by Paul Buhle
June 2nd, 2014
Peter Linebaugh has long been one of the most unusual, some would so idiosyncratic, left-wing writers in an era when orthodox Marxism has become so rare, heterodoxy threatens to banish its old rival entirely. Why so rare, this Linebaugh? A good question, a very good question.
Let us begin from the standpoint of the world-historic mentors that we share: E. P. Thompson and C.L.R. James, two fellows who (among other things) substituted initials for their first names to everyone but intimates. These giants gave off the scent or sense of nineteenth century dreams and ideals, English novelists shared and savored since childhood, the instinct for a very particular class struggle, and an even more particular working-class sport: cricket. James was an avid Hegelian; Thompson seemed to be a non-Hegelian or perhaps he only wanted to be viewed as a digger into historical archives (he did it longer than James, though they dug up treasures on display for millions of readers in two revolutionary classics, The Making of the English Working Class and The Black Jacobins, respectively). That Thompson was a Communist through his youth, until a dramatic break, and James a Trotskyist until an equally dramatic break, also seems to bear upon Linebaugh, somehow.
The struggle for the “commons,” the common space once held widely and increasingly stolen away over the centuries, is the leitmotif. Linebaugh enjoys wandering around the subject in the way that Walt Whitman loved loafing: not really a form of laziness but rather a meditation not to be reached in a straight, i.e., scholarly, path. The long memory of the European forests and their uses by common people, the connections of casual theft (wood, for instance) with Luddism and resistance against the emerging power structures and their mechanical world, the literary specification of resistance in Shelley’s Queen Mab, the connections of William Morris and E.P. Thompson, memories of the Magna Carta and of Wat Tyler — all these connect with the English history that Linebaugh knows so well and has explicated in London Hanged. I appreciate in particular his exploration of the first canonical (if rarely accepted as such) English poem, Piers Plowman, because Linebaugh has perfectly captured the pitch of this seemingly theological but actually quite political classic. I am drawn to this analysis because I plundered it so thoroughly for my little book on Robin Hood (with the same publisher).
I am not sure that his exploration of American themes is so keen. He offers his own Tom Paine, to good effect, leaving aside the Paine with almost imperial wishes for imposing reason upon an unreasonable world. He travels on to nineteenth century reformers, white and African American, those dreamers who spelled out utopian possibilities of a transracial society and worked on them concretely, in the Underground Railroad. He goes on to sketch out his perspectives on Indigenism, failed revolts to create a different republic (or several, or many, of them) decades before Abolitionism took hold of large populations.
Linebaugh closes with an odd rumination on the late 1940s Nevada days of C.L.R. James, the dexterous thinker working with his hands on a ranch in that state so as to finalize a divorce from one wife (back in Trinidad) and marry another, destined to be divorced in short order.
Linebaugh envisions the out-of-place figure as the savant of a disappeared and invisible Commons. He points to counter-evidence: James, the great race-theorist, seemed oblivious to the very Paiute territory that had been plundered and on which he worked, sat, and wrote what came to be called “The Nevada Document,” aka “Notes on Dialectics.” There’s a bit more stumbling here, as the reference to James publishing “The Gathering Forces,” an incomplete essay written by several hands, in the student radical journal Radical America in 1971. The essay, meant to be part of a group document never completed, had been written years earlier and James only consented to have us publish an excerpted version in what was still a New Left but no longer a student journal.
I’m quibbling, mainly because Radical America happened to be my journal and Linebaugh has not quite successfully brought the centuries and generations, Commons and memories, or dreams of a restored Commons, together. Never mind: there are thoughts here, often uncollated, more than enough to go around.