Saturday, September 19, 2020

Review: Red Round Globe Hot Burning

[Peter Linebaugh. Red Round Globe Hot Burning: A Tale at the Crossroads of Commons and Closure, of Love and Terror, of Race and Class, and of Kate and Ned Despard. Oakland CA: University of California Press, 2019.]

A sprawling, intricate history set in the Atlantic world, particularly Ireland and England but also connecting events there to America and Haiti and France and beyond, during the revolutionary ferment of the decade and a half following the French Revolution. It is organized around the story of two people – Ned Despard, a younger son of the Anglo-Irish gentry and erstwhile British military officer, and his wife Kate, a Black woman from the Caribbean. At some point along the way, they developed revolutionary politics. Ned was playing a leading role in planning an uprising in England that was to seek Irish liberation, a restoration of the commons, and the overthrow of George III, when he and the other leaders were arrested. He was hanged in 1803. Kate organized a vigorous campaign for his release, co-wrote his gallows speech, and disappeared afterwards into the underground for freedom fighters that existed in Ireland at the time. But while the story of the Despards serves as a sort of centre to the book, they are just one small part – important, yes, but small – of a dizzying excursion across topics and time, a series of digressions and lateral associations and circular explorations. It reaches back and forth through years and geography, wanders off to explore this detail over here, illustrates a larger point by a carefully accounting of that theme over there. It makes skilful use of speculation and draws attention to connections, including those that are not (and often could not) be known for sure from the documentary record but that are, on balance, likely. It does all of this to create a sense of the era that a plodding linear history could never match. Linebaugh, I think, has a very lateral way of thinking, and when combined with his voluminous knowledge it results in a unique way of writing history that can sometimes be a bit overwhelming but that I think is magnificent. A key focus for him in this book is drawing together two themes of history-from-below that are often treated separately, the struggles of the working class (very broadly understood) and the struggle for the commons. In these early years of the modern working class in England, the fact that these are not just connected but often the very same fight can be made quite clearly.

Even though it's not something Linebaugh particularly draws attention to in the writing, I also felt moments of keen connection to today. Some of those moments were when he, for instance, quoted radicals of 1790s London writing stridently against the evils of war or the tyranny of the rich men who own what should be held in common, and the exact same words written today would be just as relevant and just as inspiring. And some of those moments were because the struggles of ordinary people today are so often connected to the struggles he wrote about – where I live, two of the most important struggles happening right now are by homeless people to make use of public space to live as safely as they can in the midst of a pandemic, and by Haudenosaunee people and their allies to prevent the settler-colonial enclosure of yet more stolen land via the #1492LandBackLane reclamation at Six Nations. The details are different two centuries on, and (contrary to how some left-leaning scholars and radicals sometimes treat the commons) the difference in continent really does matter quite a lot. But you get the sense that Irish peasants, Caribbean sailors, English labourers, members of the London Corresponding Society, and all the rest would, if magically transported to Hamilton in 2020, instinctively *get* those struggles based on what was going on around them back then. As well, in the context of the growing precarity today of the limited but real democratic constraints that the subsequent two centuries of struggle has put on Western states, it is also sobering to read about the more naked use of state terror in defence of wealth and empire in those years – by the year after Despard was hanged, such terror had managed to drive working-class organizing in England underground, where it remained for at least a decade and a half.

I don't have too much to say that's critical about this book. I think some people might not enjoy the way it's written as much as I did, just because it has a sort of frenetic feel to it and because in its relentless drive to make connections it doesn't always explain everything so it makes you work a bit as a reader. As well, while I really like the approach to writing history employed here, with its expansive circuits orbiting the core of the story, it does mean that sometimes topics that are further to the periphery might occasionally miss the mark a bit. Another element of Linebaugh's method is taking sources produced back then by oppressors and their institutions and reading them against the grain, to see traces of resistance and tell-tale silences. He is mostly great at that, but there were a few moments when he was doing that in relation to experiences of Indigenous people in North America in that era that felt a little off-key, and I wondered if perhaps greater engagement with Indigenous struggles and Indigenous writers and scholars today might strengthen the work in these instances.

Anyway, this is a great book, and I highly recommend it.

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