Sections Above and Below This Page:

Home
Up

Winstanley, The Diggers

Excerpt from Communalism: From Its Origins to the Twentieth Century

By Kenneth Rexroth

   
Surprisingly the seventeenth century with its almost continuous wars of religion was not a good time for the radical Reformation. Cujis regio, ejus religio — religion had become a matter of large-scale politics. Wars fought between nations and alliances of nations divided Europe into blocks of Catholics, Lutherans, and Calvinists. Small groups of the elect were crushed out by the sheer weight of the contending monsters. Then, too, the Thirty Years War, which was fought to destroy the Holy Roman Empire as the dominant power in Europe, also crushed or profoundly distorted the culture of the various parts of the empire. Germany emerged fragmented and wasted and did not recover for generations. The radical Reformation had been a natural outgrowth of the culture of the late medieval middle of Europe and the Thirty Years War destroyed its roots. In the Netherlands, Switzerland, and amongst the Hutterites in their remote refuges, a process of fossilization had set in.

The English Civil War and commonwealth were essentially a product of class struggle, and the proliferation of sects in the latter days of the Civil War took place almost entirely in a lower middle class and upper working class context. In spite of their name, the Levellers were far from being unbridled democrats. They proposed to extend participation in power only to men of substance — small, middle-class substance — like themselves. The Fifth Monarchy men were such extreme chiliasts as to have no real social program.

The Ranters were only incidentally millenarians. Basically they were a revival of the Brotherhood of the Free Spirit, who believed that once divinized and absorbed into the Godhead the soul was incapable of evil. Like the Adamites who were expelled from Tabor they lived exalted in an amoral ecstasy. If they practiced community of goods, nudism, speaking with tongues, and sexual orgies it was all part of a frantic, hurried, and hunted life lived in a state of unrelieved excitement. Some Ranters were simply extreme Spiritualists, descendants of Meister Eckhart and the Rhineland mystics; and with the Restoration of Charles II they were absorbed into the Quakers. They really lay completely outside the development of English Puritanism.

The agitation of the Levellers lasted only three years. They were primarily a political party who wished to see the promises of the Rump Parliament — the recruiting propaganda for the second stage of the Civil War — fulfilled. Their leader, John Lilburne, had been an associate of Cromwell’s at the beginning and the Levellers were perfectly right when they accused him of selling out. Although the final form of their Agreement of the Free People of England, their political manifesto, proposes a broader democracy than would come to England until the end of the nineteenth century, they did not believe in universal franchise, but excluded servants, paupers, farm laborers, Roman Catholics, Episcopalians, Royalists, “heretics,” and, of course, women. Essentially they were left-wing Calvinist republicans. By the end of 1649 they had been completely suppressed.

In 1653 the Nominated or “Barebones” Parliament, chosen from the leaders of the Independent Churches, sat briefly; but its attempts to inaugurate the rule of the saints were so radical and disorganized that Cromwell dissolved them and became dictator — “Protector.” This led to a revolt of the more extreme millenarians, to whom Cromwell became the “Little Horn” of the Beast of the Apocalypse. They proposed to establish a ruthless despotism of the elect in preparation for the final kingdom of the millennium. The Fifth Monarchy movement, lacking both ideology and social program, sprang up through an inflamed rhetoric which consisted exclusively of the reiteration and rearrangement of the apocalyptic language of the Books of Daniel and Revelation. It was a massive hysterical outburst of rage by men who knew they had been betrayed. Unlike the Levellers, they took to armed revolt. In April 1657 a handful of men rushed about London fighting as they went and were quickly suppressed. In January 1661 another, even more frantic and desperate attempt occurred, and those who were not killed in the streets were executed, and the sect came to an end.

Movements like the old Family of Love, the Seekers, and the Quakers grew in the interstices of the English Reformation, at first so clandestinely that from Henry VIII to the emergence of the Quakers we know surprisingly little about them. Various groups were accused of practicing community of goods; but although the movement was widespread, at least in the imagination of its persecutors, each individual group seems to have been a tiny conventicle, with members meeting in one another's’ homes and sharing their resources. Theologically the older Anabaptism died out in England and was replaced by Spiritualism. The modern Baptist sect which arose in those days was an independent development which owed practically nothing to continental Anabaptism but was rather a special form of Calvinism. In the writing and preaching of George Fox and the earliest Quakers there were no special social or economic concerns, and it was only after the Restoration with the consolidation of modern Quakerism in the days of William Penn that the Quakers became anti-political.

A little group of unemployed laborers and landless peasants gathered at St. George’s Hill near Walton-on-Thames in Surrey on April 1, 1649, and began to dig up the common land and prepare for sowing vegetables. Their leaders were William Everard and Gerrard Winstanley. At first their activities aroused curiosity and a certain amount of sympathy but as time went on the local lords of the manor, the gentry, aroused the populace and the mob shut the Diggers up in the church at Walton until they were released by a justice of the peace. Again they were captured by a mob and locked up in the nearby town of Kingston and again released. On April 16 a complaint was laid before the Council of State, who sent two groups of cavalry to investigate.

The captain, Gladman, reported that the incident was trivial and sent Everard and Winstanley to London to explain themselves to Thomas Fairfax. They explained that since the Norman Conquest England had been under a tyranny which was now abolished, but that now God would relieve the poor and restore their freedom to enjoy the fruits of the earth. The two men explained that they did not intend to interfere with private property, but only to plant and harvest on the many wastelands of England, and to live together holding all things in common. They were certain that their example would be followed by the poor and dispossessed all over England, and in the course of time all men would give up their possessions and join them in community.

A month later Lord Fairfax stopped by on his way to London, to see for himself what was happening, and decided it was a matter for the local authorities. In June another mob, including some soldiers, assaulted the Diggers and trampled their crops. Winstanley complained to Fairfax and the soldiers were apparently ordered to leave the Diggers alone. In June the Diggers announced that they intended to cut and sell the wood on the common, and at this point the landlords sued for damages and trespass. The court awarded damages of ten pounds and costs, and took the cows Winstanley was pasturing on the common, but released them because they were not his property.

Perhaps because of the judgment, and because their crops had all been destroyed, the Diggers moved in the autumn to the common of Cobham Manor, built four houses, and started a crop of winter grain. By this time there were over fifty Diggers. When they refused to disperse, Fairfax finally sent troops who, with the mob, destroyed two of the houses and again trampled the fields. The Diggers persisted and by spring they had eleven acres of growing grain and six or seven houses and similar movements had sprung up in Northamptonshire and Kent. The landlord, a clergyman, John Platt, turned his cattle into the young grain and led a mob in destroying houses and driving out the Diggers and their women and children.

On April 1, 1650, Winstanley and fourteen others (Everard, who seems to have been demented, vanishes early in the story) were indicted for disorderly conduct, unlawful assembly, and trespass. There is no record of the disposal of the indictment, but this was the end of the little communist society at Cobham.

This is all there was to the Digger movement, a trivial episode which was a ninety-day wonder in the news sheets when it first started, and which was almost without influence at the time, and easily could have been lost to history — except for the writings of Gerrard Winstanley. All during the course of the experiment he issued a series of pamphlets which, as his ideas rapidly evolved, came to constitute the first systematic exposition of libertarian communism in English.

All the tendencies of the radical Reformation seem to flow together in Winstanley, to be blended and secularized, and become an ideology rather than a theology. Spiritualism, radical Unitarianism, apostolic communism, evangelical rationalism — one could easily believe that he was well read in the entire literature of the radical Reformation. Yet we know nothing of his intellectual background, reading, or influences. He never quotes a secular authority, only the Bible, in all his writings, and we know nothing about his education, and little enough about his life. He says again and again that his ideas owe nothing to any other man or to any book, only to the Inner Light and to its “openings” in visionary experiences. Perhaps that is true.

Gerrard Winstanley was born in the village of Wigan in 1609, in a family of small gentry and merchants that had long been prominent in England. His father Edward was registered as a mercer and the son was raised in the cloth trade. Somewhere he must have received a fairly good education for a provincial middle-class boy because, although he never uses, as did everybody else in his day, a classical quotation, this very avoidance would indicate not only that he was well educated but quite sophisticated, and the prose style in his later pamphlets is that of a highly literate man. At the age of twenty he was in London, apprenticed to Sarah Gater, widow of William Gater of the Merchant Taylor’s company, and at twenty-eight he became a freeman and went into business for himself. Three years later he married Susan King. In the depression which began in 1643 he went bankrupt, and he was still being sued by one of his creditors in 1660. After his bankruptcy, he left London to stay with friends in the neighborhood of Cobham and Walton-on-Thames in Surrey where, to judge from his troubles over the cows, he made a living pasturing other people’s cattle on the common.

At some time before his first publication Winstanley joined the Baptists and may have been a preacher for them, but before 1648 he had come to believe that baptism was only an unimportant form and had ceased to attend Baptist conventicles. Rather he met with those little groups of Seekers who gathered in one another’s homes and waited for the Inner Light, and spoke only ex tempore. At this time he went through a period of temptation, guilt, fear of death and damnation, of devils and ghosts, and a sense of loss and abandonment, a time of spiritual crisis universal in the lives of the great mystics. Finally, he came to an abiding consciousness of God within himself, the assurance of universal salvation, and the peace which comes with direct experience of mystical illumination. His first two publications are really devoted to assimilating this experience. They move from a highly spiritualized chiliasm, developing a well-reasoned doctrine of universal salvation, to a highly spiritualized philosophy of history rather than a theology.

Even in these early pamphlets Winstanley has original insights. His chiliasm does not take the form of the salvation of a handful of the elect but of the divinization of man. In his teachings on sin and salvation the original sin of Adam was not lust but covetousness — selfishness and the desire for power — in which Winstanley shows himself an incomparably more astute moralist than the Puritans. Ultimately, the God who operates in history, in all things, and consciously in the soul of man, is called “Reason.” It would be a mistake to decide from this, as some modern writers have done, that Winstanley was a precursor of eighteenth-century rationalism. His reason is the ineffable God of Plotinus and Meister Eckhart apprehended in the mystical experience, though not separated from man as the Omnipotent Creator, but as the ultimately realizable in all things. So for him the narrative of the Old Testament and the life and passion of Christ cease to be historical documents about something that happened in the past and become symbolic archetypes of the cosmic drama of the struggle of good and evil that takes place in the soul of man.

When the Digger tracts began with the adventure at St. George’s Hill, Winstanley’s basic appeal was not to the practice of the apostles or to an eschatological ethic in preparation for apocalypse. His communism begins with an “opening,” an actual vision, and the appeal is always to his transcendent and imminent Reason — to a spiritualized natural law, not unlike the Tao of Chuang Tsu.

Likewise I heard these words: “Worke together. Eat bread together. Declare all this abroad.” Likewise I heard these words: “Whosoever it is that labours in the earth or any person or persons that lifts up themselves as Lords and Rulers over others and that doth not look upon themselves equal to others in the creation, the Hand of the Lord shall be upon the labourer. I the Lord have spoke it and I will do it. Declare all this abroad.” [The New Law of Righteousness, 1648]

This vision came not as a command from on high, but as a voice opening out of the experience of nature itself, for, says Winstanley, the doctrine of an anthropomorphic deity, set over against and independent of nature,

is the doctrine of a sickly and weak spirit who hath lost his understanding in the knowledge of the Creation and of the temper of his own Heart and Nature and so runs into fancies. [The Law of Freedom in a Platform or True Magistracy Restored, 1652]

To know the secrets of nature, is to know the works of God; and to know the works of God within the creation, is to know God himself, for God dwells in every visible work or body. And indeed if you would know spiritual things, it is to know how the Spirit or Power of Wisdom and Life, causing motion or growth, dwells within and governs both the several bodies of the stars and planets in the heavens above and the several bodies of the earth below as grass, plants, fishes, beasts, birds and mankinde. [Ibid.]

Belief in an outward heaven or hell is a “strange conceit,” a fraud by which men are delivered over into the power of their oppressors,

. . . a fancy which your false teachers put into your heads to please you with, while they pick your purses and betray your Christ into the hands of flesh, and hold Jacob under to be a servant still to Lord Esau. [The New Law of Righteousness]

True religion and undefiled is this, to make restitution of the Earth which hath been taken and held from the common people by the power of Conquests formerly and so set the oppressed free. [A New Yeers Gift for the Parliament and the Armie, 1650]

The earth with all her fruits of Corn, Cattle and such like was made to be a common Store-House of Livelihood, to all mankinde, friend and foe, without exception. [A Declaration from the Poor Oppressed People of England, 1649]

And this particular propriety [property] of mine and thine that brought in all misery upon people. For first it hath occasioned people to steal from one another. Secondly it hath made laws to hang those that did steal. It tempts people to do an evil action and then kills them for doing it. [The New Law of Righteousness]

Now, this same power in man that causes divisions and war is called by some men the state of nature which every man brings into the world with him. . . . But this law of darknesse is not the State of Nature. [Fire in the Bush, 1650]

. . . the power of Life (called the Law of Nature within the creatures) which does move both man and beast in their actions; or that causes grass, trees, corn and all plants to grow in their several seasons; and whatsoever any body does, he does it as he is moved by this inward Law. And this Law of Nature moves twofold viz. unrationally or rationally. [The Law of Freedom in a Platform or True Magistracy Restored]

In the beginning of time the great creator Reason made the earth to be a common treasury . . . not one word was spoken in the beginning that one branch of mankind should rule over another. [The True Levellers Standard Advanced, 1649]

. . . the power of inclosing Land and owning Propriety was brought into the Creation by your ancestors by the Sword which first did murther their fellow-creatures men and after plunder or steal away their land. [A Declaration from the Poor Oppressed People of England]

They have by their subtle imagination and covetous wit got the plain-hearted poor or younger brethren to work for them for small wages and by their work have got a great increase. [The True Levellers Standard Advanced]

By large pay, much Free-Quarter and other Booties which they call their own they get much Monies and with this they buy Land. [Ibid.]

No man can be rich, but he must be rich, either by his own labors, or the labors of other men helping him: If a man have no help from his neighbor, he shall never gather an Estate of hundreds and thousands a year: If other men help him to work, then are those Riches his Neighbors, as well as his own, for they be the fruit of other mens labors as well as his own. But all rich men live at ease, feeding and clothing themselves by the labor of other men and not by their own; which is their shame and not their Nobility: for it is a more blessed thing to give than to receive. But rich men receive all they have from the laborers hand, and what they give, they give way other mens labors not their own. [The Law of Freedom in a Platform or True Magistracy Restored]

. . . if once landlords, then they rise to be Justices, Rulers and State Governours as experience shewes. [The True Levellers Standard Advanced]

. . . the power of the murdering and theeving sword formerly as well as now of late years hath set up a government and maintains that government; for what are prisons and putting others to death, but the power of the Sword to enforce people to that Government which was got by Conquest and sword and cannot stand of itself but by the same murdering power. [A Declaration from the Poor Oppressed People of England]

. . . the Kingly power sets up a Law and Rule of Government to walk by; and here Justice is pretended but the full strength of the Law is to uphold the conquering Sword and to preserve his son Propriety. . . . For though they say the Law doth punish yet indeed the Law is but the strength, life and marrow of the Kingly power upholding the Conquest still, hedging some into the Earth, hedging out others; giving the Earth to some and denying the Earth to others, which is contrary to the Law of Righteousnesse who made the Earth at first as free for one as for another. . . . Truly most Laws are but to enslave the Poor to the Rich and so they uphold the Conquest and are Laws of the great Red Dragons. [A New Yeers Gift for the Parliament and the Armie]

Winstanley borrowed from the Levellers the idea that in Anglo-Saxon England there had been an equitable sharing of land; and that at the Norman Conquest great estates had been created, and the old population dispossessed or driven into serfdom; and that this unequal division of the basic wealth of the land had been perpetuated ever since solely by the power of the sword; and that law and established religion were just devices to uphold the sword; and finally, that the overthrow of the king, the heir of the Norman power, had resulted in no important change. The old laws still stood. A new Church, first of the Presbyterians and then of the Independents, was established, and the grandees of the new commonwealth were enriching themselves like William the Conqueror’s knights, while the common people sank deeper into poverty. Winstanley’s interpretation of English history has been considered naïve, but there is much to be said for it. Anglo-Saxon England was in fact a frontier country, and all through the Dark Ages, following the catastrophic depopulation that began in the fifth century, there was much free land all over Europe and even more in the British Isles.

He says of caterpillar lawyers that “they love money as dearly as a poor man’s dog do his breakfast in a cold morning and they are such neat workmen, that they can turn a cause which way those that have the biggest purse have them.”

O you Parliament-men of England, cast those whorish laws out of doors, that are so common, that pretend love to everyone, and is faithful to none. For truly, he that goes to law, as the proverb is, shall die a beggar. So that old whores, and old laws, picks men’s pockets and undoes them . . . burn all your law books in Cheapside, and set up your government upon your own foundations. Do not put new wine into old bottles; but as your government must be new so let the laws be new, or else you will run farther into the mud, where you stick already, as though you were fast in an Irish bog. [A New Yeers Gift for the Parliament and the Armie]

As for the church:

And do we not yet see that if the Clergie can get Tithes or Money they will turn as the Ruling power turns, any way . . . to Papacy, to Protestantisme; for a King, against a King; for monarchy, for Some Government; they cry who bids most wages, they will be on the strongest side for an earthly maintenance. . . . There is a confederacie between the Clergy and the great red Dragon. The sheep of Christ shall never fare well so long as the wolf or red Dragon payes the Shepherd their wages. [Ibid.]

For Winstanley private property, but especially the property in land as the source of all wealth, “is the cause of all wars, bloodshed, theft and enslaving laws that hold the people under miserie.” Private property divides man from man and nation from nation and leads to a state of continuous war on which the state power flourishes.

Winstanley was the first to discover that axiom made famous by Randolph Bourne — “War is the health of the State.” He also had the curious and original idea that only in time of war does the power structure encourage scientific invention. “Otherwise the Kingly Bondage is the cause of the spreading of ignorance in the earth for fear of want and care to pay rent to taskmasters hath hindered many rare inventions and the secrets of creation have been locked up under the traditional parrot-like speaking from the Universities and Colleges for Scholars.” War, says Winstanley, makes the rich richer and the poor poorer and tightens the bonds of power.

Winstanley was a devout pacifist all during the Digger experiment; and one reason for the violent abuse of the Diggers, the destruction of their shanties, and the injury and killing of their livestock, was due to the fact that they put up no resistance. They believed that their example, if only they were permitted to cultivate the commons and wastelands, would be so infectious that soon it would be followed by all the poor of England; and that when they had established a community of love, interpenetrating all of English society, their success would lead even the rich and powerful to join them, and eventually all Europe would turn communist persuaded only by example.

Socialists, modern Communists, anarchists, all claim Winstanley as an ancestor. In fact his ideas bear most resemblance to those of the left-wing followers of Henry George’s Single Tax. For him the source of all wealth was in land and its development in the application of labor to the resources of the earth. If these resources were held in common, and all men were permitted to develop them freely, and men labored in common, then the resulting wealth, even of crafts and manufactures, would naturally become communalized. Modern contemporary Marxists have called this economics naïve, but it was held at the beginning of the twentieth century by an economist who was anything but naïve, Henry George, who attracted many thousand intelligent followers, and it is after all the fundamental assumption of Marx himself. But it was not his economics that was most important to Winstanley. What he sought was a spiritual condition in mankind which would be in harmony with the working of Reason in nature — the return of man, who had fallen into covetousness, to the universal harmony. Winstanley’s communism was not an economic doctrine, but mutual aid followed from his organic philosophy as a logical consequence.

After the suppression of the little commune of Diggers Winstanley was quiet for a while. Then in 1652 he published, with a preface submitting it to Cromwell, his plan for a new commonwealth — The Law of Freedom in a Platform or True Magistracy Restored. The Digger pamphlets present no plan for administrative or governmental policy. Winstanley seems to have assumed that the example of small anarchist-communist groups working in occupied land in brotherhood would sweep all before it and convert England and eventually the world. The problems of self-defense and internal disruption are met by total pacifism before which power must simply dissolve. The violent suppression of the Diggers by both mob and authority forced Winstanley to consider the question of power anew.

The Law of Freedom, after a general introduction, is concerned largely with administrative plans, and the introduction is an appeal to Cromwell to use his power to introduce the new commonwealth. If you do not, says Winstanley, abolish the old power of conquest of the king and nobles, but only turn it over to other men, “you will either lose yourself or lay the foundation of greater slavery to posterity than you ever knew,” a chilling forecast of the dark Satanic mills of early British capitalism.

In the preamble he outlines the principal popular grievances, lack of religious toleration, survival of the old priesthood, the burden of tithes — a tenth of all income for an established Church, arbitrary administration of justice, the old laws are still enforced, the old feudal dues and obligations are still used to oppress the people, while the upper classes ignore their feudal obligations and enclose or abuse the common lands. These are the same grievances we are familiar with from the Hussite Wars and the Peasants’ Revolt in Germany.

Winstanley points out that true freedom does not consist in free trade, freedom of religion, or community of women, but freedom in the use of the earth, the natural treasure of society, and that the first duty of the new commonwealth should be to open the land to all people and to take over the former holdings of the king, the Church, and the nobility. To do this properly, and to use the land fruitfully for the good of all, society needs true government, administrative officers who will be devoted to freedom and the commonweal.

The original root of magistracy was in the family, and the first magistrate is the father, as the finally responsible member of a group in which all are mutually responsible. Officers of the society should be chosen by complete manhood suffrage for all over twenty, and at first only representatives of the old order need to be barred, although notorious evil livers are not fit to be chosen. They should be above forty years of age and hold office for one year only so that responsibility can be rotated throughout the community. First are the overseers, the peace officers who form a local council in each community. They preserve public order and suppress crime and quarrelling and disputes over household property and other chattels which remain in private possession. Others plan the distribution of labor and assign the young to apprenticeships. Others oversee the production of the craftsmen and farmers. Winstanley envisages manufactures as being carried on largely in people’s homes with a few public workshops. Apprenticeships normally take place within the family; only boys who do not wish to follow their fathers’ trade are assigned to the public workshops. Others organize the distribution of goods and food which go to warehouses and shops, both wholesale and retail, from which both craftsmen and consumers are free to choose what they wish.

In each community there is a “soldier,” what we would call a policeman, whose duty is to enforce the decisions of the peacemaker, a taskmaster to whom is given the rule of those convicted of crimes against the community and who assigns them to common labor. There is also an executioner who administers corporal or capital punishment to the hopelessly recalcitrant. Winstanley’s system of penalties may seem excessively severe to us, especially in a utopian society, but in their day, when people were hung for petty theft, they were relatively mild. In the county or shire the peacemakers of the towns, the overseers, and the soldiers, presided over by a judge, form the county senate and court of first appeal. Over all is parliament, which Winstanley seems to have thought of as primarily a court of final appeal, and he is very strongly opposed to its indulging in promiscuous legislation. Laws should be as few and simple as possible. What Winstanley had in mind was a polity like the Israelites in the Book of Judges — in fact the neolithic village with spontaneous justice administered by the elders sitting under a tree. Curiously he says nothing about juries or any other form of democratization of justice. Society defends itself by a militia and Winstanley has a most perceptive section on the evils of standing armies, militarism, and war.

Education in the new commonwealth is free, general, compulsory, and continues through life. Everyone is to be taught a trade or a craft at which he is to work part-time, whatever else he comes to do. No caste of intellectuals or academicians set apart from the people by booklearning is to be permitted to arise, although after the age of forty men “shall be freed from all labor and work unless they will themselves.” The death penalty is decreed for those who attempt to make a living by law or religion. In each community there shall be a “postmaster” who corresponds with all the others in the country directly and through a central postmaster in the chief city. They exchange news, especially news of progress in science, invention, and technology. Sunday is a day of rest. The people gather to listen to a reading of the laws, the news of the postmaster, and what we would call papers on learning and science. Religious services are not mentioned. The people are apparently at liberty to attend them if they wish. Marriage and divorce are civil, exclusively at the will of parties, and take place by simple declaration before the community with the overseers as witnesses.

Winstanley’s utopia has been criticized as being excessively simple and himself as naïve; and even more naïve, his idea that Cromwell would put in force such a policy, or probably even bother to read his pamphlet. Ideological discussion with his sectarian opponents was, whenever he had time, an indoor sport with Cromwell, but he never allowed it to influence him. We must not forget he lived in a time of revolutionary hope. In those days, as in the beginning of the Reformation on the continent, it seemed quite possible to intelligent men that an entirely new social order might be established. Everyone was something of a millenarian and believed that a new historical epoch was beginning. They could not foresee the rise of industrialism, capitalism, the secular State. To us, their future is the past and seems to have been inevitable. There was nothing inevitable about it to them. Perhaps if Cromwell, or even Luther, had foreseen the horrors of the early industrial age in the nineteenth century, or the genocide and wars of extermination of the twentieth, they might have chosen the commonwealth of Winstanley or the community life of the Hutterites. In each great crisis of Western European civilization, the Reformation, the French Revolution, the revolutions of 1848, the First World War, the Bolshevik Revolution, the Spanish Civil War, the Second World War, it has seemed quite possible to change the world. It is only after the fact that the historical process appears to be the only way in which events could have worked out.

Was Winstanley’s utopia a workable polity? Within limits, yes. Whether he knew it or not, it is remarkably similar to that of the Taborites, the Moravian Brethren, the Hutterites, and the most successful and enduring communalist settlements in nineteenth-century America. His plans went into the common stock of ideas of later English communists and directly or indirectly influenced John Bellers, Robert Owen, Josiah Warren, William Morris, Belford Bax, Édouard Bernstein, David Petegorsky. Other socialists, Communists, and anarchists wrote extensively about him in the first half of the twentieth century and after the Second World War he became extremely popular. Revolutionary communalist groups in England, America, Germany, and France would even call themselves Diggers.

Although the Quakers are by far the best known and largest, and a still surviving community descended from the Spiritualist Anabaptists, and hence ultimately from the underground apostolic community of the Middle Ages, they did not practice community of goods. Rather each Seventh-Day Meeting, as they called their conventicles, had a common fund for the relief of members in need. As a majority of Quakers became prosperous — due to their strict honesty in trade and crafts and, prior to 1760 when they refused to pay tithes and so gave up farming, their advanced agricultural methods — these common funds became quite large and many poor people joined the Society of Friends to obtain welfare funds vastly superior to contemporary poor relief. At first this caused problems but within a generation members who had joined for these reasons had been absorbed into the general economy of Quaker mutual aid and poor Quakers were less than a third of the proportion of poor in the general population, while well-to-do members were proportionately three times as many. Quaker welfare funds came to be used more and more for the general relief of the poor in systematic ways which would foster self-help. Quakers were the principal, almost the sole, financiers, besides himself, of Robert Owen’s model factory town of New Lanark, and they have continued to invest in communal and cooperative movements of which they approve to this day.

In his youth at Manchester College Owen’s closest friends were the Quaker John Dalton and another young Friend named Winstanley, quite possibly a descendant of the great Digger.

Far more than Robert Owen, the most systematic theorist of a cooperative labor colony was the Quaker John Bellers, who greatly impressed Marx. Owen always denied that he was influenced by Bellers and claimed that he had never heard of him until Francis Place showed him a unique copy of his forgotten pamphlet in 1817. Owen immediately had a thousand copies printed and distributed them to those he thought would be interested, and so Bellers survived.

Bellers was born in 1654, a birthright Quaker. He became a friend of William Penn and other leading men of the time. In 1695 during the long economic depression in the last years of the century, he published Proposals for Raising a College of Industry of All Useful Trades and Husbandry. He called it a college rather than a work house or community because the first was identified with the servile institutions of state poor relief and the second implied that all things should be held in common. For a capital investment of fifteen thousand pounds — worth considerably more than ten times as much today — Bellers envisaged a self-sustaining colony of three hundred adults with shops, commissary, crafts, farm land, barns, dairies, pottery. The community was to be self-sufficient even in fuel and iron. All members, from common laborers to the overseers and managers, were to be paid in kind. The dwelling house would have four wings — one for married couples, one for single men and young boys, one for single women and girls, and one an infirmary. Meals were to be in common. Bellers, like Winstanley before him, placed great emphasis upon education in the humanities, in the arts, and in crafts and trade combined. Bellers thought that the creative life of the community and the advanced educational methods would attract many who would wish to come as visitors or even permanent boarders; and even more would wish to enroll their children in school, and for these privileges they would be expected to pay well. He worked out in considerable detail the projected bookkeeping of his community and demonstrated that the original investors would gain a considerable profit, while at the same time the standard of living of the members would be far higher than that of the contemporary working class. The first edition of the pamphlet was dedicated to the Society of Friends, the second to Parliament, but no one came forward to invest in such a colony. During his remaining years Bellers issued a series of pamphlets, some of them devoted to a careful economic analysis of a semi-socialist economy, others proposing a league of nations, an ecumenical council of all Christian religions, a national health service, a reform of Parliament and the electoral process, a total reform of prisons, and a reform of the Poor Laws.

Although Robert Owen had worked out his own system before he read Bellers’s pamphlet and although Fourier, Saint-Simon, and Cabet had certainly never heard of him, he anticipated most of their more practicable ideas and in far more practicable form. Although all his writings soon became excessively rare, he should be considered the founder of modern, socially responsible Quakerism of the Service Committee variety. Furthermore the various measures he proposed in his reformist practice have almost all been incorporated in the modern welfare state. Although Marx called him “a veritable phenomenon in the history of political economy,” amazingly there has never been an edition of his collected works nor, with all the immense flood of scholarly research and Ph.D. theses, has anyone written a book about him. He is not even mentioned in Beer’s History of British Socialism. Most information about him is to be found in the final chapter of Édouard Bernstein’s Cromwell and Communism.

 
Last updated December 15, 2013
Home page located at: http://www.diggers.org