Gerrard Winstanley, The Law of Freedom, 1652

by Brad Young

Winstanely, Gerrard. Law of Freedom and Other Writings, ed. Christopher Hill (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1973).

“I will confess,” said the prince, “an indulgence of fantastick delight more dangerous than yours. I have frequently endeavoured to image the possibility of a perfect government…” -Samuel Johnson, The History of Rasselas.

“True freedom lies in the community in spirit and community in the earthly treasury.” -Gerrard Winstanley, A Watch-Word to the City of London, 1649.

Taking us back in time for a moment, but for hopefully worthwhile and intriguing reasons, this reading is a pamphlet by Gerrard Winstanley published in 1652 during England’s parliamentary interregnum. The Law of Freedom in a Platform; or, True Magistracy Restored was written shortly following Winstanley’s involvement in the Digger, or True Leveller, commune that lasted from 1649-1650. Winstanley writes the pamphlet as a letter to His Excellency Oliver Cromwell. His primary concern is that, though the King is dead, “kingly government” may yet live on in the forms of “the kings’ old law” (280). Therefore, a total reformation is required is England is to have a true commonwealth. Otherwise, the parliamentary boss is the same as the kingly boss.

The prime target of Winstanley’s attack is “that cheating art of buying and selling” (306), by means of which kings, nobles, and the church enrich themselves at others’ expense. Furthermore, this ‘art’ sets people and nations against one another and is therefore not only the cause of oppression by a ruling class, but also of tearing apart communities and of foreign wars. According to Winstanley, this practice is not merely to be regulated; rather, the buying and selling of all things has to be abolished.  Winstanley text is, unlike More’s, an unambiguous argument for a kind of agrarian communism. This utopia is not meant to be debated; it is to be implemented immediately.

Without spending too much time on the details his argument, I think for our purposes it would be especially useful to focus on how this work fits in with and the broader trajectory of Enlightenment-era utopian texts.

Winstanley’s text has interesting parallels to both Bacon and More. Like Bacon, he regularly appeals to biblical authority to justify seemingly incongruous, radically secular ends. For example, in his discussion of the sabbath, which must be kept “according to one of the laws of Israel’s commonwealth made by Moses” (345), he argues that it must be kept so the people can spend the day learning of national and international affairs, and hear lectures on history, the various sciences, and moral philosophy. Furthermore, he argues that “because other nations are of several languages, therefore these speeches may be made sometimes in other languages, and sometimes in our mother tongue, that so the men of our English commonwealth may attain to all knowledges, arts, and languages” (347-8). And no mention is made of spending the sabbath in church or reading the Bible.

Also similar to Bacon, save for three references to “Machiavellian” pursuits of power, there are no references to any text other than the Bible. And with these, the text is shot through. This pervasive use of the Bible, and also his understanding of the rule of society being rooted in the patriarchal rule of the father in the household, also mirrors many contemporary and medieval political theorists. But he turns this strategy completely on its head. Rather than using this notion as a means to justify the rule of the king and use his text to advice on how to be a good father/ruler, he argues instead that because the father should love his children equally, so should there be real, material equality throughout society. There are no slaves or servants here, save for those who have been repeatedly convicted of a crime. For non-violent offenses, convicted criminals are initially reproached in private, then in public, and then if they persist in their criminal ways, they will be forced to work as a servant.

However, to keep everyone in line, and here is one of the similarities to More, there is a vast network of ‘overseers’ facilitating the administration and management of the society. Yet, what is perhaps a unique feature of Winstanley’s utopia, his primary concern is for the poor and oppressed: not some scientific aristocracy, not the artisans, and clearly not the nobility. Thus, even in this work, “to oversee [is]…to remove all grievances and to ease the people that are oppressed” (338). Furthermore, all of these positions are elected by the people and rotate every year so that all over 40-year old men have the opportunity to participate in the government.

If we consider this in relation to our readings as well as those it perhaps resembles more closely (e.g. Plato’s Republic, Augustine’s City of God, or late-Enlightenment utopias like Godwin’s Political Justice, or Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man), is the Law of Freedom part of a subgenre of utopian texts? The political utopia?

Additionally, though I hadn’t intended any tie in with Rasselas, reading the above-mentioned quote from Chapter XLIV on “The dangerous prevalence of imagination” (122), what is so dangerous about this kind of utopian imagining as opposed to Johnson’s?