Full text articles by and about the Diggers (4)

San Francisco style: The diggers and the love revolution

By Alex Forman
Anarchy 77 (Vol 7 No 7), July 1967

[The publication of Alex Forman's article was an early recognition by English anarchists of the San Francisco Digger movement that resonated so closely with anarchist ideals and especially with the original English Diggers of the 17th century. Forman's close reading of the Haight-Ashbury Diggers implies eyewitness involvement, especially the verbatim transcript of a random conversation at the Black People's Free Store. Forman also provides a summary of the ideas and motivations of the original Diggers and highlights some of the intriguing parallels to their modern day bohemian counterparts. This was an important article that alerted many on the European radical scene to what was happening in San Francisco, coming just months after the first Digger Free Feed in the Panhandle.]

When a small group of men began to plant and dig upon the Commons on St. George's Hill in Surrey, in 1649, it marked the radical culmination of the new forces of change resulting from the Reformation in Germany. For with the breakdown of the total supremacy of the Roman Church, these new forces were to go far beyond the moderate rebellion of Martin Luther. The destruction of the rationale for the Church's omnipotence led suffering people to question the power of other elements in the collapsing power structure. This can best be seen in the peasants' revolt in Germany and in the English Civil War. For not only was the Church questioned but also the institutions of the state and the system of land ownership.

The Diggers, as the small group of men came to be known, questioned the existing order in its totality. They had grievances against the clergy, the judges, the lawyers, parliament, and the nobles. They requested that the common land, which had belonged to the King who had been executed, be turned over to the people. The people could run the commons collectively and set up a co-operative commonwealth alongside the existing system. The Diggers believed that their system would prove to be so peaceful and filled with reason and love that soon the whole country would join them. They saw no need for violence and refused even to defend themselves when attacked.

The Diggers had two distinct arguments for their cause, one religious and the other political. The religious argument stated that God had not created the earth to be enjoyed by certain men only, but rather as a common treasury for all. The ownership of the land in England had been achieved, from William the Conqueror on, by the use of the sword—indirectly when not directly. Thus land ownership, based upon blood, was immoral. Diggers believed man to have two opposing instincts in his spirit: self-preservation, which accounted for greed and bloodshed, and common preservation, represented by sharing and love. To act in a morally correct way meant living a life based on common preservation. Diggers also believed that if men lived for a while in accordance with common preservation, their bad instincts would disappear because of the supreme power of universal love.

The Diggers' political argument was that, since the common land once belonged to the King, it now belonged to all those who had fought to end the monarchy. Thus, since masses of people had fought, the masses were entitled to former royal holdings. It's important to note that Gerald Winstanley, the Diggers' leading spokesman, showed an increasing tendency to base their cause on the more concrete political arguments during the movement's brief history. The last important document to come out of the Digger movement was a long appeal from Winstanley to Oliver Cromwell calling for the creation of a co-operative commonwealth in England. This included concrete proposals on how to organize the economy, the schools, the state and judicial system. It favoured private property within the home, family-based settlements, universal manhood suffrage, common ownership of all Crown lands, and common storehouses for all products.

Although the original Diggers didn't succeed in their goal, their thoughts have survived over three hundred years and appeared again in remarkably similar form. Growing out of give-and-take between the New Left and the old beat generation, a hippy culture blossomed in San Francisco in late 1965. Two new factors which made the hippy culture a very distinct phenomenon were, first, a feeling of community (emphasized by individuals frustrated in the New Left), and second, the use of LSD. Cutting across the economic and social differences of many alienated Americans, almost all quite young, a new tribal love culture took root in the Haight-Ashbury district of the city. The new force unleashed by LSD constituted the primary unifying factor in a grouping which ranged from the sometimes violent Hell's Angels motorcycle club to meditating Zen Buddhists. This new culture was at first amorphous but it soon took on the shape of a bohemian community complete with its own merchant class: the hip merchants.

Haight-Ashbury's new love community acquired members primarily from the swollen ranks of alienated young people who were also discovering the "love trip." Conversations on streets in the Haight-Ashbury became filled with talk of love, and then, suddenly appearing in the autumn of 1966, was a group calling itself the Diggers. It began to distribute free food in the local park—food donated by individuals and collected from the surpluses of local markets. The new group also attempted to provide housing for the growing number of young people who had become convinced that they should create a new, loving society.

The important point is that the new Diggers began similarly to the original ones, by simply showing up on the scene and declaring that they acted in accordance with the spirit of universal love. The fact that this love was found partly through LSD—not derived from the Bible—isn't crucial. The original Diggers were also said to be influenced by mystical ideas during their religious gatherings.

At first the coming of the new Diggers was lauded by the entire hippy community. The "Digger thing" of giving things away spread into the community—and beyond into the high schools and colleges of the city. There was a powerful new force in the air as one walked down Haight Street and saw people giving away flowers, fruits and candies. The Diggers in a sense became a new morality, the opposite of industrial capitalism's grab-bag marketplace morality. The moral position of the Diggers can be seen in the fact that after they had been pushed out of various offices by the police and health departments, they were given an office and kitchen privileges by a neighbourhood church. They were looked upon soon as the most beautiful part of the community and then began to be labelled by some as a "community service." It was at this point that an inevitable split occurred, for the Diggers did not want to be a community service—they wanted the community itself to be based on the new morality. A conflict began between the Diggers and the hip merchants.

It was fairly obvious that the merchants were getting rich without helping the hippies on the streets, many of whom were dependent on the Diggers. At a meeting one of the more vocal Diggers asked why, if they were a community service, did they find it so hard to get aid from the community. They wished to see money used to buy space for people—living space, growing space, space to create the new world. Such aims conflicted with those of the business-minded merchants. A full-scale break was developing.

Meanwhile, the Diggers' magic acquired them two farms which are now being established as future food suppliers as well as colonies of freedom from the city hassle. In April of 1967 the movement jumped across an ethnic barrier with the beginning of a Black Man's Free Store in the heart of the Negro ghetto. It was at this time—with the establishment of free-stores in the black community and the Haight-Ashbury, with the beginning of farms and the break with the merchants—that the Diggers repeated Winstanley's course by putting stress on concrete political realities. They spoke now of need for some kind of revolution—and especially in the Black Man's Free Store the work is viewed as the beginning of a revolution. This new tone can best be described by quoting the close of a Digger leaflet distributed in early May, 1967.

". . . well love is a slop-bucket and we are the children of awareness but our courage has not yet manifested itself within our floating community. We put down the merchants, the bullshitters, the hustlers and we sit around and it's all the same and there's nothing new under the sun and free food seems a long time gone because we're playing the game of the 193O's, we're the new cry babies and james dean's tears have finally taken root in a shallow weak kneed series of cabals which expect someone to take care of their living . . . some revolution."

This is not to imply that the Diggers are giving up on love. If anything, there's now more love than before. But they're becoming more aware of the system that prevents love, more aware of the strength of competitive industrial capitalism, since it's threatening their own community. This awareness was demonstrated when four individuals associated with the Diggers, each from a different section of San Francisco, sent a letter to the city government echoing Winstanley's demand for a system of free storehouses to be replenished when empty. The letter argued that our industrial system is capable of feeding everyone if organized for that purpose, and stated that it's a moral and psychological necessity that this be done. Reading this leaflet in the Black Man's Free Store, gazing out the window at prostitutes selling their bodies—beautiful black bodies on a sunny afternoon—I realized that such changes were indeed a necessity. But the Diggers alone can't implement them. It will take a massive alliance of the alienated young people and the political left. Yet the Diggers continue working toward their goal—working through the medium of love, as illustrated by the following exchange heard in the Black Man's Free Store as it opened in April:

Rembrandt (a sign-painter passing by): I see that you guys are opening a store. Do you want a sign painted?

Roy (a former freedom-fighter in Mississippi, now organizer of the store): Well, this is a free-store so we can't pay you anything, but if you want to paint a sign . . . you see, we give things away.

Rembrandt: I never give anything away and nobody has ever given me anything.

Roy: Nobody's ever given you anything? . . . See that box of spray paints—if you can use them they're yours. Do you have any money? Here's thirty cents for bus fare.

Rembrandt: I don't understand. What are you guys doing here?

Roy: See that big appliance and furniture store across the street, with the sign about cashing welfare checks? Well, that's where all the people on welfare go . . . I've taken them there myself. The woman who runs the place came in here awhile ago and asked what we were doing. When I told her we were setting up a free-store she told me that I was in the wrong neighbourhood—that we didn't need a free-store here. She said I should go to the Haight-Ashbury. Then she became really excited and said that we just couldn't do this here and she would stop it. Well, the point is that we're here to give things away so that the people on welfare can have enough money to live better than now. It's the beginning of a revolutionary movement for change.

Rembrandt: I see. Well. Why don't I paint a nice big sign on the window saying "Watch For our Grand opening Day" and write "Free Food, Clothes and Appliances"—that'll really scare her.

Rembrandt (after painting): Listen, I have a truck I can borrow so I'll come back and give you guys some glitter and help move some stuff. (He leaves.)

Roy: He really did his thing, didn't he? Did you dig it? We turned that cat on to doing his thing and he did it, man, he really did it.

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