Gerrard Winstanley on Power – Real and Imagined

Gerrard Winstanley (1609-1676) first began publishing radical religious pamphlets in 1648, during the latter half of the English Revolution and Civil Wars. In January 1649, around the time of the execution of Charles I by the English Parliament, he published his first explicitly political pamphlet, The New Law of Righteousness (excerpted in Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas). A few months later, he put his ideas into action. He and a group of like-minded people, who came to be called the Diggers, sought to reclaim “waste” (unoccupied) lands at St. George’s Hill in Surrey, England, and to create an agrarian, libertarian communist settlement. They were eventually run out of the area by hostile land owners, moving to Cobham Heath, where they were able to maintain a new settlement until they were again run off the land in April 1650. About a month beforehand,, Winstanley published one of his most anarchistic pamphlets, Fire in the Bush. Here, I provide an analysis of Winstanley’s pamphlet, which contains noteworthy parallels to the writings of Cornelius Castoriadis in the late 20th century.

From The Anarchist Current: A History of Anarchist Ideas – Gerrard Winstanley, Digger and Anarchist

Fire in the Bush, published in March 1650, was one of Winstanley’s last political writings before the Digger experiment was forcibly ended. In it, Winstanley develops an analysis of the psychopathology of hierarchical societies. He argues that in addition to the kingly powers that hold the people in bondage – coercive government, the legal system, private property and the ideological apparatus (the Church and universities) – there is another that dwells within us all: the “imaginary self ruling in man’s heart.” [Hill, page 235]

Just as the “Kingdom of Heaven,” or “universal love, or pure knowledge,” lies within everyone, so does the “selfish imaginary power […] of darkness,” which seeks fulfilment in things outside of the self, like wealth and power. [Hill, pp. 218, 221] Through the power of imagination, people deceive themselves into thinking that they could achieve happiness if only they had more wealth, more power, more pleasure. But this just leads to conflict, as each person seeks their own satisfaction at the expense of others, jealous of their power and possessions, and envious of other’s. They mistake good for evil, and evil for good, judging things in terms of whether they are for their own benefit or to their disadvantage. [Hill, pp. 220 – 221] The selfish imagination fills people with “fears, doubts, troubles, evil surmisings and grudges,” stirring up “wars and divisions,” as each person seeks more power, more riches and more pleasures. [Hill, page 221]

This way of thinking lies at the root of all “power, authority and government.” [Hill, pp. 223 -224] It “makes men envy, censure and destroy one another; and to take pleasure in none but what pleases self.” People seek power over others to stop them from having power over them. Man “will oppress others, lest others oppress him; and fears he shall be in want hereafter: therefore he takes by violence that which others have laboured for.” [Hill, page 226]

While earlier Christians, such as Pelagius, had pointed to the futility of seeking spiritual fulfilment through the satisfaction of earthly ambitions and desires, Winstanley expressly ties this avaricious psychology to the emergence of hierarchical societies and authoritarian institutions, like the church and the state.

Rather than seeing government as the only means of escaping the war of all against all (the so-called “state of nature”), as Thomas Hobbes did, Winstanley sees coercive government as the institutionalization of the state of nature, leading to the perpetuation of violence, domination, exploitation and conflict, instead of their supersession. The kingly powers create, rather than prevent, “divisions and war.” Winstanley makes the point that it is inaccurate therefore to describe the condition of social conflict that results in the creation of dominating institutions as a state of nature, for it is “nature or the living soul” that is held “in bondage” by the selfish imaginary power that is incarnated in these institutions. [Hill, page 268]   

The power of authoritarian institutions is ultimately based on an internalized ideological conceptualization of the self and society. People create their own imaginary chains that bind them to a society of domination. Winstanley’s social psychology of domination provides an explanation for the voluntary obedience to authority that de la Boétie found so perplexing.

Winstanley’s notion of the “selfish imaginary power” foreshadows, in a strikingly modern way, Cornelius Castoriadus’ concept of the “social imaginary.” For Winstanley, the various manifestations of the “kingly powers” are concrete expressions of a shared imaginary conception of social life as a competitive struggle for status. Similarly, Castoriadis argues that there is an “originary psychical core” that “we carry within us and which always dreams, whatever our age, of being all-powerful and at the center of the world.” [Castoriadis, Philosophy, Politics, Autonomy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), page 135.]

Unlike Castoriadis, however, Winstanley conceives of the “selfish imaginary power” as something entirely negative. He contrasts it with the “righteous spirit” of truth that each must find within themselves, the basis of “true community,” which makes “every one to seek the preservation and peace of others as of themselves,” no longer seeking fulfilment through the “outward objects” of prestige, status, power and property with which Satan tempts us. [Hill, page 222] Winstanley retains the radical Christian notion of the “kingdom of heaven within,” the spirit of Christ that “will have all saved.” [Hill, page 222] He straddles a more traditional religious conception of reality and a more modern conception of social transformation, through a process of self and social (re)creation, that nevertheless remains steeped in Christian imagery.

For Castoriadis, the social imaginary is not just constitutive of existing heteronomous social forms. The social imaginary has a radical aspect to it that provides a basis for creating collective autonomy. The “radical imaginary” allows for “the emergence of something new” that transcends the “underlying imaginary significations” of existing institutions. [Castoriadis, Vol. 1, pp. 30 – 31] The object of politics is not to achieve any particular end state, but “the instauration of a state of affairs in which man as a social being is able and willing to regard the institutions that rule his life as his own collective creations” that are in state of “perpetual” transformation and “renewal.” [Castoriadis, Vol. 1, page 31] This is a variation of the concept of “permanent revolution” first articulated by 19th century anarchists, whereas Winstanley’s view of social change retains an element of Christian eschatology, as he foresees the attainment of a “new Jerusalem” where all will “live in peace and rest.” [Hill, pp. 222 – 223]

But Winstanley and Castoriadis share the view that social and personal transformation must go hand in hand. For Winstanley, a libertarian communist society requires not only the abolition of the kingly powers, but a new way of relating to the world and to each other. People must attain a state of inner contentment and enlightenment in order to deliver themselves “from that bondage within,” so that they no longer seek fulfillment through greater riches and status. [Hill, page 271] Castoriadis argues in a like vein that “the conditions that make it possible for” a self-instituting society “to function have to be incorporated in a certain fashion into our social organization as well as into the organization of individuals’ psyches.” [Vol. 1, page 34]

Both Winstanley and Castoriadis extoll the virtues of an inner freedom. For Castoriadis, this is the ability to put a society’s “own imaginary into question.” Not only is “the mere absence of censure or repression” not enough to achieve this, it is sometimes easier to do “under tyrannical regimes” than “under apparently liberal regimes,” because the repressive imaginaries of tyrannical regimes are more readily apparent. [Vol. 1, pp. 34 – 35] Winstanley expresses similar views, writing that even “if I were in prison without,” I can still achieve “freedom within.” [Hill, page 229] The main difference between Castoriadis and Winstanley on this point is that, for Castoriadis, the process of putting social imaginaries into question is a never-ending one, whereas Winstanley looks forward to a time when people are able to achieve both inner and outer peace and freedom.

However, unlike many other radical Christians and “antinomians,” Winstanley does not substitute for the kingly powers a power within that will ensure obedience to God’s will under threat of supernatural sanctions. Winstanley’s vision of an anarchist arcadia does not require that everyone carry a gendarme in their breast. While Winstanley would have agreed with Max Stirner that people’s actions are governed, to a certain extent, by “spooks” in their heads, for Winstanley the biggest spook is the selfish imaginary power, the very egoism that Stirner put at the centre of his philosophy.

It is in Fire in the Bush that Winstanley comes closest to proclaiming himself an anarchist. He poses the question that if what he says is true, then this “will destroy all government and all our ministry and religion,” answering yes, that when people find the kingdom of God within them, “all rule and all authority and all power” will have been put down. [Hill, page 243] The kingly powers “must be shaken to pieces.” [Hill, page 233 – 234] True “magistracy” is not the magistracy of the sword, but reason, truth, and ethics. It is not the power of the sword, but the power of love, that will bind people together, instead of making them enemies of one another. [Hill, pp. 244 – 245]

Winstanley’s anarchist writings of 1649 – 1650 remain a remarkable achievement. His critique of existing English institutions, the market economy, private property, wage labour, and other elements of the “agrarian capitalism” that was being consolidated in England, was unparalleled for its time. [Meikson Woods, Liberty and Property, page 280] So was his analysis of the inter-relationships between economic and political power, hierarchy and domination, and the social psychology that sustained and promoted the hierarchical social, economic and political structures and relations under which the English people then laboured.

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