Stephen Hall looks at the life of the great English revolutionary Gerrard Winstanley and reveals his little known Wigan connection.
It may come as a surprise to many, that it’s only recently that some of us living in the Wigan area discovered that the man Wigan’s Gerrard Winstanley House is named after, was the leader of the 17th Century ‘Diggers’ Movement’ and was actually born and lived in the town until he was 21.
All the more surprising you might think since he is widely acknowledged globally as one of the founders of Communism and Socialism. Indeed, was recognised as such, alongside the likes of Marx, Engels, Fourier, Saint-Simon, Proudhon, Leibknecht and others, by Russian Revolutionary leader Lenin on a Memorial Obelisk for the Great Socialist Thinkers and Revolutionaries, initially erected to commemorate the 60th Anniversary of the Romanov Dynasty.
Wikipedia further recognises him as a celebrated “Guerilla Gardener” before the term was even invented, and the History Today website asks whether we was not also England’s pioneer Green? This since his writings in modern day terminology recognise the ecological interrelationship between humans and nature and acknowledge the inherent connections between people and their surroundings and the environment in general. Winstanley declared that “true freedom lies where a man receives his nourishment and preservation, and that is in the use of the earth”. All this being so, it would appear in terms of England and our area in particular, the idea of Green Socialism has long roots extending back 360 years or more, and is not simply some recent innovation.
I confess to being one of those people who were completely ignorant of Gerrard Winstanley’s pioneering views and actions until recently, as well as of his close link with Wigan, something we hope to raise greater public awareness of in the town via the proposed annual ‘Diggers’ Festival’ which will commemorate and celebrate precisely that.
I have still to read most of his writings, a collected edition of which has recently been re-published by Verso with an introduction by Tony Benn. He also describes the Diggers as the first true Socialists and Winstanley as “their spokesman who wrote deeply thoughtful statements of the case for the common ownership of land.”
At the behest of the 1649 True Levellers Standard Advanced – which opens the book – Winstanley and 14 of his Digger colleagues set out the philosophy which they adhere to. “In the beginning of time, the great Creator Reason made the Earth to be a common treasury, for man had dominion over the beasts, birds and fishes, but not one word was spoken in the beginning that one branch of mankind should rule over another.”
Winstanley’s argument that ownership of property, and principally by that he meant of the land, was nothing other than theft, and that the existing ownership of it was established “by the Sword”. His view was an unheard of challenge to the status quo and to the Establishment of the time, and has come to be seen as one of the origins of Communist philosophy.
Even though I have read comparatively little of what he wrote (he was the most published non-graduate author of his time) I have already been able to grasp Winstanley’s profound impact on subsequent Socialist and Communist thinking not least in the quotation we decided to use on the Diggers’ Festival T-Shirts, and on the Festival Banner“..words and writing were all nothing and must die, for action is the life of all, and if thou dost not act thou dost nothing!”.
This very sentiment is put into more modern wording on the headstone of Karl Marx’s tomb in Highgate Cemetery in the shape of the even more famous: “The Philosophers have interpreted the World in various ways, the point however, is to change it.”
It is a cornerstone of both Winstanley’s and Marx’s politics. Talking, writing, armchair philosophizing is pointless, meaningless, without action to change the situation and thus the World – ultimately to turn it upside down. Even though this would appear to be a pretty simple thing to grasp, today’s alleged ‘Socialist’ and ‘Communist’ movement would appear to have more talkers, writers and both armchair and professional academic philosophers than it has genuine revolutionaries of action who act on a day to day basis to change the World from the position they currently find themselves in.
Winstanley might also go down as a pioneer of Non-Violent Direct Action (NVDA) later employed by others such as Gandhi & Martin Luther King. Given the comparatively small numbers he was ever able to mobilise behind him, Winstanley’s deeply held pacifist convictions and approach was probably a pretty smart idea anyway at the time from a short term tactical point of view, as to have acted otherwise initially would have likely led to the Diggers’ much earlier and more brutal crushing as a movement by Cromwell’s New Model Army.
By employing only peaceful means and “turning the other cheek” in the face of violence and physical harassment by their opponents the Diggers were able to establish something of a moral high ground over those who opposed them. This helped to avoid, in my view, such a calamity from happening for an initial and further temporary period at least, and their local opponents instead having to resort to legal challenges to evict them (a bit like the recent attempts to evict those at Dale Farm in Essex) something which they subsequently combined with periodic locally hired mob attacks of the various Diggers’ Communes, the burning down of some of the Diggers’ dwellings and beatings of Diggers’ Commune members.
Having lost their court case, in which the Diggers were forbidden to speak in their own defence, if they had not left the land, then the army would have likely been used to enforce the law and evict them; so they abandoned St. George’s Hill in August 1649, much to the relief of the local freeholders.
A smaller group of the original St.Georges Hill Diggers who moved to close by Little Heath near Cobham received similar treatment, as did other communes established in Wellingborough in Northamptonshire, Iver in Buckinghamshire, Barnet in Hertfordshire, Enfield in then Middlesex, Bosworth in Gloucestershire and a further one in Nottinghamshire. Indeed, nine of the Wellingborough Diggers were arrested and imprisoned in Northampton jail and although no charges could be proved against them the justice refused to release them.
Despite the initial apparent success of Winstanley’s non-violent approach in my view, it was Winstanley’s apparent unwillingness to embrace the need for the Diggers’ Communes to have had a more active rather than passive approach to their own defence, which was in reality, little to no defence, combined with a lack of more widespread popular support amongst the wider population, which one might partly put down to the absence of a national “Diggers’ Party” promoting the ‘True Levellers” programme amongst England’s majority poor and propertyless countryfolk at the time, which was ultimately, also a major factor of his and the Diggers’ movement’s eventual undoing, certainly if the ‘Winstanley’ film is anything to go by.
It would in my view, have also likely been the key flaw in the longer term, of Winstanley’s entire political strategy, such that he actually had one (another big flaw) even had support for the Diggers’ Movement actually spread a lot more widely, the Diggers themselves having initially claimed that their number “…would be several thousand within ten days” and this clearly having not materialised (not too dissimilar from some of the optimistic claims of some current day revolutionaries as a mere result of the inherent strength of their own ideas and the seemingly equally inspirational boldness of their own action). This since having recently taken up arms in two bloody civil wars against the old regime, beheaded the King and abolished the Monarchy to establish power for themselves, it is pretty doubtful that those at the head of the new social-economic and political order would be amenable to simply handing over their new found or strengthened power and existing and potential future wealth to anyone, let alone their social ‘inferiors’ and without any kind of a big fight either.
As a result of this, and despite all his great strengths, Gerrard Winstanley might be added to the list of ‘Utopian Socialists” later referred to by Marx & Engels, and especially compared with the likes of the early 19th Century French Socialist Henri de Saint-Simon.
Winstanley believed his view of a new World “a World turned upside down” could be brought about by convincing the likes of Lord Fairfax, Oliver Cromwell and the other powers that be at the time, as well as of the wider population, of the moral superiority and empirical correctness of his arguments, and by the practical application of his ideas in action so as to provide a living example of it. Also, by the example of his own strong moral courage and leadership throughout, something which despite his illusions in Cromwell et al, was clearly exemplary, driven by his own visionary and deeply held “True Leveller” and religious convictions and which must surely mark him out as one the early action heroes of World Socialism as well as theoretical pioneers, whatever he did subsequently.
The response from Cromwell was: “What is the purport of the levelling principle but to make the tenant as liberal a fortune as the landlord. I was by birth a gentleman. You must cut these people in pieces or they will cut you in pieces.”
As the Leon Rosselsson song “A world turned upside down” goes, “… but still the vision lingers on”! Yes it does, and visionary, inspirational, revolutionary, Socialist and Communistic, Gerrard Winstanley and the Diggers’ movement certainly were.
I think those of us living in the Wigan area should consider ourselves lucky, as well as proud, that he was born and bred in Wigan and that we might rightly consider him and the Diggers’ Movement our political forebears. I also think we should consider as one of our duties in the future, to play our full part in commemorating and celebrating his life, works and actions, as well as of the 17th Century Diggers at the annual Wigan Diggers’ Festival it’s proposed will now take place in the town and which I mentioned earlier. When he and they are as widely known about, and have a local fan base as big as “The Verve” my guess is we ourselves will be close to achieving some of our other current day Green Socialist objectives.