In 1649, to St George's Hill...

IssueMarch - June 2002
Feature by Andrew Bradstock

It is astonishing that the Diggers are still being talked about, and even inspiring action, at the dawn of the twenty-first century. It is true that they caused quite a stir when they first appeared in 1649, and that in Gerrard Winstanley they had someone able to put their position clearly and persuasively in print. But so short-lived were their communities, so total their defeat, and so quick to fade into obscurity their members (including Winstanley), that few who observed them at the time would have imagined their being remembered 350 days after their demise, let alone 350 years!

Yet in recent decades they have enjoyed something of a renaissance. Some excellent books about them have appeared -the most widely read being by the British historian Christopher Hill and Canadian scholar David Petegorsky-and they have inspired numerous articles, the-ses, songs, films, plays and web-sites.

Importantly, their tracts have been gathered together and published, thus bringing their ideas-in the powerful prose in which they were first articulated -to a wider audience.

And they have not been studied just out of historical interest, for they continue to inspire action of the sort they themselves first undertook. Their central idea was that everybody should be able to enjoy the earth and its fruits, not just the rich and powerful, and a whole range of recent lands rights actions-squats, trespasses, anti-road demos, environmental campaigns and so on-have drawn inspiration from them since.

Perhaps the most explicit action in their name occurred in April 1999 when a contingent of people occupied some unused land on the very site chosen by Winstanley and his friends exactly 350 years before, St George's Hill in Surrey, southern Britain. Like their earlier comrades they put up temporary shelter, turned the soil, planted crops and lived in community, though like them, too, their experiment was foreshortened by the land's “owners” seeking their expulsion.

Dismantle and replace

So who were the Diggers, and why are they still remembered today?

The Diggers emerged shortly after the execution of Charles I in January 1649.

This was a time of enormous upheaval and change in Britain, and the death of the monarch and rapid disintegration of the system over which he presided led many to think that everything was up for grabs.

Some, like the Levellers, thought the time was right to press for an extension of the franchise, but the Diggers, virtually alone of all the radical groups of the time, went further by calling for a total reapportioning of the land in the name of the poor, hungry and landless. For them it was not political rights which would improve the lot of the poor but access to the land. Merely overthrowing the monarch was not in itself significant unless the opportunity were taken to dismantle the whole inequitable system of private land ownership over which he presided and restore the earth to its rightful owners, the common people.

A common treasury

The Diggers started from a belief that the earth was created for all to share: “In the beginning of time the great creator Reason made the Earth to be a common treasury”, Winstanley wrote in April 1649.

The right to share the land on a communal basis was implied in the creation stories in the Bible, he argued, though communism was also the natural state for humankind because it enabled everybody to provide for themselves the necessities of life. Yet although it was such a rational way to live it started to break down once the stronger and cleverer among our forebears decided to fence off land for their own private use and employ others to till it for them.

Many of Winstanley's contemporaries believed this tendency to act greedily and in self-interest was a consequence of humankind's “Fall'“ from perfection.

While a “Golden Age” without private property may once existed, they argued, something innate in human nature, at least since the Fall, prevented such a state coming about again. Society had to take account of the impulses of greed, fear, envy and lust to which men and women were now subject, and therefore accommodation had to be made to the need to own and protect private property.

Winstanley, however, thought that human nature was largely shaped by prevailing social conditions, and that self-interest was not innate to fallen humanity but generated by the competitive system of buying and selling. Common owner ship would thus be a possibility again once private property was abolished.

Social transformation

It is easy to regard these ideas as “utopian” in the pejorative sense of that term.

How could the Diggers expect to break down a system under which land was a commodity and replace it with one where everything was held in common? One clue to understanding their thinking lies in the emphasis Winstanley placed in his writings on both individual and social transformation.

Not for him a take-over of the state staged (perhaps violently) by a revolutionary vanguard: rather he believed that, through the experience both of Digging and inner enlightenment (Christ “rising up” within them, as he put it), people would come to discover the rationality of living communally-that it was the only way all could survive and live well.

He believed firmly in the power of reason, even using the term as a name for God, but also equated the drawing together of all men and women into a truly communal society as the fulfilment of the New Testament promise that Christ would return to earth-spiritually, within his followers, rather than physically.

Weapons and swords destroy

There is, then, a logic to the Diggers' position insofar as they saw that the only way a new social and economic order could be sustained was if social and individual transformation went hand-in-hand. We may or may not embrace Winstanley's Christianity-though it was real for him to the extent of appearing to give him a false optimism about the success of his Digging venture-but his view that only gradual and peaceful transformation can bring lasting change-that “victory gotten by the sword” is no victory because “weapons and swords shall destroy ... but they can never build up”- is profoundly compelling.

Perhaps it is especially so when we recall the intense opposition his Digging community faced, for as their numbers grew, and other communities appeared across the South and Midlands of England, so opposition from local gentry, fearful for their own property and livelihood, began to surface.

Perhaps this opposition was well-founded, for although the Diggers never went beyond advocating the digging of common or unenclosed land, their call to those who sold their hire to rich landowners to come and join them in digging the commons was clearly an indirect threat to the system which ensured the profitability of enclosures. The Diggers were effectively instigating a general strike which, had it been successful, would have brought about a situation where no one would own more land than he or she could cultivate on their own.

Revealing inequality

If we move beyond those “popular” understandings of utopia which equate it with fantastic and unrealisable visions of the future, to those which stress its critical relationship with the present-its function as a denunciation of the status quo and annunciation of a new and better order -we begin to understand why the Dig-gers' programme still challenges and stirs up people today.

At the theoretical level it cuts through the ideological mist surrounding the basis of land ownership in our own time - which has hardly changed from theirs - reminding us that the land should be for all to enjoy. It also points up the absurdity of a situation which can allow, for example, a few to enjoy the sole benefit of land acquired by their forebears centuries ago, perhaps through royal patronage of the most morally dubious sort, and others, from no more dishonourable families, to eke out a living in densely-packed tower-blocks and housing estates or even with no permanent lodging at all.

Nonviolence in action

The Diggers remind us also of the importance of direct yet nonviolent action in pursuit of a more just future. Their commitment to nonviolence was coherent and - even in the face of extreme provocation - consistent, and was not held solely because they were a tiny movement or believed God would ultimately intervene to crown their venture with success.

For them both the legality and morality of the claim of the common people to the land convinced them that they could succeed by appeal to reason alone, and they were also concerned to maintain a consistency between the values of the society they were setting out to create and the means by which it would be brought into being.

Importantly the Diggers' commitment to nonviolence also meant they could envisage those who had previously upheld the oppressive system, far from being “eliminated”, being given the opportunity to participate in the social and economic transformation going on around them.

They were never so naive as to imagine the oppressing class would voluntarily relinquish its privileges and powers in the face of the challenge they were posing.

Yet the logic of their position was that, as the revolution gathered momentum, those opposed to it would be swept along by it, either as Christ or Reason began to rise in them (as in everybody else), or as a consequence of the gradual erosion of their power-base.

There is much in the Diggers' “utopian” programme that continues to challenge and inspire. Not long ago we were exhorted, here in Britain, to look to “Victorian values” for the key to solving our society's ills, but perhaps we should be even more old-fashioned. Maybe a dose of Seventeenth Century values would sort out some of the injustices in our society more effectively.

Topics: History, Utopias