Gerrard Winstanley, Diggers, Orwell and Reynolds

Tony Gosling tony at
Sun Jul 22 00:40:14 BST 2018

Gerrard Winstanley, Diggers, Orwell and Reynolds

Gerrard Winstanley, born in Wigan and for a time 
a successful mercer before the upsets of the 
1640s, was a leader of, and polemicist for, the 
Diggers, a small offshoot of the better-known and 
more powerful Levellers; the Levellers were 
themselves part of – though they were ultimately 
suppressed – the Puritan and Parliamentary 
opposition during the English Civil War and 
consequent Commonwealth (1649-1660).

In September 1944 George Orwell reviewed 
Selections from the Works of Gerrard Winstanley, 
edited by Leonard Hamilton with an Introduction 
by Christopher Hill. The Cresset Press had 
published a large octavo volume of 198 pages in a 
mainly khaki dustwrapper. Despite being produced 
in complete conformity to the war economy 
standards, its printers, the Chapel River Press, 
had made a volume of such quality that copies 
have survived in remarkably pristine condition today, seventy-odd years later.



We understand that the copy reviewed by Orwell 
was passed onto Michael Foot, who in turn passed 
it to its current owner, in another example of 
production quality being proved in its continued existence.

Orwell begins his review with a modern reference: 
‘Every successful revolution has its June purge’, 
though he does not specify which June he is 
referring to, as this appears to be a popular 
month for revolutionaries to be suppressed: the 
Girondins in France in June 1793, the Nazis in 
June 1934, and the Stalinist opposition in June 
1937. After more discussion Orwell expands on the 
suppression: ‘
 the Diggers were swiftly crushed. 
The parvenu gentry who had won the civil war were 
willing enough to divide the lands of the 
Royalists among themselves but they had no 
intention of setting up an egalitarian society.’ 
Orwell points out that the troops sent against 
the Diggers tended to be sympathetic, as the 
Levellers were most active in the army, but 
Winstanley and his colleagues were driven off, 
and he ‘vanishes from history about 1660’.

Orwell in his review – it appeared in The 
Observer – does not quote other works, but his 
friend Reginald Reynolds was a Quaker and a 
historical pamphlet collector, who was familiar 
with the literature of the Civil War. Together 
Orwell and Reynolds would publish 
Pamphleteers, an anthology of historic literature 
including Winstanley and other radicals.

Many reading Orwell’s review, though, would be 
familiar with the background to the revolutionary 
figures of the English Civil War through a number 
of books published in the previous decade. In 
1940 the Left Book Club offered its members David 
W Petegorsky’s Left-Wing Democracy in the English Civil War.


The title sounds general, but the sub-title makes 
its subject explicit: ‘A Study of the Social 
Philosophy of Gerrard Winstanley’. The copy shown 
belonged to a student who was familiarising 
themself with economics and history. Notes on the 
endpapers refer to ‘Economic theory of 
revolution’, ‘natural law gave no justification 
of private property’, ‘”to know the secrets of 
nature is to know the works of God”‘, and 
‘morality social [sic] determined & human nature 
a product of social conditions’ (this last, of 
course, Marx’s concept of base and 
superstructure). Christopher Hill’s Introduction 
to the Selections refers to Petegorsky’s book.

A work on the wider area, with a chapter on 
Winstanley, had been published in H J Stenning’s 
English translation: Cromwell and Communism: 
Socialism and Democracy in the Great English 
Revolution by Edward Bernstein. ‘Cromwell and 
Communism’ appears to be an addition to the title 
by either Stenning or his publishers, George 
Allan and Unwin in 1930, as Petegorsky in an 
appendix refers to the book in its 1895 German 
original as Sozialismus und Demokratie in der 
grossen Englischen Revolution, while its English 
title appears in his bibliography. It was reprinted in 1980 by Spokesman Books.


According to Orwell, ‘Winstanley’s thought links 
up with Anarchism rather than Socialism because 
he thinks in terms of a purely agricultural 
community living at a low level of 
comfort’.  Orwell goes onto to examine 
Winstanley’s complaint against the ‘Normans’, 
whom he blamed for the historic loss of common 
rights, on which Orwell would expand in his 
Introduction to British Pamphleteers. In his 
review, meanwhile, Orwell returned to the theme 
of his first sentence: ‘But alas! he (Winstanley) 
could see only too clearly that the victors of 
the civil war were themselves developing “Norman” 
characteristics.’ With hindsight we can now read 
a suggestion of Winstanley in Orwell’s own story 
of agricultural betrayal, Animal Farm.

Orwell’s review was criticized later in the month 
by Reg Groves for failing to emphasise 
Winstanley’s visionary side, but Groves retracted 
his complaint after hearing that this aspect had 
been cut by the newspaper subeditors on space 
grounds from the article submitted by Orwell. 
Groves – who was a member of the Balham Group, 
the original British Trotskyists – had received a 
sideways acknowledgement from Orwell in an earlier discussion of the Civil War.

In the conclusion to his 1940 review of The 
English Revolution: 1640, a collection of essays 
edited by Christopher Hill, Orwell wrote ‘The 
most interesting essay of the three, by Miss 
Margaret James, is on the materialistic 
interpretations of society which were already 
current in the mid-seventeenth century 
 It is a 
pity that Miss James fails to make a comparison 
between the seventeenth-century situation and the 
one we are now in. A parallel undoubtedly exists, 
although from the official Marxist [Orwell means 
CPGB] point of view the latter-day equivalents of 
the Diggers and Levellers happen to be 
unmentionable.’ One can infer from this pointed 
remark that Orwell and Groves had made the Digger comparison before.

BP_Contents 2.jpg

A poor quality reproduction of the contents page 
of British Pamphleteers, calling Winstanley ‘Gerard’.

Outside his collaboration with Reginal Reynolds, 
Orwell’s last comment on the Diggers seems to 
have come in ‘The Intellectual Revolt’, his 1946 
essay series in the Manchester Evening News. Each 
essay was a thematic review. In the second, ‘What 
Is Socialism’ (an essay much less well-known than 
‘What Is Fascism?’, because this series did not 
appear in the 1968 Collected Essays Journalism 
and Letters), Orwell concludes by considering 
Winstanley’s Selections, uses the words primitve 
Communism crushed by Cromwell, and then says ‘The 
“earthly paradise” has never been realised, but 
as an idea it never seems to perish in spite of 
the ease with which it can be debunked by 
practical politicians of all colours’. He ends ‘
it could be  claimed that the Utopians, at 
present a scattered minority, are the true upholders of Socialist tradition’.

by L J Hurst

Last updated February 12 2017


    * Orwell’s reviews of Winstanley and the 
Commonwealth can be found most easily in Orwell 
and Politics edited by Peter Davison (Penguin 
Books). It is Professor Davison’s detailed note 
that clarifies Reg Groves’ complaint and Orwell’s 
response about editorial abridgement.
    * Interest in Gerrard Winstanley, and 
inspiration for activities in line with his 
thought, is maintained by the 
Diggers. They now 
an annual festival in commemoration and celebration.
    * Quaker tradition has it that Winstanley 
joined their number – something mentioned by 
Bernstein, but Petegorsky has some quotations 
from the Restoration period suggesting that 
Winstanley was then regarded as a turncoat, who 
may have become a successful enclosed farmer.
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