The True Levellers or Diggers and the emergence of Communism in Britain during the latter part of the English revolution 1648-1651

By Joseph Adams (RED LIBERATION, Britain)



Class society in Britain during the early 1640’s was experiencing a severe economic crisis. Britain was largely a landowning and agricultural country with small capitalist enterprises and workshops with artisans and journeyman. Journeymen were the mere appendages of the yeomanry of small masters. This period is noted for the struggle between the Monarchy and Parliament and the establishment of the Republic from 1649-1660. There were two parties in the commons, the Presbyterians (Landowners) and the Independents (squires, gentry and merchants). Oliver Cromwell was a squire and a member of the Independents.


There were large divisions between rich and poor exacerbated by enclosure of the common land by the landowning class. “There is a permanent background of potential unrest, large scale unemployment, breakdown of government disorder might occur as it did in 1607” [1]. These were the enclosure riots. The was a continuing battle by parliament to check the power of the king and defend its own interests. Land was the decisive factor. The gentry were becoming more and more alienated from aristocratic rule. “Marx spoke of the poor laws as the means by which the agricultural people first forcibly expropriated were driven from their homes, turned into vagabonds and then whipped, branded tortured by laws grotesquely terrible into the discipline necessary for the wages system.” [2].


The Presbyterian party in parliament led by Lord Essex and Lord Manchester were for more parliamentary control of the King. They wanted a constitutional monarch checked by the power of parliament. The Independents led by Pym and Hampden and supported by republicans like Cromwell, Ireton and Marten wanted the King to surrender to parliament. Farm labourers, artisans and the poor were not represented in parliament. The gentry and the squires represented the democratic interests in parliament. The English revolution was a class struggle between the Monarchy and parliament represented by squires, the yeomanry, lawyers and merchants. The civil war started in 1641 at Edge Hill when the King and his advisors refused to discuss with parliament. The civil war ended at Naseby in Northamptonshire in 1645. Charles sought help from the Scots and was defeated and arrested at Preston. During the first civil war Cromwell, Fairfax and Ireton broke with Essex and Manchester and created “The New Model army”. This was an army of professional soldiers, composed of artisans, farm labourers, i.e. “the middling sort of men”. This army was a kind of proletarian army who fought against the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie.


In 1646 elements in the army – mainly the agitators – took control. They demanded rights and a document called “The Agreement of the People” was drawn up as well as “A Grand Remonstrance”. Presbyterian leaders connived to protect the King and wanted to disband the army. Parliament prevaricated and in 1648 Colonel Thomas Pride marched into Parliament and arrested Presbyterian leaders and ensured that there would be no more negotiations with the King. This was called “Pride’s Purge”. Parliament was referred to as “The Rump”.


The Levellers – a movement amongst craftsmen, artisans and small craftsmen – drew up a charter of rights.


1) Annual Parliaments


2) Freedom of conscience


3) Equality before the Law


It was the sovereignty of the people and manhood suffrage that Leveller leaders like Lilburne, Walwyn and Marten fought for. The Levellers were the left wing of the democratic movement in the army and were opposed to the Army Grandees of Cromwell, Fairfax and Ireton. The Leveller movement emerged in the army and put their demands to the Grandees at Burford Church in Putney in 1647. Craftsmen and agitators like Thomas Rains, Cornet Joyce and John Wildman debated with Cromwell, Fairfax and Ireton the rights of the common people for manhood suffrage. The “constitutional levellers were the radical left wing of the revolutionary party the Independents” [3]. Ireton Cromwell’s son in law challenged the Levellers at Burford “a doctrine of natural rights would lead to communism” [4] “The Levellers suggested that Parliament should be made representative of the free people. Some Levellers excluded paupers and wage labourers from the free people.” [5] It is a “fact that the most radical political party (Levellers) even of the revolutionary decades excluded over half the male population and all women “[6].


There was no agreement between the agitators and the grandees. Cromwell terminated the debates at Putney and ordered the agitators back to their regiments. The Leveller revolt was over, many Levellers were arrested and some were executed. On 30th January 1649 Charles 1st was executed and a Republic was declared. The Levellers still continued to fight on. They were the democratic wing who advocated natural rights and manhood suffrage but rejected communism. They embraced private property and looked back to the Norman yoke and Anglo Saxon rights against the Normans in the 12th Century. “On the contrary they expressed the outlook of small men of property. They sharply differentiated themselves from “the diggers” who advocated a communist programme and began communal cultivation of land at S Georges Hill in 1649.” [7] The big distinction between the Levellers and the Diggers was on the issue of private property “The Leveller petition of 11th September repudiated any idea of abolishing property, levelling estates or making all common.” [8]


In December 1648 Gerrard Winstanley announced his communism when a group of his supporters started digging the common land in Digger communities at St Georges, Wellingborough in Northants, Coxhall in Kent, Barnet in Herts Enfield in Middlesex Dunstable in Bedfordshire and Bosworth in Leicestershire. “Winstanley spoke for those whom the constitutional Levellers would have disenfranchised, servants, labourers and paupers.” [9] “Constitutional Levellers then were not in fundamental disagreement (with the Grandees).The sanctity of property and their desire to extend democracy was within the limits of capitalist society.” [10] The Digger movement was non-violent and had no support from the army or the constitutional Levellers. They had a utopian view of society, they hoped that other people would form communities without private property or wage labour. “The digger colony of St Georges Hill was intended to be the first stage in a sort of General Strike against wage labour.” [11]


The Diggers were utopian in that they believed by digging or using the waste lands, forests and parks that were enclosed that the Grandees and Cromwell would not evict them. Cromwell asserted the right of private property and the enclosure of common land. The Diggers in 1650 were defeated and were evicted from their communities or just left. They believed that communism, tilling the soil and working together would be the solution of society’s ills. Winstanley had great foresight. But they failed to appreciate that capitalist society after the Cromwellian Revolution would combat communism and treat it as its mortal enemy. The working class had not emerged and there were no organisations like friendly societies or Trade Unions to organise the poor. This would emerge in the period following the English Revolution in the 18th and 19th centuries.


It would appear unlikely that scattered unorganised and undernourished labourers and artisans would have the capacity or the political consciousness to undertake revolutionary action to establish a new economic social and political order.” [12] “The sketch of a classless society that follows (Winstanleys Law of Freedom and other writings) is a deeply interesting blend of radical democracy professed by the main body of the Levellers with the Communism of More’s Utopia” [13]. “Thus two centuries before Marx Winstanley in the simplest of plain English in (The Law of Freedom) dared to say that Religion is the opium of the people.” [14]


To conclude Winstanley and the diggers were a revolutionary movement of proletarians during the 17th century. Their communism was based on utopian ideals particularly the bible. They believed that this was their solution to the poverty surrounding them. There was no organisation to support them in their universal campaign to till the soil, work together and share. Because of their utopian and non-violent beliefs the Diggers were unprepared to deal with emerging capitalism. Winstanley and his followers believed that by example everyone would allow them to continue practising their communism.


Communism would need a scientific and materialist basis which was to be developed by Marx and Engels in the 19th century. But their tradition was not lost. In the 18th century Thomas Spence would advance a theory of agrarian communism. As the working class developed from the 1780s-1830s corresponding societies would emerge. They are the embryo of trade union organisation which would lead in the 1890’s to revolutionary implications. The ideas of Marx and Engels would be crucial in understanding how the emancipation of the working class could be put on a scientific basis. In Part 2 I will consider Thomas Spence and the radical Milieu of Cobbett, Paine, Hunt and the corresponding societies.






[1] Hill C Puritanism and Revolution. Studies in the Interpretation of the English Revolution p. 205


[2] Hill C Century of Revolution p.26


[3] Hill C World Turned upside Down


[4] Hill C Century of Revolution p.129


[5] Hill C Century of Revolution p.175


[6] Hill C Century of Revolution p.175


[7] Hill C Century of Revolution p.129


[8] Hill C World Turned Upside Down p.119


[9] Hill C World Turned upside Down p. 121


[10] Hill C World Turned Upside Down p.123


[11] Manning B 1649 Crisis of the English Revolution p.119


[12] Manning B 1649 Crisis of the English Revolution


[13] Brailsford H The Levellers and the English Revolution p.659


[14] Brailsford H The Levellers and the English Revolution p.669