Tuesday, 22 January 2019 20:01

Robert Burns the Democrat

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in Poetry
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Portrait of Robert Burns (after Skirving)
Portrait of Robert Burns (after Skirving)
by Calum Colvin, 2001

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Norrie Paton introduces this well-known pamphlet by J. R. Campbell, Robert Burns: The Democrat, which was first published in 1945, and has now been republished by the Communist Party of Britain. It is available above as a free downloadable pdf, with the permission of the CPB.

 I was delighted to learn that Culture Matters intended to put a copy of Robert Burns - The Democrat, by J.R. Campbell, on the website. I was equally pleased to be offered the opportunity to write this introductory article for it. The original chapbook was first printed in 1945, and was followed by a reprinted edition in the bicentenary year of Burns’s birth, 1959. Both editions proved to be popular with the general public. It is hoped that many readers will take advantage of this latest version, and gain an insight into the views and opinions held by our National Bard on the subjects of politics and religion during his lifetime. He referred to them as: “two master subjects for your sayers of nothing”, and frequently found himself in trouble over his involvement in both. 

By making such a forthright claim for Burns as a democrat (republican), in his chapbook’s title, J.R. Campbell was putting the onus on himself to deliver the proof in his text. Whilst I have no doubt that the vast majority of readers (myself included) were satisfied that he had successfully achieved his aim, some people would have remained unconvinced due to their own prejudiced opinions. To them Burns was seen as being, at heart, a good Briton, totally loyal to King and Country. Such people glibly dash off a quotation or two from his works to back their claim, and are either unaware that the poet was merely paying lip-service to an Establishment he had precious little time for, that was threatening to ruin him, or they were being deliberately deceitful to suit their own ends.

As J. R. Campbell showed beyond any reasonable doubt, in his chapter titled “Burns and the Witch Hunt”, the poet came under tremendous personal pressure when the Excise Board, on conducting an enquiry into his politics, warned him that he must be “silent and obedient”, in his future behaviour, if he wished to remain in their employment. His “most intimate friend”, as Burns styled Dr William Maxwell, had also been effectively silenced by the government. He had played an active role in the French Revolution, and was part of the guard who escorted King Louis to his execution. He had been named in the House of Commons by Edmund Burke concerning a consignment of daggers for the French revolutionaries. The London Sun, on the 8th October, 1792, ran an article with the headline “English Jacobins - Number 1 - Doctor Maxwell”. That Robert Burns, who allegedly sent four carronades to the French National Assembly, fully supported the Revolution has never been in serious doubt. As Robert Chambers, one of the best editors the poet ever had, explained:

So “Scots Wha Hae” was, to some extent, inspired by the French in beating back the enemies of their republic.... The association of ideas came naturally enough to a Scottish patriot of Jacobite leanings. The English Ministers who had declared war on the French Republicans, and so ruined the still struggling Scottish commerce, became in his imagination the ancient enemies of the old-time allies France and Scotland. Under cover of a fourteenth century battle-song he was really liberating his soul against the Tory tyranny that was opposing liberty at home and abroad, and, moreover, striking at his own fireside. 

The song was first published in The Morning Chronicle (8th May, 1794), with strict instructions from Burns that his name must not be associated with it in any fashion. He was well aware that the dramatic concluding line, “Let US DO  -  or DIE!!!”, with its block capital emphases and the triple exclamation marks finale, would be interpreted as pointing to recent events in France as much as ancient ones in fourteenth century Scotland, with political reprisals against him being a distinct possibility.

In the following year Burns wrote “A Man’s a Man for a’ That”, and again stipulated that he must not be identified as the author. Few would dispute that these magnificent verses could only have been composed by a genuine democrat. They famously include these lines:

Ye see yon birkie, ca'd a lord,
Wha struts, an' stares, an' a' that;
Tho' hundreds worship at his word,
He's but a coof for a' that:
For a' that, an' a' that,
His ribband, star, an' a' that:
The man o' independent mind
He looks an' laughs at a' that.

It is quite obvious that his lyric reflected the sentiments expressed in Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man, which was, in bygone times, frequently referred to as, “The textbook of modern democracy”!

The author of the chapbook, John Ross Campbell, was born at Paisley, on 15th October, 1894, and spent his early life in the town, employed in whatever work he could find. A spell in a bookshop brought him a passion for reading serious literature, which served him well in his later career as an editor of the Daily Worker. At the outbreak of war in 1914 he left Paisley to join the Naval Reserve, and was involved at Gallipoli and the Somme. His wounds from these battles included losing much of one foot. He was awarded the Military Medal for his valiant efforts.

By 1924 he had moved to London and became deeply involved in politics, being influenced, like many other young people in Scotland, by the great John Maclean. He was a founding member of the CPGB, and, whilst editing the party’s Weekly Worker, he came to national prominence in the “Campbell Case”, when he was arrested and charged with incitement to mutiny, due to an article (not written by him) being deemed unlawful. Pressure from their backbenchers persuaded the Labour government that it was a harsh action against a former war hero, and the case was duly dropped. This brought a furious reaction from Tories and Liberals in the Commons, and a vote of no confidence brought the government down.

Once again, thanks to Culture Matters for making this brilliant essay widely available. Its republication as a free, downloadable pdf is itself a great example of the kind of cultural democracy that Burns believed in and actively promoted all his life.

Norrie Paton is a writer and Burns scholar. He grew up in the shipbuilding town of Port Glasgow, and served a five-year apprenticeship as a draughtsman. He was active in the trade union DATA, later TASS. He has written several books and articles on Burns, situating the poet in his democratic and republican context. He lives in Campbeltown.

Read 639 times Last modified on Wednesday, 23 January 2019 09:11
Norrie Paton

Norrie Paton is a writer and Burns scholar. He grew up in the shipbuilding town of Port Glasgow and served a five-year apprenticeship as a draughtsman. 

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