Gerrard Winstanley Essay - Critical Essays

Winstanley, Gerrard


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.

Principal Works

The Breaking of the Day of God (pamphlet) 1648

The Mysterie of God (pamphlet) 1648

Truth Lifting Up Its Head Above Scandal (pamphlet) 1648

The New Law of Righteousness (pamphlet) 1649

The True Levellers Standard Advanced (pamphlet) 1649

Fire in the Bush (pamphlet) 1650

An Humble Request (pamphlet) 1650

The Law of Freedom in a Platform (pamphlet) 1652


George H. Sabine (essay date 1941)

SOURCE: An Introduction to The Works of Gerrard Winstanley, edited by George H. Sabine, Russell & Russell, 1941, pp. 1-70.

[In the following excerpt, Sabine reviews Winstanley's evolving religious and political convictions and agenda.]

Winstanley's Religious Argument

Winstanley nowhere set out in logical order an outline of the religious convictions which, as he believed, led inevitably to communism as their social corollary. This was in part due to the fact that his writings are pamphlets, written as occasion demanded, and in part to the fact that his convictions were in process of formation, not in the stage of being logically...

(The entire section is 14357 words.)

H. N. Brailsford (essay date 1961)

SOURCE: "The True Levellers" in The Levellers and the English Revolution, edited by Christopher Hill, The Cresset Press, 1961, pp. 657-70.

In the following essay, Brailsford traces possible influences on Winstanley's thought, discussing his religious ideas and his political philosophy.

On Sunday, I April, 1649, a band of a dozen landless men with their families camped on St George's Hill, near Walton-on-Thames, and proceeded to dig and manure the common.' Their leader, William Everard, had served in the New Model Army, until his radicalism caused him to be cashiered: but this was to be for him and his comrades a peaceful, albeit revolutionary act. The 'True Levellers',...

(The entire section is 5961 words.)

Richard T. Vann (essay date 1965)

SOURCE: "The Later Life of Gerrard Winstanley," Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. XXVI, No. 1, January-March, 1965, pp. 133-36.

[In the following essay, Vann reviews the scant evidence available regarding the later years of Winstanley's life, examining the way in which the few known facts may support or contradict the portrait of Winstanley painted by the pamphlets he wrote in the late 1640s and early 1650s.]

The Digger Gerrard Winstanley published his last pamphlet in 1652. Almost three centuries passed before his collected works were edited by George H. Sabine and made the subject of a book by D. W. Petegorsky.1 But neither Sabine nor Petegorsky could...

(The entire section is 1997 words.)

James Farr (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: "Technology in the Digger Utopia" in Dissent and Affirmation: Essays in Honor of Mulford Q. Sibley, edited by Arthur L. Kolleberg, J. Donald Moon, and Daniel R. Sabia, Jr., Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1983, pp. 118-31.

[In the following essay, Farr studies the "problem of technology" in Winstanley's utopian political program. Farr demonstrates that Winstanley supported technological advancements, but only those determined to be responsible, humane, and beneficial to the utopian commonwealth.]

During the bold and heady days which followed in the wake of the first English Revolution, Gerrard Winstanley the Digger wrote and published "the first...

(The entire section is 6072 words.)

Christopher Hill (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: "Winstanley and Freedom" in Freedom and the English Revolution: Essays in History and Literature, edited by R. C. Richardson and G. M. Ridden, Manchester University Press, 1986, pp. 151-68.

[In the following essay, Hill argues that the freedom Winstanley sought for his countrymen included economic, social, and religious freedom. Hill examines the implications behind such beliefs and demonstrates that Winstanley attempted to appeal to the people of England through his use of the common vernacular in his writings.]

Gerrard Winstanley was born in Wigan in 1609, into a middle-class puritan family of clothiers. He came to London, was apprenticed to a clothier,...

(The entire section is 7383 words.)

Nicola Baxter (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: "Gerrard Winstanley's Experimental Knowledge of God (The Perception of the Spirit and the Acting of Reason)," The Journal of Ecclesiastical History, Vol. 39, No. 2, April, 1988, pp. 184-201.

[In the following essay, Baxter examines Winstanley's religious pamphlets in a study of Winstanley's use of words, language, and concepts.]

This essay is an attempt to find out what Winstanley meant by certain terms, using close textual analysis. Extensive work has already been done in locating Winstanley in political, theological and, as far as possible, intellectual terms. This will receive only cursory treatment here. A scholarly tradition can be traced from Bernstein,...

(The entire section is 9005 words.)

Andrew Bradstock (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: "Sowing in Hope: The Relevance of Theology to Gerrard Winstanley's Political Programme," The Seventeeenth Century, Vol. VI, No. 2, Autumn, 1991, pp. 189-204.

[In the following essay, Bradstock maintains that Winstanley's "radically unorthodox" theology contributed significantly to the development of the Digger communist platform—contrary, Bradstock contends, to what many modern critics allow.]

Since Gerrard Winstanley's writings first became a subject for serious study at the end of the nineteenth century, one question which has regularly exercised his interpreters is how far his political philosophy is shaped by or grounded upon theological premises, and...

(The entire section is 7152 words.)

John Gurney (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: "Gerrard Winstanley and the Digger Movement in Walton and Cobham," The Historical Journal, Vol, 37, No. 4, December, 1994, pp. 775-802.

[In the following essay, Gurney refers to Winstanley's pamphlets and other contemporary documents to discuss the levels of general societal acceptance received by the Digger communities Winstanley established in Surrey.]

Although much has been written in recent years about the life of Gerrard Winstanley,1 our knowledge of those who joined him in the Digger venture of 1649-50 remains extremely limited. Surprisingly little attention has been paid to the Digger movement in recent studies of popular protest, and there...

(The entire section is 13294 words.)

Michael Rogers (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: "Gerrard Winstanley on Crime and Punishment," The Sixteenth Century Journal, Vol. XXVII, No. 3, Fall, 1996, pp. 735-47.

[In the following essay, Rogers analyzes the emphasis of The Law of Freedom in a Platform (1652) on crime, law, and punishment. Rogers comments specifically on the apparent shift in Winstanley's thought from a belief in individual moral responsibility to a focus on the state's role in governing morality.]

Scholars have long recognized the importance of legal themes in Gerrard Winstanley's last writing, The Law of Freedom in a Platform (1652). This detailed work devotes its final chapter not only to a general discussion of law but...

(The entire section is 6249 words.)

Further Reading


Alsop, J. D. "Ethics in the Marketplace: Gerrard Winstanley's London Bankruptcy, 1643." Journal of British Studies 28, No. 2 (April 1989): 97-119.

Studies the contemporary documents regarding the failure of Winstanley's business in 1643 and speculates on the relationship between Winstanley's bankruptcy and his later contempt for all forms of commerce.

——. "A High Road to Radicalism? Gerrard Winstanley's Youth." The Seventeenth Century IX, No. 1 (Spring 1994): 11-24.

Reviews the facts available about Winstanley's life, particularly those concerned with his birth and early years. Alsop suggests that many scholars...

(The entire section is 554 words.)