There was no other way to deal with these men, but to break them to pieces ... if you do not break them, they will break you.” - Oliver Cromwell
On 17 May 1649, three soldiers were executed on Oliver Cromwell’s orders in Burford churchyard, Oxfordshire. They belonged to a movement popularly known as the Levellers, with beliefs in civil rights and religious tolerance.
The name “Levellers,” like most party names (e.g., “Lollards,” “Anabaptists,” “Quakers,” “Whigs” and “Tories”) was originally a nickname applied in scorn and derision. The Levellers were those who demanded, so early as 1647, that the “whole body of the People” should make the people’s laws. During the Civil War, the Levellers fought on Parliament’s side, they had at first seen Cromwell as a liberator, but now saw him as a dictator. They were prepared to fight against him for their ideals and he was determined to crush them. Over 300 of them were captured by Cromwell’s troops and locked up in Burford church. Three were led out into the churchyard to be shot as ringleaders.
The Levellers were the most energetic and uncompromising faction in the English Revolution, with a short life taking shape in 1646 to be crushed by Cromwell’s dictatorship in 1649. The English Revolution was the revolution of the rising capitalist class against the monopolies and other restraints on free competition of the feudal-monarchic state in which many sections of the country gentry were capitalist, rearing sheep on land from which the peasants had been driven. Thus in 1640 they were able to combine with the merchants and lead the yeoman farmers and the artisans and apprentices of the town.
The Levellers started as a propaganda group and transformed themselves into a party as their influence extended and the revolutionary movement mounted. The Levellers linked themselves with the rank-and-file of Cromwell’s New Model Army. They supported elections of soldier’s delegates and the agitation of the soldier’s committees which took up their grievances and favored a popular militia, democratically controlled. Most of the Agitators in the revolutionary army either belonged to the Levellers or were inspired by their ideas. Both the Cromwellians and the Levellers moved forward to a Republic. The Cromwellians wanted a regime in which sovereignty was concentrated in the hands of the large property owners. The Levellers demanded a democratic republic based upon the power of the people and responsive to their demands.
Their religious, political and economic ideas expressed the interests and outlook of the artisans, apprentices, shopkeepers and similar lower middle-class and working-class elements in the cities and the yeomen in the country districts. The"far left” was occupied by the dispossessed peasants who formed the agrarian communist sect of the Diggers who recognised that political democracy was impossible without economic democracy. However, the Diggers’ condemnation of private property in land ran counter to the aspirations of the peasant majority. By contrast, the Levellers were opposed to “making all things common,” defended the rights of private property, and called for free trade. The Levellers called for sweeping democratization of both Church and State. Among the religious reforms were full freedom of religious belief, separation of Church and State, the suppression of tithes; among the political reforms were a constitutional republic, annual election of a Parliament responsible to the people alone, general manhood suffrage; among the legal reforms, the right to a trial by jury, no star-chamber hearings, no capital punishment or imprisonment for debt; among the civil rights, freedom of the press and no license on printing. In their day such doctrines were audacious and revolutionary.
The mass petition was the principal means they used to inform and arouse the people. These petitions containing the demands of the people were widely circulated for signatures, submitted to Parliament, and backed up by meetings and demonstrations. In March 1647 a great petition was presented to the Commons. It called for the abolition of tithes, for the abolition of the Merchants Adventurers Co., for relief to imprisoned debtors and assistance to the poor, for limitations on fees of all judges, magistrates, lawyers and government officials. It demanded the abolition of the veto power of the King and the House of Lords. The Commons ordered the petition to be burnt. Lilburne who had hitherto been a fervent admirer and supporter of Cromwell broke with him for his subservience to Parliament, denounced the Parliament as a tyrant and oppressor and called for a new constitution and new elections. Lilburne, himself at one time a soldier, now turned to the army’s the rank and file. A popularly elected soldier’s Council argued about the Army’s political programme on level terms with the Generals.
Both the Cromwellians and the Levellers supported a republic but the Cromwellians wanted a regime in which power was concentrated in the hands of the large property owners. The Levellers demanded a democratic republic based upon the power of the people and responsive to their demands.
The Levellers were the first to encourage women to participate in political activity. In one of the petitions offered in their name the women asserted that they had “an equal interest with the men of the nation in its liberties and securities.” They did not go so far, however, as to demand female suffrage.
Although only active for only a few years on the stage of history, the Levellers left a durable imprint on the development of democratic thought demonstrating how a revolutionary group which itself never attains the heights of power can nevertheless profoundly affect the course of a great revolution and fertilize progressive tendencies for centuries thereafter.
Marx and Engels knew that the Levelers were before their time and said so often, but they wrote also:
“We find the first appearance of a really functioning Communist party in the bourgeois revolution at the moment when the constitutional monarchy is removed. The most consistent republicans, in England the Levelers, in France, Babeuf, Buonarroti, etc. are the first who proclaimed these ‘social questions.’” - The Moralising Criticism and Critical Morality.
SOYMB May 2013