The True Levellers
The English Civil War, placing into power Lord Oliver Cromwell, left the people of England in confusion and turmoil. In combination with a series of bad harvests and a growing population, many groups rose up with new solutions to the common problems. One such group, the True Levellers, or Diggers as they were also called, gained support from the peasant populations who were under the oppression of rich landowners and wealthy nobles. While it is difficult to pinpoint the radicals’ exact beliefs, it is fair to say that many of their ideas were far ahead of their time. Ideas such as the abolishment of property ownership and buying and selling showed hints of communism, while beliefs of toleration and education for the masses paralleled those of the Enlightenment. But, by threatening the established order of government, economics, and religion, the True Levellers found themselves under much criticism from the upper classes and from Oliver Cromwell himself, perhaps accounting for the lack of popularity of the group and eventually its extinction.
The True Levellers themselves were generally those peasants who had felt the burden of the recent bad harvests and wanted the lands of the wealthy for themselves. They were grouped together because they shared similar beliefs, but with no proclaimed leader or codex, it is nearly impossible to convey what the group believed as a whole. In fact, it was very much left up to the individual to decide what his beliefs were and then act on them. Therefore, varying degrees of radicalism came out of those called and those who called themselves True Levellers. When analyzing, however, it is easiest to look at the most radical and most outspoken of the group, people like Gerrard Winstanley, and then to draw conclusions from their personal beliefs.
Generally speaking, the True Levelers wanted to “level out” all society. The group as a whole believed that all men should be equal in all things, for equality meant freedom. Along these same lines, the True Levellers wished to rid society of its most vile aspects—competition, jealousy, greed, and oppression among others, and sought as well to protect the poor from the rich, often referred to as “Thieves by Act of Parliament,” making laws to protect their wealth and position in society only. Without such evils, the True Levellers believed there would be no crime, no corruption, and therefore no need for government at all. Such ideas, of course, threatened the security and status of the more wealthy who still had great influence in matters of government and law, but each idea was quite radical nonetheless.
Ideas on agriculture and economics played a key role in the beliefs of the True Levellers. Continuing on the concept that everyone was equal by nature, True Levellers often went around tearing down enclosures and setting up communal farms. Equality meant equality in property as well, and True Levellers advocated for the elimination of ownership of property altogether. The group also called for agricultural improvements, refertilizing the waste lands of England in order to counter-act the effects of the bad harvests and famine, calculating that bringing this land under cultivation would allow the country to support ten times the current population. True Levellers also demanded church lands seized under the Disillusionment of the Monasteries to come under the control of the group and be turned into communal farms. In addition, True Levellers wanted to destroy the concept of buying and selling as well, thereby eliminating greed and jealousy in the process.
The religious ideals of the True Levellers only supported their practices in agriculture and the economy. While believing in religious toleration, most True Levellers did not like the Church of England, perhaps because of its connections to the English government. Their version of religion called for a Creator that was both love and reason who was dishonored by those who enslaved others, the wealthy lords of England who only tried to justify the sins of those ancestors who first took land away from the peasants and oppressed them. To the True Levellers, everything was a part of God and God was a part of everything, but His presence was clouded by the greed and inequality of men. To welcome God society had to cast out all vile things, or at least those things the True Levellers considered vile, and live by the nature of things. True Levellers very much believed in the idea of natural rights—equality, community, cooperation. Experiencing the oppressive hand of the nobility, the True Levellers were almost forced to create a new God, one more friendly and supportive of the peasant population.
Very much tied in with religion was the True Levellers’ practices and beliefs in education. Since God was part of everything, it was important to learn everything about the world in order to learn more about God: “to know the secrets of nature was to know the works of God”. Therefore, the True Levellers encouraged scientific exploration and experimentation and relied on reason and the five senses instead of imagination. Imagination, believed True Levellers like Winstanley, created misconceptions, such as the need for government and wealth, that God had not. All people were to be educated, including women and girls. New discoveries were to be spread everywhere immediately—no “trade secrets” were to be kept and no one community was to have an advantage over any other, which protected the country from internal barriers to national unity. Education, quite necessary among the peasants who supported the True Levellers, gave everyone an equal position in society and on the Earth.
Perhaps the most radical of the True Levellers ideas, however, were their beliefs on government. Ultimately, most thought, government would be entirely unnecessary once the causes of human sin had been eliminated—buying and selling, competition, and imagination. In the meantime, however, True Levellers called for some greater degree of manhood suffrage, yet to what degree varied from person to person. Some were looking for full, universal suffrage, while others simply wanted an increase in voting rights. They also believed that the English government should make reforms to prevent the nobility from encroaching on peasant lands and from holding “land monopolies.” Most peasants believed that the power of the nobility had to be curbed, but such reform would not come until many years later.
What the English government and the wealthy nobility did do was quite the opposite of what most True Levellers wanted. The wealthy landowners, who still had a strong influence in political matters, feared a mass peasant uprising and were busy dealing with smaller peasant revolts across England. Fearing that they might have lost their land, the nobility pushed for the True Leveller movement, along with many others, to be suppressed, calling the movement an excuse for criminals and evil men to proclaim themselves equal to in moral standing to the upper classes. Oliver Cromwell himself called the group “a despicable and contemptible generation of men” and felt threatened by the growing support for the True Levellers’ movement among royalist areas and peoples. He, in turn, began to suppress the books and pamphlets printed by some True Levellers, and charged some outspoken members with treason. And, since the increased demand for food was being met by the nobility enclosing land and disregarding the rights of the commoners, saw no need to reform the agricultural system or give the peasants more rights. It was these suppressive actions, combined with the disorganized nature of the True Leveller movement, that accounted for the relatively small following of the group and its quick disappearance.
But, it is the highly radical nature of the True Levellers and their beliefs that make the group so interesting and memorable. The group’s ideas on both the equality of all classes and on the lower class uprising over the upper classes are definitely found in modern Marxian communism, as are the eliminating of buying and selling and property, and the formation of communal farming groups which share both the toil and yield. Yet communism would not take full form until much later in history. On the other hand, the True Levellers also believed in many ideas of the Enlightenment, which would not reach it’s peak until 1750, a full hundred years later. Concepts such as religious toleration, using reason and science to discover nature, and the importance of education were all to be popularized during the Enlightenment, but such thoughts were already appearing among the True Levellers. Yet one question remains: what caused such a surge of truly radical ideas?
Not until a need for change arises do thoughts of change occur. Such a statement is true not only of the radical groups under Oliver Cromwell, but of nearly all social change through history. The True Levellers were looking for change because, in their minds, change was needed—the nobles continued to oppress and encroach the lower classes and the government seemed to have no interest in improving conditions for the average peasant worker. In the aftermath of the English Civil War, peasants were forced to fall back on their own resources and create their own solutions to the problems they faced, which the True Levellers did. And although the group as a whole was unsuccessful at influencing the English government, and, in fact, may have kept people like Oliver Cromwell from wanting to make reforms, the True Levellers are no less important an example of peasant radicalism throughout European history.