The Diggers, the Land and Direct Activism

Action is the life of all and if thou dost not act, thou dost nothing‘ – Gerrard Winstanley

Dr John Gurney, author of the forthcoming Gerrard Winstanley: The Digger’s Life and Legacy (Pluto, 2012), has penned a fascinating article on STIR about the 17th Century radical, and the reverberations still felt today by the Diggers’ manifesto for a collective commons. It was a treatise physically articulated by the stamp of a thousand boots and the re-appropriation of the soil – landlords be damned. In a brief flourishing between 1649-50, The Diggers’ colonies germinated (if you will) as far afield as Nottinghamshire, Northamptonshire and Surrey, before a familiar pattern of repression concluded the experiments through a mixture of violent assault and legal action. As Gurney notes, much of the direct land activism of the last 100 years can trace a clear lineage.

The movement, borne out of the years of political turmoil and scarcity that had accompanied the Civil War, was fuelled by Gerrard Winstanley’s ‘extraordinarily rich body of writings’ – a religious, practical and politically radical series of works. While Winstanley was little read between 1651 and the 1890s, ‘they were picked up again, first by Marxists and then, significantly, by land reformers.’ On the subject of Winstanley’s relevance today, Gurney says:

Today knowledge of Winstanley is widespread, and he has become one of the best-known figures from the period of the English Revolution. There have been numerous plays, novels, TV dramas, songs and films, and Winstanley has often been cited as an inspirational figure by politicians of the left.

More specifically, his ideas and achievements have remained prescient, inspiring generations of activists and social movements:

From the 1960s Haight Ashbury Diggers, through Britain’s Hyde Park Diggers and Digger Action Movement, to The Land is Ours, G20 Meltdown and Occupy movement activists, one finds frequent echoes of Winstanley’s writings in modern social movements. His memory, and that of his fellow Diggers, has in recent years also been invoked by freeganists, squatters, guerrilla gardeners, allotment campaigners, social entrepreneurs, greens and peace campaigners; and both Marxists and libertarians have laid claim to him as a significant precursor.

To read the full article, visit the wonderful STIR website here. To pre-order Gurney’s brilliant new book in our Revolutionary Lives series, click the link below.

Gerrard Winstanley

The Digger’s Life and Legacy

John Gurney

Life and ideas of the great British radical who founded rural communes during the English Civil War.

“John Gurney’s Gerrard Winstanley: The Digger’s Life and Legacy is outstanding: an exciting and extremely well-written account of Winstanley’s development as thinker and experimental communist, with a clear demonstration of his continuing relevance and his overlooked influence on modern social thought and art. No one knows the evidence better than Gurney and in this study he distils complex issues into a revealing and enjoyable narrative. The many years of difficult labour devoted by the author to discovering more about Winstanley’s activities has resulted in this rewarding and original, acute reassessment of Winstanley’s startling insights and his daring attempt to create a just, equal and free world. It is a continuing reminder of why in our world the experiences of the seventeenth century still matter.” – Nigel Smith, William and Annie S. Paton Foundation Professor of Ancient and Modern Literature, Princeton University

“This is a clear-eyed yet sympathetic account of one of the most baffling figures of the English Revolution. Gurney’s painstaking research provides a wealth of new information that is assembled into a highly readable narrative. An informative and thought-provoking book.” – Mark A. Kishlansky, Frank Baird Jr. Professor of History at Harvard University

£12.99 only £11.50 on the Pluto site

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