On September 11, 1648, the Levellers submitted the Large Petition with 40,000 signatures to Parliament. The deed was decisive because it set in motion the terrible events that culminated four months later in the execution of Charles Stuart, King of England, and because the Levellers, the first popular democratic political party in European, if not world, history, announced their opposition to the enclosures of the commons, or the privatization of the English land.
It seems to be a pure coincidence that the Large Petition and the attacks on the Pentagon and the Twin Towers took place on the same day and month, though the former was three and a half centuries earlier. The coincidence arises like magic from the dull miasma of created amnesia. We have forgotten the history of freedom and the commons. This is not accidental either: the ruling class dumbs us down, and the dumbing starts at the top.
Ten days after the 9/11 attack President Bush addressed the nation, the Congress, and Tony Blair, prime minister of England. “America has no truer friend than Great Britain,” he said. “Once again, we are joined together in a great cause,” referring as he often would in the speech to Churchill and Roosevelt and the Anglo-American alliance of the Second World War. What was the cause? Here the amnesia sets in, and the tragedy becomes farce. The terrorists “hate us for our freedoms ? our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech.” This was the lie, because the cause which Churchill and Roosevelt expressed was fourfold, the Four Freedoms. Bush gets two right, the two “of” freedoms (speech, worship), but he gets two wrong, mendaciously omitting the two “from” freedoms, the freedom from want, and the freedom from fear.
Freedom from want summarized social security, unemployment insurance, workers’ comp, aid to families with dependent children. Freedom from fear summarized our legal protections against the midnight knock, the police state, and the ‘strange fruit’ of Southern trees. These were the freedoms of the poor, the powerless, the parents, the old, the sick, the injured. These were the four brass chords of mobilization trumpeted “everywhere in the world” (Atlantic Charter). Against them is Bush’s squeaky baby fife, tweet, tweet. Despite his disgraceful omission the commentators oohed and ahhed. History was not being made; it was being re-written.
We do not blame Bush’s English history profs at Yale ? I doubt he had any. Anyway, the problem is not confined to the Ivy League. After all Judge Rehnquist (Stanford, ’48) gets the date wrong of the English Habeas Corpus Act of 1679. Remember Clinton, who eviscerated habeas corpus, cruised to power amid a fleet of Rhodes scholars. Against the contented smirk of self-loved ignorance of the President, or the haughty sneer of arrogant calculation of the Chief Justice, the Harvard English literature scholar, Steven Greenblatt, sighs that English history has disappeared from American education. This is true, true at the top. The answer to amnesia from above is history from below.
We have to learn about the Magna Carta from subcommandante Marcos. English history comes to us from indigenous movement; it was the liberation fighter of the Shawnee, Tecumseh, for example, who said, the Indians must reclaim the common, “Sell a country! Why not sell the air, the great sea, as well as the earth?” he cried. The Irish adage, English history happens elsewhere, also applies. The alert Ms. Bridget Connelly, single parent and Toledo journalist, brought to my summer school class the Large Petition of the Levellers, not as coincidence, but asking its meaning. Its meaning is extraordinary because it deals directly with the two planetary discussions which were put an end to by the terror of 9/11, namely, the commons and reparations.
In the summer of 2001 people from around the planet gathered in Italy and South Africa to discuss the issues of our time. In Genoa, answering Thatcher’s vulgar determinism of TINA (‘there is no alternative’), people affirmed that ‘another world is possible’ to the enclosures and privatization schemes of the World Bank, IMF, and WTO. Berlusconi, the Italian prime minister, caused the young activist Carlo Giuliani to be run over, shot, and killed. Meanwhile, in Africa, home to homo sapiens or wo/man the wise, the UN conference on “racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia, and related intolerance” raised reparations. On September 5, 2001 the African countries called for an apology for slavery, debt cancellation, the funding of health care, the return of plundered objects, and the acceleration of overseas aid. In response, the U.S. withdrew. A week later, terror on the Twin Towers, and Bush, the plutogogue, piped in the dystopia of oil and terror.
The Large Petition was emulated across the length of England, from Tyneside to Somerset weavers, and in between, e.g. thousands of lead miners of Derby in the midst of industrial dispute. The principle behind it was an arrow shot by the Leveller, Richard Overton, “all men are equally and alike born to the like propriety, liberty and freedome” he wrote, specifically including cobblers, tinkers, chimneysweepers, and bellowesmenders.
The Large Petition contains 27 demands. I’ll discuss them under six heads. The first is popular sovereignty or “the supreme authority of the people” contrasting with the judicial sovereignty of Bush where Rehnquist designated him President despite the scandal of the Florida balloting. The Levellers called for annual elections, fixed times of meetings, and demanded “all persons alike liable to every law of the land so all persons even the highest might fear and stand in awe.” “There is nothing more opposite to freedom,” they said, than the “power of pressing and forcing any sort of men to serve in wars.” Two years earlier and again a year later the Levellers mutinied against the invasion of Ireland, a signal instance of anti-imperialist solidarity recognized in the tradition that claims that the Irish color green originated in the colors of the Leveller soldier, Rainborough.
The second group of demands pertain to freedom of worship and speech. They demanded the exemption of “matters of Religion and Gods worship from the compulsive or restrictive power of any authority upon earth.” that people not be divided or affrighted from liberty, by superstitious laws concerning blasphemy, heresy, and the supernatural” because liberty is necessary to discover corruption and tyranny. They tolerated Catholicism and atheism, as well as Muslims and Jews, in advance of Milton and Locke. One of Bush’s body guards in Detroit dirtied the walls of a suspect’s home with “Islam is Evil” “Christ is King.”
The third heading refers specifically to reparations: “full and ample reparations to all persons that had been oppressed by sentences in High Commission, Star Chamber, and Counsel Board, or by any kind of Monopolizers or Projectors; and that out of the Estates of those that were Authors, Actors, or Promoters of so intolerable mischiefs….” These lines can apply today, when instead of royal courts, the court system of the U.S. by snitch evidence and racial bias sends the poor to prison. As for “Monopolizer or Projectors” the meaning of these words would be conveyed into today’s terms as entrepreneur, and at the time in 1648 the first commercial English “triangular” traders set sail for slaves from West Africa. Intolerable mischiefs indeed!
Lord Gifford summarized the issue in the House of Lords, “The underdevelopment and poverty which affect the majority of countries in Africa and the Caribbean, as well as the ghetto conditions in which many black people live in the United States and elsewhere, are not, speaking in general terms, the result of laziness, incompetence, or corruption of African people or their governments. They are in a very large measure the consequence ? the legacy ? of one of the most massive and terrible criminal enterprises in recorded history, that is, the transatlantic slave trade and the institution of slavery.”
The slave ship, the plantation, the ghetto are followed by the prison as the location for slaves and the descendants of slaves. Therefore, the fourth heading is more essential than ever. It concerns the elementary liberty and individual safeguards against the despotism of King or cop, judge or jackboot. The Levellers were led by John Lilburne, hero of habeas corpus, otherwise sullied by Clinton, mocked by Rehnquist. The Large Petition required that “all tryalls should be only by twelve sworn men.” Plea bargaining was unacceptable. Walwyn the Leveller said, “take a Cobler from his seat, or a Butcher from his Shop and let him hear the case.” “No conviction but upon two or more sufficient grown witnesses,” thus removing the hidden mainspring of the American criminal justice machine, the snitch. Free all people “from being examined against themselves.” Free people “from being punished for doing that against which no law hath been provided.” The Levellers demanded the release of the thousands who are ruined “by perpetual imprisonment for debt.” Victimless crimes and indeterminate sentences were thus proscribed. As a principle the Large Petition demanded that Parliament “proportion punishments more equal to offences.” “Abbreviate the proceedings of the law.” Congress passed the Patriot (Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism) Act of 342 pages. Its scandalous provisions (tracking telephone and internet communication, sneak and peek searches, mandatory unnamed, uncharged detention of 1,100) together with TIPS (Terrorism Information Prevention System) brings back everything but the King’s Messengers, the branks and thumbscrews of Star Chamber. Our Bill of Rights, like our Declaration of Independence, owes an unacknowledged debt to the petition of 9/11/1648. It is time to acknowledge it, and no better time than 9/11. The fifth heading perhaps is the most interesting, pertinent, and needed, and for that reason it has been most arduously forgotten. It concerns subsistence. The petitioners told Parliament to “keep people from begging and beggary in so fruitful a Nation;” they instructed Parliament to “abolish excise and all kinds of taxes.” Free “all trade and merchandising from all Monopolizing and Engrossing,” they said in a direct reference to the pattern of customary consumer conditions known as the ‘moral economy.’ “Restore the Comunalty of London to their just Rights.” Now we come to the C word that has caused a deal of trouble. The twelfth demand of the Large Petition commanded Parliament to “open all late Inclosures of Fens, and other Commons, or have enclosed them only or chiefly to the benefit of the poor”
The fens drained, forests emparked, fielden and champion lands surveyed, fenced, and hedged, and wretched misery followed. Yet hunger will break through stone walls, and tears dissolve the foundation of country houses, said the Levellers. Subsistence depended on common right and common good. William Walwyn wished “with all his heart that there was neither Pale, Hedge nor Ditch in the whole Nation.” Winstanley the Digger said “there is no reason that some should have so much and others so little.” Women led a vigorous anti-enclosure movement. In addition to Captain Ludd and Captain Swing, the social imaginary of the English class struggle produced the terrific phantoms, Robin Hood and Skimmington. The debate was exceptionally rich in 1649. The inventor of the forceps, Peter Chamberlen, wrote, “Meum et tuum divide the world into factions, into atoms.” An equality of goods and lands, an agrarian law with annual re-division, called for in August 1649, in a great pamphlet that George Orwell republished. Carrots, parsnips, and peas planted which as fodder could keep cattle alive through the winter. Then came the Rump, regicide, and the republic, and to these we could add the ranch, for cattle raising became the rule for rapacity.
The Parliament of landlords which took over politics in 1640 was not interested in preserving a peasantry engaged in subsistence production. Winstanley’s communist project dated four days before the execution of Charles I. Digging started two weeks before kingship was abolished on St Patrick’s Day ( March 17). Two months later England was declared a commonwealth. Brailsford believed the real reason for the defeat of the Levellers was their failure to remedy the plight of the peasantry. 1656 was the last time Parliament tried to legislate against enclosures; for the subsequent three centuries Parliament enacted enclosures.
The freedom from fear and the freedom from want are logically related. Losing the commons leads to the criminalization of the commoner. Hence, individual safeguards of liberty against tyranny of the courts and the police are necessary when the collective responsibility of the common welfare has been corrupted. The Leveller newspaper The Moderate on August 7, 1649 when some poor men were executed for stealing cattle said such crimes originated in private property. “We find some of these felons to be very civil men, and say, that if they could have had any reasonable subsistence by friends, or otherwise, they should never have taken such necessitous courses for support of their wives and families. they argue it with much confidence that property is the original cause of any sin between party and party after civil transactions. And that since the Tyrant is taken off, and their government altered in nomine, so it really to redound to the good of the people in specie.” Laurence Clarkson took the argument a step further, “if the creature had brought this world into no propriety, as Mine and Thine, there had been no such title as theft, cheat, or a lie”
Alongside the planetary discussions at Genoa and Durban, Al Haber and Staughton Lynd, veterans of SDS and SNCC, called a series of regional mid-western meetings. Our discussion foundered when we raised the issue of “the commons.” The late Marty Glaberman (Buick worker, C.L.R. James’ comrade, counselor to the Black revolutionary union movements of Detroit) opposed it altogether, finding it idealized. Staughton Lynd offered the experience of the legal suits based on eminent domain against U.S. Steel but he excluded the term ‘the commons’ saying it was particular to Britain without any meaning at all for Americans. One sees the point. On the one hand, those Founding Fathers repressed the term (Madsion was frightened of “levelling,” and Jefferson quoted Levellers but refrained from identifying the party), because the Founders pretended to “find” the boreal forests of the Algonguians and the prairies, woods, and waterways of the Shawnee, the Pottawatomies, at the moment that the indigenous people were confederating on the basis precisely of the commons, or ‘the dish with one spoon,’ as Joseph Brant of the Iroquois put it. The Founders might accept Leveller formulations of liberty of individuals (Bill of Rights), but not against enclosure. On the other hand, the 20th century anthropologists approached ‘the question of the commons’ with a Victorian touch, as cabinet specimans ? Icelandic fisheries, Botswana grazing, Bornean swamps. Thus, the narrative has been blocked.
The Levellers, too, made an issue out of the commons. The 18th demand of the 9/11 petition specifically bound all “future Parliaments from abolishing propriety, levelling mens estates, or making all things common.” They disclaimed the religious doctrine of communism which was rife indeed. Abiezer Coppe pointed out that true communion “is to have all things common.” John Wycliffe, the first to translate the Bible in English, just after the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381, translated the early Christians practice (Acts 2:44) to “hadden alle thingis comyn,” a wording (but not a spelling) kept in subsequent renditions, though the practice was specifically prohibited by the Prayer Book of the State religion. The earlier Christians “had all things common as every man his need,” a view that entered Marx’s definition of communism, ‘to each according to need.’
In the tactical conjuncture in taking on Parliament, an assembly of landlords, this compromise was felt necessary, if they were to get the Roundheads to prosecute the King. They demanded the execution of “Justice upon the capital authors and promoters of the former and late wars” and they pressed for immediate trial of the king. The Levellers on 9/11/1648 believed they could obtain some redress by killing the King. However, capital punishment backfired, inciting a spirit of revenge and creating a Royalist party where there had never been one before. The parallel is to the destruction of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. They were no more merely symbols of finance capitalism or imperialism than Charles Stuart was actually a “Crown.” To gain support for regicide, the Levellers compromised the universality of the commons.
Yet, the repressed has returned. There is a deep historical practice, that is world-wide, and within memory: shared labor of cooperation, common uses of the product of labor, shared use of common pool resources (land, water, air, oil, electro-magnetic spectrum, bio-sphere), and in the event of disaster, scarcity, famine, common deprivation. With this practice there is also the historical experience of intentional transformations such as the Levellers and the Diggers (England) or Babeuf and the Equals (France), or Marx and Engels and the communists (Germany). From the Sem Terra movement of land occupation in Brazil (“seeds are the property of humankind”) to the digital commons, or free software movement, of the hacker Richard Stallman, who created a “little puddle of freedom,” from Papua to El Salvador, from Pakistan to Nigeria, from Chiapas to Amazonas, the migrants remember and must remind “Americans” that the story is only half told. The Greens have recalled the commons; let them recall the Levellers too, their color cognates.
In the mid-west, the welfare of some commons is threatened by two forces ? nuclear power (war) and genetic modification (plants). 25 miles from Toledo on Lake Erie squats the Davis-Besse nuclear power plant. The profits are private, but the cost is common. Boric acid has eaten away the reactor head. Only three-eighths of an inch of steel stands between us and a Three Mile Island or Chernobyl. The NRC intervened ? shockingly so, for it protected private profits, ignored t risks, and failed to shut it down. It is incapable of acting for the commons. The hole in the head has only grown.
Readers all over the country this summer have been startled by the grave and tender warnings Barbara Kingsolver makes on behalf of bio-diversity. The genetic modification of corn is destroying the strains which were first brought to the Ohio country from meso-America a millenium ago by the Hopewell people. Once it is understood that the GM corn has contaminated the Mexican land-mass our anger must confront the genetic terror. The planetary germ-plasm is a commons befalling generation on generation, and it is at risk. Winstanley “For if ever the Creation be restored, this is the way, which lies in this twofold power. First, Community of Mankind. Second, Community of the Earth. These two communities, or rather, one in two branches, is that true Levelling.” Naturally, John Evelyn, the royalist diarist, hated the Levellers and the Diggers, and yet he loved his fruits more than he hated the commons, and thus the aristocratic pomologist stated flatly, “We do seriously prefer a very wild orchard.”
Two towns have been named after the Lessing family in Nottinghamshire, a county where the Levellers had once been strong, and before them, Robin Hood. One is Lexington, Massachusetts, and the other is Laxton. In the former, the shot heard around the world was fired, in the latter, open field cooperation still prevailed at the time of the Atlantic Charter. Then, H.N. Brailsford, the historian of the Levellers, tramped about the muddy ploughed lands of the last open field agriculture of England, while in Placentia Bay FDR instructed Churchill as to the Four Freedoms. The seed-bed of ‘the freedom from want’ lies precisely and historically in the commons. That is English history from the ground. What was remarkable is that where Brailsford last heard of commoning practices, England apart, was among elder Pathans of Afghanistan, which the Americans are so intent now on destroying.
An older school of historical materialists said the Levellers were ahead of their times. The only trouble with that is that they were ahead of ours as well. How can we catch up? The answer to this, as well as to Ms Bridget Connelly’s question, is this: reparations for harm done cannot be re-paid by capital punishment of those on thrones or in Towers, and the commons must be advocated unequivocally “everywhere in the world.” Parliament intended to pass an Act of Oblivion against the Levellers. On 9/11 the Levellers demanded instead “a most honourable Act of perpetual rememberance, to be as a pattern of publik vertue, fidelity, & resolution to all posterity.” “The past is not dead. It is not even past,” as William Faulkner said. No coincidences.
Peter Linebaugh teaches history at Bard College. He is the author of The London Hanged: Crime and Civil Society in the Eighteenth Century and The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic.
He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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