‘The Diggers, True Levellers and Gerrard Winstanley’s Commonwealth’ by Max Beer from A History of British Socialism, Vol. 1. Harcourt and Brace, New York, 1921.

Marxist social historian Max Beer provides us with a wonderful introduction to the world and ideas of Gerrard Winstanley (in the Newsstand’s opinion, the most outstanding, transcendent non-Marxist exponent of communism ever to write in English of our species’ emancipation), the Diggers, and True Levellers of England’s 17th century Revolution.

For generations Winstanley and much of the Civil War’s radical history languished in obscurity until its ‘rediscovery’ in the late 19th century. How unfortunate for us all that Marx and Engels never had a chance to read Winstanley’s ‘New Law of Righteousness’ and make a pilgrimage to St. George’s Hill. And how fortunate a historian of Max Beer’s talents and passions did; introducing many to these inspiring people and events for the first time with this work. Below of two chapters from the first volume of ‘A History of British Socialism’ published in 1921. Below a PDF to the full two-volume work is linked.

‘The Diggers, True Levellers and Gerrard Winstanley’s Commonwealth’ by Max Beer from A History of British Socialism, Vol. 1. Harcourt and Brace, New York, 1921.

The Diggers or True Levellers

The Digger movement, although small in the number of its adherents, was an agrarian revolt on a surprisingly extensive theoretical basis. It was as if all the Peasant Wars of the past had suddenly become articulate. It aimed at making the earth the common treasury of all. The whole substance of mediaeval communism reappeared, but in a rationalist and sectarian setting. The logical theology of the Schoolmen was superseded by a mystical religion, the axis of which was Reason; and for the Fall of mankind from the natural state was substituted the conquest of the democratic and communal Englishmen by the property-struck and iron-handed Norman. Quite in the style of Pope Gregory VII., the first manifesto of the Diggers denounces kingship as having its patent from the devil and from murder. (1) William the Conqueror is the personification of that kingship. “And all our nobility and gentry came from the outlandish Norman bastard.” They all originated from cruel murder, theft, and conquest. (2) The earth and the fulness thereof were given to men in common; it was plain that every man had a right and property in the creation, “so that for any to enclose them from its kind, to his own exclusive use, is tantamount to the impoverishment and enslavement of his fellowmen.” (3) The pattern of a right commonwealth was to be found in the Scriptures, partly in the agrarian legislation of the Israelites and partly in the Gospel, “And all that believed were together, and had all things common.” (Acts ii. 44).

Radical dissenters during the English Revolution.

These two pamphlets were preparatory to the propaganda by deed. A few months after, viz., on April 1, 1649, (4) a few men, led by William Everard (late of the army) and Gerrard Winstanley, took to digging and manuring land on St. George’s Hill, in the parish of Walton, and later at Cobham, in Surrey, in order to encourage the people to go and do likewise and form communities, or to “restore the creation to its former condition…and ancient community of enjoying the fruits of the earth.” On April 16, an information of their doings was given to the Council of State, who on the same day ordered Lord Fairfax to disperse the Diggers. Four days later Everard and Winstanley appeared before Lord Fairfax at Whitehall. Everard, as spokesman, said that all the liberties of the people were lost through the coming of William the Conqueror, and that ever since the people of God lived under oppression and tyranny. The remedy was to dig and plough up the commons, parks, and other untilled lands. The Diggers did not intend to interfere with any man’s property, or to break down the pales of the enclosures, but only to cultivate those lands that were common and untilled. When people would see the blessings of it they would come in and join the community.

The reporter of this interview adds that Everard and Winstanley stood before the Lord General with their hats on, and when asked the reason of their behaviour they replied, he was but their fellow-creature. (5)

As a movement the Diggers were unsuccessful. Although they sent missionaries to other counties of England, (6) and gained a small following in Buckinghamshire and Northamptonshire, the peasantry were against them. The settlements at Walton and Cobham were destroyed by the people; they pulled down the few huts, cut the spades and hoes to pieces, and maltreated the Diggers. “The enemy were so mad that they tumbled the earth up and down, and would suffer no corn to grow.” (7) The movement lasted only for about twelve months, but it left numerous manifestoes and pamphlets of considerable power, mostly written by Gerrard Winstanley, with whose two chief works. New Law of Righteousness, and Law of Freedom, we shall deal presently. As regards the Digger movement itself, the most characteristic manifesto is that entitled, The True Levellers’ Standard Advanced (April 26, 1649), signed by fifteen Diggers, headed by William Everard. This declaration of their principles asserts (pp. 6-13):

“In the beginning of time the great Creator, Reason, made the earth to be a common treasury to preserve beasts, birds, fishes, and man, the lord who was to govern this Creation…The rules of Creation were, Not to enclose any part into any particular hand, but all as one man, working together, and feeding together as sons of one father, members of one family, not lording over another, but all looking upon each other as equals in the Creation…But since human flesh began to delight itself in the things of the Creation more than in the spirit of Reason and Righteousness…and selfish imagination ruling as king in the room of Reason therein, and working with covetousness, did set up one man to teach, to rule over another; and thereby the spirit was killed and man was brought into bondage…Hereupon the earth was hedged into enclosures by the teachers and rulers, and the others were made servants and slaves. And the earth which was made to be a common storehouse for all is bought and sold and kept within the hands of the few.” The Diggers declare that they are resolved to remove from the Creation the curse and bondage of Civil Property, not by the force of arms, but “by labouring the earth in righteousness together, to earn our bread by the sweat of our brows, neither giving hire nor taking hire…and lay the foundation of making the earth a common treasury for all, both rich and poor, that every one that is born in the land may be fed by the earth his mother that brought him forth, according to the Reason that rules in the Creation.”

All the other manifestoes and pamphlets of the Diggers are in a similar strain, so that if we know one we know them all. The struggle is essentially against private property in land, civil law, and tyranny or oligarchy in matters of government, and for a rationalist and Christianised ius naturale. The Diggers looked on Jesus as the first True Leveller.

The rhymes left by the Diggers are of small poetic value. “The Diggers’ Song ” was evidently written in the autumn, 1649, when they met with the enmity of the people and opposition of the clergy and authorities. A few verses will suffice to learn the spirit of it:

“Ye noble Diggers all, stand up now, stand up now. / You noble Diggers, stand up now;/ The waste land to maintain, seeing cavaliers by name/ Your diggings do disdain and persons all defame./ Stand up now, stand up now.

“The lawyers they conjoin, stand up now, stand up now. / The lawyers they conjoin, stand up now;/ To arrest you they advise, and such fury they devise/ /The devil in them lies, and has blinded both their eyes./ Stand up now, stand up now.

“The clergy they come in, stand up now, stand up now. / The clergy they come in, stand up now;/ The clergy they come in, and say it is a sin/ That we should now begin, our freedom to win. / Stand up now, stand up now.

“To conquer then by love, come in now, come in now. / To conquer then by love, come in now;/ To conquer then by love, as it does you behoove. / For He is King above, no Power is like to Love, / Glory here. Diggers all. (8)

In a long Christmas Carol” the Diggers declare that the titles of the lords of the manors originated with the Norman Conquest, which in consequence of the execution of Charles I had lost all value, and therefore fell to the common people. The Civil War, however, had shown that even after much bloodshed the people could have no hope in Government:

“Therefore let me advise/ All those who freedom prise. / To till each heath and plain. / For this will freedom gain, / Heriots and fines this will expel/ A bondage great — men know full well.

“Freedom is not won/ Neither by sword nor gun;/ Though we have eight years stay’d. / And have our moneys pay’d;/ The Clubs and Diamonds cast away. / The Hearts and Spades must win the day.” (9)

And in “A Digger’s Ballad,” a communistic song written by Robert Coster, only the last of the nine stanzas shows some merit:  

“The glorious state which I do relate/ Unspeakable glory shall yield, / The com will be green and the flowers seen,/ Our storehouses they will be filled./ The birds will rejoice with a merry voice/ All things shall yield sweet increase./ Then let us all sing and joy in our King,/ Who causes all sorrows to cease.” (10)

Winstanley’s Ideal Commonwealth

Gerrard Winstanley, the fiery soul of the Digger movement, was a peaceful John Ball. His own writings, as well as the Digger manifestos, which he drafted or inspired, exhibit familiarity with mediaeval communism. In the history of English social thought he is the first sectarian communist. He was devoted to mysticism and had visions. Of his life little is known. He was born at Wigan, Lancashire, on October 10, 1609. (11) A few biographical data were supplied by Winstanley himself in the introductory epistle published in his Watchword to the City of London (1649). He lived for a time in the City of London as a freeman, possessed “estate and trade,” and was “beaten out of both” partly through business failure or, as he says, “by the cheating sons in the thieving art of buying and selling,” and partly through the disturbances of the Civil War, “by the burden of and for the soldiery in the beginning of the war.” His friends assisted him to retire to the country, probably to the Chiltern Hills, where he evidently found leisure enough for contemplation and reading. The progress of the Civil War, the final defeat of the King, and the feverish mental activity which set in and which manifested itself in the numerous pamphlets dealing with natural law, social and sectarian speculations on religion and ethics, mightily stirred the mind of Winstanley. He interpreted this upheaval to be a levelling of the political mountains as a preliminary to the advent of the great reformation, the radical change of the spiritual and social conditions of England. “The Spirit of the whole Creation (who is God) is about the Reformation of the World, and he will go forward in his work…The great searching of heart in these days is to find out where true Freedom lies, that the Commonwealth of England might be established in peace.” (12)

He at first wrote four pamphlets, The Mystery of God, The Breaking of the Day of God, The Saints’ Paradise, and Truth lifting up its Head, all in 1648, interpreting Biblical and theological subjects in a spirit of mysticism and religious philosophy. Then he commenced to see visions which led him to communism, and to fierce attacks on kingship and private property. Winstanley has left us a description of his mental state at that time. (13) “As I was in a trance not long since, divers matters were presented to my sight, which must not be related here. Likewise I heard these words: ‘Work together: Eat bread together: Declare this all abroad.’ Likewise I heard these words: ‘Whosoever it is that labours in the earth, for any person or persons that lift up themselves as lords and rulers over others, and that doth not look upon himself as equal to others in the Creation, the hand of the Lord shall be upon the labourer. I the Lord have spoke it and I will do it. Declare this abroad.’ “This mental experience gave him a mission. He ” was filled with abundance of quiet peace and sacred joy…and much pressed in spirit to declare all abroad.”

The first communist treatise which he published under his name was New Law of Righteousness. We find in it the usual mediaeval communist interpretation of the creation and fall of man. At the beginning man was created perfect, then he fell from his estate through following self-love, covetousness, and carnal lust. Appropriation of land followed, likewise buying and selling, “mine” and “thine,” civil laws to uphold property, and hereby restraining men from seeking nourishment from their mother earth. This was all the work of the unrighteous or first Adam, who dammed up the wells of universal liberty and brought the Creation under the curse of bondage, sorrow, and tears. For as long as there were lords who called the lands theirs and rulers who upheld this particular property, the common people would not be free. Only by making the earth a common treasury, as it was in the beginning, could the first Adam, or covetousness, pride, and envy be got rid of, Still, nothing was to be taken from the rich, “If the rich hold fast to this propriety of mine and thine, let them labour their own lands. And let the common people who say the earth is ours, not mine, let them labour together and eat bread together up on the commons, mountains, and hills.” It was with Winstanley a struggle of common against enclosure, or collective possession and cooperative work against private property and hired labour. The ultimate remedy was the abolition of private property and civil government.

The society which was to take the place of the civil one is described by Winstanley in his Law of Freedom (1652). This ideal commonwealth rests on the following principles and laws:

“Government is a wise and free ordering of the earth and of the manners of mankind by observation of particular laws and rules, so that all the inhabitants may live peaceably in plenty and freedom in the land where they are bred ” (p. 25). This government acts according to the law of nature which is supported by reason so as not to allow the propensities of the flesh to deflect the natural law from its rational course (p. 30). The function of governing is entrusted to a Parliament chosen annually. It is the real court of equity. Its duties are four-fold:

“First, as a tender father, a parliament is to empower officers and give orders for the free planting and reaping of the Commonwealth’s land, that all who have been oppressed and kept back from the free use thereof by conquerors, kings, and their tyrant laws, may now be set at liberty to plant in freedom for food and raiment, and are to be a protection to them who labour the earth, and a punisher of them who are idle. But some may say. What is that I call Commonwealth’s land? I answer. All that land which has been withheld from the inhabitants by the conqueror or tyrant kings and is now recovered out of the hands of that oppression by the joint assistance of the persons and purses of the communers of the land. It is their birthright to them and to their posterity, and ought not to be converted into particular hands again by the laws of a free commonwealth. In particular, this land is all abbey lands…Crown lands, bishops’ lands, with all parks, forests, chases, now of late recovered out of the hands of the kingly tyrants…

“Secondly, to abolish all old laws and customs which have been the strength of the oppressor, and to prepare and then to enact new laws for the ease and freedom of the people…

“Thirdly, to see all those burdens removed actually, which have hindered the oppressed people from the enjoyment of their birthright. If their common lands be under the oppression of lords of manors, they are to see the land freed from that slavery. If the commonwealth’s land be sold by hasty counsel of subtle, covetous, and ignorant officers…then a parliament is to examine what authority any had to sell or buy the land without a general consent of the people …They are to declare that the bargain is unrighteous, and that the buyers and sellers are enemies to the peace and freedom of the commonwealth.

“Fourthly, if there be occasion to raise an army to wage war, either against an invasion of a foreign enemy, or against an insurrection at home, it is the work of a parliament to manage that business for the preservation of common peace” (pp. 50-56).

The land having been restored to the nation it is given over to the farmers to till it in common. “There shall be no buying and selling of the earth, nor of the fruits thereof.” For, when mankind began to buy and sell, they fell from the state of innocence, and began to oppress each other and discontents and wars arose (p. 12).

Memorial to Winstanley near St. George’s Hill.

“The earth is to be planted and the fruits reaped and carried into barns and storehouses by the assistance of every family. If any man or family want corn or other provisions, they may go to the storehouse and fetch without money. If they want a horse to ride, they may go into the fields in summer or to the common stables in winter, and receive one from the keepers and when the journey is performed, bring him back…There shall be storehouses in all places in the country and in the towns to which all the fruits of the soil and the works of the tradesmen shall be brought and thence delivered again to the families and to every one who want them; or else be transported by ships to other countries in exchange for those things which our land will not or cannot produce. All the labours of husbandmen and tradesmen within the country shall be upon the common stock. And as every one works to advance the common stock, so every one shall have free use of any commodity in the storehouse for his pleasure and comfortable livelihood, without buying or selling or restraint from anybody…For as particular families and tradesmen do make several works more than they can make use of and do carry their particular works to the storehouses, so it is all reason and equity that they should go to other storehouses to fetch any other commodity which they want and cannot make” (pp. 74-5)

In order that these laws and regulations be carried out and to check the covetous, proud, and idle, there must be officers to regulate the irrational conduct of such men. All officers of the Commonwealth to be chosen annually.

“Choose such as are men of peaceable disposition; likewise who suffered under kingly oppression, for they will be fellow- feelers of others’ bondage ; likewise who have adventured the loss of their estates and lives to redeem the land from bondage and who have remained constant ; likewise men of courage who are not afraid to speak the truth; likewise who are above forty years of age, for these are most likely to be experienced men…And if you choose men thus principled who are poor men, as times go, for the Conqueror’s power has made many a righteous man a poor man, then allow, them a yearly maintenance from the common stock, until such time as a Commonwealth’s Freedom is established, for then there will be no need of such allowance” (pp. 37-9). Each parish shall choose a number of peacemakers to manage the affairs of the parish, to prevent trouble and to preserve the common peace. They shall settle any matters of offence between man and man. If the peacemakers are unable to bring about a reconciliation of the parties, then he shall command them to appear at the Judge’s Court.


Each parish shall also choose a number of overseers to preserve peace; to see that the young people receive proper instruction in some labour, trade, or service in the common storehouses; to see that the products of labour shall be delivered up to the storehouses and shops, and that all who serve in the storehouses and shops do their duty. All old men above sixty years of age are general overseers (pp. 40-6). There shall also be chosen a taskmaster, whose office it is “to take those into his supervision who are sentenced to lose their freedom, to set them to work and to see that they do it.”

Education must be general and compulsory. After the child is weaned the parents shall teach it a civil and humble behaviour towards all men. Then it shall be sent to school to learn to read the laws of the Commonwealth, the arts and languages. But there shall be no special class of children brought up to book-learning only. “For then through idleness they spend their time to find out policies to advance themselves to be lords and masters over their labouring brethren, which occasions all trouble in the world. Therefore it is necessary and profitable for the Commonwealth that all children be trained to labour and to learning.”

Inventions were to be promoted by all means. “Let no young wit be crushed in his invention.” Experimenting should be encouraged. “And let every one who finds out an invention have a deserved honour given to him.” Knowledge and experiment should take the place of believing and imagining (pp. 68-76).

Such a Commonwealth did not mean idleness, community of women, or anarchy. It meant labour as a duty of every member of the Commonwealth, purity in sexual relations, and observance of the laws. Under common management would be the soil, workshops, and storehouses; labour would be exchanged for labour, without the intermediary of money. Family life must be private and strictly monogamous. “Every man’s house, furniture, and the provisions which he fetches from the storehouses are proper to himself, likewise the wife to her husband and the husband to his wife “(p. 24). (14)


1. Light Shining m Buckinghamshire, 1648, p. 3. In Thomason’s Collection of Tracts, where most of the Diggers’ pamphlets are to be found. A special catalogue of that collection is in the British Museum Reading Room.

2. Ibid., p. 9.

3. More Light Shining in Buckinghamshire, pp. 2-15.

4. A New Year’s Gift to Parliainetit, p. 44.

5. Declaration of the Levellers, April 23, 1649, p. 3.

6. A Perfect Diurnal.

7. A New Year’s Gift, p. 45.

8. C.H. Firth, Clarke Papers, II., p. 221.

9. The Diggers’ Mirth, 1650.

10. Robert Coster, A Mite Cast into the Common Treasury, 1650.

11. L.H. Berens, Digger Movement, p. 41.

12. Gerrard Winstanley, Law of Freedom, pp. 4, 17.  

13. The same, New Law of Righteousness, January, 1649, quoted extensively by Berens, p. 73.

14. Cf. Bernstein, Sozialismus und Demokraiie, 1905. Gooch, Democratic Ideas, 1898.

A History of British Socialism, Vols. 1-2 by Max Beer. Harcourt and Brace, New York, 1921.

For PDF of of the complete two volumes: https://archive.org/download/historyofbritish01beer/historyofbritish01beer.pdf

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