GERRARD WINSTANLEY THE DIGGERS LIFE AND LEGACY JOHN GURNEY PLUTO PRESS REVOLUTIONARY LIVES
REVIEW BY LAURENCE HUMPHRIES
John Gurney an academic from Newcastle University offers a biographical sketch of Gerrard Winstanley the 17th Century Revolutionary and Utopian Communist. In the introduction Gurney attempts to place Winstanley in an Anarchist or Marxist tradition which is an idealist formulation. As I stated in Socialist Fight no 11 Winstanley was a Utopian Communist “Their Communism was based on utopian ideals particularly the Bible” . Marxism and anarchism would emerge later in the 18th and 19th Centuries.
Gurney starts the biographic sketch by tracing Winstaney’s life. He was born in Wigan and subsequently moved to London. Winstanley was a small trader earning his living as a cloth maker. He had also studied the Bible and much of his writings are religious in context and tone. This is only natural as the 17th Century Revolution in Britain used the Saints and the second coming of Christ as the outward appearance. Much of the imagery used by Winstanley in his writings is religious.
The Economic Climate in the 1640’s was very severe and Winstanley had to seek alternative forms of work. “It was long thought that Winstanley was reduced to near destitution after his move from London and that in Cobham he was forced to take work as a Labourer”. . Working in Cobham Surrey Winstanley would be aware of the many tracts of land that lay unused or only had Sheep and cattle grazing when many poor Labourers were left to starve. There were many conflicts as well between the Landlord squires and the poor tenant farmer. “Landlord tenant conflict was exacerbated by the War” .
Winstanley used the Digger programme as a communist solution so that woods and forest and tracts of land could be tilled and dug and a community of workers could establish a ‘Communist Community’. The economic climate had pauperised huge sections of the population and Winstanley hoped through his revolutionary programme of Digging and tilling the land would prevent starvation and misery. “Gentry overstock the commons with sheep and cattle so that inferior tenants and poor Labourers can hardly keep a cow but half starve her” . Gurney shows how Winstanley’s ‘Law of Righteousness encapsulates the whole Digger and Communist experience. “ Winstanley’s denunciation of Inequality and its causes and his determination to see the downfall of poverty and oppression” . Winstanley declared in his programme “worke together” “Eat bread together”. “How he will have us that are called common people to manure upon the common lands” .
During the political crisis of 1649 Winstanley decided that the cure was to abolish private property and establish communal property together “Communism”. This began on the wastes of St Georges Hill in Surrey. “Work began on Sunday April 1st 1649 when a small group of women and men started digging and sowing vegetables on the wastes of St Georges Hill”. . the whole programme of Digging was announced in the True Levellers Standard advanced. At the same time as Winstanley was announcing his communist programme the Levellers who were organised in the Army had mutinied at Burford in Oxfordshire. “Loyal units of the Army under Fairfax and Cromwell (Army Grandees LH) and overwhelmed around 900 mutineers at Burford in Oxfordshire” .
The distinction between the Levellers Led by John Lillburne and William Walwyn and the True Levellers or Diggers was important. The Levellers were a middle class movement fighting for democratic rights. They were mainly small farmers, Merchants, Tradesmen and minor Gentry. They were fervent supporters of Private Property. Lilburne had protested to Ireton (Army Grandee LH) at Putney when they were discussing grievances from the Army that they were opposed to levelling people’s estates or property. Winstanley and his small band of supporters were Communists who opposed Private property and were also pacifists. “The Leveller Leaders repeatedly insisted that they had no intention of abolishing propriety , levelling men’s estates or making all things common”  pg. 107.
The Digger Communities spread to Wellingborough in Northamptonshire, St Iver in Buckinghamshire. Winstanley in the second Digger Manifesto “Spelt out plans to cut and sell wood on the Commons in order to raise funds for purchasing food and Corn” . Although Gurney refuses to use the word Communism, his description of Winstanley’s digging is communism in practice where Gurney uses the word Community. “Winstanley chose to emphasise the social and practical benefits of establishing community” .
The major fault of Gurney’s analysis is his thoroughgoing Idealist formulation on Winstanley’s thoughts on Historical Materialist and Scientific Communism. The conditions for Historical Materialism and Marxism had not yet ripened. There was no organised Working class and Trade Unions had not yet being formed. Winstanley was a Utopian Communist with limitations on how to achieve Communism. This would only ripen during the 18th and 19th Centuries with the writings of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels. Hostile opposition to the Diggers and their communities by the Landlords, squires and propertied classes overwhelmed the Landless peasants and wage Labourers. As pacifists they had no answer to military might from the state. They believed that through word of mouth and persuasion people would see that Winstanley’s vision was the right one. It would be left to Marx and Engels to map out the conditions for the overthrow of the Capitalist state through the construction of a trained and disciplined Party like the Bolsheviks tempered and led by Lenin and Trotsky. Cromwell and Fairfax ensured that the Communist experiment failed and with the Military Coup in 1650 Cromwell would assume total power as Lord Protector.
In the final Chapter “Winstanley’s Legacy” Gurney reveals his middle class Liberal prejudice to Communism. He tries to subsume Winstanley amongst a plethora of Left wing, radical and Anarchist traditions. Gurney makes reference to Christopher Hill, the foremost Marxist Historian of the 17th Century. There is no doubt that Hill’s writings on the English Revolution are a major source of Marxism. “With their distinction of having put forward a Communist programme Winstanley and his fellow diggers had a secure place in the history of the people’s century’s long struggle against oppression”. . Gurney accuses Brian Manning another Marxist historian of being ambivalent to the Diggers and more sympathetic to the Levellers. Gurney is wrong. Manning was quite clear on the relationship. “The diggers got no support from the Army apart from sympathetic noises from a few individual soldiers and they got no support from the Levellers”. .
Gurney has provided the reader with much useful information on Winstanley’s life and legacy, but by blurring the distinction between the Diggers programme and the Levellers programme there is a weakness in his analysis. His refusal to accept the Diggers programme as a ‘Utopian Communist Programme means that all we are left with is Generalities and confusion. It will be left to other serious Marxist Historians to map out the importance of Winstanley’s Communism.
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- MANNING. B 1649 THE CRISIS OF THE ENGLISH REVOLUTION PG.107
- GURNEY. J GERRARD WINSTANLEY .PG.64
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- MANNING. B. 1649 THE CRISIS OF THE ENGLISH REVOLUTION PG.129-130.