"1811 Slave Revolt, Lorraine Gendron." NOLA. Accessed September 25, 2018. https://www.nola.com/politics/index.ssf/2011/01/the_largest_slave_revolt_in_us.html.
What is class consciousness, and can the concept be applied too broadly or ahistorically? Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker blur distinctions “between free, self-employed, unfree, and sub-proletarian workers” (236) in order to illustrate moments of transatlantic resistance to nascent capitalism and colonization. These moments – the people who incited them – comprised the mythic hydra that seventeenth- and eighteenth-century British elites feared. Class consciousness is invoked as actionable – defined by instances of “mutiny,” “rebellion,” and “opposition.” As such, reviewers simultaneously laud Linebaugh and Rediker for drawing connections across a vast geographic and chronological scope and fault them for flattening the nuances of these contexts to fit into an overarching Marxist narrative.
In The American Historical Review, Kathleen J. Higgins finds that the “unifying task” (1529) of the authors renders sailors “the vectors of strikes, urban revolts, slave revolts, and revolution throughout the Atlantic world” (1530) while linking “geographically dispersed events as the New York Conspiracy of 1741, the Maroon Wars in Jamaica and Suriname, the Stamp Act Riots, and the Boston Massacre" (1530). However, she does not comment on the role, range and means of movement for specific populations. In other words, in what ways can Linebaugh and Rediker confidently assert influence and causation across time and place? Patterns and parallels are different from chains of events – indeed, how is this measured or assumed by historians?
Likewise, in Labour, Marcel van der Linden quotes the authors – “What began as repression thus evolved into mutually exclusive narratives that have hidden our history (352). Therefore, the synthesis of these disparate stories is an act of historiographic recovery. By mending divides between “the story of the Working Class” and “the narrative of Black Power" (333-4). Linebaugh and Rediker mean to conjure the masses – the so-called “hewers of wood and drawers of water" (36) as an oppressed, downtrodden underclass with little regard for levels of privilege within the working-class and the intersections of other identity politics. Labor – the act of toiling and performing menial tasks – is key. In fact, van der Linden notes that the authors only acknowledge waged and non-waged workers in the context of collaboration (240).
In this way, Bryan D. Palmer, in Historical Materialism, characterizes The Many-Headed Hydra as a “history of levelling discontent,” an account of all those who challenged “powerful capitalist interests" (365). Palmer takes issue with Linebaugh and Rediker’s use of the word “commoners” and “communism" (381). Meanwhile, Higgins uncritically cites radicals’ affinity for “communism” or the authors’ discussion of “communist ideas from below" (29), and van der Linden questions what exactly “working class” even means (235). Van der Linden goes on to claim historians are too quick to adopt a presentist conception of the working class – “which holds that the working class consists exclusively of ‘free’ wage-earners" (240). In doing so, we reproduce “historical repression" (240). He then argues labor historians must “study all dependent workers” within an even broader chronology (240).
Yet, Palmer explicitly problematizes this use of language, not for its ahistoricism, but for its resultant oversimplification of events and experiences. All instances of discontent “over centuries of disorientating socio-economic transformation … social formations, political economies, and cultures … are lumped into this commoners’ just revolt" (381). The unintended consequence of such overdrawn comparisons, Palmer argues, is an exaggerated sense of significance for each event. Conversely, Higgins finds that The Many-Headed Hydra demonstrates that capitalism and colonization were “neither inevitable nor fully secured" (1529). Is it, then, that by writing against the teleologies of the elites, the authors have invoked their own form of subaltern exceptionalism?
Take, for instance, the story of Francis, a Black female servant, whose story is only told through a single text authored by white, male church elder, Edward Terrill. First, Linebaugh and Rediker concede the lack of information – that absence “means that [they] cannot treat her in a conventional biographical way" (74). Yet, by the conclusion of the chapter, not only do the authors make broad assumptions about her life, but render her a kind of allegorical figure – reading along the grain of Terrill’s writing and fitting her neatly into a story of resistance to the “capitalist patriarchy” as a supposedly childless (“non-breeding”) woman (103).
Though they deal with the problems with bottom-up history, none of the reviewers thoroughly unpack the historiographic act of “rescuing,” “recovering,” or “giving voice to” subaltern actors. Higgins concludes her review with a note on sources, attributing their anglocentric bias to a study of “antinomianism in the age of revolution” rather than “a pan-racial revolutionary past in the Atlantic world" (1530). Meanwhile, Palmer addresses the matter directly – “historians of these sectors of society below do their subject great violence if they restrict their looking only to source examinations and historical consequences emanating ‘from below" (376). This critique is unexpected. With so many gaps and silences within the archive, one might characterize the true violence as that of the erasure of subaltern histories.
Linebaugh and Rediker rely on sources from “above,” elite perspectives on and descriptions of the rabble – rarely first-person accounts from the “commoners” themselves. Consider, for instance, the New York "Conspiracy" of 1741 – an insurrection of enslaved Blacks and working-class whites. The authors describe historical actors by name – Brash, Ben, Mink, Cuff, London, Quack, etc. (179-80). Yet, a perusal of the citations reveals that this entire account relies heavily on the account of Daniel Horsmanden, one of the judges (381-2). Additionally, the authors layering of their own interpretations onto these characterizations (e.g., rendering them working-class revolutionaries, etc.) does not critically engage the absence of these actors self-conception. What is class consciousness if not an awareness of one’s circumstances in relations to others?* Linebaugh and Rediker focus on proving its existence through moments of action and reaction, rather than self-conscious reflection.
* What are the implications for other works, such as E. P. Thompson's seminal 1963 The Making of the English Working Class?