What did the diggers really believe?

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In 1649, amid the devastating upheavals of the English Civil War, a group calling themselves “True Levellers” fought for the economic equality of a “community of goods.” They wanted to have “all things in common”. Against private property and money, the Diggers, as they are better known today, wanted to “dig” on closed (private) land to feed themselves and others. They saw themselves as following in the footsteps of Jesus and the apostles.

The Diggers have since been seen as the forerunners of anarchism, socialism, environmentalism, and more radicalism, even until the twentieth century. In San Francisco in 1968, a community action / street theater group called themselves the Diggers in honor of the originals (actor Peter Coyote was one of the founders).

Most famous is that the early Diggers were claimed as the early Communists. Although the word “communism” was not coined until around 1840, the Diggers were in retrospect considered ancestors. For example, the name of Gerrard Winstanley, the most famous of the original True Levellers, was honored in the Soviet Union.

Not so fast, argues the academic Ariel Hessayon, who sees the Diggers “horizontally”, That is to say in their own time and place, and not“ vertically ”through time. The Diggers, like the “Baptists, Familists, ‘Ranters’, Quakers and Behmenists”, arrived in the midst of an explosion of cults, desperate enthusiasms in terrible times. They come from a centuries-old tradition of Biblical literalists, many of whom are ruthlessly suppressed by Church and State. All of the post-facto hagiography surrounding the Diggers has “largely obscured [this] important theological aspect of the discussion.

Hessayon ​​wants to put it right: “Although the radical Diggers’ activities are best understood as a practical response to the ravages of the English civil wars, widespread poverty, desperate food shortages, economic decay and plague epidemics, their adoption of a community of goods was based on a proscribed reading of a biblical text.

This text was Acts 4:23. In the words of the authorized version of 1611: “And the multitude of those who believed were of one heart and one soul; neither of them said that none of the things they owned were theirs; but they had everything in common. As Hessayon ​​explains, “many ancient Christian heresies” included collective ownership of property, but “some Protestant sects as well.” These groups “all […] saw themselves as communities imitating apostolic practice.

In the Diggers’ own light, they were “a spiritual and temporal community of love and righteousness, members of the mystical body of Christ living in the last days before the destruction of Babylon and the coming of the Lord.”

The world of the Diggers, as Hessayon ​​describes it, must have seemed apocalyptic. The execution of King Charles I in January 1649 “turned the world upside down”. Winstanley evocatively described the “old world” as “rising like a parchment in the fire and wearing itself out.” The sword, pestilence, famine, and plagues were regarded by many, including Winstanley’s followers, as the judgment of God. The Diggers were only one of many sectarian responses to multiple crises. Flemings and visionaries, Ranters and Muggletonians, Quakers and Puritans, all competed for the followers by promising new worlds, new worlds that would be Heaven on Earth in the midst of the hells that surround them.

“Most of the historical writings on radicalism and the English Revolution can be considered fabrication, in the sense of both fabrication and invention,” argues Hessayon. The Diggers, taken out of their original religious framework and secularized, are an excellent example of how the fantasies of future generations can be leveled and stripped of their historical specificity, of their fundamental religiosity.


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By: ARIEL HESSAYON

Journal for the Study of Radicalism, Vol. 3, n ° 2 (AUTUMN 2009), p. 1-49

Michigan State University Press


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