Gerrard Winstanley, the Diggers, the Levellers and the G20

There is an interesting piece by David Horspool in the Times today, seeing resonances between some of the G20 protests, notably the G20 Meltdown on Wednesday 1 April, and the Diggers, whose commune on St. George’s Hill, Surrey was established on the same day 360 years ago.

Of course, some of these protesters had already been very consciously linking their actions back to an earlier tradition of protest – if not quite back to the mid-seventeenth century – see Climate Rush‘s appropriating of suffragette style, slogans and tactics in opposing Heathrow expansion.

Horspool’s argument also involves an artificial division between Leveller ‘democrats’ and Digger ‘communists’ (with a small c.) But even Winstanley’s supposedly neo-Stalinist last political tract The Law of Freedom in a Platform envisaged a democratic state built upon a clear notion of a social contract, while the Levellers were a lot more interested in the defence of individual liberty against tyranny than they were in securing the vote for adult males. Back in the mid-17th century, the Levellers had already recognised that voting rights alone could not reverse political inequalities. For that reason, not only did government have to be clearly founded on the principle of popular sovereignty, by the actual act of subscribing to the Leveller proto-constitutions, the Agreements of the People, but once elected, the power of the new ‘representative’ (Parliament) and the executive had to be hemmed in by a series of ‘reserves’, rights which no power in the land could abrogate.

More interesting is Horspool’s suggestion that the Diggers’ vision was more global than the Levellers. That is largely a consequence of the wedding of the plan for Digger communes with Winstanley’s vision of the new millennium, an event that obviously was not going to be confined just to England. Even so, the Levellers, again, get a bit hard done by. Didn’t Edward Sexby try, albeit with limited success, to sell Leveller ideas (via a French translation of the Agreement of the People, ‘L’Accord du peuple’) to the Frondeurs? And see also Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker’s excellent treatment of the wider implications of Leveller rhetoric in The Many Headed Hydra.

But certainly, the largely peaceful, carnivalesque nature of the G20 demonstrations this week has clear affinities with many British popular movements that successfully combined sociability with solidarity, like the orderly processions that marched to Peterloo in 1819, indebted to the Lancashire tradition of  ‘rush-bearing’

Even Winstanley is at last getting a party in his honour, with a festival commemorating the Digger settlements to be held in Cobham in September this year.

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6 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Hi Edward,
    Thanks for the tip on the Diggers and contemporary events.
    I am currently writing an assignment on Gerrard Winstanley (I study the history of ideas, in Denmark) and he writes several times that God is no respecter of “persons”. I was if you could help me out withknow of a book or an article dealing with the meaning and uses of the concept of “person” in seventeent-century England and/or Winstanley?

    Best regards,
    Mads

  2. Mads:

    If I may make a suggestion, Vallance mentions in the above post Linebaugh and Rediker’s _Many Headed Hydra_, in which they discuss early modern applications of the phrase “God is no respecter of persons” at length. Re: Winstanley, see J.C. Davis’s _Utopia and the Ideal Society_, ch. 7.

    Kind regards,
    Tania

  3. Thanks, Tania. I should have guessed it was a biblical reference.

    /Mads

  4. The sin of property we do disdain! Funny because I had a great chat with a sociology professor at the G20- all about Winstanley and the Diggers.

    Check out the Diggers song on youtube- its great.

    “England is not a free people till the poor that have no land have a free allowance to dig and labour the commons”

    IT GOES ON!

  5. A memorial to Gerrard Winstanley is to he unveiled in St Andrew’s church, Cobham, Surrey on Saturday 12th September at 11.30 as part of Cobham’s Heritage Day. On Sunday 13th Professor Chris Rowland of Oxford University will preach at the 10am service on the message of Winstanley for today.
    This year marks the 400th anniversary of Winstanley’s birth and Cobham was his home and the seen of much of the Digger activity.

  6. We have organised a seminar on Winstanley to mark the 400th anniversary. It will be on Thursday 19th November at Conway Hall, 7pm. The authors of the new complete works will be the speakers.

    All welcome.


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