Jenny Farrell

Jenny Farrell

Jenny Farrell was born in Berlin. She has lived in Ireland since 1985, working as a lecturer in Galway Mayo Institute of Technology. Her main fields of interest are Irish and English poetry and the work of William Shakespeare.

 

Decolonising the mind: the life and work of Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o
Wednesday, 05 December 2018 18:14

Decolonising the mind: the life and work of Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o

Published in Fiction

Jenny Farrell celebrates the life and work of the African Marxist writer Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o.

Ngũgĩ turned 80 this year. He was born into colonial Kenya in 1938 and witnessed in his youth the Mau Mau War of Independence, which ended in1962.

Ngũgĩ has written prolifically. His first major novel Weep Not Child was published in 1964, followed by The River Between and A Grain of Wheat in 1967. Arguably his most famous (non-fiction) book is Decolonising the Mind, about the constructive role language in national culture, history, and identity.

In 1967, Ngũgĩ became lecturer in English Literature at the University of Nairobi, where he taught until 1977. Here, he campaigned for the change of name from English to simply Literature department, to reflect a change of focus from English to world literature, with African and third world literatures at the centre. The text On the Abolition of the English Department became one of many challenging the colonial inheritance:

If there is need for a ‘study of the historic continuity of a single culture’, why can’t this be African? Why can’t African literature be at the centre so that we can view other cultures in relationship to it?

The year 1977 was a dramatic turning point in Ngũgĩ’s life. His novel Petals of Blood was published, depicting neo-colonial Kenya uncompromisingly. The same year Ngũgĩ co-authored the savagely critical play, Ngaahika Ndeenda (I Will Marry When I Want), performed open-air with actors drawn from the workers and peasants of the village.

The play’s presentation of the inequalities and injustices of Kenyan society, and its identification with the cause of ordinary Kenyans, led to Ngũgĩ’s imprisonment without charge at Kamiti Maximum Security Prison on December 31, 1977. During his incarceration, Ngũgĩ decided to abandon English and start writing in his native Gikuyu. He writes about his experiences in his memoir, Detained: A Writer’s Prison Diary (1982). In it, Ngũgĩ relates a signal act of resistance: his writing of Caitani Mutharabaini (1981) on prison toilet paper - translated into English as Devil on the Cross (1982).

The reclaiming of African languages as keepers of memory, of African history, became central to Ngũgĩ’s postcolonial struggle. He comments in relation to the slave trade:

The first thing that happened to African people [in the Americas] was forced loss of language and names.

And:

Ninety percent of Africa’s resources are consumed in the west. But somehow the vocabulary has turned it the other way around – it’s the West that ‘helps’ Africa. A few things are returned and they call it ‘aid’.

Amnesty International successfully campaigned for Ngũgĩ’s release a year later, in December 1978. But he had become intolerable to the Moi dictatorship (1978-2002). A plot to kill him forced Ngũgĩ into exile, first in Britain (1982 –1989), and then the U.S. (1989-2002). There were also actual attempts on his life.

His novel, Matigari (1986) describes a man who, having survived the war for independence, hopes for a new and peaceful future. He finds his people still dispossessed and his corrupted land ruled by misery and fear. Hilariously, Dictator Moi, believing the novel’s main character to be an actual person, issued an arrest warrant for him!

Ngũgĩ continued to write prolifically. In 2006 the English translation of the Gikuyu language novel, Murogi wa Kagog, Wizard of the Crow, was published.

This epic comic novel set in the fictitious African “Free Republic” of Aburĩria, scathingly details the corruption, brutality and self-negation of neocolonial African dictatorship. Similarities with Kenya are not accidental, yet its scope encompasses more. It outlines the experience of the African continent in the 20th century, the slavery of its peoples, the colonial legacy as feeding into the neocolonial present:

…the Ruler’s rise to power had something to do with his alliance with the colonial state and the white forces behind it. (…) his friends in the West needed him to assume the mantle of the leader of Africa and the Third World, for Aburĩria was of strategic importance to the West’s containment of Soviet global domination. The Ruler accused the Socialist Party of forming one link in the chain of the Soviet ambitions. Aburĩria did not fight Western colonialism in order to end up under Eastern Communist colonialism, he declared (…) It is said that in only a month he mowed down a million Aburĩrian Communists, rendering the Ruler the African leader most respected by the West …

The leader of the underground resistance movement is a woman, Nyawĩra, who from the start emphasises a class analysis of society and the need and possibility of change. This courageous person finds a partner in Kamĩtĩ, whose opposition to the status quo grows over time as he gets to know and love her.

He brings to the relationship a tremendous amount of humour, a willingness to hide, heal and mock by impersonating a witch doctor, as well as knowledge of the medicinal properties of African plants. Together they forge the main positive and hope-giving force in the novel. They are supported by other brave people in the community, including some who grow into this role, some who change sides and those who do not betray. The most heroic among those resisting the many manifestations of the regime are women, who are shown to oppose and overcome domestic violence and other controlling relationships.

It is absolutely clear that Ngũgĩ cannot conceive of true African liberation without that of women – they are instrumental in bringing this about. Their emancipation is intrinsic to the liberation and freedom of their country. In fact, a women’s court to punish perpetrators of domestic violence is established as part of the Movement for the Voice of the People.

Nyawĩra puts this in Marxist terms:

I believe that black has been oppressed by white; female by male; peasant by landlord; and worker by capital. It follows from this that the black female worker and peasant is most the oppressed. She is oppressed on account of her colour like all black people in the world; she is oppressed on account of her gender like all women in the world; and she is exploited and oppressed on account of her class like all workers and peasants in the world. Three burdens she has to carry. Those who want to fight for the people in the nation and in the world must struggle for the unity and rights of the working class in their own country; fight against all discriminations based on race, ethnicity, color, and belief systems; they must struggle against all gender-based inequalities and therefore fight for the rights of women in the home, the family, the nation, and the world ….

Throughout this satirical novel the West’s involvement with the corrupt regimes in Africa is highlighted, here in particular with the Global Bank, from which they hope to secure an enormous loan, which in turn will lead to unparalleled austerity. However, the country’s political instability ultimately prevents this. When the country’s autocracy begins to crumble, the West plans a military coup.

Yet, Ngũgĩ rejects Western journalists’ favourite image of Africa:

they believed that a news story from Africa without pictures of people dying from wretched poverty, famine, or ethnic warfare could not possibly be interesting to their audience back home.

He underlines the humanity of the people above all and Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere is referred to positively in this novel. Nyawĩra and Kamĩtĩ’s ability to laugh together at the absurdity of the regime is in itself a sign of their strength, courage and moral high ground. By rejecting the generalised Western media African stereotype, Ngũgĩ enables the reader to draw parallels to other dictatorships around the world, mentioning those of Marcos, Pinochet and Apartheid South Africa at the very end of the book.

One of the most memorable moments in the novel is when one of the characters on the government side becomes afflicted by a psychological condition that makes him want to become white. Kamĩtĩ, as Wizard of the Cow, manages to ‘cure’ him by demonstrating that white is not white and he could easily end up a homeless white ex-colonial, after having renounced his name and language, in an ironic self-imposed re-play of the fate of the slaves. Ngũgĩ’s point is not just satirical, but also poignant in the careerist’s willingness to negate himself.

Although the government men are corrupt, superstitious and paranoid as well as willing to kill indiscriminately for personal gain, they are not beyond grasping where all this will ultimately lead to:

The Global Bank and the Global Ministry of Finance are clearly looking to privatise countries nations, and states. They argue that the modern world was created by private capital. (…) What private capital did then it can do again: own and reshape the Third World in the image of the West (…) The world will become one corporate globe divided into the incorporating and the incorporated. We should volunteer Aburĩria to be the first to be wholly managed by private capital, to become the first voluntary corporate colony, a corporony, the first of the new global order.

What is distilled in these quotes is written into the fabric of the novel, from where it inscribes itself indelibly into the reader’s imagination and becomes much more. The text is enriched with African fable-telling and humour. And one thing is made perfectly clear: there is no magic. It is a hilarious, exciting and brilliant read – it is a masterpiece.

The "War to End All Wars," like all the wars that have followed it, discarded human lives on all sides. Here, a German prisoner helps British wounded make their way to a dressing station. Image:  Imperial War Museum
Wednesday, 07 November 2018 13:37

The Discarded Soldier

Published in Fiction

 

Jenny Farrell introduces a little-known short story by Liam O'Flaherty

11 November 2018 marks the centenary of the ending of World War I. During that bloody slaughter, the propagandists described it as the “war to end all wars”. One hundred years and as many wars on the militarists in the USA and Europe, many of them the authors and overseers of the present conflicts from Afghanistan to Yemen, meet to promote this so-called “Great War” as something noble.  

There is nothing noble or honourable about such carnage. It is therefore appropriate to re-publish below a very short story, “The Discarded Soldier”, by the world famous novelist and short story writer Liam O’Flaherty, which presents the real and barbaric nature of war.

Liam knew what he was writing about. He not only fought in the trenches of Flanders as a member of the British army’s Irish Guards, but was wounded and shell-shocked in September 1917. His abhorrence of war is expressed poignantly in this text and his avant-garde 1929 novel “Return of the Brute”.

What is also interesting about “The Discarded Soldier” is it was published for the first – and probably only - time in The Daily Worker on 27 June 1925.  A daily columnist of the paper had requested this internationally renowned Irish author to pen the piece. Liam could hardly refuse, as The Daily Worker’s columnist was none other than his brother, Tom O’Flaherty.

The brothers came from the Irish speaking Aran Islands off the west coast of Ireland. Both were writers and both were involved in the communist movement. Both were founding members of two separate Communist Parties: Tom of the CPUSA and Liam of the CP in Ireland.

“The Discarded Soldier” was never collected and is virtually unknown.

In an advertisement in The Daily Worker on 13 June 1925, Tom describes Liam as “a young proletarian writer who has already won an international reputation through his books and short stories. (…) One of those short stories, dealing with the civil war in Ireland, in which he fought on the side of the Republicans, is listed in the collection of the best short stories produced In Great Britain during 1923. (…) the now only twenty-six years old … left a little fishing village in the Arran Islands on the west coast of Ireland at an early age for college, where he was trained by the Jesuits for the propaganda mission. He is anything but grateful to his tutors, as his writings show.”

We have Seosamh Ó Cuaig to thank for rediscovering this story.  He is the chairperson of the Liam and Tom O’Flaherty Society in Ireland that was founded in 2013. It was while researching Tom O’Flaherty that he came across “The Discarded Soldier”. Interestingly Seosamh, like Liam and Tom, is a native Irish speaker and hails from Connemara on the coast of Galway Bay, at the mouth of which lie the Aran Islands, the O’Flahertys’ birthplace.   

We share in the great pride and pleasure that People’s World, the successor to The Daily Worker, today republish this story from its early days.

----------------------------------------------------------

THE DISCARDED SOLDIER

By Liam O’Flaherty

THE Discarded Soldier had crawled to his garret to die. He lay on his ragged bed. He had lit the candle beside him to light him into eternity. His head peering from the bedclothes was a portrait of death. The face was pale and wan and haggard, like the face of a drowning man, sinking into a dark river in the moonlight. The light of his candle was his moon burning fitfully.

          The Discarded Soldier hugged himself close trying to find warmth. His lean hands wandered over the clothes, drawing them closer around his body trying to shield himself from the cold draughts. The veins on the hands stood out like blue snakes, crawling outside the flesh. Death was in his eyes. They were pale blue spots, with red facings, stuck in deep hollows. They were half closed with weariness.

THE hands dropped wearily on the clothes.

POOR Discarded Soldier. Poor useless cannon fodder. Poor scrapped tool of capitalism. But a few years back, he was a strong youth with bright eyes and smooth sleek body perfect in every limb and then … The recruiting sergeants came and looked at his body and they wanted him to fight the war for capitalism. They brought him from the freedom of his lonely home by the sea. They herded him into a battalion with others. He was sent among the monstrous guns, that spat out death. He was marched through fields sodden with blood to the trenches, where men lay huddled in holes, watching through the night for death.

          He was cheered and petted by fair ladies. They called him a hero. They sang to him. They feasted him. Fat men pinned medals on his breast – for valour they said.

          Then again he was hurled against unknown enemies, pushed from behind, cursed, urged on, beaten, imprisoned when he complained, sent on again to kill, amid the roar of guns, and the mud of the trenches.

THEN at last he was caught by a bursting shell and hurled into the air, amid red-hot bolts of steel and showers of earth and smoke. He was crushed into a jabbering mass of pulped flesh. He was no longer a hero. He was a wreck. Capitalism did not want him. The ladies no longer cheered him. They brought him flowers in the hospital for a few months and then forgot. The ribbons faded on his breast. He was cast into the great city, homeless, unwanted, penniless.

          Capitalism no longer needed him. Capitalism forgot him. Capitalism imprisoned him when he demanded food. The servants of capitalism beat him with clubs, when he cried for bread. They called him a Bolshevik, a public menace, a scourge of society. They threatened to throw him into a lunatic asylum.

          So he crawled into the garret to die, dreaming of his home by the sea – dreaming of the freedom of his youth and the warm sun.

THERE was not even romance in his ghastly death. He was not thinking of romance. He was thinking of his home and the sunlight. The hunger gnawing at his bowels made him weaker. It brought a mist before his eyes and transformed the noises that echoed in his ears. He was carried away from his garret to his home by the sea.

          The distant noises of the city traffic seemed to him the noise of the breakers at night rolling toward a rocky shore. The recollection brought a smile to his lips. He became delirious. He could see the dawn breaking now in his home. He could see the waves – gentle now and cheerful – surging calmly over the sandy beaches in an awed whisper.

          Then the sun rising in the east, over the hills, glistening on the dew-covered crags. The sun. The beautiful warm sun. The dying man tossed away the clothes. He wanted to bare his bosom to the sun. He stretched out his limbs with a sigh of gratitude. He wanted to bare every muscle to the regenerating warmth.

THEN he listened. Ha. There it was. The song of the lark as the bird soared into the fleecy clouds, singing its morning song of joy. He smelled the wild flowers, that grew by the sea. He saw the glistening sea weed on the rocks, bared by the receding tide. He smelled the salt sea breeze that swept over the ocean.

          Ha! He would soon get well, since he was back again in his home. He would soon be able to run and jump and shout as of old. No more hunger. No more tramping dirty, ugly streets. No more fetid smells in the slums. No more war, no more roaring guns, no more killing. Joy. To be back again in the sun – the great glorious sun that warmed him.

BUT, ah! The sun was too warm. The dying man licked his parched lips with his tongue. The drought of death was in his throat. His tongue was thick with it. His veins were on fire now. The fever of death was upon him – eating him and he thought that it was he sun. His brain grew dizzy. Then he smiled again. His head turned sideways on the pillow.

          His lips set in a smile.

          He saw himself approaching a mountain spring, beneath a towering cliff that sheltered him from the overpowering heat of the sun. He wanted coolness now and water. There it was in front of him – the water rippling out from the base of the cliff, gurgling like wine from a bottle. He knelt on the grassy knoll beside the spring. He stooped until his head was among the water-cress. The stream was at his lips smothering him.

THEN as the water lapped his lips, he stretched his limbs taut to enjoy the exquisite draught and … His spirit faded into the eternal night. The Discarded Soldier was dead.

This short story was originally published in the 27 June 1925 edition of The Daily Worker in Chicago. It was re-published for the first time since then by that newspaper's predecessor, People's World, on 9 November 2018. It re-appears here with permission.

 This link takes you to an evocative reading of the story by Fionnghuala Ní Choncheanainn, filmed by Eoin McDonnell in an atmospheric Aran setting, at our annual O’Flaherty festival on Inis Mór in 2014. More information about our society is available here.

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José Saramago: visions of a better world
Saturday, 29 September 2018 17:54

José Saramago: visions of a better world

Published in Fiction

Jenny Farrell pays tribute to the communist writer José Saramago, whose vision of another, possible world is still relevant today.

Twenty years ago, on 8 October 1998, the communist writer José de Sousa Saramago was the first Portuguese author to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature. 

The first fifty years of Saramago’s life were defined by the fascist dictatorship that ruled Portugal from 1926-1974 and his active resistance against it. Born the son of landless peasant labourers in a village north east of Lisbon, Saramago grew up in poverty, trained and worked as a mechanic, civil servant, metalworker, production manager at a publishing house and a newspaper managing editor. He joined the Communist Party in 1969 and remained a lifelong member. He wrote for and helped edit the Communist Party paper for a time and stood as a Communist in the 1989 local elections.

the carnation revolution

The “Carnation Revolution” of 1974, which put an end to the fascist regime, was much more than the transition from dictatorship to bourgeois parliamentary democracy. The first government to take power was largely Communist-led. Monopolies were nationalised, the large landowners in the Alentejo were expropriated and the land was given to the agricultural workers. Workers’ control was granted by law and the colonies were given independence. Although these socioeconomic achievements could not be maintained, they set an example that still applies today: another world is possible. This vision of an alternative to capitalism, and human resilience, is an important theme in Saramago’s work.

The Communist-led government was replaced in 1975 by one led by the Socialist Party, and Saramago lost his job as newspaper editor. He then devoted himself exclusively to writing. However, he became increasingly pessimistic about Portugal’s political course. When the government under Anibal Silva refused to endorse Saramago’s book The Gospel According to Jesus Christ (1991) for the European Prize for Literature, stating it was too anti-religious to be supported by Portugal, Saramago left Portugal and lived in Lanzarote until his death in 2010.

This was no withdrawal from politics. He continued to lampoon capitalism’s hypocrisy publicly, criticizing the EU and International Monetary Fund, defending the Palestinians against Israeli policies,  and founding the European Writers Parliament along with Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk.

His main contribution to anti-capitlaist art lies in his writings, however. Raised from the Ground (1980) is a novel about working people’s life under a dictatorial regime, which takes over and occupies land. Blindness (1995) depicts an entire population going blind, and is about how people individually cope and attempt to survive shocking events, and Seeing (2004) explores a post-blindness election, where the people cast their ballot papers, returning them blank.

Each novel is different, yet they repeatedly deal with living in the extreme and inhuman conditions of class society, and what hope we have for a better future. However, on this anniversary, let us leave it to Saramago himself to speak about his writing. Here are some extracts from his acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize for Literature, which he won in 1998, aged 76. The speech is in itself part of the body of his literary achievement.

9780099531777

How Characters Became the Masters and the Author Their Apprentice

Then came the men and women of Alentejo, that same brotherhood of the condemned of the earth where belonged my grandfather Jerónimo and my grandmother Josefa, primitive peasants obliged to hire out the strength of their arms for a wage and working conditions that deserved only to be called infamous, getting for less than nothing a life which the cultivated and civilised beings we are proud to be are pleased to call – depending on the occasion – precious, sacred or sublime. Common people I knew, deceived by a Church both accomplice and beneficiary of the power of the State and of the landlords, people permanently watched by the police, people so many times innocent victims of the arbitrariness of a false justice. Three generations of a peasant family, the Badweathers, from the beginning of the century to the April Revolution of 1974 which toppled dictatorship, move through this novel, called Risen from the Ground, and it was with such men and women risen from the ground, real people first, figures of fiction later, that I learned how to be patient, to trust and to confide in time, that same time that simultaneously builds and destroys us in order to build and once more to destroy us.

The Stone Raft – separated from the Continent the whole Iberian Peninsula and transformed it into a big floating island, moving of its own accord with no oars, no sails, no propellers, in a southerly direction, “a mass of stone and land, covered with cities, villages, rivers, woods, factories and bushes, arable land, with its people and animals” on its way to a new Utopia: the cultural meeting of the Peninsular peoples with the peoples from the other side of the Atlantic, thereby defying – my strategy went that far – the suffocating rule exercised over that region by the United States of America … A vision twice Utopian would see this political fiction as a much more generous and human metaphor: that Europe, all of it, should move South to help balance the world, as compensation for its former and its present colonial abuses. That is, Europe at last as an ethical reference. The characters in The Stone Raft – two women, three men and a dog – continually travel through the Peninsula as it furrows the ocean. The world is changing and they know they have to find in themselves the new persons they will become (not to mention the dog, he is not like other dogs …).

Blind. The apprentice thought, “we are blind”, and he sat down and wrote Blindness to remind those who might read it that we pervert reason when we humiliate life, that human dignity is insulted every day by the powerful of our world, that the universal lie has replaced the plural truths, that man stopped respecting himself when he lost the respect due to his fellow-creatures. Then the apprentice, as if trying to exorcise the monsters generated by the blindness of reason, started writing the simplest of all stories: one person is looking for another, because he has realised that life has nothing more important to demand from a human being.

The book is called All the Names. Unwritten, all our names are there. The names of the living and the names of the dead.

Saramago

 

 

He sang on behalf of the people: Victor Jara, 1932-1973
Monday, 10 September 2018 20:16

He sang on behalf of the people: Victor Jara, 1932-1973

Published in Music

Jenny Farrell memorialises Victor Jara.

Forty-five years ago, on 11 September 1973, the Chilean military under the command of General Pinochet and backed by the USA, overthrew the democratically elected, socialist government of Salvador Allende.

Allende had won the election in September 1970, and was faced even before taking office with the enmity of the Chilean right, and the US government. The CIA planned a coup almost immediately after Allende’s victory.

Allende’s platform was one of for radical transformation: land redistribution, the nationalisation of major corporations (particularly the US-owned copper holdings), and fundamental changes in health, education and housing provisions. His government was well into this programme when initially middle-ranking military officers and later businessmen and generals put a violent end to Chile’s socialist reform.

During the 1973-90 Pinochet dictatorship, 3,095 people and about 1,000 "disappeared", Chile's Truth and Justice Commission has stated. Bodies are still being found today.

Victor Jara, communist and celebrated singer, was one of about 5,000 people arrested in the immediate aftermath of the coup, who were taken to the Chile stadium in the capital. There he was tortured and his hands broken. Even at that horrendous hour, Jara resisted and tried to give hope to those about to die, by singing „Venceremos”, the unofficial national anthem of the Unidad Popular movement, and the prisoners sang with him.

Along with many of his compatriots, Jara was murdered in this stadium. When Joan Jara went to identify her husband’s body, she found it riddled with bullets, with the wrists and neck broken and twisted.

Victor Jara was born 85 years ago, on September 23, 1932 into a family of farm workers. He learned Chilean folk traditions from his mother, Amanda, learnt to play the guitar and piano, became a singer, and joined the Nueva Canción Chilena (Chilean New Song) movement. The movement began as a small folk club, Pena Los Paras, led by Violeta Parra, an important influence on Jara in the late 1950s. Parra created a new kind of folk music in Chile, combining modern song with traditional forms. She established peñas, musical community centers. These launched many revolutionary artists.

Victor’s widow, Joan Jara comments:

The spring of his songs lay in a deep identification with the dispossessed people […], a deep awareness of social injustice and its causes and a determination to denounce such injustice […] in addition to the need to do something to change things

In Jara’s Manifiesto, written shortly before his death and released posthumously, he sings:

I don't sing for love of singing,
or because I have a good voice.
I sing because my guitar
has both feeling and reason.
It has a heart of earth
and the wings of a dove,
it is like holy water,
blessing joy and grief.
My song has found a purpose
as Violeta would say.
Hardworking guitar,
with a smell of spring.

My guitar is not for the rich no,
nothing like that.
My song is of the ladder
we are building to reach the stars.
For a song has meaning
when it beats in the veins
of a man who will die singing,
truthfully singing his song.

My song is not for fleeting praise
nor to gain foreign fame,
it is for this narrow country
to the very depths of the earth.
There, where everything comes to rest
and where everything begins,
song which has been brave song
will be forever new.

Victor Jara was murdered on 16 September 1973, aged forty. To his dying breath, he used his art to sing on behalf of the people. His last song was smuggled from the stadium of death by survivors:

There are five thousand of us here
in this small part of the city.
We are five thousand.
I wonder how many we are in all
in the cities and in the whole country?
Here alone
are ten thousand hands which plant seeds
and make the factories run.
How much humanity
exposed to hunger, cold, panic, pain,
moral pressure, terror and insanity?
Six of us were lost
as if into starry space.
One dead, another beaten as I could never have believed
a human being could be beaten.
The other four wanted to end their terror
one jumping into nothingness,
another beating his head against a wall,
but all with the fixed stare of death.
What horror the face of fascism creates!
They carry out their plans with knife-like precision.
Nothing matters to them.
To them, blood equals medals,
slaughter is an act of heroism.
Oh God, is this the world that you created,
for this your seven days of wonder and work?
Within these four walls only a number exists
which does not progress,
which slowly will wish more and more for death.
But suddenly my conscience awakes
and I see that this tide has no heartbeat,
only the pulse of machines
and the military showing their midwives' faces
full of sweetness.
Let Mexico, Cuba and the world
cry out against this atrocity!
We are ten thousand hands
which can produce nothing.
How many of us in the whole country?
The blood of our President, our compañero,
will strike with more strength than bombs and machine guns!
So will our fist strike again!

How hard it is to sing
when I must sing of horror.
Horror which I am living,
horror which I am dying.
To see myself among so much
and so many moments of infinity
in which silence and screams
are the end of my song.
What I see, I have never seen
What I have felt and what I feel
Will give birth to the moment…

Estadio Chile

September 1973

In July of this year, 45 years after their crime, eight retired officers were sentenced to 15 years in prison for Jara’s murder.

In the Fade
Sunday, 19 August 2018 21:13

In the Fade

Published in Films

Jenny Farrell reviews a new German film about the rise of fascism in Germany.

Winner of the Golden Globe for best foreign language film, In the Fade by Turkish-German director Fatih Akin, is one of the more important new political films on the state of Germany today.

It is loosely based on the NSU (National Socialist – i.e. fascist – Underground) trials, which were concluded this summer after dragging on for over five years. On trial was a group of neo-Nazis who had randomly killed nine people with a migrant background, and also a policewoman; undercover police officers were involved to the point of colluding with the killers. The most notorious of the neo-Nazis and the person on whom the trial focused, is Beate Zschäpe; two of her accomplices had died in the meantime. Only Zschäpe received a life sentence.

Akin pares down the actual events and trial to make his point. He creates a plot around one family, the assumptions of the police and the mechanisms of the court. Diane Krüger excels in her role as the victim’s widow seeking justice. Connections between the German fascists and Greece’s Golden Dawn party represent a growing network of rightwing extremism in Europe. The film is alarmingly relevant.

Where it falls behind real life is that things are even worse in actuality. The film stopped short of showing undercover state involvement, the failure of the legal system to bring this to light in the trial. Another question that arises as we see a terrifying increase of neo-Nazi presence on the streets and parliament of Germany, is how is this rise of fascism possible again? Where does it come from? How can it infiltrate society once again? Why is it not stopped? How can it be stopped? The film offers no answers to these questions. But it is a cinematic contribution to such a discussion and stirs viewers to think about racism, fascism and highlights the acute need for action to stop this.

The film has recently been released in its English version on DVD.

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists: a literary exposure of The Great Money Trick of capitalism
Friday, 03 August 2018 15:39

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists: a literary exposure of The Great Money Trick of capitalism

Published in Fiction

Jenny Farrell discusses one of the great working class novels in English literature, a literary exposure of the 'Great Money Trick' - the exploitation inherent in capitalism.

Robert Tressell’s The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists is the first important working-class novel in English literature. It was written between 1906 and 1910 and first published posthumously in abridged editions in 1914 and 1916. Its full text only appeared in in 1955.

Working class readers have widely embraced the novel as an important text about their experience, written from their own point of view. The birth and growth of the working-class theatre is inseparable from The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists: the first of many adaptations for the stage was made by the Workers’ Theatre Movement in 1930-31. The book has been republished very many times. No other working-class novel in Britain can claim a history faintly approaching this.

Robert Tressell’s life

Its author, Robert Tressell, was born Robert Croker in Dublin in 1870, later changing his name to his mother’s name, Noonan. By 1875 he was living in London, trained as a signwriter and decorator, and married Elizabeth Hartel in 1891; daughter Kathleen was born a year later. From 1894 Tressell spent a number of years in South Africa, where he was involved with the Trade Union movement.

He returned to England in 1901, around the time of the Boer War, in which he had helped organise the Irish brigades to fight on the side of the Boers against the British. In the meantime, he had divorced Elizabeth and received custody of Kathleen, with whom he now settled in Hastings.

Tressell was a member of the only Marxist group in Britain at his time, the Social-Democratic Federation, and had a reputation as a socialist educationalist, writer of leaflets and painter of banners. Over the next few years, he was in and out of employment as a painter and decorator, gaining a high reputation for his signwriting skills. His health began to deteriorate, as TB developed. Tressell died in a workhouse hospital in February 1911 and was buried in a pauper’s grave.

wall painting from St. Andrews church

Wall painting from St. Andrews Church, Hastings. Robert Tressell was employed by Burton & Co to carry out the decoration of the chancel in 1905.

Tressell wrote the Philanthropists in the evenings, and described it as “the story of 12 months in hell, told by some of the damned”. He states in the preface, “There are no scenes or incidents in the story that I have not either witnessed myself or had conclusive evidence of.” The 1,674 pages long, handwritten manuscript was turned down by three publishers. In 1913, after Tressell’s death, Kathleen showed the manuscript to Jessie Pope. Pope edited the manuscript drastically, deleting many socialist references. Her publisher then took on the book, paying Kathleen £25 for the rights.

The start of social realism

With the transition from industrial to monopoly capitalism at the end of the 19th century, a realist working-class writer of Tressell’s calibre could no longer accept the old type of plot. There are no personal “stories” between members of opposed classes – only money. Together with this honesty of portraying typical characters in typical circumstances, and the development of a collective as “hero”, Tressell revolutionised the genre and contributed to the foundation of social realism in the English novel.

The Philanthropists has no ‘story’ in the traditional sense. Instead it is an epic portrait of working-class existence in the newly ‘matured’ age of imperialism, set between 1902-1904, during the slump after the boom of the Boer War, with mass unemployment and rampant destitution. An impoverished, unorganised group of workers is at the centre of the novel – for this first time in the history of the English novel. Their class consciousness is at a primitive level – they are duped by the capitalist and imperialist media, for example by what they read in The Daily Obscurer, with its demagogy and jingoism. Throughout, Tressell castigates them unmercifully for the ‘philanthropic’ acceptance of their destitution, their acquiescence that culture and the achievements of civilisation are not for “the likes of us” and that their children should inherit this lot.

Economic, political and cultural hegemony

The boss Rushton (rush-it-on) and his middle-men force the workers to hurry and slobber the work, use inferior materials, while charging for excellence, and looting the premises for their own benefit. They also threaten the casual labourers with unemployment, effectively the workhouse and pauperism. The same bosses control the disorganised workers at a political level through the city’s council and through the church. It is a literary expression of Marxist theory, a fictional expression of the approach of the Culture Matters website, showing how the bosses’ economic power is copper-fastened not only by their hegemony of the political spheres, but also through appropriation and domination of cultural spheres – the church and the pub.

The life of the centre-stage class is traced from the cradle to the grave, from Easton’s baby, Frankie, to Bert, and right through to Jack Linden, who dies in a workhouse and is buried a pauper after a life of hard labour. The novel also develops fully individualised women characters. Nora Owen is as class conscious and conversant with Marxist ideas as her husband.

While the working-class characters are fleshed-out individuals, whom the reader follows into their home lives, the bosses are simply types. This is a refreshing reversal of the usual pattern of individualised middle-class lives and worker stereotypes. In this way, the breadth of depiction is matched by deep insight into the interior of working-class life.

Before The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists, fictional proletarian characters lived a far less rich life than the great middle-class figures of the bourgeois realists. In the Philanthropists, we are presented with individuals with a personal – and in the case of Owen, inner – life which is rich, humane and full of drama. We are presented with a conviction that the working class way of life has the potential to encompass all aspects of truly human living. The ruling class, by contrast, is put beyond consideration as a human way of life, its purpose being to block the working-class from free development, and to impose both physical and political degradation.

The book’s individual hero, Frank Owen, named after the utopian socialist Robert Owen, is a committed socialist who puts all his effort into converting his workmates to his way of thinking. His dinner break lectures on capitalism and socialism form an enriching commentary on the events of the novel. However, Owen is depicted as part of this labour collective, made up also of opportunists, the non-socialist rank and file, as well as highly class conscious workers, forming an organic, complete image of the working-class. He shares the same qualities as the other workers, only more developed and conscious: this is his socialism. In this realistic, heterogeneous portrayal of the working class, Tressell is like his contemporary, Maxim Gorky.

As Alan Dent remarks in his Introduction to the recent collection of poems by Martin Hayes, although work is a central reality in life for most people, it is rarely depicted in art. Never before in the English realist novel had the actual labour process been central to the depiction of class struggle. For the first time, Tressell reverses the assumption that life begins where work ends – work is essential to a fully lived human life. A character’s attitude to labour is a touchstone of his/her humanity. Labour means nothing to Rushton, Sweater and the bosses. Crass, Slyme and other labourers display the least humanity, betraying and tricking their mates, and toadying to the bosses. In all the decent workers, pride in their work and their efforts to do it properly, despite threats of instant sacking, emerges damaged but basically intact.

Owen’s decorative painting of the drawing room in the Moorish style is a supreme example. He takes the annihilating material environment, the central tool of capitalist oppression, and turns it into a vessel of creative proletarian living, an opportunity to express his humanity through his work. In the struggle over how the work should be done, Owen lays down the law to the bosses: during the period of this work, Owen achieves his fullest humanity and the bosses lose control of him and the entire situation.

In the character of the socialist and humanist Owen, Tressell succeeds for the first time in giving vital, realistic embodiment to his hero William Morris’s idea of the kind of human being that is the salt of the earth. In presenting the labour process as a legitimate subject for art, Tressell introduces an element, which points far into the future of socialist and communist culture.

In this way, Tressell echoes the anti-capitalist thinking of not only Morris, but also Carlyle and Ruskin before him. For both Ruskin and Morris architectural decoration was the universal form of human self-expression, direct forerunners of Owen. As a worker-writer, he stands in the radical Burns, Blake, Clare and Chartist tradition. Standing on all these shoulders, Tressell breaks new ground with the creation of a working class group hero, with labour at the heart of the action, and with the creation of the revolutionary novel.

The struggle and partial victory of the workers is a theme of many of the best sections of the book, for example the one entitled “Filling the Tank”. While the pub is primarily part of the ruling class armoury for controlling workers in their ‘private’ lives, and milking them for their pitiful wages, there is a moment where the Semi-Drunk and the Besotten Wretch compete in a game of rings and shove-ha’penny. On this occasion, the Besotten Wretch turns this degrading environment to a positive purpose, where the workers take charge and really enjoy themselves, living at their own terms. An example of the ‘cultural struggle’, perhaps?

Another example is young Bert’s magic-lantern “Pandorama”, depicting the cruelty of capitalism. With it, he entertains the fully comprehending children at the Christmas party, who then burst out into jingoistic songs, such as the hilariously ironic “Rule Britannia”, containing the words “Britons never shall be slaves”. The children’s’ immediate understanding of the irrationalities of capitalism contrasts ironically with Owen’s relatively meagre success among his workmates, despite using similar dramatic propagandist theatrics.In all these examples, Tressell shows humanity in the face of degradation, and the workers’ ability to come to grips with their environment, however unpromising.

Owen’s lectures on socialism are a further instance. Although he only reaches some of the workers, the portrayal of the others is not negative. They engage with him and take an active part in these lectures, by helping to dramatize the examples. These scenes take on the nature of theatrical enjoyment and their collective reaches its highest development.

The Great Money Trick

Perhaps the most central of these dramatized lectures is where Owen explains to the astonishment of his fellow workers that “Money is the real cause of poverty”. To prove this, he shows them “how the Great Money Trick is worked”. Using bits and pieces from the dinner baskets, Owen illustrates his point, the creation of surplus value:

You say that you are all in need of employment, and as I am the kind-hearted capitalist class, I am going to invest my money in various industries, so as to give you Plenty of Work. (…) For doing this work you will each receive your wages …

These blocks represent the necessaries of life. (…) you will have to buy them from me …

As the working classes were in need of the necessaries of life, and as they could not eat, drink or wear the useless money, they were compelled to agree to the kind Capitalist’s terms (…) having consumed the necessaries they had bought with their wages, there were again in precisely the same condition as when they started work – they had nothing. (…) The kind-hearted capitalist consumed twice as much as any one of them and his pile of wealth continually increased (… he …) takes the machinery away from them and informed them that as owing to Over Production all his store-houses were glutted with the necessaries of life, he had decided to close down the works.

And so it goes on, like a chorus on the events of the novel.

While Tressell shares a great deal of common ideological and artistic ground with his peer Gorky, he also inherits a specifically English tradition, especially from Dickens. One example is his use of composite images, which contain the phenomenal power of social generalisation. While these images work fully at their own level, they often become symbolic of a more general social phenomenon.

For example, an important theme in the novel is the scamping of work. Misery commands the men nonstop to “slobber it on” – to cover dirt, cracks and structural weaknesses for long enough to pocket the profits. While this is the typical capitalist work ethic, at another level it epitomises the general drive to alienation in capitalist society and culture. And at yet another level, it is a symbol for the entire imperialist enterprise, where putrefaction, corruption, fraud and structural weaknesses are covered with a shoddy façade of illusory luxury and ineffectual half-measures at reform and regulation.

Over one hundred years after its first publication, The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists continues to be considered by most readers as a revelation, a novel of the utmost relevance today, as a book that describes the world as it is. All working people nowadays, especially the precariat, easily recognise the ‘slob-it-on’ work ethic of less resources, fewer people to do jobs, poor wages and conditions, part-time work, and the threat and reality of unemployment. All those people who sell their labour are essentially in the same boat. The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists reveals the essence of an exploitative, capitalist system that is still in place.

In this way, the book represents exactly the kind of political art that is central to the Culture Matters project, because it expresses the truth in a counter-hegemonic fictional discourse about work and exploitation, a truth that so many other writers ignore, gloss over or even glorify. Just how it lives on is illustrated in the following poem, entered for the Culture Matters Bread and Roses Poetry Award 2018, sponsored by Unite:

The Song Of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist

by Graeme Darling

I've been working my arse off for years,
So that parasites can sit on theirs,
Counting all the money they have stolen from me.
These venal cannibals are legal criminals,
Cloaking their immorality in the joke of respectability.
It's the same story in every capitalist trap;
The most essential employees ( exploitees ) are treated like crap.
Decent folk on scrimping wages strain, scrub and mop,
While bloodsucking turds ride on their backs to the top.
You don't need to know the Communist Manifesto
To recognise injustice that's manifestly so.
This situation blights every organisation, I'm telling you true;
The higher the pay, the less work they do!
I'm sick and tired of being trod into the ground,
I'd turn this crazy pyramid the right way round.
The bosses in armchairs should clean toilets and stairs,
And experience an existence of struggling for subsistence.
Along with a decent minimum, I'd have a wage maximum.
Four to one should be the widest disparity;
Anything more is an utter obscenity.
This economic system of domination wreaks global exploitation;
Our training shoes are made by kids in sweatshops,
The Earth is ravaged for our phones and laptops.
We must side with the oppressed of every form and nation;
The universal kinship should be our motivation.

This article is indebted to my father’s study: Jack Mitchell, Robert Tressell and the Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists, Lawrence & Wishart, 1969.

Emily Bronte
Friday, 22 June 2018 22:52

Emily Brontë, Heathcliff and imagining a classless society

Published in Fiction

Jenny Farrell discusses ‘Wuthering Heights’, and its subtle, skilful imagining of a more humane, classless society, where unequal gender difference is replaced by an equality of personhood.

30 July 2018 marks the 200th anniversary of Emily Brontë’s birth. Her novel “Wuthering Heights” (1847) is an amazing, creative challenge to the personal cruelties and oppressions based on class, gender and ethnic background which were being generated by the hardening class divisions of English society in the 19th century.

Emily was one of four Brontë children to survive into adulthood. Their father was an Irish clergyman, from an impoverished family, who moved to Cambridge to study for holy orders, became a Tory and received an Anglican parsonage on the Yorkshire moors. Three sisters wrote novels, which they first published under male pseudonyms. Charlotte became most famous for her novel “Jane Eyre”, Anne also wrote fiction, and Emily wrote poems and just one book, “Wuthering Heights”. Their hapless brother Branwell’s claim to fame is a portrait of his sisters, still exhibited in London’s National Portrait Gallery. All Brontë children died before the age of forty – Emily was thirty when she perished of TB.

Emily Bronte 2

England in the mid-1840s was in the throes of the Industrial Revolution, vividly described by Brontë contemporary Friedrich Engels in his first book (1845) “The Condition of the Working Class in England”. Growing up, they would have been aware from the newspapers they read of the devastation of hand-workers, especially the handloom weavers in their region, and the resulting large-scale impoverishment. Haworth, homestead of the Brontës, lay near the Yorkshire mill towns, badly hit by the Hungry Forties. Their adult lives coincided with struggles against the Corn Laws, factory reform, strikes and the height of Chartism. Ireland was haemorrhaging from its holocaust, the Famine. All this affected the writings of the Brontë sisters, filtering through in one way or another.

Emily’s profound understanding of 19th century England, and capitalism, is reflected in “Wuthering Heights”. This novel shocked the Victorian reader, and its violence still alarms readers today. At its heart is the story of Catherine Earnshaw and Heathcliff, a destitute, probably Irish child brought home by Mr Earnshaw from Liverpool. A deep bond develops between the children. Catherine is a tomboy, the opposite of the Victorian idea of a female. Mr Earnshaw protects Heathcliff, and insists he be treated as a family equal. Catherine’s elder brother Hindley detests Heathcliff, and torments him physically and emotionally. After Mr Earnshaw dies, this abuse escalates. Hindley, who had been away for three years, returns with a wife and orders the servants and Heathcliff to stay away from the family living quarters:

Hindley … won’t let him sit with us, nor eat with us any more; and, he says, he and I must not play together, and threatens to turn him out of the house if we break his orders. He has been blaming our father … for treating H. too liberally; and swears he will reduce him to his right place.

Catherine and Heathcliff, however, remain inseparable. Cathy teaches Heathcliff everything she learns. In a key episode, they roam over to Thrushcross Grange, home of the Linton family, the largest capitalist landowners in the area. It is very different to the Heights – a Victorian mansion furnished in the most expensive style. Mr and Mrs Linton are absent; Edgar and his sister Isabella are seen violently pulling a dog between them for pleasure, a thing Heathcliff cannot comprehend.

When the Lintons become aware of two onlookers outside, whom they mistake to be after the rent money, they let the bulldog loose on them, and it gets a hold of Catherine. When they are brought into the Linton house, Heathcliff is sent away, whereas Catherine is deemed respectable and treated for her wounds. She stays five weeks and returns a young lady.

Increasingly, Catherine is sucked into the prevalent class values, spending less time with Heathcliff and more with the Lintons. Unsurprisingly for the reader of Victorian novels, Edgar asks Catherine to marry him. However, contrary to Victorian expectations, Brontë makes clear that Catherine’s acceptance signifies her betrayal of Heathcliff, of their absolute loyalty, of their impassioned and classless relationship.

Catherine reveals to the housekeeper Nelly Dean that it would degrade her to marry Heathcliff. Heathcliff overhears this but disastrously does not hear her continue:

He shall never know how I love him; and that not because he's handsome, Nelly, but because he's more myself than I am. Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same; and Linton's is as different as a moonbeam from lightning, or frost from fire.

Catherine’s bowing to money and convention triggers the tragedy. Heathcliff, devastated, leaves Wuthering Heights, not to return for three years.

The turn of events in the second half of the novel is unprecedented for the Victorian and uncomfortable for the modern reader. Heathcliff has acquired money and an understanding of law. He returns to “settle my score with Hindley; and then prevent the law by doing execution on myself”, but Catherine’s welcome rekindles all the old passion. Heathcliff puts into operation a plan that is designed to beat class society at its own game. He gambles with Hindley, taking his property. He marries Isabella Linton in order to gain Linton property. He treats Isabella brutally, as just what she is in terms of Victorian law – his property. Interestingly Heathcliff tells Nelly about Isabella:

No brutality disgusted her: I suppose she has an innate admiration of it, if only her precious person were secure from injury! … set his (Edgar’s, JF) fraternal and magisterial heart at ease: that I keep strictly within the limits of the law. I have avoided, up to this period, giving her the slightest right to claim a separation; …

Edgar makes clear their new relationship: “she is only my sister in name: not because I disown her, but because she has disowned me.” Who disowns whom is a matter for the reader to decide. The institution of the Victorian family as a harbour of humanity is shattered at every level.

Heathcliff becomes master of Wuthering Heights and many years after Catherine’s death forces a marriage between his weakling son Linton, “my property”, and Catherine’s daughter Cathy, again to acquire Linton property. He even imprisons Cathy to do so. Interestingly, Linton immediately turns tyrant to Cathy:

She’s my wife, and it’s shameful that she should wish to leave me. He says she hates me and wants me to die, that she may have my money; but she shan’t have it: and she shan’t go home! She never shall! …. uncle is dying, truly, at last. I’m glad, for I shall be master of the Grange after him. Catherine always spoke of it as her house. It isn’t hers! It’s mine: papa says everything she has is mine.

With this action, Heathcliff parodies, in a grotesque way, Catherine’s class marriage to Edgar. In the likely event of son Linton’s death, Heathcliff not Catherine would inherit. Everything is turned into its monstrous extreme.

Hindley’s son Hareton, who resembles both the young Catherine and Heathcliff remarkably, is Heathcliff’s fiercest and most loyal defender. And despite himself and his best laid plans, Heathcliff likes Hareton. Heathcliff treats Hareton and the servants at the Heights without much social difference. They all work, live and eat together. Women coming to the house, such as Isabella and later Cathy Linton, are stripped of their property, by marriage, and of their class comforts. They work for their living.

The only person who enjoys a work-free existence is son Linton, whom Heathcliff despises but has educated. When he is dying, shortly after his marriage to Cathy, Heathcliff comments: “but his life is not worth a farthing, and I won’t spend a farthing on him.” Repeatedly, the reader is shocked at the lack of sentimentality. Over and over, we are confronted with the reality of cash nexus and the law.

Hareton, Hindley’s son, is not educated and cannot read, write or use numbers. Again, this is in keeping with the rules of class society – why educate a farm worker? Heathcliff has pared down all his dealings to the bare logic of capitalist rationality. There are no frills, no pretences of kindness. Heathcliff’s tenants too are treated roughly. There is no humanity. It is only in this stark, unmasked form that readers realise this is the true nature of their own society. It is hyperbole, yes, but for that reason all the more effective in revealing the essence.

The union of Hareton and Cathy, which concludes the novel, is a rebellion against a world governed by the iron grip of inhumanity. Although they will overcome the property barrier with their marriage, they will accommodate themselves in the ‘respectable’, ‘civilised’ Thrushcross Grange. And yet there is hope for a relationship of equality, untypical of the Victorian era.

What remains with the reader, however, is the tragedy of Catherine and Heathcliff whose absolute freedom from all the dictates of class and hierarchy was the essence of their relationship. This kind of relationship is doomed. That is the tragedy.

I often think of Heathcliff in today’s world, as the ruling class increasingly reveals its profoundly barbaric nature. There is ever less pretence of culture and humanity. Education and health care are business, the state extracts itself progressively from a duty of care. Politicians set ever-decreasing value on a shallow veneer of humanity. We are seeing the beast for what it is, perhaps most grotesquely in Donald Trump, but certainly not only in him. The difference to Heathcliff is that Heathcliff cannot reach personal fulfilment by living this way. He wreaks revenge on the class system, but the price is his own humanity, indeed his life. Class society is the root cause of Heathcliff’s inhumanity.

Brontë does not spell this out in quite these words. Her very clever and innovative narrative ensures that the reader is taken in by the double, prejudiced Victorian class lens of Mr Lockwood and Nelly Dean. Even Isabella’s letter, the only verbatim document apart from Heathcliff and Catherine’s direct speech, quoted by Nelly and filtered again via Lockwood, expresses her class point of view. Therefore, the reader has to do what readers of the bourgeois press must do daily: read between the lines and presume that we are dealing with half-truths, omissions and fake news.

Heathcliff only responds humanely when he is with Catherine, and in his torment after she dies. They can only be together in death, buried beside each other outside the church: “on a green slope in a corner of the kirk-yard, where the wall is so low that heath and bilberry-plants have climbed over it from the moor; and peat-mould almost buries it.”

The sides of their coffins are open to each other. Heathcliff’s love for Catherine, is his humanity, and it is a world apart from Victorian class marriage. In their relationship of unequivocal equality Emily Brontë anticipates a more humane society, one that reaches far beyond hierarchical systems. It reaches into a time when unequal gender difference is replaced by an equality of personhood. In her subtle, utopian vision, Emily Brontë anticipates a humane society, unrestrained by the class-based laws that Heathcliff reveals to be barbaric.

If the meaning of life is to create conditions that are commensurate with humanity, then Emily Brontë’s remarkable novel highlights this. Her dream is yet to be achieved.

Karl Eliasberg conducting, on 9 August 1942
Wednesday, 13 June 2018 15:19

The Siege of Leningrad, Shostakovich and the airbrushing of history

Published in Music

Jenny Farrell recounts the story of the genesis of Shostakovich's Leningrad synmphony.

The Cold War against Russia – and previously the Soviet Union – continues. This includes the removal from public memory of the many atrocities committed by Nazi Germany on the Soviet population, and the latter’s heroic role in the defeat of fascism.

On 22 June1941 Germany invaded the Soviet Union. It resulted in a holocaust in which at least 25 million Russians perished, more than half of the dead of World War II.

One of the most horrendous acts of barbarity was the German blockade of Leningrad: For almost 900 days, from 8 September 1941 to 27 January 1944, all supplies were cut off and the people of Leningrad systematically starved to death. Over one million Leningraders died. 

The Siege of Leningrad was recorded not only in books, but also in music. A resident in Leningrad at the time was composer Dmitri Shostakovich. He began work on a symphony immediately the attack began, expressing his thoughts on Soviet life, and the ability of his people to defeat the fascists. This seventh symphony is known as the Leningrad

It has four movements. The first is entitled War and begins with lyrical music describing a peaceful life in the USSR before the fascist invasion. A solo violin is interrupted by a distant drum and the ‘invasion theme’, which is repeated twelve times with a growing number of instruments, growing ever louder and shriller, creating a profound sense of unease. Military drums punctuate this section, which ends in an outcry of pain and horror. A quieter passage follows – a solo flute, then a bassoon, grieving the dead. Accompaniment is fragmented, so expressing the broken people it bewails. Dissonances dominate.

In the second movement, Memories, the mood changes to happier times, some dance melodies, although a note of sadness is also present.

The music of the third movement - Wide Expanses of Our Land – affirms the heroism of the people, their humanism, and Russia’s great natural beauty. The movement is a dialogue between the chorale, the solace given by the splendour of the homeland, and the solo voice – the violins, the individual in torment. Both the second and third movements express Shostakovich’s conviction “that war doesn’t necessarily destroy cultural values.”

About the final movement, Victory, Shostakovich commented:

My idea of victory isn’t something brutal; it’s better explained as the victory of light over darkness, of humanity over barbarism, of reason over reaction.

The movement begins by describing, musically, people at work in peacetime, full of hope and happiness, as the drums and guns of war overcome them. The music marches, fights and resists. Victory does not come easily. Shostakovich begins with the timpani roll that concluded the slow third movement, and gradually adds other voices. Slowly the music moves towards its conclusion, with brass fanfares and cymbal crashes. It forces its way into bright C major — the upbeat key of victory. Yet, the final chords in this most magnificent of keys contain a sorrowful sound. In full recognition of the realities, the unimaginable suffering of war, the symphony cannot end in simple triumph. 

Shostakovich composed most of the symphony while under siege in Leningrad. Despite his objections, the Soviet government evacuated the Shostakovich family along with other artists several months into the blockade. The Leningrad was performed on 9 August 1942 in his besieged home city. The score was airlifted in across Nazi lines. The orchestra only had 15 musicians left, so more were recalled from the front.

A clarinet player at this historic performance, Galina Lelyukhina, recalled rehearsals:  

They said on the radio that all living musicians were invited. It was hard to walk. I was sick with scurvy, and my legs were very painful. At first there were nine of us, but then more people arrived. The conductor Eliasberg was brought on a sledge, because hunger had made him so weak.

On 9 August 1942, the hall was packed, windows and doors open, for those outside to hear. The music was broadcast on the streets and to the fronts to inspire the whole nation. The Red Army pre-empted German plans to disrupt the performance by shelling the enemy beforehand to ensure silence for the two hours needed for the concert.

Blockade survivor Irina Skripacheva remembers:

This symphony had a huge impact on us. The rhythm incited a feeling of elevation, flight … At the same time we could feel the scary rhythm of the German hordes. It was unforgettable and overwhelming.

Today, along Russia’s western border NATO (including German) tanks and troops prepare for war.

Mary Ann McCracken
Tuesday, 15 May 2018 09:21

'Of no court tyrants we're afraid': the literature of the United Irishmen

Published in Poetry

Jenny Farrell introduces the literature of the United Irishmen, part of international and democratic liberation literature, expressing ideals which are still to be achieved.

24 May marks the 220th anniversary of the rising of the United Irishmen, a struggle for the overthrow of British rule in Ireland and the establishment of an Independent Irish Republic in 1798. This rebellion continued over the summer and into autumn and ended with the deaths of tens of thousands. The Society had almost 300,000 sworn members at the time.

The 17th century in Ireland marked the murderous and complete obliteration of the Gaelic system, beginning with the Battle of Kinsale 1601/2 and ending finally with the Treaty of Limerick 1691, the culmination of Britain’s systematic conquest of Ireland. Less than ninety years later, the American War of Independence led to the formation of the so-called Volunteers, to replace the British troops sent from Ireland to America. With the Volunteers, an important new factor entered the Irish political stage.

The French Revolution became a catalyst for further political development, culminating in the establishment of the Society of United Irishmen in November 1791. This Society consisted of parts of the Irish bourgeoisie and, as time went on, an emerging proletariat. Its membership was increasingly balanced between Anglo-Irish Protestants, Presbyterian Scots and Irish Catholics. The movement’s great strength was the conscious rejection of denominational sectarianism. Both America’s independence and the French struggle for freedom became models and a driving force for the movement. The United Irishmen encompassed in their demand for equality the Catholic population, women, and, internationally, slaves. These were not vague aspirations, but specific demands, reflected in the United Irishmen’s publications. Thus, Tone’s “Argument on Behalf of the Catholics of Ireland” argues in detail for the complete emancipation of Catholics. The “Northern Star” in its enthusiastic review of Wollstonecraft’s “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman”, calls for female politicians, as “I scorn the reasoning which says what has been shall be”. The United Irishmen also enthusiastically supported the non-consumption of tea and sugar in solidarity with the struggle against slavery.

Northern Star

The execution of Louis XVI in January 1793 and Britain’s entry into the coalition against France brought a clampdown on opposition at home. The Orange Order emerged; martial law was imposed. By the end of 1793, the opposition was isolated. A year later, the power of the United Irishmen had been broken, its leadership arrested or dispersed. It reconstituted as a secret organization. In contrast to 1791, it was now made up predominantly from the ranks of the radical petty bourgeoisie, the developing proletariat and the peasantry.

This new Society’s goal became “separation of Ireland from England and her establishment as an independent Republic”. Throughout his life, Wolfe Tone, the most active advocate of this course, recognised “the blasting influence of England” as the main obstacle to true Irish sovereignty. He sought the complete break with London while at the same time drawing closer to revolutionary France.
The United Irishmen made every effort to realise their plan. Military training took place during so-called “diggings”, joint fieldwork. Weapons were smuggled into the country. The revolutionaries, supported by France, made their first attempts at a violent overthrow in late 1796. They all, including the final nationwide uprising in 1798, were doomed to failure, due to the strength of the opponent, their own military and organisational weakness, treason, and bad weather, which prevented French troops from landing. The United Irishmen were crushed, their members arrested, executed, exiled.

wolfe tone

Political Journalism in the Age of the Revolution

The United Irishmen founded the radical press in Ireland. They had three newspapers, aspiring to cover the entire country: the Belfast “Northern Star” (ca 600 editions Jan 1792 – May 1797), the Dublin “Press”, and the Cork “Harp of Erin”. All leading United Irishmen wrote for their press, almost everybody under a pseudonym. Both inside as well as outside these newspapers, a number of literary writings appeared, penned with a political purpose, often breaking with literary convention. Among these were essay, satire, fable, dialogue, song, poetry etc., popularised through their newspapers, pamphlets or leaflets. Although these writings were in English, there is also an awareness of Gaelic culture in evidence, not least in the title “Harp of Erin” and reports on and reviews of Gaelic traditions in the “Northern Star”.

Harp

The essays of the United Irishmen begin with Tone. His contributions in the early 1790s represent an important step towards forming a radical opposition. Tone’s “Argument on Behalf of the Catholics of Ireland” addresses one of the fundamental problems of Ireland’s national movement, making Catholic emancipation a precondition for progress. Thomas Russell’s political essay “Letter to the people of Ireland” of 1796 led to his arrest and imprisonment without trial.

Satire thrived in a situation of political powerlessness, reprisals and draconian censorship. The Irish satirical tradition began with Swift in the early 18th century, in its most caustic form - social satire.
William Pitt and Edmund Burke enjoyed special satirical attention. A prime example is a personal satire published in the “Northern Star” in 1795 under the title “Mustapha’s Adoration of the sublime Sultan Pittander the Omnipotent”, in which the omnipotence of Pitt and his political guiles are described from the perspective of Mustapha, his worshipping slave. Another satire entitled “Pitt’s Ghost, being an account of the dissection, funeral procession. Epitaph of the Minister of state” is an obituary, based on the fictitious death of the politician, and proof that his badness reaches to the core. The dissection of Pitt’s ribcage reveals, his heart

was so remarkable as to deserve a particular description .....(it) was extremely cold to the touch, and very hard... The inside was perfectly black and consisted of a sort of powder which emitted an exceedingly foetid smell. When this powder was narrowly inspected, with the aid of a microscope a great many small shining objects were visible, shaped like swords, daggers and bayonets...

To his innermost being, Pitt is infested with war and aggression. The satire ends with his spirit yet among the living, Pitt making occasional appearances in Downing Street and Whitehall.

An example of social satire is “Billy Bluff and Squire Firebrand”, serialised in the “Northern Star”. With Firebrand and Billy, his informant, two representatives of the gentry and the submissive clergy are satirised. When Firebrand learns of a meeting between Billy’s neighbour and a Catholic priest, their toasts and songs, Firebrand’s reaction is typical of his class. Everything smacks of turmoil and rottenness, even the slightest gesture takes on political significance, he smells adversity and recalls times, “before men turned their thoughts to thinking,” in which it was possible

(to) imprison Catholics for keeping arms in their houses, .... (to get) a Presbyterian assassinated for voting against him at the vestry... (to fine) Quakers for not paying tythes.

Billy has a dream vision, in which members of all classes and denominations, poor and rich, sick and weak, come together, and the Union of all Irishmen becomes reality.

The “Chinese Journal” is a satirical travel diary, written from the point of view of a fictitious correspondent reporting on an English legation to the Chinese court. Following some initial impressions of an exotic environment, the narrator informs the reader of his meeting with the emperor. Reminiscent of “Gulliver’s Travels”, the reader gets an insight into the thinking of members of society and learns about the circumstances of their country. Here the envoy’s description of his English king:

The King, my Master, our mightiest son of the firmament! reigns in the hearts of all his subjects: his councils are all wise, his virtues unparalleled and his wisdom is more than tongue can tell.

Far from awe-struck, the Chinese emperor reveals knowledge of England:

I cannot help seeing some little regard for the nation which has produced a Newton and a Priestley, but your vainglorious boasting, your tyranny and conquests have brought upon you universal devastation.

Members of a Turkish legation, also in China, emulate the criticism. They ascertain the true motive for the journey of the English, claiming that London’s emissaries came to China on behalf of the East India Company with predatory intent. The narrator, himself part of the legation, is consternated, seeing himself, his country and his king in the dock. He escapes into a dream, which turns into a nightmare. He finds himself caught in the machinations of court proceedings from which he cannot escape. The radical reader recognises such dreams from personal experience: being dragged through the courts, is business as usual for a patriot.

Poetry appeared in many popular forms, including song: drinking songs, folk songs, dance songs, ballads. They gave people new confidence, and channelled fears into laughter or anger at opponents.
In politically turbulent times, songs can play an important role. Here, a balladeer draws our attention to the purpose of his appearance:

That something is a left us, we all must agree;
Though talking’s forbidden - Yet singing is free
Plain truth may be blamed and honesty wrong;
But sure there’s no harm in an honest old song.
...
One verse for myself, Sirs; and then I have done
Hard times and large Families make but poor fun;
And when children for bread cry around in a throng,
I’m oft forced to quiet their mouths with - a Song!

Ballads usually relate historical or current events, uprisings, attacks by the opponent, heroic acts of martyrs, revolts, landings, etc. Reciting a critical poem or singing a political ballad in the field, at work, “digging” (subversive military training in the field) or at festivals expressed political opposition and an awareness of common resistance to the ruling class. Firebrand expresses displeasure and anger at the songs sung by the people and their effect on public morality : “’tis songs that is most to be dreaded of all things” he confesses to Billy, his informant, and then continues:

Singing, Billy, is a d-n’d bad custom, it infects a whole country, and makes them half mad: Because they rejoice and forget their cares, and forget their duty, and forget their betters. By H-n’s I’ll put an end to singing in this part of the country, in a short time.

To reinforce this threat, he refers to the example of one of his neighbours, who

within three months ... sent two chimney-sweepers, three blind fiddlers, a ballad-singer, and a drunken man to the black hole and the flocks for singing and playing tunes against the law.

Firebrand’s fear of Billy is understandable, given lyrics like the following:

No longer lost in shades of night
Where late in chains we lay;
The sun arises, and her light
Dispels our gloom away.
Demanding Freedom All!
While kings combine
We boldly join,
Nor cease till tyrants fall,”

From another song

Of no court tyrants we’re afraid,
We’ll spin our term of freedom out:
Secure of each true patriot’s aid,
And put oppressors to the rout.

The poetry of the United Irishmen drew its political impetus both from their own egalitarian positions and from their revolutionary role models at home and abroad. They translated a whole series of French songs, including the Marseillaise. The songs and poems of the United Irishmen reveal their patriotic character most when they refer to Ireland. Titles like “To Ireland”, “Erin”, “Hibernia” are about the fate of the homeland deprived of its freedom. A considerable part of the poetry deals with the suffering and misery of individuals, their pain is symptomatic of the misery of all. It describes the fate of the peasants, expresses sympathy for the exiled, compassion for the enslaved, or the freedom fighters who died in battle and for their country - beacons of resistance and sacrifice. Their profoundly humane content and their social realism express forcefully the United Irishmen’s compassion for their people and the essence of their political and literary practice.

Internationalism is deeply engrained in their poetry. They stood up for the interests of the exploited and slaves. One example of this is “Negro’s complaint”;

Trembling, naked, wounded, sighing,
On this winged house I stand;
Which, with poor black man is flying
Far away from his own land.
...
Fearful waters all around me;
Strange the sights on every hand;
Hurry, noise, and shouts confound me,
When I look for Negro land.
Every thing I see affrights me;
Nothing I can understand:
With their scourges, white men fight me,
If I weep for Negro land.

MAMcC

Mary Ann McCracken, republican and social reformer, led the Women's Abolitionary Committee in Belfast during the height of the anti-slavery movement. She was the sister of one of the founding members of the United Irishmen Society.

The literary writings of the United Irishmen are part of international and democratic liberation literature. The ideals they fought for have yet to be achieved.

This article is indebted to Eckhardt Rüdebusch, “Irland im Zeitalter der Revolution”.

 

In Praise of Communism
Tuesday, 17 April 2018 11:52

In Praise of Communism

Published in Marx200

The outstanding German communist playwright and poet Bertolt Brecht was born on 10 February 1898, 120 years ago. To celebrate the anniversary, Jenny Farrell has sent us one of his poems, which was translated by her father, Jack Mitchell. The image is by Mark Titchner, an artist who lives and works in London.

In Praise of Communism

by Bertolt Brecht

It is reasonable. You can grasp it. It's simple.
You're no exploiter, so you'll understand.
It is good for you. Look into it.
Stupid men call it stupid, and the dirty call it dirty.
It is against dirt and against stupidity.
The exploiters call it a crime.
But we know:
It is the end of all crime.
It is not madness but
The end of madness.
It is not chaos,
But order.
It is the simple thing
That's hard to do.

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