The recent publication of the book Gerrard Winstanley: A Common Treasury has added to what seems to be increasing interest in the life and writings of Gerrard Winstanley. The publication of his complete works by Oxford University Press is perhaps the high point of this interest. The purpose of this review is to evaluate the Verso published book and find Winstanley’s place in history.
Not all have welcomed the attention given to Winstanley. Revisionists 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.
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 and during revolutions they speed up dramatically.
Previous work on Winstanley
The Verso book while leaving out significant works of Winstanley does give the reader a clear picture of how Winstanley interpreted the events of the Civil War and how he was profoundly moved by them. For well over two hundred after his death Winstanley was largely an obscure figure in fact the first of Winstanley’s writings to be reprinted after his death was A Letter to the Lord Fairfax (June 1649), according to one writer it was “not until the 1930s were other writings by or attributed to Winstanley reissued when extracts from The True Levellers Standard Advanced (April 1649) appeared in A. S. P. Woodhouse’s collection of contemporary texts Puritanism and Liberty.
It is clear from reading the Verso book that Winstanley’s writings were not merely an exercise in mental activity. Most of the writings, which were written like a manifesto to justify his pursuit of an ideal society where England was a “common treasury” for all. In order to carry out this pursuit Winstanley and his followers decided to put theory into practice.
On Sunday 1 or Sunday 8 April 1649 the precise date has not been confirmed but it is known five people travelled to St. George’s Hill in the parish of Walton-on-Thames, Surrey. Once there they began digging the earth and planting vegetables such as with parsnips, carrots and beans. Sleeping under the stars they were followed the next day by more people. At the end of the week around thirty people were digging the earth.
From a 21st century standpoint, this does not amount to a hill of beans if you pardon the pun. But from a 17th-century perspective given the explosive nature of a civil war and the revolution it caused a significant stir and Winstanley’s action also prompted a swift and brutal response from locals threatened by the movement and from the authorities who saw it as a challenge to their rule.
The New Law of Righteousness
Perhaps Winstanley’s most famous body of work is not in the Verso collection which is a strange absence. In this small book 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 Wat 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 which again has been passed over by Verso 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 a number of 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 embryonic form not an industrial proletariat led by a communist party.
Tom Hazledine makes a very point in the introduction to this book when he says that very few members of the ruling elite who started the war and revolution against the king would have predicted that they would very soon lose control of the revolution and in fact the revolution’s leadership would be found in the new model army under the leadership of Cromwell but in the realms of theory it was very much influenced by the writings of religious sects such as the Levellers , Diggers etc.
To say that Winstanley and his writings were a product of the times is an understatement. As Hazledine says, he exploded onto the scene. 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 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.
In work that is not strangely in the Verso book In his work "The Law of Freedom the True Leveller" Winstanley again makes clear the conditions in which a really free society is possible:
"The storehouses shall be every Man's substance and not any one's… He or she who calls the earth his and not his brother's shall be sat upon a stool with those words written on his forehead before all the congregation, and afterwards be made a servant for twelve months under the taskmaster. If he quarrel or seek by secret persuasion or open rising to set up such a kingly property he shall be put to death."
The next point made by Winstanley is that of the expectation of not only his followers but along with other radical sects that they fought a civil war to have a better society yet this has not happened under Cromwell and his allies in parliament.
“O thou Powers of England, though thou hast promised to make this People a Free People, yet thou hast so handled the matter, through thy self-seeking humour, That thou has wrapped us up more in bondage, and oppression lies heavier upon us; not only bringing thy fellow Creatures, the Commoners, to a morsel of Bread, but by confounding all sorts of people by thy Government, of doing and undoing. First, Thou hast made the people to take a Covenant and Oaths to endeavour a Reformation, and to bring in Liberty every man in his place; and yet while a man is in pursuing of that Covenant, he is imprisoned and oppressed by thy Officers, Courts, and Justices, so called. Thou hast made Ordinances to cast down Oppressing, Popish, Episcopal, Self-willed and Prerogative Laws; yet we see, That Self-wil and Prerogative power, is the great standing Law, that rules all in action, and others in words.Thou hast made many promises and protestations to make the Land a Free Nation: And yet at this very day, the same people, to whom thou hast made such Protestatins of Liberty, are oppressed by thy Courts, Sizes, Sessions, by thy Justices and Clarks of the Peace, so called, Bayliffs, Committees, are imprisoned, and forced to spend that bread, that should save their lives from Famine”.
One strange contradiction of Winstanley is that he had no problem with his supporters fighting in the civil war but would not countenance using force to achieve his political and social ends against Cromwell or Parliament. “And we shall not do this by force of Arms, we abhorre it, For that is the work of the Midianites, to kill one another; But by obeying the Lord of Hosts, who hath Revealed himself to us, and to us, by labouring the Earth in righteousness together, to eate our bread with the sweat of our brows, neither giving hire, nor taking hire, but working together, and eating together, as one man, or as one house of Israel restored from Bondage; and so by the power of Reason, the Law of righteousness in us, we endeavour to lift up the Creation from that bondage of Civil Propriety, which it groans under”.
Winstanley who was described as “typical Englishman” perhaps saved his most savage attack on “so-called "free enterprise". On trade and speculation "If any do buy or sell the earth or the fruits thereof, unless it be with strangers or another nation according to the Laws of Navigation, they shall be both put to death as traitors to the peace of the Commonwealth."
Even a cursory reading of this document the intent is clear that the act of digging and planting vegetables in Surrey was a well thought-out and theoretically justified by this document. Winstanley declares at the beginning “A Declaration to the Powers of England, and to all the Powers of the World, shewing the Cause why the Common People of England have begun, and gives Consent to Digge up, Manure, and Sow Corn upon George-Hill in Surrey; by those that have Subscribed, and thousands more that gives Consent”.
Winstanley clearly believed that he had Gods blessing for his actions and that “In the beginning of Time, the great Creator Reason, made the Earth to be a Common Treasury, to preserve Beasts, Birds, Fishes, and Man, the lord that was to govern this Creation; for Man had Domination given to him, over the Beasts, Birds, and Fishes; but not one word was spoken in the beginning, That one branch of mankind should rule over another”.
While much of his documents are couched in religious phraseology a careful reading of the document reveals Winstanley understood the social and economic issues that were at stake during the Civil War. He attacked the enclosure of land carried out by previous kings which brought large-scale poverty to sections of the population and the enrichment of a few landlords. Winstanley apparently believed this to be wrong.
“And hereupon, The Earth (which was made to be a Common Treasury of relief for all, both Beasts and Men) was hedged in to In-closures by the teachers and rulers, and the others were made Servants and Slaves: And that Earth that is within this Creation made a Common Store-house for all, is bought and sold, and kept in the hands of a few, whereby the great Creator is mightily dishonoured, as if he were a respector of persons, delighting int he comfortable Livelihoods of some, and rejoycing in the miserable povertie and straits of others “.
Another significant part of the document is Winstanley’s understanding that history was being made with the Civil war and revolution. He makes the point that the old world is ending and he hoped that the new world would be a far more equal one. “But for the present state of the old World that is running up like parchment in the fire”,
This document is a further justification for the actions of the Diggers in claiming the earth as a common treasury. “We whose narnes are subscribed, do in the name of all the poor oppressed people in England, declare unto you, that call your selves lords of Manors, and Lords of the Land, That in regard the King of Righteousness, our Maker, hath inlightened our hearts so far, as to see, That the earth was not made purposely for you, to be Lords of it, and we to be your Slaves, Servants, and Beggers; but it was made to be a common Livelihood to all, without respect of persons: And that your buying and selling of Land, and the Fruits of it, one to another, is The cursed thing, and was brought in by War; which hath, and still does establish murder, and theft, In the hands of some branches of Mankinde over others, which is the greatest outward burden, and unrighteous power, that the Creation groans under: For the power of inclosing Land, and owning Propriety, was brought into the Creation by your Ancestors by the Sword; which first did murther 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 theeve, yet you hold that cursed thing in your hand, by the power of the Sword; and so you justifie 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 theeving power be rooted out of the Land.
Winstanley again reiterates that the land has been stolen by the few from the many. This document gropes towards an understanding of the laws of England’s early capitalist development. He is clear that the laws of the land are clearly designed to protect the interest of a money elite. “ That your Laws shall not reach to oppress us any longer unless you by your Laws will shed the innocent blood that runs in our veins”.
Winstanley believes that the owners of land have no right to it as he believed that these landlords “ got your Propriety by murther and theft, and you keep it by the same power from us, that have an equal right to the Land with you, by the righteous Law of Creation, yet we shall have no occasion of quarrelling (as you do) about that disturbing devil, called Particular propriety: For the Earth, with all her Fruits of Corn, Cattle, and such like, was made to be a common Store-house of Livelihood to all Mankinde, friend, and foe, without exception.
While this document exhibits the traits of a primitive form of communism to label the Diggers as early Marxists as some historians have done is misleading. Take this passage.
“And to prevent your scrupulous Objections, know this, That we Must neither buy nor sell; Money must not any longer (after our work of the Earths community is advanced) be the great god, that hedges in some, and hedges out others; for Money is but part of the Earth: And surely, the Righteous Creator, who is King, did never ordain, That unless some of Mankinde, do bring that Mineral (Silver and Gold) in their hands, to others of their own kinde, that they should neither be fed, nor be clothed; no surely, For this was the project of Tyrant-flesh (which Land-lords are branches of) to set his Image upon Money. And they make this unrighteous Law, that none should buy or sell, eat, or be clothed, or have any comfortable Livelihood among men, unless they did bring his Image stamped upon Gold or Silver in their hands”.
To undertake their project of a common treasury Winstanley would have to overthrow the present economic and social system i.e. early capitalism by a revolution. To put matters simply the social and economic conditions to do that were not in place and secondly, the only class that could have achieved would have been a working class which was only in embryonic stages. This was not in the plans of the Diggers as they were not against private property.
In A LETTER TO The Lord Fairfax,AND His Councell of War,June 9.Winstanley was already drawing certain conclusions from the actions of the Diggers. Winstanley and his Diggers spoke in the name of the poor but in reality his movement was tiny and probably ran into the hundreds. So he decided to appeal to the one force that could implement or protect his utopia and that was the New Model Army. Whether Winstanley understood that even if the army had intervened it would have amounted to a militarily imposed solution. It is that context that his letter should be seen.
Winstanley in his letter clearly stated that they had no intention of forcibly defending their action “We understand, that our digging upon that Common, is the talk of the whole Land; some approving, some disowning, some are friends, filled with love, and sees the worke intends good to the Nation, the peace whereof is that which we seeke after; others are enemies filled with fury, and falsely report of us, that we have intent to fortifie our selves, and afterwards to fight against others, and take away their goods from them, which is a thing we abhor: and many other slanders we rejoyce over, because we know ourselves cleare, our endeavour being not otherwise, but to improve the Commons, and to cast off that oppression and outward bondage which the Creation groans under, as much as in us lies, and to lift up and preserve the purity thereof”.
Winstanley at no stage attributes any bad actions to Fairfax, Cromwell or to parliament. Winstanley blames “Norman Tryanny” for the attacks on his commune.
“that were offended at first, begin now to be moderate, and to see righteousnesse in our work, and to own it, excepting one or two covetous Free-holders, that would have all the Commons to themselves, and that would uphold the Norman Tyranny over us, which by the victorie that you have got over the Norman Successor, is plucked up by the roots, therefore ought to be cast away. And we expect, that these our angry neighbours, whom we never wronged, nor will not wrong, will in time see their furious rashnesse to be their folly, and become moderate, to speak and carry themselves like men rationafiy, and leave off pushing with their hornes like beasts: they shall have no cause to say wee wrong them, unlesse they count us wrongers of them for seeking a livelihood out of the common Land of England by our righteous labour, which is our freedome, as we are Englishmen equall with them, and rather our freedome then theirs, because they are elder brothers and Free-holders, and call the Inclosures their own land, and we are younger brothers, and the poore oppressed, and the Common Lands are called ours, by their owne confession”.
Winstanley again reiterates that their aim was not to take land from other people and if that did happen he freely admits that the laws of the land should be used against them “But now if you that are elder brothers, and that call the Inclosures your own land, hedging out others, if you will have Magistrates and Laws in this outward manner of the Nations, we are not against it, but freely without disturbance shall let you alone; and if any of we Commoners, or younger Brothers, shall steal your corne, or cattell, or pull down your hedges, let your laws take hold upon any of us that so offends”.
To the City of London.Freedome and peace desired
Perhaps one of the most important documents included in this Verso book is Winstanley’s address to the City of London. This a rare piece in so much it is very autobiographical and gives a valuable insight in Winstanley thinking and clearly, outlines how he was moved by the events of the civil war, and it impacted on his class
From the document we glean that he was a tradesman in London and according to him a Freeman. When the Civil war broke out against Charles I he contributed to the parliaments cause. But due to the Civil War he was deprived of his property, “by fraudulent representatives of the “thievish art of buying and selling, in conjunction with the oppressive imposts for the war”,
He was then forced to accept the help of friends who gave the means to settle in the country. This was not a success and was soon pauperised by war taxes and the fact that soldiers billeted in his property (which was a common complaint amongst the populous).
What impact did these events have on Winstanley? For the revisionists this kind of change in the social standing and its impact on someone’s thinking has no importance. But for me this is crucial to understand how people like Winstanley and others like him were forced to think through their lives and react to the profound changes wrought by war and revolution and change Winstanley did and in a very quick way.
Edward Bernstein relates according to him “his heart was filled with beautiful thoughts, and things were revealed to him, of which he had never before read or heard, and which many to whom he related them could not believe”. One of these ideas was that the earth should be made a common treasury of all men without distinction of person”. Adding: “And I see the poore must first be picked out, and honoured in this work, for they begin to receive the ward of righteousness, but the rich generally are enemies to true freedome.”
“Bernstein adds “He represents the most advanced ideas of his time; in his Utopia we find coalesced all the popular aspirations engendered and fertilized by the Revolution. It would be more than absurd to criticize, from our modern standpoint, his positive proposals, or to stress their imperfections and inexpediency. They are to be explained in the light of the economic structure of society as he found it. We would fain admire the acumen and sound judgment exhibited by this simple man of the people, and his insight into the connection existing between the social conditions of his time and the causes of the evils which he assails”.
The Diggers 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 the lot of the poor to be made more equitable.
1. The Complete Works of Gerrard Winstanley edited by Thomas N. Corns, Ann Hughes, David Loewenstein Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2009, ISBN: 9780199576067; 1064pp.; Price: £189.00
2. Ariel Hessayon, review of The Complete Works of Gerrard Winstanley, (review no. 1043) URL: http://www.history.ac.uk/reviews/review/1043 Goldmiths College, University of London
3. Mark Kishlansky, A Monarchy Transformed. Britain 1603–1714 (Harmondsworth, 1996),
4. S. P. Woodhouse, Puritanism and Liberty, being the Army Debates (1647–9) from the Clarke Manuscripts with Supplementary Documents (Chicago, IL, 1938).Back to (2)
5. Gerard Winstanley, The Law of Freedom in a Platform (New ed., San Francisco, CA, 1939).Back to (3)
6. The Works of Gerrard Winstanley. With an appendix of documents relating to the Digger Movement, ed. George Sabine (Ithaca, NY, 1941).Back to (4)
7. Gerrard Winstanley. Selections from his Works, ed. Leonard Hamilton (London, 1944).Back to (5)
8. Winstanley: The Law of Freedom and other writings, ed. Christopher Hill (Harmondsworth, 1973), pp. 9–10.Back to (6)
9. Economic and Social Thought of Gerrard Winstanley Winthrop S Hudson Journal of Modern History March 1946 vol xv111
10. A DECLARATION FROM THE Poor oppressed People OF ENGLAND, DIRECTED
To all that call themselves, or are called Lords of Manors, through this NATION;
That have begun to cut, or that through fear and covetousness, do intend to cut down
the Woods and Trees that grow upon the Commons and Waste Land. Printed in the Year, 1649.
11. A LETTER TO The Lord Fairfax,AND His Councell of War,WITH Divers Questions to the Lawyers, and Ministers: Proving it an undeniable Equity, That the common People ought to dig, plow, plant and dwell upon the Commons, with- out hiring them, or paying Rent to any. Delivered to the Generall and the chief Officers on Saturday June 9. By Jerrard Winstanly, in the behalf of those who have begun to dig upon George-Hill in Surrey. London: Printed for Giles Calvert, at the black Spread-Eagle at the West end of P A U L S. 1 6 4 9. To the Lord Fairfax, Generall of the English Forces, and his Councell of War.
12. The True Levellers Standard Advanced: Or, The State of Community Opened, and Presented to the Sons of Men.Source: http://www.kingston.ac.uk/cusp/Lectures/Hill.htm
13. Radical publisher Verso Celebrated 40th anniversary last year, Originally came out of the New Left Review in 1970.
14. Eduard Bernstein Cromwell and Communism. Some care should be taken with Bernstein. While by being described as a Marxist while he was in early life he later repudiated Marxism and became an arch reformist.