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Andrew Bradstock (ed), 'Winstanley and the Diggers, 1649 - 1999'

Frank Cass, 2000. ISBN 0 7146 8157 1, 173pp

Gerrard Winstanley famously once wrote that “words and writings were all nothing, and must die, for action is the life of all, and if thou dost not act, thou dost nothing”.

He was that unusual individual, a utopian thinker who not only committed his vision of a better world to print, but acted to turn his vision into a reality. That he failed, and the patch of land upon which the Diggers first established their commune is now one of the most exclusive private estates in England, is one of history's sad ironies.

This collection of academic essays seeks to shed new light on aspects of Winstanley's life and thought. The twelve articles can be divided into two groups, historical studies and literary analyses. Among the first group are essays on The Diggers in their own time and Winstanley, women and family. This last contribution, by Elaine Hobby, highlights the often overlooked point that Digger arguments for equality were never fully extended to women, and that Winstanley's vision of society is broadly patriarchal.

The second group of literary studies are probably less accessible than the historical articles, with pieces on Jewishness in the Digger writings, and comparisons of Winstanley with Milton, the Levellers and William Blake. James Holstun, in an entertaining and provocative article, finds links between Winstanley and Marx, and argues that the agrarian communism proposed by Winstanley is not wholly removed from the Russian peasant commune, or mir, which Marx saw as a potential medium for the transition to advanced communism. He also draws parallels with twentieth-century movements, notably the Zapatistas.

This volume does not provide a general introduction to the life and work of Gerrard Winstanley. For the interested general reader there are far more accessible books, particularly David Boultons Gerrard Winstanley and the Republic of Heaven (Dale, 1999) [Reviewed in PN2440].

However, rather than covering old ground, these essays offer fresh perspectives on Winstanley and the Diggers from often unexpected angles. I would therefore recommend them to anyone wishing to expand their knowledge of the subject.

Topics: Utopias | History