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Gerrard Winstanley

The Life and Legacy


John Gurney


London: Pluto Press, 2013

Paperback. viii+162 p. ISBN: 978-0745331836. £12.99


Reviewed by Rémy Duthille

Université Michel de Montaigne – Bordeaux 3



Gerrard Winstanley (1609-1676) was the leader of the Diggers, a radical group that set up an egalitarian community on St George’s Hill in Surrey in 1649. This utopian experiment based on the belief that God (or “the great creator Reason”) had created the earth as a common treasury for all men lasted a mere twelve-month and a half, but, as John Gurney states from the onset of the book, it left an immense legacy and was hailed as an early example of communism by reformers and revolutionaries of different stripes. While the Soviets carved Winstanley’s name on an obelisk in Moscow among a list of leading communist thinkers, Christopher Hill made him one of the heroes of The World Turned Upside Town (1972) and published his works in an accessible paperback edition; various activist groups today also lay claim to his name and legacy.

John Gurney is concerned with retracing the life of Winstanley and exploring this diverse legacy. The first four chapters provide a concise and accessible introduction to Winstanley’s life and writings. He was the son of a burgess of Wigan (Lancashire). Like many tradesmen involved in the clothing business, his father, a mercer, had connections in London; after his apprenticeship Gerrard was able to set up his own shop in 1638. Gurney searches the social and intellectual background for formative influences in Winstanley’s early life, making the most of occasionally patchy evidence and prudently refraining from simplistic inferences, refusing, in particular, to describe Winstanley’s political radicalisation as a mechanical consequence of the failure of his business when the Civil War disrupted trade in the 1640s. Gurney examines both Winstanley’s life and his works, paying attention to his relatively neglected early religious writings, and showing the continuity with his later, classic statements on property and politics. Thus his religious theory of the “two Adamses” matured into the key proposition that covetousness (manifested in the reign of private property) was the root of evil [29]. Gurney identifies The New Law of Righteousness (1648), an anti-clerical, anti-formalist, millenarian pamphlet, as a “truly revolutionary” work [39], and both an idiosyncratic synthesis and an extension of arguments circulating in radical circles in the late 1640s. Gurney pays attention to the subtle rhetorical shifts in the succeeding pamphlets that reveal that Winstanley was attuned to the political atmosphere and the possible expectations of a reading public.

It is fitting that the central chapter, “Winstanley the Digger”, should focus on the Digging venture. On 1 April 1649 Winstanley and “a small group of women and men started digging and sowing vegetables on the wastes of St George’s Hill in the parish of Walton on Thames” near Cobham [47]. Gurney comments on the aims and ideas expressed in the Digger’s manifesto, The True Levellers’ Standard Advanced, while carefully locating the experiment in the social, economic and political context of Cobham. Gurney analyses the escalating local hostility to the Diggers: while he rejects the view that they were urban radicals intruding upon a quiescent rural community, he accounts for the negative, and occasionally downright violent, reactions of the villagers, by misunderstandings [55], the hostility of the local clergy, and economic grievances as the Diggers occupied communal lands on which others depended for their livelihood. Ideological and religious motives for the opposition to Digging are not explored however. Gurney also discusses the lawsuit brought against the Diggers (an occasion for Winstanley to further publicise his ideas) and their unsuccessful intercession with General Fairfax and the Council of State. While a few other Digging ventures were founded across England, the fate of the Cobham colony was sealed when Winstanley was indicted for riot and the local parson and his associates burnt down the Diggers’ houses in April 1650. In the next chapter Gurney moves on to chart Winstanley’s life in the aftermath of this failure, throughout the Commonwealth and the Restoration. “Winstanley’s later life was dogged by uncertainty and by complex legal disputes” [101] in the course of which he found himself, ironically, acting as an executor trying to recover debts for a vast landed estate. He must also have become reconciled with the Church of England (and tithes) as he served as a churchwarden in the late 1660s [99].

The final chapter on “Winstanley’s legacy” is a fascinating story of rediscovery, appropriation, and political takeover starting in the late nineteenth century when Eduard Bernstein identified Winstanley as one of the forerunners of socialism. Gurney does a good job explaining the motives of the various left-wing and anarchist movements, from late-Victorian back-to-the-land advocates to “twenty-first-century guerilla gardeners” and Tony Benn’s recent support to activist groups [111]. St George’s Hill (now turned into a golf course and playground of the rich) has become a place of pilgrimage, but also a site of historiographical debate. Gurney shows how Christopher Hill and others fought over the importance and relevance of Winstanley’s achievement (and/or failure) and how distinctions between Diggers, Levellers and “true Levellers” became ideologically loaded.

This critical biography is a remarkable account of Winstanley’s life and legacy, at once concise and profound, scholarly and accessible. Though the book has only 162 pages in total it is packed with references and insights, forays in specialised debates, e.g. on millenarianism, and puts forward tantalising suggestions, e.g. on the influence of Winstanley’s ideas on the early Quakers [78]. It is “sympathetic but not sycophantic” as promised by the editor of the series, “Revolutionary Lives”. Gurney largely steers clear of hagiography and points to some limitations of Winstanley’s outlook even judged by the standards of his own times, such as his profoundly “patriarchal vision” [92]. The book is also beautifully printed, with well-chosen black-and-white photographs. A parasitic h in “Franzöhsische Revolution” [130, n.4] and an amusing typo about Levellers and Diggers being “complimentary” (instead of complementary) groups [64] do not detract from the overall quality of the book. This account is a must-read for specialists of “radicalism”, but all those interested in politics, history, memory and historiography will also find much to interest them.


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