Click on the headline to link to a YouTube film clip of Billy Bragg (Known In This Space As Narrator Of Woody Guthrie And His Guitar: The Machine Kills Fascists)performing The World Turned Upside Down.
Winstanley, starring Miles Harriwell, directed by Kenneth Brownlow, 1975
The time of the English Revolution in the 1640's, Oliver Cromwell's time, as in all revolutionary times saw a profusion of ideas from all kinds of sources- religious, secular, the arcane, the fanciful and the merely misbegotten. A few of those ideas however, as here, bear study by modern militants. As the film under review amplifies, True Leveler Gerrard Winstanley's agrarian socialist utopian tracts from the 1640's, the notion of a socialist solution to the problems of humankind has a long, heroic and storied history. The solutions presented by Winstanley had and, in a limited sense, still do represent rudimentary ways to solve the problem of social and economic distribution of the social surplus produced by society. Without overextending the analogy Winstanley's tract represented for his time, the 1600's, what the Communist Manifesto represented for Marx's time-and ours-the first clarion call for the new more equitable world order. And those with property hated both men, with the same venom, in their respective times.
One of the great advances Marx had over Winstanley was that he did not place his reliance on an agrarian solution to the crisis of society as Winstanley, by the state of economic development of his times, was forced to do. Marx, moreover, unlike Winstanley, did not concentrate on the question of distribution but rather on who controlled the means of production a point that all previous theorists had either failed to account for, dismissed out of hand or did not know about. Thus, all pre-Marxist theory is bound up with a strategy of moral as well as political persuasion as a means of changing human lifestyles. Marx posed the question differently by centering on the creation of social surplus so that under conditions of plenty the struggle for daily survival would be taken off the human agenda and other more lofty goals put in its place. Still, with all the True Levelers' weaknesses of program and their improbabilities of success in the 1640's militants today still doff our hats to Winstanley's vision.
Notwithstanding the utopian nature of the experiment discussed above the filmmaker, Kenneth Brownlow, and his associates here have painstakingly, lovingly and with fidelity to the narrative and detail that are known from the researches of the likes of Christopher Hill and George Sabine, among others, that make for an excellent snapshot of what it might have been like up on Winstanley's St. George's Hill long ago. Two things add to that end.
First, the use of black and white highlights the bleak countryside (after all although the land was "common" it was waste that the landlord did not find it expedient to cultivate) and the pinched appearances of the "comrades" (especially the deeply-farrowed expressions of Miles Harriwell as Winstanley). Secondly, the director has used to the greatest extent possible Winstanley's own pamphlets that dealt with what was going on in Surrey and what his political purposes were (expressed as almost always in those days in religious terms- but taking land in common for use rather than profit is understanding in any language. I might add that the attempts to replicate the costumes of the period, the furnishings and the music round out a job well done.
Note: Part of this DVD contains a section on the hows and whys of the making of the film, including in-depth coverage of its making and commentary by Mr. Brownlow. You are getting this film for the Winstanley reenactment but this section is interesting if you are interested in filmmaking.
THE FOLLOWING IS A SONG BASED ON THE DIGGER EXPERIENCE IN 1650
If John Milton was the literary muse of the English Revolution then the Diggers and their leader, Gerrard Winstanley, were the political muses.
The World Turned Upside Down
We will not worship the God they serve, a God of greed who feeds the rich while poor folk starve.
In 1649 to St. George's Hill
A ragged band they called the Diggers came to show the people's
They defied the landlords, they defied the laws
They were the dispossessed reclaiming what was theirs.
We come in peace, they said, to dig and sow
We come to work the lands in common and make the waste
This earth divided we will make whole
So it may be a common treasury for all "**
The sin of property we do disdain
No man has any right to buy or sell the earth for private gain
By theft and murder they took the land
Now everywhere the walls spring up at their command
They make the laws to chain us well
The clergy dazzle us with heaven, or they damn us into hell
We will not worship the God they serve,
a God of greed who feeds the rich while poor folk starve
We work and eat together, we need no swords
We will not bow to masters, nor pay rent to the lords
Still we are free, though we are poor
Ye Diggers all, stand up for glory, stand up now!
From the men of property the orders came
They sent the hired men and troopers to wipe out the Diggers'
Tear down their cottages, destroy their corn
They were dispersed - only the vision lingers on
Ye poor take courage, ye rich take care
This earth was made a common treasury for everyone to share
All things in common, all people one
They came in peace - the order came to cut them down
WORDS AND MUSIC BY LEON ROSSELSON, 1981