are the subjects, not the objects, of the Revolution.“
In the 1649, while the post-revolutionary England faced a remarkable economic and political instability, the Diggers, or True Levellers, emerged suggesting the organisation of people in alternative economic, social and political structures. The True Levellers opposed the formation of society in hierarchical structures and argued for the organisation of society in small egalitarian communities. They attempted to realise their agenda and put their ideas into practice through their self-organisation into communes. The True Levellers became known as “the Diggers” once they put their ideas into practice and begun to cultivate the land in a communal way. The digging was not a merely symbolic deed, but a deeply political act, since the Diggers argued for a reformation of the society based on an agrarian lifestyle. As Holstun argues, “…the Diggers produced the most important seventeenth-century critique of this transformation [the capitalist transformation of English agriculture] from the point of view of its victims.”(Holstun, 377)
The Diggers argued that the common land, which had been in the possession of the King, who had been executed, should be returned to the people, who would organise it in a collective manner and establish a commonwealth. The Diggers´ views were embedded in the belief that England had become subject to the “Norman Yoke,” a belief, which at the time mobilised people against royal power. The same belief was also shared by the Parliament, which, in its endeavours against the King, recruited the collective assistance and the services of landowners as well as the peasantry. After the defeat of the royalist forces led by Charles I, however, the political power of the landowners was increased, whereas the peasants witnessed no change in their favour, no real alteration of the institutions of royal power. Although the peasants, who had shed their blood for the sake of the revolution, had believed that the end of the kingship would entail a drastic change in both the political and the social landscape and that they would take on an active and equal role in the decision making of the new era, the implementation of power in post-revolutionary England proved to have no substantial distinction from that imposed by the King. The poor people were the backbone of the parliamentary forces during the revolution. Likewise, the poor, having no interest in preserving the existing hierarchical structures and economic, social and political inequity, were those who initiated the extension of the revolution beyond the abolition of kingship and towards the abolition of any form of power structures.
The Levellers’ ideas, which had been developed in the ranks of the New Model Army and included the right for universal suffrage, a secular republic, abolition of the House of Lords, equality before the law, the abolition of censorship, freedom of speech, the right for people to worship whatever religion they chose and free trade, begun to fade out. The eruption of the civil war in 1647 allowed the generals to reaffirm their authority, whereas the influence of Levellers was diminished. Leveller soldiers attempted to revolt in Oxfordshire in 1649, but their attempt was cruelly suppressed by Cromwell’s soldiers.
While the Parliament was becoming the new ruling class, England was undergoing one of the worst phases, as far as economy was concerned, in its history. The wars that proceeded led to further economic instability, while the 1640s faced a series of bad harvests and therefore, famine was rising.
In these conditions the Diggers emerged opposing any kind of authority, including that of the Parliament, which had proved itself to be too an oppressive power, similar to kingship. The Diggers argued that “…whatsoever government is set up by Imagination, shall be throwne downe; For every plant, which my heavenly Father hath not planted, shall be rooted out.” (Winstanley, Fire in the Bush. The Spirit burning, not consuming, but purging Mankinde, 21) The Diggers alleged that the natural state of human beings is living in harmony with each other without the existence of any hierarchical structures. Thus, they urged people to unite against any constructed power structures, which should be uprooted – including those of the Parliament.
For the Diggers, the problem with the Parliament was not merely that the Parliamentarians neglected to carry out an all inclusive programme, a programme that would include the active participation of everybody (rich and poor, landowners and landless, aristocracy, as well as wage labourers) in the decision-making. The substantial problem was that the Parliamentarians were not willing to actually alter the power structures and bring tyranny to an end. The Parliamentarians consciously left out the reformation of the institutions of royal power, since their intentions had always been to seize power in their own hands and not to literally give power back to the people.
The Diggers on the other hand argued that since God had made all men equal, the land belongs to everybody and thus, their agenda formed an attempt to establish a commonwealth in which the people would control their own destinies and there would be no space for any King, House of Lords, or any other possible oppressors. They identified the king, the law, propriety and the clergy to be the chief enemies of their utopia. “The first Beast…is Kingly power” (Winstanley, Fire in the Bush. The Spirit burning, not consuming, but purging Mankinde, 24) and that is why they involved themselves in the revolution against the King. However, they realised that royal power is not the only threat to the freedom and the welfare of the people. “The second Beast…is the power of the selfish Lawes.” (25) The Diggers comprehended the law to be another power structure constructed by the ruling class in order to keep them (the poor, landless people) submissive to the existing social order and not active subjects in the public sphere. Another construction reinforced by the ruling class for the subordination of the people is the purchase of the land and its products, which the Diggers identified as mere robbery: “[t]he third Beast…is the thieving Art of buying and selling, the Earth with her fruits one to another.” (25) The clergy is another means to keep the people intimidated and thus, subordinated: “[t]he fourth Beast is the Imaginary Clergy-Power.” (26)
The Diggers proclaimed that the clergy, lawyers and judges are the synergies of land-owners in stealing from people what is their birthright and keeping the people oppressed by means of intimidation. They proclaimed the very law to be a means of subordinating people: “… what Law then can you make to take hold upon us, but laws of oppression and tyranny, that shall enslave or spill the blood of the innocent? And so yourselves, your judges, lawyers, and justices, shall be found to be the greatest transgressors, in, and over mankind.” (Winstanley, A Declaration from the Poor Oppressed People of England in The Broadview Anthology of Seventeenth-Century Verse and Prose, vol. II: Prose, 397). Moreover, they proclaimed the whole system of government to be essentially corrupted and sustain itself through the act of stealing from people their natural right:
… the power of the murdering, and thieving sword, formerly, as well as now of late years, hath set up a government, and maintains that government; for what are prisons, and putting others to death, but the power of the sword to enforce people to that government which was got by conquest and sword, and cannot stand of itself, but by the same murdering power?(Winstanley, A Declaration from the Poor Oppressed People of England in The Broadview Anthology of Seventeenth-Century Verse and Prose, vol. II: Prose, 397)
According to the Diggers, land-owners are the real thieves, since they acquired property through violence. Likewise, they argued that “Parliament and army lives in theft” (Winstanley, A New-Yeers Gift for the Parliament and the Armie, in Divine Right and Democracy. An Anthology of Political Writing in Stuart England, 322). They argued that the land should be common to all and thus, acquiring land is but the result of stealing.
Moreover, the Diggers argued that power structures (the king, the law, propriety and the clergy) are not independent from each other, but interconnected to each other:
Kingly power depends upon the Law, and upon buying and selling; and these three depend upon the Clergy, to bewitch the people to conforme; and all of them depend upon kingly power by his force, to compell subjection from those that will not be bewitched.(Winstanley, Fire in the Bush. The Spirit burning, not consuming, but purging Mankinde, 33)
But when mankinde once sees, that his teacher and ruler is within him; then what need is there of a teacher and a ruler without; they will easily cast off their burden.
Thus, they called people to unite their collective powers for the annihilation of all of these constructions that have been invented and used for the exploitation of the people arguing that “…the Creation, will never be in quiet, peace, till these foure Beasts, with all their heads and hornes, the variety of their branching powers doe run into the Sea againe, and be swallowed upbin those waters;” (27)
The Diggers urged the people to act against oppressors and their power structures in a non-violent way. Although they realised the need for a revolution, they opposed the use of violence, since they identified violence with power. Thus, they argued that any society constructed through the use of violence will necessarily be based in power structures again and thus, it would be no different to the existing society. “And the power of the sword fighting and killing, cannot throw downe his Kingdome, but set it up in more power; But that power that must destroy the dark kingdome, is a power contrary to him; And that is, Love and patience.” (Winstanley, Fire in the Bush. The Spirit burning, not consuming, but purging Mankinde, 10) The Diggers collated the power of love to that of violence. Their aim was to create a classless society based in secularism and radical democracy through seizing the land and holding it in the ‘common good’, without employing any violent means:
We abhor fighting for freedom: it is acting of the curse and lifting him up higher; and do thou uphold it by the sword, we will not. We will conquer by love and patience, or else we count it no freedom. Freedom gotten by the sword is an established bondage to some part or other of the creation, and this we have declared publicly enough. […] Victory that is gotten by the sword is a victory that slaves get one over another, […] But victory obtained by love is a victory for a king.(Winstanley, A New-Yeers Gift for the Parliament and the Armie, 321)
Instead of violence, the Diggers employed the written word as a means of resistance. They published and distributed pamphlets in order to communicate their thoughts of an ideal society, in which everybody would be equal, no hierarchical structures would exist and the land would be common for all. Their speech was immediate and clear, able to communicate the ideas and the experience of the writer and to identify the reader with the writer: “A revolutionary program of labor withdrawal would abolish the deferential hierarchy of landlord, tenant, and wage laborer, and replace a verbal economy of one-sided domineering questioning with reciprocal speech. If country lyric shows us the client’s deferential address to a patron, then the Digger pamphlet shows us one behatted fellow creature addressing another, face to face.” (Holstun, 392)
The most known writer of such pamphlets is Gerrard Winstanley, who employed a deeply theological discourse to argue for the abolition of private property and the self-organisation of society in communes. Winstanely maintained for the existence of god beyond traditional religious believes, arguing for people’s unmediated communication with god. He claimed that since god had made everybody equal, the land should be common for all and he asserted that the only true god was the god of love and not the punisher god that the priests created in order to serve the interests of the landowners and the gentry. Winstanley provided an alternative reading of the scriptures by arguing that one should not read the scriptures literally, but metaphorically. Thus, he claimed that the dualistic nature of God consists in universal love and covetousness or particular love. (Winstanley, A New-Yeers Gift for the Parliament and the Armie, 318) Winstanley interpreted Christ to be universal love, which seeks to provide for everybody and renders everybody equal, whereas he associated covetousness or particular love with Satan and argued that this is to be found amidst landowners, kings, the clergy, lawyers, judges, and every figure or institution that has power and exercises sovereignty.
The publishing and the distribution of pamphlets had been the main weapon in the hands of the Diggers for raising the awareness of the people against their oppressors. However, words could have not been an adequate means of revolution. The Diggers did not favour speech over actions. Besides, they were very well aware of the fact that they had to act in order to survive famine and poverty. Therefore, they took action against the system of their oppression and the danger of their own physical death by self-organising into communes.
The Diggers argued that if the people of England organised themselves into self-sufficient communes, the ruling class would be abolished without employing any violent means. In a society of self-organisation, there would be no people to hire to labour the fields or pay rent to them in order to use their property and thus, the ruling class would be forced to join the communes. Moreover, in the case that everything belonged to everybody, theft would be devoid of any meaning:
And if everyone did but quietly enjoy the earth for food and raiment, there would be no wars, prisons, nor gallows, and this action which man calls theft would be no sin, for universal love never made it a sin, but the power of covetousness made that a sin, and made law to punish it, though he himself live in that sin in a higher manner than he [whom he] hangs or punishes.(Winstanley, A New-Yeers Gift for the Parliament and the Armie, 322)
Putting their own words into practice, a small group of Diggers settled in 1649 on common land at St George’s Hill and grew crops. At a time when food-prices were extremely high, the Diggers commune had invited “all to come in and help them, and promise them meat, drink and clothes.” (Hill, The World Turned Upside Down, 110) The Diggers promised
…it will be peace to your selves, and make England the most flourishing, and strongest Land in the world and the first of Nations that shall begin to give up their Crown and Scepter, their Dominion and Government into the hands of Jesus Christ.(An Appeal to the House of Commons, Desiring their Answer: Whether the Common-people shall have the quiet enjoyment of the Commons and Waste Land; Or whether they shall be under the will of Lords of Mannors still, 4)
The cause is this, we, amongst others of the common people that have been ever friends to the Parliament, as we are assured our enemies wil witness to it, have plowed and dig’d upon Georges Hill in Surrey, to sow corn for the succour of man, offering no offence to any, but do carry our selves in love and peace towards all, having no intent to meddle with any mans inclosures, or propriety, til it be freely given to us by themselves, but only to improve the Commons and waste Lands to our best advantage, for the relief of our selves and others, being moved thereunto by the Reason hereafter following, not expecting any to be much offended, in regard the cause is so just and upright.
They also distributed pamphlets and tried to bring mere people in their side. Thus, there opponents were afraid that “they have some design in hand.” (Hill, The World Turned Upside Down, 110) They managed to defy the landlords, the army and the law for more than a year. Their main propagandist was Gerard Winstanley. The local landowners called the commander of the New Model Army, Sir Thomas Fairfax, to suppress the Diggers´ commune. Faifax arrived with his troops, but he decided that they were harmless and advised the landowners to apply to the court. The lord of the manor organised gangs and attacked the Diggers´ commune. A court case took place against the Diggers, who were not allowed to speak in order to defend themselves. The court found them guilty of being Ranters, a radical group, which was associated with liberal sexuality. As a result, the land was taken from them and they left St George’s Hill, since they realised that in case they remained there, the army would have forced them to leave, since they were found guilty by the court.
Some of the Diggers moved to Little Heath, where they formed another commune. They cultivated the land, built houses and grew crops. At the same time, they published and distributed pamphlets. Once again, the lord of the manor fought them by preventing local people from helping them and by directing attacks against them. The Diggers were forced to leave Little Heath.
Another community of Diggers was located in Wellingborough in Northamptonshire, where nine Diggers were arrested and imprisoned in 1650, whereas no charged were founded against them. Another community of Diggers was established in Iver in Buckinghamshire.
It is not surprising the fact that the Diggers movement had emerged under conditions of serious political and economic insecurity. After all, “[h]unger…always has a political potential as well as an existential reality, and it can help produce class consciousness and revolutionary action.” (Holstun, 371) At a time when the government proved incapable of confronting the hazardous economic circumstances and fighting poverty and famine, the Diggers proposed the erection of self-sustain communes. The Digger communes were constructed by the people affected by poverty and formed an active and dynamic endeavour on the side of the poor and landless people to sustain themselves. The alternative structures proposed and realised by the Diggers, against their imminent extinction by famine, generated “…a significant distinction between a passive death inside the customary order of the Roman polis, and an active death that attempts to transform the polis and the sorts of hunger it produces“(Holstun, 372)
The ruling class faced a severe threat by the acts of the Diggers, who proclaimed land to be a common right to everyone in an age when land and its commodities formed the most important means of wealth. The aristocracy would be abolished in case all the poor followed the example of the Diggers and launched their own communities, self-organising and setting themselves free of the economic, social, legal and religious constraints that preserved a class of people in power. In Holstun’s words, “[t]he hungry poor articulate themselves with utopian force, trying to end not only their hunger but also the social structure that allows it to exist in the first place. Their hunger has ears, a voice, and a rational revolutionary potential.” (Holstun, 373-4)
Although the Diggers didn't accomplish their aspirations, their ideas survived and re-emerged through a hippy culture, which developed in Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco in 1965. The new culture, which was arisen against the economic and social differences of several alienated Americans, developed a strong sense of community and advocated for the power of love. In the autumn of 1966, the Diggers of Haight-Ashbury emerged. They distributed free food, which was provided by individuals and collected from the leftovers of local markets. The Diggers' attained two farms for the establishment of self-organising communes, the members of which used to give what they produced to the other people.
Instead of merely digging the land, the Diggers of the 1960s attempted to realise their agenda for social reformation through art and more specifically, theatre, advocating for a cultural revolution. The anarchist guerrilla street theatre group challenged the emerging counterculture of the sixties. The Diggers were one of the legendary groups in San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury, one of the world-wide epicentres of the sixties counterculture. The San Francisco Diggers evolved out of two radical traditions that thrived in the mid-1960s: the bohemian/underground art/theatre scene, and the New Left/civil rights/peace movement.
The Diggers combined street theatre, direct action, and art happenings in their social agenda of creating a Free City. Their most famous activities revolved around distributing Free Food every day in the Park, and distributing "surplus energy" at a series of Free Stores (where everything was free for the taking.) The Diggers coined various slogans that worked their way into the counterculture and the larger society; the most famous are "Do your own thing" and "Today is the first day of the rest of your life." The Diggers realised their agenda though various activities: they were baking whole wheat bread at the Free Bakery, which was available for free, they organised a Free Medical Clinic, distributed free food, organised theatre performances and other happenings in the streets. Moreover, they organised communal celebrations of natural planetary events, such as the Solstices and Equinoxes.
First and foremost, the Diggers were actors. Their stage was the streets and parks of the Haight-Ashbury, and later the whole city of San Francisco. The Diggers had evolved out of the radicalizing maelstrom that was the San Francisco Mime Troupe, which R.G. Davis had founded the previous decade. The Diggers performed in the parks of the city, giving free performances on stages thrown up the day of the show. However, their agenda was a clearly a political one, advocating for the destruction of private property
Peter Berg, ex-San Francisco Mime Trouper, founder of the Digger Free Store, “Trip Without a Ticket,” starts to talk…The message: Property is the enemy – burn it, destroy it, give it away. Don’t let them make a machine out of you, get out of the system, do your thing. Don’t organize students, teachers, Negroes, organize your head. Find out where you are, what you want to do and go out and do it…(Hoffman, 34-35)
The Diggers of the 1960s aspired the same ideals as the original Diggers, arguing for a spirit of universal love, which was alleged to be able to unite people together and organise society into alternative structures. The new Diggers argued also for the abolition of all hierarchical structures and the organisation of society in egalitarian communes: “…believe in participatory democracy…, only you call it ‘everyone doing his thing.’ You let people decide, no strings attached.” (Hoffman, 28) They rejected property too “…stand for the destruction of property. There are many ways to destroy property: to change is to destroy – give it away free. The free thing (another clue) is the most revolutionary thing in America today.” (Hoffman, 28) Like their ancestors, they organised themselves in self-sustained communes and they prompted their agenda through the publishing and distribution of pamphlets. The Diggers distributed by hand manifestos and leaflets in Haight Street, promoting an alternative life style, based on self-organisation.
They argued for the formation of “free cities,”
Free Cities are composed of Free Families (e.g., in San Francisco: Diggers, Black Panthers, Provos [substitute "Red Guards" in Ringolevio], Mission Rebels and various revolutionist gangs and communes) who establish and maintain services that provide a base of freedom for autonomous groups to carry out their programs without having to hassle for food, printing facilities, trans- portation, mechanics, money, housing, working space, clothes, ma- chinery, trucks, etc.(The Digger Papers)
“Free cities” would be cities organized in non-hierarchical structures, run by Free City Switchboard/ Information Center, which would coordinate all services, activities, and aid and direct assistance where it would be most needed. They would also provide a reference point for legal aid, housing, machinery, etc. Free Food Storage and Distribution Center would provide free food to everybody:
Free Food Storage and Distribution Center should hit every available source of free food--produce markets, farmers' markets, meat-packing plants, farms, dairies, sheep and cattle ranches, agricultural colleges, and giant institutions (for the uneaten vats of food)--and fill up their trucks with the surplus by begging, borrowing, stealing, forming liaisons and communications with delivery drivers for the leftovers from their routes . . . best method is to work in two shifts: morning group picks up the foodstuffs and the afternoon shift delivers it to the list of Free Families and the poor peoples of the ghettos. everyday. hard work.(The Digger Papers)
There would also be Free City Garage and Mechanics to repair and maintain all vehicles used in the various services. Free City Bank and Treasury would be responsible for raising money, paying rents, paying for gasoline, and any other necessary expenses of the Free City Families. The Free City Legal Assistance would beat down the police harassment and brutality of the areas of the Free Cities. Free City Housing and Work Space would be responsible to rent or achieve deals with the government to obtain spaces that have been abandoned and use them as carpentry shops, garages, theaters, etc. In the Free City Stores and Workshops nothing would be throwaway items. Free Medical Things would be established in all poverty areas and run by private physicians and free from any bureaucratic support. The Free City Bank should try to cover the expenses, and pharmaceutical houses should be hit for medical supplies, etc. The Free City Hospital would be “a house converted into bed space and preferably with a garden and used for convalescence and people whose minds have been blown or who have just been released from a state institution and who need the comfort and solace of their people rather than the cold alienated walls of an urban institution.” (The Digger Papers) Free City Schools would be schools designed and run by different groups according to the consciousness of their Free Families. The Free City News and Communication Company would provide a daily newspaper, monthly magazine, as well as free printing. Moreover, there would be Free City Events, Festival Planning Committees. Cooperative Farms and Campsites would be run by experienced people and set on Free Land. The farms would produce organic food for the families, whereas some free land that could not be used for farming would be used as campsites for citizens and children. The Scavenger Corps and Transport Gang would be responsible for garbage collection and the picking up and delivery of items to the various services. Free City Tinkers and Gunsmiths would repair and include experienced repairmen of all sorts, electricians, carpenters, etc. In addition, there would be Free City Radio, TV and Computer Stations, as well as Free City Music.
Diggers assumed free stores to liberate human nature. Their mentality was based on “first free the space, goods and services. Let theories of economics follow social facts. Once a free store is assumed, human wanting and giving, needing and taking, become wide open to improvisation.” (The Digger Papers) The “Digger thing" of offering goods and services outside of the existing exchange system spread into the entire hippy community. The Diggers developed into a new social and economic system, into a new morality, which set itself in opposition to the industrial capitalism's marketplace morality.
In 1967 the movement of the Diggers begun to exercise pressure on the existing social and political orders by advocating for the need for revolution. The Diggers were not content with the course of their culture, since they yearned for a radical alteration of the existing system, a replacement of the old hierarchal structures with new, alternative structures based on volunteerism, self-organisation and co-operation. The following quote of a Digger leaflet distributed in May, 1967 is characteristic:
. . . well love is a slop-bucket and we are the children of awareness but our courage has not yet manifested itself within our floating community. We put down the merchants, the bullshitters, the hustlers and we sit around and it's all the same and there's nothing new under the sun and free food seems a long time gone because we're playing the game of the 193O's, we're the new cry babies and james dean's tears have finally taken root in a shallow weak kneed series of cabals which expect someone to take care of their living . . . some revolution.(Digger Manifestos)
The movement of the Diggers was becoming more mature. The Diggers were becoming more conscious of the reality of the existing system, a system, which refuses and evades love. They were becoming more cognisant of the power of the system of competitive industrial capitalism, which was posing a threat over their own community.
The Diggers aspired that the whole community would alter its structures adopting the new morality proposed by them. Among the community there were however some people, who understood the new system to form merely a "community service". Inevitably, a split occurred within the new community. The split led to the ultimate dissolution of the new community of the Diggers.
The changes proposed by the Diggers (both the original Diggers as well as the Diggers of the 1960s) were indeed a necessity. The Diggers questioned the institutions of the state and the system of property, as well as the institution of the church. The Diggers questioned the existing order in its totality. The Diggers alleged that the commonwealth would prove to be the ideal system of civil service and thus, everybody would voluntarily participate in it. The Diggers, although organised and with a clear agenda, failed to realise their targets. But the Diggers alone could have not implemented the social, political and economic changes they proposed. Thus, they were condemned to fail in the realisation of their ideas. The Diggers (both the Diggers of England and the Diggers of San Francisco) however did constitute a threat for the ruling class not because of any violent means employed in the revolution, but because of their ability to use the knowledge gained through local experience for the purposes of their national project for the abolition of all hierarchical structures. In Holstun’s words,
The Diggers threatened the landed ruling class precisely because they inserted local knowledge into a national revolutionary project: preaching and publishing epistles to other disaffected tenants and wage laborers, to the Army, to Parliament, to London, to the universities; forming links among the scattered Digger communes; and developing a program for revolution based in a transformation of productive relations at the local level.(Holstun, 393)
------------------ Digger Manifestos, at http://www.diggers.org/site_map.htm
------------------ The Digger Papers, at http://www.diggers.org/site_map.htm
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