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 work.in 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 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.