Winstanley – A Man Before His Time

Gerrard Winstanley was born at Wigan in 1609. Little is known of his life. After school he went to London to work in the cloth business. Like many others he was ruined in the Civil War and withdrew to the country. Somewhere in the Thames Valley friends gave him a home in return for which he acted as their cattleman.

In 1648 his interest turned to politics and he wrote The New Law of Righteousness, a sort of Communist Manifesto of his day. In 1649-50 he worked and wrote for the Diggers. In 1652 he published The Law of Freedom in a Platform, a call to Cromwell to lay the foundations of a ‘communist commonwealth’. In this he sketched a classless society, a blend of the radical democracy of the Levellers, the ‘communism’ of More’s Utopia and his own secularism. Like More he advocated an economy without money, organised around public storehouses to which each would bring the product of his labour and from which each should satisfy his needs.

Although his book lacked More’s literary imagination, in the history of the development of socialist thought it was more significant, since not only did it spring out of a ‘workers’ movement, but actually proposed a workable plan. More clearly than any who preceded him, he saw that the source of all exploitation was private property. He said “labour is the source of all wealth and no man ever grew rich save by appropriating the fruits of others’ work”. He also saw that this exploitation was the source of all oppression and war. Economic inequality degrades those who must submit to it and infests them with a consciousness of their ‘predestined’ inferiority. “The enslaved worker looks upon himself as imperfect and so is dejected in his spirit.”

Although Winstanley was sympathetic to the Levellers, he was not one of them. He did not want peasant ownership but ‘community life’, by which he meant both team work and ‘eating at a common table’.

Although he never quite abandoned the idea of a God, this God bore no resemblance to that of any religion; he described God as follows:

“God is reason. Neither are you to look for God in a place of glory beyond the sun, but within yourself and in every man. He that looks for a God outside himself and worships a God at a distance, worships he knows not what”.

He knew organised religion as the instrument of the owning class. In his The Law of Freedom he stated

“this doctrine (religion) is made a cloak of policy by the subtle elder brother to cheat his simple younger brother of the freedoms of the earth. For saith the elder brother “The earth is mine, and not yours, brother. You must therefore not work upon it unless you will hire it from me and you must not take the fruits of it unless you will buy them from me by that which I pay for your labour; for if you should do otherwise, God will not love you and you shall not go to heaven when you die but the devil will have you and you must be damned in hell. You must believe what is written and what is told you and if you will not believe, your damnation will be greater.” The younger brother, being weak in spirit and having not a grounded knowledge of creation nor of himself is terrified and lets go his hold in the earth and submits himself to be a slave to his brother for fear of damnation in hell after death and in hopes to get heaven thereby—so his eyes are put out and his reason is blinded.

“So that this divining spiritual doctrine is a cheat, for while men are gazing up to heaven, imagining after a happiness or fearing a hell after they are dead, their eyes are put out that they see not what is their birthright and what is to be done by them here on earth while they are living.”

Thus, two centuries before Marx, Winstanley said in plain English “religion is the opium of the people”.

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