Review: A Common Treasury
A Common Treasury, by Gerrard Winstanley, Verso £8
Reviewed by Mike Cleverley
One of the false arguments against socialism and communism is that these ideas are 'foreign'. Karl Marx was a German Jew and a follower of the German philosopher Hegel. 'Revolution is something that happens in other countries', the 'British way' is 'evolutionary and not revolutionary'.
Of course, Britain has a long tradition of popular uprising - we just don't learn much about these events at school or through the media. We may know that Charles I was beheaded and that after Oliver Cromwell died the monarchy was restored but the background to these events is both sketchy and misleading. Other revolutionary events, like the peasants' revolt, the Peterloo massacre, the Chartists and the 1926 general strike are often not even mentioned.
This book presents the ideas of the Diggers, a group of rural communists who operated after the English civil war which led to the beheading of Charles I. It has a very readable introduction by Tony Benn though unfortunately I found the writings of Winstanley himself, which make up the bulk of the book, hard going. Benn is very sympathetic to the Diggers' ideas but offers no real way forward to workers today.
The Diggers grew out of dissatisfaction with the Levellers who believed that property should be distributed equally but never took active steps to achieve this aim. The Diggers set out to establish communities who would cultivate common land and share in the produce equally.
This was a time of great social ferment; the king was dead but what was to replace him? This is familiar to us. We can see how, in the Middle East and north Africa, corrupt regimes are overthrown but there are, as yet, no mass organisations capable of carrying the revolution forward to make real gains for the workers and the poor.
In 1649 the Diggers began to plant vegetables in common land at St George's Hill, Weybridge, Surrey at a time of rapidly rising food prices. They invited all who were willing to work the land to join them and share equally in the food, drink and clothes that might be produced.
Local landowners called on Cromwell's New Model Army under Sir Thomas Fairfax, to intervene. Fairfax advised that the Diggers appeared to offer little threat to "good order" and suggested that the landowners use the courts. One Diggers' leader, William Everard, left at this point, sensing trouble. That sounds familiar to us today!
Winstanley remained true to his ideals and kept writing about the problems the colony faced. The Lord of the Manor organised gangs to attack the Diggers, ruin their crops and destroy their homes. The Diggers were accused of being members of a banned religious sect, the Ranters, and taken before a magistrate.
As was common then, they were not allowed to speak in their own defence. In this way they were forced to abandon St George's Hill. Some then tried again, at Cobham in Surrey, at Wellingborough and at Iver in Buckinghamshire.
The Wellingborough Diggers published a declaration and in 1650 were imprisoned. Although no charges were ever laid the magistrate refused to release them. Further Digger colonies were set up at Barnet, Enfield, Dunstable, Bosworth and Nottinghamshire. But by 1651 the Diggers' movement was finished, destroyed by the state and by persecution by landowners.
The ideas of common ownership are part of the history of the working people of Britain and the mighty Chartist movement, which influenced Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, stood on the shoulders of the Diggers. In their 17th century days communist ideas were a powerful attraction to the poor but society then lacked three things necessary to make these ideas reality.
Industrial technique is necessary to provide food, clothing and housing for all. The workers' solidarity created by modern production is a force strong enough to overcome the state machine protecting the ruling class. Finally a mass party of the working class, with a programme to attract all the exploited people in society has to be built to carry the revolution forward.
A full working class account of the English Revolution would deal with the Levellers and Diggers in a much more readable format than this book. But the documents it brings to our notice are a valuable resource which the author of such a book will find useful.