Gerrard Winstanley: A Common Treasury
Verso’s Revolutions series delivers historic revolutionary authors, such as ‘El Libertador’, Simon Bolivar, teamed-up with present-day radicals (Bolivar’s literary companion being the socialist President of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez). This contribution to the series features veteran left-winger Tony Benn introducing Gerrard Winstanley, the leader of the 17th-century English radical Digger movement. The title of this collection refers to Winstanley’s belief, enacted in the Digger settlements established in 1649 at St George’s Hill and then Little Heath, Cobham, Surrey, that the land should be a ‘common treasury ... for all, to work together, and eate together’.
Most historians of the 17th-century will baulk at Benn’s description of the Diggers as the ‘first true socialists’. Many will also be sceptical of his claim that Winstanley set out to challenge ‘sexist language’. (Is this the same Winstanley who wrote that ‘excesse of Feminine society, hinders the pure and naturall Generation of man, and spills the seed in vain’?).
However the real value of this volume lies not in Benn’s short introduction but in the up-to-date and clear foreword provided by the New Left Review writer Tom Hazeldine and in the texts themselves, made available again in a cheap paperback edition for the first time in 20 years. Like Benn, Hazeldine sees modern relevance to the Diggers’ campaign (he points to the recent controversy over the proposed sale of national forests) but he also draws on the best recent historical scholarship – John Gurney’s forensic study of the Digger settlements in Surrey, Corns, Hughes and Lowenstein’s excellent edition of Winstanley’s collected works – to offer a valuable primer in both Winstanley’s life and the progress of the Digger movement. The selection of texts, edited by Andrew Hopton, is taken from an earlier collection of Digger pamphlets published in 1989, though Hopton has helpfully updated the explanatory notes to acknowledge recent discoveries.
This particular selection, as Hazeldine indicates in his foreword, excludes Winstanley’s four mystical works published in 1648, as well as another mainly religious text, Fire in the Bush (1650), and his final pamphlet, a vision of a communal, agrarian English state, The Law of Freedom in a Platform, published in 1652. But it would take a very inattentive reader even of the pamphlets that are included here to miss the way in which Winstanley’s prose was saturated with Biblical references and metaphors or to ignore the air of millenarian expectation: ‘the Elect Spirit spread in Sons and Daughters’. If Winstanley’s vision now appears unfulfilled it is not only because the Digger settlements failed, but also because so much of his vision related to the world of the spirit, not the flesh.
Ted Vallance is the author of A Radical History of Britain (Abacus, 2010)
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