Peter Linebaugh's Blog

Peter Linebaugh’s “Great Act of Historical Imagination”*

By Benj DeMott
First of the Month
December 2nd, 2023

“A commonist manifesto for the 21st Century…”

High praise for Peter Linebaugh’s 2014 collection of essays, Stop, Thief!: The Commons, Enclosures, and Resistance, went right by me. I missed the book when it came out and only grabbed it last month to pass time on the subway. My commutes went FAST! Though I didn’t ride the book into the ground. I savored the essay “Meandering at the Crossroads of the Commons and Communism” with a Negroni at an Upper West Side joint that does a damn good job of cultivating commons. (Fam style Italian dishes bring in big parties — happy b-day sung every 15 minutes…) A meet spot to muse with Linebaugh even if dollarism is in the equation. I finished his book as I rolled around the city gathering Thanksgiving provisions. A perfect read in the run-up to a fam-and-friends fête. I’m sure you’d’ve been swept away too as Linebaugh limns (with a feeling) one-for-all-all-for-one struggles to preserve people’s rights and resist privateers and hierarchs.

The late Mike Davis’s summative graph is on point:

From Thomas Paine to the Luddites, from Karl Marx to the practical dreamer William Morris, who advocated communizing industry and agriculture, to the twentieth-century communist historian E.P. Thompson, Linebaugh brings to life the vital “commonist” tradition. He traces the red threat from the great revolt of commoners in 1381 to the enclosures of Ireland, and the American commons, where European immigrants who had been expelled from their commons met the immense commons of the native peoples and the underground African American urban commons. Illuminating these struggles in this indispensable collection, Linebaugh reignites the ancient cry, “Stop, Thief!”

I gushed over the book to my son who brushed me back (if not off). “You know, dad, you were big on anti-communism when I was coming up.” True dat, though commonism isn’t 20 C. communism and my catechism for him came down mainly to anti-Leninism. (I’m pretty sure, by the way, Linebaugh would roll his eyes at my hard anti-Soviet angle on the Cold War; OTOH, I was lifted by the historian’s flashes of anger at Lenin’s “condescension” toward the peasantry.)

I’ve gotten permission from Linebaugh to reprint essays from Stop Thief! and there will be excerpts from the book in upcoming issues of First of the Month. I’m starting this month with the book’s final essay, “The Invisibility of the Commons.” It’s been a kick in the head for me since I’ve been half-blind to the tradition Linebaugh upholds even as I’ve written (repeatedly) about the annual instantiation of an urban commons on our block. I’ve leaned on Simone Weil (The Need For Roots etc.) and Charles Keil (Music Grooves etc.) to help me think through commoning in my neighborhood. My Weil-Keil melds might speak to Linebaugh — I hope he digs their legacies — but he always has plenty of history we all need at his fingertips.

Though I went out of my way to miss his wisdom when I first ran into young Professor Linebaugh at the University of Rochester in the mid-70s. Twisted by an anxiety-inducing neurosis I wouldn’t shake until my mid-20s, I attended his class once or twice and skipped the rest of the term. A Marxist scholastic in the room gave me a b.s. excuse. This know-it-all seemed to have read everything in the Old Moor’s corpus and had a quote to kill any vital Q&A. I vaguely remember Linebaugh trying to cut the textual-ism by invoking a shop where all the workers had to agree to stop the line each time any one of them needed to take a piss…

I wonder if he ever got through to the pedant. Wish I’d stuck around to find out. A couple years after I pissed off, I sent Linebaugh papers, hunting a grade/credits for the incomplete he’d given me (though I’d earned an F). Linebaugh let me know he thought the papers would do. And he urged me to search out the work of C.L.R. James. (Who he?) Luckily, I’d just fallen hard for a Haitian woman whose family had Black Jacobins in their bookcase.

Linebaugh has long loved James but he nails what the dialectician couldn’t grasp as he was writing up a Hegelian storm in Nevada (where he’d gone to get a no-fault divorce in 1948). Linebaugh points out the food-and-sports writer A.J. Liebling (who came to Nevada to get unhitched too) went much deeper than James into the West, reporting on battles between native American commoners and settlers. I think Linebaugh may be a tad too hard on the other writers – Orwell and Wordsworth – he treats in his essay on purblind visionaries, but he’s never been hot to hype scribes (except when it comes to Paine, Morris, and “Charles Marks”). Linebaugh holds with the People, and his idea of culture is unpolluted by a disposition to overrate writers.

During our recent correspondence – in response to my commendation of a sharp re-reading of James’ Black Jacobins from a few years back – Linebaugh pointed me to Hazlitt’s “What is the People.” And…

Speaking of the commons don’t forget the Palestinian mushaa’.  There’s a good essay on it in Antipode.

I’ve learned to take Linebaugh’s advice. I’ll be reading “Enclosures from Below: The Mushaa’ in Contemporary Palestine.”  And may Palestinians common with Kibbutzniks in our lifetime…

*Per T. J Clark.

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