Monday, 10 September 2012

Gerrard Winstanley (19/10/1609- 10/09/1676) Vision Still Burning Bright

Gerrard Winstanley was the fiery soul of the Digger movement. In the history of English social thought he is considered the first sectarian Communist.
His writings, as well as the Digger manifestos, advocated absolute human equality - and the emphasis on the common ownership of land and natural resources, as relevant today as when they were first written. Less concerned with individual scarcity than in sharing what little there was, and in increasing it for and by the community. The Diggers or True Levellers as they described themselves anticipated the conservationist and commune movements of the present day.
Born in Wigan, Lancashire on October 19th 1609, he moved to London in 1630, where he became an apprentice in the cloth trade and became a freeman in 1637. In September 1640 he married Susan King and the couple moved to Walton-on-Thames.  Influenced by the ideas of John Lilburne and the Levellers he commenced to see his own visions, from his earler mystical writings he develoved his own thought, that clearly displayed a revolutionary design,  which led him to a form of communism. Although influenced by Christian thought, his movement was not just symbolic, it was a political one, using religion as a dialectical base, he bodly declared that it was the Diggers not the priests who observed true religion. By action and deed.
He denounced the domination of man by man, proclaiming the equality of women, basing their reason not just on God's but also Nature's Laws. The times that these activities were happening, were set at the backdrop of the English Civil War, where old reasonings were being cast away,  a time of revolution and change. He and the Diggers were part of a radical ferment that was sweeping the country at the time, a broad movement which had at its heart a radical template, a yearning for somethiing new, a society based on harmony and happinness and a sense of community. Though Winstanley infused these ideas with a religious sensibility he also bought with it a  reasoning grounded in living here on earth.
On April 1 1649 he and his comrades took to digging and manuring land on St George's Hill, and later at Cobham in Surrey, in order to encourage the people to dig and plough up the commons, parks and other untilled lands, to break down the pales of the enclosures that existed at the time. Their struggle was essentially against private property in  land, civil law and tyranny in matters of government.

A key text of theirs. wriitten mainly by Winstanley but assisted by others was published on April 26th 1649 and contained many of their key demands, which they would repeat in other pamphlets. I reprint it here.

The True Leveller's Standard Advanced

' The State of the Community opened, and presented to Sons of Men: A Declaration to the Powers of England, and to all the Powers of the world, showing the cause why the Coommon People of Engald have begun, and gives Consent to dig up, manure and sow corn upon George Hill in Surrey, by those that have subscribed and thousands more that gives consent.

In the  beginning of Time, the great Creator, Reason, made the earth to be a Common Treaury, to preserve Beasts, Birds, Fishes and Man, the Lord that was to govern this Creation; for Man had Dominion given  to him over the Beasts, Birds and Fishes; but not one word was spoken in the beginning, that one branch of mankind should rule over another.

   And  the reason is this, every man, Male and Female, is a perfect creature of himself; and the same Spirit that made the Globe dwells in man to govern the Globe; so that the flesh of man being subject to Reason, his Maker, hath him to be his Teacher and Ruler within himself, therefore needs not to run abroad after any Teacher and Ruler within himself, therefore needs not to run abroad after any Teacher and Ruler without him, for he needs not that any man should teach him , for the same Anoynting that ruled in the Son of Man, teacheth him all things.

  But since human flesh (that king of Beasts? began to delight himself in the object of Creation, more than in the Spirit and Reason and Righteosness... Covetousness, did set up one man to teach and rule over another; and thereby the Spirit was killed, and man was brought into bondage and became a greater Slave to much of his own kind, than the Beasts of the field were to him.

 And hereupon the Earth (which was made to be a Common Treasury for relief for all, both \beasts and Men) was hedged in to the Inclosures by the teachers and rulers, and the others were made Servants and Slaves; And that Earth that is within this Creation made a Common Store-House for all, is bought and sold, and kept in the hands of a few, whereby the great Creator is mightily dishonoured, as if he were a respector of persons, delighting in the comfortable livelihood of some, and rejoicing in the miserable povertie and straits of others. From the beginning it was not so.'

Powerful stuff.
A famous rhyme written at around the same time still has much potency, you can here it below as sung by the band Chumbamwamba

The Diggers Song

At the time the diggers were seen as mad extremists, but digger camps were set up in several other counties but they were short lived and as a movement they were unsuccessful, their settlements were destroyed but their various manifestos and pamphlets continue to hold much resonance,  inspiring people to search out new ways of living, feeding our dreams. Gerrard Winstanley and the Diggers were prepared to put their beliefs into action, and since that time many political movements have come to recognise the Diggers as pioneers of their own beliefs, their hostility to rule of law and strong governments still resonates with much appeal. Their ideas can be seen in modern movements that put people first and not the thirst for profit, echoed in environmental groups and the occupy movements and others seeking social justice. His message too, rings loud and clear at the moment with the present governments austerity measures, leaving many people vulneravble, and facing the prospect of losing their homes, and their attacks and criminalisation of the squatting movement.

Little is known of Winstanley's later life, it is possible that he may have become a Quaker, he died in a place called Cobham, but his contribution to our countries radical spirit looms large and his legacy will surely live on.

Dick Gaughan - The World Turned Upside Down.....

'Action is the life of all, and if thou dost not act, thou dost nothing' - Gerrard Winstanley

Further Reading:

The World Turned Upside Down; Radical Ideas During the English Revolution
- Christopher Hill, Penguin

Gerrard Winstanley and the Republic of heaven - David Boulton
Dales Historical Monographs 1999

Their is also in my opinion a rather fine film , Winstanley that came out in 1975 , made by Kevin Brownlow and Andrew Mollow, that is very good for historical accuracy, that deals with Winstanley's life and that of the Diggers. It has recently been reissued in D.V.D by the British Film Institute.

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