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Winstanley & The Diggers
The Spirtual and Political Story
of a Seventeenth Century Communist Movement
By David Spritzler
"The World Turned Upside Down"
By Leon Rosselson
To St. George's Hill,
A ragged band they called the Diggers
Came to show the people's will
They defied the landlords
They defied the laws
They were the dispossessed reclaiming what was theirs
We come in peace they said
To dig and sow
We come to work the lands in common
And to make the waste ground grow
This earth divided
We will make whole
So it will be
A common treasury for all
The sin of property
We do disdain
No man has any right to buy and sell
The earth for private gain
By theft and murder
They took our land
Now everywhere the walls
Spring up at their command
They make the laws
To chain us well
The clergy dazzle us with heaven
Or they damn us into hell
We will not worship
The God they serve
The God of greed who feeds the rich
While poor folk starve
We work we eat together
We need no swords
We will not bow to the masters
Or pay rent to the lords
Still we are free
Though we are poor
You Diggers all stand up for glory
Stand up now
From the men of property
The orders came
They sent the hired men and troopers
To wipe out the Diggers' claim
Tear down their cottages
Destroy their corn
They were dispersed
But still the vision lingers on
You poor take courage
You rich take care
This earth was made a common treasury
For everyone to share
All things in common
All people one
We come in peace
The orders came to cut them down.
This paper tells the story of the seventeenth century British theological and political philosopher Gerrard Winstanley, and the egalitarian community with which he attempted to change the world. By telling Winstanley's story, I hope to show that resistance to the Hobbesian ideas that rule our lives today is as old as those ideas themselves. In his introduction to Thomas Hobbes's most well known work, Leviathan, Crawford Brough Macpherson asks "Why, in the second half of the twentieth century, do we still read Hobbes, who wrote three centuries ago?" I might pose the related question: Why, in the second half of the twentieth century, do we not read Winstanley, who was by all accounts at least as brilliant as his contemporary, Hobbes? My question, I must admit, is a rhetorical one. The answer is that it is Hobbes, not Winstanley whose views became the basis of our society.
That history is written by the victors is an almost entirely accurate truism (as Winstanley demonstrates, the victors are not always the only ones capable of recording the events of their time.) But, the degree to which different versions of history are emphasized lies entirely within the control of those who find themselves in power after these events are concluded. Such is the case with the respective representation today of Winstanley and Hobbes.
Hobbes's basic assumption, upon which he bases the entirety of his political views, is that men are necessarily locked into a struggle for power over one another:
So that in the first place, I put for a generall inclination of all mankind, a perpetuall and restlesse desire of Power after power, that ceaseth onley in Death. And the cause of this, is not alwayes that a man hopes for a more intensive delight, than he has already attained to; or that he cannot be content with a moderate power: but because he cannot assure the power and means to live well, which he hath present, without the acquisition of more. (Hobbes 161)
This assumption is also the basis of the most powerful political forces at work in the world today. Both modern capitalism, and modern communism maintain that it is necessary for a paternalistic government to control the populace, to protect it from its self. Indeed this assumption has been at the heart of public policy in the Western world and its dominion as far back as Hobbes's time.
And so, it is not surprising that it is Hobbes who is still widely read in the twentieth century, and not Winstanley. For the world of the twentieth century is a world in which those in power base their policies upon Hobbes's basic assumptions that good and bad are subjective, and that humans' ability to control their desires is non-existent; not Winstanley's conviction that there is an objectively good force inherent in every person, and that this force will ultimately prevail over selfishness. Thus, it makes perfect sense that the expression of conflicting views should be kept at a minimum. It is not even necessary to believe in a covert conspiracy; those responsible have no reason to cover their trails. After all, Hobbes's assumption is considered by them to be as unquestionable as his contemporary, Galileo's discovery that all objects fall at the same rate. Any who disagree are branded idealists, and informed that they are ignorant of the true nature of people, and the true nature of the world. History is painted in Hobbesian terms, and thus there is never a shortage of historical examples to support the Hobbesian's claim.
My main interest in Winstanley is that he, and many of his contemporaries, are representative of a great number of historical examples that defy this dominant paradigm. Yet (or perhaps, thus,) Winstanley's views are consistently glossed over by historians. If we read on in Macphereson's introduction, we learn that: "As soon as [Hobbes] had demonstrated the need for a single sovereign power, no one, from the Levellers, to Harrington, to Locke, disputed it. All they disputed was whether it need be a self perpetuating sovereign body." This, as we shall see, is simply not true: Winstanley disputed the right of any person to rule another at the same time that Hobbes claimed it was necessary for the survival of humanity.
And so, it soon becomes apparent that Winstanley is also representative of the countless resistors of oppression whose stories and opinions have been suppressed. Lisa Lowe comments that the emphasized version of history is, "as [Walter] Benjamin suggests, a narrative that has 'empathy with the victor,'…" If this is so, she writes, then "the material memory of the unvictorious is not simply repressed by that narrative," but it returns to "pressure and restructure" the very systems that seek to repress it. (Lowe 127-127) By offering an alternative narrative, one which illuminates "the material memory of the unvictorious," I hope to aid this memory's return, and thus demonstrate that the powers that rule today have been challenged since their very beginnings. Without knowledge of Winstanley's struggle, and many others, it may seem that we as people struggling against oppression today are isolated. Oppressive elites, ruling on the basis of Hobbes's assumptions control much of what we see of the world. This paper emphasizes a point of view that runs contrary to the views emphasized by these elites, and should thus help to level, so to speak, the score between them and the rest of us, Winstanley included, who do not believe that humans can not help but do each other harm.
The Diggers' story is important because it shows us that despite vastly different worldviews, despite the fact that it was a totally different time, oppression is always wrong, and gets the same sort of reactions. Hobbes is wrong, Winstanley & Freire are right.