May Day & SDS & SNCC Jubilee

In Ann Arbor, Michigan, you can observe in the movement the desire to bring the troops home from Iraq and Afghanistan and the other 600 bases, the release of political prisoners, the establishment of a commons at the library-lot, opposition to the blatant racism in Benton Harbor, freedom for Palestine, support (rather than dismissals) of school teachers, opposition to the proliferation of asphalt parking lots in favor of gardening and bicycles, more trees (remembering the name of our burg), and support for the upcoming Detroit Social Forum.  A loose network here called ‘Bringing It Back, Taking It Forward” has helped to revive our movement.

More and more of us understand that war and the banking scandal, sickness and home foreclosures, are symptoms of a civilization that is finished, yet neither the Christian militia nor the Tea Party is our bag. The scholars among us lament the closure of Shaman Drum, a great book-store, and we ruefully note that an excellent English language book-store flourishes in Oaxaca, Mexico.  Who is ‘backward’ now?

Alan Haber was a founder of Students for a Democratic Society fifty years ago here in Ann Arbor and nowadays he directs the Megiddo Project which seeks to replace the God of Battles with peaceful conversation at a round table he has built.  He asked me to sketch out a short May Day pamphlet bringing together, first, the history of May Day, second, a celebration of the jubilee, or the 50th anniversary, of both the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and SDS, and third, an invitation to Barack Obama who is to speak on May Day at the Michigan football stadium to join the immigrant rights march in the afternoon in Detroit. No problem, I ventured to Alan.  How are we to bring together the three subjects of students, immigrants, and power?   To begin with we need a methodology.

Our first methodological principle starts with Aneurin Bevan, the Welsh coal miner who went on to install the national health system in Britain.  He would remind himself and everyone else, not to forget that everything starts “at the point of the pick.”  This was in the days before the continuous miner when coal was hewed, even “crafted” he said, from the underground coal-face.  The energy of industrialization began there. The methodological principle puts the worker at the center of history, and the coal miner at the center of the industrial working class.

We  also need a symbol of reproduction, and Vandana Shiva, the Indian feminist advocate, can suggest one, for she issued the international warning against the taking of the seeds from the women and thus their power.  “The seed, for the farmer, is not merely the source of future plants and food; it is the storage place of culture and history.” The bowl of seeds had to be hidden against the “scientific” agronomists who were in the pay of Monsanto or other international genetic engineers (‘the knights of the gene snatchers,’ quips Alan).  The invisible work of reproduction surrounds history.  The commons, often invisible and generally in the care of women, is the second methodological principle.

So, let us proceed in our methodology on the basis of ‘the point of the pick’ and ‘the seeds in the bowl’ (the hammer and the sickle having had their day).  Because the pick takes things apart, it may act as a metaphor for analysis, and because the bowl holds stuff together it may stand for synthesis. If the Pick be analysis and the economics of production, it thrives in the realm of the inanimate. If the Bowl be synthesis and social reproduction, its realm is the animate.  These are both crucial operations of historical thinking.

Consider the history of May Day.

Merry Mount

In north America it began with immigrants, the English immigrants to Massachusetts, and they were of two minds.  The gloomy Puritans wanted to isolate themselves (“the city on the hill”) and having accepted hospitality of the native people either made them sick or went to war against them.   Thomas Morton, on the other hand, arriving in 1624, wanted to enjoy life together with the natives.  He envisioned life based on abundance rather than scarcity.  Three years later he celebrated May Day with a giant Maypole, “a goodly pine tree of eighty feet long was reared up, with a pair of buckhorns nailed on somewhat near unto the top of it”.

William Bradford, coming over on the Mayflower, landed at Plymouth Rock. He thought Indians were instruments of anti-Christ.  Of Thomas Morton and his crew, he wrote, “They also set up a maypole, drinking and dancing about it many days together, inviting the Indian women for their consorts, dancing and frisking together like so many fairies, or furies, rather; and worse practices.  [It was] as if they had anew revived the celebrated the feats of the Roman goddess Flora, or the beastly practices of the mad Bacchanalians…” Because Morton taught the Indians how to use fire-arms, the Puritan, Myles Standish, attacked and destroyed this early rainbow gathering. Morton was twice deported by the Puritans, and twice exonerated in England. He died in Maine.

Bradford gets one thing right.  May Day is very old, and nearly universal (in one form or another).  It is a festival of planting, of fertility, of germination.  It is a community rite of social reproduction. Years later Nathaniel Hawthorn bemoaned this road not taken.  Not taken yet, we might add.  The circular bowl of seeds symbolizes the day in several senses. Picking away at time we easily find the commons.


From Merry Mount (1627) to Haymarket (1886) two and half centuries passed.  An empire diminished (England 1776), a nation was founded, bankers established themselves, slavery advanced, an army and a navy manifested “destiny.” With the pick of analysis we take up with the coal miners, the railroad builders, the ditch diggers.  With the bowl of synthesis we apprehend how all together make a force in history.  As a force it includes the commons, the space of autonomy, independent of capital and privatization.

In 1886 the iron workers of the Molder’s Union struck at the McCormick’s Works in Chicago setting in train the events that led to the infamous Haymarket bombing, the hanging of four workers, and our modern May Day.  Let’s pick it apart.  First, these workers struck for an 8-hour day.  This had been at the center of the post Civil War movement of industrial workers:

We want to feel the sunshine;
We want to smell the flowers’
We’re sure God has willed it.
And we mean to have eight hours.

We’re summoning our forces from
Shipyard, shop and mill;
Eight hours for work, eight hours for rest,
Eight hours for what we will.

Second, many of them were Irish immigrants and as such brought knowledge of the Famine and knowledge of the struggle by the Molly Maquires in the anthracite fields of Pennsylvania the decade earlier.  They remembered the Day of the Rope (June 1877), the first of a series of more than twenty hangings against the Irish coal miners of Pennsylvania.  Third, in Chicago the workers were making a machine to reap the grasses, the grains of the north American prairies.  The machine presupposed the robbery of lands from the indigenous people – the Lakota, the Comanche, the Apache, the Métis in Canada -this is the fourth point of analysis.  Its so-called productivity would result in a) the globalization of food as both grain and meat passed through Chicago and the Great Lakes into the hungry bellies of Europe, and b) the short-sighted agriculture which would result in the disastrous Dust Bowl two generations later. Chicago was both a hub of world food organization and a forward base in the conquest of the common lands of the prairies.

The strike was suppressed by soldiers and a worker was killed.  The class conscious workers of Chicago protested.  Irish and Poles, socialists and anarchists, Catholics and communards, former Blues (Yankees) and former Grays (confederates) joined in a howl of outrage.  Albert Parsons the former confederate soldier whose consciousness was awakened by the Civil War to join forces with the former slave-slaves and present wage-slaves (marrying Lucy Parsons, part African American, part native American) summarized the Haymarket gathering, “We assembled as representatives of the disinherited.”

Truly, in one way or another the immigrants had been dispossessed, not only from their present means of production (capital), but from their past subsistence (commons) in the lands of their origins.  Furthermore, the soldiers attacking the Chicago workers had learned how to kill in the Indian wars and to expropriate the indigenous peoples from their communal systems.  This was the era when the critique of capitalism was elaborated by many hands.  Few at the time swung the pick with greater point than Karl Marx who, unlike pure theorists, asked the workers what they thought in an inquiry of more than a hundred questions.

At Haymarket in Chicago a stick of dynamite was thrown into the crowd (did the police do it?  was it the deed of an anarchist or socialist activist?) and all hell broke loose.  A spectacular and terrible trial was held, unfair in every respect, and Sam Fielden, Augustus Spies, Albert Parsons, Oscar Neebe, Michael Schwab, Adolph Fischer, George Engel, and Louis Lingg were found guilty.  On  November 11, 1887, despite an international campaign, four of them were hanged, preparing the way for the Gilded Age of American capitalism.

Chicago has never been the same, nor has the world labor movement.  On the one hand, Chicago became the center of brutish capitalism, led by gangsters such as Al Capone, on the other hand a multi-ethnic working class arose from Mississippi, Mexico, Poland, or Ireland and writers such as Carl Sandburg, Nelson Algren, or Richard Wright told us about it.  The ‘Chicago Idea’ is not quite dead, the notion that revolutionary unionism can combine militant union with mass action.  In remembrance of ‘los mártires’ May Day became the world-wide day of the workers and the 8-hour day.

The pick (the workers) and the bowl (the commons) must take us to the jubilee of SDS and SNCC.  But the path is not direct. The coal miners had to overcome the ethnic and language divisions deliberately instilled by the bosses. The United Mine Workers of America was formed in 1890.  Mother Jones was born on May Day 1838 in co. Cork, Ireland.  In 1901 she was in Pennsylvania urging the wives of the miners to form a militia wielding brooms and banging pots and pans.  The prosecutor called her “the most dangerous woman in America.”  In 1905 in Chicago she helped found the Wobblies, the I.W.W. or Industrial Workers of the World, whose preamble stated “The working class and the employing have nothing in common.  There can be no peace so long as hunger and want are found among millions of working people and the few, who make up the employing class, have all the good things of life.”  Mother Jones herself urged us “to pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living.”

Common lands was not within their program.  Yet, the commons (of land and labor) became an anti-capitalist dream. The rulers will try to establish control over reproduction with walls, fences, ICE, terror, detention.  The rulers will do so by population policy, controlling birth rates and death rates, eugenics, family allowance, maternity leave, abortion, and what John Ruskin called illth, the opposite of health and wealth.  The rulers attempt to organize the structures of labor markets, the skill-sets and levels by education and immigration policies.   In American history slaughter and disease are weapons against the indigenous; slavery and immigration are weapons against workers.  In fact terror has always been the instrument against the commons.

I believe that in early agreements with the bosses, in addition to his own birthday, the coal miner’s mother’s and mother-in-law’s birthdays, were paid days off.  It indicates that a community of women backed up the miners.   Oscar Ameringer, an immigrant, often called ‘the Mark Twain of American socialism,’ wrote for the miner’s union in Illinois under the pseudonym of “Adam Coaldigger.” He acknowledged that the miner had access to a commons of hunting and fishing yet the miner couldn’t mine all day and half the night and then go hunt and fish! It was the coal miners who backed the union organizing during the Great Depression.

The epic, the decisive, event of the 20th century (at least one of them) was the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia of 1917.  The Cold War of the USA against the USSR occupied the ideas, the institutions, and the politics of the world.  (The USA went so far as to shift the workers’ holiday to the first of September and pretended that May Day was a Russian holiday!)  After the Russian Revolution Communism was interpreted as a matter of State or the government far, far removed from actual commoning experiences which were dismissed as belonging to either a “primitive social formation” or “backward,” “undeveloped,” economies.  This began to change in 1955 as the second great theme of the 20th century – the national liberation struggles of colonies from European empires – congealed on the world stage.  These two themes – the Communist Revolution and the national liberation struggles – provide essential background to the birth of SNCC and SDS.  Again, let us take up the pick and the bowl.


In 1955 a meeting of Asian and African nations met in Indonesia.  They were seeking a third way, neither Communist nor Capitalist, aligned with neither the USSR nor the USA.  Chou en Lai (China), Nehru (India), Nasser (Egypt), and Sukarno (Indonesia) were some of the leaders present.  This movement of ex-colonies formed the block of non-aligned nations in 1960 that met in Belgrade. These independent entities were results of that liberation, Yugoslavia after World War One, India and Indonesia after World War Two.

Richard Wright was present at Bandung, Indonesia, in 1955 and wrote a book about it, The Color Curtain. Wright was the writer who understood racism, the working-class, and Chicago.  He was born in 1908 in Mississippi, the grandchild of slaves.  He moved to Chicago and joined the Communist Party. His 1940 photo essay of the workers in the American south was an eloquent visual preliminary to the Civil Rights movement of the Rosa Parks generation and the Montgomery bus boycott.  In 1940 too he composed Native Son, the unparalleled study of male proletarian rage in a racist society.  In the Sixties, however, Third Worldism was the American optic of internationalism.  It was deliberately and self-consciously revolutionary in its rejection of the U.S.A.

He saw it as a meeting of “The despised, the insulted, the hurt, the dispossessed – in short, the underdogs of the human race were meeting.”  Of the American newsmen he met “they had no philosophy of history with which to understand Bandung.”  He prepared himself for the trip by devising a questionnaire and using it as a basis of conversation with fellow travelers on trains and planes (78 of these questions are included in The Color Curtain). Were you educated by missionaries?  What do you think of capital punishment?  Is it ever justifiable to use the atomic bomb?  Do national inferiority feelings find expression in your country?  Do you want to see your country industrialized?  Do you think that a classless society, in an economic sense, is possible?  Here again is the empirical pick at work:  the student asks questions, the student interrogates her subject, and then listens.

“With us land has always been communal,” replied one Indonesian.  Not one of the Asians he spoke to defended “that most sacred of all Western values: property.”  An Indonesian man summed up the recent history of his country, “Now the common people are not getting benefits from that revolution.  That’s why today we are threatened with another revolution.”

90 per cent of the land in the outer islands was under shifting cultivation or swidden agriculture; they had no notion of private property in land nor was production for commerce.  It was common.  High bio-diversity is maintained, with very high nutrient content stored in soil and in the biotica.  The swidden plot is not a “field” but a miniature forest.  By contrast Java and inner Indonesia under rice cultivation, or sawah, depends on terraces and elaborate irrigation systems carrying water, algae, and nitrogen.  Seeds from nurseries instead of broadcast. The 1870 Agrarian Land Law proclaimed that “waste” land was government property.  It inaugurated the Corporate Plantation.  Pepper, rubber, and coffee were produced on the plantation for export.  Village lands were pre-empted.  The involution of life, the ranking system, and evisceration of village rights followed.  In 1950s local peasants took over roughly half the plantations but made dense, vague, and dispirited communities.

Pramoedya Ananta Toer (1924-2006), the Indonesian novelist of Dutch imperialism, was imprisoned on Buru island between 1965 and 1979.  He describes life there in The Mute’s Soliloquy, “But the Buru interior was not empty; there were native people living off that piece of earth long before the arrival of the political prisoners forced them to leave their land and huts behind.  Then, as the prisoners converted the savanna into fields, the native people watched their hunting grounds shrink in size.  Even the area’s original place names were stolen from them and they, too, were calling the area ‘Unit 10.’”  He was lucky I suppose, because perhaps one million, certainly several hundred thousand, Indonesians were massacred between 1965 and 1966.  Henry Kissinger and the CIA was complicit in this mass slaughter.


In 1952 the indigenous movement for independence from the British empire began in Kenya.  Guerrilla forces in the forests attacked the imperialists on the plantations.  They formed the Land and Freedom Army but the British called them Mau Mau, and the name stuck.  The colonials ruling Kenya adopted the Swynnerton Plan in 1954, a massive land grab.  Cash cropping and land titling destroyed traditional communal economies in favor of a system based on commodity production.  It effectively led to the confiscation of lands and “the consolidation and enclosure”. Public grazing lands were closed. Forced labor terraced the land to make coffee plantations. “One no longer feared to push aside traditional customs.”  Women and children suffered most.  Women’s entitlement to communal lands disappeared. A million men and women were forced into detention centers and concentration camps.  It is against a background of mass hangings and concentration camps part of the notorious British campaign against the Land Freedom Army.  Male leaders failed to articulate a position in favor of women’s access to land.  Kenya attained independence in 1963.

The experience of Mau Mau is partly described in Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Weep Not Child (1964) and A Grain of Wheat (1967).  In Detroit, 14 February 1965, Malcolm X explained that Mau Mau frightened the white man throughout the colonial world. The U.S. FBI Counterintelligence Program and J. Edgar Hoover warned that “an effective coalition of black nationalist groups might be the first step toward a real ‘Mau Mau’ in America, the beginning of a true black revolution.” Malcolm, ‘our shining black prince,’ was assassinated a week later.


The number of students doubled in the decade of the 1960s; there were actually more students than farmers.  The University had become the focal point of national growth. These youngsters were militants, the militants were students. University at the time didn’t cost much.  There were however fewer of them. Still, students were relatively privileged.

In the spring of 1960 there was the execution in San Quentin of Caryl Chessman by gassing.  There was the Sharpeville massacre in South Africa.  These shocked the young idealists of the time.  Then there was the approval of the birth control pill which seemed to open the way to massive love-making.  Ed Sanders wrote,

“two roads seemed to split
the American vista

Revolution or fun, were the alternatives in America.  The fun corrupted into porn, the revolution into its opposite.  The American vista became an ugly horizon of terror.

The jubilee we observe is one for students not for the New Left which in any case began in 1956. SNCC and SDS sang their songs, expressed their hopes, plotted their campaigns, danced their dances, took the hand of history saying good-bye to the old. These new dances started out as a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. It was fifty years ago.  Now fifty years is the jubilee of something.  Jubilee used to mean (the pick digs deep) emancipation, debt cancellation, return of lands, the reclamation of commons, and rest.  In ‘bringing it back and taking it forward’ we could do worse than these ancient near eastern practices.

February 1, 1960 the sit-in at the Woolworth lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, and a few weeks later in April Ella Baker brought together the students who founded SNCC.  Howard Zinn, a young professor, helped out the SNCC students.  He wrote of them, “They have no closed vision of the ideal community.  They are fed up with what has been; they are open to anything new and are willing to start from scratch.”  “They are young radicals; the word ‘revolution’ occurs again and again in their speech.  Yet they have no party, no ideology, no creed.”  They believed in action, and their actions spoke louder than words.

A 19-year old white student wrote, “the University is not much different than a giant marketplace of mediocrity, an extension of a corrupt, warped, illusion-ridden, over-commercialized, superficial society … whose basic purpose seems to be turning out students to be good citizens – dead, unconscious automatons in our hysterically consuming society…  I want to work in the South as this seems to be the most radical (to the core), crucial, and important place to begin to try and enlarge the freedom of humanity.”

SNCC stood for non-violent direct action, the ‘beloved community,’ and for anti-racism. As students they stayed up all night talking about existentialism, philosophy, theology, French literature.  They did it in jail not the class room.  From its credo composed at Raleigh, N.C., 1960.  “We affirm the philosophical or religious ideal of nonviolence as the foundation of our purpose, the presupposition of our faith, and the manner of our action … Love is the central motif of nonviolence … “ They appealed to conscience and the moral nature of human existence.  It was philosophy, or spirituality, or love that enabled them to take a beating and by doing so beat down segregation.

Howard Zinn wrote that the best approach is boldness in moving into a situations where interracial contact will take place, and then patience in letting them develop.”  Things began to get desperate in the winter of 1960-61 in McComb County, Mississippi, as local forces prevented even Federal food from being provisioned to the hungry and starving.  Instead caravans of clothing and food from Michigan, some from Ann Arbor, began to arrive.  This was a kind of commoning, though no one called it that at the time.

Staughton Lynd remembers a SNCC staff meeting in 12 June 1964.  He wrote, “Several staff members said this week: I’m ready to die, but I need a program worth dieing for.  … I think that both for the movement’s effectiveness and for its morale there really must be more thinking as to program.”  A few days later Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney were assassinated.  So, voter registration and membership in the Democratic Party became the “program” as a default for want of having done that thinking as to program, and even they were betrayed at the Atlantic City convention that summer, by the Dems, the liberals, and the UAW.  The question remains, What is the Program to Die for?


In 1901 Upton Sinclair spoke at the founding of the Intercollegiate Socialist Society which was to become League for Industrial Democracy.  “Since the professors would not educate the students, it was up to the students to educate the professors.”  Early on Jack London said, “Raise your voices one way or the other; be alive.”

In August 1959 SLID (Student League for Industrial Democracy) changed its name to SDS and in the following spring the first SDS convention was held here in Ann Arbor. “Human Rights in the North” was the conference’s name. SNCC vitalized the meeting.  The students were black and white, from the north and south.  The UAW provided a grant. “To look for radical alternatives to the inadequate society.”  Dwight MacDonald spoke on “The Relevance of Anarchism.” The students asked, “What is happening to us, where are we going, what can we do?”

The preamble to its constitution affirmed that SDS “maintains a vision of a democratic society, where all levels the people have control of the decisions which affect them and the resources on which they are dependent.”  At the beginning they are drawing upon and revising classic socialist and anarchist ideas but without taking a stand in the stultifying Cold War ideologies.  Al Haber wrote in 1961 “The synthesis continually in our mind is that which unites vision and relevance.”

Ed Sanders, the poet, summarized the Port Huron Statement (1962), which, he writes,

“cut free of Cold War commie-noia
& free of the do-nothing component of the labor movement”

The Statement was produced in an interesting way.  In the summer of 1961 questionnaires were sent out to the entire membership asking it for its views. The answers were then sent to all asking for changes.  These became the basis of another submission to the membership and further review.  Tom Haydon prepared a draft for the Port Huron conference.  There workshops discussed each issue, and both big issues (bones) and little ones (widgets) were submitted for discussion and vote at a plenary meeting.  This then became the basis of a final draft.

“We are the inheritors and the victims of a barren period in the development of human values.”  “the role of the intellectuals and of the universities (and therefore, I think, SDS) is to enable people to actively enjoy the common life and feel some sense of genuine influence over their personal and collective affairs”

SDS members were questioners whose investigations thoughtfully and empirically gathered knowledge in a way similar to that followed by Karl Marx or Richard Wright.  And then they attempted to put this knowledge to work.  SDS formed economic research and action projects (ERAP). “Student” comes from Latin, meaning to be eager, or zealous, or diligent.

SDS it stood for participatory democracy and anti-anti-communism. SNCC stood for anti-racism and the ‘beloved community.’ Thus each came close to naming the commons.  Both may be considered heirs of Merry Mount and Haymarket.  However, both skirted the idea in important ways, one with a nimbus of spirituality and the other with the convolution of a double-negative (anti-anti-communism) which made it difficult to grasp and develop the idea.

After the summer of 1964 the Movement began to change under the impact of the looming war in Vietnam and then the nefarious activity of the COINTEL program of the FBI.  SNCC began to respond to the call for ‘Black Power’ which issued from the black proletariat of the northern cities and at the same time it became increasingly conscious of the international dimension of national liberation movements.  Martin Luther King moved to Chicago.  SDS began to disintegrate after the Democratic Convention of 1968 when the blue meanies of Chicago ran amok.

Black Panthers

Although the symbol itself arose from the voter registration campaigns of the south (Lowndes county), the Black Panther Party, founded in 1966, quickly became an organization of the urban north and west, Chicago, Los Angeles, Detroit, San Diego, Denver, Newark, New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Seattle, Washington D.C. The Party’s Ten Point program included employment, housing, health care, justice, peace, and education.  It began as a self-defense organization against police brutality and quickly developed other forms of autonomous living, most notably, the free breakfast programs for children, the free medical clinics for the sick and infirm, the door-to-door health services, and the free schooling.  The Panthers began to wield both ‘the point of the pick’ in recovering African American history, and ‘the bowl of seeds’ in the creation of equitable community. In Chicago Fred Hampton was effective in bringing about a nonaggression pact among the street gangs persuading them to desist from crime and by teaching the elements of solidarity in the class struggle.  He formed alliances with other organizations.  It was he who coined the expression “the rainbow coalition.”  The Chicago police and the FBI assassinated him in December 1969.  He had said, “You can kill the revolutionary but not the revolution.”

Now, having sketched the history of May Day and linked it to the jubilee of SNCC and SDS, we arrive at the third task of this sketch, the invitation of Pres. Barack Obama to join the immigrants rights march in Detroit this afternoon of May Day, after having completed his Commencement address to the students at Michigan’s Big House.  By all means let him come, but let him come as one man, a person among many, but not as Prez. As such he is too entangled in the toils of the ruling class.  A few days ago for instance he directed the largest immigration raid in American history, 800 officers of ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) in South Tucson.

Obama and You

Obama’s book, Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance (1995), is a compelling biography, and it remains a commercial success.  Notice it is about “dreams.”  It is a “story.”  It is about an “inheritance.” The biographical approach underestimates historical forces. In searching for his father in Indonesia, Kenya, and to a father-like patrimony in Chicago he underestimates the historical experience of the fathers. Both in Kenya and in Java the fathers avoided the deaths attendant on the terrorizing enclosure of common lands, but the defeat nevertheless affected them, even while they seemed to prosper in new petroleum-related jobs.   We need to understand the dreams of his fathers’ generation before they were wiped out by terror, massacre, imprisonment, loss. We want to see through Obama as if he were a window and not a mirror of our projections.  We are a collective subjectivity.  Moreover, the surge of historical change makes it possible in long-life times to pass through individual changes. America is full of second-acts, and make-overs.  Can we grasp the living spirit of human experience, hold it in our hand?

Our identity stems not just our fathers, it is not just our family; our humanity must scale upwards beyond genetic lineages. Who are we to become? The big forces – war, globalization, climate change, automobilism, expropriation from land – arise through time and the conflict of classes:  between the rulers and the ruled (power), the many and the few (numbers), the haves and the have-nots (possessions), the working-class and the capitalist class (20th century), the privatizer and the commoner (21st century).  Prophetic generalization requires us to adhere to historical specificity.

When the boy, Obama, arrived in Indonesia his stepfather fetched him.  “We stopped at the common, where one of Lolo’s men was grazing a few goats….”  Obama learned how to box, to take a punch, and to deal with beggars but the commons was being expropriated.  Silence awaited him.  What were the dreams, not from his father, but of his father? Obama’s step-father in Indonesia had survived the massacres of 1965-6.  Moreover, he prospered to the extent that he obtained employment in the petroleum industry.  By the time he enters the young Obama’s life, he has put the past behind him. Yet, the present is nothing more than the accumulated past.

Obama’s biological father in Kenya also survived and prospered during the struggle for freedom from the imperial government of Great Britain. Fanon taught us to understand these movements as both freedom movements or movements of bourgeois nationalism. What were the aspirations of Mau Mau?  For if bourgeois nationalism expressed the right-wing aspect of the liberation struggle, what was the left-wing aspect?  It depended on a relationship to the forest and commoning.  They were smashed by British terrorism, i.e. concentration camps and hangings.  When Obama came to Chicago, there too he fell into a time of silence, repression, defeat.

In Indonesia, Africa, and Chicago the writers, Toer, Fanon, and Wright provide us the materials, the clues, to understanding the structural silences through which Obama’s fathers suffered. For in all of those writers it is not difficult to discern elements of commoning as a relation to land, to community, and to class. The anchors of doctrine, or union-and-party, or schooling provided no purchase in the storm. Neither political programs nor the movements to the commons could any longer maintain the revolutionary struggle.

Class consciousness is the knowledge that emancipation is ours.  Class struggle is the fight for it, the fight to be a class, and then the fight to abolish the class system.  It is not economistic; it is historical.  It was concrete not abstract. It was expressed in real voices, voices of the past and voices of the present. The skill is in the listening.

The pick pierces the soil or shale.  The pick also acts as a lever.  Thus, the usefulness of the pick arises from two functions.  It penetrates its subject, and it dislodges it.  As historians we do the same.  It takes energy from the past to heat and light the present.  The lever-and-fulcrum uses distance to increase force. The class of working people can move the world.  We need to recognize one another.  The bowl of seeds is an artefact of preservation.  It permits a future life. So, look at these seeds from our past – the 8-hour day, commoning, non-violent direct-action, one big union, song, satyagraha, participatory democracy – and watch them grow.   They require sufficient aeration which we provide by talking and debate; they require plenty of watering which our considered and righteous action supplies. Then, they germinate in many forms, horizontal unionism, solidarity economics, commoning, autonomous living, and the Detroit Social Forum.

Fellow-worker Obama is welcome, not his executive power, not his personification of sovereignty.  Our power however arises from our class, and it is that which we must make.  Hence, you and I are urgently needed in Detroit.

PETER LINEBAUGH teaches history at the University of Toledo. The London Hanged and (with Marcus Rediker) The Many-Headed Hydra: the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic. His essay on the history of May Day is included in Serpents in the Garden. His latest book is the Magna Carta Manifesto. He can be reached at:

Further Reading

Leigh Brownhill, Land, Food, Freedom: Struggles for the Gendered Commons in Kenya (Africa World Press: Trenton, N.J., 2009)

Clifford Geertz, Agricultural Involution: The Process of Ecological Change in Indonesia (Berkeley, 1963)

James Green, Death in the Haymarket: A Story of Chicago, the first Labor Movement and the Bombing that Divided Gilded Age America (Pantheon Books: New York, 2006)

Andrej Grubacic (ed.), From Here to There: The Staughton Lynd Reader (Oakland: PM Press, 2010)

Thomas Morton, The New English Canaan (1637).

Barack Obama, Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance (New York, 1995).

Kirkpatrick Sale, SDS (New York, 1973)

Ed Sanders, America: A History in Verse: The 20th Century, 4 volumes (Woodstock, N.Y., 2000, 2004, 2008)

Vandana Shiva, Stolen Harvest: The Hijacking of the Global Food Supply (Boston: South End Press, 2000)

Pramoedya Ananta Toer, The Mute’s Soliloquy, translated by Willem Samuels (Penguin, 1999)

Richard Wright, The Color Curtain: A Report on the Bandung Conference (Cleveland, 1956)

Howard Zinn, The New Abolitionists (South End Press, 2002)

PETER LINEBAUGH teaches history at the University of Toledo. The London Hanged and (with Marcus Rediker) The Many-Headed Hydra: the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic. His essay on the history of May Day is included in Serpents in the Garden. His latest book is the Magna Carta Manifesto. He can be reached at:


Peter Linebaugh is the author of The London HangedThe Many-Headed Hydra: the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic (with Marcus Rediker) and Magna Carta Manifesto. Linebaugh’s latest book is Red Round Globe Hot Burning. He can be reached at: