“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” so said George Santayana, so conversely it can be assumed that those who understand the past can be inspired by it. This seems to be the unmentioned subtext of John Rees direct and informative talk about the Levellers and the complex political, social and religious upheavals of the mid 17th Century. Far from being a distant pocket of history that has little bearing on the world today, he argues, this is the most crucial turning point in British and to an extent, global politics.
Although monarchs and the nobility have a long history of power play, infighting, assassinations and usurping each other’s thrones, this was the first time in history that the common man had cried “treason” against the king and subsequently tried and executed him. But as always, beyond the binary struggle we often view such events as being, as John explains in his confident tones, there was so much more taking place.
There was a changing relationship between rich and poor, property became a political idea rather than just a materialistic one, there was a breaking of the social hold of the church, a rise of subversive, underground printing as a form of covert communication, outbursts of sexual freedom, purposeful blasphemy and the formation of a myriad of social and political splinter groups. And none were more important than The Levellers.
All through out the middle of the century, before, during and particularly after the first round of Civil War, they were the militant force in society, the army and parliament, the pressure group who forced the execution of the king rather than settling for a more conservative reduction of powers. But once they had won that battle they found that they had merely replaced one absolute power with another. The monarchy had not given way to democracy but martial law.
John’s talk was rich in information, confidently delivered and totally engaging and the Q&A session afterwards explored some wonderful tangents. What would the world look like if The Levellers had achieved their goals rather than been defeated by their new masters? What is their legacy? Who are The Levellers of today? And a lively debate ensued.
Whilst there have been a handful of books putting the Levellers and their associates under the spotlight, John Rees’ wonderful new book, The Leveller Revolution is nothing if not timely. The pressures building in society today around personal freedoms and political direction may have closer parallels with the period than we realize.
Let’s end with another familiar quote…”history is written by the winners,” yet we always seem to find ourselves taking inspiration from the underdogs.