Gerrard Winstanley Critical Essays

Introduction

Gerrard Winstanley 1609-1676

English political writer

Writing during the turbulent years immediately after the English Revolution, Winstanley, seized the opportunity to propose an alternative form of government to replace the recently dismantled monarchy. While some radical groups sought a more equitable society and advocated religious freedom, Winstanley, in The Law of Freedom in a Platform (1652) developed a program for a communist utopia. The combination of Winstanley's unorthodox political beliefs and his radical political agenda have marked him as a progressive thinker whose ideas in some ways presaged those of later communist revolutionaries.

Biographical Information

Born into a middle-class Puritan family in Wigan, Winstanley followed family tradition and entered the clothing industry. He traveled to London where he was apprenticed to a clothier. Before the Civil War, Winstanley established his own business and was married. The war destroyed Winstanley's business, as it had many others. Retiring to the Surrey countryside, Winstanley worked as a hired laborer and, between 1648 and 1652, wrote and published pamphlets promoting the causes of economic, social, political, and religious freedom. Between 1649 and 1650 he organized two communities based on the principle that the land was the "common treasury" of the people of England. He and his followers, termed "Diggers" because of their agrarian practices, appropriated and farmed commonly held land in Walton and Cobham, but the communities failed, largely due to opposition by local landholders. In 1652, Winstanley wrote The Law of Freedom in a Platform, in which he outlines the means by which a communist commonwealth may be achieved (although he did not use the term "communist" in his writings). Informed by the failures of the Digger communities, this pamphlet emphasizes the interim role of the state in the establishment of an ideal commonwealth. This focus on external government rather than individual moral responsibility marks an apparent shift in Winstanley's views, and is the focus of much critical debate. Winstanley never published another work after The Law of Freedom, and aside from a few references to him in contemporary records, he very nearly disappears from the historical record until his death in 1676.

Major Works

Much of Winstanley's written work, including such early pamphlets as The Mysterie of God (1648), are concerned with his views on God and religion. Winstanley rejected many traditional core doctrines, including belief in the historic Christ, the role of the clergy as mediators between God and worshippers, and the superiority of the Scriptures over the ability of every individual to experience and understand the sacred. As Winstanley discusses in pamphlets such as The New Law of Righteousness (1649), it is this core of inherent godliness that he believed would rise up in every person, given proper philosophical enlightenment. When this occurred, people would break free from the oppression imposed by private ownership of land, and the inequities inherent in this system would then dissolve. After writing pamphlets defending the Digger communities and exposing the attacks suffered by the Diggers at the hands of private landholders, Winstanley wrote The Law of Freedom in a Platform in 1652. Drawing on what he learned from the failures of the Digger communities, he elaborated the means by which a communist commonwealth could be established. In this pamphlet, Winstanley focuses on the possibility that the reordering of society will positively influence the motivations and conduct of all people. The Law of Freedom also advocates an economy without money; reemphasizes that private property is the source of oppression; and maintains that the state plays a necessary role in creating the conditions required for the realization of a socialist utopia.

Critical Reception

Critical debate surrounding Winstanley's works is heavily concerned with the relevance of his theology to his political agenda and with the apparent shift in Winstanley's thought from an emphasis on an internal theological motivation for reformation to a focus on external regulation of morality. In analyzing these issues, George H. Sabine argues that Winstanley's use of Biblical language and imagery in his writings was typical of his time and reflected what other writers on the extreme left wing of the Puritan Revolution expressed. Sabine further contends that Winstanley's beliefs, such as his conviction in the superiority of the "inner light" over the Scripture and his anti-clerical views, demonstrate that Winstanley had made a complete break with "any doctrinal or theological standard of religion." For Winstanley, Sabine contends, religion referred to a moral way of life. The commonwealth outlined by Winstanley was seen by its creator as morally superior to a monarchy because of its basis in principles of community and cooperation rather than on competition and individual acquisition. Winstanley's The Law of Freedom focuses on individual moral change through social and institutional reorganization. However, Winstanley maintained his belief in the development of the inner being as the key to bringing about a utopia of fairness. The Law of Freedom still advocates sharing land, labor, and goods; the outlawing of a money-based economy; and the end of class exploitation. While some critics suggest that Winstanley had become a rationalist and a materialist by the time he wrote The Law of Freedom, Winstanley's views on the role and nature of God had not fundamentally changed by 1652. Winstanley viewed "Reason" not as a replacement for God, but as a name for God that accurately expresses the way God works through humankind. Andrew Bradstock contends that Winstanley's theological position never shifted radically. Bradstock states that even though Winstanley rejected many traditional beliefs, he did not reject Christianity altogether. Bradstock emphasizes the similarity of some of Winstanley's beliefs to those of contemporary Quakers, Fifth Monarchists, and modern day Liberation Theologians. In his discussion of The Law of Freedom's focus on law and punishment, Michael Rogers also maintains that Winstanley did not undergo a major shift in his thinking. He argues that Winstanley remained optimistic that when individuals rejected private property, the causes of crime would disappear. By 1652, Rogers suggests, when The Law of Freedom was written, Winstanley had come to believe that this process of transformation would take longer than he originally thought and that a democratized legal code could be used to institu-tionalize Reason until people could be free of the constraints of "kingly government" and private property.