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Common cause: Peter Linebaugh finds inspiration in the worldwide and timeless assertion of common rights, expressed in Magna Carta.


Peter Linebaugh's The Magna Carta Manifesto: Liberties and Commons for All is published by University of California Press, price 14.95 [pounds sterling]. ISBN 0 520 24726 0


Communism was the bugaboo of my Cold War childhood. In 1953 the FBI came snooping around the neighbourhood, knocking at the door, and peering at the books in my parents' library. My parents worked for the US State Department, and our family had recently returned from London where they had 'covered' the Labour Party. My political consciousness awoke amid fierce conversations about socialism during the renewal of the Cold War. Already I knew anti-communism on both sides of the Atlantic.

It was not until many years later, with the 'fall of communism' on the one hand and the movement to 'reclaim the commons' on the other, that I began to see that aspects of the commons had a long, long history and could be in some senses universal, like air or water. This understanding has grown slowly, beginning with the persistent glow of childhood memories.

As a child in post-war London I explored bombed-out buildings, taking what I pleased with disregard of danger and private property alike. A year or two later I collected horse-chestnuts on Hampstead Heath for the game of conkers. Once two older boys took from me an air pistol I had taken myself from the rubble of a bombed-out building. 'All right, mate, you want a fight?' I discovered the philosophy of 'easy come easy go,' and saved myself a bruising. Such were childhood lessons in the ambiguity of English commoning.

As an American in Britain I was 'common'--which meant I was not part of the upper branches of the class structure where posh accents, expensive schools and privilege were the rule. I belonged to a republic which had freed the slaves and my grandfather was an Indian lawyer who spoke the languages of the Five Civilized Tribes of Oklahoma; only recently have I learned that he was orphaned at the time when the communal lands of the Oklahoma Indians were privatized and relinquished to white guardians. Later in life, in Boston when I crossed paths with Governor Michael Dukakis on his morning walk, he turned a neighbourly blind eye to my gathering windfalls--'estovers' as Magna Carta calls them--for my fireplace.


In 1956 when I was a student at the American high school in Frankfurt, it was easy to enter the Officers' Club housed in the old I.G. Farben building named after the Nazi industrialist. Here was a pool hall, and a small library from which I obtained an edition of The Communist Manifesto. Secretly reading it at night, my life was changed. Its thrilling prophecies, its declamatory assurance, its total realization of history, and its condemnation of capitalism opened up a vision that seemed to hold the past and the future simultaneously in its grasp.

The Greek root of the word history means either an inquiry or a story. Although we learn the former as our discipline and we practise the latter as our joy, there is more to history than such etymology suggests. For statesmen, it is philosophy teaching by example; for the bourgeois it is confirmation of inevitable progress. For the revolutionary it has a prophetic quality, certainly not of predicting the future, but the quality of powerful denunciation of the princes of the present. This quality is related to deliverance which depends somehow on what we are actually doing with ourselves. This power depends on our ability to discover the truth; we have to find it out by means of critique, because you cannot trust the authorities who, left to themselves, would not bother about I.G. Farben.

What was the relationship between 'the commons' or commoning and the doctrines of communism? Beginning in 1969 I studied at Warwick with E.P. Thompson and a fantastic collective of young historians--Doug Hay, J.M. Neeson, Malcolm Thomas, Cal Winslow and John Rule--and learned they were not the same thing. We found things out that led us to notions such as the moral economy, social banditry, the criminalization of custom, agrarian commoning, and the hegemonic function of law, terms and concepts which are still doing their work. We had a beautiful, scholarly commons. In my case it allowed me to see the significance of the criminalization of the Moselle Valley peasants' access to wood during the 1830s, which aroused Marx's interest in economics when these customary estovers were legislated as 'theft'. It was not communism that led to the commons but the other way around!

Earlier, in Pakistan in 1959, at the Karachi Grammar School I had listened to the headmaster read lessons from the Acts of the Apostles recording Paul's journeys through the Aegean, clandestinely carrying the message of Christian salvation. Comfort the widow; liberate the oppressed; release the captive: that was the programme. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. In secretly carrying the political paper Iskra from factory to factory, were the Bolsheviks not doing substantially the same? Or the Wobblies, singing their songs from box-car to lumber-camp with the proletarian message of more money and less work? All of them preached 'all things in common'.

In Karachi I walked to the Voks Library and climbed the rickety steps to enter the empty reading room housing Soviet propaganda, and here I found a set of Lenin's Complete Works, several shelves packed with formidable volumes. I did not tackle Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, no, not yet. But I did try to make sense of What Is To Be Done?, a question which even now can be heard crying out of the rubble from the worldwide crush of privatization.

At school in Pakistan our teacher read aloud from Pride and Prejudice, requiring us to transcribe it in our notebooks as if printing had never been invented, and the green lawns, country houses and mannered negotiation of marriage and money somehow provided a solution to (or escape from?) the reality of open sewers, homelessness, and begging that surrounded our compounds. I visited Murree, a hill station north of Rawalpindi, where I saw the class division--the skinny and underfed hauling the fat and rich up and down steep hills in bicycle rickshaws--but at the time I was unaware of commoning. Later I learned the villagers had rights to graze their animals, to cut grass, to carry away dead trees, to lop those which were more than 16ft high, to cut one tree to meet the funeral expenses, and once in five years to take 315cu ft of wood for building purposes. Estovers again. Only after the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 did I read Mountstuart Elphinstone's memoir of his embassy to Kabul in 1805, when he studied Tacitus on the commons and observed the management of common land among the people of what now is North-West Frontier Province of Pakistan.


'The Daughters of Memory Shall Become the Daughters of Inspiration', wrote William Blake, and I think so still. Much was left out of history as it was known in 1960: the workers, the African-American story, women, the indigenous peoples of other continents. Now, as more of us are 'reclaiming the commons' we are embarked on a voyage of discovery which must include a thorough critique of existing literature and eventually a vast re-writing, for commoning has been there all along. That is the hypothesis which we can now postulate thanks to more recent research; research into the history of women, the discoveries of the peoples of colour, and the struggles of the commoners of the other continents.

Without this I doubt anyone would take a second look at Magna Carta's Chapter 7, as modified on September 11th, 1217 to include 'widow's reasonable estovers in the commons'. And the great Charter of Liberties came to include a smaller one, the Charter of the Forest, which was not an economic template or a political programme, but constitutional evidence of 'actual existing' commoning for subsistence.

How were we to understand the passage from the British to the American empire in the era of decolonization? The British boasted of their Magna Carta but neglected their Forest Charter. The American empire paid them both no mind, and habeas corpus, prohibition of torture, and due process of law, though formerly venerable parts of Magna Carta's celebrated Chapter 39, were discarded when the Anglo-American 'endless war on terror' commenced in 2001. Once as a child I put the British empire and its works--including Magna Carta--behind me; now as an adult I find it necessary to write about the Great Charters of English Liberty, the great one and the small one, habeas corpus and estovers, in order to help the mighty effort to put behind another empire, the American one with its 'endless' wars.

Peter Linebaugh is Professor of History at the University of Toledo, Ohio. He is working on a study of an Irish insurrectionary during 'the great transformation' of the Atlantic revolutions.
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Title Annotation:The Magna Carta Manifesto: Liberties and Commons for All
Author:Linebaugh, Peter
Publication:History Today
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 1, 2008
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