Talking About the New Jerusalem: A Potted History of English Radicalism
Including an interview with Leon Rosselson
(This is the eighth article in the Exploring Englishness series.)
It is a cliché of commentary on the English that they are innately and immovably conservative, and yet it is often difficult to see why. It may be partly due to the fact that most descriptions of Englishness have been written either by members of the Establishment, whose vested interests in perpetuating this idea may have skewed their perspectives, or by foreigners who, observing the well-defined class gradations and apparent tranquillity of English society and comparing it with more turbulent polities, have concluded that the feelings of the common people must be in sympathy with those of their rulers. Of course, it has never been quite as simple as that. While there have certainly been numerous common people with a classically feudal mindset, the awareness, first of the oppression that followed the Norman Invasion, and then of the inequalities inherent in industrial capitalism, has also produced a number of rebels.
The long history of articulate and angry, left-leaning English radical politics begins centuries before the Industrial Revolution, and interacts with the English utopian tradition that started with Thomas More. The following summary will necessarily be only an outline, with numerous omissions and generalisations, of a long and extremely complex story. While it focuses on the home-grown elements of English radicalism, this is not meant to minimise the profound influence that Marxism and other Continental radical movements exerted on English political thinkers during the industrial age. This article also cannot examine the connection between radicalism and religion, but it can be said that radicalism was usually linked either to Non-Conformism, particularly Methodism-this was especially true of the North of England—or, in London, to a free-thinking popular tradition that nurtured a range of philosophies, from mysticism to sceptical rationalism. Throughout the article, the term 'radicalism' will be used to denote ideas and attitudes which, in the context of their times, were left-leaning and anti-Establishment, although there is also such a thing as Tory radicalism. The goal is neither to promote nor repudiate radicalism, or portray the English as a nation of political firebrands, but to emphasise radicalism's significant contribution to English political discourse, by creating a chronological collage of snippets from the movement's major figures.
English radicalism first found real expression in the late thirteenth century, in the discourse surrounding the Peasants' Revolt of 1381. Although the rebels were immediately provoked by wage-fixing and what they felt to be unfair taxation, they also demanded an end to serfdom, the system whereby agricultural labourers were effectively bound to their feudal lords. The tone of the radical arguments surrounding the rebellion can be gleaned from this record of a famous sermon by John Ball, one of the Lollard preachers, who were followers of the church reformer John Wyclif. It was set down by the extremely hostile chronicler Jean Froissart, who describes Ball as "A crazy priest in the county of Kent….who for his absurd preaching, had been thrice confined in the prison of the archbishop of Canterbury." Ball's argument, though a simple one and based on references to the Bible, was profoundly radical for the time: "My good friends, things cannot go on well in England….until every thing shall be in common; when there shall be neither vassal nor lord, and all distinctions levelled; when the lords shall be no more masters than ourselves. How ill have they used us! and for what reason do they hold us in bondage? Are we not all descended from the same parents, Adam and Eve? and what can they show, or what reasons give, why they should be more the masters than ourselves?"
After the rebellion was put down, popular radicalism went underground for a while. During the fifteenth century, two members of the Establishment produced utopian works, perhaps the first instance of what has now become a familiar English pattern in which certain privileged people sympathise with the poor and agitate for reform. The first of these books, and the most famous, is Thomas More's Utopia, published in 1516. In it, he describes an ideal community in which everyone works, everyone shares according to need in the fruits of the general labour, and there is considerable (though certainly not perfect) religious toleration. Great controversy surrounds the question of whether More, as a courtier and a persecutor of Protestant 'heretics,' could seriously have envisaged the replacement of the status quo with such an order, and indeed there are numerous jokes in the book which seem to warn the reader not to interpret it as a manifesto. Nevertheless, More does seem to have been sincere in using the Utopians' comparatively humane society as an ideal (in the sense of unattainable) template against which to contrast the cruelty of the contemporary English justice system, and English society's vast wealth disparities, exacerbated in many places by the 'enclosures,' the fencing-off of the common grounds that peasants had previously used to get the extra tiny bit of sustenance that, in some cases, meant the difference between life and death. The scale of Utopia's vision later made it an inspiration to many English radicals, and to dreamers of ideal societies in general, not only in England, but also on the Continent. Later on in the sixteenth century, Thomas Starkey produced A Dialogue between Pole and Lupset, which reiterated many of the social criticisms that appear in Utopia and speculated about the possibility of sweeping reform.
The chaotic English Civil Wars period of the mid-seventeenth century saw the next great flowering of popular radicalism (although there were a number of enclosure riots in the earlier part of the century). This period produced a number of distinct and fairly coherent radical ideologies developed by the common people. The Levellers, mainly from London, were a group of tradesmen from the lower-middling orders, many with sectarian religious backgrounds. They wanted democratisation through the abolition of the rule that a man must own property in order to be allowed to vote (they did not envisage extending the vote to women, and some wanted to exclude servants or paupers from the franchise). They often agitated for the abolition of the monarchy and the House of Lords, as well as for equality before the law and freedom of religion for religious groups outside the (at this point Presbyterian) state church. As one might expect, they also wanted an end to the restrictions on the commercial activities of smaller tradesmen that were the product of the great London merchants' overweening political power. At the risk of sounding glib, it could be argued that they essentially wanted a liberal democracy with freer trade, expressing the frustration of their social order with the dominance of the aristocratic, church and commercial elites: "a plain quiet-minded man in any place in England is just like a harmless sheep in a thicket -can hardly move or stir but he shall be stretched or lose his wool," exclaims the Leveller pamphlet A remonstrance of many thousand citizens. As there was no real leader (although there were a number of prominent members, including John Lilburne, William Walwyn, and Richard Overton), the Leveller umbrella sheltered a variety of opinions. The fundamental principle of the group's ideology, however, which they all shared, is best expressed by the outburst of an angered Army Leveller, Colonel Thomas Rainborough, in the famous Putney debates:
"For really I think that the poorest he that is in England has a life to live as the greatest he; and therefore truly, sir, I think it's clear that every man that is to live under a government ought first by his own consent to put himself under that government; and I do think that the poorest man in England is not at all bound in a strict sense to that government that he has not had a voice to put himself under….I should doubt whether he was an Englishman or no that should doubt of these things."
Rainborough also evokes the idea of the free-born Englishman, which became very common in later debates, particularly during the late eighteenth century: the Englishman is born with certain rights, and the government is wrong to try to take them away from him. It is not at all difficult to find a consistent programme amongst the Diggers, since they had one leader, Gerrard Winstanley, one of the most original thinkers of that or any age. Convinced that "the earth should be made a common treasury of livelihood to whole mankind, without respect of person," Winstanley and his followers began by asserting the people's right to the common lands that were being stripped from them, establishing a model agricultural community to work the waste lands at St George's Hill in Surrey in 1649. Unlike the Levellers, who defended the idea of private property, the Diggers spoke against it. In The World Turned Upside Down Christopher Hill argues persuasively that the Diggers in fact represented the class below the tradesmen who made up the Levellers, speaking for servants, the destitute, and the bonded peasantry. It is impossible to do justice here to the extraordinary scope of Winstanley's vision, but it included democratic socialism with no private property or wage labour, intellectual freedom, an end to organised religion, universal education for both boys and girls, university education available to all on the basis of merit (Winstanley was highly critical of contemporary academia, complaining that "the secrets of the creation have been locked up under the traditional, parrot-like speaking from the universities"), and, perhaps most startling of all, a free, nationwide health-care system. Winstanley wanted to make England "first of the nations," but he was also an internationalist, believing that wars would cease through other countries' imitations of the benign new English order. His unorthodox theology (he believed that God = Reason) made him look forward to a literal heaven on earth: he believed that humanity's Edenic existence had been ended by the advent of private property, causing the Fall. If private property were abolished, these events would be reversed, and Paradise could be regained.
It was also during the mid-seventeenth century that the theory of the Norman Yoke became fully developed. Interestingly, in the Putney debate, Rainborough's anger is partly provoked by his opponents' argument that the political legacy of the Conquest is legitimate—that is, those who lost the franchise through the Conquest should not have it returned to them. (The idea that pre-Norman England was a more democratic society is very common in English radicalism.) The radical interpretation of the Conquest was first mooted by Lollard preachers such as John Ball, to portray the ruling classes as alien invaders who had taken away the people's rights by force of arms. In retrospect, the pre-Norman era seemed a lost, almost paradisiac state. In the Norman Yoke theory, Englishness often becomes the exclusive property of the conquered, and the aristocracy are viewed as eternally and irredeemably foreign -so that it can have a xenophobic edge. Winstanley showed ambivalence about the Norman Yoke idea, but he sometimes conflates the Biblical tale of the Fall with the experience of the Norman Conquest, so that pre-Norman England becomes the Garden of England. The Norman Yoke theory was to prove remarkably durable; versions of the idea can sometimes still be found in the radical discourse of our own time, such as in the work of Billy Bragg.
Some ecstatic groups, such as the Ranters, emerged at roughly the same time as the Levellers and Diggers, but they cannot be called political theorists, although they were certainly social and religious rebels. The Ranters rebelled against the Puritanism that the middling orders were currently trying to impose on the rest of society. They registered their resistance by swearing (or 'ranting,' as it was then called) loudly, frequently and publicly, and practising free love. Because they exhibited many of the same behaviours as the non-Puritan aristocracy, Hill believes that they were in fact joining forces with them to resist the restrictive new mores. Whatever the explanation for the Ranters, their revolt against sexual repression would be echoed by some later English political radicals, including William Blake.
The next great phase of popular radicalism came during the second half of the eighteenth century, during the 'Wilkes and Liberty' affair of the 1760s-70s. The Wilkes affair is too complicated to discuss here in detail, but suffice it to say that the London mob asserted itself in defence of the freedom of expression, supporting John Wilkes, a radical (and a rake) who had got himself in trouble with the law by first attacking one of the King's ministers in print, and then by circulating a lewd poem. On the strength of his popularity with the mob, Wilkes was elected to Parliament numerous times. There, he agitated for parliamentary reform, and won the right of printers to print parliamentary debates. In later life, however, he became noticeably conservative.
Then in the 1790s, against the backdrop of the French Revolution, the great reform societies appeared, focussed on constitutional reform including the expansion of the franchise. The most prominent was the London Corresponding Society, founded in 1792, which opposed Britain's war with France. In his article on the London radical James Parkinson, elsewhere in this edition, Dr Fred Donnelly provides a snapshot of the history of the LCS. The Society's members connected political disenfranchisement with economic inequality. Interestingly, although the ideal of an agrarian socialist community had somewhat faded, the Norman Yoke theory was still alive and well amongst radicals of the time. Tom Paine, the English radical whose Common Sense had earlier helped to inspire the American Revolution and was very popular in England during the 1790s, described the Norman Conquest in the strongest language yet: "A French bastard landing with an armed banditti and establishing himself King of England, against the consent of the natives, is, in plain terms, a very paltry, rascally original. It certainly hath no divinity in it….The plain truth is that the antiquity of English monarchy will not bear looking into."
Along with the war with France, the Terror phase of the French Revolution, in which numerous aristocrats and political prisoners were guillotined by the French Revolutionary government, turned the English public against home-grown radicals. Nevertheless, this period of political radicalism left important traces in English culture, influencing the poet William Blake, among others (Shelley is another notable example). Blake's poem Jerusalem was for a long time the anthem of the Labour Party, before it was strangely adopted by the Conservatives. A metaphor for radicalism, it envisages building the Utopian holy city of Jerusalem—mentioned in the Bible's book of Revelation, and not to be confused with the real Jerusalem—in "England's green and pleasant land," portraying sexual freedom ("Bring me my arrows of desire!") as one of the necessary tools.
The first half of the nineteenth century was marked by industrial and rural unrest, including Luddite machine-breaking in 1812 and the Captain Swing riots of 1830, both aimed against the introduction of machinery that was putting men out of work. William Cobbett was a major political critic during this time, though he has often baffled commentators, since he began as a Tory and ended as a Radical (and some view him simply as a Tory Radical). During his 'radical' phase, he advocated parliamentary reform and democratisation, to counteract the effects of the industrial and agricultural revolutions, which meant that "We are daily advancing to the state in which there are but two classes of men, masters, and abject dependants." He argued for "social rights," including "the right to live in the country of our birth; the right to have a living out of the land of our birth in exchange for our labour duly and honestly performed; the right, in case we fell into distress, to have our wants sufficiently relieved out of the produce of the land, whether that distress arose from sickness, from decrepitude, from old age, or from inability to find employment." He was, however, anti-Semitic, a prejudice that would occasionally taint the writings of later radicals, such as J. A. Hobson, the critic of imperialism.
In terms of radicalism, the latter half of the nineteenth century was dominated by William Morris, an artist, designer, and political visionary. Inspired by the idyllic beauty of Cotswold villages, Morris dreamt of a utopian, socialist, rural community. In News from Nowhere, published in 1890, he imagined the London of the future greened over, with an economy based on the sharing of resources and common ownership of the means of production, and a society distinguished by mutual caring and respect between its members. Morris answered the common objection that people in a socialist society would not be motivated to work without the possibility of personal material gain, by arguing that if work were made meaningful and enjoyable, this would inspire industriousness and work would become a pleasure, rather than a chore. In many ways, Morris hearkens back to earlier English radicals. There are echoes of the anti-enclosure critique in the reflection, by one of the inhabitants of the new London, that at the start of the social transformation which led to this idyllic state of affairs, "People flocked into the country villages, and, so to say, flung themselves upon the freed land like a wild beast upon his prey; and in a very little time the villages of England were more populous than they had been since the fourteenth century."
There is a profoundly nostalgic element to Morris's socialism and art, inspired by his idea of pre-industrial England, particularly during the Middle Ages. Alienated by industrialisation and urbanisation, he began his verse romance The Earthly Paradise with the following poem:
"Forget six counties overhung with smoke, Forget the snorting steam and piston stroke, Forget the spreading of the hideous town; Think rather of the pack-horse on the down. And dream of London, small, and white, and clean, The clear Thames bordered by its gardens green."
Morris is arguably the last great dreamer of English radicalism, though the movement was to enjoy unprecedented influence in the twentieth century, through the electoral victories of the Labour Party and the founding of the post-war welfare state, a project in which Labour for a while obtained the co-operation of the Tories. Of particular interest on the intellectual front during the twentieth century are the new socialist historians who emerged in the fifties and sixties, including E.P. Thompson, Christopher Hill, and Eric Hobsbawm. The most famous work of this school is Thompson's The Making of the English Working-Class, published in 1963. Itself the product of a mind steeped in the English radical tradition, it examines not only how industrialisation shaped the common people into a working-class, but also the ways in which they actively reacted to this process, formulating social and political protests against it, and thereby contributing to the development of their own class-consciousness. In the preface, Thompson announces his objective with the following celebrated sentence: "I am seeking to rescue the poor stockinger, the Luddite cropper, the 'obsolete' hand-loom weaver, the 'utopian' artisan, and even the deluded follower of Joanna Southcott, from the enormous condescension of posterity." Thompson was also a leftist critic of the Labour Party, a driving force in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, and one of the founders of the New Left, which formed in reaction to the invasion of Hungary by the Soviets in 1956.
Thompson is not the only recent left-wing thinker to have drawn inspiration from the English radical tradition. A consistent pattern is discernible throughout the history of English radicalism, and that is English radicals' tendency to constantly hearken back, either to an ideal -or at least preferable—past society, or to the ideas of earlier radicals. Those Lollards who encouraged the Peasants' Revolt evoked the vision of a fairer pre-Norman polity, the agitators of the mid-seventeenth century revived this idea and developed it into the theory of the Norman Yoke, and radicals of the late eighteenth century drew on it and on Leveller arguments against the property qualification for the vote. Morris wrote a fictionalised account of the Peasants' Revolt entitled A Dream of John Ball, and E. P. Thompson produced works on William Morris and William Blake. Likewise, references to English radicalism appear in modern-day popular culture, particularly in punk and its offshoots: Billy Bragg is the most obvious current example, naming an album William Bloke and recording an unrepentantly Essex rendition of Jerusalem, in his recent memoir providing his own radical interpretation of English history as a long-drawn out battle for the rights of the common person. An extremely durable folk-punk group called The Levellers is still going strong after nearly twenty years.
To gain insight into how modern-day English radicals draw on the English radical tradition, I interviewed the political folk-singer and songwriter Leon Rosselson about his well-known protest song The World Turned Upside Down, based on the Diggers' song. It was released on the album That's Not The Way It's Got To Be, in 1975.
Interview with Leon Rosselson
How were you initially inspired to write the song The World Turned Upside Down?
By three books that I was reading at about the same time. Christopher Hill's [The World Turned Upside Down], of course, plus The Levellers and the English Revolution by Henry Holorenshaw, a 1939 Left Book Club publication, and Left-Wing Democracy in the English Civil War by David W. Petegorsky, also a Left Book Club publication, from 1940. I'm not sure how I got hold of those rather obscure books. I think I was fired up by discovering Winstanley in Christopher Hill's book, and was looking for more information. Petegorsky has a chapter on "Gerrard Winstanley-A Forgotten Radical" (he calls him "the most advanced thinker of the English Revolution") which includes a lot of direct quotations from Winstanley's writings, and it was Winstanley's own writings that I found most inspirational -I managed to find a few of his pamphlets in libraries— and also amazingly relevant. I also read A.L. Morton's The World of the Ranters, which gave rise to my song about Abiezer Coppe [a leading Ranter].
Interestingly, or maybe not, the revival of interest in the Diggers started in Germany through Sozialismus und Demokratie in der grossen Englischen Revolution by Eduard Bernstein, published in 1895. Not many people know that.
When you wrote the song, did you think listeners would generally recognise the historical events that you were singing about? Or was your aim to make them aware of the Diggers' importance?
The latter, I suppose. The song was originally in two parts, as on the original LP, the first part being contemporary tales about property. So I was trying to show that Winstanley's writings were still pertinent today and that there was an English radical and revolutionary tradition (John Ball, Blake, Tom Paine, William Morris) that we can connect with. Songs are, or can be, a way of sharing, of making people feel less alone; to discover that socialist and libertarian ideas are part of a long historical tradition in England fulfils the same function.
What do you think is the significance of the Diggers in the English radical tradition? Do you think they left an enduring legacy, or do they represent a missed opportunity?
The Digger community lasted barely a year. It was constantly under attack and eventually destroyed by the soldiers, the property owners and the clergy, in particular a certain Parson Platt. They were threatened with death if they ever returned to St George's Hill. So there's no doubt who were the victors in that confrontation. And yet who now remembers Parson Platt? The ideas of the Diggers, however, live on. In 1999, the 350th anniversary of the founding of the Digger community, in the posh Surrey towns of Weybridge and Walton a celebration of the Diggers and Winstanley was held in the form of an academic conference, concerts, an exhibition, and a rally on St George's Hill itself, now a golf course. The World Turned Upside Down was sung at the rally, Winstanley's writings were declaimed, and T-shirts proclaiming, in Winstanley's words, that "Action is the life of all. If thou dost not act, thou dost nothing" were displayed. So, yes, the Diggers did leave a legacy (how enduring remains to be seen), particularly among direct action groups.
You've written other songs, such as Bringing the News from Nowhere, which reference other points in the history of English radical thought. Has English radicalism been an important source of inspiration to you throughout your song-writing career? Would you say that the radical wing of the folk song revival were/are generally quite conscious of the English radical tradition?
I guess I see my songs as being in some way part of that radical tradition. I thought William Morris deserved a song because of his beliefs and his ideas and their relevance today. Winstanley's writings and language could be easily absorbed into a song. Morris's style is more literary and doesn't work in song, so Bringing the News ... is about him and his ideas but, apart from the title, does not build on his language. It's interesting that both Morris and Winstanley wrote songs, but whereas You Noble Diggers All is still singable, you can't really sing any songs by William Morris now. I'm not sure there is a radical wing of the folksong revival any more. The folk revival of the fifties and sixties was left wing and politically conscious, folk music being redefined in Marxist terms by Ewan MacColl and A.L. Lloyd as class-based music, the music of the lower classes, and not just those in rural communities. It was espoused by the Communist Party, here and in the States, as the people's music, which it patently wasn't. But it did produce a body of politically aware songs. I don't think that's true any more. In my experience, many folk clubs do not welcome new songs that are seen as 'political.'
Why do you think The World Turned Upside Down became popular when Billy Bragg put out a version of it in 1985?
It wasn't a commercial hit. It just happened to be on the B-side of the Between the Wars single. But Billy Bragg brought it to the attention of a whole different and younger audience who obviously identified with what it was saying. It's one of the simplest, most straightforward songs I've written, which may account for the fact that it's become a kind of anthem for various protest groups here, as well as in the States and Australia.
Many thanks to Leon Rosselson for his time. The interview was conducted by Isabel Taylor.
The following are some books to which I referred for this article, which can be consulted to fill in any gaps in the narrative. The section on the Revolutionary period draws mainly on Hill and Brailsford, while most of the material on the period 1790-1830 derives from The Making of the English Working Class.
Socialism before the French Revolution: A History, William B. Guthrie. The Macmillan Company, New York, 1907.
The World Turned Upside Down, Christopher Hill. Maurice Temple Smith, 1972.
The English Levellers (Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought), edited by Andrew Sharp. Cambridge University Press, 2004.
The Levellers and the English Revolution, Henry N. Brailsford, edited by Christopher Hill. Spokesman Books, 1976.
Common Sense, Thomas Paine. Dover Thrift, 1997 (orig. published 1776).
Socialism, Radicalism and Nostalgia: Social Criticism in Britain, 1775-1830, William Stafford. Cambridge University Press, 1987,
The Poems of William Blake, edited by W. H. Stevenson. Longman, 1971.
William Morris: Stories in Prose and Verse, Poems, Lectures, and Essays, edited by G. D. H. Cole. The Nonesuch Press, 1948.
William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary, E. P. Thompson. Lawrence & Wishart, 1955.
Fabian Essays in Socialism, edited by George Bernard Shaw. The Fabian Society, 1920.
The Making of the English Working Class, E. P. Thompson. Victor Gollancz Ltd., 1963.