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Brian Manning

The seedbed of democracy

(April 1998)

From Socialist Review 218, April 1998.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

A History of Political Thought in the English Revolution
Perez Zagorin
Thoemmes Press £12.99

‘If in time, as in place, there are degrees of high and low,’ wrote the philosopher Hobbes in the 1660s, ‘I verily believe that the highest time would be that which passed between the years of 1640 and 1660.’

It was indeed ‘the highest time’ in the history of political thought. It is difficult to find another period which brought forth such a range and depth of political thinking. This was the result of the acute political conflicts and social struggles of the time. It gave voices for the first time to people of the subject classes, ‘… the beastly Laws of the World, opens the mouth wide, for those that have a large purse to plead their Cause, whilst the poor are sent empty away’, but ‘… the Laws of God sayes, Open thy mouth wide for the dumb ... and plead the Cause of the poor and needy.’

It is, therefore, very welcome that this book by Perez Zagorin, which was first published in 1954 but remains one of the best accounts of political thought in the English Revolution, has been reprinted in a series of Key Texts: Classic Studies in the History of Ideas. It is a clear, succinct and penetrating study, written with passion. It is not the conventional survey of ‘great thinkers’, although it contains powerful essays on Hobbes, Harrington and Milton, but it embraces Levellers and Diggers, as well as a seminal analysis of republicanism and a sympathetic account of the Fifth Monarchists (millenarians who expected the Second Coming of Jesus Christ to establish his kingdom on earth).

The structure of the book is interesting, because it passes over the debates between royalist and parliamentarian propagandists during the civil war, and begins with the Levellers and Diggers, thus locating the English Revolution in the great radical outbursts of 1647–49.

Zagorin interprets the revolution as the seedbed of democracy. His starting point means that he places political ideas in the social context and in relation to demands for social reforms. It is uncertain how far the failure of the radical revolution was due to the imprisonment of the people in a world of inherited ideas and habits, and an inability to believe that they could change the world. Or as Zagorin argues, was it due to the failure of the Commonwealth and Protectorate in the 1650s to implement the social reforms demanded by the radicals to remove the bias of legal proceedings in favour of the rich; to abolish tithes (the tax which supported the established church); and to convert copyhold land tenures into freeholds?

In the end it became a pertinent question whether military rule or government by a small oligarchy of self seeking politicians was preferable to a Stuart restoration.

The political thinking forged on the anvil of revolution remains highly relevant today. It was class conscious. ‘Who are the oppressors, but the Nobility and Gentry; who are oppressed, is not the Yeoman, the Farmer, the Tradesman, and the Labourer?’ asked Laurence Clarkson, addressing the people in 1647. Adding, ‘Your slavery is their liberty, your poverty is their prosperity.’

The Levellers explained the various oppressions and different forms of exploitation experienced in isolation by individuals, small groups, particular localities, by relating them all to an unjust political system which gave power to wealthy landlords, rich merchants, and their attendant lawyers and clergy. They sought to decentralise political power and bring it under popular control.

But the Diggers recognised that political democracy was impossible without economic democracy, and what Zagorin calls ‘the eternal inseparability of political liberty and economic equality’.

Fifth Monarchists and others called for a redistribution of wealth: ‘to redeeme again the Vineyard of the poor, which the Ahabs of the earth have taken away; to take away an house from them that have many and a field from them who have plenty of more, to appoint them for a Portion to supply them that have none, until ... he that hath most, hath nothing too much, and he that hath least, have nothing lacking, that so ... the Land may grow up towards her true Sabbath, where she shall no more bring forth her children to Oppression and Bondage.’

Of course, there were limitations to the Levellers’ conceptions of democracy – they excluded the poorest in their society and they gave insufficient attention to agrarian questions; the Diggers’ condemnation of private property in land ran counter to the aspirations of the peasant majority; and the Fifth Monarchists relied on divine intervention to bring about the social revolution and looked to give power to a self appointed oligarchy of religious fundamentalists.

But together, as Zagorin makes clear, they broke the mould of inherited political ideas, which was one of the things that made the English Revolution, as he says, a decisive event in history. In the 1650s the democratic impulses were diluted, distorted, abandoned. The legacy includes undemocratic principles, which were implemented, and democratic principles which have yet to be accomplished.

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