A review of Peter Linebaugh, Red Round Globe Hot Burning (University of California Press, 2019), £27
Peter Linebaugh’s book comes with a long subtitle, a pithy summary of its contents: A Tale at the Crossroads of Commons and Closure, of Love and Terror, of Race and Class, of Kate and Ned Despard. His timeframe is the period between 1789 and 1804 when, in his view, a series of connected events took place in England, Ireland, France, the Caribbean and North America that formed an Atlantic crucible forging the capitalist world we have lived in since.
In the first place the book turns on its head a piece of British history firmly entrenched in the consciousness: that enclosure was an inevitable historical process and was progressive, if admittedly painful for some. This was the received wisdom in history classes at my grammar school in the 1950s. My genial social democratic teacher had imbibed the story at school and college in the 1930s. In turn I taught the same story through much of my career though, because I was a socialist influenced by E P Thompson and Gwyn Williams, I emphasised the plight of the displaced who begged from the roadside or teemed into the towns and the new workplaces of the Industrial Revolution. Before Thompson’s pathbreaking book, The Making of the English Working Class (MEWC) the condition of the working class and the “standard of living debate”1 was the preoccupation of even progressive history. Thompson opened the door into a new and exciting world of the working class “present at its own making”. In his marvellous chapter “Field Labourers” he blasts the cold prejudice of economic historians employing averages to mitigate the impact of economic change on country labourers. He deployed a wide range of qualitative evidence to underline the massive deterioration in living standards brought about by enclosure and the loss of customs attached to the Commons. “Enclosure,” he wrote, “(when all sophistications are allowed for) was a plain enough case of class robbery, played according to fair rules of property and law laid down by a parliament of property-owners and lawyers”.2 Enclosure was a material and ideological assault exercised by the squires in order to enhance their fortunes from rent. In parliament, pulpit and pamphlet, advocates preached incessantly to imprint on all minds a worldview of individualism in opposition to one that valued custom and cooperation.
I discovered Marxism at the start of the 1960s. I learnt a view of human history that saw it unfolding through stages from primitive communism to feudalism, to capitalism and, at some not very far off point, to socialism and communism. The transitions from one stage to the next demonstrated that while revolutions might signal dramatic breaks, on a world scale those stages overlapped, change taking place over hundreds of years. It was like a contour map on which historians and social scientists filled in the details according to their own preoccupations. This theory had a deterministic flavour embraced by those who saw the Russian Revolution as the first step into the final stage, the emergence of socialism leading to communism. Some hung onto this idea, despite indicators to the contrary right down to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. For those who celebrated the Russian Revolution but saw and explained its degeneration, the exploration of the strengths and weaknesses of capitalism, including its state capitalist variation, has been the major concern. The priority has been to engage with those in conflict with the system and to attempt to build organisations to carry those struggles forward.
Recently another concept has entered historical writing. This is the Anthropocene, marking a new epoch in Earth history. Humans have always slowly modified their ecosystems, periodically accelerated by the use of tools and fire. But not until the Industrial Revolution had they affected the chemical composition of the atmosphere or the oceans at a global level. It is this capacity that merits the label, a new epoch. Paul Crutzen of the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry is credited with coining the word in relation to physical and biological science identifying the point where the carbon economy took off around the turn of the 19th century. But he and others argue that in the mid-19th century an extraordinarily prophetic Italian priest and geologist, Antonio Stoppani, was the first to propose a new geological epoch dominated by human activities that altered the shape of the land.3 Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels were also alert to the wider question of humanity’s relation to nature, exploring what John Bellamy Foster has called “the metabolic rift”, the idea that humans not only use nature but are part of its metabolism, reacting with it both positively and deleteriously.
In his new book, Linebaugh borrows the idea from the natural sciences and uses it to frame a range of economic, political and cultural factors combining and interacting in the short period between 1790 and 1804.
Red Round Globe Hot Burning is a disturbing and challenging book. It kept me awake and note-taking through a whole night. The only time I recall a similar experience was in the autumn of 1963 when I opened MEWC for the first time. That book remains the most referred to volume on my shelves, informing everything I have studied for 50 years. It is as near to total history as a book could be and Linebaugh, a Thompson postgraduate at Warwick in the 1960s, almost equals his master.
To begin with the reader has to decipher the almost surreal title. It is a phrase from William Blake’s smouldering poem “Visions of the Daughters of Albion”.4 Linebaugh invites us to make of it what we will. It is both of its time and ours, the globe on fire and the solutions lying in cooperation and love between people. Title and subtitle suggest that this is no measured and distant account. It is a history of poetry, passion, compassion and commitment, yet built on extensive use of contemporary sources; listings run to 25 pages. In the spring of the birth of Extinction Rebellion this book could not be more relevant.
Linebaugh’s world is occupied by a series of hot elements and their interplay. Like the scientists the story begins with the onset of the coal economy. He writes:
The concatenation of coal went like this: coal led to the burning of coal; the burning of coal heated the steam engine; the coal-fired steam engine enabled water to be pumped from flooded coal mines to obtain more coal; the coal-fired steam engine powered bellows that blew in the iron foundry to make iron for rails, allowing coal to be carried in greater volume and more quickly from the mine face to the shaft; the burning of coal heated the steam engine to pump the water in the canals, which carried the barges that conveyed the coal to sale. Everything seemed to begin and end with coal through a gigantic feedback loop.5
We have referred to enclosure. The enclosure of Enfield is explored in detail in the book. Some 39 printed pages set out the procedures for expropriation and allotment. The parliamentary commissioners directed the course of husbandry, “with respect to the laying down, plowing, sowing, fallowing and tilling thereof…they shall…suspend or totally extinguish all of any Parts of the Rights of Common”.6 Linebaugh tells us there were 96 Acts passed in 1802 alone. We can imagine the widespread disruption to normal life and the anger it generated. Though occasionally the anger was expressed in explicitly political efforts, desperation was more likely to take the form of small group or individual criminal acts. In an entertaining chapter, “The Goose and the Commons, c. 1802”, the author uses an important part of ordinary people’s diet, the goose, to demonstrate loss of common ownership and also the savagery of what he dubs the thanatocracy in criminalising such popular rights.7
The state and the ruling class deployed several strategies to maintain their authority. Linebaugh traces and highlights them but attributes special significance to the making and use of law. Like E P Thompson he sees the British ruling class as having a distinctive relationship with the law; one that shapes its rule.8 It seeks to formalise and legitimise the most violent actions by minute attention to detail. Suspending Habeas Corpus or reading the Riot Act almost always precedes state action, as was to happen on the day of Peterloo in 1819 or, less dramatically, the arrest and arraignment of individual radicals. Then, despite the breakneck pace of private Enclosure Acts throughout the 18th century a General Enclosure Act was introduced in 1801 to cover all contingencies and minimise challenges in the local courts.
In our own times the lawmakers anticipating the rise of street protest introduced Section 14 of the Public Order Act in 1986 in order to legitimise summary arrest and kettling. Indeed as I write this review, Deputy Assistant Commissioner Laurence Taylor of the Metropolitan Police has been giving an opinion on the recent and ongoing protests around climate change. He tells us that in processing the over 1,000 people arrested, and with future protests in mind, there may need to be a revision and extension of offences meriting arrest and prosecution. This mainly arises from the fact that the protestors are almost completely non-violent (his description).9 The law is not adequate so “we” will need to modify it. This was exactly the situtation following the failed prosecution of the leaders of the London Corresponding Society in 1795!
The wilful implanting of racism as an essential tool of divide and rule, Ireland as the testing ground for the violence of the British state and the bloody international canvas of slavery and virtual genocide of indigenous peoples are welded together in the fates of two significant victims, Edward (Ned) Despard and his Creole wife Catherine (Kate). Readers of Linebaugh’s work will find their stories in his previous books, The Many Headed Hydra and Stop Thief!10 This new book is not only a story of victimhood. The Despards have a central role in trying to build resistance. Despard was born in County Laois in the Irish midlands. He was a child of the Protestant ascendancy reared in a world of constant tension between landlord and peasant, of the clash of cultures and the “legal” brutality of the former and the secret defensive violence of the latter. As a teenager he joined the British Army and was sent to Jamaica, Honduras and Nicaragua where he was a soldier, engineer and administrator. He survived an expedition that cost the lives of several thousand soldiers and sailors and countless indigenous people. At some point he found Kate, a Caribbean woman, a far from uncommon experience for members of the military and planter class. The “sainted” Thomas Jefferson, the personification of liberal democracy, maintained a long relationship with his slave, Sally Hemings, while holding extreme white separatist views.11 He wrote: “Whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstances [black people] are inferior to the whites in endowments both of body and mind”.12 What made Ned Despard different was marrying Kate, taking her back to England and openly cohabiting in London. Crossing the race and class line was “disgraceful” and unacceptable.
The Despards involved themselves in 1790s London radicalism, a movement forced underground in the fever of patriotism of the war with France, of naval mutinies, the Irish Rebellion of 1798 and the slave uprising in Haiti. With extraordinary imaginative skill Linebaugh recreates these different and interlocking worlds experienced by the Despards. Ultimately, Edward Despard was fitted up as the leader of a conspiracy. The determination to have his head was no doubt intensified by the perception of his class and race betrayal, albeit with the flaw of also being Irish.
Kate tirelessly campaigned for his release. Her letters to politicians, lawyers and jailers have survived, showing her to have been a well informed and highly literate political activist in her own right. She took down her lover’s words in his cell on the eve of his death and after he spoke them on the scaffold and, to the rage of his killers, distributed them to the street: “Citizens I hope and trust, notwithstanding my fate, and the fate of those who no doubt will soon follow me, that the principles of freedom, of humanity and justice, will finally triumph over falsehood, tyranny and delusion, and every principle inimical to the interests of the human race”.13
Indeed the Despards, while central to this narrative, were not alone in raising the flag of resistence and protest. There was the young William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Byron and William Blake. There were political agitators, John Thelwall and Thomas Spence. There was Richard Parker, leader of the naval mutiny at Spithead and Robert Emmet of the Irish Rising, Toussaint Louverture from Haiti and Tecumseh, the native American embodiment of a tradition. Linebaugh also brings several formerly anonymous men and women we would be proud to call our brothers and sisters in struggle. Resistance took many shapes, but all implied sometimes astonishing bravery in the face of a ruthless and relentless ruling class driven by the dual motives of a zeal for destroying the Commons in all its manifestations and a fear and hatred for the French Revolution and its impact on Britain and elsewhere. Here is its bold voice in autumn 1792: “DUMOURIEZ is at Brussels and DEMOCRATS everywhere STAND FORTH”.14
This is the point to link Linebaugh’s narrative of the assault on the Commons to the present and the rising of Extinction Rebellion. The shape and content of possible socialist societies to come has only been a small part of the International Socialist practice. It has been argued that creating blueprints of future societies was pointless because the future society’s map would be drawn by its participants. Discussion might also be a diversion from important day-to-day struggle. In the 1970s, such discussions took place, but they were relegated to the International Socialists/Socialist Workers Party annual rally at the Derbyshire Miners’ Holiday Camp at Skegness, joining Paul Foot’s inspiring talks on Thomas Paine or Louverture or debates on whether professional football should be abolished. When such talks did take place they contained an assumption that following the revolution the new society would be based on democracy (workers’ control), equality and planned use of resources. Technical advance would be deployed to produce aircraft, motor cars, washing machines and kettles highly efficiently and with an infinite lifespan. The substance of capitalist society would remain but subject to workers’ control. Discussion would not go much further. Few ever envisaged a society without motor cars.
The climate change debate has been smouldering for over two decades. It has suddenly burst into flame. The scientific facts are generally accepted, save for a diminishing group of fanatical yet powerful deniers. Increasingly the question posed is what is to be done to avert extinction. Linebaugh is greatly exercised by this. The savage assault on the Commons and its customs is his territory. In the time-scale of the book the appropriation of common land and the criminalisation of centuries-old customs, such as freely eating the produce of the commons, is the narrative he dissects from Enfield to Laois, Honduras to the American Midwest. This machine set in motion then has continued its rapacious journey to the present. It is already clear that recovering the Commons is firmly on the agenda. Two things are merging: how we stop the lethal march of capitalism and how proposed answers to that question link to the society we want. Linebaugh’s exploration of the assault on the Commons and how our antecedents struggled to resist the depredations is an invaluable education. Read, enjoy and DEMOCRATS everywhere STAND FORTH!
John Charlton is a long-term member of the SWP living in Newcastle.
1 “Standard of living debate”: the discussion about whether the condition of the working class improved or declined in the period of the early Industrial Revolution.
2 Thompson, 1963, p219.
3 Steffens, Greenvald, Crutzen and McNeill, 2011. Anyone wishing to explore this further should read Ian Angus’s 2016 book, Facing the Anthropocene. Angus’s lecture on the Anthropocene at the International Socialism conference “Marxism and Nature”, 2016, can be seen at http://isj.org.uk/marxism-and-nature/
4 “And they enclos’d my infinite brain into a narrow circle,
And sunk my heart into the Abyss, a red, round globe, hot burning,
Till all from life I was obliterated and erasèd.
Instead of morn arises a bright shadow, like an eye
In the eastern cloud; instead of night a sickly charnel-house…”
5 Linebaugh, 2019, p72.
6 Linebaugh, 2019, p254.
7 A thanatocracy is a regime in which death (death penalty) is the key method of attempting to assert control over subordinate groups.
8 Thompson, 1975.
9 Dodd, 2019.
10 Linebaugh and Rediker, 2000; Linebaugh, 2014.
11 Thomas Jefferson was 3rd president of the United States (1801-9) and architect of the Declaration of Independence, with its ringing statement of purpose, “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” which the textbooks call Jeffersonian Democracy. In initiating the Louisiana Purchase in 1802, Jefferson was responsible for the biggest enclosure process in history, killing and displacing the native Americans and parcelling and selling off the country in the move westwards.
12 Linebaugh, 2019, p210.
13 Linebaugh, 2019, p407.
14 From a leaflet published in London in Autumn 1792, cited in Williams, 1968, p3.