Sunday, 13 January 2013

Book Review: Gerrard Winstanley

Gerrard Winstanley: The Digger's Life and Legacy
By John Gurney
Paperback: 176 pages
Pluto Press 2012
ISBN: 9780745331836

The 50th anniversary of EP Thompson's Making of the English Working Class will be marked in 2013. It remains a landmark volume but several obstacles exist to getting new generations to read it. For one thing it is, in the age of 140 characters, very long. Secondly, of necessity given its subject matter, it contains a large number of religious references.

To Thompson, born in 1924 and writing in the early 1960s, the language of various strands of Christian religion was still a commonplace. 50 years on religious doctrine is certainly still discussed but it is a minority not a mainstream pursuit.

A new book on Gerrard Winstanley, the leading Digger of the 1640s and 1650s faces the same issue but more so. Winstanley was a deeply religious man who expressed himself in religious language. Yet he was also a millenarian and a communist, prefiguring, in the revolutionary upheavals of the English civil war, many of the most advanced ideas of later centuries. Fortunately the precise formulation of Winstanley's religious thought is well handled in the book and the development of his ideas is set firmly in the context of the turmoil of the period from 1649 to 1653.

Winstanley was born in Wigan and had a business there which fell apart during the Civil War of the 1640s. He came south to Cobham in Surrey and it was here that he, amongst others, started the Diggers movement. Winstanley held the idea that the land was a common treasury for all — readers may be familiar with the Leon Rosselson song The World Turned Upside Down — and on that basis he and a small group of associates began to farm the largely barren land on St George's Hill in the summer of 1649.

They were by no means unsuccessful but the area was common land and concern and opposition came from two areas. Locally the concern was that the Diggers would undermine the livelihoods of others in the area small landowners. Politically the worry was that holding land in common might take the events of 1649 well beyond where Cromwell wanted to go.

Winstanley met the army leader Fairfax to reassure him and early Digger writings date from this period. Eventually, following violent attacks by thugs hired by local landowners and some soldiers the Diggers had to move to Cobham but could not sustain the movement. It was a powerful symbol of how the world could be differently organised however and did spark similar experiments around the country.

The book is as good at charting Winstanley’s life post the Digger period as it is on the tumultuous time after 1649. Winstanley to some extent made his peace with the system — certainly the impact of the Restoration in 1660 does not appear to have been significant for him. He also came to terms to some degree with the Established Church, becoming a Church Warden.

The book is no hagiography. It underlines that perhaps not all of Winstanley’s ideas were either coherent or progressive and also highlights that he did not always practice what he preached. At one point he became involved, in effect, in the collection of tithes, something he had called for the abolition of.

Arguably the book’s key strength is the historiographical context it places Winstanley in. His thought was lost until rediscovered by Edward Bernstein in the late nineteenth century. Marx and Engels were unaware of his writings as were the Chartists and William Morris.

Even so, after 1917 Winstanley’s name was one of those inscribed on a statue to past revolutionary thinkers in Moscow. In more recent times Winstanley’s writings have inspired a wide range of socialist and anarchist thought and activity. The book serves as a timely and well written reminder as to why that is so.

Keith Flett
From LSHG Newsletter # 48 (January 2013)

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