The Russians have a saying: 'The past is unpredictable.' So it has proved for Gerrard Winstanley. For all but one of his 67 years he lived in obscurity and then he died forgotten. Generations of historians passed over him either in silence or derision. He entirely eluded the notice of the Earl of Clarendon in the 17th century and of David Hume in the 18th. Even the Jacobin William Godwin, the first champion of the Civil War radicals, judged his exploits 'scarcely worthy to be recorded', and S.R. Gardiner's comprehensive history of the Commonwealth contained only two references to him, one a bare mention of his name. Then in the early 20th century, Winstanley was rediscovered, and he has exerted a magnetic pull on left-leaning intellectuals ever since. He is variously credited as the father of English communism, socialism or environmentalism, depending on which is seeking paternity. His notice in the Victorian DNB was a scant 700 words; in the new DNB it has ballooned to more than 8000. Now he has been canonised by the publication of an Oxford edition of his complete works, the second complete works in a century, more than have been accorded either Hobbes or Locke.
LRB 17 February 2011 | PDF Download