Thursday, March 17, 2011

Free-Born John by Pauline Gregg

Subtitle: A biography of John Lilburne

(Book Review)

Before I get into the actual book itself, let me start with the subject matter and how I became interested in it.

I first became interested in “The Levellers” when reading “A People’s History of the World” by Chris Harman.
Now, I know I had a number of negative things to say about that book, but in spite of all its flaws there are one or two things Chris Harman does a pretty good job on.
One theme that Chris Harman does a good job of emphasizing is that in any era of history, the bottom rungs of society have never really accepted that their lot is simply to be poor and miserable.

This is notable, because it is in contrast to another view of history: that before the enlightenment philosophers and French Revolution got the mobs all riled up, the idea of political and economic equality never really occurred to people. I had one Latin Professor at college who I remember once espoused this view to us at length, and was at great pains to emphasize to us that we could not try and understand the ancient world by using our modern ideas of equality. Sure, there had occasionally been peasant rebellions and slave revolts, but this did not mean that people like Spartacus believed in equality as a philosophical principle. Spartacus and his like were simply rebelling to improve their own lives. No one back then, not even the lower classes, could comprehend the idea that everyone should be equal.

Harman, I think, does a fairly good job of demolishing this point of view by showing that throughout history the lower classes have not only fought for equality, but (in the instances where their writings have survived) spoken and written in favor of equality. (This is also in accordance with Chomsky’s view that human beings have a natural desire for freedom and equality, and they don’t have to be taught about these things by philosophers.)

To support this view Harman covers numerous rebellions and movements, but one of the more interesting movements that Harman touches on briefly is the Leveller Movement, which occurred in England during the 1640s—something that had been left out of my history education completely, but which I found fascinating. At the time, there was a civil war going on between the Royalists and the Parliamentarians. The Parliamentarians wanted to establish a republican system of government, but one in which only wealth land-owners could vote.
However within the ranks of the common people and soldiery, there emerged several more radical egalitarian movements, such as the Leveller Movement, which believed in universal suffrage and the removal of all social distinctions. Although ultimately unsuccessful, the Leveller’s had great influence in the Parliamentarian army, and for a while were a real threat to Oliver Cromwell and the Grandees (as Parliament's leaders were known). Cromwell and Ireton were even forced to debate the Leveller’s at the Putney debates.

I was curious to find out more about the Levellers after this, but living in Japan at the time I did not have access to a decent English library. And so I did the standard geek thing and wasted a lot of time reading about them on the Internet.
Wikipedia alerted me to the fact that the Leveller Movement had recently been the subject of a British television mini-series “The Devil’s Whore (W).”
At the time, there were several copies of “The Devil’s Whore” up on YouTube (and they might still be up for all I know, if you want to try and watch them yourself) so I tracked down the various parts and sat through all 4 hours of it.
“The Devil’s Whore” retells Leveller history as a sappy romance saga (fellows should be warned ahead of time) and it does get pretty sappy at points. But it also did do a great job of introducing me to Leveller figures such as Edward Sexby, Thomas Rainsborough, and John Lilburne, and for this reason alone I give it a cautious recommendation if you can track down a copy.

Now that I’m back in an English speaking country, and have access to the University library, I decided to try and seek out some actual books on the Levellers.

Once I actually got deep into the library, it turns out that there are quite a number of books dealing with the Leveller movement—about 3 or 4 rows shelves. Some of these books are a bit older, and some of them are published by University presses, but they are out there if you bother to track them down.

Many of them are written in a dry and stuffy academic tone. And a lot of them are analytical history, intent on analyzing the Leveller movement and its causes rather than telling a story.
When I’m reading history for pleasure, I always prefer a book that reads like a story. So I tried to find the most readable book on the subject. After flipping through several books, it looked like “Free-Born John” by Pauline Gregg was the most readable of the bunch.

For the amateur historian, this is a good armchair history. It’s not the best written book I’ve ever come across (parts of it are a bit dry) but for the most part it’s a very smooth read and, like any good armchair history book, reads like a story.

While reading this book, I was a little bit surprised at just how much information existed about John Lilburne’s life. Considering, for example, we know next to nothing about Shakespeare’s life (Lilburne’s near contemporary) I had assumed that historical records for the common people were just lacking for this period. But not so for everyone obviously. Partly because Lilburne (a shameless self-promoter) wrote so much about himself in his published pamphlets, the author is able to reconstruct a pretty detailed history of his life.

But that’s not to say there aren’t a few gaps from time to time, and occasionally the author has to resort to sentences like “It is easy to imagine John Lilburne might have also been with the crowds on that day.” In fact, the first 100 pages or so are filled with speculation about what John Lilburne probably did, almost certainly did, and could not have failed to do.
Also during the first 100 pages the author will fill in some of the gaps in the narrative by writing about the intellectual climate at the time, or even long boring descriptions of what London was like during this period.

Another problem, again not wholly the author’s fault, is the somewhat repetitive nature of John Lilburne’s tale. Much of the book is simply recounting the cat and mouse game between the Leveller’s printing press and the authorities. The Levellers will publish an illegal pamphlet, the authorities will try suppress it and find out who is responsible, the Leveller’s will publish another pamphlet, and the cycle will repeat again. It’s interesting to a point, but some of this might have been better off summarized. (Although reading a book like this does make you appreciate the importance of living in a time and country where freedom of speech is protected.)

Also like any martyr to a cause, John Lilburne spends a lot of his life locked away in jail. And it’s hard to write an interesting biography of someone lingering in jail for years. The author I think does the best that can be expected under the circumstances, and writes about the pamphlets Lilburne smuggled out of the jail, the various friends and enemies he made in the jail, and his ability to sometimes influence outside events from within the jail.
Often, given the turmoil of the period, what is happening outside of the jail is much more interesting than what is happening inside, and the author will jump back and forth between the greater Leveller Movement and Lilburne.

However there are plenty of parts of Lilburne’s life that are fascinating.
The book is also filled with plenty of scenes of court room drama, and because every time Lilburne was up before a court he wrote long pamphlets about his experiences, the entire proceedings are usually documented in surprising detail, and the author has plenty to draw on here for details.

The ever changing relationship between Cromwell and Lilburne is well documented in this book as well. As a member of Parliament, Cromwell actually starts out as an admirer of Lilburne, and is instrumental in freeing him from his imprisonment. As Cromwell becomes more powerful, however, he becomes obsessed with suppressing Lilburne and the Levellers. However, as the book shows, Lilburne and Cromwell still retain some fondness for each other even as enemies. When he perceives Lilburne is no longer a threat, Cromwell is even capable of acts of kindness towards Lilburne and his wife, for which Lilburne writes Cromwell letters gushing with thankfulness.

Throughout the book, John Lilburne comes out as someone who is remarkably dedicated to his cause, and can also be remarkably stubborn in pursuit of his ideals, refusing to be bought out or to compromise. However the author does not gloss over his faults either. She shows him as occasionally egotistical and a self promoter. Also, although Lilburne made his name standing up for the poor and dispossessed, there is one unfortunate incident when he appears to have acted harshly as a landlord towards his tenants, and Pauline Gregg dutifully records this.

And although largely sympathetic to the aims of the greater Leveller Movement, the author also points out some of their ideological shortcomings and inconsistencies. For example, the program which the Levellers introduced and petitioned the government for is hard to classify in terms of ideology. They wanted more government interference in cases where the poor would benefit from government involvement, and less government interference otherwise. They appealed to ancient Anglo-Saxon law in cases where it supported their cause, and appealed to the will of the people in all other cases. Basically their platform was designed to help the poorest members of society, but that was the only consistent thing about it.

(Although this is probably not unique to the Leveller Movement. Probably most political parties have a platform that was designed first to benefit its supporting members, and then try and backfit an ideology onto it afterwards. The same could probably be said about today’s modern Democratic and Republican parties. For example you could really do your head in trying to figure out if Republicans support more or less government interference.)

[An interesting side note here on another of my interests—the history of anarchism. According to this BBC radio show “In Our Time: The history of Anarchism" (link here)--which is totally worth listening to if you’ve got a free minute—the origins of the modern anarchist movement date back to the Levellers. Not that the Levellers actually were anarchists, but they were accused of anarchism by Cromwell and the Grandees because of their constant appeals to the will of the people. This had the effect of putting the word into the political discourse so that later on, in the 19th century, theorists like Proudhon and Bakunin would take what had previously been a derogatory word and use it as a label for their own political philosophy. Or at least so the BBC claims (this may be a slightly Anglo-centric way of viewing what was primarily a Continental movement. I’m not sure the French Proudhon or the Russian Bakunin really read a lot about the English Civil Wars). But for what it’s worth, Pauline Gregg does record the accusations of anarchism used against the Leveller movement.]

Pauline Gregg also takes care to emphasize that the Leveller movement was not socialist, but held private property as a sacred right even while emphasizing political equality. Gregg contrasts the Leveller movement with other groups at the time such as the Diggers (who were actually early Agrarian Communists) and wonders whether the Levellers would have had more success if they had managed to form an alliance with the Diggers.

[Although I should note that apparently not everyone is clear on this point. I've recently had discussions with members of the Socialist Party who have apparently been reading different books than me ("Cromwell and Communism" (A)) and they believe that the Levellers were actually early communists. But my own readings on the internet have confirmed what Pauline Gregg asserts.]

Reading about John Lilburne and the Leveller Movement, a few thoughts did strike while reading this book. I'll just jot some of them down briefly.

1). It was interesting how Christianity was used by all sides on the English Civil War, both those fighting for repressive government and those fighting for people's rights both clearly believe that they had God on their side. I suspect this was probably partly because in the pre-enlightenment era, people couldn't conceive of a world without religion, and so religious terminology was all they knew. I suspect a lot of these progressive movements would use more secular language if the same battles were being re-fought today. But there's no denying that John Lilburne and the other Leveller leaders were just as deeply religious as the Royalists and Grandees they were fighting against.

2). The success of the Leveller Movement was that it so thoroughly infiltrated the rank and file of the army. Because most of the common soldiers were attracted to the ideals of the Levellers, the movement had power.
In fact, if you think about it, just about every successful revolution is successful because it wins over the army. (French Revolution, Paris 1848, Paris Commune, Russia 1917, Germany 1919, et cetera).
The lessons of history are clear that any revolutionary movement which hopes to succeed must involve itself in campaigns for soldiers' rights. This is something that the left has perhaps been neglecting in recent decades, and indeed it is a difficult balancing act to be against the imperialist nature of the modern army, but still trying to recruit its soldiers. But I think it's an issue that deserves more thought than it has been given in recent years.

3). However, despite having support from the rank and file of the army, as well as the London citizens, the Leveller Movement was ultimately defeated. As I was reading this book, I was constantly wondering how they allowed themselves to be defeated despite having so much support, but, as Pauline Gregg tells it, in the end most of the soldiers proved reluctant to mutiny against their established leaders, and the few mutinies that broke out were easily dealt with.
This is probably another all too common theme in revolutionary history. People are so used to submitting to authority figures, that often the movements don't realize how powerful they really are.

One last note:
This book is a bit older—it was published in 1961. I’m sure the history remains the same, but I’m told that in Britain interest in the Leveller movement and the Leveller martyrs revived during the 1970s, and so perhaps a more recent book might have more to say about the Leveller legacy.

Link of the Day
The Fifth Freedom

Bonus Link: On the subject of Cromwell, if you like mixing your history lessons with Irish folk rock, here's the Pogues "Young Ned of the Hill" (A curse upon you Oliver Cromwell)

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