The Diggers’ Green Roots

During the English Civil War, a band of radicals set out to make the world a common treasury. But the Diggers weren't just pioneering socialists – they were forerunners of the environmental movement too.

At the beginning of April 1649, a political group calling themselves the ‘True Levellers’ began a colony at St. George’s Hill near Cobham, Surrey. They set about tilling and sowing the fields, attempting to enact the seventeenth-century radical Gerrard Winstanley’s central idea: the earth as ‘a common treasury for all, without respect of persons.’ They were thus nicknamed ‘The Diggers’.

The Diggers of 1649 began their cultivation of this common land seven years after the English Civil War began and two months after the beheading of King Charles I. It was a fractious and revolutionary time. Only two years before, commoners and gentry discussed radical possibilities in the Putney Debates — suffrage for all, representation for all. The country, brutally divided, was not only politically but religiously split, each side seeing themselves as working through God’s plan for England, with many wanting to create perfect righteousness on Earth so as to bring forth the second coming.

For the Diggers, the tumult of the period was an opportunity to cultivate a form of Christian agrarian proto-communism, where wage labour, class hierarchy, economic inequality, the enclosure of common lands, private property, and landowner power were things of the past. This would be achieved through shared cultivation of the land, undoing the exploitation of the earth and humankind together. Winstanley explains these ideas, with others, in ‘The True Levellers Standard Advanced’ of April 1649:

Break in pieces quickly the Band of particular Propriety [property], disown this oppressing Murder, Opression and Thievery of Buying and Selling of Land, owning of landlords and paying of Rents and give thy Free Consent to make the Earth a Common Treasury without grumbling … that all may enjoy the benefit of their Creation …

Yet, for all of this prescient radicalism, the Diggers’ tilling of the common land at St George’s Hill lasted no more than four months. They were soon driven off the land by the military, local officials, and landowners. They then moved to Little Heath, but, confronted by many legal actions against them, including indictments for rioting, trespassing, illegal assembly, and the illegal erection of cottages, the Little Heath Diggers gave up their settlement in the summer of 1650.

Despite this fleeting span of activity, their dogged attempt at collectivism is still remembered today. A ‘Diggers Festival’ runs every year in Wigan, and they are form part of the pantheon of the Left; Winstanley’s name was carved into Lenin’s Alexander Garden Obelisk of ‘great revolutionary thinkers’, alongside Marx, Engels, Wilhelm Liebknecht, Thomas More, and others. Today the current of their thought continues through environmentalism and green politics, and is, if anything, more popular in such groups than ever before. Why?

Their Time and Ours

For Winstanley, inspired to found the Diggers by ‘divine voices’, England was in a truly fallen state. He looked back to the invasion of 1066 and the ‘Norman Yoke’ as the moment when inequality became rife in the nation. As academic Ed Simon explains in a recent article on ‘the Diggers, the Commons and the Green New Deal’:

In Winstanley’s understanding the commons were a feature of English rights, that had been violated in the development of privatisation, whereby enclosures had begun to partition off formerly collective lands … There was an explicitly ecological gloss to Digger politics, with Winstanley claiming that ‘true freedom lies where a man receives his nourishment and preservation, and that is in the use of the earth.’

Winstanley was, however, not merely satisfied with the idea of returning England to a ‘pre-Norman’ state of equality. He sought to restore England to a ‘pre-fall’ level of godliness and purity. As he writes in a June 1649 letter to Commander Fairfax:

The reformation that England now is to endeavour is not to remove the Norman yoke only and to bring us back to be governed by those laws that were before William the Conqueror came in … but … according to the Word of God, and this is the pure law of righteousness before the Fall.

For Winstanley, this state could only be brought about when men and women were free to use the earth and its resources equally, not held in bondage by kings or landowners. He writes in ‘Fire in the Bush’ in 1650 that ‘so long as the earth is intagled and appropriated into particular hands and kept there by the power of the sword … so long the creation lies under bondage.’

We know that the climate emergency is bad, we know that it is caused by carbon emissions and that biodiversity, non-human habitats, and human survival are all under grave threat. We also know that capitalist society is perpetually unequal and exploitative, and that, in the UK, the gap between rich and poor grows ever larger. But, of course, these two forms of awareness are actually the same thing. It is Western capitalism, the developed from the Digger era of land enclosure and wage inequality, that is the reason for the ecological disaster.

Climate and Colonialism

This is why the Diggers continue to cast a shadow over our conversations about politics and environmentalism, the whispering echo of a world that could have been — that perhaps may still be. What the Diggers make clear is that there aren’t conflicting issues when we think about the rapacious cruelty of capitalist eco-crisis. The destruction of the ecosystems of the developing world, caused by Western emissions; the inability of governments to take real action; the rise of fascism; the ignorance of non-human reality; the migration forced by rising temperatures and lack of water; the dearth of species — there is, to my mind, one issue that contains and expresses all of these concerns: equality.

The Diggers did not think of equality in a revolutionarily ‘flat’ way, but they did understand that exploitation of the earth and the exploitation of people went hand in hand. In 2020, the arguments of the seventeeth century, with their battles over king and Parliament, seem like something from another world. Yet, just as the Diggers wrangled over how a more egalitarian society might come into being , the activists of Black Lives Matter (BLM) fight for equality today. In
an apparently post-colonial, capitalist world, racism is both an issue of societal oppression and global destruction.

The global BLM protests have reminded us that the people of the developing world, long marginalised and exploited by Western powers due to racism, imperialism, and prejudice, are experiencing environmental crisis as the legacy of this exploitation. We see this sharply in Bolsanaro’s destruction of the Brazilian Amazon — where rapacious capitalism is not only decimating the rainforests, but also the homes and lives of Brazil’s indigenous Amazonian people. As the Earth, the non-human world, is polluted and destroyed, so too are the livelihoods and communities of non-white populations who did nothing to bring this environmental crisis about.

It is also crucial to remember that the Global South has been suffering from environmental exploitation for a long time. The spike in carbon emissions which initiated the Anthropocene — the present epoch, when human activity is the dominant influence on climate and the environment — did not actually begin when mills and factories began churning out smoke. Rather it began when enslaved Africans were forced into labour, their unseen work producing the riches which made industrialisation in Britain and other Western powers possible. As Professor Kathryn Yusoff states:

The Anthropocene might seem to offer a dystopic future that laments the end of the world, but imperialism and ongoing (settler) colonialisms have been ending worlds for as long as they have been in existence.

The inequality central to climate collapse is part of the long history of unequal power relations between Western peoples of means and those without the resources to fight back. We saw this in the 2016 protests against the Dakota Access Oil Pipeline in the US, which had the potential to pollute the Missouri River. The Native American Sioux people and other indigenous peoples of Standing Rock considered the pipeline a threat to the area’s clean water and ancient burial grounds. Standing Rock’s historic preservation officer, LaDonna Brave Bull Allard, said of the protests:

The US government is wiping out our most important cultural and spiritual areas. And as it erases our footprint from the world, it erases us as a people. These sites must be protected, or our world will end, it is that simple … If we allow an oil company to dig through and destroy our histories, our ancestors, our hearts, and souls as a people, is that not genocide?

Despite the persistence and efforts of the indigenous protestors, on 23 February 2017 the US National Guard evicted the entire protest camp. The pipeline was finished by April, and its first oil was delivered on 14 May 2017. The historical oppression of Native American people, their lack of resources, finances, and political support, meant that despite their heroic efforts, they could not stop this pipeline being built in their sacred lands. The wealth of the oil company was stolen from the indigenous people of the Sioux Nation at Standing Rock.

As Winstanley reflected in ‘A Declaration from the Poor Oppressed People of England Directed to all that Call Themselves or are Called Lords of Manors’, in 1649:

… the Earth was made for us, as well as for you: And if the Common Land belongs to us who are the poor oppressed, surely the woods that grow upon the Commons belong to us likewise …

Equality lets indigenous American people have control over their water, and it lets indigenous dwellers in the Brazilian Amazon retain their homes, rather than giving over their forest to loggers. At the same time, this equality keeps the fish in the rivers safe and draws carbon dioxide into the trees. When women across the world have access to birth control and abortion, agency over their own bodies, and determination over their lives, then the size of the population  also falls, and so too does the burden of  humanity on natural life. True equality of this kind may be considered ‘utopian,’ but it is based on material fact. What is good for human equality is good, overall, for non-human equality, for the survival of beings who cannot speak for themselves but who are also living, and therefore have a right to live.

A Common Treasury

The environmentalist and sci-fi writer Ursula Le Guin famously said in a speech at the 2014 National Book Awards:

We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable — but then, so did the divine right of kings.

In 1649, the same year the Diggers set up their camp on St George’s Hill, King Charles I was executed in Whitehall. Almost up until that very moment it seemed that, for the people of England, and indeed for most of the people of Western Europe, the divine right of kings was the only form of power that was desirable, indeed conceivable. Charles’ death came like a bolt of lightning, illuminating new radical potentialities for organising society. The subsequent failure of Cromwell to be a good and just leader and the restoration of the English monarchy in 1660 could not take away what had become possible: a world without kings. A world that came into being again, in 1789, in France.

The Diggers failed to create a new community of environmental equality in England, just as the peasants of the 1300s had failed to achieve freedom in the Peasant’s Revolt. But they did change the parameters of what was possible, and in so doing have left behind potentialities we can access when we imagine what we are capable of.

The critical theorist Walter Benjamin, in his essay ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’, writes that:

To articulate what is past does not mean to recognise ‘how it really was.’ It means to take control of a memory, as it flashes in a moment of danger … The only writer of history with the gift of setting alight the sparks of hope in the past, is the one who is convinced of this: that not even the dead will be safe from the enemy, if he is victorious.

Benjamin is right — we cannot know ‘how it really was’ for the Diggers, or, even if they had been somehow successful, whether their deeply Christian and somewhat anthropocentric ideas would have led to a world without rampant inequality or climate crisis. But we can know that their past struggle, which we see echoed in the current struggles of those attempting to protect their lands and freedoms, will be destroyed if we do not reanimate it.

Benjamin also writes, in the same essay:

The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule.

We are in a state of environmental emergency. Yet this ‘state of emergency’ did not arrive unbidden. It has existed throughout history — in the land enclosures that impoverished peasants; in the growth of Western economic power through the exploitation of the Atlantic slave trade; in the violence of colonial oppression; in the viciousness of global patriarchy and female silencing; in the abuse of natural resources by industrialists, landowners, and businesses; in the cruelty meted out to the animals we eat — the crisis was always here.

The rising temperatures and natural disasters we see now are only a new manifestation of the crisis of equality that is, as Benjamin says, ‘the rule’. That does not mean that all of history has been the same, or that it can never change, merely that our current crisis is not new. The Anthropocene is a useful way to understand the start of the material change of the environment due to human action, but it only marks the new appearance of systems of inequality that are much, much older.

In 1961, the anti-colonial radical Frantz Fanon would write:

What matters today, the issue which blocks the horizon, is the need for a redistribution of wealth. Humanity will have to address this question, no matter how devastating the consequences may be.

The need for equality survives the critique of communism in practice, and it survives the naturalisation of a capitalist system driving the non-human world into the dust. The consequences of redistributing wealth, of true equality, would be a very different world for us than the consumer one we are used to. Whether that world would be one of free public transport and allotments with high taxes on aeroplanes and cars, or one of subsistence agriculture with no technology, plastic, and money, I cannot say.

The enduring hope of equality was enacted at St George’s Hill, following Winstanley’s maxim that, ‘action is the life of all, and if thou dost not act, thou dost nothing.’ But failure did not wholly kill Winstanley’s ability to hope, or his ability to see that a fair and non-exploitative relationship with the natural world would be the strongest way to build a form of human freedom.

The conservative American journalist Warren T. Brookes, who came to prominence in the 1970s, is considered to have invented the term ‘watermelon’ as a pejorative name for environmentalists: ‘green on the outside but red on the inside.’ Well, what could be better? It is through these ‘watermelon’ ideas, of protecting and interacting with the Earth with care, through communal social systems, that the Diggers’ ideas retain their power.

Today, St George’s Hill in Surrey, once the home of the Diggers, is, in an almost too-perfect metaphor for the moment, a private gated community. This closed community is home to celebrities such as Tom Jones and Elton John. Under the earth of their mansions and swimming pools, their Porsches and Pilates studios, lie specks of the soil the Diggers walked upon, dormant, waiting.

Winstanley asked, in 1649’s The New Law of Righteousness:

Was the earth made to preserve a few covetous, proud men to live at ease, and for them to bag and barn up the treasures of the Earth from others, that these may beg or starve in a fruitful land; or was it made to preserve all her children?

There is only one true question, stirring and germinating underneath the ground of all the others, and this is it.