Poor Man’s Crime

Ian Gilmour

  • The London Hanged: Crime and Civil Society in the 18th Century by Peter Linebaugh
    Allen Lane, 484 pp, £25.00, September 1991, ISBN 0 7139 9045 7

Whatever may have happened recently to the Communist regimes Eastern Europe, Marxist historiography seems alive and defiant. Lenin’s tomb may be under threat, but the historical certainties of Marxism lie undisturbed. ‘Broadly speaking,’ Peter Linebaugh tells us, ‘the English Revolution was a conflict among three social forces. The bourgeoisie, led by Oliver Cromwell and organised in Parliament, aroused the English proletariat to make war against Charles I, the High Church and the aristocracy. Having vanquished them, Cromwell then turned against his erstwhile class ally, the many-headed multitude, which during the course of the struggle against the King had developed a movement of teeming freedom that was antithetical to the capitalist order that Cromwell and Parliament sought to impose.’ Even twenty-five years ago that would have been considered a little crude. Today, after the revisionist history of the last two decades, the claim that the English Civil War was a class one seems the historical equivalent of Stalinism.

But Marxists like Dr Linebaugh not only ignore the revisionist historians: they seem oblivious to recent events in Eastern Europe. Of course the final demise of Communism in the Soviet Union came too late for Linebaugh’s book, but earlier developments there and in the satellite regimes did not. The third act of the Marxist drama, the rule of the proletariat, has ended in farce at best; it would be truer to say that it has ended in the burning down of the theatre. Yet Marxist historians continue to write and play the first two acts as they did when events in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe still seemed to them to be shaping as the master had prophesied. They do not have to give up ‘socialism’, or do anything drastic of that sort. The death of socialism has been proclaimed too often before to make it likely now. ‘One no longer talks of socialism,’ said Thiers not long after the defeat of the Commune. ‘We have got rid of it.’ Socialism in one form or another will doubtless survive: but, unless all the blame for the debacle in the USSR and Eastern Europe is to be piled on Lenin and Stalin, not, surely, in its Marxist form. And Marxist historians who have seen all history as class struggle culminating in a preordained end – ‘the proletariat,’ in Linebaugh’s words, ‘would bring to birth a new society from the ashes of the old’ – can’t plausibly go on writing as if nothing much has happened, even though the inevitable end has turned out to be a dead one, and a phenomenally false start.

In The London Hanged Linebaugh himself gets off to an unpromising start. He maintains that ‘the intensification of capital punishment has become a worldwide trend since the mid-Seventies,’ citing particularly its use by five countries: South Africa, Iran, Nigeria, China and the United States. Certainly there have been a lot of executions in most of those countries and many assassinations and death squads in a number of others. ‘The tendency to capital punishment,’ he writes, ‘has been clear, alarming and specific to a historical period that has been reactionary in every sense.’ The late Seventies and the Eighties may well have been reactionary years. Yet in a footnote Linebaugh concedes that ‘in opposition to this world trend’ towards capital punishment, the movement against it has grown, mentioning that no fewer than eighty countries have abolished it by law or in practice. How five countries, even very large ones, can constitute a world trend when eighty have moved in the opposite direction Linebaugh does not explain.

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