The English revolution


During the English Revolution [in the 17th century] some of the central issues of politics were fought over and argued through in a way that brought to the fore those who had been held down by the feudal system...

Looking back three hundred years and more to the events of that period it is astonishing -- and deeply satisfying -- to note that many of the basic questions which we still debate today were raised and fought over by a group of men and women who called themselves the Levellers and who succeeded in formulating a structure of constitutional ideas that was to become the basis for the French and American revolutionaries.... Even more remarkable were the Diggers, or True Levellers, who established the clear outlines of democratic socialism, including a demand for the common ownership of land, for equal rights for women, for an accountable Parliament and for the provision of public services in health and education.

The Levellers not only advocated democracy for society, they applied it to their own organization, again extraordinary in the far-away seventeenth century when authoritarianism and bureaucracy were the order of the day...

An astonishing feature was the speed with which each section of the party worked -- petitions printed at an underground press, 10,000 signatures collected in two days, presented to Parliament the third day; pamphlets by their leaders continuously smuggled from prison, printed clandestinely, distributed widely...; the massive turn-out at marches organized on an immediate issue within a few hours....

The Diggers not only held socialist principles, but they put them into practice.... Wherever common lands were occupied, egalitarian communities were established, all working, all sharing. Bravely they withstood the raids of gangsters recruited by the landlords angry that the common land which they had arrogated for the grazing of their cattle should be used in common.... Finally, by the intervention of the state and the courts, they were defeated.

Britain's First Socialists, pages 145-151

The radical democrats of the seventeenth-century English revolution held that "it will never be a good world while knights and gentlemen make us laws, that are chosen for fear and do but oppress us, and do not know the people's sores. It will never be well with us till we have Parliaments of countrymen like ourselves, that know our wants." But Parliament and the preachers had a different vision: "[W]hen we mention the people, we do not mean the confused promiscuous body of the people," they held. With the resounding defeat of the democrats, the remaining question, in the words of a Leveler pamphlet, was "whose slaves the poor shall be," the King's or Parliament's.

Quotes above are from The World Turned Upside Down, by Christopher Hill (Penguin, 1984), pages 60, 71; Necessary Illusions, page 23


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