Eduard Bernstein

Cromwell and Communism

Chapter IX
The “True” Levellers and Their Practical Communism

ON Sunday, April 8, 1649, while Lilburne and other leaders of the Levellers were again confined in the Tower, there suddenly appeared, near Cobham, in the County of Surrey, a number of men, armed with spades, who commenced to dig up uncultivated land at the side of St. George’s Hill, with the intention of growing corn and other produce. They explained to the country-people in the neighbourhood that as yet they were few, but their number would soon increase to four thousand. They proposed to “open and present the state of community to the sons of men”, and to prove that it was “an indeniable equity that the common people ought to dig, plow, plant, and dwell upon the Commons without hiring them or paying rent to any”. After they had worked for a week, erected tents, and also prepared land on a second hill for sowing – their number having increased to forty and still continuing to increase – some were driven away and some arrested, about the middle of the following week, by two troops of horse. Their leaders, William Everard and Gerrard Winstanley (the first-named being a Leveller who had left or been dismissed the Army), were brought before General Fairfax, when Everard declared that he, like most people who were called Saxons or the like, belonged to the race of the Jews. [1]

He said “that all liberties of the people had been lost by the coming of William the Conqueror; and that ever since then, the people of God had lived under tyranny and oppression worse than that of our forefathers under the Egyptians. But now the time of deliverance was at hand; and God would bring His people out of this slavery and restore their to their freedom in enjoying the fruits and benefits of the Earth. And that there lately had appeared to him, Everard, a vision, which bade him ‘Arise and dig and plough the Earth, and receive the fruits thereof.’ That their intent is to restore the Creation to its former condition. That as God had promised to make the barren land fruitful, so now what they did was to restore the ancient Community of enjoying the Fruits of the Earth, and to distribute the benefits thereof to the poor and needy, feed the hungry and clothe the naked. That they intended not to meddle with any man’s property, nor to break down pales or fences”, as they were accused of doing, “but only to meddle with what is common and untilled, and to make it fruitful for the use of man”. For those who would join them and work, there would be meat and drink and clothes, “which is all that is necessary to the life of man”. They considered the present freeholders “their elder brethren that had received their portion first, even were it unjustly and by force or other evil means. But though being younger brethren, they saw not why they should be debarred from all participation in the common heritage, and die while there was an abundance of common land lying untilled.” The time would soon come when they “would have absorbed all the poor, workless, and oppressed, into their ranks, and from shiftless vagabondage brought them into good citizenship”. Yea, the time would come when even the present freeholders, the perpetuators of the Norman tyranny, would pull down their fences, give up their landed property, and willingly join their community, thus ending all tyranny and slavery and establishing God’s kingdom on earth.

For the rest, Everard declared “that they will not defend themselves by arms, but will submit unto authority, and wait till the promised opportunity be offered which they conceived to be at hand. And that as their forefathers lived in tents, so it would be suitable to their condition now to live in the same.”

While they were before the General they stood with their hats on, and being demanded the reasons thereof, they said, “Because he was but their fellow-creature.” Being asked the meaning of that phrase, “Give honour to whom honour is due”, they said, “Your mouth shall be stopped that puts such questions.” [2]

They were condemned to pay fines which, for those times, were excessive, and as they could not pay, distress was levied on their goods. But they were not so easily induced to abandon their cause; again and again they attempted anew to carry their idea into practice, only to be forcibly dispersed again. They also published pamphlets defending their ideas and protesting against the treatment they had received. These pamphlets are couched in somewhat mystical phraseology, which manifestly serves as a cloak to conceal the revolutionary designs of the authors.

As an example we may mention a pamphlet entitled, “The true Leveller standard advanced or The state of community opened and prepared to the sons of men-by William Everard, Gerrard Winstanley (here follow 13 names) beginning to plant and manure the waste land upon George Hill, in the Parish of Walton, in the County of Surrey, London 1649.”

It opens with a sentence which savours of the eighteenth century: “In the beginning of time the great Creator Reason made the earth to be a common treasury.”

It proceeds to state that through violence and usurpation, slavery and oppression first came into the world, and that this was the true Adam, the father of original sin. In a spirit of popular interpretation it adds: “But this coming in of bondage is called A-dam, because this ruling and teaching power without, doth dam the spirit of Peace and Liberty.”

It proceeds to relate a vision, but the words ascribed to the heavenly apparition betray its mundane purpose: “Work together, eat bread together, declare this all abroad,” are the words alleged to have been addressed to the person to whom it appeared (Everard), and “Israel shall neither take hire nor give hire”. [3]

But the voice is not satisfied with its denunciation of rent. It goes on to say: “Whosoever laboureth the earth for any person or persons that are lifted up to rule over others and doth not look upon themselves as equal as others in the creation: the hand of the Lord shall be upon that labourer: I, the Lord, have spoken it and I will do it.” [4] No plainer language could be used to stir up revolt against the landlords or provoke a strike of agricultural labourers and threaten “black-legs” with the wrath of God, manifesting itself by the hands of “God’s people”.

But the “true Levellers” were disappointed in their hopes. With the suppression of the first attempt to arouse agricultural labourers, by a singular “propaganda by deed”, before they had secured as many hundreds of adherents as they had hoped to gain thousands, their fate was sealed, more especially as actual rack-rents did not come into vogue until after the Restoration, and as the wages of agricultural labourers had not yet reached their lowest level. Moreover, and this was probably the decisive factor, the most energetic members of the peasantry were serving in the Army, where meanwhile a crushing blow had been inflicted on the Levellers.

Nevertheless they did not refrain from repetitions of the experiment, which of course were equally futile. In vol.xlii of the Calendar of State Papers there is a copy of a letter from Gerrard Winstanley and John Palmer, on behalf of their associates, to the Council of State of the Commonwealth, wherein they protest against the attacks of a priest named Platt and others to the effect “that we and others called ‘diggers’ are riotous, will not be ruled by the justices, have seized a house and put four guns into it, and are ‘Cavaliers’, and wait for an opportunity to bring in the prince (Charles II), on which you sent soldiers to beat us. These reports are untrue. We are peaceable men, do not resist our enemies, but pray God to quiet their hearts, and we desire to conquer them by love”.

It then goes on, very appositely:

We plough and dig, that the impoverished poor may get a comfortable livelihood and think that we have a right to do it by virtue of the conquest over the late king who had William the Conqueror’s title to the land ... But if the Norman power is still upheld we have lost by sticking to the Parliament.

We joined them, relying on their promises of freedom of land, and claim freedom to enjoy the common lands, bought by our money and blood. We claim it by equality in the contest. Parliament and Army said they acted for the whole nation; you gentry have your enclosures free, and we claim a freedom in the common land.

There is waste land enough and to spare. We only desire leave to work and enjoy the fruits of our labour. If this is denied we must raise collections for the poor out of your estates; but many are proud, and desperate, and will rob and steal rather than take charity, and many are ashamed to beg; but if the land were granted there would not be a beggar or idle person.

England could then support itself, and is a stain to religion for land to be waste and yet many to starve.

If you grant the land we shall rejoice in you and the Army protecting our work, and serve you at will.

This letter supplies in simple words a good criticism of the English Revolution from the standpoint of the proletarian of the period. Carlyle, notwithstanding the supercilious manner in which he does so, is quite right when representing the Levellers and their followers as saying to themselves in 1649:

“God’s enemies having been fought down, chief Delinquents all punished, and the Godly Party made triumphant, why does not some Millennium arrive?” The question whether farmers, peasants and labourers should have laid down their lives for nothing was quite natural and justified, and no less justified was the remark, in the letter referred to: “if the Norman power” (the traditional distribution of property) “is still upheld we have lost by sticking to the Parliament”. In fact, the labouring agricultural population, as a class, was destined to lose by the Revolution, at least for the time being; their exploiters were emancipated, but the exploitation was intensified. They had not realized this at the outset, when the struggle with the King was represented as a fight for God’s justice against priestcraft, and for liberty against tyranny, or for “eternal justice”, as Carlyle says. How were the poor country-people to know that “eternal justice” in the seventeenth century meant the overthrow of divine right and the enthronement of the right of property?

The document from which we have just quoted is the last manifestation of collective action on the part of the “true Levellers”. Neither in the class whose cause they championed nor in the existing social conditions did they find a foothold for their movement. Those of them who were reluctant to abandon their agitation to improve social conditions had no alternative but to join allied movements which found more favour. And this in fact was what eventually happened, as we shall see hereafter.

The second volume of the “Clarke” papers contains some information about the “diggers”. The last-quoted letter addressed by Winstanley to the Council of State is here shown to bear the date December 8, 1649, whilst in the Calendar of State Papers it is erroneously dated 1653. As appears from another letter emanating from some of the “diggers”, reproduced in the “Clarke” papers [5], the event related in Winstanley’s letter occurred on November 28, 1649. A notable feature in the last-mentioned letter is the complaint of the writers that the landlords, at whose instigation Commonwealth soldiers were pulling down the “diggers’” house, were Royalists. They say: “But if you inquire into the business you will finde that the Gentlemen that sett the souldgers on are enemyes to you, for some of the chiefe had hands in the Kentish rising against the Parliament.” The signatories, seven in number, request, on behalf of their fellows, that the soldiers should be called to account, in order “that the country may know that you had noe hand in such an unrighteous and cruell act”. However, the Council of State was probably more concerned to placate the middle class by enforcing law and order.

The same volume from which we take this letter also contains a “Digger’s Song”, found among the “Clarke” manuscripts. We cannot refrain from reproducing here at least a few verses of this communistic song, which most probably was sung to some popular tune

You noble Diggers all, stand up now, stand up now,
You noble Diggers all, stand up now;
The waste Land to maintain, seeing Cavaliers by name
Your digging does disdaine, and persons all defame.
Stand up now, stand up now.

Aristocracy, gentry, lawyers, and clergy are handled in turn:

With spades, and hoes, and plowes, stand up now, etc.
Your Freedom to uphold, seeing Cavaliers are bold
To kill you if they could, and rights from you to hold.
Stand up now, diggers all.

The Cavaliers would pull down houses and terrorize the poor people, but “the gentry must come down” and the poor men must “bear the crown”. Despotism is the Cavaliers’ law, and they do not consider it a sin to starve poor people, but

The gentry is all round, on each side they are found;
Their wisdom is so profound to cheat us from our ground.

The lawyers come next. They advise how the poor are to be imprisoned, and devise all sorts of madness – “the devil in them lies”. Nor are the clergy forgotten

The Clergy they come in, and say it is a sin
That we should now begin, our freedom for to win.

They want their tithes and the lawyers want their fees, hence both approve of grinding the faces of the poor. Therefore the next verse bids them rise “’Gainst lawyers any ’gainst priests”, who are both tyrants and oath-breakers. They intimidate the poor by sheer force. But they cannot appeal to any vision which has bidden them to uphold such a law. The last verse but one attacks the Cavaliers who have revealed themselves as foes “By verses not in prose to please the singing boyes”. In fact, the Royalists deluged the country with songs and poems of every kind. [6] The last verse advocates a peaceful course

To conquer them by love, come in now, come in now.
To conquer them by love, come in now;
To conquer them by love, as it does you behove,
For he is king above, no power is like to love,
Glory hear Diggers all.

While this ballad is only remarkable for its sentiments, another communistic song of those days has some poetical merit. We subjoin three verses of it in the orthography of the original

The Poore long
Have suffered wrong,
By the gentry of this Nation,
The Clergy they
Have bore a great sway
By their base insultation.
But they shall
Lye levell with al
They have corrupted our Fountains;
And then we shall see
Brave Community
When Vallies lye levell with Mountains.

The time is nigh
That this mystery
Shall be no more obscure,
And then we shall see
Such community
As shall alwayes indure
The Rich and Poore
Shall love each other
Respecting of Persons shall fall,
The Father alone
That sits in his throne
Shall be honoured of all.

The glorious Hate,
Which I do relate,
Unspeakable comfort shall bring,
The corn will be greene
And the Flowers seene
Our Store-houses they will be fill’d.
The Birds will rejoyce
With a merry voice
All things shall yield sweet increase.
Then let us all sing
And joy in our King
Which causeth all sorrowes to cease.

From “A mite cast into the common Treasury, by him who desireth or, Queries propounded (for all men to consider of) to advance the work of public community”. The author of this little publication, which appeared on December 18, 1649, signs himself as Robert Coster. The “Queries” which he propounds are kept throughout in the spirit of the “diggers”, and most skilfully and sarcastically formulated. He first asks whether it is not true that certain passages in the Bible praise community of goods and condemn the domination of men over men. Next he asks in “Query 3”: “Wether particular propriety was not brought into the roome of publick Community by Murther and Theft; and accordingly have been upheld and maintained?” And “wether such naked shameless doings do not lie lurking under fig-leave clothing, such as Sabboth, Fasting and Thanksgiving dayes, Doctrines, Formes and Worships?”

The fourth Query asks, among other things, whether it is not true that the strongest title in the landlord’s title-deed is “Take him, jayler!” The sixth and last Query is as to whether “it would not prove an Inlet to Liberty and Freedom, if poor men which want Imployment, and others which work for little wages, would go to digging and manuring the Commons, and waste places of the Earth; considering the effects that this would produce”. And these effects, according to the author, would be threefold: (i) “If Men would do as aforesaid, rather than to go with Cap in hand, and bended knee, to Gentlemen and Farmers, begging and intreating to work with them for 8d. or 10d. a day ... if poor men would not go in such a slavish posture, but do as aforesaid, then rich Farmers would be weary of renting so much Land of the Lords of the Manor.” (2) If the Lords of Manors could not let out their lands by parcels their income from rent (“those great baggs of money”) would be reduced, and consequently (3) “down would fall Lordliness of their spirits”, and then “there might be an acknowledging of one another to be fellow creatures”.

The “mad diggers” would seem to have had some knowledge of political economy.

But before the “diggers” abandoned their agitation, so far as its aims were of an economic nature, Gerrard Winstanley, their intellectual leader, wrote a pamphlet which unfolded the real principles and ultimate aims of the agitation without any attempt at concealment. This last independent work issuing from the “true Levellers” is also an important and interesting document in the history of Socialism. Dropping all mysticism and paraphrase, the author propounds a complete social system based on communistic principles, a Utopia, which unmistakably suggests some acquaintance with More’s Utopia. As the outcome and expression of a propaganda conducted among the labourers, and by reason of its democratic and revolutionary tendencies, it calls for fuller treatment.




1. This, of course, is to be taken in the sense of God’s people or perpetuators of the Jewish theocracy. Similar phrases are met with in the case of many religious-communistic sects of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The Munster Anabaptists also called themselves Israelites.

2. Communicated, inter alia, in B. Whitlocke’s Memorials of the English Affairs from the Reign of Charles 1 to the Restoration, p.384.

3. In view of this celestial “no rent” manifesto we may recall the sudden rise of rents in the seventeenth century, the years from 1647 to 1650 being years of scarcity, which in some cases nearly amounted to famine (cf. Th. Rogers, History of Agriculture and Prices).

4. p.18.

5. Vol.ii, pp.215-217.

6. See the collection published after the Restoration under the title, Rump, or an Exact Collection of the Choycest Poems and Songs Relating to the Late Times, where two satirical poems on the Levellers are given.


Last updated on 21.11.2002