Gerrard Winstanley, the Original Occupier

WinstanleyAt the height of the English Revolution, a group of newly proletarianized Englishman occupied St. George Hill in Surrey with the intent of establishing a more egalitarian and democratic way of life. The ‘leader’ of this group of ‘Diggers’ was a man from Wigan named Gerrard Winstanley, a man who, by the late nineteenth century, would be considered the first English communist.

Winstanley’s life and ideas are presented with adept skill by the English historian John Gurney, perhaps the most significant scholar on the Diggers writing today. The small size of Gurney’s book belies the amount of information contained within:  Gurney traces Winstanley’s beginnings to Lancashire and attempts to uncover the influences behind his radical thought; he traces the trajectory of Winstanley’s development and emphasizes the coherence of his thought; and he chronicles the legacy of a man who remained hidden from the mainstream of history until the beginning of the twentieth century, and whose attempt to occupy the commons against the forces of emergent capitalism remain a source of inspiration to anti-capitalist radicals today.

Gurney is known for his use of the archives to shed more light on Winstanley the man in order to arrive at a more historically sensitive understanding of the Digger movement. His pioneering work in A Brave Community is on display in this introduction to Winstanley. After using archival material to carefully construct the outlines of Winstanley’s early life, Gurney turns to his instrumental role in the short-lived Digger experiment between 1649 and 1651. Gurney situates Winstanley’s political writings within the changing context of the digger experiment, tracing it from its difficult beginnings on St. George Hill to its relocation to Cobham later in 1649. A number of interesting elements of Gurney’s analysis of the Digger period are worth highlighting. The first refers to Winstanley’s use of the term ‘leveller’ in The True Levellers Standard Advanced published in the spring of 1649. Many scholars have interpreted this as an appropriation of the Leveller epithet as a means of demonstrating that the Diggers situated themselves on the ‘left’ of the Levellers, given the latter’s ambiguous position regarding private property. This interpretation is supported by reference to a number of anonymous ‘leveller’ inspired tracts emerging in 1648, such as A Light Shining in Buckinghamshire, that took a more explicitly critical stance towards private property in ways that made them similar to the Diggers. It seems sensible, then, that Winstanley was extending this critique in more explicit terms. For Gurney,  however, this raises the question as to why The True Levellers Standard Advanced remains the only Digger tract to use the term ‘True Levellers’. On top of this, Gurney points out that 1649 was a year that saw increasing repression of the Levellers by the more conservative forces dominating the army. Just days before the digging began on St. George Hill, prominent members of the Leveller movement – including Lilburne and Walwyn – had been arrested. To explicitly embrace the leveller monicker in ways that went beyond what the ‘Levellers’ themselves were willing to put forward as a program of ‘radical’ politics, argues Gurney, would have been unwise for a ragged band of the dispossessed attempting to eke out a meagre living by digging the commons. 

Another important aspect of Gurney’s analysis is to reject previous interpretations that have suggested a radical break in Winstanley’s thought between either his Digger and post-Digger periods or his spiritualist and materialist phases. In regards to the first theme, many scholars have noted a significant change in Winstanley’s political thought dating from his digging experiment to the writing of his utopian The Law of Freedom in a Platform. This debate tends to place emphasis on the shift in Winstanley’s thought from an original anarchistic position that seeks the ‘restoration’ coming from within mankind, to the more authoritarian post-Digger writings that rely on external state action to compel compliance with the new utopian order. Gurney argues that while there indeed is a shift in emphasis, the argument that it represents a qualitative break in his thought overlooks the patriarchal elements of some of Winstanley’s earlier writings as well as his consistent emphasis on the need for law in general, despite his scathing critique of the development of English law in particular.

The second debate refers to Winstanley’s religiosity. Scholars like Petegorsky and Juretic argued that during the digging experiment, Winstanley abandoned his earlier spiritualism to embrace a secular materialism. The equation of God with Reason and the emphasis on a ‘materialist’ explanation of the development of English social relations formed the basis of this interpretation. But as Gurney shows, Winstanley’s commitment to an admittedly unorthodox religious worldview and his articulation of a materialist critique of the development of agrarian capitalism and the English state are not mutually exclusive. Such a position fails to take into account the appearance of overtly religious tracts written later in 1650, such as Fire in the Bush.

Gurney ends the book with a fascinating overview of Winstanley’s legacy, from his rediscovery by radicals and socialists in the late nineteenth century, to their incorporation into the grassroots politics of the late twentieth and early twentieth century.

Winstanely has been assigned many roles in the century or so after his rediscovery by the left. He has been remembered as revolutionary thinker and activist, champion of a native radical political tradition, mystic, materialist, radical democrat, proto Marxist, precursor of Henry George, anarchist, land grabber, squatter, pioneer of non-violent popular direct action. Each of these roles has at least some basis in fact, and draws on aspects of Winstanley’s writings and of the Digger story. It would be wrong to insist that any one of them is wholly unwarranted, but each, with its singular focus, can tend to distortion by providing only a partial reading of Winstanley’s complex ideas.

Winstanley’s ideas were discovered during a time of renewed interested in the land question in the late nineteenth century. By the mid-twentieth century, his legacy would be contested by the British left, with the Labour left grouping Winstanley and the Diggers alongside the Levellers as the first revolutionary democrats of English history. The historians’ groups of the British Communist initially downplayed the importance of the Diggers only to revise their position at the expense of the Levellers during the three hundred year anniversary of 1649. The Trotskyist left, particularly the works of Brian Manning and Norah Carlin, remained more ambivalent about the Diggers, emphasizing the authoritarian tendencies of The Law of Freedom in a Platform. During this same period, Winstanley was appropriated by anarchists like George Woodcock, who emphasized the anti-statist, libertarian undertones of Winstanley’s earlier works. By the 1960s and 1970s, the upsurge in social movements – particularly the rise of the Green movement – would witness an increasing emphasis placed on Winstanley’s ecological ideas, particularly the notion of sustainable development and a resistance to the politics of ‘growth.’ It is not difficult to see how Wintanley’s insistence on the ‘right’ of the people to occupy the commons would find its affinities in the Occupy movement, with the latter’s emphasis on reclaiming public space and resisting oligarchic power.

Perhaps the one weakness of the book is found in chapter three, where the discussion of Wintanley’s most systematic post-Digger tract, The Law of Freedom in a Platform, rather quickly gives way to a historical narrative that traces out the developments of Winstanley’s later life. While the latter is no doubt of interest, particularly given the controversy surrounding Winstanley’s post-Digger livelihood, it would be nice to see Gurney engage in an extended historical analysis of The Law of Freedom in a Platform. 

This, however, remains a minor quibble in what remains a well researched and extremely well written book that spends enough attention on the enduring legacy of Winstanley to appeal to a wider, non-academic audience. Anyone interested in the politics of Gerrard Winstanley as the original occupier of the commons needs to read Gurney’s book.


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