Lade Inhalt...

Economic participation in revolutionary 17th century England. A closer look at Gerrard Winstanley

Hausarbeit 2012 13 Seiten

Anglistik - Kultur und Landeskunde



1. Introduction

2. The Writings of Gerrard Winstanley
2.1. Winstanley’s Idea of Freedom
2.2. The Norman Yoke
2.3. Winstanley’s Concept of a ‘Communist’ Society

3. Conclusion

4. Works Cited

“The true forms of government, therefore, are those in which the one, or the few, or the many, govern with a view to the common interest; but governments which rule with a view to the private interest, whether of the one, or of the few, or of the many, are perversions.” (Aristotle)

1. Introduction

The above cited verdict of one of ancient Greece’s most famous political philosophers seem to us, nowadays, to be very ambiguous regarding possible forms of government. Does it not justify, to our modern eye, monarchy, dictatorship or oligarchy, so long as an – so far – undefined ‘common interest’ is at the heart of the ruling class’ or person’s policy; and whose ‘common interest’ is it anyway? Yet, Aristotle only describes existing forms of government in his time; the real distinction for him, however, is between ‘common’ and ‘private interests’, not between different forms of government. To the Parliamentarians in seventeenth-century England – despite all the differences between this in itself very heterogeneous group – the answer was very obvious. The King, Charles I, the aristocracy, the gentry and the clergy ruled in their self-interests, thus, excluding the majority of the people of England from political and economic participation. During the 1640s, this created a conflict between Parliament and the King, ultimately leading to Civil War in England. After the King’s death, in January 1649, a new order had to be established that should ideally be a republican form of government in which more people than before ought to have the right to participate in the political processes, as well as to have their fair share of economic power.

Therefore, the aim of this paper is to have a closer look at one radical vision of political and economic participation in England put forward by George Winstanley after the execution of Charles I. In order to show Winstanley’s unique status among seventeenth-century political philosophers, I will make use of and quote some of Winstanley’s many writings and pamphlets, e.g. The Law of Freedom in a Platform and An Appeale to all Englishmen.

First, the main ideas and concepts of Winstanley are going to be discussed in order to, in a second step, compare them and to point out the main differences. Since this paper is restricted in its length, I can only point out the main ideas and concepts of Winstanley. The events of the English Civil War(s) or the later Commonwealth will not be discussed in this paper, since they function only as the backdrop to Winstanley’s political theories and should be familiar to the reader.

However, one final remark on the word ‘freedom’ in its seventeenth-century context and usage seems necessary. As Davies points out, the terms ‘freedom’ and ‘liberty’ were used in abundance in the 1640s (Davies 511). This leads to some difficulties in writing about these concepts. Firstly, different writers have certainly used the same terms quite differently from each other, meaning that they represented different concepts, some of which might have even stood in conflict with or in contrast to each other. Secondly, we should not apply our modern day understanding of the terms on the seventeenth century ones. They will certainly have been different, as Davies reminds us. For example, it would be a mistake to associate ‘liberty’ with modern day individual self-expression and personal autonomy; in the seventeenth century ‘liberty’ could have meant also that people lived “under known rules and not to be subject to the arbitrary will of other men or authorities” (Davies 513). These known rules could easily have been very strict religious (i.e. Puritan) rules of discipline, which, to us nowadays, do not symbolise ‘freedom’ (Davies 510).

2. The Writings of George Winstanley

In this chapter, as the title indicates, some of Winstanley’s major writings are going to be explored in greater detail, focussing on his idea of freedom and the concept of the Norman Yoke – though the perception of such a ‘Yoke’ is not at all limited to Winstanley’s train of thoughts, it is also found in the writings of the Levellers, for example. For this chapter, I will rely heavily on Christopher Hill’s ideas as outlined in one particular chapter of his book A Nation of Change and Novelty (1990).

It is important to point out in the beginning that it is not easy trying to separate Winstanley’s idea of freedom from the theory of the Norman Yoke and his vision of an economically equal society. I am trying to do so, because his idea of freedom is quite unique at that time; the concept of the Norman Yoke, for example, was also addressed by Levellers and others, whereas the idea of an equal society, although also addressed by other contemporaries of his, was not addressed to the extent and the depth Winstanley addressed this concept.

Usually, four different forms or ideas/concepts of freedom are attributed to Winstanley. This are the following: Freedom of trade (i.e. economic freedom), freedom of conscience (i.e. religious freedom/toleration), sexual freedom (i.e. to have community with all women) and freedom from landlords (i.e. no primogeniture) (Hill, Novelty 117). Davies (1992), However, adds a fifth freedom to the list, namely freedom of speech (Davies 512).[1]

2.1. Winstanley’s Idea of Freedom

Deeply religious, Winstanley’s idea of freedom is derived from the Bible and he argued for it in exclusively biblical terms.[2] According to the Bible, said Winstanley, a “creation birth-right” (Hill, Novelty 117) existed that granted men access to cultivate the land (ibid.). Thus, for him, a state of true freedom was reached, if man is nourished and preserved by cultivating the land[3] (ibid. 118; Winstanley, Freedom 519). The uniqueness of Winstanley idea lies in the fact that he did not want to exclude anyone from this state of ‘true freedom’ unlike the Levellers and Parliamentarians wanted to. They wanted the parliamentary franchise to be redistributed so that the right to vote would be granted only to those who were “freeborn Englishmen” (Hill, Revolution 111); wage labourers and paupers should be excluded because they were economically dependent and did not earn enough money to have an interest in the country (ibid.).[4] The Levellers’ proposal of expanding the franchise was undoubtedly a step forward, in terms of moving towards more democracy; for Winstanley, however, this idea was simply not radical enough or rather not fundamental enough in terms of the democratisation of society. He wanted to include everyone because “the common people are part of the nation” and “without exception, all sorts of people in the land are to have freedom”, not just “the gentry and clergy” (Hill, Novelty 118f). The reasons for this ideal can be found in the Bible again (Genesis). Not only because of the aforementioned ‘creation birth-right’, but also because in the beginning “all men were equal, none ruling over another” (ibid. 119). In his A Declaration from the Poor Oppressed People of England Winstanley writes,


[1] Due to the formal restrictions of this paper, I will set the focus primarily on Winstanley’s conception of economic freedom.

[2] As long as the religious issues of Protestantism, anti-Catholicism, and Puritanism are only relevant in terms of questions of faith and/or belief, I will not consider them in this paper. Of course, most of the writing in seventeenth-century England is written in religious language, I, however, tend to agree with C. Hill in that this was ‘normal’ at that time since everybody was a believing Christian and expressed him- or herself accordingly (Hill, Puritanism 29). This goes without saying that Winstanley himself was deeply religious (Puritan) and that his ideas (all of them) derived from his faith and the Bible. Trotzki, for example, viewed the English Revolution as the combination of religious reform and political revolution (see Schröder, 58).

[3] According to Hill, Winstanley used the words ‘the land’ and ‘the earth’ as synonyms for ‘property’ (Hill, Novelty 118.).

[4] See the Putney Debates for the argumentation on how to expand the franchise, especially Ireton and Rainborough, or other publications by Levellers.


ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Buch)
412 KB
Institution / Hochschule
Ruhr-Universität Bochum – Englisches Seminar
seventeenth-century republicanism England Britain Diggers English Civil War freedom liberty Norman Yoke economy franchise Gerrard Winstanley Levellers



Titel: Economic participation in revolutionary 17th century England. A closer look at Gerrard Winstanley