Reading the Hydra

Tuesday, 13 February 2007 13:33

I am reading The Many-Headed Hydra (Linebaugh & Rediker, Beacon Press, Boston) with fascination. The book is subtitled ‘Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic’. The authors argue that revolutionary socialism had its origins in concepts of liberty, commonism and abolitionism in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

In England, the critical nexus is the development of various Christian antinomian sects and the enclosure of common lands. The groups that rose in resistance to the enclosures (Levellers, diggers, etc) held what are often called ‘levelling’ principles; they believed in common ownership of land, the abolition of private property, universal franchise, the abolition of slavery, and the abolition of all titles, including kingship.

The English slave trade began with the export of the poor, the vagrant and the criminal to the Virginia Colony where both slavery and indentured servitude were the order of the day. Later, Puritan merchants developed the African slave trade, and Cromwell is estimated to have exported into slavery one sixth of the working male population of Ireland.

And by the way, The New Model Army mutinied rather than go to Ireland, although when they did come they seem to have been thorough enough.

There are some fascinating moments, the most interesting, for me, being The Putney Debates, in which one Thomas Rainborough argued the for the Leveller’s principles. His adversary, from the administration and the grandees of the Puritan movement, was Henry Ireton, who later succeeded Cromwell as commander in chief in Ireland and whose brutal ‘fire and sword’ suppression of Irish resistance led to widespread famine in 1651.

What-ifs are always fascinating. What if the levelling wing of the puritan movement had prevailed and England had become, and remained a republic, with the abolition of all ranks and titles, the reinstatement of the ancient commons and the abolition of slavery? To begin with, English people would not now be subjects, but citizens. The ridiculous charade of the monarchy would be a quaint historical anachronism. And as for Ireland – who knows?

The book won The International Labor History Award. The introduction, an interesting piece of work in its own right, is available here and can be downloaded free in PDF format.