events are devoted to the English Revolution and features Caryl Churchill’s play Light Shining in Buckinghamshire about the civil war. And on November 17, an assembly will be held in London to work on an Agreement of the People for 2012.
26 October 2012