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Κυριακή, 23 Αυγούστου 2009

The True Levellers, or the Diggers: Arguing for the Abolition of Private Property in a Theological Discourse.

… the King of Righteousness, our Maker,
hath enlightened our hearts so far,
as to see that the earth was not made
purposely for you to be lords of it,
and we to be your slaves, servants, and beggars;
but it was made to be a common livelihood to all,
without respect of persons.

(Winstanley, A Declaration from the Poor Oppressed People of England, 395-6)


The True Levellers’ or the Diggers’ movement emerged after the fading of the Levellers’ faction. The Levellers’ ideas were developed in the ranks of the New Model Army, which was formed by Oliver Cromwell in 1645 and defeated the royalist forces led by Charles I. The Putney Debates, a series of meetings between the soldiers and generals of the New Model Army after the civil war, in 1646, involved Leveller ideas. In the Putney Debates Levellers primarily argued for universal suffrage. Moreover, Levellers argued that all men are equal and therefore, the people (both rich and poor) should elect the government. Their programme, which also included 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, was published as “The Agreement of the People.” The eruption of the civil war in 1647 allowed the generals to reaffirm their authority, whereas the influence of Levellers began to diminish. Leveller soldiers attempted to revolt in Oxfordshire in 1649, but their attempt was cruelly suppressed by Cromwell’s soldiers.


In 1649 a group, which called themselves the “True Levellers” and maintained more radical ideas than the Levellers, emerged. 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, which involved the formation of small egalitarian communities.

The Diggers´ views were embedded in the belief that England had become subject to the “Norman Yoke.” It was a common belief that prior to the Norman Conquest in 1066, a democratic society had existed in Anglo-Saxon times, during which the land was common to all the people. The Diggers argued that since God had made all men equal, the land belonged to everybody. 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. The Diggers argued that the only way to achieve this commonwealth is the abolition of private property, which they considered to be the source of all evils and wretchedness. The agenda of the Diggers, as stated in A Declaration from the Poor Oppressed People of England, a pamphlet that the Diggers had published and distributed, was that they
…being creatures of your own image and mould, intending no other matter herein, but to observe the law of righteous action, endeavouring to shut out of the creation the cursed thing, called particular propriety, which is the cause of all wars, bloodshed, theft, and enslaving laws, that hold the people under misery.
Signed for and in behalf of all the poor oppressed people of England, and the whole world.
(Winstanley, A Declaration from the Poor Oppressed People of England, 399)

The Diggers used to publish and distribute pamphlets in order to communicate their ideas for an ideal society, in which everybody would be equal, no hierarchical structures would exist and the land would be common for all. The most known writer of such pamphlets is Gerrard Winstanley, who employs a deeply theological discourse to argue for the abolition of private property and the self-organisation of society in communes. Winstanely maintains for the existence of god beyond traditional religious believes, arguing for people’s unmediated communication with god. He claims that since god has made everybody equal, the land should be common for all and he asserts that the only true god is 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.

For Winstanley, private propriety has been attained “by murder and theft,” (396), whereas money is “the mark of the Beast” (396), since “buying and selling is the great cheat that robs and steals the earth one from another: It is that which makes some lords, other beggars, some rulers, others to be ruled; and makes great murderers and thieves to be imprisoners and hangers of little ones, or of sincere-hearted men.” (397) Winstanley’s equation of the acquisition of private property with “murder and theft” denotes the Diggers’ concept of equality as a natural human right. More specifically, Winstanley understands land to be common for everybody, while he considers private property to be the result of murder and theft, since land-owners attained it through the use of violence and while depriving other people their right to it:
For though you and your ancestors got your propriety by murder and theft, and you keep it by the same power from us, that have an equal right to the land with you, by the righteous law of creation, yet we shall have no occasion of quarrelling (as you do) about the disturbing devil, called particular propriety. For the earth, with all her fruits of corn, cattle, and such like, was made to be a common storehouse of livelihood to all mankind, friend and foe, without exception.
(396)

Winstanley ascribes equality to divine will, arguing that god has intended everybody to be equal and the land to be common to all. On the other hand, he associates propriety with devil, defining it as “the disturbing devil” and “the cursed thing,” a product of devilish deeds and war:
… the King of Righteousness, our Maker, hath enlightened our hearts so far, as to see that the earth was not made purposely for you to be lords of it, and we to be your slaves, servants, and beggars; but it was made to be a common livelihood to all, without respect of persons: And that your buying and selling of land, and the fruits of it, one to another, is the cursed thing, and was brought in by war; which hath, and still does establish murder, and theft, in the hands of some branches of mankind over others, which is the greatest outward burden, and unrighteous power, that the creation groans under: For the power of enclosing land, and owning propriety, was brought into the creation by your ancestors by the sword; which first did murder their fellow creatures, men, and after plunder or steal away their land, and left this land successively to you, their children. And therefore, though you did not kill or thieve, yet you hold that cursed thing in your hand, by the power of the sword; and so you justify the wicked deeds of your fathers;
(395 – 396)

The Diggers argue that property is but theft and they seek to seize the land, in order to render it common for all the people, as it should be. Winstanley’s expression of “enclosing land” evokes Marx’s notion of “primitive accumulation.” By seizing specific parts of the land and establishing them as their private property, property holders enclosed the commons outside of their property and excluded them from using the land, which had been common. In order for this to be possible, the use of violence under the supervision of the state was required. The enclosing of land resulted in the creation of a new category of people, the waged labourers, who would have to earn their living through waged labour. Thus, people, who did not own property, became deprived of their freedom to cultivate the land. The overall rationale of the process of primitive accumulation is the privatisation of the means of production, which results to the construction of “capital” and renders the land owners able to take advantage of the surplus labour of the waged labourers, in order for them to earn money.

Diggers argue that the above process of primitive accumulation constitutes the legitimisation of theft through murder and has been possible because of the Norman Conquest and thus, they question any private rights to property. The Diggers aspire to use the earth so as to realise the natural right of all human beings to cultivate the land: “Therefore we require, and we resolve to take both common land and common woods to be a livelihood for us, and look upon you as equal with us, not above us, knowing very well that England the land of our nativity is to be a common treasury of livelihood to all, without respect of persons….” (398).

The Diggers oppose the use of violence and aim to create a classless society based in secularism and radical democracy through seizing 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)
The Diggers argue 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.
(322)

The Diggers devaluate not only theft and propriety, but also money. They argue for the abolition of money, “… for buying and selling is the great cheat that robs and steals the earth one from another: It is that which makes some lords, others beggars, some rulers, others to be ruled; and makes great murderers and thieves to be imprisoners, and hangers of little ones, or of sincere-hearted men.” (Winstanley, A Declaration from the Poor Oppressed People of England, 397). Thus, they claim that “… people shall live freely in the enjoyment of the Earth, without bringing the mark of the Beast in their hands, or in their promise; and that they shall buy wine and milk, without money, or without price, as Isaiah speaks.” (396 – 397).

The Diggers proclaim land-owners to be the real thieves, since they acquired property through violence. Likewise, they argue that “[p]arliament and army lives in theft” (Winstanley, A New-Yeers Gift for the Parliament and the Armie, 322). They assert that the land should be common and thus, acquiring land is but the result of stealing. Moreover, they proclaim 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 proclaim 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, 397). Moreover, they proclaim 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?
(397)

In order to realise their agenda and to put their ideas into practice, the Diggers organised communes on common land. The first commune was carried out in 1649, when a small group of Diggers settled on common land at St George’s Hill and grew crops. At a time when food-prices are extremely high, the Diggers commune invites “all to come in and help them, and promise them meat, drink and clothes.” (Hill, The World Turned Upside Down, 110) They also distribute pamphlets in an attempt to bring the people in their side. Thus, their opponents are afraid that “they have some design in hand.” (Hill, The World Turned Upside Down, 110) They manage to defy the landlords, the army and the law for more than a year. Their main propagandist is Gerard Winstanley. However, the commune is forced to fail by the local landowners, who become enraged against the Diggers’ plans. The local landowners call the commander of the New Model Army, Sir Thomas Fairfax, to suppress the Diggers´ commune. Faifax arrives with his troops, but he decides that they are harmless and advises the landowners to apply to the court. The lord of the manor organises gangs and attacks the Diggers´ commune. A court case takes place against the Diggers, who are not allowed to speak in order to defend themselves. The court finds them guilty of being Ranters, a radical group, which is associated with liberal sexuality. As a result, the land is taken from them and they leave St George’s Hill, since they realise that in case they remained there, the army would have forced them to leave, since they were found guilty by the court. Following this, the Diggers attempted to form other communes without however success, since all of them were suppressed by the local landowners. Although the agrarian vision of the Diggers seems to have failed, their pamphlets continue carrying the possibility to realise this vision in praxis, urging the people to stand up and claim back their right to the land.

Winstanley manages to merge the Diggers’ agrarian vision to religious vision, claiming for equality for all not only in the right to land, but in religious salvation as well:
The preaching clergy, or universative power, promises to save the creation declaratively, but he is a false Christ; he says and does not, Pharisee-like, but will force people to maintain him from the earth by their labours for his sayings, but the laws of the kingly power. He says some are elected to salvation and others are reprobated; he puts some into heaven, thrusts others into hell never to come out, and so he is not a universal saviour. That is no salvation to the creation, mankind, while any part groans for the true saviour. When he comes he will wipe away all tears. He comes not to destroy any but to save all.
(Winstanley, A New-Yeers Gift for the Parliament and the Armie, 324)

Winstanley professes to be inspired by god and that he delivers the word of god, in order to legitimise his word: “… the King of Righteousness, our Maker, hath enlightened our hearts so far, as to see that the earth was not made purposely for you to be lords of it, and we to be your slaves, servants, and beggars; but it was made to be a common livelihood to all, without respect of persons.” (Winstanley, A Declaration from the Poor Oppressed People of England, 395-6)

Winstanley argues that “Christ, the saviour of all men, is the greatest, first, and truest Leveller that ever was spoke of in the world.” (Winstanley, A New-Yeers Gift for the Parliament and the Armie, 328)
The Diggers and particularly Winstanley gave religion a new concept. They accuse the current religious system of corruption, deceit and synergy with the power structures. However, they do not reject religious faith, but they provide an alternative reading of the scriptures. They argue that the existing system of the church is promoting ignorance and subordination of the people by employing the concept of divine punishment in order to promote the existing power structures.

Winstanley provides an alternative reading of the scriptures by arguing that one should not read the scriptures literally, but metaphorically. Thus, he claims that the dualistic nature of God consists in universal love and covetousness or particular love. (318) Winstanley interprets Christ to be universal love, which seeks to provide for everybody and renders everybody equal, whereas he associates covetousness or particular love with Satan and argues that this is to be found amidst landowners, kings, the clergy, lawyers, judges, and every figure or institution that has power and exercises sovereignty.

Winstanley rejects the Genesis myth of the apple as "a cheat imposed by the clergy upon the people." Winstanley's belief runs contrary to the orthodox position, which held the result of the Fall to be a general moral decay following Adam´s and Eve’s indulgence in pride. He associates the Fall with only one vice, private property, and thus, he mainly discusses the evils rising out of that vice.

Moreover, Winstanley advocates that there will be no Second Coming, since Christ's resurrection is to be found only inwardly, in all human beings. Hill argues that for Winstanley the antithesis between men transforming the world and Christ reappearing in person to do the job is a false one. Winstanley believes that the Second Coming has already begun and that because of this, people should not wait anymore to be filled with Christ, in order to take action. An external Messiah will not establish the Kingdom, since the Second Coming is achievable only through the individual spiritual transformation of men and women.

The main proof Winstanley gives for the validity of his message is that he has received it in a vision. On this subject, Hill does not deny that Winstanley really believes he has received a divine vision for his instructions. But, Hill thinks it proper to ask if Winstanley actually has received a vision. He describes Winstanley's vision as a "sudden mental clarification," a message so new that "he attributed it to a divine command." Hill maintains that many seventeenth-century men, who were not considered mystics have claimed to have had visions. Thus, visions and dreams in the seventeenth century may have been the explanations given for "sudden mental clarification" after arduous periods of contemplation over difficult subjects. Hill suggests Winstanley may have had such an experience. Since "rational men" do not believe in supernatural visions today, Hill asserts that historians ought to seek alternative explanations for evidence of such occurrences. Supernatural explanations do not convince him.

Winstanley associates the Diggers´ agenda of an agrarian vision with religious vision in arguing that god has created all the people to be equal and the land to be common to everybody. Winstanley gives a unique dynamique to the Diggers´ discourse by ascribing equality to divine will, arguing that god has intended everybody to be equal and the land to be common for all. Despite the fact that the agrarian vision of the Diggers has failed in praxis, their discourse continues to convey the prospect of the realisation of such a vision, forcing the people to stand up and claim back their own right to the land.


Bibliography:

Hill, Christopher. Levellers and True Levellers in The World Turned Upside Down: Radical
Ideas During the English Revolution (London: Penguin. 1972; repr. 1991)

Levy, Michael B. Freedom, Property and the Levellers: the Case of John Lilburne, in The
Western Political Quarterly, vol. 36, no. 1 (University of Utah on behalf of the Western Political Science Association. 1983) http://www.jstor,org/stable/447848

Winstanley, Gerrard. A Declaration from the Poor Oppressed People of England in The
Broadview Anthology of Seventeenth-Century Verse and Prose (eds. Rudrum Alan, Black Joseph & Nelson Holly Faith), vol. II: Prose (Broadview Press. 2001)

Winstanley, Gerrard. A New-Yeers Gift for the Parliament and Armie (1650) in Divine
Rights & Democracy. An Anthology of Political Writing in Stuart England (ed. Wootton David) (Indianapolis/ Cambridge: Hockett Publishing. 1986)

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