The New Model Army was formed by Oliver Cromwell in 1645 and defeated the royalist forces led by Charles I. The Levellers’ ideas were developed in the ranks of the New Model Army. 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 argued for universal suffrage. Levellers argued that all men are equal and therefore, the people (both rich and poor) should elect the government. Their programme, which included a secular republic, abolition of the House of Lords, the right to vote for all, 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 which had more radical ideas that 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´ agenda
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 people. The Diggers argued that since God had made all men equal, the land belonged to all the people. Their agenda formed an attempt to restore the conditions that they assumed had existed previous to the Norman Conquest. Their aim was to establish a commonwealth in which the people would control their own destiny and there would be no space for any King, House of Lords and any other possible oppressors.
…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.(Winstanley, A Declaration from the Poor Oppressed People of England in The Broadview Anthology of Seventeenth-Century Verse and Prose, vol. II: Prose, 399)
Signed for and in behalf of all the poor oppressed people of England, and the whole world.
The Diggers argued that property is but slavery and they sought to seize the land, in order to render it common for all the people.
… 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;(Winstanley, A Declaration from the Poor Oppressed People of England in The Broadview Anthology of Seventeenth-Century Verse and Prose, vol. II: Prose, 395 – 396)
They aspired to use the earth so as to retrieve the freedom that they considered had been lost in the course of the Norman Conquest: “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….” (Winstanley, A Declaration from the Poor Oppressed People of England in The Broadview Anthology of Seventeenth-Century Verse and Prose, vol. II: Prose, 398).
The Diggers opposed the use of violence and aimed 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, in Divine Right and Democracy. An Anthology of Political Writing in Stuart England, 321)
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, the Diggers argued 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 in The Broadview Anthology of Seventeenth-Century Verse and Prose, vol. II: Prose, 397). Thus, they argued 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.” (Winstanley, A Declaration from the Poor Oppressed People of England in The Broadview Anthology of Seventeenth-Century Verse and Prose, vol. II: Prose, 396 – 397).
The Diggers proclaimed land-owners to be the real thieves, since they acquired property through violence. Likewise, they argued that “[p]arliament 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 and thus, acquiring land is but the result of stealing. Moreover, they 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)
The Diggers´ Communes
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) 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.
The Diggers and religion
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, in Divine Right and Democracy. An Anthology of Political Writing in Stuart England, 328)
The Diggers and particularly Winstanley gave a new concept to religion. They accused the current religious system of corruption, deceit and synergy with the power structures. However, they did not reject religious faith, but they provided an alternative reading of the scriptures. They argued that the existing system of the church was promoting ignorance and subordination of the people by employing the concept of divine punishment in order to promote the existing power structures.
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 consisted in universal love and covetousness or particular love. (Winstanley, A New-Yeers Gift for the Parliament and the Armie, in Divine Right and Democracy. An Anthology of Political Writing in Stuart England, 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 in the landowners, kings, the clergy, lawyers, judges, and every figure or institution that has power and exercises sovereignty.
Winstanley rejected the Genesis myth of the apple as "a cheat imposed by the clergy upon the people." Winstanley's belief ran 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 associated the Fall with only one vice, private property and thus, he mainly discussed the evils rising out of that vice.
Moreover, Winstanley advocated that there will be no Second Coming, since Christ's resurrection is to be found only inwardly, in all men. 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 believed the Second Coming had already begun and that because of this, men had merely to wait until they were filled with Christ, and then take action. An external Messiah would not establish the Kingdom; it would be through the individual spiritual transformation of men and women.
One of the proofs Winstanley gave for the validity of his message was that he had received it in a vision. On this subject, Hill does not deny that Winstanley believed he had received a divine vision for his instructions. But, Hill thinks it proper to ask if Winstanley actually did receive 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 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 argued that Christ created all people equal and the land to be common to everybody, and thus, he associated the Diggers´ agenda with the divine plan.
The Diggers of the 1960s
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, anarchic 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.
The Diggers distributed by hand manifestos and leaflets in Haight Street, promoting an alternative life style, based on self-organisation.