The following article on Gerrard Winstanley outlines how Winstanley became to be seen as a key figure in a linger historical ccommunist tradition. It was written by John Gurney and first posted by The Tribune.
GERRARD WINSTANLEY: CHRISTIAN COMMUNISM
For Diggers leader Gerrard Winstanley, any Christianity which focused on individual salvation was bankrupt – Christ’s message was a revolutionary doctrine that demanded rebuilding society in the common interest.
In the summer of 1918, as the first anniversary of the October Revolution approached, steps were taken in Moscow to implement one of Lenin’s pet projects, his plan for monumental propaganda. According to a decree that had been issued on 12 April, surviving symbols of the Tsarist regime were to be systematically removed, and monuments to past revolutionary thinkers and activists set up along major routes in the metropolis. Similar plans were laid for Petrograd. Among the old Tsarist symbols which faced destruction was a large granite obelisk standing prominently in the Alexander Gardens by the Kremlin, and which had been erected as recently as 1913 to commemorate 300 years of Romanov rule. It was Lenin who took the decision to save the obelisk, when it became clear that re-use might be preferable to demolition.
As civil war in Russia intensified, work on new monuments had proved much more difficult than expected, and it was apparent that few would be ready for the first anniversary celebrations. It made good sense to recycle an older monument, even at the risk of upsetting Moscow’s avant-garde artists and sculptors. The Romanov two-headed eagle was removed from the Alexander Gardens obelisk, and the names of tsars were effaced; in their place the names of 19 leading revolutionary thinkers were inscribed. As might be expected, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels headed the list, but the eighth name was that of ‘Uinstenli’, or Gerrard Winstanley (1609–76), best known as leader of the seventeenth-century English Diggers, who in April 1649 had occupied waste land at St George’s Hill in Surrey, sowed the ground with parsnips, carrots and beans, and declared their hope that the Earth would soon become ‘a common treasury for all, without respect of persons’.
Why should Lenin and his associates have chosen Winstanley as one of the thinkers whose work might be seen to have helped pave the way for the massive upheavals of October 1917? What was it that brought Winstanley into this Pantheon of great revolutionaries, and provided a link, however tenuous, between the English and Russian revolutions? At first sight, the presence of Winstanley’s name seems puzzling. Winstanley was not particularly well known even in his own time, and he was certainly not one of the dominant figures of his age.
His period of public activity lasted for only a brief, four-year period from 1648 to 1652, and the Diggers were active for little more than a year before their colonies in Surrey and elsewhere were broken up, their crops trampled and their houses burned. In the two centuries after Winstanley’s death his writings were read by only a small number of people, and it was not until the last decade of the nineteenth century that his life and works became better known, and socialists came to rediscover a figure who appeared to anticipate many of their own beliefs. The mid-century Chartists had known and praised the Leveller leader John Lilburne, but Winstanley passed them by. His rediscovery came too late even for Marx and Engels, to whom Winstanley’s ideas were apparently completely unknown. There is no evidence that William Morris, the English socialist whose News from Nowhere might seem to indicate a knowledge of Winstanley’s writings, had ever read a word of them. It was Eduard Bernstein who in 1895 provided the first systematic analysis of Winstanley’s ideas in his contribution to Karl Kautsky’s Forerunners of Modern Socialism, thus enabling Marxist intellectuals for the first time to appreciate their significance.
Winstanley was a religious thinker and visionary, strongly influenced by the mystical writings that were so popular among radicals in the English Revolution; his work was suffused with biblical quotation and he shared fully in the millenarian excitement of the age. In many ways there was a world of difference between him and late nineteenth-century Marxists. Yet it is possible to understand how the latter might come to take an interest in Winstanley and to see in him a precursor, however distant, of Marx. Winstanley’s views were always distinctive: he chose to use the word Reason in place of the word God, he insisted that humanity and the whole creation had been corrupted by covetousness, competitiveness and false dealings, and he anticipated a time when all would come to recognise the virtue of abandoning private property and working in common.
In Winstanley’s writings Marxists could find some of the most trenchant criticisms of contemporary social relations to appear from a seventeenth-century pen, and they would readily have acknowledged the importance of his insight that only a wholesale transformation of society, brought about by knowledgeable, regenerate individuals working together, would rid humankind of suffering and exploitation. All of society’s and the earth’s problems could, it seemed, be linked to the rise of private property and monetary exchange; the creation of a moneyless and property-less society was not only desirable but inevitable. The forthcoming transformation – the ‘restoration of all things’ – would be liberating for all, rich as well as poor.
To late nineteenth-century students of Marx, Winstanley’s vision of ‘community’ might appear consistent with their understanding of communism – a word first coined in their own century. Through a close reading of Winstanley, they might also – as Eduard Bernstein and Georgi Plekhanov both did – spot rudimentary attempts to formulate familiar Marxian concepts such as alienation and the labour theory of value. It is no wonder that Bernstein, who did so much to make Winstanley’s writings better known, could in 1895 describe Winstanley as being well ahead of his contemporaries, and praise the skill with which he made connections between the social conditions of his time and their causes. Winstanley’s appeal to Marxists lay not only in his perceptive social criticism, but also in his recognition of the importance of agency and self-emancipation.
Like many seventeenth-century radicals Winstanley proclaimed his preference for action over words, but while some radicals advocated charitable help for the poor, Winstanley was insistent that the poor should take responsibility for freeing themselves from their burdens. The actions of the poor in working the land in common, and in refusing to work for hire, would both signal the impending changes and help usher them in. Marxist readers of Winstanley, deeply engaged as many of them were in the political struggles of their own time, would find no difficulty in endorsing Winstanley’s observation that ‘action is the life of all, and if thou dost not act, thou dost nothing’.
In his religious writings too Winstanley might be seen to have gone further than many of his contemporaries. His deep anticlericalism was directed not only against the institutions and personnel of the established church, but against all organised religion, including the radical sects. Marxists encountering Winstanley for the first time would welcome Winstanley’s fierce criticism of the social functions of religion, and of versions of Christianity that focused primarily on individual salvation. It was actions here on earth, rather than any promise of future salvation, that for Winstanley formed the essence of true religion; the question of the existence of heaven or hell was consequently of lesser concern to him.
While most historians today would identify Winstanley’s religious position as an extreme example of a belief in a religion of conduct, it is easy to understand why turn-of-the-century Marxists might see him – as many of his contemporaries had – as at heart an atheist, and as someone who used religious language principally to cloak secular arguments. In this, as in so many other ways, Winstanley could appear to them to be one of the most interesting forerunners of modern scientific socialism. The true picture is, of course, more complex. Even in the first few years after Winstanley’s popular rediscovery, his appeal seems to have been as great for anarchists and libertarians as for orthodox Marxists.
As early as 1899, the radical journalist and land campaigner Morrison Davidson was able to describe Winstanley as ‘our seventeenth-century Tolstoy’, and he was only the first of many to seek to associate the Digger with an anarchist rather than Marxist tradition. The struggle for Winstanley between Marxists and anarchists continued for much of the twentieth century. While in the late 1940s Communist Party intellectuals championed Winstanley as a materialist and a supporter of state action, George Woodcock could claim him in 1944 as a thinker who anticipated Kropotkin’s idea of Mutual Aid ‘as he anticipated anarchism in so many other ways’. George Orwell too believed that Winstanley’s thought ‘links up with anarchism rather than socialism’.
Academics too soon came to see him as a figure of particular significance. The rise of modern academic interest in Winstanley is often associated, quite justifiably, with the work of the Oxford historian and Marxist Christopher Hill (1912–2003), whose contribution to our understanding of the Digger phenomenon remains highly influential. But many other professional historians, of a wide variety of political opinions, have added over the years to our knowledge of Winstanley’s life and ideas, as have leading literary scholars, theologians, legal historians and political scientists.
Voices of dissent are occasionally still heard, and the attention devoted by scholars to Diggers and other civil war radicals is still sometimes characterised as ‘wildly disproportionate’. Such comments may seem rather quaint and old fashioned today, a throwback to the 1950s when it was still possible to study mid seventeenth-century British history at degree level without hearing any mention of Winstanley’s name. But it is clear that in academic circles interest in Winstanley has never been the sole preserve of the left. The great Victorian historians S.R. Gardiner and C.H. Firth both took notice of Winstanley’s writings, while Perez Zagorin, certainly no Marxist, could in the 1950s praise Winstanley as a ‘genius’ and ‘one of the pre-eminent political thinkers of his time’. Even the redoubtable G.M. Trevelyan felt able to declare that Winstanley was of the ‘most attractive and noble type ever produced by our island’, and a figure well worth rescuing from the obscurity into which past prejudice had scandalously cast him.
Winstanley became a writer and activist in the late 1640s, in the aftermath of England’s civil wars, and he can only properly be understood in the context of the political, economic and religious crisis of the post-war years. The period from 1640 to 1660 – which encompassed civil war between king and parliament, the defeat and execution of Charles I, and the experiments in kingless rule that followed – is most commonly referred to today as the English Revolution. It was Christopher Hill who promoted the view that these two decades witnessed England’s most significant period of bourgeois revolution, and much of the focus of his early work was on the nature and dynamics of that revolution. From an early date, however, he also acknowledged the existence of an unfulfilled radical revolution that could be set alongside the one that succeeded, and it was here that Winstanley was seen to belong.
By the time Hill came to write his groundbreaking book The World Turned Upside Down, which was published in 1972, his interests had turned firmly to this ‘revolt within the revolution’. Among the multitude of radical figures discussed in the book, Winstanley clearly stood out as the real hero, and the true revolutionary. The World Turned Upside Down was re-issued in paperback in 1975, and this helped to ensure that Winstanley’s ideas, set in the context of the radical ferment of the revolutionary decades, reached a much wider readership than ever before. Winstanley’s own work had also become available for the first time in a relatively cheap and accessible form, in Hill’s 1973 Pelican Classics edition of Winstanley’s The Law of Freedom and Other Writings.
Both books had a widespread influence, and it is partly to them that we can ascribe the exceptional fame that Winstanley has come to enjoy. The singer-songwriter Leon Rosselson recalled being ‘fired up by discovering Winstanley’ in The World Turned Upside Down; after reading it he sought out other books on Winstanley and wrote his Digger song ‘The World Turned Upside Down: Part 2’, which has since become one of the best-known protest anthems of recent years. Hill’s books were also read widely by students at the new British universities established in the 1960s – where radical ideas featured prominently in the many English Revolution ‘special subjects’ set up by admirers or former students of Hill – and at Oxford, where his influence remained strong even after his retirement.
At Sussex, which quickly established itself as a leading centre of English Revolution studies, two special subject students in the 1970s reputedly followed Winstanley’s example and went off to set up their own commune. It was outside academia that Hill’s books had their most direct impact, and where interest in Winstanley has since grown most quickly. In recent decades Winstanley has become one of the most widely-celebrated figures from the period of the English Revolution, today perhaps more famous even than the Leveller leaders. There have been plays, TV dramas, novels, songs and, in Kevin Brownlow and Andrew Mollo’s Winstanley, an important film. Politicians of the left have often cited him as an inspirational figure.
His ideas and achievements have come to be seen as being particularly relevant to modern activists, and the Diggers are one of the historical groups with which activists today are most likely to identify. From the 1960s Haight-Ashbury Diggers, through Britain’s Hyde Park Diggers and Digger Action Movement, to twenty-first-century land campaigners, G20 Meltdown protestors and Occupy movement activists, there have been frequent echoes of Winstanley’s writings in the activities of modern social movements. We do not know how future generations will regard the Diggers, and whether Winstanley will retain his current, exalted place in the radical and revolutionary tradition. But, for the moment at least, the words of Leon Rosselson’s song (in the most optimistic of its many versions) hold good: the Diggers ‘were dispersed – but still the vision lingers on.’
Some other Tribune articles on our history
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