Why we should remember Winstanley and the Diggers

David Morgan. From the SHS Newsletter, August 2009

This year marks the quatercentenary of the birth of Gerrard Winstanley, who became the main spokesman of the “Diggers” or True Levellers. For just a few months in 1649 groups of people led by Winstanley and other veterans from the Civil War took over common lands to establish self-governing rural co-operatives on St George’s Hill in Surrey, and elsewhere in Buckinghamshire, Kent and Northamptonshire.

Winstanley defended the communes arguing that the land was a “common treasury” gifted by the creator to all. Their ultimately futile action met with fierce resistance from land owners but was later interpreted as a precursor of Communism inspiring many Utopian thinkers and Socialists. Winstanley’s substantial body of writings was rediscovered by a larger audience in the 1970s when Christopher Hill published “The World Turned Upside Down”, which described the various radical groups that emerged amidst the chaos of the 17th Century revolution; Leon Rosselson wrote a popular song with the same title in 1975.

Hill also edited a selection of Winstanley’s pamphlets, “The Law of Freedom and Other Writings”, which has long been out of print. The 70s also saw a powerful film, “Winstanley” by Kevin Brownlow and Andrew Mollo, with Christopher Hill as adviser, which was recently released on DVD by the British Film Institute.

Our Society is pleased to be organising, in cooperation with the South Place Ethical Society, a seminar on the abiding significance of the life and work of Gerrard Winstanley to be held at the Conway Hall on 19th November 2009. The event will see contributions from Professor Thomas Corns and Professor Ann Hughes, who are two of the editors, along with David Loewenstein, of the first complete and fully annotated edition of Winstanley’s works. The authors regard Gerrard Winstanley as the foremost radical thinker and activist of the English Revolution and maintain that his writings still have strong contemporary relevance. The meeting follows on from a successful Milton anniversary meeting held last year by the SHS at the same venue when Professor Corns spoke about the radicalism of the poet John Milton.

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August 2009

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