Although the formation of a conservative government is a threat to working class communities, it is a threat that we can meet.
The fact that Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have been obliged to come together is historic. For decades, the main voice of opposition to whichever of these parties has led a government was the other party. And as we are all well aware, this was no real opposition at all. Discontent was carefully channelled down pathways that were safe for the Irish elite. Now, however, there is an opportunity to escape into entirely new and radical ways of thinking about the world and to popularise socialist answers to a massive, global crisis.
Sinn Féin will be the largest voice of opposition. This is a significant step forward compared to the old Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael posturing. And because Sinn Féin connect to the same working class communities that we do, there will be plenty of opportunity to both work with them, but also alert our class to the limitations of that party and offer a much more fundamental, revolutionary, change than does Sinn Féin.
When the crisis of 2008 hit, we were not well placed to resist the ‘shock and awe’ policies that saddled Ireland with enormous debt and cowed the trade unions with the scale of cuts that both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil agreed were necessary to save the Irish ‘economy’ (the wealth of the Irish elite).
The crisis of 2020 and 2021 will be worse, economically. But this time there is a very different mood in the country. One where people will question the government’s priorities and loyalty to an elite who have grown enormously wealthy over the past ten years. Young people, especially, have been emboldened by referendum victories.
A coherent socialist vision for a world in which the wealth is taken off the rich and large businesses to solve the needs of housing and healthcare is going to be crucial. A vision which can assist movements take off at the speed of the Black Lives Matter protests and amplify them when they do happen. Not just on the streets, as you point to, but also with the return of the mass strike: the most powerful form of protest we have.
The role of socialists within these movements must be democratic and open. We can learn from and be led by these new movements. Our spirit should be in keeping with the disability rights slogan of the 80s: “nothing about us without us”.
This vision, as you rightly say, has to be identified with, ‘fighting racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia.’ Of course, too, socialists should be proudly identified with the campaigns of those with disabilities for equal access and equal opportunity and with the need to help farmers make the transition from a cruel and unhealthy livestock industry to a climate and animal-friendly one. We should demand that public services such as health are taken into full state control, as we have seen the possibilities of doing this during the COVID-19 crisis. We should fight for public housing on public land. We must resist cuts to youth and community services.
The endless growth required by a capitalist society cannot deliver us the technology we need to create a sustainable planet faster than it makes our planet uninhabitable. A society that prioritises money over welfare cannot be green.
With these goals in mind, we look forward to working with you and others in creating a fruitful conversation that does indeed bring the left together.
On 7 June 2020 the statue of Edward Colston in Bristol was toppled and then thrown in the harbour by Black Lives Matter Protestors
Black Lives Matter.
A call for something so simple such as the basic right to live should not need to be the cry of a movement in the twenty-first century, but it is. Black lives are treated as lesser lives: from the ingrained racism of individuals frothing at the mouth to insist ‘all lives matter’, to state sanctioned violence that kneels on the neck of the black body. Black lives are paid less, provided with less opportunity, are jailed more and die in greater numbers through austerity and marginalisation. The struggle of BLM is one of class and identity, the latter under assault by the multifaceted culture war that is contemporary identity politics. The former is attacked by the right in their targeting of class consciousness and solidarity on every front that is opened up.
The latest being statues.
Should Statues Be Pulled Down?
‘We view the past, and achieve our understanding of the past, only through the eyes of the present.’ Socialist historian, E.H. Carr.
Statues resonate as symbols of power and that which must be eulogised: what and who must be ingrained in memory. The function of statues is not just to remember a name but an action. And as statues have typically been raised by people who are carrying out their own acts of exploitation and injustice, they often obscure the past while preserving power structures in the present. The toppling of the Edward Colston Statue into the very harbour slave ships docked was an act of symbolism as much as one of anger. Colston was heavily involved in the slave trade, but the Victorian elite of Bristol who erected the statue in 1895 chose to hide this in favour of emphasising his philanthropy later in life. Nothing was mentioned of tens of thousands of slaves who died before they even reached American shores. The British Empire at this point in the late nineteenth century was reaching its apogee. The raising of such statues does not happen outside of history, but is inherently part of constructing the past.
As Ash Sarkar said on Novara’s #TyskySour, ‘statues don’t go up by accident’, they need to be maintained’ and in doing so they have a symbolic importance as well as a narrative.
‘Rhodes Must Fall’ was a campaign decades in the making, directed at another colonialist who had been elevated in the present. Cecil Rhodes was the individual whom Rhodesia was named after. He was ingrained into the fabric of colonial history and venerated in the centres of empires. The Rhodes Scholarship is one the most esteemed international scholarships. His name is embedded in the educational hierarchy. His statue and the scholarship carried out in his name, however, are attached to a man who believed in the greatness of the British Empire. Rhodes was a colonist and a racist who believed, ‘we are the first race in the world’.
It has taken decades for Rhodes to fall, but now as a result of protests stemming from the killing of George Floyd, Oriel College, Cambridge will decide by the end of this year the fate of the statue, crucially in consultation with the ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ group. Yet there are powerful figures on the opposite side. As recently as 2016, there were warnings from donors to Oriel College that if the statue was removed, up to £100 million in funding would be withdrawn. The rallying cry of these millionaires is that, ‘they are attempting to re-write history’. The contrary is true, the presence of Rhodes’ statue is a continual re-writing of history; it is a symbol of a patriarchal figure who bestows a prestigious scholarship on a select few, obfuscating the source of his wealth: extraction through colonialism.
As of 2013 at Rhodes University in South Africa, ‘83 percent of senior management staff remain white and 77 percent of “professionally qualified staff,” a category that includes academic teaching staff, are white.’ This is where the Rhodes Must Fall movement began, in an institution to this day that is hierarchically white. Rhodes’ message of ‘the first race’ in the world is perpetuated through social elites in the very lands stolen by the British Empire. The presence of his statue remaining legitimises this, as it silently articulates the message that we must look up to him and remember him as benevolent and a man to be deferred to. His statue is a symbol of oppression that continues to colonise the mind as well as placing the figure of Rhodes centre stage in some the most prestigious universities in the world.
Why is the Seán Russell statue, Dublin, being targeted?
Closer to home the ‘statue debate’ has opened up some new (old fronts) from bad faith actors. One such is the controversial statue of Seán Russell, a statue whose presence has been much debated in the past and which has a history of being defaced. The character of Russell is a complicated one: a revolutionary of 1916 who took charge of the IRA in the thirties; a decade that saw the rise of the Blue Shirts, a Conservative Catholic state, and a renewed violent push from the IRA. Russell sought assistance from both the Soviets and the Nazis in the thirties and died on a Nazi U-Boat returning from Germany. It is widely noted that Russell was a military man first and foremost and focused on Irish liberation. Historians agree on this. Russell was emblematic of an aspect of Ireland in the thirties and his statue that has always been a conduit for contemporary political narrative. The latest being Sinn Féin bashing from Fine Gael councillors. A new old story.
‘Russell’s statue has been over the decades since its unveiling, been targeted by both the left and the right, being accused of both communism and fascism.’ A quote from the National Graves Association representative sums up this contested history concisely:
In recent years, there have been repeated attempts by some, in both, the Irish Media and establishment, to further this image of Seán Russell as a fascist. This is in fact a good example of revisionism at work. To criticise Russell as a Republican is fair enough if that’s one’s viewpoint. But false character assassination is entirely a different matter. That is both politically and historically, dishonest, immoral and underhanded. This is particularly the case when it comes from members of political groups with far, far closer historical links to Ireland’s fascists than any of Seán Russell’s comrades.
There is a debate to be had about statues in Ireland as a whole, but the controversy over the Russell statue is awash with bad faith arguments by Fine Gael to break up the front that has opened up with the international movement against symbols of racism and oppression. This only serves to dilute the reason for the questions being asked: statues are being torn down to put history to right, for restitution, for justice. A lot of the answers to these questions will not be binary, but complicated, such as statues of individuals involved in the founding of the state.
State Racism in Ireland is evident in Direct Provision
Ireland has statues and areas named after colonial oppressors; a bloody and messy foundation to the state that is rarely, if ever, brought up unless it is to muddy a contemporary political argument. What is also lost in all of this is that we actively oppress people who have migrated to this state on a daily basis through Direct Provision. Direct Provision is how we mistreat people who are migrants and those seeking asylum in contemporary Ireland. We don’t have statues of Colston, but corporate symbols.
History is certainly not binary and there are problematic individuals whose legacy liberals will often defend, using phrases about context and different times. That doesn’t answer why they need to be immortalized in prestigious institutions and centres of towns. What does begin to answer why these statutes take centre stage is that there are public spaces dominated by some of the most horrific tyrants in history. Figures such as King Leopold II, responsible for millions of deaths in the Belgian Congo in the most brutal and comprehensive extraction of resources, who has memorials and statues all over today’s Belgium. The current Black Lives Matter protests have spread and are turning the tide and Leopold’s statues being torn down. Every statue torn down or questioned is a strike against the layers of injustice that are present in everyday life, from tyrant to state-revered slave owner.
No statues of tyrants should be anywhere near public spaces. Tear down spaces and symbols of oppression and create spaces for all of the stories and lives that have been obliterated in the name of empire and capital. They offer nothing other than the legitimisation of past and current oppression. The function they serve is not for historical purposes, but for the retention of hierarchy and class division.
The most honest and justified action was dumping Colston in the river. That was making history and restoring narrative power to the oppressed. True solidarity with this movement in Ireland would be to pull down our own racist institutions. Statues are focal points of contested history, an ongoing battle in the class war.
For the benefit of us in Ireland, where many of us see events through official news channels, which never drill down enough, I’m hoping you can give our readers some insight into what’s happening on the ground. Maybe you could start by telling us who is actually organising the protests?
There’s a bunch of groups. Unfortunately, a lot of activism in the United States kinda exists in a ‘diaspora’, because as soon as you get too many people you immediately get labelled a terrorist organisation because we have a fascist in office. A lot of it has been Black Lives Matter, because Black Lives Matter is actually big enough in Seattle that they actually have an office. In general, it’s not really an organisation, it’s an ideal.
The primary motivation of Black Lives Matter is equality and equity for the black community: stop getting killed by a militarised police force; achieve more equal statistics for punishment on crime (63% of all violent crime in this country is committed by white people, yet 70% of the prison community is black). That’s their main focus but through that they’ve built this community system where everybody takes care of each other.
So essentially, they’ve built socialism. Right now, for example, I’ve just got back from dropping off field medi-kits and water bottles and a bunch of other stuff to their office in Central District. They just provide so much to the community by way of support. Anyone who can help, does help.
And is Black Lives Matter aligned to the Democrats?
No, not at all, the Democrats hate us too. We’re leftist, without any particular political affiliation.
Roughly how many organisers would Black Lives Matter have in Seattle?
Personally, I know about twenty-five organisers for these particular protests but there are so many. And again, who is an organiser depends on who is stepping up to the plate. There’s no hierarchical leadership; it’s not really an organisation. It’s a community effort.
Presumably people who’ve never done anything like this before are getting involved.
Absolutely. As soon as they saw the first night of protest here (30 May 2020) in Seattle, which went very badly. There was four hours of totally peaceful protest; there was seven feet between the protesters and a line of police. The protesters were sitting down. Then, with literally no warning, there was no command, they just shot tear gas into it for no reason. That first protest was probably around a thousand people, but after seeing what happened, last night (2 June 2020) there were eight thousand people on the street. Bear in mind we had called May Day off – historically, Seattle has a riot every first of May, laughs – we cancelled that because of the coronavirus. But this is bringing people onto the street despite the virus.
Is there much of a socialist presence in these protests?
Here there is. We have the People’s Party and Socialist Alternative, both have a big membership and strong turnout. Councillor Kshama Sawant, has been out every day, she stays every day, which is awesome.
I was wondering whether this movement has been so explosive, not just because of the continual murders of black people by the police, but also because the black community has suffered more heavily from the virus, such as by not having access to the same level of health care?
Here’s the thing. This is one of those straw that breaks the camel’s back moments. The murder of George Floyd was awful and here, literally the week before, we had cops wrongfully and mistakenly enter an apartment building and kill a woman while she slept. This happens all the time. Plus, on top of five hundred years of slavery, segregation and oppression and coronavirus, the American medical system kills more black people than cops do. Their problems go largely ignored; they just don’t receive the same level of care.
Looking at this movement from the other side: are the authorities (with Trump at their head) going to regain control of the situation?
No. I don’t think so, because every time they escalate, it just draws more people. Nobody paid attention to the curfew. The curfew in Seattle is 7pm, although I need to explain more about this. The curfew does not apply if the protest is designated ‘peaceful’ because that would be a violation of First Amendment rights.
There’s a lot of coverage of violence here. To what extent is that the work of protesters?
It’s not, not initially. And actually, they are caught on video and most of the time it’s undercover cops.
What steps are activists taking to try to cut down on arson and looting?
Seattle hasn’t had any arson around the actual protests since the first day. Protesters are not breaking into buildings or anything like that. Seattle is very good about listening; our whole thing here is anti-racist, anti-fascist, only Seattle. So the city is very good at listening to who needs to be listened to. When black organisers and people of colour say, ‘no, we’re not doing this and if you see someone doing this you must stop them,’ people listen.
Can we just focus on that? Because it seems to be a really important issue. Who has the authority to say to the demonstrators, ‘no, we’re not doing this’? And how do they communicate?
There’s not like a figurehead. There have been two people recently who have gotten in front of a megaphone more than others, but there have been some questions about their motives to do that because they have been unreasonably willing to listen to empty promises. The mayor, Jenny Durkan, came out yesterday and spoke to these two in front of the protest and they were like, ‘oh yeah we don’t want to see it get violent’. And the crowd were responding, ‘well then, deauthorise the use of CS gas, of tear gas.’ The Mayor turned around and she literally ran.
And when the crowd were, ‘fuck the police’, one of these ‘leaders’ told them to ‘shut the fuck up.’ So who is leading changes day by day and most of this information gets disseminated by social media. Enough people said, ‘listen to the black leaders,’ and now people listen. And they are listening to women, ninety-percent of the ‘leaders’ here are women.
And it’s really funny watching people get a crash course in revolutionary practices. I know more people who know how to de-arrest now than I ever did. I’m pretty sure that every housewife on my block knows how to put out a CS canister and what to do if you’re hit by a rubber bullet. I’ve personally instructed about a hundred people on how to do field sutures.
Please tell us more about your day, what’s your day like in this crisis?
I’m extremely medically fragile, so me being on the street is not a thing. I help in other ways. I’ve been making about a hundred to two hundred med kits every day. A wash kit, gauze, bandages, a field kit with sutures.
A friend and I built a script that takes all of the feeds from the traffic cameras. We can isolate certain blocks and streets so we can keep an eye on things aerially. Also we monitor the public scanner of the police. The cops here are covering their badge numbers and their body cameras are turned off. The National Guard were wearing their helmet cameras the first days they were here. They aren’t any more. So there’s not accountability. It’s our live feeds and traffic cameras against what they say and unfortunately, historically, that has gone very badly for us.
Is there anything you’ve seen that we wouldn’t have been able to view via our main TV channels?
There’s so much that you haven’t seen. For example in New York, cops have been mowing through the crowds as by orders of NYPD. I’ll share an audio file from a police scanner, of New York cops being authorised to drive through the crowd (press the image below).
And here’s a picture I took last night of a kid, probably sixteen or seventeen confronting some fifty cops. Sorry it’s not that clear because the camera was covered with CS gas.
What’s happening with the activists who have been arrested?
Since Friday everyone who has been arrested has stayed in jail for the most part. They’ve closed the courthouse down and they are not holding bail hearings for non-violent offenders, so essentially people are being held, there’s nothing. Seattle doesn’t have a large jail so in the age of coronavirus, that’s really terrifying. We instruct everyone to write telephone numbers on their bodies, legal defence funds, but a lot of legal advocates are unable to get access to the courthouse. There are thousands of legal aid funds and people wanting to show solidarity with us can donate to https://bailfunds.github.io/.
Looking back at the late 60s, early 70s, the radicalised black movement, especially in the form of the Black Panthers, took bearing arms against the state about as far it could and ultimately got marginalised. How can it win this time?
Really, the Black Panthers were radicalised by the state. The Black Panthers started the free lunch programme. Everyone has this image of the Black Panthers running around with guns all the time, being intimidating. It’s not actually the case. The Black Panthers being armed was a response to the police state.
Yes, but if that happens again now, I think it will only ever be a small minority taking up arms and that it will lose.
I don’t think that’s actually the case. Even here, with our two socialist council members and $16 minimum wage, the logo for Seattle is ‘coffee and guns’. We have Starbucks and guns. Even here, if they start firing with live rounds instead of rubber bullets, well there’s more of us than there are of them. What are 700 cops going to do against ten thousand armed people?
Well, if the ten thousand are prepared to take over, that’s fine. My concern is that the strength of the spontaneity is also a weakness. What’s to stop it degenerating into something like the Weathermen?
Fair, but there is no way to overthrow something, to end a regime, without violence. Do you think the French walked up to Versailles and said, ‘pardon’?
I think there has to be a mass movement behind a successful insurrection. I’m trying to get a clearer picture of this movement. I’d just be worried that Trump will escalate the crisis and there will be saboteurs trying to create horrific examples so as to have a backlash. And in the past I feel that the American elite have learned to isolate radicals in this way. But your feeling is that if they start using live rounds the movement will hit back. Are we on the edge of such a scenario?
Any good will that the cops still have, if they take live fire at United States citizens, especially at the behest of the military and the national guard: it’s gone. Literally half of what Trump said yesterday was about using the Insurrection Act to deploy the regular military, not just the National Guard, into states without the permission of governors.
If that triggered a popular response and your ten thousand people swept away the police, what would happen next?
That’s a really hard question because of the diaspora of leadership. That becomes a problem because nobody has a single point to rally around. Seattle, however, has a pretty remarkable city council and more than normal activity when it comes to civic duty. Our voting is very high. So I can’t imagine that the city officials – who, with the exception of the Mayor, have been largely on the side of the protestors – would allow confusion to go on for too long.
What would victory look like? What would the protestors consider a victory?
Defunding of the police and a complete start from scratch. The cops in the US are descended from slave catchers and they haven’t stopped that. Enforcing a racist system makes you a racist. Without a complete dismantling of the system and rebuilding, this doesn’t get solved. I’m sure that’s not the goal for everyone but it is the goal for the majority of the people.
So jailing the cops concerned isn’t enough?
No, it’s too late for that. If they had done that at the beginning, most likely this wouldn’t be happening. But they didn’t.
They waited until that cop’s life was in danger and then they arrested him to protected him. His wife left him to protect his assets. It’s so transparent that it’s almost laughable. Here, we were watching the protests last night and I had two live feeds, one from the ground and one from the air, plus the traffic cameras and every crowd member was staring down the cops, shouting, ‘you protect property, we protect the people.’
What’s going to happen next?
There’s big protests and there’s always little ones too. Today they are holding a specific rally to defund the police.
Are the police going to lose?
I honestly can’t imagine this going any other way. It’s going to escalate until the police are gone and it just gets worse every night they take unprovoked action, which is every night. And every day there’s more people on the protests.
A few weeks into the current lockdown, as fatalities and reported cases of COVID19 were continuing to rise, news from the frontlines of Ireland’s food production and agri-sector began to arrive, casting an unsettling light on the many – and now overtly dangerous – levels of exploitation on which this cornerstone of the national economy is based.
First, in April, the public learned that Keelings had flown in (and lodged in shared accommodation) almost 200 casually contracted workers to shift the bulk of the coming season’s fruit for market: a decision that seemed deliberately to ignore the health and safety guidelines specified by the HSE’s emergency Coronavirus taskforce. Such a course of action was justified by Keelings on the basis of keeping domestic and global supply chains open, with little comment made as to the risks posed to the fruit-pickers themselves, their families, and, indeed, anyone in contact with them, as a result of company policy.
This reckless managerial focus – on meeting previously projected revenue margins, at workers’ expense and during a global pandemic – reared its head again in a similar, if even more disturbing, case of industrial recalcitrance in May, when an outbreak of the potentially lethal virus was recorded in a number of Irish meat factories. The sub-heading to The Guardian newspaper’s coverage of the scandal was appropriately ominous: ‘Workers share COVID19 fears over lack of social distancing, crowded accommodation and being forced to buy their own PPE [Personal Protective Equipment]’.
The story makes for difficult reading, exposing a culture of normalised exploitation and industrial slaughter, in which low-paid, poorly contracted migrant workers ‘feel intimidated and vulnerable’, unsure of their legal rights, and fearing for their medical safety, with one whistleblower also expressing his combined horror and sadness at the cruelty with which, even in normal circumstances, Irish cattle are butchered and turned into meat. In such a scenario, COVID19 posed an immediate threat to the life and health of factory employees; and yet the overall impression the interviews conveyed was that, from the point of view of both the workers and the animals they were dealing with, business as usual was a systematically ruthless and dehumanising affair.
Although occurring five years after the publication of Jason W. Moore’s book, both incidents could be cited as living (if also quite morbid) proof of the validity of his central argument: that ‘Capitalism is not an economic system; it is not a social system; it is a way of organizing nature.’ Cheap labour, migrant and working-class bodies, brutalised animals, rigorously schematised seasonal cycles, are all – equally and as a whole – fodder for the relentless pillage, the forever-primary drive for profit, that is capitalism’s life-in-the-world.
Capitalism in the Web of Life is a critique and revision of environmental concepts and approaches, rather than a miscellany of insights into present environmental struggles (as in Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs The Climate, for example). Such a focus, however, is not necessarily negative: what Moore’s analysis lacks in activist-oriented urgency it arguably makes up for in the expansiveness of its critical scope. Moore’s writing is that of a sincere, discerning and formidable critic of ecological and political arrogance, both capitalistic and leftist; and crucially (against that most insidious of critical bugbears) he is methodical and convincing in suggesting an alternative series of attitudes and understandings.
As implied by the title, Moore sets out to dismantle the distinction between humanity and nature, industrial civilization and the environment, as binary, separate forces, and instead proposes a long-view and multi-faceted perspective: one that recognises how dependent human activities and power dynamics are on natural seasons, cycles, and ecosystems. We change them, Moore argues, and they change us, continuously: and it is on such a ‘world-ecology’ that the success of future efforts to disband and replace neoliberal civilization with radical and sustainable communities-in-process will depend. ‘A capitalist looks at a forest and sees dollar signs,’ Moore observes,
an environmentalist sees trees and birds and soils; a world-ecologist sees how humans and other species have co-produced the forest, and how that “bundled” forest simultaneously conditions and constrains capital today.
At first glance, the significance of such an argument may seem somewhat remote: an example of the kind of linguistic and theoretical tinkering that only an academic Marxist could afford to spend their time discussing or disputing. But as Moore’s analysis unfolds, its pertinence to contemporary anti-capitalist struggles is clear to see. ‘Yes, diseases make history,’ Moore notes, but only insofar as they (and the conditions that intensify their effects) are understood as ‘bound to commerce and empire’.
So today, as historian Mike Davis and others have also argued, the COVID19 pandemic itself may be viewed as having its origin in – its capacity to wreak so much damage stems from – the networks of relentless intervention and attempted control (over bodies both human and ‘natural’) that sustain the capitalist project globally. Broadly speaking, the same may be said of the climactic and civilisational dangers that accompany continued carbon emissions, or global warming. In Moore’s terminology, capitalism’s ‘way of organising nature’ is inherently destructive of the ‘web of life’ on which its own existence (along with everything else) depends. Or as Karl Marx observed:
All progress in capitalistic agriculture is a progress in the art, not only of robbing the labourer, but of robbing the soil; all progress in increasing the fertility of the soil for a given time, is a progress towards ruining the lasting sources of that fertility […] Capitalist production, therefore, develops technology, and the combining together of various processes into a social whole, only by sapping the original sources of all wealth: the soil and the labourer.
To his immense credit, Moore treats the latter perception less as an aphorism to be glibly quoted than as a key to a palpable, dialectical conflict in which we are, collectively, enmeshed. Likewise, recalling Marx’s earlier recognition of ‘the merciless vandalism’ with which land usage in both England and Germany had been standardised by way of ‘the expropriation of the great mass of the people from the soil’, Moore surveys the twenty-first-century vista of global, market-driven, genetically modified industrial agriculture as a field of combined ecological and material violence. He concludes:
We can say with some confidence that food – not just land – has become a central site of the world class struggle in a way that is entirely unprecedented, and unthinkable even three decades ago….. As neoliberalism’s [manufactured] definition of food has rolled out – shifting from the Green Revolution’s caloric metric to the ‘edible food-like substances’ that now line our supermarket shelves – it seems to have made food, and by extension nature, much more fundamental to the Old Left questions of liberté, égalité, fraternité than ever before. The class struggle of the twenty-first century will turn, in no small measure, upon how one answers the questions: What is food? What is nature? What is valuable?
So it is, Moore suggests, that campaigns for food justice, for ethical and non-industrialised farming, for environmental sustainability, for ecological restoration, all drive to the heart of the toxic, earth-spanning, wage-devouring monster that is the modern capitalistic world-order (or disorder). At the same time, these seemingly specialised movements challenge activists to sharpen our understanding of what we mean by – how we envision and situate ourselves, our resources and our relationships within – that horizon of political emancipation that draws us forward.
Moore’s critical perspective is illuminating, his meticulous dissection of capitalist accumulation most incisive when he relates his analysis to the tensions and contradictions of our present moment. Moore is refreshingly and emphatically opposed, for example, to the likes of Sir David Attenborough, for instance, who in an interview with the so-called Duke of Cambridge at the World Economic Forum at Davos last year stated that ‘the Anthropocene, or age of humans’ was effectively to blame for climate change.
‘The Anthropocene makes for an easy story’, Moore writes,
Easy, because it does not challenge the naturalized inequalities, alienation, and violence inscribed in modernity’s strategic relations of power and production. It is an easy story to tell because it does not ask us to think about these relations at all. The mosaic of human activity in the web of life is reduced to an abstract Humanity: a homogeneous acting unit. Inequality, commodification, imperialism, patriarchy, racial formations, and much more, have been largely removed from consideration. At best, these relations are acknowledged, but as after-the-fact supplements to the framing of the problem.
Such skepticism of ‘The Anthropocene’ and its eloquently embedded public advocates in the Euro-American climate movement is well-founded, as even a cursory examination reveals: of Attenborough himself, who previously has posited famine as an acceptable natural check to the supposed ‘disaster’ of ‘overpopulation’ in the global South, or a figure like Michael Moore, whose most recent film gives credence to the same Malthusian and racist world-view.
By contrast, Moore’s work correctly pins the blame for impending climate collapse on the the globe’s expropriators-in-chief and the systematised practices that serve them, insisting that the fight for an ecologically sustainable society and future is by nature a struggle against ‘[i]nequality, commodification, imperialism, patriarchy, racial formations, and much more’. Moore’s sober, but clear-eyed discovery is a valuable one: that we are both riven and empowered by our own interconnectedness; that with so much at stake, so much already lost and gone, disfigured and deranged, we still, together, have a world to win.
To date 3.6 million people worldwide have been infected by Covid-19, with over a quarter of a million (258,000) dying from the respiratory illness that attacks the lungs and airways. From December 2019 the virus travelled from its original source in southern China to all of Asia, Europe and the rest of the world in the space of two months, resulting in the World Health Organisation (WHO) declaring a global pandemic at the end of January. The pandemic has forced governments the world over to close their economies and lockdown their societies.
With more than four fifths of workers globally living in countries affected by full or partial lockdowns, a global public health crisis is leading to a global economic recession, with the International Labour Organisation stating that 6.7% of working hours globally have been wiped out in the second quarter of this year alone – equivalent to 195 million jobs worldwide. The global economy is in recession and may yet head into an economic depression.
Here in Ireland, north and south, there have been 22,248 confirmed Covid-19 cases and 1,375 deaths (6 May 2020). In the south we have spent the past five weeks effectively living in lockdown, instructed by state authorities to stay indoors, to go no further than a radius of 2km (now 5km as of 5 May) for our daily exercise and only engage in essential consumption – our weekly grocery shop.
The Irish economy has been deliberately shut down by the government: 598,000 people have lost their jobs, with another 427,000 people having their wages paid via a state subsidy; tax revenues are projected to shrink by 14 billion this year, and in their spring forecast the European Commission predicts that the Irish economy will shrink by 8% this year. It took more than two years during the last national crisis – the financial crisis of 2008 – for such numbers to develop, this time round it has happened in a little over two months.
The world has been rocked by the coronavirus, peoples’ lives have been turned upside down; shock, grief, fear and anxiety caused by pandemic and its economic consequences have left millions people reeling, with many feeling vulnerable and isolated. Ideal circumstances for the ruling class, the multinational corporations and their local political allies to take advantage and pursue a shock doctrine response to this global pandemic: to force the cost of the crisis onto the backs of the working class worldwide, to push more privatisation and deregulation, to further increase their wealth, power and influence.
We refuse to repeat the sacrifices of 2008
So whilst we have to remain physically distant we must remain socially close and politically critical. Some would want us to suspend not only our parliamentary democracy (with caretaker Fine Gael ministers last month bemoaning the convening of Dáil Éireann), but our critical faculties also. The old trick from the last crisis, the call to ‘don the green jersey’ in ‘the national interest’ as ‘we’re all in this together’ as a way to stifle criticism and suppress political debate has been used again during this crisis but this time it is not working.
People have lived with the consequences of the political decisions taken during the financial crisis of 2008 for more than a decade now, indeed the decade of austerity and the massive transfer of wealth from the working class to the rich resulted in the state being ill-prepared for the outbreak of such a pandemic and will likely mean that our societal and economic lockdown will last longer than many other countries.
The ease with which the cost of the financial crisis of 2008, resultant bank bailout and decade of austerity was foisted upon the people was in large part due to the lack of real opposition from the trade union movement. Insofar as there was opposition, small and sporadic though it was, it arose through the efforts of the small radical left parties. This was not effective in stopping the austerity. It was not until an alliance of trade unions, community groups and left parties formed to fight the water charges that a movement of critical size and power emerged to oppose one item on the austerity agenda.
This cannot be allowed to happen again. The trade union movement has to become the dominant force that shapes the response to the Covid-19 crisis to ensure that workers, families and communities throughout Ireland are not forced to pay for yet another crisis not our their making .
Unite the Union’s response to Ireland’s post COVID-19 economy
To that end, the Unite trade union recently commissioned the left-wing economist, writer and activist Conor McCabe to produce an analysis of what has happened to date and to sketch a socially just, economic fair and environmentally transformative pathway forward out of the economic and societal crisis we are currently living through, a document intended by the author to be ‘a tool to feed into the conversations we are having and the strategies and tactics we will pursue’ so that the Left does not ‘allow the right-wing and neoliberal voices in Ireland to dominate and shape the pathway out of the current crisis’.
Independent Left commends Unite for taking the initiative in commissioning the document Hope or Austerity as too often the Left is reactive rather than proactive. Indeed as the author notes ‘we cannot build the future we need unless we plan and fight for it’. In times of crisis we need clear thinking, critical analysis and robust debate, which this document provides.
Of course the crisis is evolving and as the author himself stated during a Unite May Day lecture it is a working document, written to feed into an on-going process of critical discussion and debate. There are parts that need expansion, like childcare and home care, and others that need to challenged, like the normalisation of the regressive and dysfunctional Local Property Tax.
Independent Left recommends a close reading of the document, welcomes the opening of discussion and aims to be a part of the comradely yet critical debates ahead as together we debate the best tactics and strategies to purse as we struggle for a better world.
Debenhams Workers in Ireland on Strike
A battle between Debenhams management and workers is a key one for all workers, at it is likely to shape the wider issues of who will pay for the impact of the COVID19 crisis on the economy.
On 9 April 2020, Debenhams Retail Ireland told 1,500 workers their jobs were gone as all 11 of its stores were closed. The company offered no redundancy.
The workforce is represented by Mandate, who have pointed out that the shops still have stock worth an estimated €25m and this should be sold to provide redundancy payments to the workers.
Mandate is demanding that more than a million items of stock currently in Debenham’s 11 closed Irish stores should be sold and the proceeds, estimated at €25m, distributed to former workers as part of a redundancy deal.
Even though it is extremely difficult to organise at a time of social distancing and closed stores, the workers voted to strike and deserve the support of all Irish workers.
Below is an interview with Councillor John Lyons and Debenhams’ strikers at the Henry Street Store, recorded 23 June 2020. The Debenhams workers are asking people to boycott the online sales of the company until the dispute is resolved.
A comparison of Tony Cliff’s Lenin: Building the Party with Paul Le Blanc’s Lenin and the Revolutionary Party
In 2013, not long after the British SWP went into dramatic convulsions over the way their party failed to support a young member in her allegation that a very much older and more senior member had raped her, I had reason to be in Chicago. While there I met up with the International Socialist Organisation (at the time a relatively successful example of a revolutionary party), gave a talk on Ireland’s revolutionary years and attended a dayschool of theirs on Lenin and the revolutionary party. The bookstall had copies of studies of Lenin by Lars Lih, Paul Le Blanc and Tony Cliff.
Anyone wanting to encourage the development of a revolutionary party has, of course, to form an opinion of Lenin. Before the ISO fell out with their British equivalents (i.e. the SWP), their approach to Lenin would have been profoundly if not exclusively shaped by the British SWP and in particular by the leading figure in that party, Tony Cliff. It interested me that the ISO had a wider outlook on the subject than was usual in the SWP and the enthusiasm of the bookstall organiser meant that I came away with a copy of Paul Le Blanc’s Lenin and the Revolutionary Party.
This book was first published in 1990 and I had never read it because having inhabited a rather closed-minded organization, I felt there was little that someone closely aligned to the politics of Ernest Mandel would have to say on the subject that would be useful. After all, as I was told and believed at the time, I had been guided in my understanding of Lenin by someone with vastly superior politics to those of Mandel: Tony Cliff. More than this, as an SWP organiser in the UK and then in Ireland I had always used Cliff’sLenin: Building the Party as the essential text for explaining the theory behind SWP party-building methods to those members who I anticipated would go on to play leading roles in their branches and nationally.
The ISO – in the words of one of their organisers – said at the time that they drew on a canon of the best of other traditions and individuals to inform their attitude to Lenin and the lessons for today in regard to the revolutionary party. This sounded admirably open-minded. But I couldn’t help wondering if this willingness to promote other studies of Lenin than that of Cliff was, in fact, a watering down of the revolutionary Lenin in favour of a more Occupy-friendly version.
Given the 2019 collapse of the ISO, it is also reasonable to ask whether a move away from their traditional, if one-sided, reading of Lenin contributed to the crisis?
Then too, there was the 2018 submergence of the Irish SWP (I was a member at the time they voted to become a network within People Before Profit, yet I had no opportunity to vote on the decision; no documents were sent to me for consideration; no invitation was made for me to offer my views. I accidentally discovered from an online post that the party I thought I was a member of had gone). When you combine this with the self-destruction of the ISO and the rape-apologist behaviour of the UK SWP, the word ‘crisis’ is barely strong enough to encapsulate what has happened to parties of this type, who were once all thriving and united in a common organisation: the International Socialist Tendency.
It seemed evident to me that the failure of these parties meant that every aspect of SWP theory had to be looked at again with new eyes. Moreover – somewhat reluctantly, since it was time consuming – I felt that I had to make more of an effort to re-examine my attitude to Lenin. Without doing so, I was missing out in regard to developing my own understanding of the issues of party of class in an age when new means of communication mean some of the the old certainties, such as the essential role of the physical newspaper (a major topic in Cliff’s book), were fast becoming obsolete. So I reread Cliff and studied Le Blanc.
Side by side: Tony Cliff vs Paul Le Blanc on Lenin
The first thing to say about these books is that the story they tell is an inspiring one. Lenin became a Social Democrat (i.e. Marxist) in 1893, at the age of 23. Twenty-four years later, at 47, he led the successful Russian Revolution. Trotsky met revolutionaries in 1896 at the age of 17; he was 38 when he oversaw the October insurrection. Reading again the story of Lenin reminded me that when I became a revolutionary, during the great miner’s strike of 1984-5 in the UK, I thought that by now I would be living in a post-revolutionary era. After all, it took only twenty-four years for Lenin to go from next-to-nothing to the 1917 revolution.
It is worth noting that the experience of Western revolutionaries 1985 – 2020 has been a low-key one in comparison to the storms experienced by Lenin and Trotsky’s generation or that of the next. This, of course, is about to change and one reason why I’m delighted to have come through the experience of having COVID19 is because socialist politics are clearly going to be relevant in the 2020s.
At the deepest level, the crisis of the International Socialist Tendency is explained by this relative historical quiescence. Although the specific problems that arose in the UK and the USA deserve close analysis (with particular attention being paid to the question of who controlled their assets, worth a great deal), there’s a reasonable chance that the flaws in these parties and especially the emergence of a predatory male elite would not have become fatal had their members been engaged with the ebbs and flows of profound social upheavals such as those dealt with by Lenin. They would have been more deeply rooted in working class communities who would not tolerate the kinds of behaviour that ultimately brought them down.
Lenin’s efforts to build a revolutionary party from 1893 onwards are fascinating and deserving of scrutiny because they culminate in his having decisive influence over the October revolution of 1917. The twists and turns and dialectical inversions and leaps of the development of the Bolshevik party, even in the quiet years, are compelling to read about, because each argument at every stage really mattered. Each conference, debate, new pamphlet, new recruit, split, had consequences that rippled out over time to affect millions. Both books grasp this process well and while Le Blanc’s is the more scholarly in an academic sense, Cliff’s holds up surprisingly well in terms of the effort he made to contextualise each moment of the drama.
Neither author was able to access untranslated Russian source material directly. Cliff was perhaps the more eager to seize upon a tiny detail in a memoir to illuminate a particular moment. Le Blanc prefers to sum up contextual situations by reference to a secondary source, usually a work, to be fair, that is based on a detailed study of the Russian sources. Opening Lenin and the Revolutionary Party at random and finding an example, this type of statement is typical (p. 234): ‘As Hasegawa writes, “by the fall of 1916 the [Menshevik] workers’ group was obviously losing ground to the Bolsheviks and to regain its lost influence among the workers, the workers’ group turned leftward in December 1916.”’ This methodology is often unsatisfactory, as often the point being made by the secondary work comes across as an assertion without foundation. I wanted to see the primary evidence for the point being made.
Another difference between the books is that Le Blanc makes more of an effort to contrast his reading of Lenin with those of right wing or social democratic authors. This works to a certain extent, in ‘rescuing’ Lenin from the stereotype of the ruthless Machiavelli, but it surrounds the story with a commentary that is much less interesting than Cliff’s if your focus is the question: what does this all mean for revolutionaries today? In other words, there is no question but that Le Blanc’s is a much more helpful book for a student battling against ideologically driven attacks on Lenin. But for building the party, Cliff’s approach, potentially, has the advantage. At various points, Cliff puts the breaks on the narrative to digress with generalisations about party building and it is these generalisations that served for years to inform the practice of those on the SWP branch, district and national committees both in the UK and Ireland.
I say ‘potentially’ because of course, the conclusions about the revolutionary party that Cliff drew do not, in fact, have the emancipatory power I once thought they did. Here, I think the best critique of Building the Party comes from Ian Land in 1994.
Lars Lih does an impressive job of overthrowing various paradigms concerning misrepresentations and misunderstandings of Lenin (not only those of Cliff), using 600 pages of densely sourced argument in his book Lenin Rediscovered. And that is very valuable. But to understand what particular lens was distorting Cliff’s view of Lenin you only need a few lines. In Cliff’s experience of leading the SWP, you had to battle hard for a new orientation for the party and the people you were battling against were those who had most immersed themselves in the old orientation. Your weapons? Exaggeration and youth. Cliff was expert in galvanising the openness of new members to new tactics to turn them against older members who might resist the new course.
So we learn this about the young Lenin from Cliff:
This readiness to bend the stick too far in one direction and then to go into reverse and bend it too far in the opposite direction was a characteristic that he retained throughout his life. It was already clearly apparent at this early stage of his development as a revolutionary leader.
Later, in discussing the rules of the party, Cliff wrote:
An overformal party structure inevitably clashes with two basic features of the revolutionary movement: (1) the unevenness in consciousness, militancy, and dedication of different parts of the revolutionary organisation; and (2) the fact that members who play a positive, vanguard role at a certain stage of the struggle fall behind at another.
If you are trying to explain to a party member why, having campaigned on a certain issue in a particular fashion, the party is now doing something radically different, these formulations are a great help. They address an important truth, which is that the currents of revolutionary politics are fast changing and the party has to be able to make swift turns and not be trapped, for example, by the moralism of a declining campaign, into substituting for a real movement. Nor must a revolutionary party be afraid of pouring every resource behind a critical strike, say. But Cliff’s formulations address this truth in a one-sided fashion.
Is it accurate to characterise Lenin as believing he was being excessive but that the outcome would justify his exaggerations? In other words, was Lenin willing to deliberately present a distorted picture of the world to win his perspective? In short, the answer is ‘no’. Le Blanc and Lars Lih and my own reading of Lenin’s works convince me that fundamentally at every stage Lenin believed that the truth was on his side, at least until events proved otherwise. Holding doggedly to a particular focus and task for the party is not the same as telling the party something which deep down, you do not actually believe, but which you consider expedient.
Here’s how one staunch defender of Cliff puts it in more recent times:
Cliff had learned from experience that shifting an organization of several thousand members (as oppose winning an academic or historical debate) from one strategic orientation and one way of working to another to meet the challenge of changed circumstances, required an almighty great tug on the relevant levers and, sometimes, a certain exaggeration. For Cliff achieving the desired end was more important than terminological exactitude or consistency and he rather thought, as do I, that Lenin felt the same way. http://johnmolyneux.blogspot.ie/2006/11/lihs-lenin-review-of-lars-t-lih-lenin.html
There is an evasion here. The argument is not whether Lenin was fussy about terminology but whether Lenin ever felt it necessary to deliberately exaggerate ‘to achieve the desired end.’ John Molyneux believes so. I do not. Lenin was fully aware the dialectics of revolutionary socialism do not allow for the separation of means and ends. The means you adopt will shape the end you arrive at. The moment you cease to tell the truth, no matter how unpalatable or how it works against the point you want to make, is the moment you abandon the prospect of realising a socialist society. I say this for entirely practical as well as moral reasons.
Secondly, look again at the question of party structure. It is an observable fact that all revolutionary parties are uneven, Cliff’s (1), but (2) is not as clear cut as it seems because it contains a value judgement. Who decides whether a member is falling behind? While another member is being ‘positive’? The true test has to be in regard to how effective the respective members are in changing the world. And judging that effectiveness is a complicated matter, where collective decision-making, honest accounting and democratic forms are essential. But in Cliff’s hands, this piece about rules can be read as follows: rules are all very well, but when some idiot is dragging the party down, it is necessary to find those who are getting results and use them to smash the conservatives, even if that means violating formalities.
Anyone expelled – or rapidly thrust from leading bodies within the SWP – by Cliff in the UK or Kieran Allen in Ireland will be familiar with what this depiction of Lenin meant in practice. But I think this depiction of Lenin also helps explain something of the attitude of those who have been in these parties for a long time and unfailingly endorse the initiatives of the leadership. Such long-term members have internalised the same ideas as profound revolutionary truths, which leads them to reason along the following lines: ‘I don’t want to be like the committee-men of 1905 who resisted the party’s turn to the class, therefore I will overcome my reservations and embrace the latest line. After all, this is the best way to test a perspective.’
Over time, the membership of the party learn to accept (and justify to themselves and others) that they have no meaningful input into the creation of new initiatives or the party’s position on crucial issues. This is in marked contrast to the vigorous and lively internal life of the pre-1917 Bolshevik party.
As a guide to the nature of a successful revolutionary party, Cliff’s interpretation of Lenin’s approach to rules only works if the party leader is always right. But who judges the judge? Who corrects the leadership when they are wrong? History? History has made its judgement upon Cliff’s party and its associates.
If Cliff’s Building the Party is flawed in this way, i.e. flawed at the points where it addresses the methodology of ‘stick bending’, is Le Blanc’s Lenin and the Revolutionary Party the better tool for guiding revolutionaries in the theory and practice of building the revolutionary party? I don’t believe so. In fact, despite the criticism I’ve just made, I’d rather give someone Cliff’s book, mainly because of its activist focus. Le Blanc’s is a very good history written by someone with a clear understanding of the political stakes in the various debates but it has half an eye on academia. This means the standard of scholarship is high, but at the cost of the book being less of a manual for revolutionaries. It also has some political weaknesses, perhaps the most important being the failure to articulate the full scope of Lenin’s anti-imperialism. The author has a soft spot for the Sandinistas, bringing them up to the level of the Bolsheviks, and also for Cuba. This means Lenin’s emphasis on not giving anti-imperialist movements ‘communist colouring’ is entirely lost.
Where does this leave me in regard to reading Lenin? I’m faced with a situation where an uncritical approach to Cliff’s works no longer serves, but where there is no obvious single alternative. Best, then, to read a variety of books from different perspectives and, of course, the works of Lenin himself.
In one, people try to occupy themselves at home, maybe spend time in the garden where the birds are so lively just now, or watch TV or – although I found my concentration levels weren’t up to it – do something creative.
The other is darker and consists of those with COVID19.
Having crossed the invisible barrier into the latter, I had an intense realisation of these two worlds as I walked my partner to the emergency tent at the Mater hospital. It was sunny, probably, and there were so many normal people around: a group of builders, smoking and chatting, united by their day-glo jackets; two hospital staff, ID badges swaying, smiling; a large man just standing there on the corner of the road and – evidently unconcerned by our masks and her being in a dressing gown – not inclined to move. We skirted him.
I squeezed her hand one last time and watched from the entrance as the two staff members took her details then brought her further in. It occurred to me that this might be my last ever sight of her, but I told myself not to be alarmed, that she was much safer in their ‘yellow’ ward than at home. That she was lucky, in fact, because perhaps soon they would be turning away people who need monitoring for lack of staff.
And then I went back to the car and the waiting kids, along a street with the other world all around me.
One in which the sun was probably shining.
Dawn, Easter Saturday and she’s home. I’m lying on a mattress outside her door, like Cú Chulainn at the threshold of his king, my namesake. Outside, a pigeon is asking over and over, ‘look, can we, tee de?’ When it stops, the far sweeter chirp of a robin takes its place, but so rapid is the robin’s voice that even Democritus would have struggled to understand him.
Ever since we hung out a bird feeder, we have had a pair of robins in our back yard. I’m sure they are nesting in the thick, thorny bush that I was supposed to trim. I’m glad I never got around to that task, because our neighbour has a very attentive cat, who likes to walk on the top of the wall. He cannot get past the overgrown bush, no matter how carefully he tries to place his paw.
Heart irregularity, high blood pressure. In need of several days of bed rest. But her lungs are fine. Well, pneumonia to be sure, but mild. So long as she can rest in quiet solitude, she should get through this. Quiet solitude. That’s why I sleep at the door, for while the elven-year-old and the eight-year-old understand and respect the rules, we have a three-year-old who does not understand boundaries.
She’s awake already and after considering my unexpected presence says, ‘I don’t want you there.’ When I fail to disappear, she begins crying. Like the dawn birds, there is a cycle to the cry. ‘I want my mummy’, over and over. Not too much of a shriek, more an unhappy insistence. Every five chants I offer an explanation that I know won’t be accepted, but perhaps my gentle tone of voice does some good because she settles.
It helps that the eight-year-old, having woken, announces that there are eighteen hours and seventeen minutes until Easter. He started that timer three days ago.
Delighted with the prospect of chocolate and understanding that it is imminent my three-year-old is immediately cheerful. And it makes me realise there is a power in her refusal to see boundaries. I just have to follow her and I will find the way back.
Conor Kostick’s new novel, The Retreat, is a thrilling tale set in the Middle Ages during the crusades. It is narrated by Guibert Of Rocadamour, a naïve aristocratic youth, who joins a crusade expedition having soaked up the propaganda of the chansons and the chronicles. He is swiftly disabused of his illusions when the expedition is derailed at the outset, with the would-be crusaders sacking the castle of Devinium and stealing its wealth. From there, the novel follows a course of violent actions and reprisals all determined by the cupidity of the characters. So exciting is this tale that it is easy to overlook the political dimensions to the novel and the intriguing ambiguity at its centre.
This is not a history. I write because I feel a dark geas upon me: almost as though I have been condemned to search my own memories and relive these experiences.
Throughout The Retreat, there are references to Hades, the underworld. The narrator, Guibert of Rocadamour, references the line that Achilles’ shade gave to cunning Odysseus: ‘you told him to choose one day of life as a slave in dusty fields over an eternity of death as the ruler of Hades’. Later, he imagines himself as Orpheus, another voyager to Hades. Geas is a Gaelic word that the dictionary defines as ‘(in Irish folklore) an obligation or prohibition magically imposed on a person.’ This central ambiguity about whether the narrator is dead provides a fascinating lens to interpret the novel.
Historical accuracy is subtly present in the novel
Kostick is also an historian of the crusades who has written works like The Social Structure of The First Crusade, which built on his doctoral thesis, ‘The Language of Ordo in The Early Histories of The First Crusade’. So, there is considerable historical erudition subtly introduced in the story. In Chapter 5, Guibert writes:
The news of an expedition travelling to the Holy Land had attracted peasants and burghers of all ages. Entire families of poor people had joined the enterprise: grandparents, parents, and infants. Some of these farmers and city dwellers bore arms, worthless rusty scythes or spears with flimsy points. Most didn’t. Then too, we had monks and nuns of all ages marching with us.
The narrator is a noble who is forced to confront his class bias. This is fundamental to the story. Why? In part it is because the heterogenous make-up of the expedition’s members eventually upend his world view. Guibert often must rely on the good advice of Gerard, a commoner, for example, ‘I did not resent the fact that Gerard, a footsoldier, gave the orders for our army. Unnatural as it was by the standards I was used to at home, we were a long way from Rocadamour’. The is a double meaning in the word ‘unnatural’, implying both a break from the strict hierarchy but also ‘not existing in nature’. The excellent Song of Count Stephen which appears in chapter 16 captures the notion of a world turned upside down in one of its verses:
A monstrous roar comes from the trees.
Another army has appeared where none should be.
It is the cook, the nurse, the old and the sick.
The smith, the washerwoman, the former serf.
In their hands are tools not weapons of war.
The world has turned upside down.
To the monks, the nuns, adolescents and wives.
Count Stephen and his knights owe their lives.
There are some great conversations in the novel that quite subtly fill in the background realities of life in the middle ages. In one instance, there is a tantalizing glimpse of religious heterodoxy when Robert, a knight tells Jacques, a mercenary, about his experiences in the Holy Land. ‘Did you know the Bible doesn’t have all that should be in it?’ Guibert’s tart appraisal is, ‘his voice had in it the enthusiasm of men and women who carried obsessions in their hearts’. ‘Enthusiasm’ conjures up images of religious heresy which was rife in the middles ages.
Later in the novel, Gerard offers an amusing summary of the situation in Ireland,
There are a hundred kings in Ireland, each with a dozen princes, each with a dozen lords and each of them has at least a dozen followers. But every one of these men reckons a descent from the high-kings and that he would make a great and famous king himself one day. So fortunes rise and fall there faster than anywhere else in the world.
An historical novel about the crusades that shows how myths begin
We witness in the novel the myth-making process of the middle ages: the creation of chansons and chronicles which celebrate the valorous deeds of lords and knights. Through a single reference to a chronicle entitled The Deeds of Count Stephen the novel hints of the existence of a history of these events and the reader gets to witness the performance of a section of a chanson, The Song of Count Stephen, which exaggerates the bloody battle that we witnessed in the Beserkir chapter. Guibert is apotheosised as follows: ‘I am thunder and lightning. I am / Storm and wrath. I plunge my blade through iron / And bone. Unquenchable heat burns through me, / Like a forest fire.’ Guibert is slightly dismayed at the liberties that the poet takes with the truth. But the poet is unperturbed, ‘the song requires it. If you want history, speak of your deeds to a scribe. If you want fame, then have me leave the verse as it stands’
Turning the world upside down is probably one of the most enduring leftist slogans of all time, so it’s not accidental when it appears in the work of a left-wing writer. But here, its impact is compounded by the ambiguity at the heart of the novel. That is, the continual reference to ‘Hades’, the underworld, in lines like:
And I had not rid myself of the sensation that the shadows of the forest were those of Hades and we were all dead, that perhaps we had all died in the field with the rest of Shalk’s army, it was just that we did not know it.
‘…then the sky beyond the windows changed to a silvery grey and I knew we were now in Hades.’
Interestingly, this description occurs during the narrator’s nightmare episode in the chapter entitled: ‘A Dream That Affrightens’. I count ten references to Hades in the novel. Is the narrator in fact dead, hence his susceptibility to the levelling of class distinctions?
Class and gender are brilliantly interwoven in the relationship between Guibert and Cataline. Our narrator, the young knight, is full of the cliches of courtly romance while the peasant girl Cataline has already lived through a life of hardship and the savage death of her parents. Her post-coital words are profound: ‘Hush. It’s done. It’s all done. We live.’ Her later brusque rebuttal of his oppressive proprietary romanticism is brilliant and deeply problematic.
I lay with you because you deserved it, for what you did for us. And also because I think we will all be dead soon. Why not enjoy a little sweetness while we can? But I’m not some farmer’s daughter with designs upon a local knight.
Guibert’s relationship with the woman Cataline is a lens through which to view the class differences in medieval society. Noble women did not go on crusades, whereas Cataline and Melinde (a powerful wife of a mercenary leader) are active participants. Guibert is full of romantic clichés, no doubt gleaned from chansons, whereas Cataline is alert the hard reality of life. Her experiences provoke Guibert’s observation that ‘a lady who had never experienced the certainty of her own death, never witnessed a battle, nor carried a knife to slit the throats of wounded enemies, such a lady could never understand and comfort me like this’.
The Retreat is a tragedy driven by greed
Cupidity is the undoing of the expedition. Greed for loot provokes atrocities that propel the group towards disaster. The ‘Mutur’ leader, Rainulf, murders the rapacious Bishop Wernher later in the novel and steals his treasure.
One of the most interesting aspects of the novel is the very just criticisms that characters direct towards their class enemies. For instance, when Rainulf disdains the contempt of Count Stephen (and Guibert, too), ‘do I need to witness the contempt of a man whose refined ways are paid for by the toil of a thousand serfs?’ While they are tracking down the forest dwellers that kidnapped Cataline, Guibert offhandedly makes a stunningly revealing statement of his cruel class position:
‘Sometimes a serf runs. But they hardly ever get far. One time though, Count Theobald sent one of ours all the way back from Troyes. Runaways would never manage to set a home or village of their own.’
This is a savage world where the innocent are slaughtered by paid mercenaries, ‘when a man is paid to wield a sword, he loses the right to follow his own wishes’. There is a dark irony in an expedition ostensibly travelling to Jerusalem to ‘lift our sins’ (as Melinde says at one point), which perpetrates atrocities along the way.
The Retreat is a great novel which merits a second reading to really get to savour the morally complex and brilliantly rendered ambiguity of this failed expedition. I read it the first time as a gripping and violent adventure tale. But then, looking through it again, I began to appreciate the novel’s many subtleties. It is fascinating how the novel successfully condenses so much of the world of the Middle Ages in the text.
One of the
most extraordinary acts of defiance against the British Empire took place in
India on 28 June 1920 when four Irish soldiers, members of the British army, thousands
of miles from home, decided to protest against the suppression of the
independence movement in Ireland. The soldiers belonged to the Connaught
Rangers and were stationed at the north of the country in the Wellington
Barracks, Jullundur (modern day Jalandhar). At eight a.m. that morning, Joseph Hawes,
Patrick Gogarty, Christopher Sweeney and Stephen Lally, all members of C
Company, approached an officer they felt they could trust, Lance Corporal John
Flannery, and told him that they wished to ground arms and cease fighting for
the British Army due to the oppression of their friends in Ireland.
Hawes had been on leave in Clare in October 1919 and had seen a hurling match
proclaimed by troops with bayonets drawn. He had spoken about this with his
colleagues (plus another man, William Daly) the night before and had made the
point that they were doing in India what the Black and Tans were doing in
Ireland. Their garrison was only ninety kilometres from Amritsar, where a
massacre of Indian civilians had been carried out by British Indian soldiers less
than a year earlier.
The four men wanted Flannery to have their addresses in Ireland in case their protest would led to their immediate execution. If they were going to die, they wanted to the true reason to be made known to their families. Then reporting to the guardroom, the protesters voluntarily asked to be arrested for being ‘in sympathy with Ireland.’
Joe Hawes and the start of the mutiny of the Connaught Rangers in Jullundur 1920
This initial action, however, rapidly changed from being one where a few individuals would prefer imprisonment and the risk of execution to continuing in their role as British soldiers to a full-blown mutiny of hundreds of men. Soon after the protest had begun, excited groups of soldiers gathered here and there in barracks talking about the stand being made by their four comrades. At that time, half of C Company, fifty men, were away in the Solon barracks (guarding an important route from Delhi to Simla). This left forty-six soldiers of the company who formed up for parade at nine a.m., with Hawes, Gogarty, Sweeney and Lally conspicuously absent. Another soldier stepped out of line, Jimmy Moran, and announced that he wanted to join his comrades in the guard room. With that action, the discipline of the remainder of the company shattered and twenty-nine more members of C Company, plus the (armed) duty guard himself joined the protest.
thirty-five strong, the mutineers entertained themselves by singing rebel songs
and shouting ‘Up the Republic!’. When the two-hundred strong B Company, who had
been away at the nearby rifle range, returned and heard the commotion, the
soldiers – still bearing their weapons – made their way to the guardroom and a
lively discussion took place with the prisoners. Colonel Deacon, officer
commanding, thought he could successfully challenge the mutineers in front of
his men and so ordered B Company to sit on the steps of a bungalow nearby.
Deacon then had the protestors line up in front of the sitting men and proceeded to harangue the rebels, attempting to shame them with the great history of the Connaught Rangers; working himself up to tears with the regiment’s proud record; all their various honours. The colonel then offered to forget the whole matter if the protestors returned to their bungalows. Hawes, a private and therefore on the lowest rung of the military hierarchy, nevertheless stepped forward, uncowed and defiant, and confronted the senior British officer: ‘All the honours in the Connaught flag are for England and there are none for Ireland but there is going to be one today and it will be the greatest of them all.’ A resulting attempt to isolate Hawes was thrown back by the mutineers marching off in good order back to the prison with their hero safely among them. Humiliatingly for Deacon, when he now attempted to order B Company to move on, they refused to leave. Instead, they swarmed over to Hawes and his friends, leaving Deacon distraught. The other senior officers, along with NCOs hurried away as the rank and file soldiers realised they had the upper hand and could take over the whole barracks.
Rebel British soldiers form a committee and take over the Jullundur barracks
Urging Hawes to lead them, the crowd of Connaught Rangers released all the protesters from the guardroom and rallied as many other soldiers as they could. A rebel muster took place with around 300 participants. They elected seven soldiers to be their committee: Joe Hawes and Patrick Gogarty – two of the original protesters – along with John Flannery as messenger to the officers and Jimmy Moran, J.A. McGowan, Paddy Sweeny and James Davies as the other members. The Union flag was removed from a bungalow occupied by the rebels and replaced with a hastily sewn Tricolour.
in firm control, the mutineers doubled the guard; distributed the task of
making regular patrols; placed a permanent guard to monitor the senior officers
(to ensure they didn’t attempt any rash action that might lead to violence);
put a guard on alcohol; and commissioned a hundred green, white and orange
rosettes from the local bazaar. According to an army telegram of the time, the
attitude of the men was respectful but ‘obdurate in their refusal to perform
any military duty.’ That day, too, they sent messengers off some two hundred
kilometres to A Company, who were stationed at Jutogh and the other half of C
Company, who were in barracks at Solon.
Geraghty of Castleblayney, Co. Monaghan, was one of the mutineers who travelled
to Solon and his background gives the lie to the official account of the mutiny
by a regimental historian anxious to dismiss it as the action of ‘green
recruits’. As Geraghty said in an interview, ‘I had served in France from
January 1915 to the end of the war and had been wounded twice. And despite all
my service, by mutinying, I knew what I was doing. But the news coming from
Ireland disturbed my mind to such an extent that I was quite prepared to suffer
anything, irrespective of what it might be.’
the sixty-one men subsequently tried for mutiny, most were veterans of the
Great War, and, indeed, thirty of these had been in the British Army for more
than five years: five bitter years in which several of them had fought at the
Battle of Loos in 1915 and in a grim, cholera-stricken campaign around Baghdad
from 1916 – 1918, before moving towards Egypt and engaging in a fierce
encounter with German and Turkish troops near Jaffa in 1918, not to mention
their notable achievement in capturing a Turkish artillery column.
veteran soldiers were not afraid of fighting, nor had they mutinied as a result
of inexperience and dismay at what being a soldier actually meant. They were
profoundly aware of the vast power of the British war machine and up until 1920
had played their part in it. Now, however, times had changed. Joe Hawes later
explained, ‘When I joined the British Army in 1914, they told us we were going out
to fight for the liberation of small nations. But when the war was over, and I
went home to Ireland, I found that, so far as one small nation was concerned –
my own – these were just words.’
the face of these politically resolute soldiers, it was difficult for the
authorities to regain control. Major N. Farrell of ‘B’ Company, Connaught
Rangers, tried to get his men to obey their officers once more and warned them
that the mutiny would play into the hands of Indian nationalists and that they
would all be slaughtered. To this, Hawes answered spiritedly, ‘if I am to be
shot, I would rather be shot by an Indian than an Englishman.’ Local Indian
feeling was, in fact, sympathetic to news of the mutiny of Irish soldiers in
the British army. In Delhi, the popular newspaper Fateh reported the
mutiny of the Irish soldiers as an implementation of Gandhi’s strategy of civil
disobedience, demonstrating ‘how patriotic people can preserve their honour,
defy the orders of the Government, and defeat its unjust aims.’
Some of those involved in the mutiny felt, too, that there was a real hope of an alliance with those involved in India’s struggle for independence. Stephen Lally, one of the leaders of the Jullundur mutiny and later a member of the IRA, recalled: ‘I thought we might as well kill two birds with the one stone, and if we could get the Indian National Movement with us it would mean a great victory not alone for Ireland but India as well . . . we could have officered the Native ranks and in a very short time India would have gained her freedom.’
The mutiny spreads to Jim Daly and the Connaught Rangers in Solon
For the first two days, it did seem that momentum was with the rebels. Frank Geraghty recalled his mission to spread the mutiny to the rest of C Company in Solon.
On the 30 June 20, I with private Patrick Kelly, were detailed to go to Solon in the Simlar hills to communicate the fact that the troops in Jullundur had mutinied and to give the reason for the mutiny and to give instructions also that the mutiny, if they did mutiny, would be on the lines of passive resistance with no violence. I appealed to James Joseph Daly whom I approached as the most competent man and whom I knew personally wished to carry out an effort to start a mutiny. Daly, I knew, was inclined to the republican movement in Ireland.
Borne in Ballymoe, County Galway and raised in Tyrrellspass, Mulingar, County Westmeath, Jim Daly, was an ‘active sympathiser with Sinn Féin’ and responded with determination to the news from Jullundur. According to the version of events Daly later told to Hawes while they were in prison together, the men from Jullundur had been arrested on arrival at Solon but Daly could hear enough of their messages shouted through the bars to realise the situation. Although only 20 at the time of the mutiny and one of the youngest soldiers, that night he rallied about forty men and marched to the bungalow of the Commanding Officer to announce that they were taking over a bungalow in protest at repression in Ireland. In response, the C.O. told the men they were insane and switching between threats and inducements attempted to return the men to their duty as he saw it. The strongest argument at his disposal was that the action would be futile as they were thousands of miles from Ireland. After a long, hard silence Daly gave a curt response: nothing the C.O. said would avail. The mutineers left for their bungalow, which they named ‘Liberty Hall’, and as with their comrades at Jullundur, took down all the Union flags, hoisted the tricolour, made and wore Irish rosettes on their British Army uniforms and sang rebel songs.
Next day, early on 1 July 1920, Major W.N.S. Alexander and his officers arrived at Liberty Hall and managed to get the mutineers to form up to listen to his address. The Major thought that his arguments were having an influence when:
A man named Daly stood in front of the parade; he informed me that similar action would be taken simultaneously by every Irish Regiment in the Army, and that the news would be published in every paper in the United Kingdom: whatever influence I had said may have had on the less determined of the mutineers was promptly wiped out by this man.
Woodbridge tried next but again, ‘Daly intervened and succeeded in wiping out
the good impression made.’
On the night of 1 July 1920, scouts set by the mutineers at Solon, detected the imminent arrival of British troops. On this news Daly and his followers made a mistake, deciding to offer armed resistance to the recapture of the barracks. Lacking genuine contacts in the Indian nationalist movement, the best hope of the soldiers was not to escape and definitely not to fight against vastly superior forces but, as Hawes had urged, to keep the protest peaceful (despite serious risk of execution).
by Daly, about twenty rebels went to the company magazine building to attempt
to get hold of their rifles. Earlier in the protest, Fr Baker, the camp priest,
had urged the men not to carry arms. Lieut. C.J. Walsh, told the subsequent
Court of Enquiry: ‘I was officer I/C of an armed guard mounted on the magazine.
At about 2200 hours, four mutineers approached the magazine and tried to rush
the Sentry. I covered the leader with me revolver. I cautioned these men and
warned then that if they approached any nearer I would shoot them. They went
immediately in the direction of their bungalow. About five minutes later an
attack was made on the magazine by a number of mutineers armed with naked bayonets.
By this time the sentries on the magazine were reinforced by the remainder of
the Guard, and all Officers living in the line. The mutineers pressed on toward
the magazine, they were challenged at least three or four times, they took no
notice of the challenge, and, as a further warning I fired two shots from my
revolver into the air. This had no effect, so I fired into the attackers who
then withdrew. Shortly afterwards three men were removed on stretchers to the
station Hospital, two of whom I heard were dead, and one wounded.’
The dead mutineers were Pte Peter Sears, The Neale, Co. Mayo and Patrick Smyth from Drogheda, who was spectating, rather than participating in the rush. Eugene Egan lived, despite having been shot through the right chest. Following a final desperate challenge by Daly to a bayonet duel with anyone on the other side, the mutiny at Solon was effectively over. With the arrival of loyal troops, the participants were placed under arrest.
British officers try to regain control of the mutinous Connaught Rangers
at Jullundur, Colonel Jackson had arrived to take charge of the crisis for the
British army. He was in regular contact with the Commander-in-Chief for all
India, General Charles Munroe. Under a white flag, Jackson entered talks with
the leaders of the Connaught Rangers mutiny and insisted that they could not
win: that the British army was intent on retaking the barracks, even if it
required very soldier in India. This was almost certainly the policy decided
upon by the authorities as they had already mobilised two battalions, the South
Wales Borderers and the Seaforth Highlanders, both of which arrived with
artillery and machine guns on 1 July 1920.
the position of the rebels was now hopeless, but they continued to protest
through passive means and in particular, were resolved not to give up the
leaders of the mutiny for fear they would be executed: a very realistic
appraisal of the thinking of the senior officers. Although some eighty soldiers
abandoned the mutiny at this point, the others, over four hundred strong,
marched out to prison camp together and refused to allow their leaders to be
isolated. This defiance nearly cost dozens of lives, as the camp was designed
to ensure hardship. It had almost no protection from the Indian summer sun and the
water supply deliberately inadequate. ‘Inhumane’ was how a Captain Kearney put
it and only the intervention of the Connaught Rangers’ medical officer
prevented lives from being lost from sickness.
more immediate prospect of death for the mutineers came from the threat of
violence. In the process of being moved to another camp on 2 July 1920, Major
Johnny Payne made another attempt to separate the leaders from the body of
mutineers. He called out twenty names, which included the seven men on the
committee. No one moved, so Payne ordered thirty soldiers to pull out one of
the people he had identified (Tommy Moran) from the crowd. These soldiers
failed and were disarmed in the physical tussle, leading Payne to order fixed
bayonets and soon after, the final order before ‘open fire’, that of ‘five
rounds, stand and load.’
Fr Livens, the seventy-year-old army chaplain rushed across to Payne and pleaded with the major, managing to delay the crisis by interposing himself between the soldiers with raised rifles and the prisoners. This was a crucial moment, where just in time a rider came hurriedly over, blowing a whistle to gain attention. This was Colonel Jackson who rebuked Payne in public and took over the command of the loyal soldiers.
Major Payne still had a hand in the subsequent mistreatment of the mutineers, forcing some of them to lie on the bare stone ground for hours with little or no food or clothing. James C O’Shea of Derry contracted a gastric illness that remained with him for the rest of his life. In trying to assert his rights, Payne told O’Shea he was entitled to ‘steel and lead and nothing else.’
Over the following days the British officers managed to whittle down the number of mutineers by offering free pardons to those who returned to duty and assuring the rest that they would face death by firing squad. By mid-July there were 48 former Jullundur Connaught Rangers in prison at Dagshai, where they were joined by Jim Daly and 40 men from the Solon mutiny. Conditions in Dagshai were harsh and they were deprived of all but the most basic sustenance. Private John Miranda died there and his case draws attention to the fact that a number of the mutineers were English rather than Irish. John Miranda was from Bootle in Liverpool. An English Sergeant Woods, who had earned a Distinguished Conduct Medal for his behaviour in France, explained his reasons for joining the mutiny to the Court Martial, ‘These boys fought for England with me, and I was ready to fight for Ireland with them.’
one point, thanks to the sympathy of the Indian staff at the jail, a group of
six rebels, including Hawes and Daly, were able to get outside. In order to
address the scarcity of provisions, especially cigarettes, Hawes and Daly
decided to raid the canteen at Solon. A successful overnight mission saw them
return to the comrades in the prison with their ill-gotten cigarettes. Hawes later explained why they did not simply try to
It might be wondered why we did not make a break for freedom that night or any other night, but you must remember that we were in an alien country, thousands of miles from home, even unable to speak the language. Everyone would be our enemy both the king’s men and the native Indians to whom none of us could explain our position over the language barrier. Soldiers were not popular in India at that time.
The Court Martial of the Connaught Rangers who joined the mutiny of 1920
martial of the rebels, beginning with those considered to be the main leaders
of the mutiny, began on 30 August 1920. Eventually 59 Connaught Rangers were
given fifteen-year prison sentences, while thirteen men were sentenced to
death. Fortunately for most of them, the political situation had swung in their
favour. By the end of 1920 a radicalised Irish population were driving back
British authority in the country and the generals considered it inexpedient to
kill all thirteen out of concern for the possible public response. One man,
however, they were determined to carry out the sentence upon: Jim Daly. The
problem with commuting Daly’s sentence, as far as a review by Major-General Sir
George de Symons Barrow was concerned, was the effect leniency might have on
equivalent mutinies of British Indian soldiers. Barrow needed to retain the
threat of execution as a palpable one.
On 2 November 1920, Jim Daly, then 21, was executed at Dagshai jail where a curfew was in place to avert a rumoured Indian attempt to free him from jail. Years later one of the rebels, Michael Kearney of County Clare could still recall the horrible details of the execution.
was awakened around dawn by the shattering bang of the death volley from the
firing party of twelve. The governor of the prison, a humane man, lets us out
of our cells later in the day and we had the melancholy experience of seeing
the wall of execution.
poor body had been almost truncated and some of the men gathered tiny portions
of human flesh which adhered to the wall. These sad scraps were laced in a
little matchbox and given to Father Baker to be buried with our heroic comrade.
the Treaty negotiations at the end of 1922 came discussion of an amnesty on
both sides and the Connaught Rangers who were in prison as a result of the mutiny
were specifically included in it, leading to their release on 9 January 1923. Thereafter,
however, it was a struggle for many of the men to obtain employment or state
support. A campaign for a pension to be allowed the men led to a government
report in 1925 that showed fourteen of the ex-mutineers were without work. Following
the government refusal of the pension, mutineer John Lyons wrote that ‘those
who fought for Ireland fought in vain’. Again, in 1933, a pension was discussed
and investigation into the men’s circumstances found that four of the mutineers
had died in Poor Law Unions, with six men being out of work. James Devers, who
had been among those trying to attack the magazine at Solon was described as
being in ‘desperate need.’ Only after the passage of the Connaught Rangers
(Pensions) Act of 29 April 1936, were the men were able to claim military
pensions from the Irish state based on the time they spent in prison.
the Connaught Rangers’ mutiny of 28 June 1920
It should be obvious that the act of defiance by these Irish soldiers was an heroic one that deserves to be remembered and celebrated. To some extent, throughout the twentieth century there were moments that gave the public a chance to express their appreciation of the bravery of the mutineers in risking execution rather than continue to serve in an army that was repressing the national movement. On their return to Ireland there were celebratory meetings and a great deal of enthusiasm for the stand they had made. A poem in the Roscommon Herald, January 1923, gives a flavour of the public mood:
Minced with bullets, their comrade’s
Is spat into their ace,
As if to crush their Irish hearts
Or kill the spirit of their race.
Hopelessly the ruse met blank dismay,
Their determination stronger grew.
Their vows were made and sealed that day
To die for Roísín Dubh.
Had not kind Providence stepped in
And saved them from their doom,
Their hearts would now be lying still
Within the convicts tomb.
18 March 1928, a play by M.P. O’Cearnaigh, Flag
of India,was performed at the
Royal Theatre, Dublin to support the ‘Connaught Rangers Distress Fund’. Veterans
of the mutiny paraded along O’Connell St c.1936.
In the 1950s a campaign grew up to bring back the remains of Jim Daly, the Offaly-Westmeath Old IRA Memorial Committee voting in June 1954 to petition the government to make arrangements for Daly’s body and that of other mutineers to return to Ireland. Soon afterwards a number of local government bodies passed similar motions. The government, however, was not willing to raise an issue that might harm Anglo-Irish relations. In the run up to the 1966 commemorations of the Easter Rising the issue came back to public attention, this time with a precedent having been set in the reburial of Sir Roger Casement in 1965.
especially to the work of the National Graves Association, not only Daly but
Sears, Smythe and Miranda were included in a growing public campaign for the
return of the Connaught Ranger mutineers. Ultimately, the campaign was
successful (except in regard to John Miranda, who had no family in Ireland) and
ceremonies were held in 1970 at Tyrellspass for Daly and Glasnevin Cemetery for
Sears and Smythe. Joe Hawes, then aged 77, gave a speech at both events.
As we approach the centenary of the mutiny, a new event has been planned, which involves the erection of a monument to three of the mutineers who were from Sligo (James Gorman, Martin Boy Conlon and Jack Scanlon) and a series of short talks. Here, however, it should be noted that the effort to find ‘balance’ which caused the Fine Gael government to try to honour the RIC seems to risk marring the event. For there are many British historians (such as Charles Townshend) – and plenty of Irish ones too – that have very little sympathy for Ireland’s revolutionary past and who construct arguments that belittle the role of figures like Joe Hawes and Jim Daly.
Downplaying the extent of radical Irish nationalism in the mutiny
One of the invited historians is Mario Draper, Lecturer at the University of Kent. Draper’s thesis is that the mutiny was less about Ireland than about discontent with local conditions. He dismisses the explicit testimony of the men that they were braving execution for the sake of Ireland’s national struggle as a ‘narrative of convenience’. In later life, he argues, these men were exaggerating the political side of their protest so as to get adulation and pensions. Instead, it was about local difficulties and poor communication between senior officers and the rank and file. Draper does not provide eye-witness reports to confirm an approach that would no doubt portray Spartacus as a gladiator who was merely disaffected over poor quality food, rather than the existence of slavery.
I, on the other hand, do value the testimony of the men themselves and I do give serious value to the importance of ideals in motivating human behaviour, to the point that people throughout history have been willing to risk their lives to challenge injustice and oppression. So when ‘Tom’ Tierney told Sam Pollock, ‘I didn’t think it was fair that our country should suffer what we fought to stop the Germans doing’, I believe that gives the answer to the apparent contradiction between someone fighting for the British army and yet protesting against the policy of that army in Ireland.
There was many an Irish soldier who joined the British forces during the Great War in the belief they were stopping Germany from exploiting small nations and were earning a reward for Ireland. When, by 1920, it was clear that Britain was straining to the utmost to prevent independence for Ireland and was deploying the Black and Tans in a cruel effort to intimidate the population the same soldiers could experience a deep crisis and a determination to get out of the British army and help the volunteers. This was a journey that is well known for figures like Cork IRA leader Tom Barry and it is entirely plausible that the same considerations shaped the mutiny in the Connaught Rangers in 1920.
It is a profound insult to Joe Hawes and his comrades to doubt this was the real reason for the mutiny and to say that in later life they played up their desire to support Ireland’s struggle against the British empire because it suited their self-interest to do so.
Moreover, the contemporary evidence of the British themselves confirms that it was the mistreatment of Irish civilians that was troubling the hearts and minds of the soldiers. Lieutenant-Colonel H.F.N. Jourdain, wrote to the London papers, saying that the men had been ‘led astray by the accounts they had received about the Black and Tans.’ If the real issue behind the mutiny was local discontent why did the mutineers sing rebel songs? Wear green, white and gold rosettes? Fly the tricolour? During the court martial, the men from England who joined the mutiny were asked why they had protested on behalf of Ireland. None of them replied that they had other grievances. Rather, they expressed loyalty for their Irish comrades and sympathy for Ireland.
It is unlikely that the Connaught Rangers who mutinied in 1920 will get the 100 year commemoration they deserve from the current event. Hopefully, relatives who have organised in a Facebook group will be able to arrange an event with a more inspiring message than, ‘it was only really about the men being given too much work’. And Councillor John Lyons of Independent Left will be urging Dublin City Council to the same.
The mutiny of the Connaught Rangers was an incredibly brave and principled act on behalf of Ireland’s struggle for independence, one that was almost sure to lead to the participants facing the firing squad or many years in prison. That the men were willing to make this stand, rather than continue to serve an army behaving brutally in Ireland, should be properly honoured in 2020.
Haiku from Gabriel Rosenstock on the Connaught Rangers
With permission from Gabriel Rosenstock, we share this bilingual haiku which was written in response to Lady Butler’s representation of recruitment for the Connaught Rangers in the west of Ireland.
Éire scriosta ...
fir thréana ag teastáil
i gcríoch na Gainséise
Ireland in ruins ...
strong men required
where the mighty Ganges flows
Recording of the online public meeting on the mutiny of the Connaught Rangers 28 June 2020
Speaking in the extended aftermath
of the so-called Indian Removal Act of 1830, Andrew Jackson, the slave-owning
US president famed for his previous (and merciless) warfare against Creek and
Seminole tribes in the American South, laid out the case for indigenous
extermination. ‘They have neither the intelligence, the industry, the moral
habits, nor the desire of improvement which are essential to any favorable
change in their condition,’ he claimed, concluding that as the many native
communities of the South were now ‘established in the midst of another and a
superior race, and without appreciating the causes of their inferiority or
seeking to control them, they must necessarily yield to the force of
circumstances and ere long disappear.’ By the end of Jackson’s second term of
office, ‘the force of circumstances’ – implemented by a combination of
wild-firing federal troops and unrestrained settler militias – had resulted in
the violent relocation of almost sixty thousand indigenous people from their
land and homes to regions west of the Mississippi river, in what historians
(shy of the term ethnic cleansing)
oftenrefer to as the ‘Trail of
‘All the presidents after Jackson
march in his footsteps,’ Dunbar-Ortiz by contrast observes in An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United
States, a powerful chronicle of native life and struggle over the
approximately five centuries of European colonization that witnessed the
shaping of the USA as we know it. ‘Consciously or not,’ Dunbar-Ortiz writes,
America’s ‘ruling class’ has consistently imitated the task Jackson set for his
own administration: how (in her words) ‘to reconcile democracy and genocide and
characterize it as freedom for the people.’ Tellingly, Jackson’s portrait today
graces the modern $20 US dollar bill, while the nation’s current
commander-in-chief has praised him as a political forefather to his own brand
of toxic, bigoted, wealth-wielding populism.
In Jackson’s era as now, however,
the imperialistic arrogance of the US government was met with (at times
brilliantly effective) resistance; and it is one of the many merits of
Dunbar-Ortiz’s historical account to foreground the continuous uprisings of
indigenous peoples, as well as the persistence and diversity of indigenous
cultures, in the face of intensifying colonial aggression. Cataloguing the relentless
and self-heroising savagery of US policies (federal and settler alike) towards
indigenous populations, her narrative in the process shakes loose many of the
foundational assumptions on which American politics and historiography has
traditionally been built. Eloquently, meticulously, and with an almost
devastating critical focus, she not only dissects the doctrines of manifest
destiny (the right to colonize Westwards) and civilizing mission (the right to
whitewash such colonization, and expand it globally), but also probes inherited
concepts concerning property, the use and ownership of land, industrial
development, and the like. ‘The Haudenosaunee peoples,’ she notes of the
alliance of tribes spanning the Great Lakes and the St Lawrence River to the
Atlantic, and as far south as the Carolinas,
avoided centralized power by means of a clan-village system of democracy based on collective stewardship of the land. Corn, the staple crop, was stored in granaries and distributed equitably in this matrilineal society by the clan mothers, the oldest women from every extended family.
As here, throughout her account
Dunbar-Ortiz refuses to fossilise indigenous traditions, writing instead as if
the same modes and formations of communal organisation were living
possibilities (and perhaps they are). In a similar fashion, we encounter
Tecumseh: a Shawnee warrior and one of the key figures of an indigenous
confederacy formed in the early nineteenth century to resist the decrees and
incursions of the US government and speculators. ‘The way, the only way to stop
this evil’, he is recorded as saying,
… is for the red people to unite in claiming a common and equal right in the land, as it was at first, and should be now, for it was never divided, but belongs to all. Sell a country?! Why not sell the air, the great sea, as well as the earth? Did not the Great Spirit make them all for the use of his children?
Such episodes hold up a mirror to
the many, violent commodifications of capitalist society – modern and
historical – exposing its delusions, as well as its frequent brutality
(Tecumseh himself was eventually killed in 1813).
As with issues of land and property,
the question of class – of who works, who gains, and how these social relations
are developed and enforced over time – is latent in much of the story that
Dunbar-Ortiz returns to the record, and sometimes openly bares its fangs.
‘Although a man of war,’ she writes, General Philip Sheridan of the Union Army
‘was an entrepreneur at heart’; she quotes Sheridan in a letter to Ulysses S.
Grant in 1867, ‘We are not going to let a few thieving, ragged Indians stop the
progress of [the railroads].’ Systematic, sustained colonial violence was the
pre-condition for capitalist accumulation in the emerging republic; tracing the
profit motive through its history is to discover, again and again, the stench
of scorched earth and race hatred that made many of its most esteemed
emissaries rich, from the oil and railroad baron, John D. Rockefeller, to
industrialist and Wall Street tycoon, J.P. Morgan.
Sheridan himself is an unsettlingly
emblematic figure in this narrative. The originator of the genocidal aphorism
that the only good Indian is a dead
Indian, this ‘entrepreneur at heart’ was born to Irish parents who fled
serf-like rural poverty in Cavan for America in the early nineteenth century.
As such, Sheridan was never fully accepted as an equal by the political and
military elites who nonetheless praised his uncompromising zeal as a commander
and, indeed, his later supposed achievements as an environmentalist (he
championed the founding of Yellowstone National Park, after having forcibly
cleared the same region of its original inhabitants). This dynamic is evident
in Abraham Lincoln’s aloof and subtly eugenicist description of the fast-rising
officer: as a ‘brown, chunky little chap, with a long body, short legs, not
enough neck to hang him, and such long arms that if his ankles itch he can
scratch them without stooping.’
Sheridan’s case was in many ways
typical. In the second half of the nineteenth century, some of the most
ruthless regiments and settler militias of the emerging United States –
responsible for the murder, mutilation, and destruction of thousands of
indigenous tribes and villages – were lead and stocked by Irish emigrants,
themselves (like their relatives in Ireland) very often racialised as un-human
or sub-human in popular and press culture. One result, as David Roediger has written,
is that ‘politicians of Irish and Scotch-Irish heritage’ in the same period
worked diligently to disseminate ‘the idea that a new white American race,
decidedly inclusive of the Irish, had superseded the Anglo-Saxon race as the
benchmark of fitness for citizenship’ in the new democracy: setting the terms
of a discourse with which white nationalists and supremacists, including the
likes of Steven Bannon, still engage. Such themes are of course particularly
resonant in Ireland today, which in recent months has witnessed a surge in
racist mobilising and violence deliberately designed to appeal to a (diffuse,
but insidious) tradition that ties Irishness to notions of white supremacist
victimhood. Some awareness of the history of these ideological postures is
arguably more necessary than ever. As Dunbar-Ortiz summarises, ‘living persons’
may not be ‘responsible for what their ancestors did,’ but ‘they are
responsible for the society they live in, which is a product of that past.’
Time and again, in fact, we are
reminded that populations dehumanised, displaced, and even exterminated by
colonial dogmas and military directives have participated, in one form or
another, in the ethnic cleansing and conquest of indigenous communities
elsewhere: communities with whom, superficially at least, they would appear to
share common cause. On this last point, she is unflinchingly factual, observing
that former slaves and freedom fighters of colour in the American Civil War,
for example, joined (and were deliberately stationed by federal authorities on)
the frontlines of anti-guerilla campaigns against native communities, an
apparent contradiction that adds an edge to Bob Marley’s song on the same
Soldier’. Likewise earlier, during the
Spanish campaigns of the sixteenth century, we learn that ‘Cortés and his two
hundred European mercenaries could never have overthrown the [Aztec] Mexican
state without the Indigenous insurgency he co-opted’. In this case, however,
one of the great strengths of Dunbar-Ortiz’s account is her equally clear-eyed
perception that ‘resistant peoples’ hoping ‘to overthrow [an] oppressive
regime’, should not be blamed for, their cause cannot be used to excuse, the
‘genocidal’ aims of the ‘gold-obsessed Spanish colonizers or the European
institutions that backed them.’ By persuasion, force, or guile, every colonial
enterprise in history has enlisted sections of the populations it sought to
subjugate for the furtherance of its aims (exploiting existing divisions in
order to secure whatever form of hegemonic power best favoured its own
perceived interests); the racist, resource-hungry killing machine of the
Spanish conquest was no exception to this pattern.
Although completed in 2014,
Dunbar-Ortiz’s research and approach nevertheless speak to a number of
political realities that have evolved in the years since. Reading so unified an
account of indigenous life and struggle, indeed, it’s difficult not to interpret the extreme levels and
incidence of violence against indigenous women in the US today (‘one in three
Native American women has been raped or experienced attempted rape, and the
rate of sexual assault on Native American women is more than twice the national
average’) as a continuation of a history of state formation for which the
murder and brutalisation of native women and children specifically was standard
procedure: whether in crimes such as the Sand Creek Massacre of 1864 (one of
several atrocities that Dunbar-Ortiz rightly posits as precursors to later
chapters in America’s imperial story, including the Mai Lai Massacre of 1968)
or through federally implemented separation and re-education policies (forcing
children into missionary, abuse-laden institutes) of the early twentieth
Dunbar-Ortiz’s prose is also
palpably sensitive to the ‘centuries of resistance and storytelling passed
through the generations’ of indigenous communities, reminding readers that for
native tribes still living under conditions of imposed marginality and social
invisibility, ‘[s]urviving genocide’ is itself a form ‘dynamic, not passive’
resistance. From which vantage-point, the Wet’suwet’en nation’s ongoing, militant opposition to the Canadian government’s decision to install a gas
infrastructure on their land – like the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s resistance
(beginning in 2016)
to the Dakota Access Pipeline in the US – may be seen as part of the long,
many-seasoned trajectory of indigenous self- and environmental protection that
Dunbar-Ortiz outlines: protection in the face of settler-colonialist state
projects that have always regarded such actions as illegitimate, such
communities as disposable. As the preface has it, everything in this ‘history
is about the land: who oversaw and cultivated it, fished its waters, maintained
its wildlife; who invaded and stole it; how it became a commodity (‘real
estate’) broken into pieces to be bought and sold on the market.’ In that
respect, the struggle goes on, drawing on traditions that books like this keep
fresh in the memory, vivid as spring.