‘Action is the life of all and if thou dost not act, thou dost nothing ‘– Gerrard Winstanley
There is no denying that the death of John Gurney was a sad and terrible moment for both his family and the history community. His passing at such a young age of 54 of cancer, removes from the scene a gifted historian whose work was starting to produce results on a level of the great Christopher Hill, with whom he met at Oxford on some occasions.
Gurney was not a Marxist historian but his latest work published after his death showed a profound shift to the left in his thinking. His paper Gerard Winstanley and the Left is insightful and thought provoking. It is certainly one the best analysis of left wing historiography of the English Revolution.
Contained within his writings is an excellent example of the Historians Craft. I never met him but had some correspondence with him towards the end of his life. Even with this brief connection, I could tell he was a historian of great ability and tenacity. This was recognised by his friends and colleagues. In a tribute to him, Scott Ashley wrote “John was someone who in both his professional and personal lives could sniff out a story and extract the gold from the archive that made time and place shine fresh. To walk with him around North Shields was to see the streets and buildings with different eyes, not only in the sometimes prosaic now but as part of a more poetic then, as home places to Commonwealth-era churchmen, eighteenth-century ship captains, Victorian professionals. Among the many things I learned from John during the years, I knew him was that being a historian and making a home, physical and imaginative, were part of a common enterprise”.
Gurney spent most of his historical life studying the area around where he lived. However, his work on the Diggers and Gerard Winstanley was far from parochial. In many ways, he was instrumental in bringing a fresh perspective to the Diggers and Winstanley. He produced two books on them Brave Community: The Digger Movement in the English Revolution published in 2007 and Gerrard Winstanley: The Digger’s Life and Legacy of 2013. Both books took our understanding of the Diggers to a new level.
John had many skills as a historian, but three leap out at you. He had a capability to explain complicated historical issues in a way that any one could understand. Secondly, he brought his subject to life and thirdly his stamina to spend significant amounts of time “grubbing in the archives”.
To deep mine, an archive may to a lay person seem odd, but this ability gave him a more in-depth insight into the complicated problems faced by revolutionaries such as Winstanley. These seventeenth-century revolutionaries were working without precedents in which to guide their revolution.
If Gerard Winstanley is more well known and highly thought of today, it is because of Gurney. It is hard not to agree with Michael Wood’s claim that Winstanley’s place in the pantheon of English literature and political thought should be higher than previously thought. Wood believes he should be put alongside Hobbes and Harrington as one of the great writers of English prose of the seventeenth century. We should not forget that Winstanley was also a man of action as well as words. In 17th century eyes, he was as dangerous revolutionary.
Gurney’s attempt to recreate the past and therefore understand it is done with much empathy and imagination. There is also a doggedness and intellectual objectivity about his work. While some historians seek to make an objective understanding of history, Gurney was almost religious in his pursuit of historical truth.
Gurney’s work exhibited a disciplined approach to complex historical questions. He recognised that he did not know everything about his area of expertise. But his work did show an honesty which enabled him to have a greater understanding of his role in the presentation of facts.
Gurney was also mindful of presenting his work in a way that was never apart from its moment in time. Gurney’s approach was similar to the French historian of feudal society, Marc Bloch, who wrote in his book, The Historian’s Craft “In a word, a historical phenomenon can never be understood apart from its moment in time. This applies to every evolutionary stage, our own, and all others. As the old Arab proverb has it: ‘Men resemble their times more than they do their fathers.’
Gerrard Winstanley: The Digger’s Life and Legacy of 2013.
The book is a meticulously researched, scholarly and well-presented. Gurney provides us with a good understanding of the origins of the Digger movement. It has been praised for setting an “extremely high standard for local histories of this sort and must rank alongside similar studies such as Eamon Duffy’s acclaimed The Voices of Morebath.”
Gurney was clear that the study of Winstanley should be not solely of historical value but must have a contemporary resonance. He says: “Today knowledge of Winstanley is widespread, and he has become one of the best-known figures from the period of the English Revolution. There have been numerous plays, novels, TV dramas, songs and films, and Winstanley has often been cited as an inspirational figure by politicians of the left.
More specifically, his ideas and achievements have remained prescient, inspiring generations of activists and social movements”. He believed that Winstanley “has in recent years also been invoked by freeganism, squatters, guerrilla gardeners, allotment campaigners, social entrepreneurs, greens and peace campaigners; and both Marxists and libertarians have laid claim Who was to him as a significant precursor”.
Gurney’s book is invaluable when it starts to trace the origins of Winstanley’s radicalism. Gurney did not subscribe to the theory that it was solely down to the war radicalising people such as Winstanley. Gurney believed that radical views were being expressed all over the country before the outbreak of civil war.
In a previous essay, Gurney elaborates on why the Digger’s achieved a level of local support in Cobham “Local support for the Diggers may also have been connected with Cobham's marked traditions of social conflict. The manor of Cobham, a former possession of Chertsey Abbey, had passed into the hands of Robert Gavell in 1566 and was to remain with his family until 1708. During the later sixteenth century the Gavell family became involved in a long and protracted series of disputes with their tenants. In a case brought in the court of Requests by William Wrenn, a Cobham husbandman, Robert Gavell was accused of overturning manorial customs and of infringing his tenants' rights, by seeking to extract more rent than was customarily paid, and by spoiling the timber on Wrenn's copyhold. He was also charged with attempting to escape the payment of tax by shifting the burden on to his tenants, laying 'a hevy burden uppon the poorer tennants contrarye to the Ancient usage, equitie and Consciens'Actions against Robert Gavell and his son Francis were resumed in the court of Chancery during the 1590s by tenants seeking to halt the continued assault on manorial custom” .
Who Were The Diggers
Gurney was one of the few contemporary historians involved in the study of Early Modern England who understood the importance of class in understanding the English revolution and its radical wing.
Gurney is correct to say that there has been no unified theory regarding the class basis of the Diggers. To say this is a complicated question. Even historians such as A L Morton and Christopher Hill changed their position numerous times.
The Diggers along with other radical groups who sought to understand the profound political and social changes that were taking place at the beginning of the 17th century and act upon them.
From an ideological stand point, they were far ahead of the likes of Cromwell and Ireton. Their weakness while being sympathetic to the poor, 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.
Brave Community: The Digger Movement in the English Revolution published in 2007
Gurney’s study of his local area in this case Surrey was not done from a parochial viewpoint. A survey of local events correctly done can add to a more broad and objective understanding of events.
Brave Community was the result of painstaking investigations. Somewhat surprisingly it was the first full-length modern study of the Diggers.
It was well-received by academic historians. One review of Brave Community by Henk Looijesteijn described it as “a study that successfully blends social and intellectual history in recreating the environment in which one of the most original thinkers of mid-seventeenth-century England originated and acted. As such, this book should be regarded as the starting point for any student of Winstanley and the Digger”.
Gerrard Winstanley and the Left
Gurney’s last essay Gerrard Winstanley and the Left is a very significant piece of work. It lays the critical ground work for a further examination of the left's attitude towards the English revolution. Gurney understood when writing about left wing historiography on the English Revolution that you had to be aware of the pratfalls especially when writing about the Communist Party Historians Group. One must be cognizant of the enormous amount of ideological baggage these historians carried around. It must be said that some of this baggage was not in always in perfect condition.
In many ways, this essay is in microcosm a summation of Gurney’s whole body of work. He was very much at the height of his powers when he wrote this article. Gurney acknowledges that it is only recently that the words of Winstanley have been fully appreciated. However, he believed that it is not the case that nothing of note was written before the 20th century. He thought that Winstanley’s ‘extraordinarily rich body of writings’ were read and studied between the years 1651 and the 1890s.
As he wrote in the essay “The historical legacy of the Diggers is usually seen as being very different from that of their contemporaries, the Levellers. If the Levellers were misremembered, the Diggers have been understood as being largely forgotten before the 1890s, with professional historians playing little part in their rediscovery. It took, we are told, the Marxist journalist and politician Eduard Bernstein to rediscover Winstanley quite independently of academic historians when he spent part of his exile in London working on the section on seventeenth-century English radical thinkers for Karl Kautsky’s Die Vorla¨ufer des neueren Sozialismus.
Later, in the 1940s, it was Marxist historians associated with the Communist Party of Great Britain who are said to have picked up Bernstein’s baton and created the image of a communist and materialist Winstanley which remains familiar to this day. The left’s responsibility for, and role in, the rediscovery and promotion of the Diggers can, therefore, seem quite clear and uncomplicated. There are, however, a number of problems with this interpretation. For one thing, the Diggers had, before the 1890s, never fallen from public view to the extent often imagined. In fact, it seems that they were reasonably well known over the centuries — and perhaps even more accurately remembered than the main stream Levellers, who were often confused with them. It is also evident that early detailed research on the Diggers was not confined to the left and that Bernstein was by no means alone in taking an interest in Winstanley’s writings in the 1890s”.
Where does Gurney’s work fit in with today’s in today’s historiography of the English Revolution? Due to no fault of his own Gurney’s work on Winstanley is an oasis in a desert of revisionism.
As Michael Braddick points out, revisionists have “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”.
The historian Mark Kishlansky’ has a habit of cutting down the radical heroes of the English Revolution. It is perhaps surprising that he recommends Gurney’s book saying “this is a clear-eyed yet sympathetic account of one of the most baffling figures of the English Revolution. Gurney's painstaking research provides a wealth of new information that is assembled into a highly readable narrative. An informative and thought-provoking book.”
Kishlansky despite recommending Gurney’s book he is keen to downplay Winstanley who according to him 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”.
Kishlanksky inadvertently raises an interesting question. What was the relationship between Winstanley’s religion, his economic status and his politics? As the Marxist writer Cliff Slaughter says “for the understanding of some of the great problems of human history, the study of religion is a necessity. What is the relationship between the social divisions among men and their beliefs about the nature of things? How do ruling classes ensure long periods of acceptance of their rule by those they oppress? Why were the ‘Utopians’ wrong in thinking that it was sufficient only to work out a reasonable arrangement of social relations to proceed to its construction? It was out of the examination of questions like this in the German school of criticism of religion that Marx emerged to present for the first time a scientific view of society. ‘The criticism of religion is the beginning of all criticism”.
Gurney’s work on Winstanley and the Diggers is the start of a new form of historiography on the English Revolution. His work is ground breaking in many ways and is an antidote to revisionist historiography.
Gurney is correct to state there has never been what he calls a definable left-wing interpretation of the Diggers and Winstanley or to be even more precise there has never been a consistent classical Marxist position on the Diggers. It is hoped that Gurney’s work is used to further our knowledge of the radicals of the English Revolution and present a more unified theory as regards these radical gentlemen of the revolution.
 Brave Community: A communal and personal tribute to our friend and colleague, John Gurney (1960-2014)
 Gerrard Winstanley and the Digger movement in Walton and Cobham- John Gurney
 Gerrard Winstanley and the Left-John Gurney.
 Religion and Social Revolt Cliff Slaughter Labour Review Vol 3 No 3 June 1958