Peter Linebaugh on May Day

An interview Peter Linebaugh, Ph.D on his latest book The Incomplete, True, Authentic, and Wonderful History of May Day.

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Peter Linebaugh received a PhD in Early Modern British history from the University of Warwick in 1974, where he studied under EP Thompson, one of the most important and influential historians of the 20th century.

Linebaugh is the author of a good many hugely important articles and books, among which are The London Hanged, Magna Carta Manifesto, and Stop Thief! Linebaugh is also the co-author of The Many-Headed Hydra.

Further Readings/References:

Thomas Morton’s Mayday

Morton’s “New World Bacchanal”

Peter Linebaugh’s latest May Day article, “Omnia Sunt Communia: May Day 2017”

Peter’s author page at PM Press


Anthony Comegna: Peter Linebaugh received a PhD in Early Modern British History from the University of Warwick in 1974, where he studied under E. P. Thompson, one of the most important and influential historians of the 20th century, and a pioneer of history from below.
Linebaugh has built upon this tradition with many hugely important articles and books, among which are “The London Hanged,” [00:00:30] “Magna Carta Manifesto,” and “Stop, Thief!” Linebaugh is co-author of my favorite book, “The Many-Headed Hydra,” and his latest volume is the subject of today’s interview: “The Incomplete, True, Authentic and Wonderful History of May Day.”
This is Liberty Chronicles, a project of I’m Anthony Comegna. [00:01:00] As we record here today, it’s the 4th of May. It’s after May Day and it’s, if my math is correct, the 131st anniversary of the Haymarket Square bombing. During an eight-hour day demonstration … I don’t need to go over the details for you, Professor Linebaugh, but an unknown person threw explosives into police lines and perhaps even a false flag operation, as the phrase goes. I wasn’t sure to anybody in particular [00:01:30] who actually did it, but nonetheless several people were injured in sort of an ensuing melee, police and civilians, and Haymarket and May Day have been linked ever since then.
Before we get into the details of the book here, is there anything you want to say in commemoration of the Chicago martyrs and the events at Haymarket? Which I’ll remind my Libertarians in the audience by the way, these were anarchists who were pinned with the crime.
Peter Linebaugh: Yes, [00:02:00] thank you for asking. There are two things that I would like to add. The first is, while it’s true that the Haymarket demonstration was in the context of the eight-hour a day movement, the specific demonstration was called to object to the police killing of four iron molders at the McCormick Works that took place on the first of May, just a few days earlier. That’s addition number one.
[00:02:30] Addition number two is that the McCormick Works themselves produced a threshing machine, or a reaper, that was a machine and it was made of iron; that’s why iron workers were on strike on the first of May. What this machine did was to transform world agriculture, so the world market of grains [00:03:00] was really made possible by the mechanization of what formally had been done by hand with either a sickle or a scythe. This I think from our viewpoint in the 21st century as we consider the Earth and the growth of food, and the food sovereignty movement, makes a significant detail through Haymarket.
Finally, a third thing I’d like to add is [00:03:30] just for us to pause for a second and remember why it was called a Haymarket. That is where horses obtained their food, so since transportation was by horses, teamsters who drove wagons, carriages, single riders, all depended on a healthy horse which depended in turn upon hay. [00:04:00] This is why there’s a Haymarket in the middle of an industrial city.
This is a world before the internal combustion engine, and a world before the petroleum economy. Yes, Anthony, those are, I guess, three things I’d like to add about the Chicago martyrs of 1886.
Anthony Comegna: Well, let’s go back to the very beginning of May Day, then. It’s [00:04:30] not as though it was stamped on the calendar in 5000 BC, so what are the earliest origins of May Day? How did this holiday develop?
Peter Linebaugh: Yes, it developed in the neolithic period of history when it became essential to be able to predict the time of year to plant domesticated grains, especially barley for drink, that would be beer, or wheat for bread. [00:05:00] This ability to predict the time of year depended on knowledge of the sun, and to understand the cycle of the seasons.
This was far more important than in a paleolithic time when human life depended principally on hunting and gathering. Therefore, the first great river civilizations, of the Tigris and Euphrates, or in China, or [00:05:30] along the Nile River, these depended on this knowledge and May Day became in different forms, a time of festivity, a time of fertility; anticipating the budding of the earth.
My particular knowledge is not [00:06:00] anthropological in that sense, going back to neolithic times, but going back to classical times, say to the Mediterranean and the Roman Empire. Already we see that it’s celebrated as Floralia, and May itself gets its name from a Greek goddess, Maia, who was the mother of Zeus. Even monotheism and pre-monotheistic [00:06:30] religions celebrated this day, and it’s always been throughout human history since, a day which has been significant.
Anthony Comegna: It sounds like those early celebrations of May Day are really rooted in what you call the green side of May Day, and then you say there’s a red side of May Day, too. This is a red and a green holiday. [00:07:00] To expand on the green aspects of May Day and we can maybe pick up on the red afterward, you make reference several times to what you call the “Woodland Epoch” of history.
Could you tell us exactly what you mean by that concept? Could you place it in a single geographic location, or is it a widespread phenomenon? What point in time does it come to be significant in the celebration of May Day?
Peter Linebaugh: Yeah, very good question. It goes back [00:07:30] to me to Thoreau, and also to Marsh. You know Marsh, the 19th century environmentalist. He explained, and found the evidence, how once the great Sahara Desert was covered with forest. Much of the earth for a very long time was wooded and I think with the development of the agrarian [00:08:00] field, those woods began to diminish.
Even now, the sound of the chainsaw ringing through the forest in Chiapas is in my ear, as whether in it’s Lacandon jungle of Mexico or in Sumatra and Indonesia, or of course the great forest of the Amazon, the trees are coming down and [00:08:30] for us, for me, thinking of England which I’ve largely studied and I grew up in England, this is a highly significant time, 2017, because it’s the 800th anniversary of the Charter of the Forest.
This Charter of the Forest was one of the charters of liberty of the 13th century, the [00:09:00] other one being the Magna Carta, that means the “Big Charter.” The Charter of the Forest was the little one, and it provided protection for common people to be able to enjoy the riches of forest life; to be able to pick berries, to be able to put a cow into the forest, [00:09:30] or forest lands for herbage, which means grazing, or pannage, which means nuts and barks for pigs.
Very significantly, the Charter of the Forest I think we should remember it for yet another reason, which is it withdrew the death penalty from killing a deer. Here are deep [00:10:00] reasons from the Woodland Epoch of history, if you’ll permit the phrase, deep reasons for commemorating it on this 800th anniversary and perhaps we can work toward that, because the Charter of the Forest was rediscovered on the 11th of September 1217, a date which of course we Americans are familiar with. Well actually, the whole world.
[00:10:30] That charter anticipates the struggle of commoners on the one hand, and the privatizers on the other hand. It is a treaty as it were, within the class differences of British society from the middle ages to, I would argue, the present.
Anthony Comegna: It’s all interesting, [00:11:00] especially to me, because these are ideas, herbage and so on … People conceived of them as their rights, correct? In the same way that we’re often like to think about rights today; it’s something nobody can take it away from you, and you have it by virtue of simply existing. Nobody can impede your behavior in this regard, so people had every equal right and entitlement to use [00:11:30] these common areas as everyone else.
Peter Linebaugh: I’d want to add to that two cautions. The first, I myself would rather not use the term “rights.” These were referred to as “customs,” or “powers.” In the era of rights, that is, let’s say after the French Revolution or the same time as the American Bill of Rights, perhaps they are [00:12:00] translated or transformed in some ways into rights. But historically speaking, it’s more accurate to refer to custom.
The second caution I would have is to say that it wasn’t available for everyone, but for the community of users. That is, you couldn’t just wander into some forest anywhere and willy-nilly take what you wanted; you had to belong to a community which had its own customs [00:12:30] of how it used the forest, how much windfall you could take.
Very much the way, if you look at the great public parks of the United States, they were formed by law of congress, but a great many people who lived in them lost their abilities to survive from the resources therein. We need to [00:13:00] understand, what were their rules of usage? Because their rules will be different from those who just wish to, say, exploit the forest.
Anthony Comegna: Let’s dig a little bit into who these folks using the commons were. First of all, this is in medieval England, an age of feudalism. This does extend, I presume, England’s Woodland Epoch, properly extends past the Norman [00:13:30] conquest and into the era of Magna Carta and so on. Did the commons exist side-by-side with feudalism? Did they operate in tandem? What were the ruling elites’ reactions to uses of the commons? How did they try to constrain them? Were there any problems with the operation of the common?
Peter Linebaugh: Oh, definitely. I would say there were more problems there than with privatization, as [00:14:00] commoners are constantly quarreling with one another. You know, just as when you go to the movies or sit on an airplane, your elbow is trying to look for elbow room with the person next to you. This can lead to conversation, or it can lead to a kind of silent equilibrium, where you both learn to share the armrest, and so it is with the commons.
The people [00:14:30] are always talking, and always quarreling, always negotiating, and this is unlike nowadays where everything is, with commodity production, is supposed to run so smoothly. You can go and fill up your car with gasoline and have no conversation whatsoever, or do your grocery shopping without conversation or [00:15:00] interaction beyond putting your money down, or running your plastic card through a slot.
No, commoning was filled with human interaction. It was a very lively period of history, and my own thinking is that it’s not part of feudalism, but it’s part of the way poor people, or common people, lived right into the 19th century [00:15:30] and of course, it’s difficult to find out about this for the simple reason is that commoners don’t want others to know about it, unlike the ideologies of privatization, which are all about publicity and marketing.
Anthony Comegna: Let’s go to New England now. Can you tell us the story of Thomas Morton in Merrymount?
Peter Linebaugh: Sure, sure. Thomas Morton came over to [00:16:00] Quincy Bay in Massachusetts in 1626 on ship called The Gift, captained by Wollaston. In the following year Thomas Morton, having been so impressed by the tremendous fertility of the earth in North America, where fish and fowl, game and fruit, [00:16:30] was just there for the taking. He celebrated May Day along with Native Americans, gay people, runaway servants and slaves, around an 80 foot Maypole there at Merrymount in Quincy, Massachusetts as I say.
They drank beer, and [00:17:00] as their enemies say, “they frisked with their native consorts, and worse.” There I’m quoting Governor Bradford who came down from Boston, not very far away, and killed a number of people, knocked down the Maypole, and pretty much put an end to the happiness [00:17:30] in North America, if I can quote Nathaniel Hawthorne.
Anthony Comegna: I was going to ask, do you agree with Hawthorne’s interpretation of the situation that this was more or less the moment when what exceptionalism there was in American life died, and the old world fully transplanted onto the new.
Peter Linebaugh: Certainly, the regime of constant work and private property was brought in by the [00:18:00] Puritans and by Bradford, for sure and history, Nathaniel Hawthorne thought, could’ve taken another road. I don’t know whether Hawthorne was right or not, but what I do know is that we human beings can take different roads than just that of iron and gloom, and profiteering and the creation [00:18:30] of misery, by ever larger numbers of poor people, so that a few very rich can thrive.
There are other ways of life, and whether Thomas Morton had found another way, I don’t know, but certainly he pointed to other ways. I think what’s instructive about May Day at Merrymount in 1627 is this notion [00:19:00] of human agency, of human liberty, of freedom that we … That, I think, is the ideal that I would share with Hawthorne.
Anthony Comegna: But how do you know for example that there were open homosexuals in Merrymount, or that there were interracial relationships?
Peter Linebaugh: I didn’t say that open homosexuals were active at Merrymount, [00:19:30] I said gay people. That’s my interpretation of what the sources call a Ganymede, and if you look into the history of homosexuality, at one point a Ganymede was a youth, a male youth who served a master drinks, and other kinds of pleasure. It’s that term of Ganymede that [00:20:00] permits me, and its associations with homosexuality in a classical world on, that permit me to say gay people.
Anthony Comegna: I’m really interested in the interactions between those two populations, the white settlers and the Native American population. What were the differences in the ideas those two populations had, especially about property rights and the delineation of who gets what?
Peter Linebaugh: [00:20:30] Oh, well the main difference was … Here, Anthony, I can’t answer the question with specific time and place. I mean, the 19th century and the work of anthropologists there like Morgan, gives us one answer. The 18th century with the work of the Moravians gives us another answer. [00:21:00] Roger Williams in the 17th century gives us yet a third way of approaching this.
Generally, I’ve looked at it as, and perhaps your audience does too, as a triumph of the commodity and private property over these last 500 years. As far as indigenous people are concerned around the world, private property was not foreign, but it was very carefully restricted [00:21:30] to the household, or to the margins of the community; otherwise, it let loose rapacious and avaricious instincts which were destructive to community well-being.
That I would say is the way I have tended to approach the relation between Native American history, [00:22:00] and European Imperialism. From the native viewpoint, the people are not called white people, but are called “long knives,” or “town destroyers” at the time of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.
The “long knives” and the “town destroyers” were not heralded as people who brought in agriculture improvement or clean water, they were instead [00:22:30] those who burned the village and destroyed the orchard. And history, romantic or not, but factual history sees the justice in that point of view.
I think it’s also important what I’ve learned from Richard White’s work on the Middle Ground is that in North America, certainly in [00:23:00] my region of the country, the Great Lakes, the Indian village was not a population as you’d call it of just native people, but was a population that we might say was hybrid, or consisted or runaway servants and runaway slaves, as well as different tribal groupings who through complex kin or kinship organizations, [00:23:30] headed quite a lot of people; people with various origins.
That’s what I’ve learned from Richard White’s work on, “Because of the Middle Ground.” When I grew up, they called it “The Frontier,” a place that was constantly on fire. Now I understand why it’s on fire, and that’s to prevent the indentured servant or the abused woman from fleeing to the safer [00:24:00] hospitality of the middle ground, of these Indian village.
Anthony Comegna: Let’s go back to May Day, then. Can you take us through after the Maypole was burned in Merrymount, and joy was snuffed from New England, at least for a time, what happened with the history of May Day between Thomas Morton and Haymarket?
Peter Linebaugh: We find mechanization, enslavement, [00:24:30] and further and deeper, swifter enclosures. Those enclosures of the North American continent are anticipated by the great surveys of the 1790s, which turned the North America into a land of squares and rectangles that you see once you fly over it.
[00:25:00] This was done to remove the green possibilities of some other form of life in North America than that of “Meum Et Tuum,” to use the Latin phrase for “Mine and Thine,” or of private property, of competitive individualism. Community is [00:25:30] lost and destroyed, and that’s necessary for the capitalist mode of production, to create a new type of cooperation which is done in the factory; a new type of cooperation which is done on the cotton plantation, a new type of cooperation is done in the mines.
Here, it’s no longer a community, but it becomes class war and I think this [00:26:00] culminates of course, with the great American Civil War, which showed that working people, especially agrarian workers, IE slaves, could fight for emancipation. This lesson was not lost on industrial workers or new immigrants from China, or from Eastern Europe, or the Mediterranean, after the Civil War or for those who’d been disabled by the Civil War.
We get a woman’s movement, [00:26:30] a disabled movement, and then the eight-hour movement among working people that culminates in the red story at Haymarket in 1886.
Anthony Comegna: Today, we have Americanism Day, Law Day, USA or actually, literally today, we have Loyalty Day under our grand new chief executive. Could you make some final comments to listeners about the history of these alternative May Days, these [00:27:00] status alternatives to May Day?
Peter Linebaugh: Yeah, they’re fig leaves. You remember Adam and Eve when they were enclosed from paradise, they suddenly felt shame, and so it is with the 1%. They feel shame, and these terms that you use, Loyalty Day, Law Day, Americanism Day, they’re fig leaves, indication of shame and weakness on the part of the ruling class [00:27:30] or 1%.
Anthony Comegna: Now I suppose to leave with one other question, I’m curious to know about your thoughts on how … Would you place some sort of particular political label on yourself?
Peter Linebaugh: It’s very hard to do that. I’m a commoner, definitely. I’m a people’s “remembrance” and a commoner; I believe that with all things in common, “omnia sunt communia,” but I don’t think [00:28:00] yet this has reached a political form. I’d say with many others, we’re searching for a political form for this.
Communism, socialism, anarchism, these are isms of the past; certainly there’s things to learn from each of them, and things to avoid from each of them. But I think the future [00:28:30] for a green and just planet has not yet reached a political form, but we’re struggling, we’re searching for that form, and we will go to the streets to attain it.
Anthony Comegna: Do you think that libertarians, especially anti-political individualist libertarians, would you consider them a sort of hard and fast class enemy, calcified into some sort of [00:29:00] hopelessly ideologically position in our current state of affairs, too wrapped up in the constitution or whatever it might be?
Peter Linebaugh: I don’t know libertarians, so I think … You’re the first I’ve met, and I’m very grateful, and impressed by your tone, and the intelligence of your questions. I certainly don’t wish myself to be calcified, [00:29:30] or seen ideological; I certainly am passionate and have ideals but this doesn’t mean I’m unable to listen to others, or engage with them in human courteous debate and discussion. If force is involved, then of course force will always be met with force, unless you [00:30:00] are a saint.
Anthony Comegna: Linebaugh’s work builds on the examples set by scholars like Thompson, demonstrating the idea that class is something which is made and sustained through deliberate action, both from above and below.
Liberty Chronicles is a project [00:30:30] of It is produced by Tess Terrible. To learn more about Liberty Chronicles, visit If you’ve been enjoying the show, we very sincerely ask that you subscribe, rate the show on iTunes, invite your friends and family to listen, and tweet us your questions @LibChron, or email libertychroniclespodcast [at]