25 October 2016

Roots of British (and American) Radicalism: not what you think

David Lindsay remarks, in the context of a forthcoming book about the Levellers by John Rees, that the Radical tradition in Britain has its roots not in the revolutions of 1688, 1776 or 1789, or indeed even in the regicide of 1649, but instead in something far older, and at the same time far more amenable to the claims of High Toryism.

What we now consider the ‘hard left’ (as opposed to the bourgeois lifestylist, identitarian movement falsely identified as the ‘left’) actually traces its provenance back past all of these bourgeois revolutions and into the long, coöperative and collectivist peasant resistance against the enclosures movement. By which standard, of course, such a traditionalist and High Tory icon as King Charles I of England himself can and ought to be regarded as a forerunner of the ‘hard left’ alongside Gerrard Winstanley.

He is also quite right to trace this Radical-Tory confluence (with its backing of causes like the abolition of slavery, factory reform, extension of the franchise, action against substance abuse and gambling) into the campaign of Jeremy Corbyn (a flawed messenger for a grand tradition), into the Stop the War Coalition, into the left-wing case for Brexit and into other forms of resistance to the neoconservative war agenda and to the neoliberal economic order.

All of this is quite true. And what’s more, it’s true not only in a British context but in an American one as well. Many of the Quakers who took up a neutral stance after 1776, and the Germans, Hungarians and Scots who took up the opposing side in favour of the Crown, drifted westward along with their fellow-settlers in the wake of their defeat, and later took an active role in the radical political awakening of the prairies. What’s more, the radical American greenbackers made common cause and shared ideas – important concepts like social credit, distributism, coöperative economics – with British and Canadian radicals, who were their natural allies, collaborators and ideological and literal kin.

There is indeed a strong Middle American tradition which blends the best of British radicalism and the best of British High Tory moralism, and which serves as a natural analogue of the Canadian Red Tory tradition, should we ever see fit to recover it. Bernie Sanders has already provided – similarly to Jeremy Corbyn on the other side of the pond – a partial, imperfect voice to this noble tradition and shown us how deeply it appeals to even the staid and conservative areas of Midland America; it will be up to those of us locally in the Plains states not only to carry on the Radical torch but to set the prairies ablaze again.


  1. While I'm sympathetic, this sounds like really bad history. This is a telos of now driving backwards, linking up movements and actors, smoothing over substantial differences.

    I'm a historian by trade who's research interest involves radical Jacobites. You're right to say they form a proto-"Left", but they were not the men who became the High Church party and the Tories by and large, though there is some sharing and overlap of ideas at certain points.

    The Quakers were not pro-Tory, but were many times pro-Whig. The American Revolution saw a majority of North Americans remain neutral and only particular regions inched toward independence for numerous reasons. The Hanoverians were Whig monarchs, and there is historical work done on whether North American colonists were actually more English than Englishmen, and represented a more conservative political strain. Thus Loyalism has nothing to do with Toryism or Whiggery and has to do with much more complicated factors.

    And Bernie Sanders, while drawing upon, faintly, the populism of Prairies reform movements, is not really Left, as many Socialists point out. Protectionist and shoring up the welfare state does not make a true Leftist, especially since it keeps the core of American imperialism in tact.

    I'm interested in this book about Levellers though.

    I'm sorry to burst the bubble, but appealing to a tradition is a temptation that sometimes fudges differences and distinctions to make a compelling argument. In the instant of doing it, truth and critical care for the past becomes, easily, a form of propaganda.

    with friendship,

  2. Hello, Cal! Thank you for the comment!

    I'm afraid I have to disagree with you on several points, but I appreciate the note of caution you're sounding here. Wang Hui and Christopher Lasch have inspired me to the work of 'uncovering' long-buried intellectual traditions, and of making points-of-contact between disparate tendencies that can mutually enrich each other. It's true that this project can be taken too far.

    But I'm going to break my response to you up into several parts, so that you can understand better where I'm coming from.

    The Jacobites: Obviously, I think we agree about the radical tendencies in the Cavalier camp during the English Civil War, and in the peasant uprisings which followed 1688. (And, by the way, I'm eager to get any reading recommendations on the radical Jacobites from you!) But I think there's a far richer tradition that links the Cavaliers / Jacobite risings with the later High Church party than you seem ready to recognise: a tradition that runs through folks like Samuel Johnson, Jonathan Swift, Beilby Porteus, Richard Oastler, the Romantic poets - all of whom gave strident, even radical opposition to the Whiggish tendencies of their government whilst still holding to certain traditionalist loyalties of 'altar, cottage and throne'.

    Regarding the Quakers and 1776: here you are on more defensible ground, but I think, still missing the forest for the trees. It is true that some very high-profile Quakers joined the revolutionaries. But, just as the revolutionaries were not evenly distributed amongst the colonies, neither were the Loyalists; and the Quakers were overrepresented among the Loyalists. My own ancestors were among the Quakers who were listed as enemies of the revolution.

    This is Robert Middlekauff's assessment of Loyalist composition:

    The largest number of loyalists were found in the middle colonies: many tenant farmers of New York supported the king, for example, as did many of the Dutch in the colony and in New Jersey. The Germans in Pennsylvania tried to stay out of the Revolution, just as many Quakers did, and when that failed, clung to the familiar connection rather than embrace the new. Highland Scots in the Carolinas, a fair number of Anglican clergy and their parishioners in Connecticut and New York, a few Presbyterians in the southern colonies, and a large number of the Iroquois Indians stayed loyal to the king.

    That said, you're right to caution against conscripting the Loyalists as either radicals or consistent Tories in the Old World sense. Even George Grant, the tribune of the Canadian Red Tories, acknowledged that the original Loyalists were basically 'straight Locke with a dash of Anglican piety'. But they provided the gesture in a more radical direction, that prepared the ground and sowed the kernel for later manifestations of Canadian and middle-American populism. This is why the Loyalist tradition is important, and why it needs to be connected to the Populist heritage.

    Regarding Bernie Sanders, I'm in agreement with you. Hence, 'partial' and 'imperfect'. He's a New Deal Democrat; which is why he appeals to the prairie-populist tendency, even though that tendency goes much, much further in its critiques of high finance, the monetary system, industrial policy, agricultural policy, the military industrial complex (&c., &c.) than Bernie did.

    I'm all for making subtle distinctions, but it's still important to note continuities and confluences where they exist.


    1. Thanks for the response:

      Per the Jacobites & Toryism: The lines are just more complicated. There are literary figures that you mention above that yoke a kind of Toryism to Peasantry. Being crowded out from William's government, the new Tories took up the trope of the Country that had been previously deployed, in some measures, by liberal-ish proto-Whig types in the Stuart periods. But intellectual tradition and propagandistic trope can be confused for one another. Both Whigs and Tories appealed to the country people and English liberties, but many people see it mostly as a rhetorical slice. Later Romantics transformed this into an ideal.

      The nascent Tories formed from certain Jacobites, whether closeted or presumed, but the legacy of High Church polity also becomes a game of politics. The Non-Juring schism makes this very interesting. Besides certain poets and literary figures, there's little solid "tradition", except as a post-facto cobbling. It's ok to do this, crafting an ideological vision of the way things ought to be, but it doesn't reflect history on the ground in most cases.

      Quakers: The development of American Quakers reveals them to be actually pretty Whiggish. The Keithian Controversy shows this in terms of theology, but this is apparent in the hierarchical management of Philadelphia into an international port (which, if one reads Billy Smith's book, is depressing). Like I said, the Hanoverians were, by and large, pro-Whig monarchs and there is a strong-case to be made that some agitation by the colonists was because North Americans had become more English than England. This is an interesting phenomenon in colonial societies. Anyway, Benjamin Franklin many times look far more Tory than his loyalist counterparts. Adherence to the king does not a Tory make!

      And further, different groups of immigrants took up different position on the Revolution for various reasons. While some Germans tried to remain neutral, it was a tough sell sometimes. The Moravians are a good case example of this, whose leaders were by and large Loyalist, but many youngsters ran off to muster drills, even when threatened with church sanctions.

      My point is, Loyalism and Toryism are distinct political positions and phenomenons.

      I say all of this as someone who is highly sympathetic to your idea of Leftist Realism, even if I (for theological reasons) hold loosely to my political ideas. I sometimes jokingly call myself a red tory, because I have a lot of respect for common law, traditional hierarchies, and local level communalism. It's my pursuit for a ruthless truth that keeps me from drawing lines I'd like to draw, but I am open to correction! My own research hopes to find this, though in somewhat strange ways.