Gerrard Winstanley and the Republic of Heaven

Was Gerrard Winstanley the first religious humanist? DINAH LIVINGSTONE reviews David Boulton's new study of the 17th century revolutionary who wrote that God was Reason and Community, and who offered a vision to live by.

Dinah Livingstone is a poet, activist, and writer on liberation theology.

Gerrard Winstanley is one of the most important figures in the English Revolution of 1649 and a focal point in the English radical tradition. This tradition goes back at least to Langland's Piers Plowman of 1377 and John Ball, leader of the Peasants Revolt of 1381. In his Witness Against the Beast, E. P. Thompson (who met the last Muggletonian in 1975) traces the traditions continuity, forward from the English Revolution to William Blake. It then goes on with Blake's contemporaries Mary Wollstonecraft, the early Wordsworth, on with the Communist Church of the 1830s and Emma Martin (who bolted from her Baptist husband in 1839 to become an Owenite socialist feminist), to William Morris, Eleanor Marx, Annie Besant and so

many others up to our own time.

David Boulton's excellent book begins by setting Winstanley firmly in this tradition and suggesting what he had probably read, not only of English radicals but also from Europe. Boulton adds: "It seems very likely that one spur to radicalism was Winstanley's direct experience of poverty". The main body of the book gives a useful chronological introduction to each of Winstanley's writings, setting them in the dramatic context of both the public affairs of 1648-1652 (King Charles was executed on January 30th 1649) and Winstanley's own activities, particularly the famous Digging of Georges Hill, which began on April 1st 1649.

Boulton points out how the tone of Winstanley's writings changes in response to what was happening. For example, the Declaration from the Poor Oppressed People of England (published end of May 1649) is so much more belligerent than anything he had written before. But "given the savagery of the attacks he had suffered...the tone is understandable".

Towards the end of his book, Boulton adds some intriguing reflections on puzzles in Winstanley's life after his four years of activism, including his relationship with the Quakers. "Any attempt at a biography of Winstanley the man, as distinct from a study of Winstanley the pamphlets, has to be an exercise in building bricks with little straw". As a human personality, he remains curiously elusive, which is rather disappointing. We would love to know more.

Boulton directs us towards the pamphlets. As he says, "Much of this book is beautifully written, because I have used Winstanley's words at every opportunity". Actually, he is too modest: this is not an academic book; it is written with elegant plainness for the non-specialist. But he is right to praise Winstanley's superb polemical style. This tremendous English can also be heard in Tyndale, whose translation of the New Testament for "ploughboys" was smuggled to England in bales

of cloth. (Tyndale's recent editor, David Daniel, points out how much of his translation was preserved in the Authorised Version of 1611).

Tyndales heirs were the Diggers. Boulton quotes Winstanley's Watch-word to the City of London and the Armie: "... and thoughts run in me that words and writing were all nothing and must die, for action is the life of all, and if thou dost not act thou dost nothing". But as he says, Winstanley's words were far from nothing. I would suggest reading Boulton's book together with Gerrard Winstanley's Selected Writings (6.95 from Aporia Press, Counter Productions, PO Box 556, London SE5 0RL).

Boulton plots the development of Winstanley's theology. First, his astonishing universalism (and internationalism): "In the end every man shall be saved, though some at the last hour". Origen had been condemned by the Church in 543 for believing this. Winstanley insists that the Earth must be a Common Treasury for rich and poor, for friend and foe alike. Second, Winstanleys de-supernaturalisation of Christ, who is "not a single man at a distance from you but the indwelling power of reason", and of God: "The Spirit or Father is pure reason". Winstanley's humanising of God goes hand in hand with his insistence on humanist political values: reason requires social justice for all, both rich and poor, friend and foe. The Sea of Faith must not jettison this half of our tradition.

"Winstanley", says Boulton, "moved from a theological radicalism which insisted that the poor had a proper place in the scheme of things to the deeply subversive political proposition that the poor must become the agents of their own salvation: must take matters into their own hands and begin to turn the world upside down".

Liberation theology today, as well as other activists, would agree with him.

Boulton shows touches of northern chauvinism and snipes at London (Blake's visionary Jerusalem), as if the pitched battle between the Lamb and the Dragon now only takes place in the Great Wen. I prepared this review in the beautiful county of Suffolk, where vast acres of prime arable land belong to Mormon agribusiness (successors to Winstanley's lords of manors) and doubtless there are big capitalists in Cumbria and Yank mega-corporations in Yorkshire.

In his final chapter, "Postmodern Winstanley", Boulton does hat-honour to postmodernisms boring lie that grand narrative is dead. In this chapter he rather irritatingly uses an inclusive "we postmodernists". He can count me out. Actually, he counts himself out for the rest of the chapter by committing himself to Winstanley's "enabling dream" (just as Winstanley used the story of Christ's resurrection as an "enabling dream"). What is an "enabling dream" of a world of justice and peace but the grand narrative of an ongoing struggle for it?

Let us flush away the largactil of neoliberalism and the mogodon of postmodernism and listen once more to Winstanley: "O thou City, thou Hypocriticall City! thou blindfold drowsie England, that sle(e)ps and snorts in the bed of covetousnesse, awake, awake!"


Gerrard Winstanley and the Republic of Heaven can be ordered direct from The Quaker Bookshop, Friends House, Euston Road, London NW1 2BJ, at 9.50.

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