Issue 229 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published April 1999 Copyright © Socialist Review
On 1 April 1649, eight weeks after the public trial and execution of Charles I by the victorious parliamentary army, a number of local people, including Gerrard Winstanley, started to build houses, and dig and plant their crops on the common land at St George's Hill in Surrey. They farmed the land using modern crops and modern techniques, practising crop rotation, and systematically manuring the land. Winstanley proclaimed their aims in a pamphlet, True Levellers Standard Advanced, which argued that these Digger communes were the first step in a sort of general strike of the poor who would simply refuse to work for the rich. All the land was to be as it was in the beginning, 'a common treasury for all'. No one would either give for hire or take for hire. Nor was anyone to pay rent. The old society, dominated by 'the landlords, teachers and rulers [who] are oppressors, murderers and thieves', would wither away as more people took up living on the settlements. By this action the landless poor would starve the landlords of income and of labour to work their lands, causing them to surrender and join the Digger communes, at least ten of which existed throughout the south east, the most economically advanced area of England.
The Diggers were the extreme left wing of a great radical social movement that had risen up against the old regime. The parliamentary leadership of the English Revolution wanted to establish the rights of private property and capitalist exploitation. The Diggers, on the other hand, were communists who wanted to abolish private property. They had worked out a programme for the poor and, unlike any other radical grouping, they tried to put it in to practice.
The execution of the king on 30 January 1649 was the pivotal point of the revolution and caused a wave of tremendous excitement throughout the radicals. February saw the trials of the leading nobility and execution of three of the leading nobles. In March the monarchy and the House of Lords were abolished. Winstanley described it as the old society 'running up like a parchment in a fire'. However, the new society that was taking shape was for the rich, not the poor. As Winstanley declared after the execution of the king, 'The top bough is lopped off the tree of tyranny ... but alas, oppression is a great tree still.' As the regime consolidated it turned on those radicals who wished to go further. At the very same time as the Diggers were digging the commons in April 1649, the leaders of the radical group the Levellers were arrested. In the army radical unrest at Burford was quashed. The radical elements were purged, and the army never posed a threat to the new regime after this. The political and economic demands of the poor were also ignored.
The fight against enclosure of the common land was an issue that drove the revolution. The poor, who had no land, the wage labourers and artisans depended on common land to survive, as did the smaller farmers. The poor had been squatting on the commons and wastes since before the beginning of the century. The landlords--led by the king who was, after all, the biggest landlord of them all--were enclosing the commons by fencing them in to create large fields. These new farms were often leased to the larger farmers to produce food to be sold on the market. In the Fens, land was given to those who had drained it. In the process of enclosure the squatters on the commons were evicted. To put it simply, enclosures were the new farming method of the rich. This was production not for immediate consumption, as of old, but for the market. Despite widespread popular protest against enclosures, parliament betrayed the poor and in 1643 voted to carry on the previous royalist policy.
One potential source of leadership for the poor was the radical group the Levellers, but it consisted of small property owners who argued for universal manhood suffrage. The Levellers in the army came nearest to all of the radical groupings in winning their gains. But the Levellers disowned the landless poor to avoid the accusation that they were against private property. They ignored the issue of enclosures until they realised that Cromwell was not going to implement their demands for reform of the franchise. As small property owners, the Levellers were actually scared of the revolt of the radical poor, unlike the Diggers.
Winstanley was the spokesman for a much wider layer in society. He generalised from the struggle that was already taking place, articulating a way forward for the dispossessed, giving it shape and form. While the revolution benefited the wealthy capitalist, it made things worse for the poor. However, the Diggers were more than just a reaction to economic hardship. The execution of the king was a traumatic act that cowed the nobility and thrilled the radicals, many of whom expected wonderful things to happen. God was 'shaking the heavens and the earth', throwing down the thrones of kings. The Diggers felt that they had won the war and they were due their just rewards. Was it going to be the few rich or the many poor who would control the common lands? Winstanley had a worked out programme of how to achieve his new society, based on a movement of the poor that was already taking place. This was despite the fact that Winstanley claimed that his idea to dig the commons was revealed to him in a vision from god! He used the Bible to justify his actions, as did every other person in the 17th century. Religion was central to the English Revolution. Radicals believed it was not the king or priests who interpreted the Bible but the individual. This doctrine meant that the word of god could be in each person, and because any one person could be talking directly for god this led directly to equality.
It did not concern Winstanley whether the Bible was true or not. He used it to justify what he already believed in. For Winstanley the biblical stories were, at best, allegories. The Garden of Eden was not real but was a metaphor for humanity, with the five rivers of Eden being humanity's five senses. The 'fall of man'--the expulsion of Adam and Eve--was for Winstanley the introduction of private property to human society. Similarly the biblical story of Adam and Eve's sons Cain and Abel was an allegory. In the Bible the elder brother killed the younger brother. In Winstanley's view this meant that the elder was the man of bondage oppressing the younger poor. The Second Coming (that is Jesus returning bodily to earth) was, for Winstanley, within each person. God and reason were synonymous, so Jesus would return to earth when reason was within every person. Many of these religious ideas that Winstanley expressed were not new. They had existed in society before and persisted after Winstanley. What made him radically different was that he put into practice what his religious theory preached. It was this synthesis of theory and practice that created the revolutionary challenge that was the Digger colonies.
However, the Digger communes lasted barely a year. They were broken by the violent hostility of the landlords and the indifference of the poor. They failed because the wealthy had great control over the poorer people who depended on them for work, fuel, and cheap food.
In addition, the strategy of digging the commons actually cut across the immediate interests of the poor, who depended on them for their livelihood. Whether the landlords or the Diggers occupied the commons made little difference to the poor. Of course in the long run, if the land was taken in to a 'common treasury', as Winstanley argued, then everyone would have benefited. Nevertheless, in the short term, the poor would lose out. This was an insoluble problem.
In 1651, after the defeat of the communes, Winstanley produced a utopian blueprint entitled Law of Freedom. His previous writings were a savage criticism of existing society and a direct appeal to ordinary people to take action. This later pamphlet was a detailed plan for a future society. While during 1649 and 1650 he appealed to Cromwell and the army merely not to interfere with the communes, in 1651 he directly addressed Cromwell, asking him to create the new society. The experience of the communes and the violence of the landlords had led Winstanley to abandon pacifism.
The Diggers were local people. Winstanley lived in the area in the years before and after the commune. Those who took part in the commune would have made up a sizeable layer of the local population. The local landlords were very worried about their actions in digging the commons. Thugs were sent to the commons to physically attack the Diggers, tearing down their houses and trampling crops. The landlords took them to court and prosecuted them for trespass.
The Diggers were right to fight for a better society. The radicals took an active part in the creation of the new society. There was no substantial social force on which they could base their organisation, and therefore they were the presage of future socialism, not the actuality. But they saw that within the English Revolution there were radical alternatives. Gerrard Winstanley's and the Diggers' great achievement was to make this opposition open and practical when it was incredibly difficult to do so.