Gerrard Winstanley, born in Wigan and for a time a successful mercer before the upsets of the 1640s, was a leader of, and polemicist for, the Diggers, a small offshoot of the better-known and more powerful Levellers; the Levellers were themselves part of – though they were ultimately suppressed – the Puritan and Parliamentary opposition during the English Civil War and consequent Commonwealth (1649-1660).
In September 1944 George Orwell reviewed Selections from the Works of Gerrard Winstanley, edited by Leonard Hamilton with an Introduction by Christopher Hill. The Cresset Press had published a large octavo volume of 198 pages in a mainly khaki dustwrapper. Despite being produced in complete conformity to the war economy standards, its printers, the Chapel River Press, had made a volume of such quality that copies have survived in remarkably pristine condition today, seventy-odd years later.
We understand that the copy reviewed by Orwell was passed onto Michael Foot, who in turn passed it to its current owner, in another example of production quality being proved in its continued existence.
Orwell begins his review with a modern reference: ‘Every successful revolution has its June purge’, though he does not specify which June he is referring to, as this appears to be a popular month for revolutionaries to be suppressed: the Girondins in France in June 1793, the Nazis in June 1934, and the Stalinist opposition in June 1937. After more discussion Orwell expands on the suppression: ‘… the Diggers were swiftly crushed. The parvenu gentry who had won the civil war were willing enough to divide the lands of the Royalists among themselves but they had no intention of setting up an egalitarian society.’ Orwell points out that the troops sent against the Diggers tended to be sympathetic, as the Levellers were most active in the army, but Winstanley and his colleagues were driven off, and he ‘vanishes from history about 1660’.
Orwell in his review – it appeared in The Observer – does not quote other works, but his friend Reginald Reynolds was a Quaker and a historical pamphlet collector, who was familiar with the literature of the Civil War. Together Orwell and Reynolds would publish British Pamphleteers, an anthology of historic literature including Winstanley and other radicals.
Many reading Orwell’s review, though, would be familiar with the background to the revolutionary figures of the English Civil War through a number of books published in the previous decade. In 1940 the Left Book Club offered its members David W Petegorsky’s Left-Wing Democracy in the English Civil War.
The title sounds general, but the sub-title makes its subject explicit: ‘A Study of the Social Philosophy of Gerrard Winstanley’. The copy shown belonged to a student who was familiarising themself with economics and history. Notes on the endpapers refer to ‘Economic theory of revolution’, ‘natural law gave no justification of private property’, ‘”to know the secrets of nature is to know the works of God”‘, and ‘morality social [sic] determined & human nature a product of social conditions’ (this last, of course, Marx’s concept of base and superstructure). Christopher Hill’s Introduction to the Selections refers to Petegorsky’s book.
A work on the wider area, with a chapter on Winstanley, had been published in H J Stenning’s English translation: Cromwell and Communism: Socialism and Democracy in the Great English Revolution by Edward Bernstein. ‘Cromwell and Communism’ appears to be an addition to the title by either Stenning or his publishers, George Allan and Unwin in 1930, as Petegorsky in an appendix refers to the book in its 1895 German original as Sozialismus und Demokratie in der grossen Englischen Revolution, while its English title appears in his bibliography. It was reprinted in 1980 by Spokesman Books.
According to Orwell, ‘Winstanley’s thought links up with Anarchism rather than Socialism because he thinks in terms of a purely agricultural community living at a low level of comfort’. Orwell goes onto to examine Winstanley’s complaint against the ‘Normans’, whom he blamed for the historic loss of common rights, on which Orwell would expand in his Introduction to British Pamphleteers. In his review, meanwhile, Orwell returned to the theme of his first sentence: ‘But alas! he (Winstanley) could see only too clearly that the victors of the civil war were themselves developing “Norman” characteristics.’ With hindsight we can now read a suggestion of Winstanley in Orwell’s own story of agricultural betrayal, Animal Farm.
Orwell’s review was criticized later in the month by Reg Groves for failing to emphasise Winstanley’s visionary side, but Groves retracted his complaint after hearing that this aspect had been cut by the newspaper subeditors on space grounds from the article submitted by Orwell. Groves – who was a member of the Balham Group, the original British Trotskyists – had received a sideways acknowledgement from Orwell in an earlier discussion of the Civil War.
In the conclusion to his 1940 review of The English Revolution: 1640, a collection of essays edited by Christopher Hill, Orwell wrote ‘The most interesting essay of the three, by Miss Margaret James, is on the materialistic interpretations of society which were already current in the mid-seventeenth century … It is a pity that Miss James fails to make a comparison between the seventeenth-century situation and the one we are now in. A parallel undoubtedly exists, although from the official Marxist [Orwell means CPGB] point of view the latter-day equivalents of the Diggers and Levellers happen to be unmentionable.’ One can infer from this pointed remark that Orwell and Groves had made the Digger comparison before.
A poor quality reproduction of the contents page of British Pamphleteers, calling Winstanley ‘Gerard’.
Outside his collaboration with Reginal Reynolds, Orwell’s last comment on the Diggers seems to have come in ‘The Intellectual Revolt’, his 1946 essay series in the Manchester Evening News. Each essay was a thematic review. In the second, ‘What Is Socialism’ (an essay much less well-known than ‘What Is Fascism?’, because this series did not appear in the 1968 Collected Essays Journalism and Letters), Orwell concludes by considering Winstanley’s Selections, uses the words primitve Communism crushed by Cromwell, and then says ‘The “earthly paradise” has never been realised, but as an idea it never seems to perish in spite of the ease with which it can be debunked by practical politicians of all colours’. He ends ‘… it could be claimed that the Utopians, at present a scattered minority, are the true upholders of Socialist tradition’.
by L J Hurst
Last updated February 12 2017
- Orwell’s reviews of Winstanley and the Commonwealth can be found most easily in Orwell and Politics edited by Peter Davison (Penguin Books). It is Professor Davison’s detailed note that clarifies Reg Groves’ complaint and Orwell’s response about editorial abridgement.
- Interest in Gerrard Winstanley, and inspiration for activities in line with his thought, is maintained by the Wigan Diggers. They now hold an annual festival in commemoration and celebration.
- Quaker tradition has it that Winstanley joined their number – something mentioned by Bernstein, but Petegorsky has some quotations from the Restoration period suggesting that Winstanley was then regarded as a turncoat, who may have become a successful enclosed farmer.