Gerrard Winstanley: The Digger's Life and Legacy
by John Gurney (Pluto Press, £11.50)
Sunday 10 February 2013 by Alan Lloyd Printable Email
The latest addition to Pluto's Revolutionary Lives series, this is an eminently readable and very welcome biography of the Digger's leader Gerrard Winstanley.
A revolutionary intellectual rated so highly by the Bolsheviks that his name was one of just 19 such figures carved in 1918 on the memorial obelisk in Moscow's Alexander Gardens, Winstanley is little known or lauded in his own country.
His recorded writings and actions took place over a brief period from 1648 to 1652 around the time of the English revolution, and they are as worthy of debate and consideration now as they were nearly 500 years ago.
Winstanley's publication The New Law Of Righteousness argued that there is enough land in England for all and, by ensuring that the "earth is a common treasury," no-one need ever go hungry.
His central tenet was that we should "abandon private property and embrace community." Along with a group of like-minded Diggers, he set one up on the common land of Saint George's Hill in Walton-on-Thames.
His actions encouraged other settlements in places such as Wellingborough, Cobham and Iver, which sadly lasted little over a year
Their success alarmed the vested interests of the ruling class, particularly the local landowners who eventually destroyed the communities and drove the Diggers off the land.
This led Winstanley to pen The Law Of Freedom, described by political theoretician Eduard Bernstein as outlining a "communist utopia."
It also prompted a continuing debate as to whether his practical experience as a Digger changed Winstanley's outlook from libertarian to authoritarian.
This debate, along with one on the differences between the Diggers and the Levellers, are cleverly outlined by the author without slowing the pace of the book.
In an age when the difference between rich and poor continues to widen and the need for decent homes for working people becomes ever more urgent, so Winstanley's ideas retain their relevance and perhaps continue to suggest solutions.
This well referenced book is an excellent starting point for anyone wishing to learn about this remarkably far-sighted radical.