Gerrard Winstanley’s Christian Communism
by John Gurney / 25.12.2020
“In the summer of 1918, as the first anniversary of the October Revolution approached, steps were taken in Moscow to implement one of Lenin’s pet projects, his plan for monumental propaganda. According to a decree that had been issued on 12 April, surviving symbols of the Tsarist regime were to be systematically removed, and monuments to past revolutionary thinkers and activists set up along major routes in the metropolis. Similar plans were laid for Petrograd. Among the old Tsarist symbols which faced destruction was a large granite obelisk standing prominently in the Alexander Gardens by the Kremlin, and which had been erected as recently as 1913 to commemorate 300 years of Romanov rule. It was Lenin who took the decision to save the obelisk, when it became clear that re-use might be preferable to demolition. As civil war in Russia intensified, work on new monuments had proved much more difficult than expected, and it was apparent that few would be ready for the first anniversary celebrations. It made good sense to recycle an older monument, even at the risk of upsetting Moscow’s avant-garde artists and sculptors. The Romanov two-headed eagle was removed from the Alexander Gardens obelisk, and the names of tsars were effaced; in their place the names of 19 leading revolutionary thinkers were inscribed.
As might be expected, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels headed the list, but the eighth name was that of ‘Uinstenli’, or Gerrard Winstanley (1609–76), best known as leader of the seventeenth-century English Diggers, who in April 1649 had occupied waste land at St George’s Hill in Surrey, sowed the ground with parsnips, carrots and beans, and declared their hope that the Earth would soon become ‘a common treasury for all, without respect of persons’. Why should Lenin and his associates have chosen Winstanley as one of the thinkers whose work might be seen to have helped pave the way for the massive upheavals of October 1917? What was it that brought Winstanley into this Pantheon of great revolutionaries, and provided a link, however tenuous, between the English and Russian revolutions? At first sight, the presence of Winstanley’s name seems puzzling. Winstanley was not particularly well known even in his own time, and he was certainly not one of the dominant figures of his age. His period of public activity lasted for only a brief, four-year period from 1648 to 1652, and the Diggers were active for little more than a year before their colonies in Surrey and elsewhere were broken up, their crops trampled and their houses burned.
In the two centuries after Winstanley’s death his writings were read by only a small number of people, and it was not until the last decade of the nineteenth century that his life and works became better known, and socialists came to rediscover a figure who appeared to anticipate many of their own beliefs. The mid-century Chartists had known and praised the Leveller leader John Lilburne, but Winstanley passed them by. His rediscovery came too late even for Marx and Engels, to whom Winstanley’s ideas were apparently completely unknown. There is no evidence that William Morris, the English socialist whose News from Nowhere might seem to indicate a knowledge of Winstanley’s writings, had ever read a word of them. It was Eduard Bernstein who in 1895 provided the first systematic analysis of Winstanley’s ideas in his contribution to Karl Kautsky’s Forerunners of Modern Socialism, thus enabling Marxist intellectuals for the first time to appreciate their significance. Winstanley was a religious thinker and visionary, strongly influenced by the mystical writings that were so popular among radicals in the English Revolution; his work was suffused with biblical quotation and he shared fully in the millenarian excitement of the age.
In many ways there was a world of difference between him and late nineteenth-century Marxists. Yet it is possible to understand how the latter might come to take an interest in Winstanley and to see in him a precursor, however distant, of Marx. Winstanley’s views were always distinctive: he chose to use the word Reason in place of the word God, he insisted that humanity and the whole creation had been corrupted by covetousness, competitiveness and false dealings, and he anticipated a time when all would come to recognise the virtue of abandoning private property and working in common. In Winstanley’s writings Marxists could find some of the most trenchant criticisms of contemporary social relations to appear from a seventeenth-century pen, and they would readily have acknowledged the importance of his insight that only a wholesale transformation of society, brought about by knowledgeable, regenerate individuals working together, would rid humankind of suffering and exploitation. All of society’s and the earth’s problems could, it seemed, be linked to the rise of private property and monetary exchange; the creation of a moneyless and property-less society was not only desirable but inevitable. The forthcoming transformation – the ‘restoration of all things’ – would be liberating for all, rich as well as poor.
To late nineteenth-century students of Marx, Winstanley’s vision of ‘community’ might appear consistent with their understanding of communism – a word first coined in their own century. Through a close reading of Winstanley, they might also – as Eduard Bernstein and Georgi Plekhanov both did – spot rudimentary attempts to formulate familiar Marxian concepts such as alienation and the labour theory of value. It is no wonder that Bernstein, who did so much to make Winstanley’s writings better known, could in 1895 describe Winstanley as being well ahead of his contemporaries, and praise the skill with which he made connections between the social conditions of his time and their causes. Winstanley’s appeal to Marxists lay not only in his perceptive social criticism, but also in his recognition of the importance of agency and self-emancipation. Like many seventeenth-century radicals Winstanley proclaimed his preference for action over words, but while some radicals advocated charitable help for the poor, Winstanley was insistent that the poor should take responsibility for freeing themselves from their burdens. The actions of the poor in working the land in common, and in refusing to work for hire, would both signal the impending changes and help usher them in. Marxist readers of Winstanley, deeply engaged as many of them were in the political struggles of their own time, would find no difficulty in endorsing Winstanley’s observation that ‘action is the life of all, and if thou dost not act, thou dost nothing’.
In his religious writings too Winstanley might be seen to have gone further than many of his contemporaries. His deep anticlericalism was directed not only against the institutions and personnel of the established church, but against all organised religion, including the radical sects. Marxists encountering Winstanley for the first time would welcome Winstanley’s fierce criticism of the social functions of religion, and of versions of Christianity that focused primarily on individual salvation. It was actions here on earth, rather than any promise of future salvation, that for Winstanley formed the essence of true religion; the question of the existence of heaven or hell was consequently of lesser concern to him. While most historians today would identify Winstanley’s religious position as an extreme example of a belief in a religion of conduct, it is easy to understand why turn-of-the-century Marxists might see him – as many of his contemporaries had – as at heart an atheist, and as someone who used religious language principally to cloak secular arguments. In this, as in so many other ways, Winstanley could appear to them to be one of the most interesting forerunners of modern scientific socialism. The true picture is, of course, more complex. Even in the first few years after Winstanley’s popular rediscovery, his appeal seems to have been as great for anarchists and libertarians as for orthodox Marxists.
As early as 1899, the radical journalist and land campaigner Morrison Davidson was able to describe Winstanley as ‘our seventeenth-century Tolstoy’, and he was only the first of many to seek to associate the Digger with an anarchist rather than Marxist tradition. The struggle for Winstanley between Marxists and anarchists continued for much of the twentieth century. While in the late 1940s Communist Party intellectuals championed Winstanley as a materialist and a supporter of state action, George Woodcock could claim him in 1944 as a thinker who anticipated Kropotkin’s idea of Mutual Aid ‘as he anticipated anarchism in so many other ways’. George Orwell too believed that Winstanley’s thought ‘links up with anarchism rather than socialism’. Academics too soon came to see him as a figure of particular significance. The rise of modern academic interest in Winstanley is often associated, quite justifiably, with the work of the Oxford historian and Marxist Christopher Hill (1912–2003), whose contribution to our understanding of the Digger phenomenon remains highly influential. But many other professional historians, of a wide variety of political opinions, have added over the years to our knowledge of Winstanley’s life and ideas, as have leading literary scholars, theologians, legal historians and political scientists.
Voices of dissent are occasionally still heard, and the attention devoted by scholars to Diggers and other civil war radicals is still sometimes characterised as ‘wildly disproportionate’. Such comments may seem rather quaint and old fashioned today, a throwback to the 1950s when it was still possible to study mid seventeenth-century British history at degree level without hearing any mention of Winstanley’s name. But it is clear that in academic circles interest in Winstanley has never been the sole preserve of the left. The great Victorian historians S.R. Gardiner and C.H. Firth both took notice of Winstanley’s writings, while Perez Zagorin, certainly no Marxist, could in the 1950s praise Winstanley as a ‘genius’ and ‘one of the pre-eminent political thinkers of his time’. Even the redoubtable G.M. Trevelyan felt able to declare that Winstanley was of the ‘most attractive and noble type ever produced by our island’, and a figure well worth rescuing from the obscurity into which past prejudice had scandalously cast him. Winstanley became a writer and activist in the late 1640s, in the aftermath of England’s civil wars, and he can only properly be understood in the context of the political, economic and religious crisis of the post-war years.
The period from 1640 to 1660 – which encompassed civil war between king and parliament, the defeat and execution of Charles I, and the experiments in kingless rule that followed – is most commonly referred to today as the English Revolution. It was Christopher Hill who promoted the view that these two decades witnessed England’s most significant period of bourgeois revolution, and much of the focus of his early work was on the nature and dynamics of that revolution. From an early date, however, he also acknowledged the existence of an unfulfilled radical revolution that could be set alongside the one that succeeded, and it was here that Winstanley was seen to belong. By the time Hill came to write his groundbreaking book The World Turned Upside Down, which was published in 1972, his interests had turned firmly to this ‘revolt within the revolution’. Among the multitude of radical figures discussed in the book, Winstanley clearly stood out as the real hero, and the true revolutionary. The World Turned Upside Down was re-issued in paperback in 1975, and this helped to ensure that Winstanley’s ideas, set in the context of the radical ferment of the revolutionary decades, reached a much wider readership than ever before. Winstanley’s own work had also become available for the first time in a relatively cheap and accessible form, in Hill’s 1973 Pelican Classics edition of Winstanley’s The Law of Freedom and Other Writings. Both books had a widespread influence, and it is partly to them that we can ascribe the exceptional fame that Winstanley has come to enjoy.
The singer-songwriter Leon Rosselson recalled being ‘fired up by discovering Winstanley’ in The World Turned Upside Down; after reading it he sought out other books on Winstanley and wrote his Digger song ‘The World Turned Upside Down: Part 2’, which has since become one of the best-known protest anthems of recent years. Hill’s books were also read widely by students at the new British universities established in the 1960s – where radical ideas featured prominently in the many English Revolution ‘special subjects’ set up by admirers or former students of Hill – and at Oxford, where his influence remained strong even after his retirement. At Sussex, which quickly established itself as a leading centre of English Revolution studies, two special subject students in the 1970s reputedly followed Winstanley’s example and went off to set up their own commune. It was outside academia that Hill’s books had their most direct impact, and where interest in Winstanley has since grown most quickly. In recent decades Winstanley has become one of the most widely-celebrated figures from the period of the English Revolution, today perhaps more famous even than the Leveller leaders.
There have been plays, TV dramas, novels, songs and, in Kevin Brownlow and Andrew Mollo’s Winstanley, an important film. Politicians of the left have often cited him as an inspirational figure. His ideas and achievements have come to be seen as being particularly relevant to modern activists, and the Diggers are one of the historical groups with which activists today are most likely to identify. From the 1960s Haight-Ashbury Diggers, through Britain’s Hyde Park Diggers and Digger Action Movement, to twenty-first-century land campaigners, G20 Meltdown protestors and Occupy movement activists, there have been frequent echoes of Winstanley’s writings in the activities of modern social movements. We do not know how future generations will regard the Diggers, and whether Winstanley will retain his current, exalted place in the radical and revolutionary tradition. But, for the moment at least, the words of Leon Rosselson’s song (in the most optimistic of its many versions) hold good: the Diggers ‘were dispersed – but still the vision lingers on.’”
“…At some point in there Peter Berg shows me the Gerrard Winstanley book. That’s my St. Paul on the road to Damascus moment, where I read the accounts of the constable that was sent out. ‘Who are these people digging up the commons at Notting Hill and please report back’ and all this sort of stuff and I’m reading this and going, Holy shit! This is the same stuff—it’s 350 years later and we’re still hassling about the same stuff. That was a moment for me because it suddenly put it all in to this very long context.” – Claude Hayward, Communication Company
“The Digger Archives is an ongoing Web project to preserve and present the history of the anarchist guerrilla street theater group that challenged the emerging Counterculture of the Sixties and whose actions and ideals inspired (and continue to inspire) a generation (of all ages) to create models of Free Association. The Diggers were one of the legendary groups in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury, one of the world-wide epicenters of the Sixties Counterculture which fundamentally changed American and world culture. Shrouded in a mystique of anonymity, the Diggers took their name from the original English Diggers (1649-50) who had promulgated a vision of society free from private property, and all forms of buying and selling. The San Francisco Diggers evolved out of two Radical traditions that thrived in the SF Bay Area in the mid-1960s: the bohemian/underground art/theater scene, and the New Left/civil rights/peace movement. The Diggers combined street theater, anarcho-direct action, and art happenings in their social agenda of creating a Free City. Their most famous activities revolved around distributing Free Food every day in the Park, and distributing “surplus energy” at a series of Free Stores (where everything was free for the taking.) The Diggers coined various slogans that worked their way into the counterculture and even into the larger society – “Do your own thing” and “Today is the first day of the rest of your life” being the most recognizable. The Diggers, at the nexus of the emerging underground, were the progenitors of many new (or newly discovered) ideas such as baking whole wheat bread (made famous through the popular Free Digger Bread that was baked in one-and two-pound coffee cans at the Free Bakery); the first Free Medical Clinic, which inspired the founding of the Haight-Ashbury Free Medical Clinic; tye-dyed clothing; and, communal celebrations of natural planetary events, such as the Solstices and Equinoxes.
First and foremost, the Diggers were actors (in Trip Without A Ticket, the term “life actors” was used.) Their stage was the streets and parks of the Haight-Ashbury, and later the whole city of San Francisco. The Diggers had evolved out of the radicalizing maelstrom that was the San Francisco Mime Troupe which R.G. Davis, the actor, writer, director and founder of the Troupe had created over the previous decade. The Diggers represented a natural evolution in the course of the Troupe’s history, as they had first moved from an indoor milieu into the parks of the City, giving Free performances on stages thrown up the day of the show. The Digger energy took the action off the constructed platform and jumped right into the most happening stage yet – the streets of the Haight where a new youth culture was recreating itself, at least temporarily, out of the glaring eye of news reporters. The Diggers, as actors, created a series of street events that marked the evolution of the hippie phenomenon from a homegrown face-to-face community to the mass-media circus that splashed its face across the world’s front pages and TV screens: the Death of Money Parade, Intersection Game, Invisible Circus, Death of Hippie/Birth of Free. The Diggers broadcast these events, as well as their editorial comments of the day, pronouncements to the larger Hip Community, manifestos and miscellaneous communications, through broadsides and leaflets distributed by hand on Haight Street. These Web pages are my attempt to present the story of the digger movement as it developed in the mid-to-late sixties and early seventies (and evolved in various directions even to the present). I have been collecting this Archive for thirty years, and see the Web as a way to display the materials and make them available both for researchers and for all diggers past and present who want to preserve and participate in this history.”
“Emmett Grogan (c. 1943-1978) was a founder of the Diggers in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco, California who inspired Abbie Hoffman to undertake a similar venture on the Lower East Side of New York City during the mid-1960s. The Diggers were a hippie group that scrounged for and provided food and other services. They took their name from the Diggers of 17th Century England who were a radical movement opposed to feudalism, the Church of England and the British Crown. The Diggers of the 1960s can be compared with the present-day Food Not Bombs who feed homeless youth. Grogan’s penchant for personal myth making and distrust of the mainstream media resulted in few details of his life being reliably recorded. His 1972 autobiography, Ringolevio (A life played for keeps), is filled with embellishments and large portions of his pre- Digger life appear to be outright fabrications. This flexibility with the truth was part of Grogan’s larger social and political agenda and was meant to further Digger ideals. Grogan was also the author of Final Score, a fictional crime novel. Grogan shunned media attention, and became increasing suspicious of those who sought after it. In Ringolevio Grogan discusses the 1967 Human Be-In, taking shots at counterculture luminaries Timothy Leary, Jerry Rubin, and especially Abbie Hoffman.”
by Peter Coyote, May 8 1996
“The original Diggers were peasants who had banded together to fight the Enclosure Movement in Cromwell’s England. The King had confiscated the common grazing land to raise his own sheep to supply wool for his new mills. The people tried to take them back, arguing that no one had a right to appropriate private property for themselves, and the King sent Cromwell and his soldiers against them. They were nicknamed “The Diggers” because as the sun rose on them every morning, they were seen burying the dead of the last night’s battle. The San Francisco Diggers were initially assembled around the visionary acuity of Billy Murcott, a mysterious childhood friend of Emmett’s who believed that people had internalized material values and cultural premises about the sanctity of private property and capital so completely as to have become addicted to wealth and status. It was an enchantment so deep, an identity with jobs so absolute as to have eradicated all contact with inner wildness and personal expression not condoned by society. Free, as the Diggers understood it, in its broadest context, was the antidote to such addictions. For most people the word free means simply, “without limits”. Harnessed to the notion of enterprise, however, it has become the dominant engine of the culture. The perception that the vanquishing of limits was not only possible, but a necessary and valuable adjunct to successful living was so integral to American life as to remain unquestioned. In fact, personal freedom, as it was colloquially understood, had lots of limits: it limited aspirations (to adult adjustment, for instance), created continual cultural upheavals, ignored interdependence, violated the integrity of the family and community, exhausted biological niches and strip-mined common courtesy and civility from public life. In reaction to job-identity and the pursuit of material wealth, the Diggers sought the freedom of authenticity – the response to one’s own or other inspiring imaginings and visions of the world as opposed to those which evolved around the culture of capital; the freedom of new forms – new ways of living and interacting together which were not predicated on the premises of capital and markets – imagining a culture you would prefer and making it real by acting out.
Since we were all products of this culture, and could not always be immediately certain whether or not one’s ideas were truly inner-directed or not, we expanded the idea of freedom to include anonymity (freedom from fame) as well as eschewing payment for what we did, supposing that if one acted for personal recognition or wealth it was not really free at all. Freedom, from our point of view, meant personal liberation. Our hope was that if we were skillful enough in creating concrete examples of existence as free people, that the example would be infectious and produce real, self-directed (as opposed to coerced) social change. People who were actually enjoying a mode of existence that they imagined as best for them would be loath to surrender and more probably, would defend it. If that were to happen en masse, it might produce real social change. From our perspective, ideological analysis was often one more means to forestall the time and courage necessary to actually manifest an alternative. Furthermore, all ideological solutions, left and right, all undervalued the individual, and were quick to sacrifice them to the expediencies of their particular mental empires. We used to joke amongst ourselves that the Diggers would be “put up against the wall” not by the CIA or FBI, but by peers on the Left who would sacrifice anyone that created an impediment to their being in charge. Our disagreement with such folk and their policies put the burden on us to imagine modes of existence and manifest them as if the revolution were over and we had won. Our courage would be to create them in the present. Skill for these tasks was measured by ability not only to survive outside the dominant economic and social paradigm, but in one’s ability to employ the techniques of theater to transmit this survival information to others. The question was “how?”
I remember clearly the first day I went to the Panhandle with Emmett to see the Free Food. Hearty, steaming stew was being ladled out of large steel milk cans. Each portion was accompanied by loaves of bread that resembled mushrooms because they had been baked in one pound coffee cans, and as they rose over the edge of the tin, they spread into a cap-like shape. The morning stung your cheeks with damp fog, sharp with the smell of eucalyptus. Emmett and I stood just off to the side watching the line that led the people waiting with their ubiquitous tin cups, through a large square which had been constructed out of six foot long two by fours painted bright yellow. This was The Free Frame of Reference. In order to receive a meal, people stepped through it, and once on the other side, they were issued a tiny yellow replica about two inches square, attached to a cord for wearing. They were encouraged to bring this up to their eyes like a monocle and view any piece of reality through ‘a free frame of reference’. It was a simple piece of mental technology which allowed people to reconstruct (or deconstruct) their world-view at their own pace and direction. Emmett asked me if I’d like something to eat, and I said “No, I’ll leave it for people who need it.” He looked at me sharply and said, “That’s not the point” and pried open a door in my mind. The point was to do something that you wanted to do, for your own reasons. If you wanted to live in a world with free food, create it and participate in it. Feeding people was not an act of charity but an act of responsibility to a personal vision.
In John Nierhardt’s wonderful book, Black Elk Speaks, he recounts that the whole village acted out the dream of the young Black Elk, assuming roles and costumes and moving according to his directions. This realization of a dream in the flesh, is precisely what the Diggers were trying to accomplish. The implications of this last point were lost on people like Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin both of whom came West to investigate what we were up to. Abbie went home and published a book (for sale) called Free, which catalogued every free service in the city of New York which supported really needy people. He plastered his own picture over it thereby announcing himself as a “leader” of the free counter-culture. Abby was and remained a close friend, but one with whom I and the Diggers as a group had pronounced disagreements. One morning he woke up Peter Berg, pounding on his door and shouting in his New England twang, “Petah, Petah, I bet you think I stole everything from ya, doncha?” This was indisputably true. Berg opened the door, looked at him dyspeptically for a moment, then responded sleepily, “No, Abbie. I feel like I gave a good tool to an idiot.” While he was a wonderful human being, he failed to understand (willfully or not) the deepest implications of what he was about, and tended to live his life as if it were a media event, concentrating undue attention and energy to “revolutionizing” the masses through the media.
Relationships between us were severed over the debacle at the Democratic Convention in Chicago. Abbie and the group which later became identified as the Chicago Seven were inviting kids from all over the country to Chicago to participate in a mass rally to protest the policies of the Democratic party. Flyers promoting the event advertised entertainment, camp-grounds and facilities that the organizers knew did not exist. However they felt that the creation of a media event which would “raise consciousness” was critically important and had to be brought about by any means necessary. (Where have we heard that before?) Diggers were furious at the deception. Peter Berg accused Abbie of using people as “extras in a piece of police theater.” We felt that Abbie and company were platforming their political ambitions on the cracked skulls and smashed kidneys of the nameless “masses” that they had assembled, and derided it as politics-as-usual in hip drag, as manipulative as the government’s media-management of the war, and we wanted no part of it. We rejected the arguments that such media events could change the “consciousness of the country”, an oft-repeated, meaningless, unprovable assertion anyway, and urged instead that young people be educated to work in their own communities; taught to research tax rolls and registrys to find the owners of slum buildings and organize for improvements.
They needed to learn to use the tools of libraries and local institutions, to organize and make changes in their own communities, where they were not strangers and could not be invisibly victimized. The problem with what we suggested was that no one could take credit for being the leader of such decentralized activities, and so it was useless for those with grand ambitions for personal recognition. I never discovered whether or not it was true, but one night Abbie confided to me that they had had a tape prepared to broadcast from the roof of the Democratic Party headquarters. The plan was to alert the mob that he was being held prisoner inside and exhort them to storm the building. One can only imagine the carnage that would have ensued had that ploy ever come to pass. Having registered my critique, it must also be said, that even after his flight from undercover policeman, and all during his long and solitary years of being on the run, Abbie remained a committed activist – working within local communities, agitating (at great personal risk) and organizing people to defend themselves against environmental depredations. He never abandoned his intentions for change, and certainly has my respect for that. He always had my love.
San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district was a working class, pleasantly inter-racial neighborhood of old Victorian homes bordering the Park and near enough to the University of California Medical Center to offer cheap housing to med students. At this time, in 1966, the Haight was being inundated with young people from all over the country who came seeking liberation or hope for a life of personal empowerment. On one level the City of San Francisco was capitalizing on the phenomena: local media was full of articles about the Haight-Ashbury and the Psychedelic Shop, the San Francisco Mime Troupe was on the cover of a Chamber of Commerce Brochure (despite the fact that the City had arrested the company and tried to prevent their performing in the Park.) The counter-culture was the. “new thing.” Tourist busses began rolling down Haight Street, and middle class people from far away places began walking around Haight Street, spending their out-of- state dollars in the city, photographing us like they were on some exotic trek and we were Masai people.
The tourism diminished relatively quickly when locals responded by spray painting the lenses of the cameras and windows of the tourist busses. The police were rousting street people in a very heavy-handed manner. The same folk which were the magnet for the tourist dollars, were being used as fodder for ‘police services’. They were being warned by the authorities to stay away at the same time that the media used them as leads for feature stories about San Francisco. This hypocrisy angered some people to the point of action.** The Digger free food, free medical clinics, free crash pads, and Free Store were responses to this hypocrisy, but they were also the expressions of a political world view that was far less benign than most people believed. People who never probe beneath the surface thought that we were running a funky Salvation Army for the unfortunate and chose to applaud us as “hip” charity workers. They did not understand that we were actually social safe-crackers, sand-papering our nervous systems and searching for the right combinations that would spring the doors and let everyone out of the box. As this committed Digger street-life clarified itself, it became more and more difficult to remain within the theatrically limited context of the Mime Troupe. Life outside the theater was too much more challenging and amusing, and I bid a bitter-sweet good-bye to Ronnie and the company.
Emmett’s personal relationship to these formulations of “anonymous” and “free” was always ambiguous and complex. His notion of anonymity was to give his name away and have others use it as their own nom de plume. So many people claimed it for so many purposes that eventually some reporters would assert that there was no Emmett Grogan and that the name was a fiction created by the Diggers to confound the straight world. While Emmett’s largesse was one way of demonstrating lack of attachment to his name, it also made the name ubiquitous, and incidentally made Emmett himself famous among cognoscenti. Life with Grogan was a daily exercise in such contradictions, a daily refinement of one’s understanding of “truth.” You could never be sure precisely where and how the hair had been split. If, for instance, he came into a room late for a meeting, he might apologize by telling a story about being attacked by street toughs, waiting to take revenge on him for some earlier intervention in their affairs. The subtext of such a story was always that everyone knew who he was and had some strong opinion about him. Usually we listened to these stories, without believing or disbelieving them, enjoying the drama of life with Emmett as payment enough. However, if someone was pushed to incredulity by a particularly outrageous claim and were to challenge him, Emmett might remove his dark glasses with the air of a smug magician and demonstrate his blackened eye and wounds. The wounds were definitely real, but was the story? If it was true, was it completely or partially true? One never knew and never found out.
“Never let them catch you in a lie,” he said to me once at the beginning of a three month “run” one summer at New York’s infamous Chelsea Hotel. This remark alerted me to Emmett’s awareness of his own self-dramatizing, and the extent to which he used his sense of “theater” as an asset in his work. And what was that work? The work was to “act-out” the life of your own hero; to live your life as you wanted to and refuse to be defeated by the myriad excuses that most people offered for their not being able to do that. Since this life was engendered in the imagination, imagination was one of the primary tools available for actualizing it. After I had known him for some years, and we had truly become brothers, Emmett and I spent a summer in Manhattan. I think the year was 1969. We entered the city in search of adventurous possibilities, and the way we worked was instructive of the way in which many things happened. Janis Joplin had been an old and good friend of ours, sometime lover, sometime dope-partner, always steady pal. When we arrived, she was in New York at the Chelsea Hotel, on tour with her band. After they left to continue the tour, Emmett and I stayed on, using their rooms, pretending to be “managers”. Eventually that ruse wore thin, and we were forced to move from room to room, jimmying the flimsy locks to find an empty room and confounding the Hotel management which sent the bills on to god-knows-what befuddled band accountant. Somehow the bills got paid I imagine because we spent hours on the phone each day, calling people we had never met, but who might prove to be resources for our quest.
Anyone who has ever tried to pitch stock cold over the phone can understand our daily routine. You have a name and a phone number, perhaps you got it at a party, or from a friend of a friend. You have just enough of a thread to make a call legitimate and to keep the other party on the phone long enough for you to begin a pitch. Once engaged, you have only imagination and skill to keep them engaged – stock in trade for improvisatory actors. We became expert in trading political visions, personal friends – anyone of whom intimate knowledge could be turned to bring the party we wanted to meet – into our purview. By the end of the summer we had New York wired: unlimited mobility and access to rooms we wanted to enter – from Park Avenue mansions of the Hitchcocks, and celebrities like Baby Jane Holzer to shooting galleries on the lower East Side; recording studios, to rock-star’s living-rooms; drinks with Jimmy Breslin to joints with Puerto Rican gang leaders. Each personal “score” enhanced our cultural impact at the next meeting by offerring information or stories which in turn enhanced our prestige, and, of course made the next round of introductions and access that much easier. It was not social climbing, but social spread, the recombination and intermarriages of previously separated “networks” of people as a means of “creating the condition we described” in our imaginations. (The quote is Peter Berg’s phrase for organizing public events in a manner which made their “message” absolutely clear and incontrovertible, even if they were only described by the media.) One fine example of our summer’s work was brokering a peace-meeting between several New York detectives and Puerto Rican gang leaders from the Lower East Side. There had been numerous territorial and drug feuds disturbing the peace that hot summer, and Emmett and I used our status as outsiders to create a neutral turf where the antagonists could meet and talk. Albert Grossman, the avuncular Ben Franklin look-alike manager for Bob Dylan and Janis Joplin, arranged for us to use the penthouse boardroom of the CBS building, after hours. Albert liked to help us in our scams. He had given us the run of his office, and his assistant, Myra Freedman, was generous with her time and extremely useful to us, taking messages and allowing us to turn their office into our command central.
Albert was a complicated character and Dylan’s relationship to him was obviously complex. I discovered that and a small key to Dylan’s poetic literalness in a strange way. Albert smoked cigarettes in a curious manner. He would insert the filter between his fourth and fifth finger, then curl his hand loosely into a fist. He’d place his lips over the circle formed by his thumb and first finger and inhale, as one did with hashish cigarettes; the air rushing across his palm dragging smoke from the cigarette with it. One day in his office, he was smoking in this manner, and Dylan’s ironic voice was crooning over the loudspeakers: “Mona tried to tell me, to stay away from the train line, She said that all the railroad men, drink my blood like wine. I said, “Oh, I didn’t know that, then again, there’s only one I’ve met, And he just smoked my eye-lids and punched my cigarette.” It did not require the brains of a rocket scientist to hear these words and see Albert with the cigarette protruding out of his fist, to know who the song was about, or what having your eye-lids “smoked” meant. Whatever the charges and counter-charges between him and Dylan, their relationship was intense, and perhaps Albert found it something of a respite to deal with Emmett and myself and to arrange for our meeting to be held in the CBS boardroom. Emmett and I reveled in the confusion and shock apparent on the faces of the police and the gang-leaders as they were escorted into the room by the doorman, who had actually unlocked the front door of the immense skyscraper for them. There, at the head of the huge, empty, hardwood table with seating for twenty, were Emmett and I, in blue- jeans, long-hair, earrings, and leathers, waiting for them like it was our living room. It was a classic Digger ploy — hard politics with style. It was our art, and we were becoming very good at it.
Another event might suggest the flavor of that summer. We had been given Paul Simon’s apartment to use for a meeting. Emmett had told me that David Padwa, a very wealthy stock broker, wanted to “give us ten grand” and asked me to “pick it up”. He had to go out, and Danny Rifkin and I would stay and meet David. On the way out of the apartment with Emmett, Paul Simon walked into a large rocking horse made of a wooden horse from an old carousel. He said, “God I hate that damn thing” and he limped out, with Emmett right behind him. About three hours later, Emmett stormed in. “Hurry up, the truck’s downstairs. Gimme a hand,” he said, barely concealing his delight at some piece of mischief he’d calculated, and incidentally changing the subject so that Danny and I could not point out to him that David had never intended to give the Diggers anything at all and had treated us like a species of worm when we had mentioned it. Classic Emmett. He had guessed that David might give us money, and rather than risk his own status with David by asking, had arranged for Danny and I to do it. Emmett had arranged a truck to come for the hated carousel horse, and we piled into and drove north to Woodstock, New York, and deposited it in the early morning hours on Bob Dylan’s (Simon’s bete noir in those years) front porch as an anonymous gift to his children. In December of 1990, twenty-plus years later, I saw Paul Simon eating in a New York restaurant and had the waiter slip him a note which read, “Didn’t you ever wonder what happened to the rocking horse?” I saw him read it and laugh and look around for the sender. Seeing me waiting for his reaction, he asked me over. He confessed that he had known that we had taken it, but never knew where it had gone. It was delicious letting the other shoe drop after mid-air suspension of 21 years.
All artists desire an audience, and much as we would criticize and change our culture, we want, at the same time, to be accepted and rewarded by it. Emmett was no different, and it is this contradiction, of simultaneously spurning and yearning an audience, which became the crucifix on which he finally impaled himself. It does not require too much of a stretch of the imagination to see in a crucifix the rough outline of a syringe, and it is that ambivalent symbol of healing and death that symbolizes the dark-side of Emmett’s “truth” – his addiction to heroin and the sale of his personal autonomy to that black deity. The strain of inventing a culture from scratch is exhausting. Everything comes up for review. No limit or taboo is sacred, especially when the investigation is coupled to belief in a high and noble mission. If our imaginations knew no limits, why should our bodies? Drugs became tools in the quest for imaginative and physical transcendence. As edge dwellers, we were proud of being tougher, more experimental and truthful, and less compromised than many of our peers who seemed more interested in easy assimilations, dope-and-long-hair-at-the- office or the marketing possibilities of the counter-culture, than in real social alternatives. If their Hallmark Card philosophies were fueled by acid, grass, and hashish, we had all of the above, plus heroin and amphetamine–champions of the blues life, invincible allies of Charlie Parker, Billie Holliday, foot soldiers in ‘Nam, and countless others who had faced the beast at close quarters and, in the process, consumed themselves in the flames they tried to signal through.
Hindsight has taught me that there is a ravenous, invisible twin haunting each of us. Despite each “good work” and selfless sacrifice for noble causes, without unremitting vigilance, tiny indulgences betray these high aims and deflect nourishment to this gluttonous companion. Unfortunately, not even hindsight frees one of the consequences of such indulgence. Emmett stuck me with a needle twice. The first time he pierced my ear. “It’ll change you,” he said. We were in Sweet William’s kitchen, not too long before he became a Hell’s Angel. Lenore Kandel, William’s olive-skinned poet- lover, a true incarnation of a Hindu temple goddess with a thick shiny braid, inscrutable smile and fertile erotic imagination, hummed contentedly while she sat stringing beads for the glittering curtains that festooned every window in the house. Sweet William’s presence created a ceremony, his grave, Mayan-Jewish face with high cheekbones and dark eyes bore solemn witness as Emmett pierced my ear. Emmett was right. It did change me. The hole is still there. It drew me deeper into our confederation and a little farther from the pasty grip of civilian life. The second time was in the living room of a famous Hollywood movie-star and bad boy, in a forest of Pop-Art paintings. This time the needle was a syringe, loaded with heroin. “It’ll change ya,” he said, and it changed a lot. The star’s wife walked in, took one look at her husband sitting in a shooting circle of freaks and left him for good; I began the process of ruining a heretofore healthy body; Sweet William started down a path which took a hard turn at a soured dope deal that later left him half paralyzed with a bullet in his head. Emmett’s road petered out “at the end of the line” of the Coney Island subway April Fools Day 1978–some twelve years later, where his body was found, dead of an overdose. Even in death he was charismatic. The detective who found his body said, “I took one look and said to myself, ‘This is somebody.'”
The Sixties turned into the Seventies and the hard-life changed a lot of things. A lot of friends died: Tracy, Marcus, Bill Lyndon, Billy Batman, Pete Knell, and Paula McCoy. The list is longer than I have the heart to type. Brooks wound up in a state hospital after blinding himself on an acid trip he never returned from; Moose is lost somewhere in the FBI secret witness program after turning in his brother Hell’s Angels on numerous charges; Freewheelin’ Frank did 9 years at Folsom for being a Hell’s Angel and driving a truck for the wrong kid. Kathleen was forced to go underground and disappeared in Europe with her two infants for 17 years, because her boyfriend blew up a radio tower. Faced with these cautionary episodes, a lot of people got well. Phyllis went to school and become a nurse and a college professor; Natural Suzanne became a lawyer with the high marks at Boalt Law School. She is a public defender today who feels that except for a square millimeter of luck, she might well be where her clients are. Nina, Freeman, David and Jane moved upstate to the Mattole river and today look after their watershed, breeding wild salmon and attempting to slow the excesses of the logging industry. Peter Berg writes and breaks new ground as a bioregional thinker just as he always did as a Mime Troupe director and Digger. Somewhere in these transformations, Emmett got lost. I went to see him once, shortly after the publication of Ringolevio when he was riding high, married to a beautiful French Canadian actress and living in a luxurious apartment in Brooklyn Heights. He was proud of having returned to Brooklyn wealthy and famous – “so near and yet so far,” was how he put it.
I admit to envy of him then. I was without money, living on a commune on my family farm in Pennsylvania, attending to details surrounding the death of my father. Our group was doing hard, no-nonsense, farm labor for ourselves as well as taking over the chores for a crippled neighbor. I was still “chipping” street drugs and the occasional bottle of Demerol I had extracted as tribute from a local physician who liked to fish our old, well-stocked lake. Most of my energy was absorbed by a splintering relationship with my daughter’s mother, the tensions of communal life and group survival. What was left was dedicated to learning enough about nuclear power to prevent a plant from being erected in our community. I couldn’t help feeling that it was our collective life that had paid for Emmett’s laundered sheets, elegant rooms, well stocked refrigerator and bar. Proud as I was of his success, like others in our family, I was sore about the egocentric tone of his book Ringolevio and agreed with Kent Minault’s assessment: “Oh yeah, Emmett sauntered and we all walked!” Consequently, on one visit, when I saw that Emmett’s eyes were “pinned” and knew that he’d been using heroin again, I took the excuse to blow up. Louise smiled beside him in bed, secretly pleased, I think, that someone was telling him what she could not. I told him that I didn’t care if he wanted to die, but if he did, why did he want to die such a boring death? If he wanted to go out, why didn’t he take on the nuclear power cartel as his suicide mission and die for something? I explained everything that I had learned about it to date (and once again the Mime Troupe penchant for research had stood me in good stead), told him he was a boring motherfucker and left, too cloaked in self-righteousness to admit to the degree to which jealousy had informed my anger.
From that time on, our relationship changed, and Emmett began to relate to me as if I were a necessary audience. He was proud to tell me later that our bedroom confrontation had produced a new book, called Final Score, a nuclear thriller which he felt would outline implicit perils of the system. He had begun writing songs (The Band even recorded two) and was excited that Etta James might record one. Consequently, he had been spending a lot of time with Robby Robertson and the Band and was going with them to “The Last Waltz,” The Band’s farewell concert at San Francisco’s legendary Winterland auditorium on Thanksgiving 1976. I declined his invitation to join them because by this time I was already bored with rock and roll’s self-congratulatory pretensions. Emmett was angry at me about this and called back two days later to announce that he had gotten Michael McClure, FreeWheelin’ Frank, Sweet Willie Tumbleweed, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Lenore Kandel, and Kirby Doyle –all San Francisco Poets and “family”– to come. “Is that good enough you Jew bastard?” he inquired, knowing that I no longer had an excuse for not being there. Despite all these activities and interests, nothing much was really sustaining Emmett. The “play” had changed with the decade and the perfect role he’d crafted for himself was slightly anachronistic. His inability to make something grand happen again was taking a toll of his confidence. He was trapped by the glamor of his persona and needed time to disappear; to take beginner’s steps in new directions beyond the glare of public attention, but he seemed preoccupied with maintaining his identity and status. He developed curious mannerisms, particularly an overused, knowing wink, suggesting that something he had said had a deeper, hipper side that one would have missed without his warning. It was as if he sensed that his act was getting threadbare and instead of nourishing it, resorted to tricks to suggest that it was the audience’s perceptions, not his own performance which was faulty. The last time I saw him, I kept a rendezvous at a Malibu beach house and no one answered repeated knocks and yells. I prowled around, and saw Emmett passed out in bed. I broke in through a window, checked the pulse at his throat and, satisfied that he was living, shook the place down, as only a druggie can, and found enough drugs and traces to open a small pharmacy. I woke him and we had a corrosive fight, and finally, as a strategy for getting me off his back, Emmett confessed to a suicide attempt the previous day. I didn’t believe it (despite the fact that daily use of heroin is really only suicide on a time payment plan) but I was stunned nonetheless because, even as a ploy, Emmett was asking me to feel sorry for him and that was so uncharacteristic it frightened me for him.
Because I lived four hundred miles away, I called a trusted brother who lived close enough to monitor him a bit. Duvall Lewis was a brilliant young black man who had served as staff on the California State Arts Council while I was Chairman and member there from 1975-1983. A tall, and charming hipster with an insatiable curiousity, a political wizard and fixer, Duvall was fearless and never missed the joke. I thought he and Emmett would like each other and they did and began hanging out together. Duvall called one day, and through his laughter described a hundred-mile- an-hour car race through Topanga Canyon where Emmett chased down a famous “liberal” cinematographer and forced him to sign a release for his book, Final Score. The man had optioned the book and then ignored Emmett’s entreaties for an unconscionable length of time, so Emmett took matters into his own hands. When Duvall called with the news of Emmett’s death, his call was just one in a long series that crisscrossed the country, stitching friends and the news together. Not so many years after this, Duvall himself was dead by his own hand, in despair at being completely frozen out of the Reagan era’s material feeding frenzy. Their two lives, and two deaths, haunt me as unnervingly similar, and I can never think of either of them without knowing exactly what Allen Ginsberg meant when he opened his epic poem Howl with the line, “I have seen the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness.” Emmett told you what he thought. He was stand up. He was a man, extreme and contradictory, quarrelsome and kind, charismatic and self-destructive, who willed himself to be a hero, to be better than he felt he was when he became conscious. For most people it might have been enough to have been a living legend, to have Bob Dylan dedicate an album to you; to be an icon to thousands of people that included Puerto Rican gang leaders, presidents of recording companies, professional thieves, wealthy restauranteurs, movie stars, socialites, Black Panthers, Hells Angels and the Diggers themselves, but Emmett was chasing his own self-perfection, and while the struggle killed him, I cannot help but admire the morality of his premise, and the brutally high standards he established for himself. Emmett was a guidon, carried into battle, an emblem behind which people rallied their imaginations. He proved with his existence that each of us could act out the life of our highest fantasies. This was his goal and his compassionate legacy and I will not minimize it or let myself off the hook of his example, despite his inconsistencies and flaws. Let me return to the early days, when that example was still untarnished, and its lustre summoned so many from safe havens and comfortable futures, into the chaotic, unpredictable moment of life in the streets.”
* “This is a deliberate reference to a book called We Are the People Our Parents Warned Us About by Nicholas Von Hoffman. Von Hoffman came to the Haight-Ashbury, using his teen-age son as a beard, and traveled through the underground behind a smoke-screen of good-will and “wanting to understand.” Besides misunderstanding most of what he saw, including a good-natured romp between me and my friend, Roberto La Morticella, which he misread as “mindless violence,” Von Hoffman’s articles about the demi-monde and its use of drugs, named names, places and dates. A number of people were subsequently raided and arrested because of information which he printed. I was told years later by a well-placed source, that the specificity of these articles and the betrayal of confidential sources engendered something of a crisis and series of heated discussions with him about journalistic ethics among his peers at the Washington Post where he was employed at the time.”
** “I cannot resist observing how people who act on their beliefs are currently labeled activists, as if the norm were to have ideas and beliefs and do nothing about them. Adding the “ists” to the verb, lumps such people along with communists, socialists, feminists, environmentalists, etc. all of whom we are supposed to assume represent a tiny minority of extremists. In such a way the integrity of the community is broken up into tiny, impotent, single-agenda fragments. When I was young, we called people who did not act on their beliefs, hypocrites. Who and what is served by this change in terminology?”
SELF-GOVERNING the COMMONS
RIGHT to ROAM
UNSANCTIONED NUISANCE FRUIT
FOOD WASTE TRIAGE