Leveling Spirit Liberating Struggle in the Revolutionary Atlantic

Because the mystical political strains of Christian spirit discourse cannot be missed, it should not be surprising that restless and repressed groups throughout history should find Christianity's spirit discourse pertinent to their struggles.

In this section, I have two aims. First, I seek to give some examples of how the mystical political dimensions of Christian spirit discourse have actually been present as historical practice, not merely as only a plausible conceptual theology as presented in the first section of the essay. Second, I want to show that the concrete history of a mystical politics can be found within and in close contact to Western Christianity, especially in the spirit discourses that unite African and Christian themes, as I noted at the outset.

Both of these aims can be achieved by looking first to the Levellers and Diggers of the English revolution and then following ways in which they were brought into contact and mutual dialogue with African peoples during the history of "the revolutionary Atlantic" (Linebaugh and Rediker 2000). This is a long and complex, multicultural history, and I cannot do full justice to it here. I highlight just a few features.

We might introduce the mystical politics at work in history through the lament by James Madison, a key architect of the US Constitution and one of the early US presidents. In 1787 he warned of certain groups who had an excessive love of liberty, a "leveling spirit." Who were these folk? According to Linebaugh and Rediker, they were a "motley crew" of secular and religious radicals who had been fomenting revolutionary change all around the Atlantic coasts for nearly two centuries (Linebaugh and Rediker 2000: 211-47). Madison was not the only one nervous about the leveling spirit. British admirals worried about rebels and sailors steeped in revolutionary spirit, "almost Levellers," said one admiral (pp. 215, 236). Let us follow this talk of "leveling spirit" into the contexts of religious radicalism of seventeenth-century England.

The English fight for the commons

In late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, English merchant classes and landowners took advantage of new national and international market opportunities. To do this, however, they had to forcibly evict masses of people from their homelands and redeploy their labor power for other economic projects at new sites (Linebaugh and Rediker 2000: 17).

In England, this occurred in a most tumultuous way when the more powerful classes began the practice of enclosure, that is, enclosing and claiming possession for their own use of arable lands previously held in common. Enclosure required the eviction of many smallholders, the displacement of rural tenants, and the casting out of thousands from their land. This was a colossal shift: "a quarter of the land in England was enclosed" (Linebaugh and Rediker 2000: 17). The land was cleared of trees, marshes were drained and fields were hedged, resulting in an overall "obliteration of the commoning habitus," such that by the end of the seventeenth century "only an eighth of England remained wooded" (p. 43). For those who were not "redeployed" to other locations or sent off across the seas, there was the terror of being abandoned without work, land or credit to a life of vagabondage, becoming subject to "the merciless cruelty of a labor and criminal code as severe and terrifying as any that had yet appeared in modern history" (p. 18).

It was in this setting that the Levellers and Diggers were born, and "the leveling spirit" that Madison warned about took rise. "Levellers" was a name first used in the Midlands Revolt of 1607, when many threatened by the expropriations took direct action to remove the enclosures. Their direct actions often merged with those who became known as "Diggers," so named because their actions as soon-to-be dispossessed people included filling in the ditches newly dug for the enclosing hedges, and working common land after enclosure (Linebaugh and Rediker 2000: 18; Bradstock 1997: 72-5).

The Levellers and Diggers disseminated their ideas in several tracts and manifestoes of the seventeenth century: A Light Shining in Buckinghamshire: A Discovery of the Main Grounds and Original Causes of All the Slavery In the World, but Chiefly in England (1648); The True Leveller's Standard Advanced ("The Digger Manifesto") of 1649; and, in May 1649, the Agreement of the Free People of England (Linebaugh and Rediker 2000: 85, 101, 235).

A key writer during this period, and exemplary of the mix of political radicalism and spirit discourse, is Gerard Winstanley. He is often described as "the most articulate voice of revolution during the late 1640s" in England:

He opposed slavery, dispossession, the destruction of the commons, poverty, wage labor, private property, and the death penalty. He was not the first person to come up with a rational plan for social reconstruction, but he was, as Christopher Hill has noted, the first to express such a plan in the vernacular and to call on a particular social class - the common people - to put it into action. (Linebaugh and Rediker 2000: 140)

It was Winstanley who, referring to the hedges of the vicious enclosure process, saw that "The teeth of all nations have been set on edge by this sour grape, the covetous murdering sword." He linked expropriation in England to Gambia's and Barbados' suffering worked by England and so "moved toward a planetary consciousness of class" (Linebaugh and Rediker 2000: 141). He preached a future deliverance arising "from among the poor common people" in his texts, for example A Declaration from the Poor Oppressed People of England (1649).

The future deliverance Winstanley preached depended on the coming of an "age of Spirit" that he awaited (Knott 1980: 86). This Spirit, for all its radical, transformative potential, was seen as a markedly communal set of events (Brad-stock 1997: 89). The Spirit lived in a "glorious liberty," which the Apostle Paul wrote of in Rom. 8, but which was already present in people's "groaning," enabling their moving from the "first fruits" tasted now to a future realization. This passage on the Holy Spirit was crucial to Winstanley's millennialism, and he interlaced quotations of the Spirit passages in Rom. 8 throughout all his writings (Linebaugh and Rediker 2000: 110-11). He closed one of his tracts with these words: "And here I end, having put my Arm as far as my strength will go to advance Righteousness: I have Writ, I have Acted, I have Peace: and now I must wait to see the Spirit do his own work in the hearts of others." (Linebaugh and Rediker 2000: 103).

Winstanley's work and hope were vigorously Spirit-oriented. Other words of his about the Spirit take us to the next section. Elsewhere, he wrote: "Now the Spirit spreading itself from East to West, from North to South in sons and daughters is everlasting, and never dies: but is still everlasting, and rising higher and higher in manifesting himself in and to mankind" (Linebaugh and Rediker 2000: 142).

The Levellers at sea

This religious radicalism was disseminated all around the Atlantic in the late seventeenth century, especially when the English ship attained the notable distinction of being "the engine of commerce, the machine of empire." Ships were floating factories that united several of the major modes of production organized by new capitalist forces for the exploitation of labor (Linebaugh and Rediker 2000: 149).

The ship, however, also became a factory producing interaction between rebels and disenchanted workers from all around the Atlantic. The Levellers and Diggers, displaced from their commons in England, entered this mix of radicals at sea. They were an astonishingly diverse lot, yet shared a fundamental sense of exploitation and rage, especially provoked by the injustice of forced impressments into navies (Linebaugh and Rediker 2000: 228-36). Africans and African Americans, escaped from slavery and/or always vulnerable to it, added additional vigor and determination to maritime resistance.

Sailors' resistance often culminated in the mutinies and organized resistance of piracy. Pirates, much maligned by centuries of European scholars and storytellers, have been re-presented by recent historians like Linebaugh and Rediker as having some surprising traits. Pirates' ships were democratic spaces in an undemocratic age, making their captains' governance dependent upon majority vote. They were egalitarian in a hierarchical age, dividing their loot and stolen goods in a new equal fashion, "leveling" the wage inequality that existed in almost all other maritime workplaces (Linebaugh and Rediker 2000: 162-7). Many free blacks and runaway slaves found refuge in the pirate ships, "multiracial maroon communities, in which rebels used the high seas as other [runaways] used the mountains and jungles" (p. 167).

In new radical community with the spiritualities and radicalism of the peoples of the sea, the Levellers kept alive the dream of the commons which had been lost not only in England but in other contexts as well.

the commons were more than a specific English agrarian practice or its American variants; the same concept underlay the clachan [Scottish and Irish hamlet], the sept [branch of a family clan], the rundale [a joint occupation of land, also in early Irish and Scottish contexts], the West African village, and the indigenous tradition of long fallow agriculture of Native Americans - in other words it encompassed all those parts of the Earth that remained unprivatized unenclosed, a noncommodity, a support for the manifold human values of mutuality. (Linebaugh and Rediker 2000: 26, emphasis added)

The valuing of the commons here is no mere romanticization of organic solidarity and communal utopia. On the contrary: for those with leveling spirit at sea and in seaports around the Atlantic, the commons was a way of life adopted for survival. The alternative, which had so cruelly been meted out to them, was displacement, torture, and death.

Thus it was that diverse groups of the Levellers at sea, in tandem with groups from all around the Atlantic, formed a multicultural "motley crew" of the world's displaced peoples, a "hydrarchy" (rule of the waters) from below, which grew up to rival the hydrarchy from above, British maritime and military systems. The leveling motley crew helped mobilize mass resistance to poor wages and unjust working conditions either side of the Atlantic. They led urban mobs in London, fomented many of the riots in seaport towns of the North American colonies, and built the revolutionary climate that informed the less revolutionary sorts like Samuel Adams, Thomas Paine, and Thomas Jefferson.

Indeed, Linebaugh and Rediker describe this motley crew of the world's enspirited slaves, sailors, and commoners as "the driving force of the revolutionary crisis in the 1760s and 1770s" (2000: 212). This "motley crew" of the displaced, English and African, slaves and sailors, were the real architects of American revolution in the late seventeenth century, creating a revolutionary ethos all along North America's Atlantic coast (p. 214). It was among such as these that Madison feared a "leveling spirit."

Historically, the fusion of Christian and African mystical politics, that liberating spirit of the Levellers, is dramatically present in the Jamaican Robert Wedder-burn. I have already referred to the journal he edited, The Axe Laid to the Root, which "gave life to a transatlantic intellectual dialogue that synthesized African, American, and European voices" (Linebaugh and Rediker 2000: 306). The newspaper's title was found preached from Jamaica to NewYork, where runaway slaves are said to have heard of the inspiring "small axe." In his writings, not only did Wedder-burn remember and record his own slave family's personal terror in Jamaica, he also witnessed the disciplinary terror and horrific punishments meted out to defenders of the commons, whether on the Caribbean plantation or the maritime ship. In England, he joined a number of workers' movements, abolitionist efforts, and mutinies. Coming from Jamaica to England, and journeying back to the Africanized Caribbean (also a site for Asian and indigenous peoples), Wedderburn imbibed the leveling principles and spirit, and enriched them with the spiritual life and vitality of African peoples. In correspondence back to Jamaica from England, he challenged his readers to recall "the purity of the maroons," that is, their intrepid struggle for abolition and freedom.

Wedderburn was a crucial linchpin in an emerging spiritual politics of the revolutionary Atlantic. Through his writings on African spirituality, early Christianity, Caribbean revivalism, and slave religion, Wedderburn linked through time the communist Christian in the ancient Near East with the Leveller in England and with the Native Baptist in Jamaica. He linked through space the slave and the maroon with the sailor and the dockworker, with the commoner and the artisan and the factory worker; ... he linked the slave with the working-class and middle-class opponent of slavery in the metropolis. He was the kind of person for whom "the idea of abolishing the slave trade is connected to the leveling system and the rights of man." (Linebaugh and Rediker 2000: 326)

Wedderburn is a dramatic figure who not only displays the mystical politics of liberating spirit to be very much a historical phenomenon, but who, in his person, also embodies the multicontinental working of Spirit in which Winstanley had put his hopes.

0 0

Post a comment