You may have heard the phrase "big man history." Suppose you grew up in the United States. In that case, you might have learned that "Lincoln Freed the slaves" or that the "Robber Barons"— Andrew Carnegie, Cornelius Vanderbilt, Pierpont Morgan, Jacob Schiff, and John D. Rockefeller— built the United States.
Consider that enslaved people freed themselves. Workers, enslaved, low-wage, often immigrants, many women and children, built America. The myth that politicians or capitalists are the only people that make history and the rest of us have to live with the consequences of their decisions is one awful, violent, and true dynamic in the world. The decisions of wealthy people, their networks, and corporations make laws and policies affecting tens of millions of people.
At the same time, everyday non-elites also make history, and in doing so, they also affect the lives of tens of millions of people. Yet, those stories are often less known.
Marcus Rediker, a humble and widely respected historian of Atlantic History at the University of Pittsburgh and author of numerous prize-winning books, as well as co-author with Peter Linebaugh of one of the quintessential examples of history from below, The Many Headed-Hydra, translated intoItalian, Korean, French, Portuguese, German, Spanish, and published in a different edition in the UK, has put together this insightful and inciteful resource on histories from below. But first, what is history from below?
Sometimes known as 'people's history' or 'radical history,' according to the Institute of Historical Research, history from below is history that: "seeks to take as its subjects ordinary people, and concentrates on their experiences and perspectives, contrasting itself with the stereotype of traditional political history and its focus on the actions of 'great men.' It also differed from traditional labor history in that its exponents were more interested in popular protest and culture than in the organisations of the working class."
C.L.R. James, Black Jacobins: Toussaint L'Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution, Vintage, 1938.
E.P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class, Vintage, 1963.
Christopher Hill, The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas in the English Revolution, Penguin, 1972.
Carlo Ginzburg, The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth-Century Miller, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976.
Joan Scott, Gender and the Politics of History, Columbia University Press, 1988.
Silvia Federici, Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation, Autonomedia, 2004.
Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States, Beacon Press, 2015.
Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker, The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic, Beacon Press, 2004.
Marcus Rediker, The Amistad Rebellion: An Atlantic Odyssey of Slavery and Freedom, Penguin, 2012.
Julius Scott, The Common Wind: Afro-American Currents in the Age of the Haitian Revolution, Verso, 2018.