Madd Men

Mark Kishlansky

The Russians have a saying: ‘The past is unpredictable.’ So it has proved for Gerrard Winstanley. For all but one of his 67 years he lived in obscurity and then he died forgotten. Generations of historians passed over him either in silence or derision. He entirely eluded the notice of the Earl of Clarendon in the 17th century and of David Hume in the 18th. Even the Jacobin William Godwin, the first champion of the Civil War radicals, judged his exploits ‘scarcely worthy to be recorded’, and S.R. Gardiner’s comprehensive history of the Commonwealth contained only two references to him, one a bare mention of his name. Then in the early 20th century, Winstanley was rediscovered, and he has exerted a magnetic pull on left-leaning intellectuals ever since. He is variously credited as the father of English communism, socialism or environmentalism, depending on which is seeking paternity. His notice in the Victorian DNB was a scant 700 words; in the new DNB it has ballooned to more than 8000. Now he has been canonised by the publication of an Oxford edition of his complete works, the second complete works in a century, more than have been accorded either Hobbes or Locke.

The story of Winstanley’s life is easily told even if the reasons for his afterlife are less comprehensible. Born in Lancashire in 1609 into a widely ramified Wigan family, he followed a well-worn path to apprenticeship in London. His master was actually a mistress, the widow Sarah Gater, who inherited her husband’s place in the Merchant Taylors Company and maintained a modest cloth business. Winstanley served his seven-year term and became a London freeman. Then he struck out on his own, married and established a household in the city. He survived on the margins of the hyper-competitive cloth trade, buying and selling for small profits and improvidently granting unsecured loans to his counterparts. Predictably, one of these fell into default as a result of the disruption of the Irish trade after the rebellion there in 1641. Failure to collect from his purchasers had a knock-on effect on his relations with suppliers. Gradually, his profits shrank and his business suddenly collapsed. By 1643 he had liquidated his stock, ceased trading and sold up. Winstanley and his wife moved to Cobham in Surrey, possibly onto land provided by his father-in-law. There he grazed cattle and planted and harvested fodder crops, the surplus of which was sold to others. Up to this point his life had been entirely typical of his time. Immigrant to London, apprenticed through family connections, an undercapitalised businessman who contributed to the stratospheric level of bankruptcies: it was a tale told by thousands. When he failed, he found a safety net thanks to his family. Winstanley was down on his luck, but he had never known poverty and the only charity he required began and ended at home.

During the period of rural tranquillity that followed his tumultuous years in London, Winstanley began hearing voices and having visions. The conclusion of the Civil Wars and the imminent execution of the king drove him into a chiliastic frenzy in which he anticipated the Second Coming and the conversion of England into a paradise for saints. His visions were erratic and his millenarianism combined strands of two usually incompatible sets of beliefs: pre-millennial quietism and post-millennial activism. In the first tradition it was expected that Christ’s second coming would initiate a 1000-year rule of the saints, who need only await His arrival with serene passivity; in the second tradition actively reformist saints were needed to prepare the ground for Judgment Day. Winstanley embraced both poles of this millenarian globe. He expounded his ideas in a vivid, stream-of-consciousness prose that still casts a rapturous glow 350 years later. His credo defies easy categorisation. Scholars have found traces of nearly every strand of radical Protestantism lurking somewhere in his writings. In the 12 months following April 1648 he wrote a series of five tracts describing his personal religion and refining his notion of what he would later come to call ‘the inner light’. His pen was guided by the word of God alone and his soul by His spirit. The Bible was his single source. It is one of the signal achievements of the Oxford edition that these tracts are printed in full.

In April 1649, Winstanley translated his spiritual awakening into a social awakening. Taking literally the Gospel prophecies that the meek shall inherit the earth and the poor shall be succoured, he and a few colleagues gathered farming implements and began digging and planting the common lands on St George’s Hill in Surrey. It is impossible to work out the hierarchy of this initial group but Winstanley ultimately came to be the leader of its successor, which dug in Cobham, where he lived with his family. His theory of digging was no more consistent than his religion. In the tracts explaining his actions, which sketched an imagined community based on the abolition of individual possessions, money and exchange, he derived general principles from the primitive Christian idea that the earth was a common treasury. He sometimes called for the abolition and redistribution of private property, sometimes for the free use of unplanted wastelands, and sometimes more narrowly for the distribution of confiscated Crown and Church lands for the benefit of the ‘commons of England’. In some of his visions the working of the Holy Spirit would induce men voluntarily to yield their possessions, in others the less rarefied power of the state would appropriate them for the common good.

The digging experiments lasted only a short time. Local ratepayers, worried about a potential influx of the destitute, destroyed one plantation by ploughing over the sown fields. A small contingent of soldiers was dispatched to disperse another, pulling down two ramshackle huts and driving away the indigent squatters they sheltered. Winstanley wrote several tracts in protest, identifying his persecutors as former royalists or ‘gentry’, a word that seems to have had special meaning for him – he addressed these diatribes to the gentry-dominated House of Commons and senior army officer corps. All through 1649 and 1650 he continued his manic writing, working particularly on what is regarded as his magnum opus, The Law of Freedom in a Platform, which was published two years later. Dedicated to Oliver Cromwell, it fell on the deafest of deaf ears. Then, as if waking from a trance, Winstanley the prophet suddenly reverted to Winstanley the grazier. When his father-in-law died, he inherited a more substantial estate in Cobham (a second marriage brought even greater prosperity) and he soon became a solid citizen. He compensated for his middle-aged foibles by service as churchwarden, constable and, in another unremarked irony, overseer of the poor. He was buried in ‘Friends’ ground’ by his Quaker wife in 1676.

Contemporaries were not much taken with the Diggers, or True Levellers as they sometimes preferred to call themselves. ‘A company of crack-brains, which are digging out their own ruines’, was one typical reaction to news of the encampment on St George’s Hill. On receiving an alarmist report, the Council of State directed Sir Thomas Fairfax, the parliamentary lord general, to investigate, and he dispatched one of his officers to the scene. He reported back that not more than 20 people were involved in the digging: ‘The business is not worth the writing nor yet taking notice of.’ He described the man he thought to be their leader, the cashiered soldier William Everard, as ‘no other than a madd man’. Given that they promised ‘meate, drinke & clothes’ to any who joined their commune, the experiment was an abject failure. If ever there was a propitious moment for offers of shelter and sustenance to succeed, it was in the starving spring of 1649, which followed successive poor harvests throughout the nation. The weekly newsbook Mercurius Pragmaticus described the participants as ‘feeble souls and empty bellies’: the wonder is that there were so few of them. The meeting between Fairfax, Everard and Winstanley was mostly notable for the refusal of the Digger leaders to remove their caps in the presence of the lord general. The Diggers denied accusations that they were levelling enclosures or confiscating occupied estates. They repudiated violence and portrayed themselves as loyalists living out the promises made to the people of England by Parliament. Far from the fire-breathing radicals of overheated imagination they were simply poor labouring folk looking to eke out a living.

Fairfax handled them gingerly and sent them on their way with what amounted to an order to cease and desist. Everard, perhaps cowed by the exchange with his former commander, drifted away from the movement and Winstanley moved his activities into Cobham. There, a second small group assembled to plant fodder crops similar to those that Winstanley raised on his own land. One of the mysteries surrounding these bizarre episodes was the source of capitalisation for the Digger project. Contemporary accounts mention seed-corn and ploughs, both of which were expensive. Moreover, crops planted in April provided no sustenance until they were harvested in the autumn, leaving those who came to dig without provisions for many months. Who ventured the capital? In any event, the episodes were short-lived and left little lasting impression. When the great antiquary and biographer John Aubrey travelled through the Surrey parishes a few decades later he recorded that it had been the work of the Levellers and their leader John Lilburne. Presumably, that’s what the locals told him.

It isn’t clear why modern historians are so obsessed by Winstanley. The strongest case that can be made for his importance is that he expressed the most radical ideas of Christian equality that were heard during the English Revolution. While political reformers like the Levellers were negotiating one compromise position after another in order to maintain their influence, Winstanley was urging total transformation. His programme was like that of the 1960s Yippies, whose slogan was ‘we cannot be co-opted, because we want everything.’ Winstanley forced his readers to grapple with the aspirations of the original Christianity of the apostles, the time when believers’ dreams of regeneration and redemption were strongest. In an English religious tradition that had become so bibliocentric, Winstanley presented biblical injunctions in their purest form and dared military and political leaders to accept them. If his visions were impractical and contradictory, at least they were unadulterated by corruptions of the spirit or the flesh. They were written in reverie and for some they still have the power to induce reverie. Nevertheless, claims that his prose compares favourably with that of Bacon, Milton and Bunyan might be thought inflated.

Winstanley’s devotees are not often blessed with a sense of irony. A man whose credo was ‘words and writing’ are ‘all nothing and must die’ now boasts his own oeuvres complètes. This must put a dent in his reputation as a prophet. When first published, these tracts were the cheapest of cheap print, marred by crowded pages, uneven margins and too many typographical errors to suggest care at any stage of production. Among the multiple mysteries of Winstanley’s life, one of the least fathomable is who absorbed the cost of the original editions. The exiguous number of surviving copies suggests small print runs, and some of the publications were so obscure that they escaped collection by George Thomason, who snapped up nearly everything that passed through the London bookstalls. But they are cheap no longer. The two sumptuous volumes that now contain Winstanley’s ephemera have been produced to the most exacting standards of what must surely be the end of the great age of book publishing. Indeed, since the literary remains of the 17th century are now entirely accessible online, an edited paper edition like this is unexpected, and we might have been better served with a fully searchable version of the tracts that would have facilitated analysis of Winstanley’s ideas. Nevertheless, the editors, David Loewenstein and Thomas Corns, both professors of English, and a historian, Ann Hughes, have brought to bear on them deep learning about textual and editorial matters. This is everything one could ask for in a scholarly edition. There may be room to question the inclusion of The True Levellers Standard Advanced or A Declaration from the Poor Oppressed People of England as works written by Winstanley alone, but the editors’ informed reasoning must command respect. Their introduction dextrously surveys the rapid accumulation of information about Winstanley even when they are clearly uncomfortable with much of what has turned up. They are not as dewy-eyed as many who have treated the subject and are occasionally defensive about his achievements and significance. One senses they might share some of Winstanley’s embarrassment at this lavish survival of nothing more than his words.

Winstanley’s popularity in the 1960s and 1970s was largely based on his seeming purity of spirit. But those scholars, filmmakers, and politicians who extolled his experiment knew only the first part of the story. The remarkable researches of James Alsop and John Gurney among others have introduced us to another Winstanley, a solid middling sort who practised the most basic form of capitalism, producing and selling surplus. He acquired a considerable estate, paid his rates, and took his turn doing local service. His religious radicalism, which appeared so transformative in the annus mirabilis of 1649, mellowed into what appears to be Quaker quietism without, it appears, being seen as apostasy of any kind. It is as if Karl Marx had accepted a chair at a German university on the basis of his publications. When, at the beginning of their exposition, the editors plead with us not to judge Winstanley by ordinary standards of consistency, they are admitting their own bafflement. It was easier to admire Winstanley when the facts were fewer.

Nor can anyone any longer sustain the argument that the Diggers had an effect on the course of the English Revolution. Winstanley’s tracts had very little, if any, influence in their time. Indeed, his writings were mostly unread or casually dismissed and his calls to action mostly unheeded. Some of the more socially radical Ranters charged him with apostasy but in a nation of four million, fewer than a hundred flocked to his banner. To posit that Winstanley’s was a path not taken, the thesis put forward by Christopher Hill, to whom these volumes are dedicated, is to allow for the broadest possible definition of path. Most perplexing of all is the labelling of Winstanley as a utopian when, allowing for inconsistencies, one version or another of his imagined world included slavery, capital punishment and the subjugation of women. He believed that the abolition of buying and selling would usher in a nirvana of equality where butchers would distribute free meat and bakers free bread. Has there ever been a utopian thinker who recognised the inelasticity of supply? The Russians have a saying: ‘For every one with a plough, there are seven with a spoon.’