The Levellers were liberal democrats – not socialists


Geoffrey M. Hodgson


If you wish to cultivate an image of being principled and politically pure, then avoidance of policy details, plus a good dose of historical ignorance, can be very useful. You may conjure up figures from past history and recruit them to the cause of your choice.

Perhaps unwittingly, Jeremy Corbyn acquired these methods from his mentor Tony Benn. Their shared cause, or course, is socialism. But its details must be kept vague and the statist pill must be sugared with ample use of the word “democratic”. Not too much thought must be applied to how the “democratic” bit works in practice.

Tony Benn and Jeremy Corbyn

Ignorance of history is an asset. You find some radical heroes who have opposed injustice, inequality, and the status quo. Don’t go into too many details. It might prove embarrassing. Simply suggest that because of their radical energy these radicals must have been, or they were on the way to becoming, “democratic socialists”.

It’s even better if you can go back in history long before there was any movement calling itself socialist – long before the word was invented. Then you can do a bit of hand-waving with phrases like “their ideas were moving towards democratic socialism” or “what would they think today?” with less fear of contradiction.

After all, if they were true and principled radicals, then they must have been moving in that direction. Socialism is obvious. Isn’t it?

The English Civil War

The English Civil War of the 1640s is a good hunting ground for your heroes. In a book published in 1980, the veteran Labour Party MP Fenner Brockway declared the seventeenth-century Levellers and Diggers as Britain’s First Socialists. His friend Tony Benn had already located them there. Jeremy Corbyn followed their cue.

The English Civil War erupted in 1642, as a conflict of authority between the King and Parliament. King Charles I claimed to rule by divine right, deriving his sovereignty from religion. By contrast, Parliament professed to represent the will of the people. But only a small minority of males had the right to vote in parliamentary elections. Women had no vote.

Parliamentarians and Royalists warred throughout Britain until the defeat and execution of Charles I in 1649 and the installation of a republic under Oliver Cromwell.

The Civil War stimulated seminal debates concerning power and authority. There was a growth of dissident Protestant groups, who saw the established Protestant Church of England as too hierarchical and conservative.

These widening schisms forced the question of the legitimation of government authority onto the immediate agenda.

Political ideas of the Levellers

Prompted by debates over what to do with the monarchy and the King after his defeat, a major political movement developed within the Parliamentarian army. They were called Levellers.

Participants in the earlier anti-enclosure uprising in the Midlands in 1607 had been called “levellers” because they levelled hedges and fences.

The Levellers of the 1640s were given this nickname by their enemies, and they repeatedly repudiated the description. They often protested that they were not promoting the “levelling” of landed estates or any general redistribution of property.

The Levellers emphasized popular sovereignty, an extended male franchise, equality before the law, and religious tolerance. They believed in natural and inalienable rights, bestowed by God.

The inalienability of these rights put limits on the powers of any majority in Parliament, because democracy cannot stifle inalienable rights. But otherwise they were strong supporters of democracy.

While they defended private property, they railed against undemocratic tyranny. Hence their position was different from some modern libertarians who, while generally supporting liberty, argued on occasions that if private property rights were threatened, then democracy might justifiably be replaced by temporary dictatorship.

From 1647 to 1649 the Levellers published a series of manifestos entitled The Agreement of the People. The Levellers were the first political movement in Europe to call for the separation of church and state and for a secular republic.

Authority would be vested in the House of Commons rather than in the King or the House of Lords. Specified “native rights” were declared sacrosanct for all Englishmen: freedom of conscience, freedom of worship, freedom from impressment into the armed forces, and equality before the law.

The Levellers argued for a constitution based upon an extended manhood suffrage and biennial Parliaments. But they did not advocate female suffrage. And as C. B. Macpherson noted:

“the Levellers consistently excluded from their franchise proposals two substantial categories of men, namely, servants or wage-earners, and those in receipt of alms or beggars.”

Oliver Cromwell and the Levellers

The Levellers were influential in Cromwell’s army. At a rendezvous near Ware in Hertfordshire on 15 November 1647, two regiments carried copies of the Agreement of the People and stuck pieces of paper in their hat-bands with the Leveller slogan “England’s Freedom, Soldiers’ Rights”.

With swords drawn, Cromwell and some of his officers rode into their ranks and ordered them to take the papers from their hats. One of the soldiers was swiftly executed for mutiny.

Putney Debates 1647

Siding with the Levellers in the Putney Debates of 1647, the parliamentarian Colonel Thomas Rainsborough argued that both the rich and poor had a right to a decent life, and that “every man that is to live under a government ought first by his own consent to put himself under that government”.

Burford Churchyard Memorial

But in 1649, Rainsborough was killed, Leveller-led army mutinies in London and Oxfordshire were crushed, and Cromwell effectively destroyed the Levellers as a political force.

John Lilburne

John Lilburne, the Leveller leader, came from County Durham. He was originally a Puritan and he later converted to Quakerism. Arrested in 1637 for circulating unlicensed pamphlets, he was fined £500, whipped, pilloried, and imprisoned.

John Lilburne

During the Civil War, Lilburne served as an officer in the Parliamentarian army. For his agitation against the Cromwellian authorities he spent several more years in prison.

Lilburne coined the term “freeborn rights”, defining them as rights with which every human being is born, as opposed to rights bestowed by government or by its laws. He advocated an extended male suffrage, equality under the law and religious tolerance.

Asked in a 2015 interview with the New Statesman to identify the historical figure he most admired, Corbyn named John Lilburne. In a talk in the same month, Corbyn wrongly hinted that Lilburne was a socialist. In fact, Lilburne was a liberal, although that political term was not in use at the time.

Lilburne explained in 1647 that the term “Leveller” applied to him and his party, only in the sense of equality under the law, namely their “desire that all alike may be levelled to, and bound by the Law”.

But much later their socialist admirers assumed that they wished to “level” all property as well. There is no basis for this supposition in Leveller writings.

The Levellers and common ownership

The Levellers declared that rights to liberty and property were innate to every person. Individuals had rights over their thoughts and bodies, without molestation or coercion, and everyone had the natural right to own private property. The Levellers did not promote common ownership, except when it resulted from the voluntary pooling of the property of everyone involved.

Generally the Leveller leaders did not campaign against the enclosure of common lands. Instead they upheld legally-acquired rights of property. The Marxist historian Christopher Hill pointed out that the Levellers “sharply differentiated themselves from the Diggers who advocated a communist programme”.

A defence of private property and a rebuttal of “levelling” appears in the final, May 1649 version of the Leveller Agreement of the People, in a passage addressed to Members of Parliament:

“We therefore agree and declare, That it shall not be in the power of any Representative … [to] level men’s Estates, destroy Propriety, or make all things Common.”

Even if representatives in the legislature were democratically elected, they did not have the right to overturn individual rights to property.

Lilburne’s arguments against common ownership

Likewise, Lilburne was repeatedly obliged to rebut the charge that the Levellers desired to “level” all property. He wrote in 1652:

“In my opinion and judgment, this Conceit of Levelling of property … is so ridiculous and foolish an opinion, as no man of brains, reason, or ingenuity, can be imagined such a sot as to maintain such a principle, because it would, if practised destroy not only any industry in the world, but raze the very foundation of generation, and of subsistence or being of one man by another.”

Lilburne then explained why this was so:

“For as industry and valour by which the societies of mankind are maintained and preserved, who will take the pains for that which when he hath gotten is not his own, but must be equally shared in, by every lazy, simple, dronish sot? Or who will fight for that, wherein he hath no interest, but such as must be subject to the will and pleasure of another, yea of every coward and base low-spirited fellow, that in his sitting still must share in common with a valiant man in all his brave noble achievement?”

Lilburne concluded:

“… those men in England, that are most branded with the name of Levellers, are of all in that Nation, most free from any design of Levelling, in the sense we have spoken of.”

As well as rebutting the charge of “levelling”, Lilburne here defended the institution of private property in terms of its incentives for “industry” and maintaining “subsistence”. If everything were “equally shared”, then the “lazy” would benefit as much as those “who will take the pains”, thus diminishing incentives for individual effort. Incentives to work hard would be lessened.

The 1/n problem

With the above words, Lilburne pointed to the crucial problem of scale in all communistic ventures.

It is a version of what economists call “the free-rider problem”. As the size of the community increases, the free-rider problem can be exacerbated. If the number of people in a working community that shares its income is n, then individual incentives to contribute to community output are very roughly in proportion to 1/n.

As n increases, the extra effort of any single individual is rewarded less, because the output from extra effort is shared between n people. We may call this the 1/n problem. As far as I am aware, Lilburne was the first person to identify it.

Crucially, at low values of n, such as in a family or in a small cooperative, incentives to work hard can be enhanced by face-to-face mechanisms involving reciprocity, trust, commendation, satisfaction, shame, scorn or punishment.

These social mechanisms are effective because they have evolved in human tribes over millions of years. Elinor Ostrom’s case studies of the community management of common pool resources show what is feasible in more recent settings.

Elinor Ostrom

Hence some form of socialism may work on a small scale. But at higher levels of n these interpersonal mechanisms become relatively less effective. Other incentives, involving money and property, are required.

The Levellers on free trade and (state) monopolies

The Levellers advocated free trade. For them, the basic division in society was not between workers and owners of property: it was between the rich and influential – who profited from (state and other) monopolies and government favours – and the rest of the people. A clause in the May 1649 version of The Agreement of the People tells Parliament:

“That it shall not be in their power to continue or make any Laws to abridge or hinder any person or persons, from trading or merchandizing into any place beyond the Seas, where any of this Nation are free to trade.”

Leveller leaders Lilburne, Richard Overton and William Walwyn attributed the existence of low wages to monopolies, restrictions on trade, and excise taxes.

In 1652 Walwyn presented to the Parliamentary Committee for Trade and Foreign Affairs a defence of free trade against the Levant Company, urging the abolition of monopolies and trade restrictions. Walwyn saw free trade as a common right, conducive to common good.

The Levellers and Diggers contrasted

Yet the myth that the Levellers promoted common ownership persists. Tony Benn often mentioned the Levellers favourably, but he ignored their strong commitment to private ownership, and instead suggested that their arguments pointed to “common ownership and a classless society”.

An entertaining four-part television series set during the English Civil War entitled The Devil’s Whore (released in North America as The Devil’s Mistress) has Rainsborough speaking in favour of common ownership, without any objection from Lilburne.

There is no historical evidence to sustain such depictions. They are fantasies promoted by Benn, Brockway, Corbyn and others.

By contrast, the Diggers opposed private property. From 1649-1650 groups of Diggers squatted on several stretches of common land in southern England. They set up communes whose members worked together on the soil and shared its produce. The Digger leader Gerrard Winstanley published a series of pamphlets advocating common ownership of land.

The Diggers

Winstanley regarded the institution of property as a limitation of the freedom of others. Land was bestowed to all by God. Unlike the Levellers, Winstanley criticized trade, because it led to cheating and discontent. He envisioned an agrarian society, in which all goods would be communally owned, and all commerce and wage labour would be outlawed.

Hence the Levellers and Diggers had very different ideological positions. The Levellers advocated individual autonomy, private ownership and free trade. Although they appealed to religion, they saw democratic legitimation as the source of government authority. By contrast, the Diggers proposed a rigid, small-scale, religiously-inspired, agrarian communism.


The Levellers were political theorists as well as activists. They helped to develop the intellectual foundations of Enlightenment liberalism.

Unlike later liberals such as Thomas Paine, they did not advocate a welfare state. Unlike John Stuart Mill they did not call for female suffrage. Unlike twentieth century liberals such as John A. Hobson, John Maynard Keynes and William Beveridge they did not advocate substantial state regulation in a mixed capitalist economy.

But the Levellers were liberals and democrats nevertheless. Their arguments against large-scale socialism remain pertinent today.


11 October 2017

This book elaborates on some of the political issues raised in this blog:

Published by University of Chicago Press in January 2018



Benn, Tony (1976) ‘What would the Levellers do Today?’ 15 May.

Brailsford, H. N. (1961) The Levellers and the English Revolution (London: Cresset Press).

Brockway, Fenner (1980) Britain’s First Socialists: The Levellers, Agitators and Diggers of the English Revolution (London: Quartet).

Hampton, Christopher (ed.) (1984) A Radical Reader: The Struggle for Change in England, 1381-1914 (Harmondsworth: Penguin).

Hill, Christopher (1975) The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas During the English Revolution (Harmondsworth: Penguin).

Hodgson, Geoffrey M. (2017) Wrong Turnings: How the Left Got Lost (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, forthcoming).

Macpherson, Crawford B. (1962) The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism: Hobbes to Locke (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

Manning, Brian (1976) The English People and the English Revolution, 1640-1649 (London: Heinemann).

Morton, A. L. (1975) Freedom in Arms: A Selection of Leveller Writings (London: Lawrence and Wishart).

Ostrom, Elinor (1990) Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

Otteson, James R. (ed.) (2003) The Levellers: Overton, Walwyn and Lilburne – Works by these and by other British Levellers (Bristol: Thoemme Press).

Robertson, D. B. (1951) The Religious Foundations of Leveller Democracy (New York: Kings Crown Press, Columbia University).

Woodhouse, A. S. P. (ed.) (1951) Puritanism and Liberty: Being the Army Debates of 1647-9 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press).

October 11th, 2017 by