A common treasury for all: Gerrard Winstanley's vision of utopia

Empson, Martin

Publisher:  International Socialism
Date Written:  05/04/2017
Year Published:  2017  
Resource Type:  Article
Cx Number:  CX21007

Gerrard Winstanley was the ideological force behind the Diggers, a left-wing movement during the English Revolution. The Digger movement of 1648-1650 arose out of the juncture of three processes, notably the transition from feudalism to capitalism.



The Diggers believed in the abolition of private property. In this they went much further than the majority of others on the left during the revolutionary period. For instance, a Leveller pamphlet More Light Shining in Buckinghamshire appeared in March 1649, a few days before the digging began at St George's Hill, which "called for equality of property on the same principle as the Agitators at Putney had called for equal electoral rights". Because the Leveller pamphlet did not go as far as to call for the abolition of private property, Keith Thomas described this as "agrarian egalitarianism rather than communism". As the Levellers put it "all men being alike privileged by birth, so all men were to enjoy the creatures alike without property one more than the other".

The ideas and actions of Winstanley’s Diggers at St George’s Hill and later Cobham, were unusually radical, but they were not unique. The historian Christopher Hill has suggested that St George’s Hill was only the “tip of the iceberg of True Levellerism”.11 In fact, similar camps were also set up at locations in Northamptonshire, Kent, Barnet, Enfield, Dunstable, Bosworth and Nottinghamshire, possibly in Buckinghamshire and Gloucestershire as well as Winstanley’s in Surrey.12

The number of Digger camps is impressive, though we know very little about most of them. But they reflected wider discontent. The call for the enclosed land, or that which had been given to the crown to be returned for the use of the poor became a “standard radical demand”.13

The camps appeared at an unfortunate time for those who had just executed the king. No doubt they were hoping for a period of calm so that they could entrench their rule; instead discontent was growing, particularly within the army. Radicals were disappointed with events since Charles’s execution; hunger was an issue even in London and in April; Leveller mutinies took place in the army after soldiers refused to serve in Ireland as part of a military campaign organised by Oliver Cromwell. These spread to other regiments around the country and eventually Cromwell and Thomas Fairfax, the nominal commander of the New Model Army, executed leading Levellers at Burford on 14 May 1649.

The establishment of camps by radicals demanding the common ownership of land and the abolition of private property was unwelcome in the least, as it risked opening up a new anti-Parliament front.
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