Monday, 11 April 2016

The Original Levellers

Gerrard Winstanley and The Levellers

"Was the earth made to preserve a few covetous, proud men to live at ease, and for them to bag and barn up the treasures of the Earth from others, that these may beg or starve in a fruitful land; or was it made to preserve all her children?" (Gerrard Winstanley)

The Levellers are coming to the Jersey Folklore Festival

They are a Folk-rock band, and the festival has more to do with folk music than with folklore. So don’t expect any sayings from the Levellers of folk and history! So who were the original levellers?

The Levellers were early Christian radicals whose ideas helped to shape the American and French revolutions, and inspired generations of socialists. Along with the Diggers, they promoted a fairer more equal society.

I first came across them in the writings of Tony Benn, who has this to say about them:

“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.”

“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.”

Tony Benn is an interesting socialist because while much of the roots of English socialism came from Marx and Communism, there was a strand which did not. Orwell saw this plainly, and himself forged a blueprint for a democratic socialism opposed to Communism, which he saw in practice led to dictatorship and suppression of anyone who spoke against the State.

Benn also sought to find roots for his socialism not in Marx but in the early English traditions, and in particular in the “Levellers” and “Diggers”, groups with what was then seen as a radical agenda, giving expression in the aftermath of the English Civil War.

The Levellers took their own roots from the Bible, which they applied not merely to a private religious domain, but saw as a universal ideal. As one pamphlet stated:

“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...”

The Digger leader, Gerard Winstanley, wrote in his pamphlet The True Levellers' Standard Advanced, published on April 26th 1649. This quotation shows how they looked back at the creation stories of the Old Testament, and made them their own:

“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...”

But by 1650 the Levellers' movement had been effectively crushed.

They were not complete democrats (they didn't advocate universal suffrage for servants or women), but in the striving for a more equal society, they made a very English contribution to later socialism.

And while we might not go as far as they do with their disregard for money, we can also take note of a society in which money is made very much into an idol, where bankers and traders who nearly brought economic ruin go free, and not only go free, but start once again their same old ways of a bonus culture that is still out of control, without proper safeguards.

"Money must not any the great god that hedges in some and hedges out others, for money is but part of the Earth; and after our work of the Earthly Community is advanced, we must make use of gold or silver as we do of other metals but not to buy or sell."

That was signed by Gerrard Winstanley and 44 others in "A Declaration from the Poor Oppressed People of England Directed to all that Call Themselves or are Called Lords of Manors"

1 comment:

James said...

Tony Benn is an interesting socialist because while much of the roots of English socialism came from Marx and Communism, there was a strand which did not.

It was long ago said by Morgan Phillips, then General Secretary of the Labour Party, that socialism in the UK owed more to Methodists than it ever did to Marx.