Winstanley, Gerrard

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Diggers, members of a small English religio-economic movement (fl. 1649–50), so called because they attempted to dig (i.e., cultivate) the wastelands. They were an offshoot of the more important group of Puritan extremists known as the Levelers. Gerrard Winstanley was the leader of the Diggers and the exponent of their egalitarian and communistic philosophy in his New Law of Righteousness (1649). The little band planted the common land at St. George's Hill, Surrey, and at nearby Cobham, but their project was met with suspicion by their neighbors and resistance from the landowners on whose property they encroached. In the spring of 1650 their community was destroyed by mob violence, and the experiment was abandoned. Winstanley's Law of Freedom (1652) extended his thesis that English law and institutions should be modified immediately to bring social and economic equality to all men through common ownership of the land.
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Winstanley, Gerrard


Born 1609, in Wigan, Lancashire; died after 1652. English Utopian socialist and ideologist of the Diggers, the extreme left wing of revolutionary democracy in the English Civil War.

In 1630, Winstanley moved to London, where he worked as an apprentice to a company of clothing merchants and later became a company partner. He subsequently went bankrupt and worked for hire in Surrey about the year 1643. His career as a publicist began in the mid-1640’s. Using mystical arguments, Winstanley expounded his social doctrine in numerous pamphlets, beginning with The New Law of Righteousness (1649). He proposed “the law of social righteousness, ” offered proof of the absolute necessity for a democratic agrarian revolution, and advanced a design for a “free republic.” His new law of righteousness was to be a classless society, free of private property, money, buying and selling, work for hire, and material inequality. Winstanley believed that establishment of such an order would have to be preceded by a democratic agrarian revolution, which would guarantee the right of the poor to cultivate common wasteland rent free and which would provide for the replacement of copyhold by freehold. He considered the agrarian revolution an indispensable precondition for the victory of a republic over the monarchy.

In 1649, Winstanley led the Diggers’ revolt, which marked the culmination of the revolutionary-democratic movement in midnth-century England. Near the town of Cobham he founded his colony of Diggers, which was the first communist experiment in modern history. After the rout of the colony in the spring of 1650, Winstanley wrote his ideological testament, The Law of Freedom in a Platform (1652), in which he described a communist Utopia and showed for the first time the relationship between the social ideals of a communist society and the aspirations of the poor. In the testament he defined individual freedom as, above all, freedom from want.


The Works of Gerrard Winstanley. Ithaca, N.Y., 1941.
In Russian translation:
Izbr. pamflety. Moscow-Leningrad, 1950.


Stal’nyi, V. “Utopiia Dzh. Uinstenli.” Istoricheskii zhurnal, 1942. nos. 3–4.
Barg, M. A. Narodnye nizy v angliiskoi revoliutsii XVII veka. Moscow, 1967. (Contains bibliography.)
Saprykin, Iu. M. Sotsial’no-politicheskie vzgliady angliiskogo krest’-ianstva v XIV–XVII vv. Moscow, 1972.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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