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From Utopian Communism to Wage Slavery: The Diggers at Picton

The Diggers offered a vision of a moneyless world of common property ownership, where production took place to directly meet human need. Their vision was just that, a vision. They could no more establish such a society in the mid 1600s than Marx, Engels could have done in 1848. Conditions did not exist in the mid 17th century for direct and free access to the means of production. What Marx called 'the forces of production' were largely agricultural and harvests, like those between 1646 and 1650, could be devastated by bad weather. There was no revolutionary working class. And a socialist majority understanding and wanting socialism did not exist.

Engels sketched out the limitations of utopian socialism or communism (both words mean the same thing). In his pamphlet SOCIALISM: UTOPIAN AND SCIENTIFIC, Engels wrote that for the Utopians:

"Socialism is the expression of absolute truth, reason, and justice, and has only to be discovered to conquer the entire world by virtue of its own power" (p74).

Mental abstractions cannot change society. All the utopians could do was form:

"...a mish-mash allowing of the most manifold shades of opinion; a mish-mash of such critical statements, economic theories, pictures of a future society by the founders of different sects, as excite a minimum of opposition; a mish-mash which is the more easily brewed the more the definite sharp edges of the individual constituents are rubbed down in the stream of debate, like rounded pebbles in a brook" (p75).

Socialism had to be put upon a real material basis and that meant the possibility of production and distribution of goods and services in abundance.

For the Diggers, their utopia was the return to the lost world before the Norman Conquest and their vision derived from God and the earth "before the fall". The solution to poverty lay in communal cultivation of the commons and waste land. For the Diggers ownership of private property, enjoyed by the rich at the expense of the poor, was the problem.

The Diggers were led by Gerrard Winstanley. Winstanley had told his followers that it was God who had told him:

"The common people ought to dig, plough, plant and dwell upon the commons, without hiring them or paying rent to any".
(THE DIGGERS IN PIRTON, M Tomkins, March 1977, Pirton Local History Group)
https://pirtonhistory.org.uk/articles/the-diggers-in-pirton/

St George's Hill

On Sunday 1st April, 1649, Winstanley, William Everard, and a small group of about 30 or 40 men and women started digging and sowing vegetables on the wasteland of St George's Hill in the parish of Walton. They were mainly labouring men and their families, and they confidently hoped that five thousand others would join them.

What was the utopian communism of the Diggers? Winstanley wrote in favour of a society without wages or money:

"The earth is to be planted and the fruits reaped and carried into barns and storehouses by the assistance of every family. And if any man or family want corn or other provision, they may go to the storehouse and fetch without money. If they want a horse to ride, go into the fields in the summer, or to the common stables in the winter, and receive one from the keepers, and when your journey is performed, bring him where you had him, without money" (Gerrard Winstanley, THE NEW LAW OF RIGHTEOUSNESS January 1649 in 'The works of Gerrard Winstanley: with an appendix of documents relating to the Digger movement' with an introduction by George H Sabine, 1965)

Yet the rejection of buying and selling given by Winstanley was made on moral grounds not that the class relations of production were holding back the forces of production:

"for matter of buying and selling, the earth stinks with such unrighteousnesse, that for my part, though, I was bred a tradesman, yet it is hard a thing to pick out a poor living, that a man shall sooner be cheated of his bread, then get bread by trading among men, if by plain dealing he put his trust in any.

And truly the whole earth of trading, is generally become the neat art of thieving and oppressing fellow-creatures, and so laies burdens, upon the Creation, but when the earth becomes a common treasury this burden will be taken off
"
https://www.diggers.org/diggers-ENGLISH-1649/NEW-LAW-OF-RIGHTEOUSNESS-1648-Winstanley.pdf.

This utopian communism did not go down well with local property holders and gentry at Cobden in Surrey. According to the late historian, John Gurney the Diggers had good reason to stay as far away from Surrey as possible:

"The Diggers had failed to appear at the Southwark Assizes in April 1650 to answer the charges made against them of riot and trespass, and orders to the sheriff to produce them before the assizes were issued regularly over the following two years..."
(BRAVE COMMUNITY: THE DIGGER MOVEMENT IN THE ENGLISH REVOLUTION, 2007 p211).

They were evicted from their Cobden community on George Hill by force including the use of Cromwell's troops.

Digger communities sprang up in their path. In "A Declaration of the Grounds and reasons why we the poor Inhabitants of the Parrish of Iver in Buckinghamshire, have begun to digge and manure the common and wast Land..." we are told:

"We hear that they have begun mannuring the commons in Kent, at Willingborough, and Bosworth old in Northamptonshire and in Gloustershire and in Nottinghamshire, and they intend to sowe roots til July & then follow for winter corne, and then to build for the porrest in the Parishes, and if the rich will not let them alone, the poor will leave them their Children to keep, as they have done in Surrey"

And

"They are at work in Barnet, and at Enfield and there they are resolved if they will not let them plant and build, they will leave them in Barnet 7 children, and at Enfield nine Children."
(DIGGER TRACTS 1649-50 ed. A Hopton 1989 p31-34)

Desperate men and women were prepared to use their children as bargaining chips with the authorities. Children left 'on the parish' were going to have a better life than starvation with their parents.

Among other "towns" they visited "to promot the Business" were listed "Redburn", "Mine", (possibly Mimms?), "Wellin", and "Dunstable" and on their travels they passed through Pirton.

The Diggers at Pirton

The Digger communities, one after another collapsed in the face of the violent assertion of private property ownership. The Diggers last stand, as a collective group, was in August 1650 at the village of Pirton, just outside of Hitchin.

At Pirton, utopian communism met with the reality of private property ownership and wage slavery. With their own crops destroyed they sought out those who wanted help in bringing in the year's crop. Some of the Diggers with Winstanley were employed by Lady Eleanor Douglas where she held the Rectory manor and the tithes of grain. Poverty forced the diggers to work for her for wages. Four of the diggers were employed to thresh her wheat.

Here is Winstanley writing as a broken man; "now my health and estate is decayed and I grow in age, I must either beg or work for day wages, which I was never brought up to, for another" (THE DIGGERS IN PIRTON, M Tomkins, March 1977, Pirton Local History Group).

Any evidence the diggers were at Picton has long disappeared. We only have Winstanley's bitter letters claiming that Lady Douglas had cheated the Diggers of their wages.

From Wage slavery to Communism

Wage slavery was to be the lot of the working class. It still is. Workers have access to farms, factories, mines, railways and so on only as wage-labourers.

The workers own nothing save their labour-power (manual skills, qualifications, experience, brains) but they have got to live. They do not have free access to food, housing or anything; they all have a price tag. They cannot get a living without money. They do not own the means of production. So they are forced sell their labour-power.

At the end of the week or month they are paid according roughly to how much it costs workers to keep a roof over their head and reproduce, complicated by the need to pay skilled workers at a higher rate and also by varying levels of unemployment. Wages generally are located around the "cost of living" figures. They are not located around the value of what the workers produce.

The employers make a profit from the value of the work done, over and above what is paid out as wages, cost of raw materials, machinery and other overheads. Everything the workers buy is produced and distributed by the working class themselves. Yet their access to the wealth they produce so abundantly is severely rationed and limited by the money in the pay packet.

This is what wage slavery means in practice: rationing, by a singularly inappropriate process. Our pay packets have no relevance to our level of needs: they only reflect the value of our labour-power - whether we are skilled and scarce, or unskilled and abundant. Old people, handicapped people, women, children, sick people: all these are especially needy, and they are the people who have least money.

Escape from wage slavery through utopian experiments has not fared well. The history of socialist utopianism is a history of failure. The settlements inspired by Charles Fourier and Robert Owen in the eighteenth and 19th centuries fared no better than Winstanley and the Diggers, neither did the Kibbutz's in Israel, the Hippie Communes in the 1960s and 1970s nor the Windsor Free Festivals of 1972 to 1974 which looked back to Winstanley and the Diggers. Small 'islands of socialism' do not survive in a world of brutal, nasty and anti-social competition.

As King Crimson sang on ISLANDS, with lyrics written by Peter Sinfield:

Dark harbour quays like fingers of stone
Hungrily reach from my island.
Clutch sailor's words - pearls and gourds
Are strewn on my shore.
Equal in love, bound in circles.
Earth, stream and tree return to the sea
Waves sweep sand from my island
From me.


Socialism has to be universal and co-operative islands in a sea of class consciousness, a world view transcending nations and the profit system; a global system based on: "from each according to their ability to each according to their need".

Capitalism has the wrong priorities. This problem of the distribution of what men and women produce can only be solved by socialism, a common ownership society, democratically controlled by all people, with free access to all humankind's wealth. Socialism will mean no poverty, no-one suffering hunger or homelessness through lack of money while food and houses are available in abundance.

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