Gerrard Winstanley - the Digger - was one of the first individuals to clearly identify the extension of private property rights to land as mankind's fundamental flaw. His clear understanding of The Earth as a gift bequeathed to all mankind 'without respect of persons' is articulated in a visionary flow of spirited prose.
The Levellers and the Diggers were inextricably connected, not just in time or in their social and political vision. When they first moved on to St George's Hill in Surrey on April 1st 1649 the Diggers called themselves The True Levellers. They saw themselves as a more visionary and less compromising movement. Gerrard Winstanley and his friend's words speak for themselves.
Gerrard Winstanley, Selected Writings, Aporia Press, available from The Land Is Ours
The English Civil War was a pivotal point in world history. Politcal power was seized by the burgeoning English merchant class, which went on to create the industrial Revolution and build one of the biggest exploitative empires the world has ever seen. In the late 1640s, Cromwell was constructing the police state on which his middle class revolutiuon would be based.
The British education system leaves us with an image of Roundheads and Cavaliers, Parliament fighting the King. Parliament, teachers explain, was more representative than the King and so Cromwell's victory was a victory for the people. But history is not always as it seems, particularly when 'written by the winners'.
The parliament of the day was anything but representative. Elections had been suspended and soldiers, on several occasions, were in the Houses of Parliament, arresting MP's who would not toe the line. It was a schizophrenic war, with roundhead soldiers frequently having more to fear from their own commanders than the so called enemy. This gives ironic credence to the view that the most distinguishing difference between the warring parties was in the style of their officers' hats.
Research since the 1940s by historians Christopher Hill, H.N. Brailsford, Brian Manning and others has begun to bring recognition to long-neglected popular civil war movements and events. The Levellers were a vast popular movement which took its name from the anti-enclosure activists earlier in the century. The Levellers are only now being acknowledged as the first political faction on either side of the Atlantic to organise itself on a pattern of democratic self-government.
When Leveller pamphleteer John Lilburne was arrested and tried for treason events in the courtroom were relayed out to thousands jamming the streets around Guildhall. When he died, tens of thousands of ordinary Londoners turned out to pay their respects at what is now thought to have been the largest funeral of the century.
Most textbooks still skim over the people's war. One present-day history teacher even testifies to having been reprimanded by her headmistress for giving a lesson on the Levellers. In some schools they are still considered 'too political'.
The Leveller women, Elizabeth Lilburne and Katherine Chidley amongst others, were centuries ahead of their time. Tens of thousands of women signed their equal rights petitions but when thousands of women delivered one of them to parliament they received short shrift. They were told by Cromwell's Parliamentarians to 'go home and wash the dishes'.
The war was a time of great popular ferment. It was by no means clear what form of government would replace the monarchy and the Leveller party pulled together many visions of a better country and a better world. There was a great deal of discussion, especially within the parliamentary army, about what had been wrong with the old system and how best to replace it.
Printing had been strictly controlled by the Stationers Guild before the war. But sympathetic Leveller soldiers liberated presses and publisher Giles Calvert (the name resurrected by Calverts Press in Shoreditch today) helped ensure that Leveller ideas were available to counter Royalist and Parliamentarian propaganda. Lilburne's 'Agreement of the People' captured ordinary people's vision of a fairer more representative government of which England could be proud. A definite improvement on the monarchy. Many of the liberties enshrined in the 'Agreement' was an inspiration subsequently acknowledged by radical reformers right across the world.
So worried were the Parliamentarians by Leveller literature that they had the pamphleteers imprisoned and lying propaganda was issued to discredit them. As a final body-blow Cromwell's 'mercenary dammne crew' treacherously decimated the final regiments of faithful Leveller soldiers.
The Diggers appeared in a nation wracked by the fallout of war just as this end-game was being played out. On 1st April 1649 calling themselves the 'True Levellers' they occupied a small area of common land at St. George's Hill near Weybridge in Surrey. Winstanley believed in a radical form of Christianity spelt out in confessional pamphlets like 'The Saint's paradice':
"To my beloved friends, whose souls hunger after sincere milk.
Dear friends, It hath been the universall condition of the earth (mankind) to be over-spread with a black cloud of darkness ; and the knowledge of the King of righteousness hath been manifested but in some few scattered ones... ...I spoke the name of God, and Lord, and Christ, but I knew not this Lord, God and Christ; I prayed to a God but I knew not where he was, nor what he was, and so walking by imagination, I worshipped that devill, and called him God; by reason wherof my comforts were often shaken to pieces, and at last it was shewed to me, That while I builded upon any words or writings of other men, or while I looked after a God without me, I did but build upon the sand, and as yet I knew not the rock."
To Winstanley mankind is the Lord of the Creation, but he was always careful to explain that using the term "mankind" included women as fully as men. Sovereignty is given to each soul to use for good or ill as they choose. The thought of some sovereign force outside the sphere of the individual he saw as an insult to "the great creator, Reason".
Declaring the earth a 'common treasury for all' Gerrard Winstanley went further than the Levellers had dared. With his 40 or so supporters he issued a peaceful challenge to all the nation to come and join him, to help cast off the 'Norman yoke' and liberate the land of England forever. To set an example the world could follow.
Winstanley called this practical manifesto 'The True Levellers' Standard Advanced'. He was expanding on Leveller ideas to tackle issues even more fundamental to the plight of common people.
For all their popular support most Levellers believed it would only be necessary to revise the parliament. The Diggers went further, tackling social questions that Levellers had only touched on. Questions like whether the state has any jurisdiction over those not willingly consenting to it. In Winstanley's vision there was no place for the familiar institutions the Levellers wanted to reform.
Central in his analysis was addressing the hard fact of land poverty and dispossession, leaving those who had been masters of their own destiny in the clutches of 'Lords of Manors and Lords of the Land.' When Winstanley addressed England's landowners in 'a declaration of the poor oppressed people of England' he struck at the very root of class divisions:
"...the earth was not made purposely for you, to be Lords of it, and we to be your Slaves, Servants, and Beggars; but it was made to be a common Livelihood to all, without respect of persons: And that your buying and selling of Land, and the Fruits of it, one to another, is The Cursed thing, and was brought in by War; which hath, and still does establish murder, and theft, in the branches of some parts of Mankinde over others,..."
Winstanley straightforwardly exposed what he saw as the fraud of the civil war as Lilburne had done before him. It was a popular point of view in 1649 which is only recently being acknowledged:
"O thou powers of England, though thou hast promised to make this People a Free People, yet thou hast so handled the matter, through thy self-seeking humour, That thou hast wrapped us up more in bondage, and oppression lies heavier upon us; not only bringing thy fellow creatures, the Commoners, to a morsel of Bread, but by confounding all sorts of people by thy Government..."
He was determined to strike at the root causes of social conflict. In spirited prose, he explained why the Diggers had chosen to act and spelt out his vision for an equitable future.
And the First Reason is this, That we may work in righteousness, and lay the Foundation of making the Earth a Common Treasury for All, both Rich and Poor, That every one that is born in the Land, may be fed by the Earth his Mother that brought him forth, according to the Reason that rules in the Creation. Not Inclosing any part into any particular hand, but all as one man, working together and feeding together as Sons of one Father, members of one Family; not one Lording over another, but all looking upon each other as equals in the Creation;
As the Diggers built their makeshift settlement their pamphlets and their ideas were spreading. The common at St. George's Hill was planted with parsnips, carrots and beans. Several more Digger colonies sprang up around the country, especially in Buckinghamshire and Kent, with a major settlement at Wllingborough in Northamptonshire.
The local clergyman-landowner, Parson Platt, dismissed Winstanley's Christian creed and that of his squatters. Means legal and illegal were used to confiscate livestock and destroy the encampment and crops, leaving the Digger community without food. But the Diggers didn't give up. The colony at St.George's Hill lasted only a few months, but they moved to another site near Cobham, where they were able to stay longer and raise crops. As the year wore on and winter came, however, conditions were increasingly cold and grim. Eventually they were defeated by constant attacks and oppression after a year, as malnutrition and general ill-health took their toll. Other Digger settlements lasted longer and the colony at Wellingborough gave money to support the Surrey Diggers as their venture came to an end.
Though the experiment had ended the vision refused to go away.
In the same way that Leveller ideas were taken up by.... Thomas Paine and others so the Digger philosophy has stuck. It can be traced in the Monmouth Rebellion, in the French Revolution and amongst its supporters in other countries, in the Paris Commune and in British land struggles throughout the last two centuries. In the tradition of social equity there are few that have stripped social assumptions back so far as Winstanley. His critiques transcend concepts of left or right. Winstanley's demanded no less than direct personal access to natural resources.
His convictions on common ownership reflected those of the Christian apostles:
"Now the company of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things which he possessed was his own, but they had everything in common." Acts 4.32
Winstanley equated the extension of private property rights with evil and the concept of participative common rights with good. He particularly highlighted land as the key resource being privatised or inclosed in his day, directly against the interests and wishes of dispossessed commoners.
By the early 1900's almost all land in Britain had been inclosed. Leaving the vast majority of the population landless, taking their livelihood through others.
The capitalist champions of private ownership have had to make new inroads, both deregulating and defiling remaining commons such as the seas and the air and bringing even the natural monopolies such as public utilities into private ownership.
Rights once thought inalienable have been recently stripped away in legislation such as the Criminal Justice Act 1995 and Police Act 1997. Meanwhile private property rights are being extended even into the building blocks of life itself.
The Landlords are being surpassed. Indian writer Vandana Shiva recently coined the expression 'Lifelords' for companies such as Monsanto new owners of copyrighted strains of living material. The extension of private property rights is now reaching unheard of proportions
What unnerving foresight Winstanley showed in his warnings and how can we not take up his challenge to those who followed him to continue his work.
And here I end, having put my Arm as far as my
strength will go to advance Righteousness: I have Writ, I have
Acted, I have Peace: and now I must wait to see the Spirit do his
own work in the hearts of others, and whether England shall be
the first Land, or some others, wherin Truth shall sit down in
A Bill of Account of the most Remarkable Sufferings that the Diggers have met with... Gerrard Winstanley 1649/50
Tony Gosling is a researcher with The Land Is Ours
Jim Paton works at the Advisory Service for Squatters, 2 St Pauls Road, LONDON N1