By Andrew Stone
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A Common Treasury

This article is over 13 years, 2 months old
Gerrard Winstanley, introduced by Tony Benn
Issue 357

Sick to death of the royal wedding? Then where better to take refuge than in the radical ruminations of Gerrard Winstanley, the voice of revolutionary republican England?

In 1649 the New Model Army executed King Charles I and dismissed the House of Lords. This was the culmination of a decade-long civil war, in which parliamentary armies lined up against a king whose absolutist pretensions had become just a bit too absolute. His refusal to exchange genuine consultation for parliamentary taxes unleashed a rebellion which far surpassed the intentions of its instigators and threw the very nature of property, religion and class into turmoil.

The Levellers are the best known of the radical groups that emerged from this process, and for good reason. Their appeals for far-reaching political and legal reform found a willing audience, especially within the revolutionary army. Oliver Cromwell used their enthusiasm to win the war but quickly crushed them once the royalist threat was defeated.

Yet whereas the Levellers for the most part denied the complete social egalitarianism they were accused of by their critics, Winstanley’s Diggers openly embraced it. Taking up the name “True Levellers”, they argued that all land should be “a common treasury”, as it had been (they believed) before the Norman Conquest. They formed a collective and, on 1 April 1649, began sowing parsnips, carrots and beans on some wasteland in Surrey.

This may sound like a relatively harmless piece of squatting, but it was met with furious resistance by local landowners. Land was in the process of switching from feudal to commercial ownership. The paternalist ties of feudalism were being shed and previously common land was being enclosed at great cost to the tenants who depended on it. In this context, Winstanley’s message that “those that buy and sell land, and are landlords, have got it either by oppression, or murder, or theft” was potentially incendiary.

However, in this welcome collection of Winstanley’s writings, he repeatedly stresses the Diggers’ pacifism, inspired by a nascent “inner light” theology. Political ideas were frequently expressed in religious terms in the 17th century and Winstanley was no exception. But whereas conservatives used it to defend the status quo, he used it to indict it – with property representing an alien force oppressing what god intended as a genuine commonwealth.

The Digger settlements threatened to spread over southern and central England, but they lasted barely a year. Repeated attacks on them and their crops showed that their pacifistic message of brotherly love was not shared by the landlords or the army officers to whom they appealed. The settlements were a fascinating experiment in a form of utopian communism, an attempt by the poor to assert some control over their lives.

This is a useful and inspiring collection, despite being a little repetitive due to its format. Fans of Tony Benn may be disappointed that his introduction is less than three pages, although there is also a good foreword from Tom Hazeldine that sets the context. However, general readers may prefer to start with more comprehensive analyses of the Diggers, such as the works of Christopher Hill and Brian Manning.

Andrew Stone

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