‘But everyone shall put their hands to till the earth and bring up cattle, and the blessing of the earth shall be common to all; when a man hath need of any corn or cattle, take from the next store-house he meets with. There shall be no buying and selling, no fairs or markets, but the whole earth shall be the common Treasury for evey man.’ – Gerrard Winstanley (1609 – 1676).
Radical stuff, especially for the 17th century, when men did not have a universal vote even, and absolutely nobody was demanding a vote for women. Winstanley and his comrade’s views on property ownership caused quite a few rich scum to choke at their banquets too: ‘The power of enclosing land and owning property was brought into the creation by your ancestors by the sword; which first did murder their fellow creatures, men, and after plunder or steal away their land, and left this land successively to you, their children. And therefore, though you did not kill or thieve, yet you hold that cursed thing in your hand by the power of the sword; and so you justify the wicked deeds of your fathers, and that sin of your fathers shall be visited upon the head of you and your children to the third and fourth generation, and longer too, till your bloody and thieving power be rooted out of the land.’ (From A Declaration from the Poor Oppressed People of England, by Winstanley and 44 others, 1649).
Winstanley was a True Leveller, later called Diggers (because they dug the land innit), who were a radical split off from the already radical (for those times) Levellers. The True Levellers wished to ‘level’ the ownership of property (and land), in effect get rid of all forms of private property. All were active during and after the English civil wars that led to Cromwell landing the job of the big boss, after the king Charles 1st had his head chopped off.
Unsuprisingly, the True Levellers failed in their radical project, as did the Levellers. Looking back now at their writings and actions, we may describe them as christian communists, with a large slice of anarchism thrown in. Some have even described the actions of the Diggers as the first (and only?) anarcho-communist revolution in this country. Of course their radical ideas and visions did not die with them when they failed, and indeed they were influenced by those who came before, for instance the writings/sayings related to the peasants revolt of 1381 are said to have influenced the True Levellers.
And so since Winstanley’s time, these radical ideas have been picked up by new generations of thinkers and agitators and activists (not always knowingly), who have developed and amended them accordingly, and this has happened time and again, right up until the present day – for instance look at the development of marxist, communist, socialist and anarchist ideas; look at the anti-capitalists of the late 1990’s, or the climate campers of the present day. And note too that so far none have been entirely successful, the private ownership of property/land still dominates, better known now as capitalism. With it we continue with inequality, injustice, discrimination, exploitation and oppression, just as in Winstanley’s day. 400 years on since Winstanley’s birth (he died on 10 September 1676) we face much the same questions, and just as big a challenge.
Find out more about Winstanley – come to The Cube cinema on Monday 7 September at 7.30pm to watch a screening of the classic and visually powerful 1975 drama documentary ‘Winstanley’. There’ll be a short intro to the history and struggles of that period by a Bristol radical historian, folowed by the 92 minute film, and then informal chats in the bar or outside.