1980s >> 1986 >> no-984-august-1986

Book Review: ‘Left-Wing Democracy in the English Civil War’

Not much to argue with here

Left-Wing Democracy in the English Civil War by David W. Petegorsky with a new introduction by Ivan Roots (Alan Sutton £14.99)

Anybody interested either in the revolutionary history of England during the seventeenth century or the origins of socialist ideas will not be properly educated until they have read this book. First published in 1940 by the Left Book Club, it has been hard come across second-hand copies of this key work, so this re-publication is to be welcomed, even if a price of fifteen pounds for it in paperback is not.

Gerrard Winstanley can well be described as England’s first articulate socialist. The importance of this book is the detailed attention it pays to the precise nature of Winstanley’s ideas and those of other Digger who were pioneer socialists. The ideas are placed within the context of the extremely turbulent intellectual climate of the revolutionary years, during which two elites battled for state power, throwing up all kinds of radical constitutional, religious and economic ideas in the course of their struggle. Whereas the Levellers, who were also radicals for their time, saw the first English revolution as a springboard for the creation of political equality (a case they argued for unsuccessfully in the Putney Debates), the Diggers sought social equality, fusing economic and political objectives as all socialists must.

Winstanley and his Digger comrades clearly stood for a society in which all goods would be held in common, with free access for all to the common store. Winstanley explicitly rejected money, the rule of government and (despite his use of religious metaphors) belief in churches or omnipotent gods. Ivan Roots, in an introduction which adds little to the original book except for some brief information about who Petegorsky was, is right to place Winstanley as a materialist. Indeed, there is not much said by the Diggers which socialists today would want to argue with. The difference is that they were advocating what could them have only been a utopian strategy, which they attempted to implement and were persecuted for so doing, whereas now capitalism is ripe for being replaced by a new system of social organisation. We who seek to bring it about have good reason to remember Winstanley and the Diggers. We have good reason also to admire the remarkable account of Petegorsky who, unlike so many left-wing historians who dwell only upon the more plodding gradualism of the Levellers, recognise the particular significance of the Diggers and provided us with a unique insight into the movement and its revolutionary ideas.

Steve Coleman

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