The Official History of the World gets written by those in power to stifle change by making the power structure appear inevitable and natural. But history is filled with examples of people who rejected the system of private ownership and power and built alternatives based on cooperation, sharing, and communal land ownership. The Diggers movement in England is an early—and thus remarkable—example of collective action that inspires free thinkers to this day. Its memory is preserved largely because of the eloquent pamphlets it published.
In April 1649, as food prices reached an all-time high, unemployed laborers and landless peasants began to dig up common land and plant vegetables on Saint George’s Hill, near Surrey, England. Gerrd Winstanley and friend invited “all to come in and help them, and promise them meat, drink, and clothes.” They decided to pull down fences and property boundaries and invite others to come and work with them. The Diggers—because they dug up the land—envisioned that if the landless people of England formed self-supporting communes, the land-owning classes would become pointless. The elite would be forced to join the communes or starve, as there wouldn’t be anyone left to work their fields or pay rent to them for use of their property.
When the local landowners caught wind of what was going on, they first sent troops and when they failed to remove the Diggers, they organized gangs to attack them. Many Diggers were beaten and a communal house was set on fire. After the landowners won a court case to evict the Diggers, they left St George’s Hill to avoid attack from the army. Within 2 years, the movement was totally dispersed.
Winstanley argued that private property, but especially land as the source of all wealth, “is the cause of all wars, bloodshed, theft, and enslaving laws that hold the people under miserie.” He believed that if the diggers could cultivate the commons and wastelands, the example would be so infectious that all the poor of England would join the Diggers.
The Digger pamphlets present no plan for administrative or governmental policy. Winstanley assumed that the example of small groups working in occupied land in brother and sister-hood would sweep all before it and convert England and eventually the world. The problems of self-defense and internal disruption were answered with total pacifism before which, he hoped, power would simply dissolve. The violent suppression of the Diggers by both mob and authority forced Winstanley to consider the question of power anew. Was his utopia a workable policy? To this day, radicals, socialists, and anarchists all claim Winstanley as an ancestor.
In the 1960s, modern Diggers in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco, California and New York promoted a vision of society free from private property and all forms of buying and selling. The modern Diggers combined street theater, anarcho-direct action, and art happenings in their agenda of creating a Free City. Their most famous activities revolved around distributing Free Food every day in the park—an obvious precursor to Food Not Bombs—and distributing “surplus energy” at a series of Free Srores where everything was free for the taking. The Free Store was where “reality came to change its wardrobe.” Soldiers from Vietnam, who had gone A.W.O.L. would head to the Free Store, entre in full military uniform, and leave looking like any other hippie on the street, often carrying a new ID as well. Through their underground movement, the Diggers created the first Free Medical Clinic.
Check out Ringolevio by Emmett Grogan/ Planet Drum Foundation founded by former Digger Peter Berg. Leon Rosselson set the English Diggers original words to music. Bands Chumbawumba and Billy Bragg also have versions of the songs.