Saturday, 22 June 2019

A Man of Contradictions: a Life of A.L. Rowse-Richard Ollard, Allen Lane, 1999

“As for the individual, everyone is a son of his time; so philosophy also is its time apprehended in thoughts. It is just as foolish to fancy that any philosophy can transcend its present world, as that an individual could leap out of his time or jump over Rhodes”.

Hegel, Preface to The Philosophy of Right (1821)

“I confess that he gets on my nerves. I have admired some of his work. However, the ipse behind the work - what a lot of that ipse there is!”.

Herbert Butterfield

To describe Rowse as Richard Ollard does in his book as a man of contradictions is probably the biggest understatement of both  the 20th century and 21st Century. Ollard’s book is worth reading if only because of his attempt to place Rowse in the context of his time.

I no intention of studying Rowse until I wandered into his historical orbit after reading Spirit of English History published in 1943 at the height of the war with Germany. Hence the dedication of the book to Winston Churchill.

For a man who dabbled with Marxist politics in the 1930s, this book is about as far removed from orthodox Marxism as you could get. It would be correct to say that Rowse was closer to Hegel than Marx. Hegel, in his book the Philosophy of History, also talked about a “world Spirit “ in history. Hegel writes. “It is only an inference from the history that its development has been a rational process; that the history in question has constituted the rationale necessary course of the world spirit-that spirit whose nature is always the same but which unfolds this is one nature in the phenomena of the world’s existence.”[1]

This analysis is echoed by Julia Stapleton who writes “The very title of one volume, The English Spirit (1945), would be anathema to a Marxist, despite his somewhat unconvincing attempt at the same time to include the character of the people in his broad definition of the underlying (economic) conditions of British history. The English Spirit was launched with an impressive print-run of 10,000 copies (Ollard, p. 179). In this collection of essays, Rowse is the epitome of the national intellectual, depicting and celebrating a unifying national tradition rooted in literature and life in which the thorny issue of class is completely passed over. Its inspiration is much more George Santayana - whom Rowse quotes admiringly - than Marx[2].

Much of Rowse’s patriotism and defence of the empire would make even the right-wing historian Niall Ferguson blush. The massive sales of this book tended to reflect the brief outburst of patriotism during the war, which largely dissipated after 1945, when the threat of social revolution became a reality.

As Ollard states in his book, Rowse was not an easy man to live with. Much has been made of his childhood and the influence his mother and father had on his later life, and this is explored in the book. While these influences may have impacted his social attitudes and relationships with the public and other historians, I believe that far more external forces made Rowse the figure he was. After all most of his life spanned a century that was shaped by wars and revolutions. Saying this, I am not belittling Rowse who was a man of some intellect and insight, who had to struggle to get where he did. This struggle is accurately recorded in the book. Rowse was the son of a china clay miner, both his parents were semi-literate. According to Robert Thomas,” Rowse was a brilliant student who learned to read by the age of 4, became obsessed with speaking precisely correct English and worked so hard to win the only Cornwall scholarship to Oxford that it almost ruined his already precarious health”.[3]

In his autobiography Rowse claims “I owe what I am to the struggle, it isolated me from others, it concentrated me within the unapproachable tower of my resolve; I was determined to do what I wanted to do; I was left sufficiently to myself, for nobody was interested, to carry on what I wanted in my own way and nourish the inner life of my own imagination”.

Even a cursory read of Ollards book would show the reader that Rowse’s connection with Marxism was tenuous, he never joined the Communist Party and rejected dialectical materialism, and despite reviewing Leon Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution, he had no connection with any Trotskyist group. This one of the contradictions alluded to in the title. Rowse’s writings were according to Julia Stapleton “accompanied by a sustained profession of Marxist faith. At its most elementary level, this took the form of an insistence on the shallowness of any history which does not see with understanding and sympathy how throughout the ages the burden has always rested on the people.”.[4]

While Rowse was not overtly hostile to Marxism, his empathy towards certain aspects of it needs explaining. Readers could no worse than examine what the historian Robert Ashton had to say when writing about the English Revolution, Ashton makes an interesting point on why some historians while not being Marxist did use Marxist ideas.

Ashton said “The idea of religious, political and constitutional issues as an ideological superstructure based on foundations of material and class interests has been influential far beyond the ranks of Marxist historians. It has indeed been adopted, in part at least and with a radically different emphasis, by some of their more formidable and determined opponents.

Julia Stapleton in her review makes the point “he exemplified the wider tensions in British intellectual life in the middle decades of the twentieth century: a residual English nationalism and liberalism bequeathed by a declining but still seductive Whig ideal and a Marxism which posed a serious challenge to, but never entirely succeeded in displacing the latter This was certainly true of ' formative years in the 1930s. Such tensions were bound to become accentuated in a writer whose own personality was perpetually under the strain of oppositional forces. However, there is surely further scope for exploring these and other intellectual currents which informed ' work. For example, another historian who felt the charms of both Marxism and Whiggism in the 1930s and 40s was Butterfield himself. ‘Anti-intellectualism married to a vehement patriotism was also not exclusive to him, but was shared by other contemporary writers such as Arthur Bryant and Francis Brett Young, as well as Betjeman”.

Rowse’s attitude towards Trotsky is worth examining. Ollard only mentions Trotsky once in the book to tell us that Rowse read his Literature and Revolution book. Rowse has a certain sympathy towards the Russian revolution but only to a certain point.  Moreover, you cannot compare his review to the large number of hatchet jobs on Trotsky from several current historians who have written on Trotsky.

Rowse writes “For the real claim of this book is not that it is an impersonal, a scientific history; though, indeed, it is a brilliant example of a very rare species, a history that is inspired by the conception of society and the forces at work in it, implied by historical materialism. This, in short, is a Marxist history, but not the Marxist history of the Revolution; for that we shall have to wait for some future Pokrovsky, altogether more impersonal, more objective; but, no doubt, that will be a much duller affair whereas this is alive and tingling in every nerve. It has all the brilliant qualities, and the defects, of its author’s personality. It has extreme definiteness of outline, a relentlessness towards his enemies that go with it, dramatic sense and visual power, a remarkable sympathy for the moods of the masses with a gift for vividly portraying them – the qualities we should expect from a great orator; and, in addition, the political understanding of a first-rate political figure”.[5]

Rowse seems to hold a respect for the writer, and this can be seen in this quote “It was impossible to expect Trotsky to suppress his own personality in the book; not only for the reason that he is Trotsky, but because, after all, he played such an important part in the Revolution. To have suppressed him would be a falsification of history. However, he does go much further towards impersonality than one would have thought possible from one of his temperaments. He writes throughout in the third person; he keeps himself in the background of the picture. The book gives an impression of a highly exciting personality, but not one of egoism; and, with one notable exception, it leaves an impression of fairness, at least not of unfairness. In the light of events, he seems justified in his merciless characterisation of the Tsar and Tsarina, Miliukov, Kornilov, Kerensky, and many of the Socialists. The exception is, of course, Stalin”.[6]

This part of the review ends Rowse’s attempt at an ‘objective’ review. Rowse clearly did not understand the political divisions that separated Trotsky from Stalin. Contained within Trotsky’s writing after the death of Lenin is his irreconcilable political differences with Stalin. This does not really interest Rowse.

To him, the political struggle was just a personal feud with Stalin. Rowse claims this has  “has prevented him(Trotsky) from recognising Stalin’s part in the Revolution. Whenever he comes near the subject, the history tends to turn into a political pamphlet; and one is tempted to think that Trotsky writes history, as the celebrated Dr Clifford was said to offer extemporary prayer, for the purpose of scarifying his enemies. Nobody would guess from his account that in the October Revolution, though Trotsky was the President of the Military Revolutionary Committee of the Soviet, which organised the insurrection, Stalin was responsible for the organisation of the Bolshevik Party, apart from the Soviet in which other parties were included, to the same end. Over the struggle within the party in October, when Lenin was forcing them into insurrection, and the party was divided in opinion, it seems needless to attack Stalin, as the editor of Pravda, for trying to tone down the differences: it is the function of a party organ to gloss over the differences within the party, before the eyes of the outside world. Nor, though Trotsky allows that Stalin’s defects are not due to lack of character, as in the case of Kamenev and Zinoviev, the two opponents of the insurrection, is it reasonable to attack him on the ground of his caution. There are leaders and leaders. It is true that Stalin is not of the tempestuous, romantic type of revolutionary like Trotsky, but he is nonetheless a great leader. He reminds one rather of Burghley in our own history, who had a great gift for taking cover. But that did not prevent him from being bold and courageous in policy, as in the case of the great leap in the dark of 1559 when this country was committed finally and decisively to the Protestant Reformation. And so, too, Stalin is the man, after all, who have taken the plunge of committing Russia to the Five Years’ Plan”.

This glorification of Stalin would not look out of place with other more modern ones carried out by historians such as Ian Thatcher and Robert Service. His review of Leon Trotsky's book does expose Rowse‘s own political agenda he was after all a member of the Labour Party. Despite  Rowse’s empathy towards Trotsky, he shared the Labour Party’s inbuilt hostility to Trotsky and Trotskyism.


There are many problems with Ollards book. Perhaps the most serious is his blindness to Rowse’s indifference to the philosophy of history. According to Edward Hallett Carr Dr A. L. Rowse, more justly critical, wrote of Sir Winston Churchill's The World Crisis -- his book about the First World War -- that, while it matched Trotsky's History of the Russian Revolution in personality, vividness, and vitality, it was inferior in one respect: it had "no philosophy of history behind it." British historians refused to be drawn, not because they believed that history had no meaning, but because they believed that its meaning was implicit and self-evident. The liberal nineteenth-century view of history had a close affinity with the economic doctrine of laissez-faire - also the product of a serene and self-confident outlook on the world. Let everyone get on with his particular job, and the hidden hand would take care of the universal harmony. The facts of history were themselves a demonstration of the supreme fact of beneficent and apparently infinite progress towards higher things. This was the age of innocence, and historians walked in the Garden of Eden, without a scrap of philosophy to cover them, naked and unashamed before the god of history. Since then, we have known Sin and experienced a fall; and those historians who today pretend to dispense with a philosophy of history are merely trying, vainly and self-consciously, like members of a nudist colony, to recreate the Garden of Eden in their garden suburb. Today the awkward question can no longer be evaded”.

To conclude Ollards book provides the reader with a kind but basic introduction to A. L. Rowse. Two significant failings of the book are that it does not address Rowse’s political perspectives in any great detail and does not examine his lack of interest in the philosophy of history.

Julia Stapleton adds “There is much self-indulgence in language and imagery, and the footnoting is slipshod, even allowing for an understandable contempt for the dry-as-dust nature of modern scholarship. At one point, for example, the reader is referred to the already sizeable literature on the subject without any further details (p. 68). Nevertheless, this is an extremely rewarding book, and it has undoubtedly set the framework for any future studies of Rowse”.

[1] Philosophy of History, G Hegel,
[3] A. L. Rowse, Masterly Shakespeare Scholar, Dies at 93-.OCT. 6, 1997-
[5] An Epic of Revolution:Reflections on Trotsky’s History(The History of the Russian Revolution)
Published: The End of an Epic: Reflections on Contemporary History, Macmillan, 1947
[6] An Epic of Revolution:Reflections on Trotsky’s History(The History of the Russian Revolution)
Published: The End of an Epic: Reflections on Contemporary History, Macmillan, 1947

Sunday, 16 June 2019

The Complete Works of Gerrard Winstanley -Thomas N. Corns (Editor), Ann Hughes (Editor), David Loewenstein (Editor) OUP Oxford (24 Dec. 2009)

“Not a full year since, being quiet at my work, my heart was filled with sweet thoughts... That the earth shall be made a common treasury of livlihood to whole mankind, without respect of persons; yet my mind was not at rest, because nothing was acted, and thoughts run in me that words and writings were all nothing and must die, for action is the life of all, and if thou dost not act, thou dost nothing”.– Gerrard Winstanley

"The life of this dark kingly power, which you have made an act of Parliament and oath to cast out, if you search it to the bottom, you shall see it lies within the iron chest of cursed covetousness, who gives the earth to some part of mankind and denies it to another part of mankind: and that part that hath the earth, hath no right from the law of creation to take it to himself and shut out others; but he took it away violently by theft and murder in conquest." The Law of Freedom in a Platform

The release of the complete works of Gerrard Winstanley was and is a major historical event. A vast collection of Winstanley’s writings in one place was decades overdue. Put together by three well-respected scholars the edition will be seen by future historians as a definitive edition.

The editors have drawn on the previous work of John Gurney and James Alsop among others. This edition also contains original archival discoveries. The collection also contains extensive notes which denote a substantial amount of work undertaken in the archives.

It is fitting that the new volumes are dedicated to the memory of Christopher Hill who carried out an incredibly important piece work to place the Digger movement and the “True Leveller” Winstanley in an objective and historical materialist context.

Hill, in his seminal study, The World Turned Upside Down, believed that Winstanley and his Diggers, “have something to say to twentieth-century socialists”. In this, he meant that they were an anticipation of future struggles. Hill was cognizant that 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 broader use of the popular franchise. Despite over thirty years of revisionist attacks on Hill’s work The World Turned Upside Down continues to be the defining work that historians have to work around.

It has unfortunately not stopped revisionist historians from attacking his work, Michael Braddick describes the modus operandi of the revisionists who “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”.[1]

This deliberate playing down of Winstanley and the Diggers importance is nowhere more clearly expressed than in the writings of the late Mark Kishlansky. According to 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 due to his subsequent life as a churchwarden”.

To answer Kishlansky, it is not the point to talk up or talk down Winstanley and the Diggers but to place him and them in the proper context of the English Revolution. It is true that Winstanley was a businessman, but his radicalism coincided with one of the most revolutionary chapters in English history. This shows us that at certain times, men and women are moved by such profound events such as wars and revolution. Their thoughts and actions may move at a glacial pace in calmer times; during revolutions, they speed up dramatically.

Kishlanksky does inadvertently raises an important 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 was 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”[2].


An essential part of the two volumes is that it establishes a much more accurate record of Gerrard Winstanley’s life. It substantially complements the Oxford Dictionary of National Biographies article by J.C Davies and J. D.Alsop very well[3].

Davies and Alsop’s article should be studied with extreme caution. The historians both come from a conservative strand of historiography. Their article plays down Winstanley’s communistic beliefs and places his radicalism in the camp of religion rather than an early form of socialism, Davies and Alsop write  “The central historical puzzle remains: how could someone who came from and returned to a conventional, or quiescent, background have articulated a thoroughgoing repudiation of the values and institutions of his society, based on a penetrating analysis of its underlying weaknesses? One approach has been to impute an intellectual debt to others—Thomas More, Francis Bacon, the Familists, or other sectarians—but there is no evidence to sustain these links. Another has been to emphasise the radical nature of his thought—the discursive breach with his contemporaries—either by an intellectual leap into predominantly secular modes of thought or, by contrast, through drawing on occult or hermeticist thinking. Neither claim stands up to a reading of his work as a whole”.

It may be more instructive to see him as revealing of the transformative potentials inherent in vernacular scripture and protestant social thought as well as within the tensions of early modern communities polarised by economic inequality but straining for communal self-government. He was not the only writer of his time to suggest the inequitable and unchristian nature of private property and its unequal distribution, or that applied Christianity would end material inequalities, or that the millennium will bring this about if men would not. But he was the most systematic in formulating alternatives, the most prepared to argue through the relationship between God and the creation which justified a more equitable society and the divine history which was bringing it to pass, as well as the most remorseless in pursuing the logic of the rhetoric of the English revolution as a way to persuade his contemporaries of the justice of this vision. In short, Winstanley and his ideas remain pivotal for the understanding of the limits of the possible within seventeenth-century discourse and action”[4].

Winstanley was born in 1609 and died 10 September 1676, long life by 17th century standards. Although much of his early life remains a mystery, he was the son of 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 revolution, his life would have probably moved at the same pedestrian pace as before. However, 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 unskilled work as a cowherd.

During the highpoint of the English bourgeois revolution 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 similarly minded men to dig on common land on St George’s Hill in Walton parish, near Cobham. Winstanley’s perspective was put into practice through the occupation of land. In 1650 he felt bold enough to send out others to expand the Digging. The South of England and areas of the Midlands were settled.

Michael Braddick believes “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”.

Perhaps Winstanley’s most remarkable body of work is The New Law of Righteousness. In this, he argued for a form of Christian/Communism.

Verses 44 and 45 of the Book of Acts, outline his fundamental core beliefs "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. At 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."[5]

It is possible to trace Winstanley’s radical thought in The New Law of Righteousness back through history. While I do not share some historians perspective that England had an unbroken line of radicalism, it clear that Winstanley draws inspiration from previous radicals such as Watt Tyler and the Peasants' Revolt (1381)and the European Anabaptists. Much of Winstanley and that of the Diggers thought was a primitive form of Christian Communism. Although the writer David Petegorsky has argued that "to search for the sources of Winstanley's theological conceptions would be as futile as to attempt to identify the streams that have contributed to the bucket of water one has drawn from the sea." [6]

Hill was very fond of Petegorsky’s work saying "Petegorsky's book was a shining light in the dark days of 1940. It is a pioneering study of Gerrard Winstanley, and it still offers the best analysis of his ideas. Petegorsky's book did not attract the attention it deserved. Petegorsky, alas, did not live to publish the major works which would have transformed our understanding of the English Revolution."[7]

In A Declaration from the Poor Oppressed People of England Winstanley elaborated this egalitarian viewpoint  "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".[8]

In The Law of Freedom, you can see the influence of European Anabaptists who believed that all institutions were by their nature, corrupt. Winstanley agrees with their early anarchism. When he states " nature tells us that if water stands long, it corrupts; whereas running water keeps sweet and is fit for common use". Winstanley believed that in order to combat this corrupting nature, called for all officials to be elected every year. "When public officers remain long in the 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”.

Winstanley's most well-known work is The Law of Freedom published in February 1652 and written after the failure of the commune. The failure of which must have hit Winstanley hard both physically and intellectually because his next move was to appeal to Cromwell who had no intention of helping.

Winstanley appeal was in vain “now you have the power of the land in your hand, you must do one of these two things. First, either set the land free to the oppressed commoners, who assisted you, and paid the Army their wages; and then you will fulfil the Scriptures and your engagements, and so take possession of your deserved honour. Or secondly, you must only remove the Conqueror's power out of the King's hand into other men's, maintaining the old laws still."[9]

"For you (Cromwell) must either establish Commonwealth's freedom in power, making provision for everyone's peace, which is righteousness, or else you must set up Monarchy again. Monarchy is twofold, either for one king to reign or for many to reign by kingly promotion. And if either one king rules or many rule by king's principles, much murmuring, grudges, trouble and quarrels may and will arise among the oppressed people on every gained opportunity."

In the pamphlet True Levellers Standard Advanced, Winstanley sought to develop his ideas regarding future developments. Many of his arguments were later to become standard socialist perspectives. The Digger communes were only the first part of a programme that would see people refusing to ‘work’ for rich people. The land would be ‘a common treasury for all'.

Nobody would be for hire, and the Diggers would not hire themselves. Rent would be a thing of the past. In their day, these attitudes were revolutionary. However, 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 a very embryonic state, not an industrial proletariat led by a Communist party. The fact that Cromwell and his allies in the rising bourgeoisie could easily defeat the Diggers both politically and militarily tends to confirm my point.

John Gurney’s Winstanley and the Left

According to John Gurney Marxist writers in the 19th century such as Eduard Bernstein and Karl Kautsky believed that Winstanley’s work had provided a framework for a new socialist society.

The author of The Common People (1984) John F. Harrison,believed: "Winstanley has an honoured place in the pantheon of the Left as a pioneer communist. In the history of the common people, he is also representative of that other minority tradition of popular religious radicalism, which, although it reached a crescendo during the Interregnum, had existed since the Middle Ages and was to continue into modern times. Totally opposed to the established church and also separate from (yet at times overlapping) orthodox puritanism, was a third culture which was lower-class and heretical. At its centre was a belief in the direct relationship between God and man, without the need of any institution or formal rites. Emphasis was on inner spiritual experience and obedience to the voice of God within each man and woman."[10]

Gurney’s last essay Gerrard Winstanley and the Left, is a very significant piece of work. It lays the critical groundwork 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 Stalinist baggage these historians carried around. It must be said that some of this baggage was not always in perfect condition.

In many ways, this essay is a microcosm 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 primarily 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 is 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, several problems with this interpretation. For one thing, the Diggers had, before the 1890s, never fallen from public view to the extent often imagined. It seems that they were reasonably well known over the centuries — and perhaps even more accurately remembered than the mainstream 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”.

Gurney continues "the Russians have a saying: ‘The past is unpredictable.’ So it has proved for Gerrard Winstanley. For all but one of his 67 years, he lived in obscurity, and then he died forgotten. Generations of historians passed over him either in silence or derision. He entirely eluded the notice of the Earl of Clarendon in the 17th century and of David Hume in the 18th. Even the Jacobin William Godwin, the first champion of the Civil War radicals, judged his exploits ‘scarcely worthy of being recorded’, and S.R. Gardiner’s comprehensive history of the Commonwealth contained only two references to him, one a bare mention of his name. Then in the early 20th century, Winstanley was rediscovered, and he has exerted a magnetic pull on left-leaning intellectuals ever since. He is variously credited as the father of English communism, socialism or environmentalism, depending on which is seeking paternity. His notice in the Victorian DNB was a scant 700 words; in the new DNB, it has ballooned to more than 8000. Now he has been canonised by the publication of an Oxford edition of his complete works, the second complete works in a century, more than have been accorded either Hobbes or Locke”.[11]

Gurney spent most of his 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[2].  Both books took our understanding of the Diggers to a new level.

Gurney was clear that the study of Winstanley should not solely be 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”.

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 real ‘Ideologues of the revolution’ and had a specific 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.

George Sabines

As most people interested in Winstanley will know these two volumes of collected works replace the work of the distinguished American political scientist and historian of political thought, G.H. Sabine. Sabine produced his work under challenging conditions during the beginning of the Second World War in 1941. Sabine did not have the luxury of the internet.

According to one writer it has “for almost 70 years, remained a serviceable edition of Winstanley's works and an invaluable resource for students of the English revolution. It was reprinted in 1965. However, increasingly it has come to seem marred by an outdated grasp of the biographical facts of the lives, both of Winstanley and his associates in the famous ‘digging’ experiments; by the discovery of some further, textual material; by an absence of annotation of the texts, and by Sabine's selectivity. While his edition remains reasonably comprehensive, Sabine reproduced only extracts of Winstanley's first three tracts, reducing what in the Oxford edition now amounts to 306 pages to about ten. Sabine's justification for this was partly space and ‘partly because less interest attaches to books written before Winstanley's discovery of communism’. But, as he demonstrated elsewhere in his introduction, the communism is almost impossible to understand without the religion”.

Over time Sabine’s viewpoint that Winstanley's politics were of a type ‘utopian socialism’ has come under sustained attack from the same revisionists who downplay Winstanley’s radicalism. While Sabine avoided completely secularising Winstanley's politics, his labelling Winstanley as a Utopian Socialists is not far off the mark.

One writer posted this critical question To what extent, then, does the new edition and its apparatus represent a breakthrough or is it a consolidation of more recently received wisdom?.My feeling it is a combination of both. It should be left to future historians to make a judgement on the merits of this collection.

As Ariel Hessayon perceptively writes “for now at last Winstanley, the ‘foremost radical of the English Revolution’, who stands shoulder to shoulder with John Donne, Francis Bacon, John Milton, Andrew Marvell and John Bunyan as one of the ‘finest writers’ of a ‘glorious age of English non-fictional prose’ (vol. 1, p. 65) has an indispensable scholarly edition of his writings befitting both his undoubted literary talents and profound insights. A complete edition of his writings what is more, which will constitute the bedrock of future studies that ‘typically follow, rather than precede, the establishment of a complete and reliable text’.[12]

[1] Gerrard Winstanley: The Digger's Life and Legacy (Revolutionary Lives) Paperback – 20 Nov 2012
by John Gurney (Author)
[2] Cliff Slaughter-Religion and Social
[3] www-oxforddnb-com.
[5] Gerrard Winstanley, The New Law of Righteousness (1649)
[7] Left-Wing Democracy in the English Civil War
[9] The Law of Freedom in a Platform-
[10] John F. Harrison, The Common People (1984) page 199
[11] Gerrard Winstanley and the Left-John Gurney-Past & Present, Volume 235, Issue 1, May 2017, Pages 179–206,
[12] Reviews_in_History_-_The_Complete_Works_of_Gerrard_Winstanley_-_2012-03-08.pdf