16 June, 2014Issue 25.4HistoryNon-fiction

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The New Plebeian Experience

Anna Brinkman


Martin Breaugh
The Plebeian Experience: A Discontinuous Harmony
Columbia University Press, 2013
344 pages
ISBN 978-0231156189

As a political scientist who has published extensively on the history of political thought, political freedom, and plebeian politics, Martin Breaugh is well within his field of expertise when writing a case study based history of the plebs’ struggle toward political emancipation. In The Plebeian Experience: A Discontinuous History, Breaugh defines the plebeian experience as:

a passage from a subpolitical to a political status [which] represents an experiment in the transgression of the political order of domination whose initial impulse is born of a desire for freedom.

Through historical case studies and through analysis of the work of a number of political philosophers, Breaugh demonstrates that plebeian thought and experience has evolved, bringing the plebs ever closer to achieving emancipation. The expectation and argument of the work is that further study of twentieth-century plebeian experiences will help the evolution of the experience to continue and perhaps bring the plebs’ emancipation to fruition.

As presented by Breaugh, the plebeian experience is characterised by its noble beginning—the desire of the plebs to be free and to gain political agency—and by its inevitable tragic end: the cessation of isonomia and the return to political domination. The fact that the plebeian experience cannot be sustained is, perhaps, its most interesting aspect and what necessitates a discontinuous history. From the peaceful, temporary exodus of the Roman plebs to the decline of the 1871 Paris Commune, each experience eventually succumbed to one of two destructive developments. Some experiences developed a dominant leadership which took on the mantle of continuing and furthering the political emancipation of the plebs. Though this may seem like a normal progression to a political experience, for Breaugh, it is more like the death knell of the plebeian experience:

The designation of a plebeian leader is problematic because it involves the establishment of a power over others, that is, a coercive power, whereas the plebs’ transformation into a political subject represents precisely the effort to construct a power with others, in other words, a noncoercive power.

A second destructive development appears to emerge when the problem of leadership is avoided and a “difficult freedom” emerges. Sustained emancipation and liberation for the plebs is extremely fragile and difficult. It can only be achieved through complete cooperation with the aim of establishing a non-coercive power. However, as Breaugh’s case studies make clear, this effort in the face of opposition from the original (or pre-plebeian) political order has always been too difficult to sustain; the plebs’ new found freedom is always relinquished and the original political domination always reasserts itself. The plebeian experience, it would seem, is cyclical and disheartening. However, and despite the inevitable end of each experience, there is a clear persistence to plebeian thought which becomes more articulate and more ambitious with each passing experience. This progressive and positive persistence is at the heart of Breaugh’s work.

Breaugh argues that each plebeian experience builds on the previous one and that the discontinuous history of the Plebeian experience thus becomes increasingly dominated by the desire to attain political emancipation. For Breaugh, one of the critical aspects of the plebeian experience is its recurrence. The numerous attempts of the plebs to be free coalesce to create what he has termed a “plebeian memory”. This memory is revived with each new plebeian experience to inform the next iteration. Each experience, however briefly, contains a version of utopian isonomia which stands in stark contrast to the condition of the plebs before and after the experience. Therefore, the plebeian memory is the memory of attaining, and eventually losing, isonomia. It is a constant reminder that plebs do not exist equally under the law nor do they have equal participation in its creation; at the same time, it also demonstrates that utopian isonomia may be possible and stands as a challenge to the current political order. The study of the plebeian memory needs to continue in order to challenge political domination and keep alive the plebeian desire for freedom and liberty.

The most compelling element of Breaugh’s book is his analysis of plebeian thought in the works of political philosophers, from Machiavelli to Daniel De Leon. He analyses their ideas, and subsequent interpretations of their ideas, looking for contributions to “plebeian thought”. Though it is unlikely that many of the plebs involved in the case studies were familiar with these works, the philosophers were clearly familiar with the plebeian experience and Breaugh uses them effectively to support his conclusions about the plebeian memory. The idea that the plebeian experience poses a necessary challenge to political domination, he argues, for example, has some origin in Machiavelli’s musings on ancient Rome:

The Florentine Secretary contends that the Roman Republic was the theatre of perpetual division and conflict between two rival ‘humours’. And it is exactly because these humours and the conflict between them existed that Rome’s freedom and power were ensured.

Breaugh further substantiates his idea with Montesquieu’s writings on Christianity. Having discussed Montesquieu’s premise that Christianity is at the very centre of political problems, Breaugh synthesises that argument as a contribution to plebeian thought:

the plebs [are] the political actor that rejects tranquillity and peace in favour of the disturbances needed to achieve liberty and to express the dissension that guarantees the conflictual unity of a free political community.

With such powerful, respected, and well-argued foundations, it is difficult to contest Breaugh’s conclusions that true freedom for the plebs will only be born of conflict (not necessarily violent) with the established political order and that this conflict is driven by the memory of past plebeian experiences.

Breaugh calls, at the very end of his study, for twentieth-century plebeian experiences to be examined in as much detail as he has examined those from previous centuries. It is a project well worth undertaking in order to keep the plebeian memory alive and foster an environment where the plebs’ challenge to political domination is never allowed to become dormant. However, it is hard to avoid the niggling thought that even though the plebeian experience keeps evolving, full emancipation will never be realised. No solution has been put forward to resolve the destructive elements inherent in the plebeian experience; until one emerges, later iterations may progress toward emancipation but will never reach it.

Anna Brinkman is reading for a PhD in 18th Century Imperialism from King’s College, London.