A May Day Meditation

by Peter Linebaugh

Comrades and Friends, May Day Greetings!

Here is ‘the day.’ The day we long to become a “journee’,” those days of the French Revolution when a throne would topple, the powerful would tumble, slavery be abolished, or the commons restored.

Meanwhile, we search for a demo for the day, or we gather daffodils and some “may” for our loved ones and the kitchen table. We greet strangers with a smile and “Happy May Day!” We think of comrades around the world, in Africa, India, Russia, Indonesia, Mexico, Hong Kong. With our comrades we remember recent victories, and we mutter against, and curse our rulers. We take a few minutes to freshen up our knowledge of what happened there in Chicago in 1886 and 1887 before striding out into the fight of the day.

So during this moment of studying the day, I’m going to take a text from Frederick Engels, Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, and I’ll ask you to take it down from the top shelf of the spare room where you stuck it when Reagan came to power, or to go down into the basement and dig it out of a mildewed carton whence you might have disdainfully put it during the Clinton years. No where does Engels mention the slave trade. No where does Engels mention the witch burnings. No where does Engels mention the genocide of the indigenous peoples. He writes, “A durable reign of the bourgeoisie has been possible only in countries like America, where feudalism was unknown, and society at the very beginning started from a bourgeois basis.”

Dearie me. Dear, dear, dear!

He has forgotten everything, it seems. He has swallowed hook, line, and sinker the whole schemata of: Savagery leads to Barbarism leads to Feudalism leads to Capitalism which, in turn, with a bit of luck, &c., &c., will be transformed, down the line, in the future, when the times are ripe, &c. &c. into socialism and communism. He has overlooked the struggle of the Indians, or the indigenous people, of the red, white, and black Indians. The fact is that commonism preceded capitalism on the north American continent, not feudalism. The genocide was so complete, the racism so effective, that there is not even a trace or relic of memory of the prior societies. So we fling him away as another Victorian European Imperialist and white male, to boot.

But, wait. Look again. Check out the essay at the back. He called it “The Mark.” It’s only a few pages. Perhaps you are misled by its German localism – its Gehferschaften and its Loosgter. The former term is the way the commoners of the Moselle valley practiced the jubilee and the latter term is a land distribution system based on periodical assignments by lot. Engels is describing the Commons of his neighborhoods. It is as substantial as Maria Mies in The Subsistence Perspective. You can smell the barnyard as you walk down the lane arm in arm to pick berries in the commons. Engels becomes a scholar of that “feudalism” which we thought he was discarding. But, no, in describing the pigs, the mushrooms, the turf, the wood, the unwritten customs, the mark regulations, the berries, the heaths, the forests, lakes, ponds, hunting grounds, fishing pools, he has quite forgotten his polemic against the economics professors (which is what inspired his tract) and he is relishing, shall we say? his very own indigenous self. I dare say he has had a few encuentros himself among the Germans. And we’ll never forget that it was the criminalization of customary access to the commons which first drove Karl Marx to the study of political economy.

No, Engels is full of contradictions. I say get him back from the mildew and air our your copy. He has a political purpose. Engels is not that theorist we tossed off as hopelessly politcally incorrect, and, taking all in all, a bad case for tenure. Part of his book he wrote for the professors of the SPD, but another part he wrote for the commoners and indigenous people – the peasants – who fled to the industrial towns. Moreover, he listened to them. They had lost their commons. Engels records the “traces,” the “relics”. These survive because of the French Revolution and the German one which once again produced a free peasantry. “But how inferior is the position of our free peasant of today compared with the free member of the mark of the olden time! His homestead is generally much small, and the unpartitioned mark is reduced to a few very small and poor bits of communal forest. But, without the use of the mark, there can be no cattle for the small peasant; without cattle, no manure; without manure, no agriculture.” That is the living commons. Engels knew of it. Engels is a free man; he knows that communism is possible. Engels is a revoutionary; he knows that it is not scheduled.

I say this not to rehabilitate Engels. I personally am less interested in him that I am in Tecumseh who refused to enter the house of Governor W.H. Harrison in August 1810 insisting on meeting in the open air. “The earth was the most proper place for the Indians, as they liked to repose upon the bosom of their mother.” Having thus reposed himself, he asserted the society of the commons: “The way, the only way to stop this evil is for the red men to unite in claiming a common and equal right in the land, as it was at first, and should be now – for it was never divided, but belongs to all. No tribe has the right to sell, even to each other, much less to strangers … Sell a country! Why not sell the air, the great sea, as well as the earth? Did not the Great Spirit make them all for the use of his children?”

But Engels had a global class politics, that is why we are interested in him again. What destroys the commons in Europe is what destroyed the commons of Tecumseh. Engels writes in 1880 “the whole of European agriculture, as carried on at the present time, is threatened by an overpowering rival, viz., the production of corn on a gigantic scale by America … The whole of the European agricultural system is being beaten by American competition.” It is true that Engels recognizes the commons in Germany but not in America. However, having said that, Engels also recognizes that the preservation of the commons depends on an international struggle.

Now, we return to May Day. What was responsible for that productivity of American corn? First, it was the fertility provided by a millennium of native American corn culture on the common land (remember the mound-makers who made thousands of tumuli, learn about the Hopewell people who brought corn from the Maya one thousand years ago, visit the fabulous serpent mound of Ohio during your summer travels). Second, it was the members of the Moulders Local 23 at the McCormick mechanical reapers’ works of Chicago who went on strike for the eight hour day in 1867 and whose struggle directly resulted in the Haymarket demo of 1886. And then the hangings.

So, now as they gather in Seattle and Windsor and Prague and Brazil and Quebec, precisely to sell the air, the water, the earth, we pose the common alternative, under many names, untheorized and common, oh! how so, very, very common, common to the slaves, common to the indigenous peoples, common to the women, common to the workers. Here is the light and the heat of the day. I shall miss you, dearest comrades, at the launchings in New York and Boston of the Auroras of the Zapatistas.

Peter Linebaugh is the author (with Marcus Rediker) of The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic.

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