Martin Breaugh, The Plebeian Experience: A Discontinuous History of Political Freedom. Translated by Lazer Lederhendler. New York: Columbia University Press, 2013; 344 pages. ISBN: 978-0231156189.

Reviewed by Matthew R. McLennan, Saint Paul University

Martin Breaugh’s The Plebeian Experience, rendered in a crystal-clear translation by Lazer Lederhendler, is an impressively constructed and substantial contribution to political studies. It is part of a growing constellation of post-Marxist political writings that are loosely “councilest,” which is to say radically, directly democratic in their inspiration, and “Machiavellian,” which is to say realist, in their methodology. (xvi) Miguel Abensour and Jacques Rancière, both of whose political thinking looms large in the text, could be considered the leading living figures of this tendency. Younger scholars such as Breaugh but also Todd May and Devin Zane Shaw have for some time been patiently spinning out its consequences for contemporary emancipatory philosophy and politics. If there is a spontaneous division of labour here, one might approach Breaugh’s text as a historically-weighted compliment to Shaw’s more philosophically-focused 2016 book Egalitarian Moments, which I will review separately on a later occasion.

Breaugh’s ambitious but well-executed project is to uncover a largely occulted, subterranean “plebeian” political tradition in the West. To this extent the book is mainly a work of political history, though the tradition he reconstructs is reflected not just in political events and forms of popular organization but also in texts of political philosophy and politically operant conceptions of the human bond. Breaugh ably demonstrates the syntagmatic and paradigmatic connectedness of a series of historical and textual events, before proceeding to unpack the tough but, on balance, hopeful organizational and philosophical lessons to be gleaned from modern (pre-20th century) instantiations of plebeian politics.

What then of the titular “plebeian experience”? “The plebs” is neither a social category nor an identity, but rather “an experience, that of achieving human dignity through political agency”; it denotes “the passage from a subpolitical status to one of a full-fledged political subject.” (xv) More simply, what writers have variously called “the masses” or “the rabble” proclaim their political equality and capacity, and proceed to verify it through short-lived bursts of organizational practice. As such, the plebeian experience has three main features: 1) communalism: a bottom-up approach to political organization “based on the direct agency of subjects in action,” essentially a radically democratic “power-with” rather than a Patrician “power-over” (xxi); 2) agoraphilia: what Breaugh, quoting Anweiler, defines as “the striving toward the most direct, far-reaching, and unrestricted participation of the individual in public life”; 3) a temporality of the gap which leaves traces: though “the plebeian experience per se cannot be sustained for any length of time,” it leaves traces which constitute a collective memory. (xxiii) The plebs gives us a “discontinuous” history of political freedom precisely because it is in the gap, the “irruptive event that temporarily fractures the order of domination,” that radical equality is proclaimed and practically verified through popular organization. (xxiii)

The text is well-organized to bring off this interpretation of the plebs. As mentioned above, the plebeian experience is both instantiated in political history and articulated in writing by a minority tradition in political philosophy. On the historical front, Breaugh nicely tracks the emergence of the plebs from the First Plebeian Secession in Rome (494 BCE), to the revolt of Masaniello in Naples (1647). Subsequently—after visiting the philosophical history of the plebeian principle and a brief statement of the major political problems of modernity—he gleans organizational principles and operative concepts of the human bond from three major modern plebeian actors: the sans-culottes of the French Revolution, the London Corresponding Society, and the Paris Communards of 1871. Breaugh handles all with nuance and insight.

A notable virtue of the text’s historical approach is how it weaves major with lesser-known figures and social movements. In the section on the philosophical genesis of the plebeian principle, for example, Machiavelli, Montesquieu, and Vico are put into conversation with Ballanche and De Leon before Breaugh considers whether and to what extent Foucault and Rancière might be considered contemporary theorists of the plebs. The mix is often surprising, but enlightening. It also invites us to draw from the history of thought in order to leave history behind; Breaugh’s dressing-down of Foucault’s vacillations on the plebs in particular is fair and satisfying, nicely setting up Rancière as a worthy alternative to follow.

Apart from Rancière (and the Machiavellian tradition quite generally), two prominent philosophical sources in Breaugh’s text are Claude Lefort and Jean-Francois Lyotard (both mediated by Miguel Abensour). From Lefort, Breaugh gleans the notion of the “the originary division of the social.” (25) From Lyotard, he gleans the concept of “the intractable.” (36) In brief, the very ontology of the social resists totalizing gestures and any authentic politics will be agonistic and always leave a remainder. While Breaugh admits that this framework makes a reading of the 20th century in terms of the plebeian experience challenging, on account of “totalitarian domination” (Lefort) and “the modern disciplinary archipelago” (Foucault) (242), on the whole it gives him a compelling interpretive key to the pre-20th century history of revolt and innovation he constructs. While Lefort’s political writings are widely recognized and discussed, it is a pleasure to see Lyotard represented here since his contributions to post-Marxism have been generally downplayed or caricatured under the label of “postmodernism.” It is, however, at the point of application of Lyotard’s philosophy (mediated to be sure by Abensour’s reading) that Breaugh’s study shows a weakness that perhaps bespeaks the ambition of his project; for example, the “libidinal-pagan” reading of the sans-culottes receives a disappointing gloss, and the reader is left wondering how precisely “the intractable”—if it is indeed intractable—becomes “tractable,” as in Breaugh’s account of the plebeian leader Masaniello (38–39). Something of the depth and radical challenge of Lyotard’s political argument is perhaps left out here.

Finally, it is important to note that Breaugh, influenced as he is by Lefort and Abensour, takes seriously and handles ably Etienne de la Boétie’s thesis on “voluntary servitude.” To this effect, the theme of the “desire for the One” represented by the “plebeian leader” is revisited throughout the text as an organizational trap that is to be thought through and resisted (in this connection I particularly like Breaugh’s section on Daniel De Leon, which to my mind goes some distance to restore De Leon’s reputation as an important theorist of anti-hierarchical plebeian politics.)

While I have no substantive disagreement with Breaugh’s excellent study, it is pertinent to think critically about its place in the current political conjuncture. Given the seemingly bizarre turns in contemporary U.S. politics, where an insurgent “popular” mobilization led by an erratic right-wing strongman has a real shot at the White House, it is crucial to think in precisely the terms that Breaugh brings to the fore—namely, the fraught dialectic between plebeian communal emancipation and agoraphilia on one hand, and the desire for total social cohesion and servitude on the other. The problem is whether or not such an approach might be politically limiting in its backward-looking stance and its insistence upon the temporality of the gap. Above all the text constructs the theory of the spontaneous political activity of the masses. In this sense it might be qualified as “tailist” in Lenin’s sense, looking back upon plebeian uprisings and trying to make sense of them, effectively following political history to uncover its logic and insist that we should not forget its lessons. There is nothing inherently wrong with this, and I would insist rather upon the great importance of such an endeavor. In fact I am absolutely in agreement with Breaugh when he looks back on his text as an exercise in “plebeian memory,” a counter-history that perhaps “acts as a resource capable of reviving the plebeian principle and of nurturing the action of those for whom domination remains a constitutive principle of everyday life.” (242) Where I hesitate is the sense that there is a perhaps irreducibly tragic dimension to the plebeian experience as Breaugh describes it, situated as it is in the temporality of the gap and its historically recurrent recuperation by the desire for the One. It is here that one senses the necessity for a decision: either with the plebs and without leaders, and therefore the task of living with the tragic—perhaps rather joyous, combative—consciousness that this entails, or with the plebian leader and all of the well-documented risks that entails. How can authentic politics be sustained—psychologically sustained, for example—in the face of evidence that it is a politics of progressive failures, punctuated by major setbacks? While it is unfair to demand that Breaugh’s book answer this question, it is more than fair to treat The Plebeian Experience as an occasion to pose it.