English 17th century revolutionary Gerrard Winstanley


This video from Britain says about itself:

Levellers, True Levellers, and The Diggers of 1649 (1 of 3)

The Levellers were a relatively loose alliance of radicals and freethinkers who came to prominence during the period of instability that characterized the English Civil War of 1642 – 1649.

What bound these people together was the general belief that all men were equal; since this was the case, then a government could only have legitimacy if it was elected by the people. The Leveller demands were for a secular republic, abolition of the House of Lords, equality before the law, the right to vote for all, free trade, the abolition of censorship, freedom of speech, the abolition of tithes and tolls, and the absolute right for people to worship whatever religion they chose, or none at all. This program was published as “The Agreement of the People“.

The Levellers argued that since God had created all men as equals, the land belonged to all the people as a right. Their program was, then, essentially an attempt to restore the situation that they believed had existed previous to the Norman Conquest in 1099; they wanted to establish a ‘commonwealth’ in which the common people would be in control of their own destiny without the intervention of a King, a House of Lords and other potential oppressors.

It is hardly surprising, given this program of demands, that the rich and powerful felt threatened by the Levellers. This is particularly so, given that some of the Leveller demands, almost 400 years on, have still not been met!

In 1649 Gerrard Winstanley and fourteen others published a pamphlet in which they called themselves the “True Levellers” to distinguish their more radical ideas from the Levellers. Once they put their ideas into practice and started to cultivate common land, they became known as “Diggers” by both opponents and supporters. The Diggers’ beliefs encompassed a worldview that envisioned an ecological interrelationship between humans and nature, acknowledging the inherent connections between people and their surroundings.

Winstanley advocated a new democratic society of the “common man” as opposed to the current society based on privilege and wealth. Many of the political, economic and social reforms advocated would dramatically impact the social order. Winstanley was concerned by the plight of the people at the lower rungs of English Society, the overlooked or forgotten man. The poor, the sick, the hungry, and the destitute who often did not scrape by or were left to die.

The Digger movement at St George’s Hill (Surrey) provided an ideal venue for testing Winstanleys’ new social experiment. Winstanley rejected the concept of private ownership of all land, and called for a peaceful return of all public lands to the People. Some have even characterized the Surrey Diggers’ as a primitive Millennium movement. Later generations have called the social experiment an early form of communism or even anarchism.

After repeated attacks and destruction of their commune and crops by local landowners (particularly by hired thugs and ill-informed peasants) and fines from the high authorities, the Diggers soon faded away.

But, as with the Levellers, Winstanley and the Surrey Diggers struck a blow at the halls of wealth and power of 17th century English society. Their efforts and their philosophy were not wasted on later generations seeking the same spirit of liberty and freedom in a more democratic social structure.

By Alan Lloyd in Britain:

Gerrard Winstanley: The Digger’s Life and Legacy

by John Gurney (Pluto Press, £11.50)

Sunday 10 February 2013

The latest addition to Pluto’s Revolutionary Lives series, this is an eminently readable and very welcome biography of the Digger’s leader Gerrard Winstanley.

A revolutionary intellectual rated so highly by the Bolsheviks that his name was one of just 19 such figures carved in 1918 on the memorial obelisk in Moscow’s Alexander Gardens, Winstanley is little known or lauded in his own country.

His recorded writings and actions took place over a brief period from 1648 to 1652 around the time of the English revolution, and they are as worthy of debate and consideration now as they were nearly 500 years ago.

Winstanley’s publication The New Law Of Righteousness argued that there is enough land in England for all and, by ensuring that the “earth is a common treasury,” no-one need ever go hungry.

His central tenet was that we should “abandon private property and embrace community.” Along with a group of like-minded Diggers, he set one up on the common land of Saint George’s Hill in Walton-on-Thames.

His actions encouraged other settlements in places such as Wellingborough, Cobham and Iver, which sadly lasted little over a year.

Their success alarmed the vested interests of the ruling class, particularly the local landowners who eventually destroyed the communities and drove the Diggers off the land.

This led Winstanley to pen The Law Of Freedom, described by political theoretician Eduard Bernstein as outlining a “communist utopia.”

It also prompted a continuing debate as to whether his practical experience as a Digger changed Winstanley’s outlook from libertarian to authoritarian.

This debate, along with one on the differences between the Diggers and the Levellers, are cleverly outlined by the author without slowing the pace of the book.

In an age when the difference between rich and poor continues to widen and the need for decent homes for working people becomes ever more urgent, so Winstanley’s ideas retain their relevance and perhaps continue to suggest solutions.

This well referenced book is an excellent starting point for anyone wishing to learn about this remarkably far-sighted radical.

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