Abiezer Coppe, Selected Writings, Edited by Andrew Hopton, Aporia Press, 1987.
by Steve Ely
The class divisions among the different groups in the English Revolution, and the differences between their goals and intentions, are striking. At the top of the revolutionary class pyramid you have the emergent capitalist class of powerful yeomen, landed and mercantile interests, symbolised by Ireton and Cromwell in more conservative mode.
What they wanted was for the King to move aside a little so their growing economic power could be matched by the increased political power to which they thought they were entitled. This was not a progressive agenda, a demand for liberty and justice for all. These magnates simply wanted more power for their class, the right to rule alongside and moderate the power of the king in a constitutional monarchy. The radical rhetoric was a means to achieving this end and the limitations of their agenda were rapidly demonstrated by the relapse into reaction in the years after the execution of the king, with disbanding of New Model Army, the suppression of the Levellers and the institution of the Dictatorship. Power achieved, there was no need for liberty, equality or justice.
Below this group was a second group comprised largely of smaller-scale businessmen, farmers and professionals. This group were more radical in their agenda and sought a more fundamental revolutionary change, arguing for the abolition of monarchy and lords and the introduction of universal suffrage for men of property ( ‘servants’ (that is, employees) as well as women were excluded from the levelling franchise). This petit-bourgeois group is represented by the Levellers and their leaders Walwyn and Lilburne. Their radicalism was real, but the extent of it has been exaggerated, it being closer the position of the capitalist, slave-owning ‘founding fathers’ of the U.S.A. than anything that resembled socialism, for example.
Below this group and largely comprising artisans and working men, were Winstanley’s Diggers, who, influenced by the millenarian religious beliefs that proliferated in the revolution, advocated a quasi-anarchist communal ownership of land and property, and envisaged an egalitarian world with no servants or masters, hence their alternative name of ‘true-Levellers’ — as we’ve seen, the Levellers weren’t really levellers at all. The Diggers were a genuinely radical group but despite their economic and political radicalism, were at pains to stress their respectability in regard to conventional morality — especially in regard to sexuality and drinking, for example.
Below (To the left of? To the right of? Ignorant of? Careless of?) the Diggers were the Ranters. Caught up in the chiliastic fervour of a period in which all values and conventions seemed up for grabs, the Ranters, who rose from similar social and occupational groups as the Diggers, espoused a freethinking and deliberately provocative anti-nominianism, rejecting all authority and advocating an absolute egalitarianism and freedom of conscience. The most characteristic expressions of Ranterism were libertinism, excess and a Tourette’s-like commitment to obscenity and swearing in a precursor of the attacks on bourgeois values mounted by the hippies of the 60s and the punks of the 70s. Eschewing work, discipline and the expectations of their ‘betters’, the Ranters lived free, itinerant lives, smoking, drinking, enjoying multiple sexual partners and preaching their chaotic jubilee in taverns (and, as gatecrashing preachers, in churches). In Christopher Hill’s words, the Ranters threatened to ‘turn the world upside down’.
Perhaps the most notorious of the Ranters was Abiezer Coppe, author of the astonishing ‘A Fiery Flying Rolle’ and several other tracts. Regarded as the ‘Ring-leader’ of the Ranters, Coppe was renowned for (and repeatedly arraigned and imprisoned for) ‘wicked blasphemies … belching … cursing … imprecations’, lying with ‘two women at a time’ and many other ungodly practices’.
Coppe, like others called Ranters (there was no organised group, organisation being anathema to the charismatic, spontaneous character of the movement) had seen in the execution of God’s anointed king the end of the previous dispensation of Christianity and the inauguration of a New World in which, ‘the spirit of Christ would cast down the mighty and the wealthy and sweep away the hypocrisy of formal religion’ and usher in ‘true Christianity’ characterised by ‘universal love’, liberty — and license. Of course, the license of the Ranters was identical to the license anticipated and enjoyed by the inflamed yokels of the Peasants’ Revolt — ‘a revel’ — the chance to eat, drink and be merry; and destroy the property and persons of the rich, the same license that periodically erupts in our inner cities and culminates in marauding gangs of hoodies wheeling off flat-screens in hijacked Tesco shopping trollies.
Like Elijah, Jeremiah and Jesus before him and David Koresh, Jim Jones, Camilo Torres and Malcolm X afterwards, Coppe did not hesitate to speak in God’s name. And Coppe’s God was very much a revolutionary, levelling God: ‘THUS SAITH THE LORD — I overturn, I overturn, I overturn’ His message to the powerful — be they MP, merchant, minister or Prince — was unambiguous. ‘High mountaines! Lofty cedars! … enter into the rocks … hide you in the dust … for the lofty looks of man shall be humbled and the haughtiness of men shall be bowed down … everyone that is proud and lofty shall be brought low … bow down sturdy oaks and tall cedars, or by myself I’ll break you’. Coppe’s God declares class war in the most unambiguous terms.
But, having overthrown the social order, what alternative does Coppe’s God posit? Winstanley’s yeoman-anarchist collective? Lilburne’s prot0-Abrahamic property-owning democracy of (almost)-all-men-created-equal? Most certainly not. Coppe’s end-of-days vision remains absolutely a peasant vision, rooted in the same utopian dreaming visually expressed in Pieter Brueghel’s masterpiece The Land of Cockaigne, for example; ‘ we had be dead drunk every day of the week, and lie with whores in the market place’. However much based on the reality of Coppe’s proto-Haight-Ashbury ethic and lifestyle, there is a pointed and sarcastic hyperbole in these remarks, deployed as they are against the rapacity of his ‘respectable’ opponents, the former revolutionaries of the Civil War, who now take the ‘abused’ and ‘enslaved’ ploughman’s money from him via ‘tythes’ and ‘taxes’ and oppress him with forced military service.
Coppe’s theology is also an anticipation of twentieth century liberation theology, proleptically exercising Gutierrez’s ‘preferential option for the poor’ and threatening violence against the rich from ‘eternal God, the divine Leveller’. In further solidarity with the poor and oppressed, Coppe exhorts his readers to ‘kiss beggars, prisoners, warm them, feed them, clothe them, money them, relieve them, release them, take them in to your houses, don’t serve them as dogs, without door … make them one with you’. As ever with Coppe, there are consequences for the rich and respectable who fail so to do: ‘or else go howling into hell, howl, howl for the miseries that are coming on you, howl’.
Abiezer Coppe is a criminally neglected figure in English writing and the English radical tradition. Andrew Hopton’s selection from his writings — now almost thirty years old — is an excellent introduction to this remarkable man and his even more remarkable works. Coppe’s writing is incandescent and inflammatory — it crackles from the page. The unquiet ghost of John Ball animates Coppe’s discourse, and we — malcontents, subversives, woebegone workers, disaffected bourgeois — could do a lot worse than invigorate ourselves in his unregenerate, turbulent spirit. In these darkened days of plutocracy’s triumph, of discipline, respectability, punishment, and control, pugnacious poets, rude ranters all: fly your Fiery Flying Rolle.