Tony Cliff

Class Struggle and Women’s Liberation

1. Birth of a dream

The English revolution of the mid-seventeenth century was the dawn of women’s liberation. The revolution brought peasant and working women on to the arena of history, and raised many fundamental questions about the structure of society, including women’s place in it. The religious and political sects that mushroomed at the time of the revolution and civil war had a special appeal for women. Some sects gave them equal rights. A new morality, including a new sexual morality, blossomed.

Sadly, the blooms withered fairly quickly – when the revolution stopped in its tracks, when a new unity was achieved between the victorious bourgeoisie and the old aristocracy which led to the restoration of the monarchy, the lords and bishops.

The new ideas about women’s equality and sexual morality came to life among the radicals of the revolutionary camp. It was among such people that the Levellers, Diggers and Ranters emerged.

The Levellers, who looked upon themselves as “the middle sort of people”, were the representatives of the self-employed peasants and artisans. They resented the concentration of economic power in the hands of the rich. They regarded economic independence – the right to own one’s own instruments of production: tools, handlooms, ploughs, and particularly the land itself – as a basic human freedom. They wanted a society of free, independent small producers. They condemned all aspects of exploitative society – the landlords, nobility, monarchy, clergy and lawyers. In their eyes, the key to achieving equality was the equalisation of political power by abolishing property qualifications for voting, establishing equal electoral constituencies and annual elections. The Levellers had considerable influence for a time in the rank and file of Cromwell’s army.

The Levellers’ crushing defeat by Cromwell in 1649 brought to an end the apocalyptic hopes of the radicals. There was no extension of the franchise, no social reform, no abolition of tithes, no end to the enclosures. Popular dreams were miserably wrecked. But out of this heartbreak there arose the Digger movement. On Sunday 1 April 1649 a small group of poor people collected on St George’s Hill in the parish of Walton-on-Thames and began to dig the waste land there, sowing it with corn, parsnips, carrots and beans. It was a symbolic assumption of ownership. They were raided by local landowners and had to move from St George’s Hill about August 1649 to Cobham Heath, a mile or two away. Diggers colonies were set up in Northamptonshire (Wellingborough), Kent (Cox Hall), Barnet, Enfield, Dunstable, Bosworth and Nottinghamshire, and possibly in Buckinghamshire and Gloucestershire. [1]

The Diggers went further than the Levellers. They argued that a redistribution of political power was not enough to end exploitation. True freedom demanded the abolition of private property. They were utopian socialists. Gerard Winstanley, their leader, was not the first in this line of socialist thinkers and dreamers, but the breadth of his ideas on wide-ranging issues is fascinating. In the years 1649-50 he published a series of pamphlets which dealt with God and matter, politics and economics, education and science, marriage and the family. [2]

Another product of the Levellers’ collapse was the Ranters. They came quite suddenly into prominence in 1649, soon after the final defeat of the Levellers, and for perhaps a year seem to have attracted a mass following, especially among the London poor, though there are reports of their activities from almost every part of England. [3] They “spoke for and to the most wretched submerged elements of the population, the slum dwellers of London and other cities”. They “would seem to have attracted a number of embittered and disappointed former Levellers. Where Levelling by sword and by spade had both failed what seemed called for was a Levelling by miracle, in which God himself would confound the mighty by means of the poorest, lowest and most despised of the earth.” [4] “God the Great Leveller” would come upon the rich and mighty “as a thief in the night, with my sword drawn in my hand, and like a thief as I am – I say deliver your purse, deliver sirrah! deliver or I’ll cut thy throat!” Basically they were confused, mystical anarchists, without any form of organisation.

On questions of family and sex, the Levellers were very attached to private property, and their leader Lilburne made clear the direct relation between monogamy and private property. He strongly advocated both.

Against this, Gerard Winstanley and the Diggers believed in monogamy, but one based on freedom of the partners, freedom from economic or legal shackles, and freedom to choose. As he put it in The Law of Freedom in a Platform:

Every man and woman shall have the free liberty to marry whom they love, if they can obtain the love and liking of that party whom they would marry; and neither birth nor portion shall hinder the match, for we are all of one blood, mankind; and for portion, the common storehouses are every man’s and maid’s portion, as free to one as to another.

If any man lie with a maid and beget a child, he shall marry her. [5]

Once married they were not to change partners. Winstanley wrote on sexual freedom:

The mother and child begotten in this manner is like to have the worst of it, for the man will be gone and leave them, and regard them no more than other women ... after he hath had his pleasure. Therefore you women beware, for this ranting practice is not the restoring but the destroying power of the creation. .. By seeking their own they em- bondage others. [6]

As Christopher Hill observes: “Sexual freedom, in fact, tended to be freedom for men only, so long as there was no effective birth control. This was the practical basis to the puritan emphasis on monogamy.” [7]

A further practical basis for this emphasis on monogamy, it should be noted, was that stable family life represented a positive improvement for many of the poor in seventeenth-century England. Poor families were constantly broken up as a result of low wages and lack of employment. Women and children were left “on the parish” as poverty drove husbands and fathers away in search of work; and when these “parish children” reached the age of seven they were taken from their mothers and apprenticed (not as craft trainees, but as the lowest of servants) to a master or mistress chosen by the parish overseers.

Middle-class puritans castigated the poor for leading “immoral” lives; Winstanley pointed out that only economic security could provide the conditions for the “moral stability of the family.” [8]

One group in the English revolution opposed monogamy – the Ranters. One of their leaders, John Robins, “gave his disciples authority to change wives and husbands – and changed his own ‘for an example’.” Lawrence Clarkson raised this to a theory of complete sexual freedom, then Abiezer Coppe carried the attack even further, into the monogamous family itself. “Give over thy stinking family duties,” he wrote. For Clarkson the act of adultery was not distinct from prayer: it all depended on one’s inner approach. “To the pure all things, yea all things, are pure,” he emphasised, adultery included.

This was written in 1650: looking back ten years later Clarkson thus described his Ranter principles: “No man could be freed from sin, till he had acted that so-called sin as no sin ... Till you can lie with all women as one woman, and not judge it sin, you can do nothing but sin ... No man could attain to perfection but this way.” [9] Clarkson’s position, as reported by a reliable, if not friendly, witness, was summed up in these words: “They say that for one man to be tied to one woman, or one woman to one man, is a fruit of the curse; but, they say, we are freed from the curse, therefore it is our liberty to make use of whom we please.” [10]

Christopher Hill sums up the Ranters’ attitude to sex and work: “Ranters, I am suggesting, gave ideological form and coherent expression to practices which had long been common among vagabonds, squatter-cottages, and the in-between category of migratory craftsmen.” [11] “Much of Ranterism was less a new ethic than an expression of traditional attitudes, some of which derived from the leisured class – dislike of labour, sexual promiscuity, swearing ...” [12]

Engels observed:

It is a curious fact that with every great revolutionary movement the question of “free love” comes into the foreground. With one set of people as a revolutionary progress, as a shaking off of old traditional fetters, no longer necessary, with others as a welcome doctrine, comfortably covering all sorts of free and easy practices between man and woman. [13]

The sexual morality of the Diggers and Ranters related to the social circumstances of the two groups. Morality, like all ideas, habits and customs, is rooted in the economic and social conditions of people, not as a mechanical extension of these, but not isolated from them either.

The sexual revolution, whether in the shape the Diggers gave it, or the Ranters, was a step forward from the old double-standard morality in sexual matters. Both Diggers and Ranters were also very clear about the relation between private property and sex and dreamt of a world in which there would be collective ownership of wealth and freedom for the individual. Their vision was a foretaste of the free society of the future, when men and women would develop as whole human beings. The English revolution gave us something on account.


1. K. Thomas, Another Digger Broadcast, in Past and Present, no.42, February 1969.

2. A collection of Winstanley’s writings is available edited by Christopher Hill, Winstanley: The Law of Freedom and Other Writings (London 1973).

3. A.L. Morton, The World of the Ranters (London 1970) p.78.

4. Morton, p.71.

5. Winstanley, p.388.

6. Quoted in Christopher Hill, The World Turned Upside Down (London 1975) p.319.

7. Hill, p.257.

8. Similar arguments were used by Eleanor Marx and Edward Aveling in their pamphlet, The Woman Question (1886): “Many advanced thinkers plead for greater facility of divorce now ... and most important of all, that the conditions of divorce should be the same for the two sexes. All this is excellent, and would be not only feasible but just, if – but mark the if – the economic positions of the two sexes were the same. They are not the same. Hence, while agreeing with every one of these ideas theoretically, we believe that they would, practically applied under our present system, result, in the majority of cases, in yet further injustice to women. The man would be able to take advantage of them, the woman would not, except in the rare instances where she had private property or some means of livelihood. The annulling of the union would be to him freedom; to her, starvation for herself and her children.” (E. Marx and E. Aveling, The Woman Question [London 1886] p.10.)

9. Quoted in Hill, pp.314-5.

10. Quoted in Hill, p.318.

11. Hill, pp.319-20.

12. Hill, p.340.

13. Engels, The Book of Revelation, in Progress, vol.2, 1883.


Last updated on 31.7.2002