History of the Equals

Peter Linebaugh interviewed by Mahdi Ganjavi

Peter Linebaugh was in Toronto in May 13-16, 2016. An internationally known historian, Professor Linebaugh is considered one of the most important Marxist historians of our time. He is a historian of class struggles in Britain and the colonial Atlantic. A former student of E. P. Thompson, Linebaugh has taught in New York University, Harvard University and the University of Toledo.

Peter Linebaugh was invited by Professor Shahrzad Mojab as part of her on-going Marxist Reading Group where the works of Linebaugh were read in the last two years. Toronto was delighted to host a couple of lectures and series of conversations with him. During his stay, Professor Linebaugh presented at OISE/University of Toronto, and also launched his latest book The Incomplete, True, Authentic, and Wonderful History of May Day (PM Press, 2016) at York University’s Historical Materialism conference.

Mahdi Ganjavi interviewed Professor Linebaugh during his visit with a special focus on two of his major contributions to a Marxist study of “history from below”: The Many Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic (2001), and The London Hanged: Crime and Civil Society in the Eighteenth Century (1991).

Mahdi Ganjavi (MG): Let me begin my questions with the one many others might have. In Wikipedia and many other places, you are introduced as a “Marxist” historian. Some would ask: “What about objectivity? Shouldn’t a historian be objective?” How do you respond?

Peter Linebaugh (PL): I think I try to be objective in the history I write, in the sense of being careful with evidence. So, as a matter of the technique of investigation, one needs to be critical of the evidence that one uses, but also in undergoing objective investigation, one chooses and defines the subject of investigation, and that choice is a subjective choice. You mentioned Marxism, and for the Marxist, as a revolutionary, I think the choice of subject matter pertains to the class struggle.

The Incomplete, True, Authentic, and Wonderful History of May Day.Wikipedia defines me as a Marxist historian, and that is in the context of British social history and U.S. social history, where a Marxist historian is similar to a historian from below, or similar to labour history. But in addition, in my understanding as a Marxist, there is the notion of class struggle, so it is not just from below, but it is also how the ruling class responds to the movements from below. So there is a dialectic in history between the classes.

MG: In The London Hanged, you go back to the 18th century London, and through examining the records of those hanged during this century in London, draw the relation between death penalty and property rights. You show that the creation of free market was assisted by executions as a kind of measure to support fiscal policies. Therefore, following E. P. Thompson’s statement in The Making of the English Working Class, you think of class war being fought out in terms of Tyburn, the hulks, and bridewells on the one hand; and crime, riot and mob action on the other. You study crime to study class struggle. What does the history of 18th century London tell us of the relationship between political economy and law?

PL: This is a very good question. And I am not sure of an answer, but we can talk about it and make some speculations right now. Political economy arose in the context of the formation of the British Isles; that is, it arose in a time of expropriation and colonization of Ireland, and the expropriation of land in Scotland. First political economists, like William Petty, were English conquerors of Ireland.
Petty himself received, I think, millions of acres of land as a result of Irish conquest. The history of the conquest of the highlands of Scotland is more familiar because this is the traumatic conquest Adam Smith and his progenitors like James Stewart lived through as lowland Scots, Scots down in the rivers of the lowlands. Political economy came from these two forces: English conquest – the building of roads, the establishment of fiscal policies, establishment of private property – and the awarding of soldiers of lands that had been thus taken. So that is political economy. 1776 is the date of the Wealth of Nations. These expropriations have happened earlier. “Where money beareth all the stroke”, to quote Thomas Moore’s Utopia; that is a fiscal state and money became a means of investments now that these lands were turned into commodities. And that fiscal state arises in the 1690s.

At the same time, the property law is changing where the statutes on house breaking, burglary, robbery, highway robbery are being formed. So this legal apparatus is developing, and new forms of policing are being formed at the beginning of the eighteenth century in tandem with the formation of the political economy, that is the parallel and happening at the same time. In my opinion, they reach a crescendo, so to speak, in the 1790s, a hundred years later, when Ricardo, on the one hand, and then “reform of law” – the Foucault project – correspond. That happens at a time of enclosures in England, and it happens at a time of the conquest of lands in North America; in the subcontinent of Asia; in what is now India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Pakistan; and in South Africa. So we have to see the development of political economy and the development of law in relationship to the expansion of the English empire.

History of “Excarceration”

MG: My next question is related to the name that you just mentioned: Michel Foucault. You have dubbed the word “excarceration” to refer to “the growing propensity, skill and success of London
working people in escaping from the newly created institutions that were designed to discipline people by closing them in.” In this sense your historiography is a counter-argument against the historiography exemplified by Michel Foucault, who stresses incarceration. One common critic of Foucault’s historiography is that by making the rulers of government and society seem all-powerful, it does not lend itself into any policy of resistance.

What does history of “excarceration” mean? Does it mean that Foucault’s historiography investigates the rules, whereas you also investigate the deviances and the exemptions? Or in other words, that he talks of prison, whereas you include prison breaks, too? Or is it rooted in two different theory or methodologies of history?

PL: First thing I want to say is my immense respect for Michel Foucault as a historian of eighteenth century. It is true that The London Hanged was written and the notion of “excarceration” was written in dialogue with Foucault, with his book as translated into English called Discipline and Punish. Unfortunately, Michel Foucault died before he could read The London Hanged and have an opportunity for us to exchange views about the eighteenth century. So I deeply regretted his death, because the book, The London Hanged, was written very much with him in mind. We both, you might say, are 68’ers of different kind, so I have great respect for Foucault, even though he came from a different theoretical tradition. There is a contrast, not so much of theories of history, as between national taste or national intellectual propensities between England and France, between Paris and English empiricism. And I was trained formally in the latter. But we have to remember that English historiography also includes Karl Marx. Karl Marx wrote Das Kapital in England, with English experience, surrounded by militants in England. Of course there were French, Italian, German, Irish who were exiled, were immigrants, as well as the Chartist leaders. So it is important for us not to be too essentialist about our notion of what is England or what is France; nevertheless, the concentration of intellectual life in Paris and in France produces a kind of theory which is different from that produced in London or other parts of the British Isles, like the North or like even Scotland, and, of course, Ireland.

On the subject of “excarceration”: my driving feeling with that was that every child wants to be free. Nobody wants to be locked in his room. And that this is universal and part of the human body is to run, is to walk, is to jump, is to leap, is to fulfill the kind of life that is now restricted to athletics, restricted to sport. And the whole theme of incarceration is to prevent that from happening. And freedom, therefore, must include locomotion. And the leading theorist of English law in the eighteenth century was William Blackstone, and he defined freedom as locomotion. Interesting. Prison denies that freedom and represses and confines the body, the process that results in losing muscle tone, losing its force, and its energies. These have also mental affects. Anyone who can overcome that by “excarceration”, by escape, is immediately, regardless of one’s ethical or moral views, seen in awe. It is like the French man – I think his name was Philippe Petit – who walked on a tightrope across the twin towers in New York.

Here is a notion of human freedom and human triumph that the great escape artists from prison represent. And it remains true to this day: in every country there are stories about people who have escaped from the prison. Now, I think is the first step toward understanding freedom and understanding further development. You know, you think of women, think of feminism – it is to be able to get out of the house, to be able to be outside. First steps in patriarchy is to confine a woman within four walls, by the kitchen hearth, or by the nursery.

One of the contributions of Michel Foucault that has meant a lot to me is to locate this impulse of incarceration throughout the institutions of civil society. So it is not just prison, but the power relations that occur in schools, in barracks, in other architectural forms of confinement, including hospitals, and so forth. And I think he opened up for us the geography of class relations in urban spaces and in the institutions of civil society. So The London Hanged is at this period of transition from the outdoors to the indoors, for the punishment.

There is another thing I want to mention about The London Hanged. It relates to your first question about Marxism. Karl Marx said, when he was asked what has been your contributions to knowledge of political economy, he said, it has been threefold. The first was to show the unity of interest, rent and profit as surplus value. The second thing was a distinction between concrete and abstract labour for understanding the law of value. And the third thing was the irrational form of the wage. So what the book The London Hanged did, among other things, was a contribution to the theory of the wage, that is the criminalization of customary takings in the different trades and crafts of Londoners. That criminalization took at least a century to happen. So I have often thought that The London Hanged was not recognized by others in the Marxist tradition who do not historicize the wage relations.

MG: This reminds me of what you mentioned in your book launch in the 2016 Historical Materialism conference at York University about the picture on the cover of your new book.

PL: Precisely.

MG: In which some women are painted who are cutting the grains. As you mentioned, such a cutting customarily was done a little bit above the ground so that a little of the grain would remain. By customary relations, you are referring to such relations?

PL: People understand that, Mehdi, mainly through agrarian relations, through the reaping of the harvest, or gathering of the grapes, or gathering of fruit. There was a customary access to subsistence for the widow, the orphan, and the stranger, or the immigrant, the youth, and the woman. What The London Hanged did was to take that same process of access to subsistence, and showed that it existed also in urban and craft relations. Death penalty came in very rarely as direct means of enforcing that criminalization of that custom. But I argue it happened across the border of crafts indirectly.

MG: Your book The Many-Headed Hydra is an exemplary work of historiography from below. In this book you follow the footsteps of C.L.R James in his book, the Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution. Drawing on the first victorious worker’s revolution of modern history, James shows what the plantation slaves began, the European urban masses completed. Similarly, in Many-Headed Hydra, you historicize that many of the most important political and human rights ideas were not introduced by the European white philosophers, or statesmen, but by slaves, pirates, labourers, market women, and servants.

You argue that histories being captive of the nation-state, and the violence of abstraction in writing history have been two main reasons behind the invisibility of many of your book’s subjects. What are the implications of writing a history from below in terms of methodology, subject, and content?

PL: For methodology, we have to find new sources of information, or use old sources of information in a new way. In The London Hanged, I used religious sources of information; that is, religious figures who wanted the convicts to express their regret and their guilt over their crimes before they hanged. So incidentally they would say where the person was born, how old they were, where they went to school, what their jobs were, what their crafts were, where they have lived and traveled in their life. So I took that information and made it into objective data rather than religious propaganda. So that is an example of using in new ways evidence whose purpose was contrary to how I was able to use it. And yet, discover a different kind of truth. So that’s, I think, one part of methodology.

History from below also has to do with the subject. And this is now problematic, because if your standpoint is one of equalization, or if your standpoint is revolutionary, then you look forward to the abolition of class differences. Class differences are usually presented as a form of hierarchy of wealth and power. The more you have, the higher up you are. Whereas the less you have, the lower down you are. Sometimes this hierarchy infects and influences our thinking. So why should you and I be part of history from below? Who is above us? Let us ask the judge to come off the high part of the bench. Let us ask the priest to come down and join us in a circle. So we are no longer below. But we can see one another eye to eye. That is the problematic nature of history from below. The new subjects of history from below are those who said that we do not feel below. Remember Martin Luther King died in Tennessee during a garbage strike. And the slogan of that garbage strike was: “I am a Man.” The slogan was not: I am below. The slogan was not: you are above, but “I am a Man.”

So this assertion of human dignity is outside the structure of hierarchy, and outside, therefore, of power and money relations that determine the class relationship. I can see this only because formerly subject peoples like third world peoples, people of color – especially former slaves – or people from slave societies, such as the USA; and then, even more deeply, women, who had been subjugated to patriarchal relations and patriarchal violence for many centuries, have asserted themselves and asserted their humanity and demanded subsistence. They create the new subject.

So as for the content – this gets to your first question – what is Marxism, or what is Marxist history, and why would I describe myself as a Marxist, is anticipation of the necessity and the inevitability, I would almost say, of the abolition of the capitalist classes. This is the content of so called history from below. That we learn from the history of struggles in the past. That these struggles will continue. Even though there are ups and downs.

Resistance to Capitalism

MG: In The Many Headed Hydra, you mention that the Hercules-hydra myth has been used from the beginning of English colonial expansion of the 17th century to the metropolitan industrialization of early nineteenth century, to describe the difficulty of imposing order on dispossessed commoners, transported felons, indentured servants, religious radicals, pirates, urban labourers and African slaves as the numerous, ever-changing heads of the monster. However, you do not consider this myth as a mere ornament of speech, but regard it an imposition of a death sentence.

What can the history of Atlantic slavery tell us of the rise of capitalism and of the possibilities of resistance?

PL: The history of transatlantic African slavery teaches us that the lords of mankind, the imperialist ruling class, will stop at nothing in its project of dehumanization. That no form of cruelty is alien to it. It will stop at nothing: famine, the whip, the hanging, slavery and all its forms are available to its dehumanization. A dehumanization that produces forms of wealth that are alienating to their creators and finally unproductive even to the luxuries and riches of the ruling and middle classes. So, that is what we learn of the cruelty. Unless they are stopped, unless they meet resistance. So this is the other side. The dialectics as it were of transatlantic African slavery is a freedom story of resistance to this dehumanization, and of survival, despite it. Even going so far as to prevent life forms, that is revolutionary suicide, from a slave ship where captives would prefer to drown by death as an act of freedom rather than to be sold into slavery. That is a form of resistance at ground zero.

But there are other forms of resistance pioneered by the African slave experience: going slow, taking it easy; forms of cultural transmission, such as music, tales; ways of not only preserving the past life, i.e. forced slavery, but of creating a new kind of life within slavery, within the slave community. Then sometimes – rarely – forms of collective resistance, forms of riot, of insurrection, also necessary part of understanding the resistance to transatlantic slavery, a resistance conducted by the slaves themselves.

MG: There is considerable interest in a communist future (e.g., Badiou, Negri and Hardt, organizers of the conference on the topic in London 2009) and they rely on the past in order to get to this future. While Badiou seeks this future in (going back) to the 18th century (especially Rousseau’s regime of rights) Negri and Hardt ensure us that this future will come spontaneously because that is how capitalism is growing — the commons and immaterial labour. What are your comments on these theories?

PL: I don’t know the philosophy and theory of Badiou. But I did read his essay The Idea of Communism, and his idea of communism is without the concrete labour. Remember, I said Marx had three discoveries in his opinion: one of these was the distinction between concrete labour and abstract labour. I think that Badiou has no concept of concrete labour. I also think in that particular essay he has no concept of class, or class struggle – that it doesn’t appear there.

I don’t think you can understand Rousseau or the eighteen-century revolutionary project of the bourgeoisie without a concept of class. Not only the class of the bourgeoisie, but the class of the many headed hydra, the working class that is in the making of it as it were, a working class that includes many different kinds of heads who are resisting. This became clearest to me in the work of Thomas Spencer, who, unlike Rousseau, was firmly rooted in the actualities of practices of communing, and of the actual commons. I am surprised that Badiou does not consider Babeuf. Babeuf said he was born in a mud. I love this expression. He launched The Conspiracy of Equals in 1795 and was guillotined for it, but not before his children and wife perished from famine. This man is often taken as a founder of communism. And yet his early life was passed in the defense of the commons of the so-called medieval or feudal commons. So he shows better than anyone how the communist project, the idea of communism, arose from practices of necessity and previous experience in forms of the commons, forms of communing. That is totally absent in Badiou. I
think you can find some signs of it in Foucault. But Foucault was not interested in going over the same ground that the Stalinist or the communist historians of the twentieth century, like Albert Soboul, were going. He was not interested in that narrative. Foucault was developing another one.

But the story that I, and my coauthors like Marcus Rediker, or many other people are finding is the vibrant reality of commoner’s experience in the eighteenth century. Like, consider the Tupac Amaru, rebellion of 1780 in Peru: this had vast implications throughout the Atlantic. It is largely absent in The Many Headed Hydra, and in The London Hanged because I didn’t know about it, but I think that Spanish-speaking, Portuguese-speaking, not to mention French historians, will discover forms of commoning, proletarian resistance from below, that help us to understand Rousseau.

We can no longer consider the history of communism, or the history of commons, just by looking at so called theorists. We have to see what people were actually doing. How they were actually resisting the forms of cruelty and exploitation imposed upon them by the ruling class.

So take that Monsieur Badiou! I await your reply! Negri and Hardt is a different matter.

The Commons

MG: Maybe you can comment on them while answering the next question. This question goes to the word you just mentioned “commoning.” For those not well versed in historical materialism, there is much confusion over the idea of commons, especially the way Negri and Hardt and people of similar theoretical and political persuasion are dealing with it and using it; and all of this related to other claims they make, for instance, about the centrality of “immaterial labour” as if capital(ism) is no longer about the creation of surplus value. What is your articulation around “commons” and “commoning”?

PL: You take the Oxford English dictionary and look up the word commons, and you will find more than 33 different definitions. So I don’t want to get too lost in this discussion. There is no doubt that after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the way was open to reconsider the project “from each according to his/her ability, and to each according to their needs.” This slogan from Marx about what is communism. We can think of it now in a way.

We no longer can divorce the productive apparatus of society, the energies of society – of coal, of petroleum, the factory, the massive transportation that works of jet airplanes, of very large supertankers, of the cargo ships – we can no longer separate that realm from the realms of reproduction – of the kitchen, of the home, of the unpaid labour, even while the infrastructure of social life – the libraries, the water, the air – is being poisoned. These used to be considered common goods; now, even they are being privatized. It can help to separate notions of the commons from the notions of the public. But I don’t think this can be a revolutionary reality or program until we have done more empirical work after the experiment of the Soviet Union, of the state planned economic development.

Negri and Hardt, I think, are just so divorced, so separated from the actualities of material life. So the immaterial life of the urban software development, or “service economy”, the actual work of care of elders, or youth or infants, is the mud again, is Gracchus Babeuf’s mud. This is very material, very material life. Negri is such an advanced and powerful bullshit artist, which I use not as a profanity against Negri, but as a solidarity with human thought.

He is so skilled at this that I just stand in awe at this; but at the same time there is something comic about it, because it is so remote and detached even though the man has suffered politically in life, you know, with the movement. But even with those who suffer, there can be laughter. I don’t want to laugh at Negri, but it is a kind of respect for myself. As for Michael Hardt, I don’t know him as well as I would like to. I am on a different path Mahdi. I like discovering new things about class struggle. And I take a joy in that. And you don’t find it as much within the university. But you find it more outside the university when people hear folklore or how people actually talk. Theory can also be found there. Or in the Marxist study groups around the world.

MG: Let us go back to the myth of Hercules-hydra. In this myth, on one hand, we have a hydra, which, like what David McNally says about your contribution to the historiography of working class in England, reminds us that the working class was not homogenous; the same applies with your subjects in The Many Headed Hydra. These people were quite different from each other, ranging from radical religions to slaves. On the other side, we have Hercules, the idea of order, government, of one mighty person. So how these many heads of hydra can join each other in order to be defeated?

PL: I should say that, going back to Negri, that we chose a myth to use it for a new purpose. And that myth is one of a monster. At the same time, Negri and Hardt also began to look at the working class as a monster, in their book on Dionysus. So if I laugh at Negri, I laugh at myself as well. But you ask, how will they get together, I think we have to say how will we get together. We have to be careful about the quality of our detachment.

What Marcus Rediker did in his first book, Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea, was to show that the sailor was part of the working class, which in traditional Anglo-American historiography, the sailor had been excluded. So first is the identification of different subjects, and then is the identification of the means of communication, or the means of cooperation.

In USA, you can sit on your front porch year after year after year, and you will see the white children riding a bicycle; then, in a few years later, the black children are riding a bicycle, or you will see the black children with special sneakers; then, in a few years, you will see the white children in special sneakers. There is a transmission of knowledge and experience that happens even without direct communication, but through music, through sport, through lots of different ways, through dance. And the locations of this well can be the slum, can be the prison, could be the ship (in the past). There are different places, and now with the different forms of media, it is happening in new ways. And of course it is global now. I don’t know enough about that. And I shouldn’t really talk about it. I leave that to Negri and Hardt.

Bertolt Brecht said, “The same old stupidities are passed by new transmitters. Wisdom is passed by word of mouth.” And I still think so. •

Peter Linebaugh is an internationally known historian, considered one of the most important Marxist historians of our time. He is a historian of class struggles in Britain and the colonial Atlantic. A former student of E. P. Thompson, Linebaugh has taught in New York University, Harvard University and the University of Toledo.

Mahdi Ganjavi is a Ph.D. student at the department of Leadership, Higher and Adult Education, OISE/University of Toronto. A prolific essayist and author in Farsi, Ganjavi is one of the leading members of the online publication movement in Iran. His criticisms, translations, a book review, and essays have been published in journals/websites such as the International Journal of Lifelong Education, BBC Persian, Radio-Zamaneh, and will soon be published in Encyclopedia Irannica.