Radicals and Communists. Hobbes’s political thought belonged essentially to the realm of scholarship or science. Though intended to influence the course of events in favor of the royalists, it had little or no effect of that kind, and as a solvent of traditional loyalties and a presentation of enlightened egoism, it contributed in the long run to a more radical liberalism than any that was within the bounds of practical politics in the seventeenth century. At the same time something of the radical individualism which Hobbes used as a philosophical postulate can be seen in the left-wing popular democracy that appeared in the course of the civil wars.
This was not, of course, because the radicals learned from Hobbes, but because both were concerned with a social and intellectual change which transcended parties and immediate interests. The dissolution of traditional institutions and the economic pressure which it engendered were facts and not theories.
Hobbes’s logic turned egoism into a postulate for a social philosophy, but the conditions which made individualism an unescapable point of view existed in their own right. The belief that social and political institutions are justified only because they protect individual interests and maintain individual rights emerged under the pressure of circumstances which first became effective in England in the mid-seventeenth century but which also persisted and became more effective during the two centuries following.
Not the least significant aspect of the English civil wars was the part which popular discussion played in them. They mark the first appearance of public opinion as an important factor in politics. The volume of occasional, controversial writing produced was gigantic, far exceeding that of the French wars of religion, though the latter had not been small.
Much of this discussion was, in a broad sense, philosophical. It dealt at least with general ideas-theological, religious, and ethical-and their application to government. It aired abuses, discussed the constitution, argued for and against religious toleration, attacked or defended the government of the church and examined its relation to civil authority, claimed or denied every form of civil liberty, and proposed at one time or another most of the political devices which democratic governments have since tried. This pamphlet-debate was the first great experiment in popular political education using the printing press as the organ of government by discussion.
However Vague the ideas may have been or lacking in systematic coherence, they were at least being used to bring a measure of intelligent guidance into the political life of men in the mass. Ideas and aspirations spread among considerable numbers of Englishmen were not important exclusively for the results which they were able immediately to achieve.
Among these movements of popular political thought none is more interesting or important than the democratic radicalism which appeared in the group known as Levellers. In religion they belonged among the Independents and, like this sect generally, they favored religious toleration and were opposed to the establishment of either an episcopal or a Presbyterian form of church government.
Though the group was not very definite in its composition, it formed for a short time, between 1647 and 1650, something like a real political party, having a definite idea of the political aims of the Revolution and a plan for resettling the constitution on liberal lines, depending upon a well defined body of common political beliefs. It failed in all its purposes but it represented with remarkable distinctness the modes of thought and argument which were to characterize revolutionary liberalism in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. It drew the lines pretty definitely between the liberalism of the less privileged economic Asses and the more conservative liberalism, or Whiggism, of the well-to-do.
At the same time there appeared among the revolutionists another group, the Diggers, who sometimes called themselves the True Levellers and who were not at the time very clearly distinguished from the larger group. In numbers they were quite insignificant, all or nearly all of their written pronouncements coming from the pen of one man, Gerrard Winstanley. In purpose and outlook, however, they seem to have been quite different from the larger group.
For as the Levellers were an early instance of a radical middle-class democracy with political aims, the Diggers are more easily classified as the beginning of utopian communism, since they regarded political reform as superficial unless it could redress the inequalities of the economic system.
The Levellers appear to have been drawn mainly from the less prosperous part of the middle class, while the Diggers were perhaps members of that class wisdom economic stress had pushed out into the ranks of the property less. At any rate, Winstanley says that he had been ruined in business by the cheating art of buying and selling. The Diggers may be counted as the first appearance of a proletarian social philosophy. The purpose of the present chapter is to examine these types of early radicalism.
The Leveller movement ran Its course within pretty definite limits of time and was related to a specific phase of the civil wars which helped to define its purposes as a party. The success of Cromwell’s campaign against Charles had created, by the end of 1646, a political triangle from which a settlement of the Revolution had to be evolved. The king, defeated but not destroyed, might still hope for much if he could embroil the several factions of his enemies with each other. Parliament, a little dismayed by its success and uncertain what to do with its newly won sovereignty, was under a leadership more interested in establishing presbyterianism than in carrying out any specific plan of political reform.
Finally, and most important, Cromwell’s army, which had won the victory, had no intention of allowing the fruits to be gathered either by the king or the Presbyterians. In the game of shifty diplomacy which followed, Charles played for a new civil war and parliament played to get rid of the army and leave itself a free hand.
The army, which alone had any real power, could have ended the shuffling at any moment, as it did three years later, but the leaders, Cromwell and his son-in-law Ireton, had a sincere dislike for military dictatorship and were deeply in doubt how best to give the Reevaluation a constitutional form.
So hesitant were they that in 1647 they risked a threat of mutiny in the army. For the rank and file of the soldiers, well knowing that neither the king nor parliament could be trusted, became fearful that Cromwell also would barter away the reforms which they hoped from the Revolution.
It was in these circumstances that the Levellers appeared, first as a radical party among the common soldiers, dissatisfied with the cautious and conservative plan of reform promulgated by their officers, and advocating their own radical program of the results to be achieved by the Revolution.
Quite spontaneously regimental committees, remarkably like the soviets that appeared in the Russian army in 1917, sprang into existence and demanded a share in formulating the policies to be pursued. Fortunately there has been preserved an almost verbatim report of the discussions which followed in the Army Council, between the representatives of the officers, led by Cromwell and Ireton, and the representatives of the regiments who had, apparently, the sympathy and support of a very few of the higher officers.? Both before and after this occurrence in the army there appeared a number of pamphlets, chiefly by the leaders of the Leveller Party, John Lilburne and Richard Overtone, setting forth both their practical objectives and the political philosophy upon which they acted.
The debates in the Army Council are peculiarly interesting and vivid because they recreate actual conversations almost three centuries dead. They permit a glimpse into the minds of a group of Englishmen in lowly station, the small tradesmen, artisans, and farmers that made up the rank and file of Cromwell’s army. They show what these men thought they had been fighting for and the inevitable clash between their ideas and those of the well-to-do classes represented by their officers. The danger of serious mutiny was real.
In November, 1647, Cromwell moved swiftly and sternly to restore discipline and soon after he determined on his own account to negotiate no further with Charles. This decision went far to restore the confidence of the main body of the army. In the latter part of 1648 the Levellers reappeared as a civil party, but their importance ended when the officer; committed themselves definitely to a policy of coercion in the first half of 1649.
John Lilburne, the principal leader of the Levellers, was the perfect type of radical agitator. Endlessly pugnacious in defending his rights and in attacking abuses, he came into conflict at one stage or another of his career with every branch of government Lords, Commons, Council of the State, and the officers of the army.
He was honest and fearless but also quarrelsome and suspicious. Twice in his life, in 1649 and 1653, he was the hero of a spectacular political trial in which he won his acquittal by appealing to popular sentiment over the head of the court.
Lilburne’s influence was mainly due to his ability to dramatize himself as a symbol of popular liberties: Where others argued about the respective right of king and parliament, he spoke always of the rights of the people. As a party the Levellers must have been a relatively small group drawn from the more politically minded of the poorer classes.
Their projects attracted neither the landed gentry nor the well-to-do citizens of London. Indeed, they failed on all sides, first, in holding the mass of the army after confidence in the officers was restored; second, in carrying the officers for their radical reforms; and third, in gaining enough weight anywhere to influence parliament. The Levellers are interesting not because of anything they were able to do but because their ideas anticipated in so many respects both the ideology and the program of later democratic radicalism.
An Englishman’s Birthright:-
The name Leveller was obviously an epithet; it was meant to imply that the party sought to destroy differences of social position, of political rank, and even of property, levelling all men down to a condition of equality. An enemy paraphrased their argument as follows:
Seeing all men are by nature the sons of Adam, and from him have legitimately derived a natural propriety, right, and freedom, therefore England and all other nations, and all particular persons In every nation, notwithstanding the difference of laws and governments, ranks and degrees, ought to be alike free and estates in their natural liberties, and to enjoy the just rights and prerogative of mankind, whereunto they are heirs apparent; and thus the commoners by right, are equal with the lords. For by natural birth all men are equally and alike born to like propriety, liberty, and freedom; and as we are delivered of God by the hand of nature into this world, every one with a natural innate freedom, and propriety, even so are we to live, every one equally and alike to enjoy his birthright and privilege.
The author of this description was notoriously biased. In the party pronouncements of the Levellers there is not the slightest evidence that the like propriety which they desired included equalization oi property or the levelling of social distinctions.
They objected to political privilege on the part of the nobility and to economic advantage through monopolies in trade or the professional monopoly enjoyed by lawyers. The objection seems to have been aimed exclusively at legally supported privilege and not at social or economic inequality as such. The discussions reported in the Clarke Papers are filled with protestations, evidently sincere, that no attack on property was intended.
The equality sought was equality before the law and equality of political rights, especially for the class of small property owners. Indeed, the Levellers appear to have grasped with remarkable clearness the point of view of radical democratic liberalism, individualist rather than socialist in its philosophy and political rather than economic in its aims.
The basis of this individualism seems to have been a rationalist belief that the fundamental rights of human beings are self-evident. In view of their time and the evident connection of the Levellers with Independence, the argumentation in the Clarke Papers and in the pamphlets is surprisingly little dependent upon religious considerations or appeals to Scriptural authority. In fact their opponents sometimes objected that they had too little respect for revelation in religion or for custom in law and government but wished to measure both by what was natural and reasonable.
As they do in matters of religion and conscience they fly from the Scriptures, and from supernatural truths revealed there, that a man may not be questioned for going against them, but only for errors against the light of nature and right reason; so they do also in civil government and things of this life, they go from the laws and constitutions of kingdoms, and will be governed by rules according to nature and right reason.
The charge might have been supported by many sentences out of Lilburne’s pamphlets, especially the later ones. As early as 1646 he asserted that men, merely because they are the children of Adam, are by nature all equal and alike in power, dignity, authority, and majesty, and that in consequence all civil authority is exercised “merely by institution, or donation, that is to say, by mutual agreement and consent, given for the good benefit and comfort of each other. In short, governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, meaning the individual consent of each and every citizen, One of the most picturesque assertions of this principle was made by one of the representatives of the regiments in the.conference with the Officers:
Really I think that the poorest he that is in England hath a lite to live as the greatest he; and therefore truly, Sir, I think it’s clear, that every man that is to live under a government ought first by his own consent to put himself under that government; and I do think that the poorest man in England is not at all bound in a strict sense to that government that he hath not had a voice to put himself under.
It should be granted that the argument of the Levellers was likely to be a little confused in respect to the birthright which they claimed. It might consist of the traditional liberties of Englishmen supposed to be embalmed in the common law or Magna Charta, or it might be the universal rights of man.
Like any expert agitator, Lilburne appealed to whatever made the strongest case in the circumstances-to the Commons against the Lords, to Magna Charta against the common law, and to reason against them all. So long as a precedent or a traditional right would serve, there was no need to run into abstractions. But on the whole it was quite impossible for a party of radical reform to stand on custom. William Walwyn in 1645 observed that
Magna Charta (you must observe) is but a part of the people’s rights and liberties, being no more but what with much striving and fighting. was by the blood of our ancestors, wrest!2d out of the paws of those kings, who by force had conquered the Nation, changed the laws and by strong hand held them in be 32 days in 1646 Richard Overton called Magna Charta a beggarly thing and took the argument quite out of the region of custom
Yet Parliament ware chosen to work our deliverance, and to estate us in natural and just liberty agreeable to reason and common equity, for whatever our forefathers were, or whatever they did or suffered, or were enforced to yield unto, we are the men of the present age, and ought to be absolutely free from all kinds of exorbitancies, molestations or arbitrary power.
The distinction between customary and natural right was a bone of contention between Itreton and the representatives of the regiments. Ireton’s legal mind was irritated by the indefiniteness of the claim.
If you will resort only to the law of nature, by the law of nature you have no more right to this land or anything else than I have.
What makes a right mine, really and civilly, is the law. The Leveller was arguing that an unjust law is no law at all.
The interesting and distinctive feature of the Leveller philosophy is the new form which it gave to the ancient conceptions of natural right and consent. They interpreted the law of nature as endowing human individuals with innate and inalienable rights which legal and political institutions exist only to protect, and they construed consent as an individual act which every man is entitled to perform for himself.
Almost as much as Hobbes, though not with his systematic clarity, they argued that the only justification for society is the production of individual advantages. Had they developed the conception of a contract, which is implicit in their idea of consent, it would clearly have been, like that of Hobbes, a social contract, deriving the social group from individuals who combine for mutual benefits, and not the older form of contract between king and community.
The individual and his rights form the basis of the whole social structure. As in the characteristic social philosophy of radical liberalism, the only justification for restraint lies in the fact that restraint itself contributes to individual freedom.
Moderate and Radical Reform:-
he plan of political reform which the Levellers sponsored agreed remarkably well with the principles of their political philosophy. They formed, as has been said, the left wing of the revolutionists in Cromwell’s army and their position is best defined by their differences from the more conservative plans formed by the officers. In 1647 the revolution was an accomplished fact and some constitutional settlement obviously necessary.
On many points there was substantial agreement between moderates and radicals, or the difference was a matte, detail rather than of principle. Both sides of course desired the remove of the worst abuses that had caused the war between the king any parliament. The essential difference lay in the fact that the officers a group, came from the landed gentry and desired a settlement leavin, political power mainly with that class, though it is only fair to say they their plan included many democratic reforms which were not brought, about in England until the nineteenth century.
The Levellers and the ten from the regiments, on the other hand, were men of small property, the class most likely to have been ruined by the war, and therefore desired a settlement distinguishing political rights and property rights as completely as possible. In consequence the officer headed by Cromwell and Ireton, stood for a settlement making as fey, changes in the historical constitution as possible, consistent with saving the fruits of the war as they understood them. The Levellers wisher to seize the opportunity for making sweeping changes, directed to ward what they took to be a just and reasonable arrangement, without much regard for tradition.
Ye know, the laws of this nation are unworthy a free people, and deserve from first to last, to be considered, and seriously debated, and reduced to an agreement with common equity, and right reason, which ought to be the form and life of every government.
In the conferences between the officers and the representatives of the regiments, Cromwell was evidently staggered by the greatness and novelty of the changes proposed. Like many successful revolutionists, he was at heart a conservative; moreover, he knew much better than the Levellers how impractical, in the circumstances, it was to try to give effect to a system of abstract principles.
Before the agitation in the ranks began, the council of officers had already drawn up a document called the Heads of Proposals,which was the outline of a series of acts by which it was proposed that parliament should give effect to the constitutional changes wrought by the Revolution. The Agreement of the People, which was formulated in the ranks and brought by the representatives of the regiments to the Army
Council, was a counter-proposal sketching the form of government which the Levellers desired. It was agreed by both groups that the freedom of parliament must be secured, that frequent meetings must be made certain, and that there must be a redistribution of seats to give more equal representation.
Both agreed, moreover, that parliament must control executive officers, including commanders of the army and navy, though the officers were content to make this a temporary arrangement for ten years, while the Levellers made it a permanent part of their constitution. Both sides agreed to a policy of religious toleration, except for Roman Catholics, and desired the removal of specified abuses in the administration of the law.
With the acceptance of these changes, the officers were willing to restore the personal rights and liberty of the king, though this was not with them a main point and a little later they abandoned it. Some of the Levellers at least were definitely republicans and believed that monarchy was the original all oppression, but its abolition seems not to have been a main point in the program of the party. Republicanism was a means rather than an end in their plan of government.
Behind this rather large measure of agreement about means, however, there was a radical difference of political philosophy. The Levellers desired the independence of parliament not because of its traditional liberties but because it was the representative of the people. There was no doubt in their minds that the people and not parliament was sovereign and that parliament had a purely delegated authority. In line with the marked individualism of their theory of natural rights, also, they conceived parliament as standing for the actual human beings that composed the nation, and not as representing corporations, vested interests, and rights of property or status. These two features of their political philosophy-the delegated power of parliament and the right of every man to consent to law through his representatives-were the grounds upon which they urged the main parts of their radical program.
Accordingly, while both the Levellers and the officers desired equality of representation in parliament, they had fundamentally different notions of what equality meant. The officers proposed a redistribution of seats on the basis of the proportion of taxes paid by constituencies, while the Levellers desired equality according to population. The more conservative view, which certainly was closer to the historical conception of parliament, looked upon that body as presenting interests, the ownership of land or membership in a corporation in which trading was permitted. Ireton stated this view with great clearness.
No man has a right to vote, he said, unless he has a permanent fixed interest in this kingdom,an interest which is by nature irremovable and which forms a permanent part of the economic, political structure. Equality of representation meant that even the lea of such interests had a voice in choosing representatives; it dig mean that every man must have a voice.
To this the Leveller reply that it is the man, not the interest, that is subject to law and hence it; the man and not property that should be represented. He earnest, disclaimed any desire to interfere with the rights of property, which he regarded as included among man’s natural rights, but he drew a shall distinction between ownership and the possession of political right Political rights are not property, and even a poor man has his “birth, tight,” which the state is bound to protect no less than the Property of the rich.
Consequently the Leveller stood in theory for universal manhood suffrage, possibly excepting paupers, or as a practical expedient for the lowest property qualification obtainable, while Ireton’s theory meant in practice the restriction of suffrage to landowners. The officers undoubtedly believed that universal suffrage would endanger property and result in sheer anarchy. As Ireton said, if a man has a right to vote merely because he breathes, he may have a natural sight even against the legal rights of property.
Natural right is no right at all, since both political rights and the rights of property arise from law. But the exactions of the law, the Leveller answered, are just what need to be explained and justified. Unless the law is made with the people’s consent, and unless a man has been represented in the body which made it, how can he be justly obliged. to obey it? And how can a man be represented unless he has a voice in choosing his representatives?
The two points of view are opposed with remarkable vividness: on the one hand, the theory that the community is an organization of permanent interests, particularly the landed interest, held together by customary privileges and exactions; on the other, the new conception of the nation as a mass of free individuals, cooperating from motives of self-interest, and making its law in the interest of individual freedom.
The Curb on the Legislature:-
From the Leveller’s point of view there was no more merit in parliament’s claim to sovereign power than in the king’s. Like the king, parliament has merely a delegated power, and it is as important to protect individual rights against a legislature as against an executive. The record then being made by the Presbyterian leaders of the Long parliament was well calculated to convince a group of Independents that the bridling of a sovereign legislative body was not an academic question.
Consequently the Levellers desired a constitutional device that would protect the Individual in his fundamental rights even against his own representatives. The plan struck out was substantially that of a written constitution with its bill of fundamental rights. In recognizing the supremacy of parliament over other branches of government, the Agreement of the People expressly laid down the rule that there are certain rights of citizens which even parliament must not touch and it attempts to enumerate some of them. Parliament must not repudiate debts, make arbitrary exceptions to the operation of law, or destroy the rights of property and of personal liberty.
Particularly it must not take away or modify any of the rights set down in the instrument itself. In short, the Agreement is to stand as unchangeable constitutional law, a device actually adopted in the Instrument of Government which set up the Protectorate in 1653.
In 1648 the Levellers tried to secure what in the United States would be called a constitutional convention, a special representative body not to exercise any legislative power but only to draw up the foundation for just government. The agreement thus made was to stand as a kind of social contract, above the law, fixing the limits of parliament’s legislative power; it was to be signed and agreed to by electors and candidates at every election. Like so many later constitutions planned to protect indefeasible human rights, the Agreement of the People undertook to legalize resistance, in case parliament should overstep the bounds set by the Agreement itself.
The Levellers more than any other group in revolutionary England approximated the political philosophy which later became typical of radical democracy in them the ancient theory of natural law appeared in a new form the innate right of every man to a minimum of political privilege, the doctrine of consent by participation in the choice of representatives, the justification of law and government as a protection of individual rights, and the limitation of every branch of government under the sovereign power of the people secured by a written list of inalienable rights.
The presence of such a body of ideas in mid seventeenth century England is doubly interesting because of the complete failure of their constitutional projects in that country, compared with their persistence and realization in America. The Instrument of Government in 1653 was the first and the last attempt in England to limit the legislative power of parliament by a written constitution, and the outcome of the Revolution was to settle the regal supremacy of parliament. In America the written constitution with its limitations upon legislatures became the general practice. The difference is not hard to explain.
After the Restoration in 1660 the exchange of political ideas between England and America was much restricted, in Comparison, with what it had been earlier. In consequence the newer idea of pay parliamentary sovereignty never spread among the English in America while the older belief in a fundamental law persisted and under favorable circumstances was developed upon lines similar to those suggest by the Levellers. This is not to say that the program of the Levelle was imitated. Constitutional ideas both in England and America had common root, and the state of affairs in America permitted an immediately more radical effort to give them effect.
The pamphlets of the Levellers are eloquent cf the economic distress which the civil wars brought to the small farmers, tradesmen, and artisans in the less prosperous part of the English middle class. For the most part these men either followed the lead of the more prosperous gentry or looked for help to a more radical political equality and the removal of such legal discrimination as monopoly.
By a very few per sons, however, the political revolution was conceived as an opportunity to bring about economic equality and to lift the burden of poverty from the masses. The name True Levellers, by which these communists sometimes described themselves, suggests at once that they originated as a left fringe of the radical party and that they were at least vaguely conscious of differing from them. On the other side, Lilburne denied emphatically that he had any connection with the communists. Contemporary confusions aside, the social philosophy of the communists was different in principle from that of the Levellers. The latter were radical democrats with mainly political purposes; the communists were utopian socialists with mainly economic purposes.
The communists sprang into notoriety in 1649 when a small group of them tried to take and cultivate unenclosed common land, with the purpose of distributing the produce to the poor. This gave them the name, Diggers, by which they were known in the seventeenth century. This action caused a flurry among the landlords concerned but it had no lasting effects. The Diggers, who probably numbered only a few score, kept their experiment going for a year but they were finally dispersed by legal harassment and mob-violence. The only result was a few pamphlets by Gerrard Winstanley, notably a plan for a communist government of England published after the attempt to till the common and had failed. Winstanley’s communism unquestionably had its origin in religious mysticism. His religious beliefs were substantially like those the Quakers a few years later and were quite different from the Calvinism of most of the radical groups.
The common ground between the Leveller and the communist in the fact that both claimed the law of nature as their justification, as any radical in the seventeenth century was certain to do. The Leveller turned the law of nature into a doctrine of individual rights, of which the right of property was inevitably one of the most important.
The Digger interpreted the law of nature as a communal right to the means of subsistence, of which land was the most important, and ave to the individual only the right to share in the produce of the common land and the common labor. The land is given by God or nature to be the common treasury from which all are entitled to draw their sustenance.
None ought to be lords or landlords over another, but the earth is free for every son and daughter of mankind to live free upon.
The natural state of man is therefore one of common ownership, and the communist pictured the English Revolution as nothing less than the occasion for a return to this idyllic condition. The origins of this conception can only be guessed at. It is natural to suspect that there was some continuity with the ideas of obscure proletarian uprisings which economic distress had produced from time to time both in England and on the Continent, or more specifically with the Peasant Revolt in Germany and the Anabaptist movement.
At all events the principle from which the communists started was the Christian belief, widespread through the Middle Ages, that common possession was a more perfect way of life than private ownership, which was commonly held not to be “natural” but the result of human wickedness.
The significant part of the Diggers philosophy was the way in which they reversed the conclusions drawn from this belief. The usual deduction had been that private property, though less perfect than common ownership, is nevertheless the best practicable concession to the fallen nature of man. The Digger inferred that private property itself is the main cause of evil and of all forms of social abuse and corruption.
The root of all evil is covetousness and greed, which first produced private property, while the fatter causes all supremacy of one man over another, all manner of bloodshed, and the enslaving of the masses of men, who have been reduced to poverty by the wage-system and are forced to support by their labor the very power that enslaves them. Consequently most social ills and most of human vice can be removed by destroying private property, especially in land. The similarity of Digger argument to Rousseau’s essay on. The Origin of Inequality among Men is striking.
As a matter of course the pamphlets of the Diggers breath enmity against the landlords.
O you Adams of the earth, you have rich clothing, full bellies. But know that the day of judgment is begun. , The poor people whom thou oppresses shall be the saviors of the land. If thou wilt find mercy disown this oppressing , thievery of buying and selling of land, owning of landlords, and paying of rents, and give your free consent to make the earth, common treasury.
But the denunciation was no less bitter of lawyers and the clergy, not so much because the former corrupt the law or the latter teach bad theology, as because both are the main supports of private property, All English history since the Conquest is read in this sense the Conqueror took the land from the people and gave it to his colonels from whom it has descended to the present landlords. England is a prison; the subtleties of the law are its bolts and bars, and the lawyers are its tailors.
All the old law books ought to be burned. At the same time the Conqueror hired the clergy with tithes to preach him up and to stop the people’s mouths by teaching them to be submissive. The deduction is evident: since now, by the Revolution, the kingly power has been cast out, the whole system of private landowning must go with it, for unless the people get back the land, they are deprived of the fruits of victory.
Fiery as all this sounds, the Diggers disclaimed any intention of inciting to violence or of expropriating the landlords by force. What they might have done if they had been more numerous cannot be known; since they were at most a handful, the preaching of violence would have been suicidal. What they expressly claimed was the right to cultivate common land, leaving the enclosed and to its owners. There is no reason to doubt their sincerity.
Like most utopians, they were professed pacifists and they probably believed that the excellence of the new way of life would commend it even to landlords. Perhaps also they counted upon some mysterious softening of hearts, for though they were violently anti-clerical, they were also profoundly religious. Jesus Christ, they said, is the head Leveller. Apparently they were simple-minded folk who thought that the Christian doctrine of brotherly love was to be taken as it was written.
Winstanley’s Law of Freedom:-
Gerrard Winstanley, the only important writer among the Diggers, produced one book, his Law of Freedom published in 1652 and addressed to Cromwell, which was more than a pamphlet. It drew the outlines of a Utopian society with some precision, as a platform of commonwealth’s-government according to the rule of righteousness. The fundamental thought behind Winstanley’s commonwealth is that the root of all bondage is poverty:
A man had better to have had no body than to have no food for it. True freedom means that all equally have access to the use of the earth and its fruits. In human nature there are two opposed tendencies, the desire for common preservation, which is the root of the family and of all peace and righteousness; and the desire for self-preservation, which is the root of covetousness and tyranny.
To the first corresponds commonwealth, in which the weak are protected equally with the strong. To the second corresponds kingly government and the law of the conqueror. The essential difference is that kingly government rules by the cheating art of buying and selling; it is the government of the highwayman who has stolen the earth from his younger brother.
Hence the essence of reform is the prohibition of buying and selling, especially the land. There can be no equality of goods, for wealth gives power and power means oppression. Moreover, wealth cannot be honestly earned. No man gains wealth by his own effort but only by withholding a share of what is produced by his helpers.
Real liberty requires, therefore, that land shall be owned in common. The produce of the land should be put into a common store whence all may draw according to his needs. All able-bodied persons must be compelled to work at productive labor, at least until they reach the age of forty. The family, with personal effects and private houses, Winstanley would leave untouched.
To perpetuate the commonwealth he provided an elaborate scheme of magistrates and a rigid code of laws, to be kept simple and not interpreted. As political devices he relied mainly upon universal suffrage and the limitation of terms of office to a single year. Not the least interesting part of the plan was his project for reducing the national church to an institution for popular education. Apparently the supernatural had little part in his conception of religion.
The clergy, who at present make sermons to please the sickly minds of ignorant peoples, to preserve their own riches and esteem among a charmed, befouled, and besotted people, are to become schoolmasters, giving instruction on each seventh day in public affairs, history, and the arts and sciences. To know the secrets of nature is to know the works of God; what is usually called divinity is the doctrine of a weak and sickly spirit.This divining spiritual doctrine is a cheat. Not the least important part of education is training in the useful trades and crafts.
While men are gazing up to Heaven, imagining after happiness, or fearing a Hell after they are dead, their eyes are Dy out, that they see not what is their birthrights.
Winstanley’s communism stood quite by itself in the political philosophy of the seventeenth century. It spoke with the authentic, voice of proletarian utopianism, giving expression to the first stirring of political aspiration in the inarticulate masses and setting up the well, being of the common man as the goal of a just society.
Utopian though it was in its purposes, it rested upon a clear insight into the inevitable dependence of political liberty and equality upon the control of economic causes. Only in Harrington can there be found in the seventeenth century a more definite idea of the dependence of politic, upon the distribution of wealth.
Nowhere is there a clearer perception of the incompatibility of economic exploitation with democratic ideals, Winstanley’s communism grew directly from his religious experience, but his religion was so free from dogmatism and clericalism that his political and social thought was often quite secular. His ethics, unlike that which attached to Calvinism, made brotherly love rather than individual self-sufficiency the central principle of democracy.