Political Radicalism - Levellers and Diggers

The collapse of censorship during the war years allowed the dissemination and development of political ideas that had been fermenting in a number of individuals' minds for some years prior to the outbreak of war. The collapse of censorship restrictions on publication allowed these ideas to spread quickly throughout society. The most prominent of radical political and social ideas were those of the Levellers and the Diggers (or 'True Levellers').

The Levellers were one of the most remarkable developments of the Civil War period. One misconception about the Levellers is that they stood for democracy in the modern sense. Such a concept is anachronistic to the Leveller programme; Lilburne and his followers advocated franchise reform but only for the increasing politicised middling sorts, of which they were part. If their demands for franchise reform had been effected, it would only have marked a small increase in the electorate when compared to the total population. Much of the Leveller argument was theoretical, perhaps most the idea of the sovereignty of the people - while they argued that the people were sovereign above the Crown and monarchy, they did not assert that every man should have the power to elect his representatives.

In 1649, Cromwell and Fairfax willingly suppressed the Leveller mutinies that had broken out in the Army. These two commanders despised the Levellers because of the danger to the stability of the political system and social order they perceived in their ideas. The mutinies were easily put down, and as an example Cromwell executed three of the ring-leaders. Lilburne himself escaped several attempts by the government to convict him on the charge of sedition. However, Lilburne was too great a political threat to the Interregnum governments to be allowed his freedom and the chance to continue publishing Leveller critique of the regime and was therefore kept imprisoned until his death in 1657.

Both the Levellers and the Diggers ultimately failed to realise their social and political ideals. The Leveller movement - which had seemed so powerful - failed to realise its hopes of franchise, legal and educational reforms for several reasons. The first was their lack of a wide base of support for their cause. At the time of its suppression, the movement had only been in existence for three years; furthermore though the leaders of the movement (Lilburne, Overton and Walwyn) managed to attract attention, tat did not facilitate support for their objectives. The Leveller supporters in the Army only managed to attract a small amount of support, which limited further by its restriction certain regiments. Out of an Army that was 40,000 strong barely 800 joined the mutinies in 1649. The essential point concerning the Army is that though it had become politicised by the late 1640s, it was not radically politicised. Most troops' political concerns revolved around how the government would settle it arrears of pay and conditions of service. [Arrears of pay were backlogs in payment of the Army and navy and became an important political issue during the mid-seventeenth century, particularly in the aftermath of the Civil Wars and at the Restoration]. Secondly the conditions that had given rise to the outbreak of Leveller ideas were beginning to pass by 1649. The failure to reach agreement with Charles I and the outbreak of the Second Civil War produced an unstable environment that was exacerbated by economic depression. By the end of the decade harvests had improved, wages risen and prices fallen, and with better conditions the attraction of Leveller ideas declined. The Levellers never really produced a coherent and co- ordinated programme for the reforms they advocated. Though the tracts The Agreement of the People and England's New Chains Discovered articulated impressive ideas, these tracts never amounted to a constitutional alternative. Rather they were scathing attacks against what they perceived as royal and parliamentary tyranny.

Further, the political élite - men of property - were seriously frightened by the Levellers' ideology and the movement would never have found support here. The upheavals of the 1640s were largely political and took place within he political élite. The idea of any power being lost from this largely landed clique was seriously disturbing to such men. That was one side of the movement's narrow base of support. The other was its failure to attract support from the lower orders, by far the majority of the total population and completely without any political power. One historian called the Levellers a seventeenth century 'pressure group' rather than a coherent revolutionary movement and that their focus was more on principles and theories rather than actual power.

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