By Shane McNally
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.