Friday, 23 July 2010

Gerrard Winstanley and the Digger Movement

The release of the complete works of Gerrard Winstanley gives me the opportunity to examine the life and impact of Winstanley and the Digger Movement. While the historian Christopher Hill had a lot of time for Winstanley and the “True Levellers” as the Diggers were referred it has been a while since someone has attempted to remove Winstanley from under a large number of dead dogs.

It is apt that the new volumes are dedicated to the memory of Christopher Hill who carried out incredibly important work to place the Digger movement and Winstanley in an objective and semi-historical materialist context.

According to Hill in his seminal study, The World Turned Upside Down the Diggers, “have something to say to twentieth-century socialists”. In this, he meant that they were an anticipation of future struggles. In my opinion, despite their radicalism, the social and economic conditions had not yet matured for them to carry out a “second revolution” which would have seen the overthrow of Cromwell and the use of a wider use of the popular franchise among other things.

Despite over thirty years of revisionist attacks Hill’s work and The, in particular, World Turned Upside Down continues to be the defining work that historians of early modern Britain have to work around.

This is not to say that the Revisionist historians have given up on the contrary they according to Michael Braddick “have tried to cut the English revolution down to size or to cast it in its own terms. In so doing, they naturally also cast a critical eye over the reputation and contemporary significance of its radical heroes. In Winstanley’s case, this led to an emphasis both on the strangeness of his thought for twentieth-century socialists and on the fact that he was a Digger leader only briefly in a long and, in many other ways, very respectable life. His Digger year, 1649, falls in the middle of four years of prolific and exhilarating publication, but that period of his life appears in the historical record as an irruption into an otherwise rather unremarkable and anonymous biography. 

Thus, to Mark Kishlansky, Winstanley was “a small businessman who began his career wholesaling cloth, ended it wholesaling grain, and in between sandwiched a mid-life crisis of epic proportions”. For revisionists, the years when the world was turned upside down stand in the same relation to the course of English history as Winstanley’s wild years either side of his fortieth birthday do to his subsequent life as a churchwarden”.

In answer to the revisionists it is not the point to talk up or talk down Winstanley and the Diggers but to place them in the proper context of the English Revolution. It is true that Winstanley was a businessman and that his radicalism coincided with one of the most revolutionary chapters in English history but that merely points out that at certain times men and women are moved by such profound events such as wars and revolution and that their thoughts during peaceful times sometimes move at glacial speed during revolutions they speed up dramatically.

While there are distinct differences Winstanley's life and ‘sudden’ found radicalism mirrored that of a far bigger actor in the drama that being Oliver Cromwell. Who if you had told him at the beginning of his political career he would in a few decades lead the call for the killing of a king then he would have probably thought you were mad.


Gerrard Winstanley was born 1609 and died 10 September 1676. Much of his early life remains a mystery. He was the son of an Edward Winstanley. In 1630 he moved to moved to London and took up an apprenticeship and in 1638, he was a freeman of the Merchant Tailors' Company.

His adult life is unremarkable he married Susan King, who was the daughter of London surgeon William King, in 1639. It is clear that without the English Civil War, his life would have moved at the same pedestrian pace as before. But like many his world was turned upside down. His business took a beating during the early part of the war, and in 1643 he was made bankrupt. He moved to Cobham, Surrey, where he found menial work as a cowherd.

From 1648 to 1649, he issued five religious tracts, these tracts are in the two volume set of his complete writings. It is known that in early 1649, Winstanley and William Everard met with a small number of similar minded men to dig on common land on St George’s Hill in Walton parish, near Cobham.

Winstanley’s writing was put into practice through the occupation of land. In 1650 they felt bold enough to send out others to expand the Digging. The South and areas of the Midlands were targeted.

According to Braddick “Winstanley’s five earliest tracts were prompted by the anxiety and suffering of the war years: the certainty that this crisis was in some sense divine in origin, and intended as a prompt to sinners to seek reformation, was for many people matched by disabling uncertainty about what form that reformation should take. Winstanley’s writings offered comfort and spiritual advice that was essentially personal, directing believers to look inside themselves, and that led increasingly towards criticism of scripture and learned commentary as guides to practical action.

Winstanley’s readers were urged to follow the promptings of the spirit and of their personal experience of God. God’s guide in the world was Reason, something distinct from the right of individual creatures, but equally something to which we all have some access”.

The New Law of Righteousness

Perhaps Winstanley’s most remarkable body of which he agitated for a form of Christian communism. Verses 44 and 45 outline his basic core in the Book of Acts, he said: "All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need." Winstanley argued that "in the beginning of time God made the earth. Not one word was spoken at the beginning that one branch of mankind should rule over another, but selfish imaginations did set up one man to teach and rule over another."

It is entirely correct to trace Winstanley’s radical thought in The New Law of Righteousness back through time. Indeed it, echoed profoundly with Watt Tyler and the Peasants' Revolt (1381). While much of Winstanley and that of the Diggers thought was couched in religious terms, he was openly advocating a primitive form of Communism.

His avocation of the redistribution of land through the pamphlet called The Law of Freedom in a Platform, saw him elaborate a Christian/Communist basis for society in which property and wages were abolished. From A Declaration from the Poor Oppressed People of England he said "The power of enclosing land and owning property was brought into the creation by your ancestors by the sword; which first did murder their fellow creatures, men, and after plunder or steal away their land, and left this land successively to you, their children. And therefore, though you did not kill or thieve, yet you hold that cursed thing in your hand by the power of the sword; and so you justify the wicked deeds of your fathers, and that sin of your fathers shall be visited upon the head of you and your children to the third and fourth generation, and longer too, till your bloody and thieving power be rooted out of the land".

In The Law of Freedom you can see that Winstanley was heavily influenced by the European Anabaptists. Who believed that all institutions were by their nature corrupt: "nature tells us that if water stands long it corrupts; whereas running water keeps sweet and is fit for common use". Winstanley in order to combat this corrupting nature called for all officials should be elected every year. "When public officers remain long in place of judicature they will degenerate from the bounds of humility, honesty and tender care of brethren, in regard the heart of man is so subject to be overspread with the clouds of covetousness, pride, vain glory.

"The Diggers further outlined their aims in a pamphlet, True Levellers Standard Advanced, In this document Winstanley argued that the Digger communes were only the first part of a programme that would see people refuse to ‘work’ for the rich. The Land would be ‘a common treasury for all'. No one would either give for hire or take for hire. Nor was anyone to pay rent. The old society, dominated by 'the landlords, teachers and rulers (who) are oppressors, murderers and thieves'. The SWP (Socialist Workers Party) and some other radical organisations have tended to equate this type of action with a 20th-century proletariat withdrawing its labour from the capitalist class in a sort of general strike. While communistic in its approach it must be said we are talking about a working class that’s in an embryonic form not an industrial proletariat led by a communist party.

The strength of the Diggers can be borne out by the fact that Cromwell and his supporters amongst the rising middle class could defeat the Levellers along with the Diggers extremely easily and by 1653 both organisations were mainly spent forces.

Who Were the Diggers and Levellers?

The Diggers and Levellers were part of a group of men that sought to understand the profound political and social changes that were taking place at the beginning of the 17th century. They were the true ‘Ideologues of the revolution’ and had a capacity for abstract thought. While the Diggers were sympathetic to the poor, which stemmed from their religion they had no programme to bring about social change, they never advocated a violent overturning of society. Their class outlook, that being of small producers, conditioned their ideology. At no stage did the Diggers or that matter did the larger group the Levellers constitute a mass movement.
The contradiction between their concern for the poor and their position of representatives of the small property owners caused some tension. They had no opposition to private property, and therefore they accepted that inequalities would always exist, they merely argued for a lot of the poor to be made more equitable.

The Levellers

The Levellers philosophy can be summed up by one of its members who at the Putney Debates explained “I am no advocate for the poore further then to provide bread and necessaries for them, without which, life cannot be maintained, let rich men feast, and the poore make hard meale, but let them have bread sufficient”.

Knowing that they could not come to power through the presently constituted electorate the Levellers attempted to find constitutional ways of getting round it. A draft constitution produced in 1647 called the Agreement of the People declared that the state had broken down in civil war and must be re-founded on the basis of certain fundamental “native rights” safeguarded even from a sovereign went against one of the most fundamental reasons for the war in the first place. The Agreement amongst other demands, called for biennial parliaments, franchise reform, only those who contracted into the new state by accepting the agreement were to have the vote.
The one chance the Levellers had to put their ideas into practice was to gain control of the army. The development of the new model army was central to the outcome of the English Civil war, who controlled the army-controlled state power. The Levellers had agitated for the arrears of wages to be paid and that indemnity for actions committed during the civil war be granted. This agitation had won them considerable support in the army.

At the Army Council debate at Putney held in the October/November of1647 came the Levellers opportunity. The limitations of the Leveller program was cruelly exposed in a very famous exchange between Colonel Rainborowe, leader of the Levellers in Parliament and Henry Ireton, Rainborowe stated that “The poorest he that is in England has a life to live as the greatest he and therefore every man that is to live under a government ought, first, by his own consent. To put himself under the government”.

This seemed all very democratic but ‘free born Englishmen’ excluded servants and the poorer sections that did not constitute ‘the people’. Christopher Hill says “The Leveller conception of free Englishmen was thus restricted, even if much wider than the embodied in the existing franchise. Their proposals would perhaps have doubled the number of men entitled to vote. But manhood suffrage would have quadrupled it. The generals, generally horrified, pretended at Putney that the Levellers were more democratic than they were”.

To put it more simply the generals deliberately exaggerated the radicalism of a majority of the Levellers in order to label them extremists and to mobilise their own supporters against them. Cromwell correctly recognised that if the franchise was widened it would threaten his position in parliament. Again Hill explains “Defending the existing franchise Cromwell son in law, Henry Ireton rejected the doctrine ‘that by a man being born here, he shall have a share in that power that shall dispose of the lands here and of all things here’. The vote was rightly restricted to those who ‘had a permanent fixed interest in this kingdom’. Namely, ‘the person in whom all lands lies and that incorporation’s in whom all trading lies”.

Ireton claimed the present House of Commons represented them and went on to ask by what right the vote was demanded for all free Englishmen. If by natural right, taking up the Levellers point that they should be free. Who could freely dispose of their own labour? Then Ireton could see no reason why men had as much natural right to property as to the vote. He went on to point out that if you give them the vote, then they will be the majority in parliament and they will give equal property rights to everybody. This argument completely confused Rainborowe and undermined his argument.

Cromwell was acutely aware that the ideas of the Levellers and the smaller groups within them such as the Diggers were becoming a dangerous business. Cromwell said of what he called the ‘lunaticks’ “You must break these men or they will break you” Cromwell declared. By May 1649 the Levellers had been defeated in battle and their influence in the army and in civilian life disappeared.

Modern popularity and legacy

Largely thanks to the pioneering work of Christopher Hill and Brian Manning to name just two we have a much deeper appreciation of the Diggers, Levellers and other groups who made up the Left Wing of the English Civil War. While this popularity is out of a mainly historical interest the Radicals have managed to achieve a wider interest. One pop band named itself after the Levellers. Elvis Costello called a song Oliver’s Army.

One folk musician wrote a song called "The World Turned Upside Down," by English folksinger Leon Rosselson, “weaves many of Winstanley's own words into the lyrics”.

The Diggers’ Song
You noble Diggers all stand up now, stand up now!
You noble Diggers all stand up now!
The wasteland to maintain, seeing Cavaleers by name,
Your digging does maintain and persons all defame,
Stand up now, stand up now!
Your houses they pull down stand up now, stand up now (means, repeat line as in verse one)
Your houses they pull down, to fright your men in town,
But the gentrye must come down,
And the poor shall wear the crown,
Stand up now, Diggers all.
With spades and hoes and plowes, stand up now, stand up now
Your freedom to uphold, seeing Cavaliers are bold,

To kill you if they could and rights from you to hold,
Stand up now Diggers all.
Theire self-will is theire law, stand up now,
Since tyranny came in they count it now no sin
To make a gaol a gin, to starve poor men therein.
 stand up now, Diggers all.
The gentrye are all ‘round, stand up now...
The gentrye are all ‘round, on each side they are found,
Theire wisdom’s profound; to cheat us of our ground,
Stand up now, stand up now.
The lawyers they conjoyne, stand up now...
To arrest you they advise, such fury they devise,
The devill in them lies, and hath blinded both their eyes,
Stand up now, stand up now.
The clergy they come in, stand up now....
The clergy they come in and say it is a sin,
That we should now begin our freedom for to win,
Stand up now, Diggers all.
The tithes they yet will have, stand up now....
The tithes they yet will have, and lawyers their fees crave,
And this they say is brave, to make the poor their slave.
Stand up now, Diggers all.
‘Gainst lawyers and ‘gainst Priests stand up now...
For tyrants they are both, even flatt against their oath,
To grant us they are loath, free meat and drink and cloth
Stand up now, Diggers all.

The club is all their law, stand up now....
The club is all their law, to keep all men in awe,
But they no vision saw, to maintain such a law,
Stand up now, Diggers all.
The Cavaleers are foes, stand up now,
The Cavaleers are foes, themselves they do disclose
By verses not in prose to please the singing boyes.
Stand up now, Diggers all.

In many respects the true revolutionaries of the civil war were Cromwell and his New Model Army. While not agreeing with the revisionists that the Diggers and Levellers were an insignificant movement, they should not also be hyped into something they were not. They were essentially a movement of the lower middle class that sought to extend the franchise on a limited basis. The reason this failed was that the social and economic basis for their ideas had not yet developed in this sense their egalitarian ideas were a foretaste of future social movements, not communistic but more in the tradition of social democracy.

Saturday, 17 July 2010

Niall Ferguson: A Walking Provocation

The fact that the right-wing Professor Niall Fergusson has been caught leading a campaign to attack a left-wing student he disagreed with should come as no surprise.

Fergusson has a record of pursuing a right-wing agenda both inside and outside academia. He is well known for his defence of British Colonialism or colonialism anywhere for that matter
While a lot has been made over the scandal what is being missed is the extent that Fergusson’s political activities are a defence of the process of commercialisation of universities and that anyone who comes into conflict with this state of affairs becomes the target of a witchhunt.

The Standford based historian was joined in his witchhunt by other members of the  Cardinal Conversations, which is a Stanford program run by the conservative Hoover Institution. This group aims to collect the most right-wing people possible and give them a legitimate hearing inside the university.

Standford’s link to the right-wing think tank Hoover Foundation is well known. It has a budget of $50 million and an endowment of more than $450 million.

As one writer put it  “There is no left-wing equivalent — a sizeable ideological think tank that intimately connected to a university — at any school in the United States.

Standford regularly invites, a veritable who’s who of right-wing writers and theorists, including race-and-IQ theorist Charles Murray, tech mogul Peter Thiel, and Christina Hoff Sommers, a prominent critic of modern feminism”.

Ferguson who appeared to be the leader of the group that believed the left wing student Michael Ocon was a danger to the group.

In an email to two other members of the Stanford Republicans, John Rice-Cameron and Max Minshull, he wrote that “some opposition research on Mr O worthwhile.” Minshull stated he would “get on” the dirt-digging.

More comments from this group are of a sinister and provocative nature. They would not look out of place in a Donald Trump Tweet.

Rice-Cameron wrote in one email that “slowly, we will continue to crush the Left’s will to resist, as they will crack under pressure.”

Ferguson wrote in another note, “now we turn to the more subtle game of grinding them down on the committee,” adding that “the price of liberty is eternal vigilance.”
While not on the same scale there are striking similarities to the Watergate Scandal in particular how Nixon mobilised the full apparatus of the state against the Democrats.

As one writer correctly stated “The whole saga is bizarre — and revealing. It illustrates a profound double game underpinning much of the so-called “free speech” controversy: a controversy that often isn’t really about freedom and is more concerned with power than with speech”.

While many commentators have concentrated on the danger to free speech within the universities, there has been no attempt to link the right-wing group of academics with the growing commercialisation of universities.

It is becoming clear that far from universities being places of study and research for the common good many are becoming nothing more than appendages to transnational corporations. The fact that universities such as Oxford or Cambridge have vast cash reserves bear witness to this. Accoding to the Guardian newspaper 36 Oxford colleges have 'consolidated net assets' of £5.9 billion, while the University holds a further £3.2 billion.

This process of Privatisation of education has been followed by writer and historian Stefan Collini writing in 20011 Collini criticised both Labour and Conservatives for being complicit in this process

“As the recent history of the ministerial pass, the parcel should indicate, the subordination of universities to perceived economic need has been pursued by both Conservative and Labour governments. Much of the language of the present White Paper is to be found almost verbatim in Higher Ambitions: The Future of Universities in a Knowledge Economy, produced by BIS in 2009 when Peter Mandelson was the minister. It should also be remembered that it was a Labour government that first introduced tuition fees (in 1998) and then ‘variable fees’ (in 2006). Variable fees turned out, of course, not to be variable, as all universities very soon charged the top rate. The frustration felt in the policy-making world at this fresh demonstration of universities’ unwillingness to operate according to good market principles wasn’t the least of the impulses that had to be accommodated by the independent committee, set up in 2009 with cross-party agreement, to review the effect of the 2006 fees and to come up with a sustainable form of future funding for higher education”.[1]

This is not the first or the last time Fergusson has mounted what appears to be a considerable provocation aimed at inciting a response from the left to launch a witchhunt against anybody who challenges his right-wing agenda.

In her three-part series called What price an American empire? Reviewing Fergusson’s book Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire, Marxist writer  Ann Talbot exposes Fergusson’s political and historical agenda.

 “All British historians, E.H. Carr once said, are Whigs, even the Tories—but not in Niall Ferguson’s case. He is a Tory formed in the Thatcherite mould, who cut his teeth writing for Conrad Black’s Daily Telegraph while he was a research student in Germany.


Saturday, 10 July 2010

Further comment on J P Kenyon

By Christopher Thompson

I think that you will find it helpful to clarify J.P.Kenyon’s view of Marxism by reading John Morrill’s obituary appreciation in the Proceedings of the British Academy (Volume 101 (1999), pages 441-461). Morrill explains there that Kenyon a “fundamental disapproval of model-builders and systematisers. He had no time for social determinism as a tool of the historian for explaining the past or of social engineering as a tool of the politician in effecting the future.” (ibid. page 443). Later in this piece, Morrill discussed Kenyon’s 1958 book, The Stuarts, and its analysis of the pre-revolutionary period: “it is a very hard and crisp review of the political, legal, and religious culture of the period 1580-1640 and of the origins of the English Civil War. Kenyon found no evidence of a disintegration of an outdated system; no progressive movement made up of an alliance of common lawyers, puritan gentry and clergy, thrusting merchants and trendy intellectuals; rather he found a gentry confused and unsure of itself, at once timidly in awe of firebrand clergy and determined to subject the church and its wealth more and more to lay control”. (ibid. pages 447-448) That remained his view. He was never a Marxist or a fellow-traveller with them.

Christopher Thompson