Winstanley: A 17th Century Utopian Socialist

Gerrard Winstanley’s writings were only rediscovered in 1894 and even now not much is known about his life. He was probably born in Wigan in 1609 and later went to London where he eventually became a freeman of the Merchant Taylors’ Company. By 1643, however, he was bankrupt and was forced to leave London to live on the land, at Cobham in Surrey. It was here, amidst the ferment of ideas stirred up by the Civil War between Parliament and Charles I (in which he wholeheartedly supported the parliamentary side), that Winstanley developed radical ideas.

Basically, he held that the earth had originally been given to mankind by God to be held in common and that landlords were usurpers. He urged that the original common ownership and free use of the land be restored and proposed that a start should be made by allowing the landless poor (one of whom he now was) to use the commons at St. Georges Hill near Cobham; hence their name of “Diggers”.

The Diggers did not parcel out the land amongst individuals, but worked it in common with the intention of later sharing in common the fruits of their joint labour. But they were never to enjoy these fruits; for right from the start they were harassed by the local landlords: they were taken to Court for trespass, their goods were seized, their houses pulled down and their crops destroyed. While this was going on Winstanley wrote a number of pamphlets putting the Diggers’ case. Later, in 1651, he decided to put their views into systematic form; the result was The Law of Freedom in a Platform, addressed to Cromwell, that appeared the following year. This proposed a communistic — and democratic, with annually elected officials and councils — society without buying and selling or money, to be established first on the commons and on the lands seized from the King, the bishops and royalists but with the eventual aim of embracing the whole of England.

Unlike Sir Thomas More in his Utopia (which appeared in 1516 and which is more widely known among socialists), Winstanley was not painting a mere picture of an ideal society but was putting forward a practical programme for action. Needless to say, Cromwell did not take up his suggestions and Winstanley and his ideas disappeared into oblivion — we do not even know when Winstanley died.

There was in fact no reason, apart from the opposition of the landlords (including the new ones created under Cromwell by the sale of royal and episcopal lands), why Winstanley’s ideas could not have been put into practice on a small scale. In the 19th century many colonies based on similar principles were to be established and to function for a while, especially in those parts of America where there were no landlords to sabotage them. Thus, in this sense, Winstanley can be said to be the first of the “utopian socialists” anticipating by over 150 years the projects of Fourier, Owen and Cabet.

We reproduce below an extensive passage from The Law of Freedom from which the extent to which Winstanley grasped that common ownership necessarily involves the disappearance of buying and selling and of money can be seen.

The Law of Freedom (1652)

The earth is to be planted and the fruits reaped and carried into barns and storehouses by the assistance of every family. And if any man or family want corn or other provision, they may go to the storehouses and fetch without money. If they want a horse to ride, go to the fields in summer, or to the common stables in winter, and receive one from the keepers, and when your journey is performed, bring him where you had him, without money. If any want food or victuals, they may either go to the butchers’ shops, and receive that they want without money; or else go to the flocks of sheep, or herds of cattle, and take and kill what meat is needful for their families, without buying and selling. And the reason why all the riches of the earth are a common stock is this, because the earth and the labours thereupon are managed by common assistance of every family, without buying and selling.

Even as now we have particular trade in cities and towns, called shopkeepers, which shall remain still as they be, only altered in their receiving in and delivering out. For whereas by the law of kings or conquerors they do receive in and deliver out by buying and selling, and exchanging the conqueror’s picture or stamp upon a piece of gold or silver for the fruits of the earth, now they shall (by the laws of the Commonwealth) receive into their shops and deliver out again freely, without buying and selling.

They shall receive in as into a storehouse, and deliver out again freely as out of a common storehouse, when particular persons or families come for anything they need; as now they do by buying and selling under kingly government.

For as particular families and tradesmen do make several works more than they can make use of, as hats, shoes, gloves, stockings, linen and woollen cloth and the like, and do carry their particular work to storehouses, to work upon without buying and selling; and go to other storehouses and fetch any other commodity which they want and cannot make.. For as other men partakes of their labours, it is reason they should partake of other men’s.

* * *

Every tradesman shall fetch materials, as leather, wool, flax, corn and the like, from the public storehouses, to work upon without buying and selling; and when particular works are made, as cloth, shoes, hats and the like, the tradesmen shall bring these particular works to particular shops, as is now in practice, without buying and selling. And every family as they want such things as they cannot make, they shall go to these shops and fetch without money, even as now they fetch with money.

* * *

As silver and gold is either found out in mines in our own and, or brought by shipping from beyond the sea, it shall not be coined with a conqueror’s stamp upon it, to set up buying and selling under his name or by his leave; for there shall be no other use of it in the commonwealth than to make dishes and other necessaries for the ornament of houses, as now there is use made of brass, pewter and iron, or any other metal in their use.

(Winstanley: The Law of Freedom and Other Writings, edited by Christopher Hill, Pelican Classic, 1973)

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