Tower Hamlets Council have announced that the church of St. John, Wapping, will finally receive a heritage plaque for the gravesite of Thomas Rainsborough (1610-1648).(1) As acknowledged leader of the Leveller cause within the Putney Debates, he became known as Colonel Rainsborough in Cromwell’s New Model Army, where he served with great courage and distinction, finally being killed in a commando raid to seize him at the siege of Pontefract (1648). At the Putney Debates, held in 1647, the constitutional structure of the England that was to come was decided – it represented the fighting out of the different ideological positions among the coalition that formed the rebel forces of what kind of cause they were truly fighting for. As has often been remarked in the historiography of the English Civil War, like with any revolutionary cause the rebels soon split between a radical and a more reformist wing. Unlike in the case of the later French or Russian Revolutions, it did not wholly come to force to decide the matter between them, but the Putney Debates foreshadowed the dominance of the reformist wing against the radical – perhaps inevitable given how much some of the radical demands were ahead of their time.
Lacking the simple military and class power to enforce such radical demands, the Levellers, and their even more radical cousins the Diggers – among whom the famous anarchist theorist Gerrard Winstanley – nonetheless made up for their lack of power with great rhetorical skill and agitational zeal. While the Diggers fought hard to undo the fait accompli of the first round of the enclosure movement by changing the ‘facts on the ground’, the Levellers agitated for a democratic system with all power vested in a House of Commons based upon universal suffrage. It was none other than Rainsborough who expressed this democratic viewpoint in one of the more famous radical speeches of English history:
For really I think that the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live as the greatest he; and therefore truly, sir, I think it’s clear that every man that is to live under a government ought first by his own consent to put himself under that government; and I do think that the poorest man in England is not bound in a strict sense to that government that he hath not had a voice to put himself under…
Against this was arrayed the power of the Parliamentarist gentry, those who had a quarrel with the absolutism of the Monarch and the threat of Catholicism, but did not seek a more thoroughgoing democratic reform. For them, such as the revolutionary leaders Cromwell and Ireton, the vote could not be but based on property in land, based on the old aristocratic argument of the ‘permanent fixed interest’ represented in that landownership. When the King fled and arrayed forces against the New Model Army, the exigencies of the Civil War put an end to the period of democratic demand – it would not be the last time that the effect of the war waged by the counterrevolution would be a militarization of the revolutionary forces that would, in time, ever more constrain the space for the revolutionary process itself and repress many of the original aims of the revolt. Nonetheless, Leveller demands remained strong among the yeomen farmers and common people that made up much of the New Model Army, such that Cromwell had to repress several mutinies against his and his colleague Fairfax’s command. Characteristic here was the fight between the Agitators, the radical soldiery, and the Grandees, the higher officers drawn from the gentry classes. The radical Leveller, John Lilburne, represented (if you will) the far left wing of the organized revolutionaries, with Rainsborough being ‘moderate among the radicals’.
The English Civil War, and its ideological expression in the Putney Debates, have often played a significant role in radical history-writing. In much Marxist scholarship on the topic – of which there is a considerable amount – the English Civil War up to the period of the Glorious Revolution is often seen as the first example of the classic ‘bourgeois revolution’, or sometimes the second after the Dutch revolt against the Spanish monarchy. The emphasis within this interpretation has often been on the radicalism of the Levellers, inspired by the religious or even millenarian traditions of the Reformation and its Christian egalitarianism. Of course, this being the 17th century, such a radical movement necessarily would have been inchoate and unable to formulate any clear break through existing social relations, fixed as these still were within the bounds of aristocratic rule, mercantilism, and enclosing agriculture. The necessary outcome of such a process could only be the leadership and ultimate victory on the side of the emerging coalition of improving gentry, larger farmers, and city merchants, ultimately accepting the compromise of a monarchical restoration yet on the basis of a much reduced power for the old nobility and crown.
Yet, the Levellers also took much inspiration from other traditions, such as the influence of classical Republicanism and the equality of the virtuous citizens ancient Rome was seen to exemplify, no doubt appealing to the yeomen, small merchants, and other ‘free men’ of (small) independent means that formed the basis of the Leveller movement. The fully dependent classes, such as labourers, domestic servants, agricultural labour and so forth could not be included in such a vision, as they could not be in the classical world.(2) We must therefore not overstate the radicalism of the Leveller cause – too often the importance of establishing a revolutionary tradition, and with it the legitimacy of revolution as a popular movement for political and social change in the 20th century, has led Marxists to overenthusiastically enlist various movements into a proto-socialist cause that they could not have identified with. That is not to deny the reality of such a revolutionary tradition – indeed, virtually any country will have its share of radicals who at times moved beyond the confines of the ‘normal’ and saw a vision of a more radically free and democratic future than the economic and political relations of their time permitted.
The point of this is to establish, in Mao’s words, that “it’s right to rebel”. But the dangers of presentism are real, beyond mere historiographical ones: there is a considerable history of attempts to enlist English or French revolutionary traditions into a social-democratic chauvinism, and equally Trotskyist historiography has tended to criticize such appropriations as contributing to ‘Popular Frontism’, i.e. deprioritizing the interests of working people in favor of a radicalism that appeals to many middle class radicals as well. Whatever the merits of this last critique – which seems to me rather a stereotype of the actual Popular Fronts – it is worth being cautious. Yet, the relatively strong focus on the English Civil War period among radical historians of the past century or so is not a mere hobby of English crypto-patriots. Indeed, Christopher Hill already noted as early as the 1930s the strong interest among Soviet historians in the ‘English Interregnum’ as a struggle of nascent bourgeoisie, small masters and small peasants against large landowners and the Church.
The religious questions of the day, much emphasized against the Marxist interpretations by the liberal and conservative historians, were given great emphasis by the Soviet interpreters as well: the split between Presbyterians and Independents appears as a split between the old, mercantilist, commercial capital – with its monopolies and organized guild privileges – and the new capital operating outside the traditional economic and cultural confines of the post-feudal order.(3) The case of the English Civil War certainly establishes, therefore, the rich possibilities offered by Marxist interpretation of dealing with religious questions as well; although here too we should be cautious of simplistic ‘representational’ schemes. But on the whole, such a model, while itself perhaps more an ideal type than unvarnished truth, is the archetype of the ‘bourgeois revolution’ and the enduring relevance of this concept for understanding our present world has been well re-established by Neil Davidson.
What then is the enduring significance of Thomas Rainsborough and the Levellers? It is perhaps this, as one reviewer summarized the radical history of the period provided by Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Redeker: “The resistance of those whom the earliest capitalists would tolerate only as “hewers of wood and drawers of water”… On the eve of the English revolution of 1640, the Herculean victories [sic] of expropriation and exploitation of the commoners and the masterless (defined globally to include the slave trade and the New World colonies) were neither inevitable nor fully secured.” Indeed, one significant link that connects the Leveller struggle in the person of Rainsborough himself with the larger struggles of exploited people is the question of the slave trade and colonization: Rainsborough was an early and ardent opponent of slavery.(4) As so many radical movements before their time, they made a revolution only to be defeated by it, but that does not mean their example should be forgotten. It is not just a question of memory and morale: history is not a book whose twists and turns of plot and overarching narrative are known in advance. Rather, it is in and through such moments of revolt that the boundaries of what the structure of our world can contain become known.
2) Samuel Dennis Glover, “The Putney Debates: Popular versus Élitist Republicanism”. Past & Present 164 (1999), p. 47-80.
3) Christopher Hill, “Soviet Interpretations of the English Interregnum”. The Economic History Review 8:2 (May 1938), p. 159-167.
4) “Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker, The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic. Review by: Kathleen J. Higgins”. The American Historical Review 107:5 (Dec 2002), p. 1529.