March 2017        

Early communists

Gerrard Winstanley and the Diggers

Jenny Farrell

Every so often we look back at individuals in history—not because they made history but because history made them. Their struggle in the cause of liberation from the injustices of property-driven class society provides us with a sense of continuity, direction, and hope.
     Almost from its inception, bourgeois society exhibited its potential for bloodshed and violence as well as for a vision of a society of equals. The bourgeois revolution in England in 1640–1660 brought to power the bourgeoisie for the first time in history. At this time, an egalitarian force also appeared as a small social reality. Among these, the Diggers were the most radical, and their most prominent representative was Gerrard Winstanley.
     Winstanley was born in Wigan, Lancashire, in 1609 into a well-to-do middle-class family and started out in life as a merchant-tailor in London. He went bankrupt in the early 1640s and moved to Surrey, working as a hired labourer.
     This was a time of great upheaval; the King was beheaded in January 1649. During this period there were high hopes for radical social change. Winstanley began writing political pamphlets, in which he anticipates socialist principles.
     It seemed that perhaps the world really could be turned upside down, property rights abolished, and a society established in which all people shared in the common wealth.
     In April 1649 Winstanley turned theory into practice and led a group, who called themselves “Diggers,” in a take-over of a few acres of common ground on St George’s Hill in Surrey. They established a commune and renamed it George Hill, as the Diggers repudiated the saints of the established church. In fact Winstanley rationalises and democratises God (“I am made to change the name from God to reason”). He denied the existence of a god or the Devil, of Heaven or Hell, or life after death. The accusation of atheism did not worry him.
     Another Digger community was set up in nearby Cobham Heath, and about fifty families joined the settlement. Representatives of Winstanley’s commune made contact with other Digger communities and groups of sympathisers in the spring of 1650.
     This rapid spread of the movement provoked a hostile reaction. Landowners became alarmed. Soldiers were sent. Landowners and their gangs attacked the commune, plundered it, and sued the offending peasants. The court, whose jury consisted exclusively of property-owners, forbade the Diggers to speak, and condemned them to pay a huge sum in court costs. As they were unable to pay, their property was seized.
     After this the community moved to Cobham Heath. However, only a year after setting up their commune the Diggers’ huts were burned down and their crops destroyed, the communists attacked and locked up. Other Digger communities were treated in a similar way. The movement was virtually suppressed by the end of 1650.
     Winstanley continued to fight the Digger cause in writing, giving hope to other Digger communities. One title encapsulates his stand programmatically: A Vindication of Those Whose Endeavors Is Only to Make the Earth a Common Treasury, Called Diggers. The phrase referring to the earth as a “common treasury” appears repeatedly in Winstanley’s writings. It captures the very heart of the matter: property.
     In 1652 Winstanley published perhaps his most significant pamphlet, The Law of Freedom in a Platform, in which he outlines, in the language of the people, his vision of a future society, without the private ownership of the means of production, without the exploitation of labour, without money and markets. In contrast to other utopian writings, Winstanley did not conceive of his project as a “nowhere,” an imaginary, better future world (the Greek term utopia means “no place”): his vision is intended for the here and now, and created by peaceful means.
     His programme included common ownership of the means of production, private ownership of house and home, marriage for love, and monogamy. It further stipulates equal educational opportunities for all, the equal duty and right to work up to the age of forty, and the abolition of wage labour, money, and commodity production. Other facets are a monopoly of foreign trade, the distribution of products according to need, and no professional rulers or priests.
     After this publication Winstanley chose the exile of silence. Increasing conservatism under Oliver Cromwell and the Restoration period led to the re-establishment of the monarchy in 1660 and destroyed all hope of a fundamental, radical change of class society.
     Gerrard Winstanley died in 1676. The property-owning middle classes had emerged as the victors of the bourgeois revolution. However, the demand for complete emancipation from the tyranny of property had been articulated and lived by Diggers: “There cannot be universal liberty, till a universal community is established.”

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