Thoughts on economics and liberty

We are all Levellers now – and we don’t even know whom to thank for it

Being untrained in political thought (having learnt a little bit through readings incidental to my study of economics), I keep discovering new things all the time as I read snippets here and there.

I had read, in passing, about the Levellers, but did not appreciate their IMMENSE influence on modern political thought until I read the essay on John Lilburne by Jim Powell in his book, The Triumph of Liberty – a book about which I've commented a number of times by now. (Let me reiterate that Powell's is a MANDATORY bedside book for all liberals. It is large but very readable, being divided into 64 chapters which deal with 64 key thinkers and doers of liberty. I read one or two snippets from it periodically when I get the time, in between the fifteen other half open books by my bedside.)

Powell's essay on John Lilburne is extremely powerful and evocative. John Lilburne suffered greatly for his forthright ideas on liberty (even Oliver Cromwell, who was instrumental in saving his life once, found his egalitarian views intolerable). He was fined, whipped, pilloried, tried for treason, sedition, controversy, libel. He was imprisoned in the Tower, Newgate, Tyburn, and the Castle [Source]. The abolition of the Star Chambers was entirely due to John Lilburne's work. He died at the young age of 43, weakened by the many tortures inflicted on his body by the English king AND Parliament.

But before that he had written tens of pamphlets and entirely changed (along with John Milton and others) the beliefs among the common people of England about who they were (namely, sovereign individuals, not 'subjects' of a king). Without John Lilburne having established the foundations of liberty, John Locke could not have emerged.

I cite from Powell: "He championed private property, free trade, freedom of association, freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, a rule of law, a separation of powers, and a written constitution to limit government power. Lilburne helped to bring these dynamic ideas together for the first time in history."

John Lilburne (1614-1657)

Many of his pamphlets are now available on the internet. Time permitting I will read and extract key sections from them. But in the meanwhile, here is some ready information (cut and paste) on the Levellers: 

The Levellers were a group of English reformers mainly active during the period from 1645 through 1649, who originated many of the ideas that eventually became provisions of the U.S. Constitution, especially the Bill of Rights. Inspired by the Petition of Right of 1628, and led by John Lilburne, beginning as a lieutenant of Oliver Cromwell, they initially supported the Protectorate, but then turned against it when Cromwell failed to make the reforms they demanded.

The response was the prosecution of most of its leaders, who were either imprisoned or executed.

Their proposals continued, however, to inspire political philosophers and future generations of reformers. They appear to have influenced their contemporary, Thomas Hobbes, and later writers such as James Harrington and John Locke.

Their proposals were revived during the Revolution of 1688 to produce the English Bill of Rights in 1689, which led to the Whig party in Britain that supported many of the reforms for Britain sought by the Americans during the War of Independence. [Source]

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Books on Lilburne:

A few public essays on Lilburne:

Some journal articles on John Lilburne:

Some of Lilburne's pamphlets:

  1.  John Lilburne, 'On the 150th page': An untitled broadsheet of August 1645
  2. John Lilburne, Postscript to The freeman's freedom vindicated. 16 June 1646 (also here)
  3. John Lilburne and others, The petition of 11 September 1648
  4. John Lilburne, England's new chains discovered. 26 February 1649
  5. William Walwyn, and on behalf of John Lilburne, Thomas Prince and Richard Overton, A manifestation. 14 April 1649
  6. John Lilburne, William Walwyn, Thomas Prince and Richard Overton, An agreement of the free people of England. 1 May 1649
  7. John Lilburne, The young men's and the apprentices' outcry. 29 August 1649

Please send in links to other useful info. Much appreciated.

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5 thoughts on “We are all Levellers now – and we don’t even know whom to thank for it
  1. Charu

    Some background here. The levellers were a group that came out of the English revolution and civil war. The term leveller referred to their defiance of 'enclosure'– the practice of local aristocracy to enclose fence off village lands. Prior to this, the majority of village lands consisted of  'commons' that anyone could farm, and pay a rent/tax to the state based on the production. Starting in the 13th-14th centuries, with enclosure, the aristocracy made a land grab that  effectively gave them a stranglehold on the primary means of production of the time- land [comparable, say to the way communist party cronies became oligarchs in post Soviet Russia by grabbing control of state owned industries].
    The term leveller refers to the practice of the group to tear down or 'level' fences and hedges that enclosed formerly common land. Many of their ideas were indeed liberal, but many were clearly socialist.

     
  2. Sanjeev Sabhlok

    Thanks, Charu. Very useful information. I’ll hopefully get the time to understand British history a bit better some day.

    Indeed, I am sure it is quite easy to progress from the concept of being a leveller of some sort (where everyone is treated the same – what Lilburne argued, I gather) to everyone being equal economically. We can see that tendency in the French revolution which had the data about John Locke and Voltaire’s proposals (and their implementation in England – no matter how imperfect) but chose the pernicious society that Rousseau then created in his mind – which opposes merit and demands the elevation of mediocrity to the top on grounds of a higher equality.

    It was like the overshooting of a pendulum, perhaps. In the fight against control by the aristocracy, feudalism overshot the balance for a while. It is acknowledged, though, by many, that there were many extremely ideas in the thoughts of the levellers which influenced the British society more generally, and hence Locke – and, through him, Jefferson. In DOF I document other precedents to Locke as well, like Milton and Cromwell. It does seem to me, however (without having read his work), that he was the first to bring together a number of related ideas and offer them to the common man through prolific pamphleteering. He was a doer, a leader par excellence by my definition. A quick read of his biography will persuade you that he literally fought for his ideas – which Locke did not, and only Jefferson did, later.

    S

     
  3. Sebastian Orlander

    I would be very careful with characterising Lilburne and the Levellers as being capitalist. Coming from a historical materialist perspective (read Marxian), the Levellers seem to occupy a position closer to the industrial proletariat than the budding capitalists that Marx was seeing through the transitions from late feudalism, through the rise of mercantilism and similar transitional/early capitalist economies up until his day. The Levellers were all working middle class, i.e. not propertied, thus had no voice in the power structure conferred upon those that either held property or were monied.
    Another problem that arises from your reading of history is the lack of emphasis, even leaving out, of the role of the state in the public welfare. I do think that one can see this as one of the most important English language precursors to the ideas articulated in the American Revolution, mainly because of this Republican emphasis on the public welfare, of course guaranteed by a more or less "liberal society", but with marked difference with Locke's moral/political philosophy. I do think that Locke's influence, although somewhat obvious to at least early on in American political philosophy, should not be overestimated considering the profound influence that Leibniz's thought had on thinkers like Benjamin Franklin later on, which from my reading is in line with the focus on natural law that the Levellers articulate and is carried through American political thought even up until this day, even making its way into MLK's speeches and political action. Overstating the Levellers emphasis on freedoms would be a mistake and would definitely blur the line too much between the real differences of Locke and the Levellers. Locke as a representative thinker of financier oligarchs with his work for Lord Shelburne and the British East India Company along with his very questionable monetary policies in the Bank of England definitely do not correspond to any lineage traceable to the Levellers preoccupation with public welfare.

     
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