This episode’s guest is Marcus Rediker, award-winning author and Distinguished Professor of Atlantic History at the University of Pittsburgh. In this episode, we are in conversation with Marcus about writing history "from below." Marcus shares about the connections between the sea, the slave ship, and modern day prisons. He also discusses the revolutionary spirit that is present in the history of ordinary working people who have long struggled for a more just world.
Episode Transcription available here
Host: Ry O. Siggelkow
Producer: Adam Pfuhl
Podcast Engineer: Michael Moua
Music: Kavyesh Kaviraj
Episode Recorded on January 30th, 2023
In Conversation with Marcus Rediker
Ry Siggelkow [00:00:01] You're listening to the podcast of the Leadership Center for Social Justice at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities. We seek to open a space for critical theological conversations about pressing social issues we face in our world today. Thanks for listening.
Ry Siggelkow [00:00:26] Hello, everybody. I'm Ry Siggelkow and I direct the Leadership Center for Social Justice at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities. Today, I am excited to be in conversation with Marcus Rediker, distinguished professor of Atlantic History at the University of Pittsburgh. Marcus Rediker's histories from below, including The Slave Ship: A Human History, have won numerous awards and have been translated into 17 languages worldwide. Marcus is coauthor with Peter Linebaugh of The Many Headed Hydra, with whom we've already been in conversation on the podcast. He has also produced a film called Ghosts of Amistad with director Tony Buba and written a play, The Return of Benjamin Lay with the playwright Naomi Wallace. Marcus is currently writing a book about escaping slavery by sea in antebellum America. Welcome to the podcast, Marcus.
Marcus Rediker [00:01:31] Thank you, Ry. It's a pleasure to be with you.
Ry Siggelkow [00:01:35] Marcus, I wanted to begin by asking you a bit about how you describe your work, which is as histories from below. You write histories from below. I wonder if we could begin by having you share a bit about what that really means. What are histories from below? How do they differ from other kinds of historical writing? And why have you chosen to take this approach in your work?
Marcus Rediker [00:02:05] Well, Ry, History from below emerges historically itself from movements from below. So we first see the use of the term in the 1930s. Quite a radical decade internationally. But the key moment is the 1960s and 1970s. And I'm talking here about the civil rights movement, the black power movement, the movement against the war in Vietnam, the women's movement, all of these movements demanded a new kind of history.
In other words, the civil rights movement, for example, said the way that African-Americans were treated in US history textbooks is totally unacceptable. So what happened was slowly over time, people associated with these movements began to write the kind of history that the movements were demanding. For example, American histories that took the issues of race and slavery seriously, new histories of American imperialism fostered by the protests against the war in Vietnam, and maybe even the most challenging way of all. The women's movement demanded a new history in which the larger share of humanity be included. So all of these things were kind of powerful primary sources in the creation of history from below. So this is a tradition of historical writing. It's international.
The historians who had the greatest impact on my development were two English historians, E.P. Thompson and Christopher Hill, and a very important scholar activist from the Caribbean, C.L.R. James. So the kind of history that I do is really shaped by those figures.
Now I can give you a sort of a brief summary of what the main elements of history from below are. There are six of them. First of all, history from below is about ordinary working people. They are the subjects of this history and that is a very important thing to know.
Secondly, history from below is about oppression. Many different kinds of oppression: class oppression, racial oppression, gender oppression. And crucially, it's also about resistance to oppression. So that's a second point.
A third point. History from below tries to recover the experience of these ordinary working people. What did they go through? What were the times like?
And then fourth, relatedly, what sense did people make of that experience? How did they interpret their experience? This gets us into the area of consciousness. What was the consciousness of people, these working people? So that's four.
The fifth, history from below always tries to recover the voices of these ordinary working people. It's not always possible because of the problem with sources. This is a big issue in history from below. You've got to be very creative in the search for sources.
And then finally, sixth, the last point is that history from below treats these working people not merely as subjects of history, but as makers of history. It's about their agency. It's about the ways in which they shaped the historical trajectory. And when you look at history in this way, you'll find that ordinary working people have made a tremendous difference in the way the world has evolved.
Ry Siggelkow [00:06:12] Well, one of your histories from below is a book that you wrote called The Slave Ship: A Human History. And this has received wide praise, and it was award winning when it was published. And it's really a remarkable study of a particular sea vessel, one that has decisively shaped the modern world. The book describes in great detail the horrors and the terrors of the Middle Passage, what you refer to as the slave ships Hell. And it's a difficult book to read, Marcus, as I'm sure that it was as you conveyed to writers in your introduction, a very painful book to write. I wonder if you could share for us some of the key insights that came out of your research and writing of that book. Why do you think it's important for us to grapple with the human history of the slave ship today?
Marcus Rediker [00:07:03] Well, let me begin my answer to that question by telling you where the idea of writing that book originated. It actually hit me while I was deep in the bowels of a supermax prison. Visiting a man you may know by the name of Mumia Abu-Jamal, a former Black Panther who was falsely convicted of murdering a police officer in Philadelphia in 1981. Talking with Mumia, talking about history. And he relayed to me a story that he had just something he had just gone through where a guard had slipped a document through the narrow slit in his cell door. And it was a signed death warrant. He had a date to die. And what Mumia said about that is that this is just part of a very long history of race and terror. Commenting on the racialised nature of death row and the entire American prison system. And it dawned on me right there, in that moment, that the relationship between race and history, excuse me, the relationship between race and terror has a history. That it began on the slave ship. And I thought to myself, I could study the origins of this.
Now, I didn't immediately decide to do it because it took a lot of thought, and it was kind of a daunting project for a couple of reasons. One, it meant that I would have to live with the horror of the slave ship every day for several years, as I researched and wrote the book. That is something you have to think about, especially if you're going to do history from below and try to recover the human experience in that vessel. The second thing, which was a bigger thing, actually, was the moral responsibility that comes with writing a book like that. Can I do justice to the experience of the people who were on those vessels? I didn't know and probably couldn't know. But I decided that it would be better to try and fail than not try at all. So I plunged in.
I started working on the book and what I found, I guess the main conclusions of the book are first, that the slave ship was instrumental to building a global capitalist system. It's a really fundamental part of the social and economic world that we inhabit right now. We still live with these slave ships. I discovered that the slave ship was an instrument of terror. It was made up of smaller instruments of terror, like shackles and manacles and chains and whips, but that the whole technology of the slave ship was an organized terrorist regime presided over by the slave ship captain. I felt like this was a very important thing to understand, but here's the other side of a dialectic. Very important to understand that the people on these slave ships fought back against that regime.
So the resistance to the horror of the slave ship is really extremely important for us to understand the different forms of resistance. Suicide, for example, hunger strikes. I mean, in some ways the slave trade was a 400 year hunger strike. People constantly tried to do whatever they could to resist, and refusing to eat was one of them. Insurrections, uprisings that took a lot of human life. These are much more common than we once believed. So these are some of the most important things that I discovered in that book.
And the other thing that, the other conclusion that I reached is that if you look at the instrumentality of terror in the making of many modern nations, including the United States, in other words, we talk about terror all the time, don't we? But we don't usually talk about the terror that was instrumental in building this country. And I believe that reparations are absolutely necessary. There are many different ways to do that. You know, the word of reparations is repair. But we really have to face this history and we have to do something about it. That's one thing I learned in studying the slave ship.
Ry Siggelkow [00:12:09] So in moving through this, I mean, deciding to write on this subject, which was such a moral responsibility, as you say, and also one that, you know what, it would take an emotional toll. But it emerged from this conversation with Mumia and you thinking about what he had said about race and terror in the present, in the prison system. Did your research, did you glean any insights about the prison system today and those initial questions that kind of drove you to write the book in the first place?
Marcus Rediker [00:12:46] What I found is that there's a direct line from the slave ship to the modern system of incarceration. And this point was made to me at a presentation I made about the slave ship in Auburn Prison in upstate New York in 2009. I was a visiting professor at Cornell University, at the time. I was invited to give a lecture about the slave ship to about 80 prisoners, and it was quite a moving experience because, as you may know, prisoners call the modern prison, they call the prison the modern slave ship. They see a direct continuity. And so after I had delivered my lecture, a man stood up and said, "Okay. We understand that incarceration is crucial to our history from the slave ship all the way up to right here, right now, where we sit inside Auburn Prison. Why is that? Why has that been necessary?" And I think it's a really powerful question. One of the best questions I've ever been asked. There's no easy answer.
But the crucial point is that the organization in control of labor, including surplus labor, in a time when capitalism no longer has a need for a lot of people is crucial to this history of incarceration. So I'd say that yeah, I learned a lot about that connection and I would mention here a piece of political art created by someone named David Thorn. He took the iconic image of the slave ship with the bodies tight packed. I'm sure you've seen it. And he's superimposed on top of that the cell plan of a supermax prison. And he called the whole thing, Too Soon For Sorry. In other words, before you start apologizing for slavery in the past, you've got to fix the questions of slavery present. Apology without justice isn't worth very much. But again, that direct connection was made by the artist. And I think that's one of the most powerful expressions of that that I've seen.
Ry Siggelkow [00:15:17] That's very powerful. Well, the book, The Slave Ship, focuses on the sea. And the sea is actually a focus of much of your work. You write about pirates and sailors, indentured servants and slaves. And much of this takes place at sea. I'm wondering why the sea in particular is important to you? Why is it important to you that we study and take seriously what happens at sea?
Marcus Rediker [00:15:51] Well, the first thing to be said about this, Ry, is that I came to study the sea by accident. In other words, I didn't grow up in a seafaring place. I was born in Kentucky. I grew up in Tennessee. I didn't have any seafaring tradition in my family. But when I began my studies, my graduate studies in 1976, I was very eager to learn from work that E.P. Thompson and Peter Linebaugh and others were doing at Warwick University at the time. They were using legal records to reconstruct the lives of working class people. There's a book that came out of that collaboration called Albion's Fatal Tree: Crime and Society in the 18th Century, which is very good. So I started looking around for a research subject in which I knew there would be a good bit of legal documentation so I could get at some, you know, ordinary working people, their lives, experiences and so forth. And I decided to study pirates because they were such a big deal in the 18th century. There were a number of massive show trials. There was a lot of documentation. There were gallow speeches and everything else. So I wrote a seminar paper on pirates, but as soon as I finished it, I realized that the only way I could really understand pirates was to go back and understand the world of work from which they emerged. And this led me to the history of the common sailor. I had actually gone to graduate school with the intention of becoming a historian of slavery, of Caribbean slavery in particular. But now I was off and running with this maritime subject that actually became my dissertation.
And so I came to this by accident and it turned out to be kind of dumb luck because by studying sailors and basically following them everywhere they went, I just automatically became an Atlantic historian and a global historian. It turns out those subjects were becoming very popular at that time. So this is how I got into transnational history. You might say just because of the working world of sailors. That's what I was interested in. And I followed them around. So I've worked on maritime histories ever since. I have, as you know, worked my way back around to the history of slavery. Slave ship was one. Another book on the Amistad Rebellion. And the book I'm writing now about escaping slavery by sea.
The linkages between slavery and the sea are very important. So now the thing I discovered in doing this work is that we have a kind of history now, that is, I actually made up a word to describe it, it's called terracentric, meaning we have all land based histories. But it turns out that a huge portion of history happens at sea. Class formation happens at sea. Race formation happens at sea. A cultural formation happens at sea. And the sea is a real historical space. So I've kind of devoted my life to making clear to people that the history of the sea is very important to understanding the modern world.
Ry Siggelkow [00:19:33] In my conversation with Peter Linebaugh, I asked him to reflect on my characterization of your co-authored book, The Many Headed Hydra, as an example of theology from below. I wanted to ask you the same question. I think it stretched Peter a bit too to answer it, but I wanted to ask you the same question, especially in light of your recent book on Benjamin Lay, the Quaker Dwarf, who, as the subtitle says, became the first revolutionary abolitionist.
The Fearless Benjamin Lay is a magnificent book that highlights an incredibly fascinating figure that many people, including myself, had never even heard of. Lay, as you write about, was a radical abolitionist. He was a vegetarian, a Quaker. He lived in a cave. He drew a lot on scripture, especially the prophetic literature of the Hebrew Bible, Paul's letters, the Gospels, and the Book of Revelation. He did this in order to articulate and really to agitate slave owners and others who were complicit in slavery about the great evils of slavery.
Your book begins with this remarkable story of Benjamin walking into a large Quaker gathering in Philadelphia and performing an act of what you call guerilla theater. And I've been telling this to friends and colleagues as I've been reading your book, I've been sharing this story, and I have this in my head where, you know, I picture this small man walking in and he's wearing this giant cloak, as you say, and he walks in. He's probably hanging out, acting as if he is part of this meeting. And then all of a sudden he unveils underneath his cloak a sword of sorts and a book, and he puts the sword into the book and it pierces something inside and turns out it's pokeberry juice that's held in an animal's bladder. And this juice, this red juice begins to splatter everywhere, all over the faces and heads of these Quakers in this meeting, these slave owning Quakers. And as you write, this is how you describe it, "A collective murmur filled the hall in a rising crescendo of emotion. The prophet thundered his judgment, thus, shall God shed the blood of those persons who enslave their fellow creatures''.
So you have this sort of God of judgment, right? This prophetic intervention. And you write at length throughout the book about Benjamin's antinomian theology, his agitational approach to abolitionist organizing, his commitment to reflection, to study, to reading and writing, and what I would call, if you allow me, writing an apocalyptic theology of liberation. I wonder if you could share with us a bit more about Benjamin Lay and his significance and perhaps the reason why so much of your work highlights theologies from below like this, these articulations of God of the Spirit in terms of judgment, but also in terms of a kind of imagination that would want to radically reimagine the world.
Marcus Rediker [00:23:18] You know, one way to come at this question. Very good question. And a complex one is to note that Peter Linebaugh and I began, we met in 1977 and fairly quickly we began plotting out what would become The Many Headed Hydra, years later. And in the process of doing that, Peter and I were both very interested in and influenced by liberation theology, which was at that time a very important political force throughout Latin America. So we're reading it, we're studying it. And of course, we realized that the radical religious groups of the English Revolution: the levelers, the seekers, the diggers, the ranchers, the Quakers. They were basically concentrating on the same passages of the Bible, as were contemporary liberation theologians. And I pointed this out to Christopher Hill, who wrote this marvelous book, The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas during the English Revolution. And he was fascinated by that, by the continuity of these radical religious ideas.
This history is very old. It's very long. It has a kind of underground existence among heretics and radicals of different kinds. And so this became a centerpiece of this book, The Many Headed Hydra, the way in which these radical ideas from England were disseminated around the world in the 17th and the 18th century. And now these ideas mutated and took on new forms in slave societies. But nonetheless, there is definitely this continuity and the continuity is based on something you mentioned, which is antinomianism. And I would like to talk about that a little bit because I think this is a very important and radical force.
Antinomian basically is a word that is made up of two parts. Anti meaning opposed to and nomos which in the Greek basically means the social order or the established law. So an antinomian was someone who rejected the law of the society in which he or she lived. An antinomian was someone who basically felt that they had a direct connection to God and had, based on that, a very clear ethical sense of what was right and what was wrong. This entailed the rejection of established clergy. It meant that people could interpret the world for themselves. It was quite liberating in this regard. And this was really crucial to all of these 17th century radicals, I've just mentioned, the levelers, the diggers, the seekers, the ranchers, and also to Benjamin Lay, who becomes a latter day version of that kind of religious radical. So what these radicals were saying essentially, is that we will think for ourselves, we don't need magistrates or ministers to tell us what to do. And maybe most importantly, we don't feel any obligation to obey laws that rich men have made for their own protection. This to me is kind of the essence of an anti-nomadism. It's a very radical force.
So Benjamin Lay in his own really dramatic way, which you described very well, Ry, with this piece of guerrilla theater where he splattered blood on the Quaker slave owners. He is the heir to this tradition, even though he's born about 20 years after the English revolution comes to an end, he manages to pick up on these ideas and he transfers this antinomian sensibility to the critique of slavery. Which he regards as a violent act against any religious sensibility at all. Totally intolerable. One of the first people to call for a worldwide and immediate abolition of slavery everywhere and all at once, it can't be tolerated.
So Benjamin Lay is an antinomian of a very deep stain. And he was also, as a friend of mine put it, the historian Gary Nash, he was a walking stick of dynamite, just an unbelievably powerful personality who felt moved to confront injustice wherever he saw it. He felt that it's not enough to hold ideas. You must act your ideas out in public. And this, I think, is what Benjamin Lay spent his life doing. It cost him dearly. He was disowned by the Quaker communities that he loved so much, disowned by four different Quaker meetings because he was so disruptive and especially because of his anti-slavery radicalism. But he believed that these beliefs were really important and that he was going to stick to them no matter what. He loved Quakerism. He didn't love Quakers who owned slaves. There were a lot of them in his day who did. So that's briefly the story of Benjamin Lay, who I think really has a lot to teach us about the importance of agitation. And also the nature of conviction. What are you willing to do to seek justice?
Ry Siggelkow [00:29:22] I wonder if you could say a bit more about why you think agitation in organizing is important.
Marcus Rediker [00:29:29] Well, agitation is an art and guerilla theater for Benjamin Lay was a perfect example of it. And here's how he thought about it. He felt that in every situation what he had to do was to go into a meeting and draw a line and say, look, either you're for slavery or you're against it. And he would say, there's no middle ground, you're for it or you're against it. And a lot of Quakers really hated him for this because he put people on the spot. They didn't like it. They thought his methods were too extreme. What happened was that his agitation began to have results. In other words, people would go away from these meetings feeling very uncomfortable, feeling very agitated, and they would think about what Benjamin Lay had said, how he had challenged them. And this is a very important part of his success.
And what happened was that as he's doing these things during the 1730s and 1740s, the Quaker rank and file were moving in the direction toward the abolition of slavery. Benjamin Lay is the leading anti-slavery figure in this time period. And basically he's convincing people. Agitation was a real key to it. He was not going to let people feel comfortable and tolerant of slavery. That was just unbearable as far as he was concerned. And I think that we've kind of forgotten how important agitation is. In other words, we express radical ideas. We have many debates, but it takes direct action. And Benjamin Lay believed in that quite powerfully.
Ry Siggelkow [00:31:22] Yeah. And it's this sort of either or approach, right? I mean, he's not a very balanced figure. He's not saying, well, yes, you can do this. And then also. He's saying it's either this, it's either being opposed to slavery or you stand with the slaveholders. It's either you're for God and the gospel or you're with the devil. I mean, effectively is how he draws it out.
Marcus Rediker [00:31:49] And you see his religious worldview was such that every time he received resistance to this teaching or he regarded this as his ministry, it convinced him that he was right. In other words, the more people resisted, the more he knew that he was on the right track. So he wasn't going to give up.
Ry Siggelkow [00:32:12] Well, like many prophets before him. Right? There is a self-righteousness to him that you mentioned. And I think, you know, we tend to look kind of critically on people who are arrogant and self-righteous and make claims about God revealing God's self to them in a dream or in Scripture without the validation of others. And yet, you know, we see this throughout Scripture. We see this throughout history, right, there are people who receive revelations that don't correspond to the given, the established order and don't correspond to official interpretations of scripture or official doctrine. And these are the people who are called heretics.
Marcus Rediker [00:33:03] Right. And that's a good point. Well made. Benjamin did, well, put it this way he had two different ways of thinking about himself in relation to anti-slavery. One was that he was a lone prophet and nobody would listen. But he was going to stand up there as an individual and, you know, kind of rant against evil. But at other times, he basically sees himself as part of a movement. He's building, he's helping to build a movement. And quite a few people agreed with him. So his own rhetorical way of discussing his role as a prophet is sometimes undercut. Undercut because he was actually getting approval for many of the things he was saying from other people.
Ry Siggelkow [00:33:51] Right. So he wasn't just a charismatic leader and it wasn't just about him. He wasn't self-involved, which is another common criticism of prophets. That's part of their arrogance. It's about getting attention. But he was organizing and he was having an effect and a movement was building. He wasn't the only one that was seeing the evils of slavery. He wasn't the only one who wanted to seek change, you know. I mean, it reminds me of the way you write about him. It reminds me of David Walker, you know, in his pamphlets, the same kind of apocalyptic kind of theology. Of course, apocalyptic comes from the Greek word apocalypse, which means revelation. So there's this sort of revelatory experience that both relates to one's experience. For David Walker, that was, you know, traveling around. It was seeing the horrors of slavery. And it was also doing that in conversation with his ability to read scripture, which was often one of the first texts that formerly enslaved people would read.
I don't know if you see any connection between that tradition of David Walker that we see in sort of a black radical tradition and these radical traditions that you've identified from the English Revolution through Benjamin Lay.
Marcus Rediker [00:35:22] Oh, there are definite connections, definitely. And one of the connections is maritime, because Benjamin Lay was a sailor, David Walker was a waterfront worker. He owned a little shop in Boston. He dealt with sailors all the time. So this is a very significant thing. And they also both were antinomian in their belief that the laws had to be broken. You know, slavery was completely legal up until 1861. It was completely legal. So therefore, if you're going to be an abolitionist, you've got to be willing to break the law. I think that's another thing that we can learn from people like Lay and Walker.
Ry Siggelkow [00:36:12] In addition to the theological, your work has a deeply political and ethical dimension to it. I mean, this is an orientation that you share with Peter Linebaugh and of course, other historians before you like E.P. Thompson and Christopher Hill. But I'm also struck by the personal remarks that you make in your work.
You write of feeling a strong connection to the people that you study. You say that Benjamin spoke to you across the centuries and that you've learned from him about how to live in the world. It seems to me that your work pushes your readers as well to make these kinds of connections for themselves and to draw out identifications with the figures you lift up, not as an end in itself, but as a way to inspire new imaginings and new forms of action in the present.
When I was reading your book, I felt that deep connection to Benjamin Lay, specifically his apocalyptic, what you call his tender heartedness. So it's this mixture of arrogance and judgment and agitation, but a deep, tender heartedness. And I'm not sure at this point if I'm ready. Actually, I don't know where I'm gonna find PokeBerry juice and an animal's bladder. But at times I feel like, yes, that's what I want to do. I want to interrupt. I want to agitate. I want to say either or. But I'm wondering about the politics of this sort of historical writing.
I'm thinking of Marx's statement about philosophers. You know, philosophers have only interpreted the world. The point, however, is to change it. And I'm wondering if something similar could be said about historians. I know it could be said about theologians, but, you know, historians traditionally are supposed to deal objectively with something called the past. You know, they're not supposed to be too political. They're supposed to have a neutrality to them. And while we know that history is never really in the past as James Baldwin and many others remind us, things do really change and things have changed.
But there is something, it seems to me, about the particular way that you write history that inspires and informs praxis in the here and now, an approach that seeks to clarify the past not for the sake of mere objectivity, but in order to transformatively engage the present. I wonder if you could reflect a bit about the politics of your work and perhaps a bit about some of the personal dimensions to that work. How does agitation, how does the writing of history from below and the connections that you make with the figures that you study, How does that relate to the kinds of agitation or possibilities for you or for others that you hope to inspire in others today?
Marcus Rediker [00:39:03] Let me begin by talking about one of the greatest moments that I had in doing research about the life of Benjamin Lay. I found out through a very obscure reference in a publication of, I think 1943 that there was a book of Benjamin Lay's, actually two books in a small archive in Germantown, Pennsylvania. So I went rushing to this place and the librarian brought me the books, and I was unbelievably thrilled to discover that in one of the books, which is a collection of sermons from a 17th century radical seeker, that Benjamin Lay had written marginal comments all over it in his own hand. And so what you end up having was a conversation between a 17th century radical and an 18th century radical, but maybe most beautifully of all. Benjamin at one point just writes in the margin, Dear friends, be tenderhearted. This is something that really mattered to him. So that's where that comes from. This was sort of at the apex of his view of a proper ethical system to be tenderhearted.
The famous cultural theorist Gayatri Spivak once wrote an article called Can the Subaltern Speak?. And my experience, having studied history from below for decades now, is that I can't get them to shut up. I mean, they talk all the time. If you have learned how to listen, if you've learned how to read the documents or read the sources and recover those lost voices. So part of my working method is to develop solidarity with people in the past. And it doesn't matter one bit that they're dead. You try to understand their struggles sympathetically. You try to figure out what they went through, what they did. And I think this is really important.
So this gives me a chance, Ry, to talk about an idea that was developed by a friend, a recently deceased friend Staughton Lynd. And this is the idea of accompaniment. Staughton wrote a book called Accompanying: Pathways to Social Change. It's based on some of the writings of liberation theologians in Central America. And basically it is a model. Staughton provides a model for how people with, shall we say, more material resources, education and the like can participate in an ethical way in movements from below. Staughton's argument is that we should accompany people. Putting our skills and talents, making them available to them in their struggles and to listen and to learn. It's like the opposite of Vanguardism. It's a kind of a horizontal way of relating to people.
What Staughton used to say, he was a famous historian before he was blackballed by Yale University for his role in the anti-war movement. He had gone to North Vietnam in 1965, and this was intolerable to Yale. So they fired him and then they blackballed them from getting any other history job. So Staughton went to law school. And what he told me once is that his aspiration was to always be in a room of working people. And when somebody says, Hey, who's that guy? The answer would be, He's our lawyer. So this accompaniment, I think, is a really important idea. I hope your readers will consider getting this book and reading it.
And to come to your final question, Ry, about objectivity. I find that the people who rant the most about objectivity are those who have the most to hide about their politics and their values. And the biggest defense of objectivity came in the Cold War when there was a great repression of all sorts of dissenting or radical points of view. And the charge was always, You're not being objective. As if the Cold Warriors were being objective. Okay. So I think that sympathy has a very important place in historical study. It doesn't mean that you ignore evidence. You're objective in your use of evidence, but this doesn't mean that you somehow separate yourself from the thing that's being studied. And here's why I think this is important. The question that I always try to answer in my books is what can we learn about struggles from the past? I think this is really crucial. What can we learn about struggles from the past? And it turns out we can learn a lot.
One of the most important things we can learn here in the present is that the things that we are fighting for have been fought for for a long time. And the message of this understanding is you are not alone. People were fighting during the English Revolution, the 1640s and 1650s for things that we are still fighting for today, trying to recapture the commons, trying to end slavery, trying to expand democracy. These are very old ideas. So we can learn from that. We can also learn what worked and what didn't work in these previous struggles. We can acquire practical knowledge about tactics and organizing and agitation. And maybe most importantly, what we can get from these studies in the past, we can get hope. The fact that the struggles are so long and have been going on for such a tremendously long time is a sign that they have staying power. And as someone likes to say the struggle is not over until we win.
Ry Siggelkow [00:46:04] I'm thinking about your comments about listening, you know, listening to the past and how the subaltern never stops talking. And I wonder about how that relates to these questions of revelation, of apocalypses. You know, the voice of the prophets, the voice of God that the prophets hear. And I guess I'm wondering what kinds of resources do we need or what does it take to listen well? I mean, this connection between listening, empathy, connecting with Benjamin Lay across the centuries. How do we listen well in the present? And why is it that some people can't hear? Why is it that I can't hear often?
Marcus Rediker [00:47:00] Well, look, I think one of the things that history can do is prepare you to listen better in the present. In other words, to go to the sites of struggle. To go there and to listen and to learn. This is an example of, you know, my experience organizing against the death penalty and organizing on behalf of Mumia Abu-Jamal. Going into that prison was a huge part of my political education. And I learned a tremendous amount. And I was very aware that in doing that work, I had to be kind of a messenger. I had to tell people what it was like to go inside that prison, what it was like to go all the way to death row. What it's like to sit in a tiny cubicle separated by plexiglass across from somebody who's got manacles on his wrists and shackles on his feet in an orange jumpsuit. What's that like? What's it like to sit there and talk to that person?
So basically, we want to make the past real. We want to keep it real. We want human histories. The great historian, George Rawick, a close colleague of C.L.R. James, once said to me, "Any history in which working people can't recognize themselves is bad history". We need this kind of human history of the present in which we talk to people. We learn from people. I mean, there's a kind of blasting, you know, system of propaganda for the status quo to make sure that alternative ideas are not heard. The mass media is part of this, ideology is part of this. But people will talk and people will find ways to express other things, other ideas, other hopes, other dreams. If we are just patient enough and sensitive. Sensitive enough to listen.
Ry Siggelkow [00:49:10] Well, Marcus, thank you so much for taking the time to have this conversation with me. It's been lovely just listening to you speak about your work and in writing these histories from below. Your connection to the figures of the past. And we have so much to learn from you and so much to learn from this kind of deep, deep listening that comes from this space of empathy and connection as we continue to struggle in the present for freedom, for justice, and for liberation. Thank you so much.
Marcus Rediker [00:49:44] Thank you,Ry.
Ry Siggelkow [00:49:46] Take care.
Stella Pearce [00:49:55] Thank you for listening to the Leadership Center for Social Justice Podcast. To learn more about the center and its programs, visit unitedseminary.edu/lcsj or follow us on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter at United_LCSJ.