Thursday, 8 December 2016

The Maddest Christmas I Ever Saw (The Leveller Revolution)

Dear Colleagues,

A strange title indeed for one of my last posts of 2017, but this is the title of the first chapter of The Leveller Revolution: Radical Political Organisation in England 1640-1650 by John Rees. Recently published by Verso this is one of the few books, as the title suggests, which argues that the political organisation of the Leveller movement was a central feature of the civil war.

This new, authoritative account of the Levellers explores also an important dimension of modern political/social movement analysis, which is that it is the actions of people, not just new/different ideas, which is central to driving change. As Rees charts particular ideas, like popular sovereignty and republicanism did indeed gain popularity during the 17th century, but this was largely a reflection of the active organisation of popular power in the Leveller’s own structures, and those of the rank and file of the army. Without all that, the ideas would have remained vanishingly marginal.

There is a sound, critical review of the new book in web version of Counterfire by Dominic Alexander. Hopefully I won't get into trouble by copying an extract from this below. The entire review is at:

There is an ideological preference among mainstream historians to prefer to see ideas as leading the way towards actions, but one of the lessons of this account of the revolution is that it was events and activity which paved the way for new ideas to emerge and become popular. Hence, while conventional historiography tends to present the secular radicalism of the Levellers as emerging almost out of nowhere, it makes much more historical sense to root the development of their ideas in the background of longstanding radical activity.

The Levellers were pioneers of revolutionary mass organisation, and if their movement was not a political party in a modern sense, they did at their height have party-like features, such as appointed treasurers and dues-paying members (pp.339-49). It was precisely through such organisation that ideas such as republicanism, which had been a vanishingly fringe notion before the civil war, became popularised and powerful. Many historical accounts over the years have attempted to dismiss the Levellers and their role, and even to claim that they were simply an amorphous collection of differing individuals within a wider, loose radicalism of the late 1640s. John Rees’ highly readable account thoroughly debunks such dismissive conceptions, and puts the Levellers at the centre of the revolution, where they deserve to be.

Please read the full review of the book, and consider it also a well-deserved Christmas present for yourself. My personal recommendation is that, those interested in the analysis of radical political organisation in modern movement practice, have much to learn (as ever) from historical analysis. Rees has helped support that process.

In Solidarity


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