03
Jan
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Lessons from the Diggers

SHS meeting on 19 November 2009: report by David Morgan

The Socialist History Society did Gerrard Winstanley proud when it hosted its celebratory anniversary meeting on 19th November; not only did the event fill the room at Conway Hall to capacity, with standing room only, the calibre of both the platform contributions and the discussion that followed made Winstanley and his ideas truly come alive again.

It emerged clearly that there is still a very keen interest today in the ambitious, highly original and subversive arguments first articulated by Winstanley four hundred years ago during the turmoil of the “English Revolution” when the Digger leader patiently reasoned in pamphlet after pamphlet for a new society where all members of the community would be free from exploitation one from another.

Debating in a Biblical language and using Biblical texts as supporting evidence for his revolutionary arguments because there was no other body of ideas around at the time, Gerrard Winstanley represents one of the first voices from the working population of this country, indeed any country, to put forward a plausible and sustained programme for what the speakers, Professors Ann Hughes and Tom Corns, both described as a “Socialist” form of social organisation.

He uncompromisingly challenged lordship, kingship, private ownership of land, the commercial system of “buying and selling”, living off unearned income and hired labour. No real matter that some assert that his ideas were more akin to anarchism and that in the days of Christopher Hill and A L Morton, who did so much to rescue the “True Levellers” for an earlier generation with their books like “The World Turned Upside Down” and “The World of the Ranters”, Winstanley would more likely have been regarded as a “forerunner of Communism”; or that he has even been hailed as a pioneer of the green movement; no, the really important fact is that people are keenly reading and debating Winstanley with all the passion as if he were writing about today. People, including the scholars who have now produced his complete works published by Oxford University Press, are taking him entirely seriously as an original philosopher who could more than hold his own when debating with the mighty and the privileged.

The meeting started with a highly spirited written contribution from Professor David Loewenstein, of Wisconsin, one of the joint editors of the new Winstanley edition, who for obvious reasons could not be present in London for the occasion. His message (see below) was read out by SHS Secretary David Morgan, who chaired the meeting. There is no need to explain Loewenstein’s arguments except to say that they proved extremely effective in setting the mood of wholehearted enthusiasm and full engagement with the ideas of a 17th Century toiler of the field. Loewenstein’s two fellow editors were the meeting’s distinguished speakers.

Professor Corns then delivered the first of two short talks, on the heretical ideas of Winstanley setting the development of his thought within the context of the growth of dissent during the revolutionary years. Professor Corns looked in detail at how Winstanley’s ideas, although rooted in his time in many ways, also diverged from his contemporaries in their materialism and secularism. His plan to start digging on the common land was on the face of it a simple gesture, but it was closely rooted in a highly original system of thought that he had been developing which was based on an egalitarian reading of the Christian teaching.

Corns explained Winstanley’s contention that his ideas came to him “in a trance” not as some spiritual awakening but as a metaphorical explanation by the writer of the fact that he had been able to use his reasoning to develop some compelling new ideas. It is not without relevance that Winstanley was prone to describing god as “the great creator reason” for it was through the power of reason rising up in all men and women that his new egalitarian commonwealth would be established. Similarly, when Winstanley speaks of Christ, he uses the term as a symbol of the benevolent power that resides within each individual on earth.

Professor Corns was followed by Professor Ann Hughes who spoke about the Diggers and the history of the English revolution. She explained the decision to set up the Digger communities in 1648 as born by a degree of desperation; the years 1648-49 saw one of the worst winters for years, starvation and business failures were grim realities that poorer people like Winstanley had to contend with. Winstanley had sided with the Republican cause and supported the execution of Charles I but he came to realise that it was not enough to dispose of one monarch; what needed removing was “kingly power” which he interpreted much more widely than the institution of kingship. It was every kind of human behaviour that led one person to rule over another, Professor Hughes explained.

In his second contribution, Professor Corns, a leading literary critic, subjected Winstanley’s prose and poetry to a close reading in order to establish him as one of the most original writers of his time. By doing so, the professor suggested that Winstanley could be read alongside Milton, Marvell and Bunyan as a key figure in the English literary tradition of radicalism and dissent.

The Socialist History Society can be extremely proud that it had organised the only meeting in London to mark the 400th anniversary of Gerrard Winstanley’s birth.

David Loewenstein

Making Winstanley Respectable

David Loewenstein, Professor of English, University of Wisconsin-Madison, prepared this message for the Socialist History Society’s meeting on 19th November. It was read out at the meeting and drew much applause.

I think it’s truly wonderful that the Socialist History Society has chosen to honour Gerrard Winstanley with this meeting. He remains the foremost radical socialist English thinker and activist of the early modern period and one of the significant radical social thinkers of any time. He’s also an English prose writer of exceptional power, vividness, and distinctiveness.

I regret deeply than I cannot be there to celebrate with you and with my outstanding fellow editors of the new edition of Winstanley’s works, Thomas Corns and Ann Hughes. Winstanley famously proclaimed that “if thou dost not act, though dost nothing”. For me “acting” during 2009 has necessarily been of a very limited academic sort: seeing the new massive 1000-page edition of Winstanley through the press. This new Oxford edition will, paradoxically, make Gerrard Winstanley respectable. For the first time his works will appear in a fully annotated edition published by a significant academic press.

But the point, of course, is that Winstanley the Digger and great visionary was not “respectable.” No other writer in the English language wrote so moving about class conflict and class inequalities. Few English radical writers have analyzed with such acuteness the abuses of institutions of political, religious, and economic power. Few English writers have dared to envision, with such conviction, a world completely transformed in political, religious, and economic terms—a world that would be a “common treasury” for all. We sadly still live in a world of great social inequality. My county, the United States, the wealthiest nation in the world, now has some 49 million people without adequate food (as reported recently in The New York Times); we have 47 million people with no health insurance at all; we enlarge and invest in a huge military machine, while neglecting our most basic social institutions and services—the institutions and services which help ordinary citizens. We live in a world where religion too often fuels culture wars, where Muslims and Christians engage in stereotyping, demonisation and mutual recrimination. It is a world where the major institutions and organisations of one of the great religions – Judaism (my religion) – align themselves with a state that mistreats and brutalises another people. Persecution and intolerance are not things of the past.

No, Winstanley is not “respectable” and for that we should treasure him all the more: he challenged and questioned orthodoxies and he challenged and questioned all kinds of institutions of power—ecclesiastical, political, and economic. And he did so in some of the most memorable prose in the English language. We need his deep mistrust of institutions of power and his insights into the multifarious ways that they can damage and constrain the lives of ordinary people. We also need his visionary idealism – his belief that the world can change and be a better place for all people – and his conviction that we must take concrete action to match our writings and words.

As Wordsworth famously addressed Milton, so I would address Winstanley: “thou should’st be living at this hour: England hath need of thee.” Here I would make only one crucial modification: Winstanley, it is “the world [that] hath need of thee.”

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1 Response to “Lessons from the Diggers”


  1. 1 Leslie Frank
    4 January 2010 at 9:06 pm

    This was undoubtedly an interesting and stimulating meeting. It testifies to the enduring interest in the events of the 1640s and 1650s on the far left of British politics. This interest in overthrowing the established economic and social order, in abolishing the institutions of the State and creating new forms of ‘Socialist’ organisation of the means of production, distribution and exchange is by no means surprising. Of course, academic historians are entitled to have views about such matters in the modern world. But projecting them backwards onto the society of England three hundred and fifty years ago is entirely another matter. The England in which Winstanley lived had just undergone the most brutal internal military conflict in its history: more people had died as a proportion of the population than were to die in the First World War and the loss of life and the large-scale destruction of property had been extended to Scotland, Ireland and Wales as well. The regimes that came into being after the execution of Charles I in January 1649 rested on military power and the support of tiny groups of political and religious radicals. (They lacked the consent that was essential for enduring stability and inevitably fell once the morale and support of the army collapsed in 16590-1660.) Winstanley’s prescriptions were neither plausible nor sustainable but a recipe for anarchy. Ironically, the people from whom the Diggers seized land at St George’s Hill were not the local landowners but the freeholders and copyholders who depended upon access to the common land to survive themselves. Naturally enough, they were hostile to this experiment. Winstanley is hardly a great literary stylist as Ann Hughes’s own extracts in Seventeenth-Century England: A Changing Culture (Volume 1. Primary Sources) show. Other political languages – of the common law or of civic republicanism – were certainly available to contemporaries. No service is done to the study of the past by claiming that it validates the political agendas of modern left-wing groups.


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