Still Digging

The 17th Century campaigner Gerrard Winstanley is a hero for the 21st Century

By George Monbiot. Published in BBC History June 2000

A few weeks ago, a planning notice appeared in the Surrey Herald. The St George’s Hill Estate, on the outskirts of Weybridge, was applying for permission to install a set of “electro-hydraulically activated blockers”, or car traps, at the entrance to its property. The most expensive housing complex in rural England is about to become even more private.

The shutting of St George’s Hill to anyone without an invitation is resonant with irony. For it was here, in 1649, that the pacifist revolutionary Gerrard Winstanley declared that he and his followers would “lay the Foundation of making the Earth a Common Treasury for All, both Rich and Poor … not one Lording over another, but all looking upon each other as equals in the Creation.”

I first encountered Gerrard Winstanley soon after returning from Brazil, where I had been recording the struggles of peasant farmers trying to resist the seizure of their lands by urban businessmen and politicians. I found in his writings some striking parallels with the perspectives the Brazilian campaigners had developed. As I became involved in the new British landrights movement, I soon discovered that I was by no means the only one to have stumbled across him: Winstanley’s writings have inspired thousands of modern activists, as well as songs popularised by Billy Bragg and Chumbawumba and a remarkable film by Kevin Brownlow.

Gerrard Winstanley was born in Wigan in 1609, the son of a wool trader. By the age of twenty he had arrived in London, where he followed his father’s profession. Like many small businessmen, he was ruined in the early years of the Civil War. He moved to Cobham, in Surrey, where he became an agricultural labourer and, more importantly, a pamphleteer. The first of his known tracts, published in 1648, deal exclusively with religious ideas, but within a few months he had acquired a radical and visionary political consciousness.

In The New Law of Righteousness, published in January 1649, Winstanley identifies private property as “the curse and burden the creation groans under”. The ruling classes, he argues, seized the land from the people of England through violence. They secured it by means of repressive legislation, aided by a corrupt and controlling Church. He calls upon the poor to rise, non-violently, and seize their land back. Four months later, he was putting his new-found radicalism into practice.

By April 1649, Charles 1st had lost his head and Cromwell was consolidating his dictatorship. While the revolution had liberated the middle classes from the protectionist constraints imposed by the monarchy, many republican soldiers and civilian working people had begun to realise that there was nothing in it for them. They had beheaded one tyrant, only to see him replaced by another. The new lords of the land appeared to be even more rapacious than their predecessors, rapidly enclosing the commons on which many of the poor subsisted. The government was levying onerous taxes in order to re-equip the army. Even so, many soldiers hadn’t been paid for months.

Rebellions began springing up all over the country. The troops of several regiments mutinied, some, calling themselves Levellers, with the aim of overthrowing the military government. Somerset farmers, Derbyshire colliers, Cornish tin-miners and Northumbrian freemen rose in support.

In the midst of this turmoil, Gerrard Winstanley emerges as a coherent and persuasive revolutionary, pioneering some of the ideas and tactics widely deployed by protestors today. He and the impoverished people who gathered around him – calling themselves “True Levellers” or “Diggers” – would, he declared, pursue a wholly peaceful means of taking the law into their own hands. “The Work we are going about is this,” he explained in The True Levellers Standard Advanced, a communist manifesto published 199 years before Karl Marx’s, “To dig up Georges-Hill and the waste Ground thereabouts, and to Sow Corn, and to eat our bread together by the sweat of our brows.”

Attractive as the Diggers’ manifesto was to many of the dispossessed, it found little favour with property owners. Mobs of vigilantes, often organised by the local clergy and the lords of the manor, invaded the Diggers’ makeshift settlement, smashing their tools, pulling down their homes and beating them up. But they refused either to budge or to fight back.

Three weeks after the occupation began, General Fairfax, the Commander-in-Chief of the army, summoned Winstanley and his collaborator William Everard to meet him in London. They appear to have had a civil conversation, even though the Diggers refused to remove their hats, informing Fairfax that he was no more important than any other man. Winstanley later sent him a declaration of independence. “While we keep within the bounds of our Commons, and none of us shall be found guilty of medling with your goods, or inclosed proprieties … your laws then shall not reach to us, unlesse you will oppresse or shed the blood of the innocent.”

Within a few months of the occupation of St George’s Hill, people calling themselves Diggers had seized land in Kent, Middlesex, Hertfordshire, Bedfordshire, Northamptonshire, Leicestershire and Gloucestershire. But their peaceful revolution did not last long. By March 1650, Winstanley and his followers had been driven off St George’s Hill. They settled on a small heath nearby, but a few weeks later a mob led by the local parson burnt them out for the last time and threatened them with death if they returned.

Gerrard Winstanley disappeared into the obscurity from which he came, publishing, after his final expulsion, just one more pamphlet. But his ideas live on. Over the past ten years, he has been more widely read than ever before, as activists all over the world reiterate his arguments.

As well as demanding the redistribution of land, Winstanley, like radical movements in Mexico, India and Brazil today, called for a universal and experimental education system, which would lead to the transformation of popular consciousness he sought. All officals, he insisted, should be elected, every year. The standing army would be abolished. There would be no foreign wars of aggression; instead, England should strive for a peaceful understanding of other nations.

Winstanley was also one of the world’s first liberation theologists. The clergy, he maintained, were “distilling their blind principles into the people” to “nurse up ignorance in them”. “Your Saviour,” he wrote, “must be a power within you, to deliver you from that bondage within.” There were no miracles, no heaven, no hell, and no original sin.

Today, Britain’s legal system is still built upon a pre-democratic structure, designed, as Winstanley observed, to secure the property seized from the poor. The enclosures he lamented continue, as public bodies and public spaces are privatised, and even human genes are registered as exclusive property. British activists trying to reclaim the streets, the cities and the fields have seized and occupied private land, calling for development to meet the needs of the poor, rather than responding to the greed of the rich. Most of their risings have, like Winstanley’s, been non-violent.

Last year, I joined campaigners seeking to erect a memorial to the Diggers on St George’s Hill. We occupied a small corner of the estate and started negotiating to plant a stone close to the site on which the Diggers built their village. We stayed for a month, before being injuncted, with the memorial, off the property.

Further reading: Andrew Hopton, Ed, 1989. Gerrard Winstanley, Selected Writings. Aporia Press, London

David Petegorsky, 1940. Left-Wing Democracy in the English Civil War: Gerrard Winstanley and the Digger Movement. Alan Sutton Publishing, Stroud

Christopher Hill, 1972. The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas During the English Revolution. Penguin, London

HN Brailsford. Levellers and the English Revolution. (I can’t find my copy Greg – could I leave it to you to dig out the full reference?)

The film Winstanley, dir. Kevin Brownlow. (I don’t have a date for it, but Kevin’s working at the BFI. He might also be able to suggest where people can find it.)