A way out of the political crisis
When political systems become corrupted and lose their legitimacy, history shows that ordinary people will try to establish new forms of government. And if there was ever a time to draw on this long struggle for democracy it is now.
And make no mistake about it, this is a people’s struggle that we are talking about, not some manoeuvring by political elites who have always sought – and too often succeeded – to use popular anger in ways that benefit themselves.
Two enduring episodes point to a way forward out of the present impasse of constitutional crisis and economic/financial meltdown. The first is the struggle waged by the Levellers during the English Civil War of 1641-9 and the second is that of the Chartists.
Levellers were the most politically conscious and organised section of the rank and file of the New Model Army, which under the leadership of Oliver Cromwell had defeated the forces of Charles I in the war between Parliament and the King.
In the winter of 1647, with Charles I held prisoner at Hampton Court, army representatives – or “agitators” as they were known – came together with civilian activists and senior officers to discuss the principles of a new political system. The Levellers put forward “An Agreement of the People” for debate at St Mary’s Church in Putney.
The Agreement contained a truly revolutionary thought that, in the event, was far ahead of its time. The existing Parliament was to be dissolved and a new one elected for a period of two years. As to the powers of this Parliament, it would be “inferior only to theirs who choose them” and be limited by “whatsoever is not expressly or impliedly reserved by the represented to themselves”. In other words, the people would control what Parliament could do, and not the other way round.
Edward Sexby, agitator and trooper, set the tone. The most powerful advocate of the rights of the common soldier told Cromwell bluntly:
The cause of our misery is upon two things. We sought to satisfy all men, and it was well; but in going about to do it we have dissatisfied all men. We have laboured to please a king and I think, except we go about to cut all our throats, we shall not please him; and we have gone to support an house which will prove rotten studs – I mean the Parliament, which consists of a company of rotten members. [emphasis added]
Although the King was executed two years later, the Levellers’ main demands for universal suffrage and control over Parliament were thwarted by leaders who represented a new ruling class. Two centuries later, the baton was passed in the historical sense to the Chartist movement. By then, Britain had been radically transformed. Capitalism had created a vast urban working class which had no political rights, while the new bourgeoisie had consolidated the power they inherited from the Civil War.
The Chartists, the first independent political movement of the masses, organised monster petitions, strikes and rallies in the struggle for the vote. And they also held several Conventions during two decades of Chartist activity from 1838.
One particular Convention considered itself an alternative to Parliament and vowed to sit until its demands were met. This is how we could pick up the baton from the Chartists. A Convention on Democracy, representing all those who favour truly democratic power, especially in terms of the economy, could present a way forward. Such a Convention could lay down a challenge to the existing power structures of capitalism and prepare the revolutionary change in society that our predecessors have laid the groundwork for.
AWTW communications editor
29 May 2009