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Left-wing Democracy in the English Civil War: Gerrard Winstanley and the Digger Movement (Sandpiper Reprints of Sutton Publishing Editions) Hardcover – 1 Sep 1999
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Petegorsky was a Marxist of the old school, and his work had been published in the same year as Hill’s equally hard-line The English Revolution of 1640. In 1940 both writers preached dialectical materialism: history was inevitably proceeding from primitive communism to feudalism, capitalism, socialism and ultimately communism; and the engine of change was the class struggle. Each regarded the English Civil War as the victory of the bourgeoisie over the aristocracy; and looked forward to the ultimate victory of the proletariat in the next revolution. The function of the historian was to explain how the dialectic worked in any given society. To my young mind, this was stirring stuff. History was not just ‘one damned thing after another’. There was a pattern to it, for those who had the intelligence to see; and it almost seemed to give a purpose to life. Marxism explained what had happened in the Russian Revolution, which had changed the world forever. It was the key to understanding the present and the future, as well as the past.
In a series of books between 1940 and the 1960s, Hill was concerned to show that the Civil War had been the critical moment of the bourgeois revolution. The bourgeoisie had overthrown the feudal aristocracy and even, for a few years after 1649, the monarchy. The Stuart monarchy may have been restored in 1660, but it had lost much of its prerogative power. The aristocracy had not been put to the sword, but the gains of the revolution had not been lost. England had become a capitalist society, with a legislature composed of a new class and an executive harnessed to do its bidding. She was poised to take a leading role in the development of commerce and empire.
At the time critics described the Diggers and their leader as a ‘distracted crack-brained people’ – a verdict which A.L.Rowse (1903-1997) would heartily have endorsed. Even from the Marxist point of view, Winstanley had no clear concept of the nature of the class struggle. The Ranter Laurence Clarkson analysed it more precisely: he wrote of a struggle between yeomen, farmers, tradesmen and labourers on the one hand, and nobility and gentry on the other; but for Winstanley, conflict was simply between the ‘landowners’ and the rest. Likewise, his ideas about history were naïve. He thought that private property in land had been introduced into England by the Normans. Wilfully or not, he completely misunderstood what the Civil War had been about, though he had lived through it.
Gerrard Winstanley did not believe in Soviet-style ‘scientific socialism’. He wanted a return to an ancient and primitive communism. He was intensely religious, and believed that the world could easily be changed by the power of God, and without coercion. Religion had not yet come to be regarded as the opium of the people: rather, it was the answer to everything. The revolution could be brought about by example and persuasion; and, once it had happened, men would obey the law because this was ‘written in everyone’s heart.’ Winstanley was a failed businessman, who had come to believe that it was impossible for an honest man to make a living in the City of London. He had taken refuge in the countryside, where he was fortunate enough to have a smallholding and sometimes styled himself ‘gentleman’. Yet he advocated the abolition of private property in land, commerce, money and law, along with monarchy, aristocracy and gentry. He had more in common with the members of modern protest movements than with the dedicated members of the Communist Party who were to be found everywhere in the 1930s, when Petegorsky was doing his research and Hill was visiting the Soviet Union.
Petegorsky has been little criticised, whereas Hill’s reputation has taken a turn for the worse. Hill repeatedly suggested that his position would be vindicated when more research was done; but there has been a large number of books written about the English civil war in the last fifty years and, on the contrary, they have mainly served to undermine the Marxist analysis, as have developments in the wider world.