The multiple faces of the proletariat in the 17th and 18th centuries – Rebellion

Against this deeply rooted vice, the effort of the North American historians Peter Linebaugh (1943) and Marcus Rediker (1951) with The hydra of the revolution is to present a sample of “ignored characters and forgotten fights” essential to appraise our vision of the capitalist expansion of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in the Atlantic environment. The book was published in 2000 and after a first Spanish version in Crítica in 2005, it now appears in the Dream Traffickers catalog in a translation by the publisher itself.

The authors point out at the beginning of the volume that it arises from a combination of the Afro-American, English and North American traditions of “history from below”, along the lines of WEB Du Bois, CLR James, EP Thompson or Herbert G. Gutman, among others. others. The title comes from an image that was very dear to the builders of capitalism at the time being analyzed. They pretended to be Hercules, building the “social order” in struggle with the many-headed hydra, which symbolizes chaos. The book tries to recover some of the lost history of the multi-ethnic class whose exploitation made the birth of capitalism possible, and it does so by capturing nine privileged moments in the process.

capitalism kicks off

The shipwreck of the Sea Venture in July 1609 in Bermuda, it helped some of those who traveled on it to organize, taking advantage of the fertile nature of the islands and occasionally collaborating with the natives of the region, an existence that achieved a synthesis between the primitive communism of the New World and the commoner communism of the Old World. It was a paradise on earth that did not agree with the financial interests of the Virginia Company, director of the colonial company, which was militarily dismantled by those who had property titles and cannons to back them up.

The authors describe the regime of terror imposed in England at this early stage of expansion of capitalism, in which prison, correctional facilities and the gallows were the basic elements. On the other side of the Atlantic, meanwhile, primary accumulation takes place, through a “domestication” of nature in which “woodcutters and water carriers” played a leading role. They carried out work such as cutting down forests, building ships and ports, draining swamps or preparing plantations. The staff for this was recruited, often by force, from homeless people, marginals, or criminals, who were deported to America.

The ideological cover for this expropriation is provided by philosophers such as Francis Bacon, who, imbued with Herculean labor, calls for the extermination of savages, vicious by nature, as well as large groups of criminals and heretics who put sticks in the wheels of “progress”. . The sacred mission of enriching oneself by turning the world into merchandise and murdering or enslaving its inhabitants is thus endowed with a solid foundation: the fight against chaos in the name of civilization.

The voice of those below in the English revolution

The English revolution of the seventeenth century served to channel capitalist expansion. However, until they were marginalized by Cromwell, radical ideas had their moment, as evidenced in a curious document presented in the book. This is a brief literary portrait of a black servant and Anabaptist religion, authored by the minister of his congregation and which was written between 1672 and 1678. The spirituality that is revealed in the text leads us, through the concept of the “glory of God”, to that of the “New Jerusalem”, an idyllic setting “where the lion and the lamb would lie down together and righteousness, justice and mercy would be practiced, without respect of persons.”

Another interesting moment in which the “voice from below” emerges corresponds to the autumn of 1647, when a series of debates took place in Putney, a town on the outskirts of London, between Oliver Cromwell and those who defended democratic ideas in his army. , led by Thomas Rainborough, known as “levellers” (levelers). The latter were supporters of the permanence of communal rights in the English countryside and opposed to slavery. The debates can be synthesized in the struggle between democracy, on the one hand, which if it materializes could be used by the poor to create an egalitarian world, and the concept of property, on the other, which if it aspires to be perpetuated it must be clear that it must be opposed to give voice to those below.

Linebaugh and Rediker analyze the repercussions of these debates, which gave ideological support to Masaniello’s revolt in Naples (1647), in which the proletariat of a European city seized power and ruled alone for the first time. Later its echoes reached London on two occasions (1649, 1659-1660), Ireland (1649-1651), Barbados (1649), the Gambia River (1652) and Virginia (1663-1676). The data provided shows how the exploitation that was being imposed from above was contested in very diverse scenarios.

New cries of the “voiceless” (1680-1760)

At the end of the 17th century, governments have provided themselves with a financial system capable of regulating trade in the Atlantic area, constituting what has come to be called a hydrarchy or maritime state. However, at the same time, the sailors, an exploited class that has become essential, oppose it using the boat itself, which is the engine of capitalism, as an instrument.

The book describes in detail the life of these “proletarians of the sea”, whose misery and slavery generated copious dividends for the companies, and brings us closer to the spaces of resistance that arose throughout the 17th century. At the beginning of the following century, the sailors went further and developed an autonomous social order and a subversive alternative to the fleets that sailed the seas. The power they establish for this is a hydrarchy from below, which adds a new dimension to the history of pillage at sea, until then in the hands of nobles or merchants. The new type of piracy that was born at that time had as essential features: democracy, egalitarianism and rejection of racist prejudices. Class consciousness and an instinct for justice can also be appreciated in her, which made the lives of the captured captains who had not been cruel in their charge respected.

The massive response from the state succeeded in crushing this piracy of opposition to capital shortly after 1720, but in the following years, contestation in other areas began to emerge. In the 1730s and 1740s, a spirit of revolt was growing powerful among blacks in North America and the Caribbean, and thus in New York in 1741 there is a major uprising by a motley proletariat, made up mostly of slaves. It seems that the origins of this outbreak that destroyed barracks and other buildings are to be found in the docks, in the transmission of the resistance experiences of the military regiments and the plantations, and in the preaching of popular religion.

Voices from below in the American Revolution and the fight against slavery (1760-1830)

In the 1760s and 1770s, riots took place in North America, with multi-ethnic protagonists and coming from different areas, such as the sea, the cities or the plantations. The book reviews these events and concludes that they contributed powerfully to destabilize imperial civil society and pushed the thirteen colonies towards a war of liberation, the first of its kind in the world. It also describes how after the revolution history was adulterated to deny the elements of class struggle that had been given and only emphasize the dispute between nations.

Once independence was achieved, the frustrated revolutionaries found their way of action in the opposition to slavery, which strengthened at the end of the 18th century. The last chapters are devoted to two specific cases of these attempts. The first is that of Edward and Catherine Despard, framed in a cycle of rebellions that began in 1790 in which the mobilizations are not produced only for reasons of race or social class, but also raise an effort in pursuit of “the liberation of the human race as a whole”.

The other example studied is that of Robert Wedderburn (1762-1835), the son of a slave and a wealthy owner, born in Jamaica and later a radical and abolitionist politician in London. He saw history as an inevitable cycle of expropriation and resistance, and managed to combine religiosity, Christian at first and then deist, republicanism and the fight against trafficking, in a single ideal of equal rights and vital options for all “citizens of the world.” ”.

A new vision of social dynamics

The British Marxist historian E. P. Thompson considered that the social class that suffers from capitalist depredation only comes to define itself and become aware of it through the experience of exploitation, and proposing strategies to overcome it, and not as a mere “detachment” from material or social conditions. of the “educational” task of vanguards. The proletariat conforms in its fight against the violence to which it is subjected, and abounding in this, what Linebaugh and Rediker show us in The hydra of the revolution is that this process has as its protagonist a cosmopolitan, multi-ethnic humanity with very diverse occupations and trades. In this way, the classical conception of emancipatory dynamics is transcended, led by an industrial working class with a series of well-defined cultural guidelines.

From the perspective of the book, apparently dispersed processes can be endowed with a common thread, which is none other than resistance to the capitalist shredder. This effort is undoubtedly very ambitious and the book has been criticized on occasions, discussing the “collectivist, anti-authoritarian and egalitarian” character attributed to its protagonists or attributing to it a “Marxist romanticism” that indiscriminately adds to its equation all the victims and all the rebels. However, it is surprising to see throughout the work how in areas as diverse as those of survivors of shipwrecks, quilombos, urban revolts, dissident religious fraternities or pirate ships, the strength of an alternative to the exploitation of capital based on in solidarity and mutual support.

The rigorous exposure of data from The hydra of the revolution It is enormously informative and suggestive, but perhaps the main merit of the book is to overcome the schematism that has often impoverished the analyzes when trying to define the economic relations of capitalism with an excessive emphasis on the “social relations of production” that occur in the factory. Reading Linebaugh and Rediker we learn that the proletariat is not a pre-established and uniform category, but that it was shaped in the struggle during the decisive 17th and 18th centuries and that it is transnational, with variety of race and gender, slave, peasant, artisan and sailor, and all this simultaneously.

It must also be said that by analyzing such diverse conflicts, not only the past is interpreted, but also a present in which the capitalist Moloch himself, now in a senile phase, is attacked from angles as varied as are his victims.

Author’s blog: In it you can download the latest collection of poems from him: the dead books.

Rebelión has published this article with the permission of the author through a creative commons licenserespecting your freedom to publish it in other sources.

The multiple faces of the proletariat in the 17th and 18th centuries – Rebellion