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.
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…
In July of this year, 45 years after their crime, eight retired officers were sentenced to 15 years in prison for Jara’s murder.
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.
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, 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.
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.
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.
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 survivorIrina 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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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”.
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.
Jenny Farrell salutes John Heartfield, the creator of political photomontage, who died fifty years ago.
John Heartfield is one of the most important European artists. He works in a field which he created himself, the field of photomontage. Through this new form of art, he exercises social criticism. Steadfastly on the side of the working class, he unmasked the forces of the Weimar Republic driving towards war; driven into exile he fought against Hitler. The works of this great satirist, which mainly appeared in the workers’ press, are regarded as classics by many, including the author of these lines. - Bertolt Brecht
John Heartfield died fifty years ago, on 26 April 1968. He is the founder of political photomontage and a fearless communist and activist, who lived through two world wars.
Helmut Herzfeld was born on 19 June 1891 in Berlin. His parents abandoned Herzfeld, his brother and two sisters, at a very young age, in 1899. The children lived with relatives after that. After finishing school in 1905, the brothers moved first to Wiesbaden, and from there to Munich, in 1909, where Heartfield studied art. Initially, he worked as a commercial artist and later continued his studies in Berlin. In protest against chauvinist war propaganda and the greeting “May God Punish England”, Herzfeld translated his surname into English, calling himself John Heartfield thenceforth.
Heartfield’s brother Wieland and he worked closely together throughout their lives. Together they published the magazine “Neue Jugend” in Berlin in 1917-18, where John Heartfield pioneered a new typography. They founded the Malik-Verlag publishing house in 1917. When the Communist Party of Germany was founded, at the end of December 1918, Heartfield joined immediately. He produced stage sets for proletarian theatres, posters for the Communist Party, and contributed artwork for magazines and pamphlets.
Over the following years, he began experimenting with new ways of working with photographs. These photomontages were used for the book covers of the Malik-Verlag and other progressive publishing houses. Heartfield also collaborated with other anti-fascist artists, such as George Grosz, especially in creating collages in the early post-war years.
Fathers and Sons, 1924
Photomontage became Heartfield’s specific artistic weapon. He made photomontages commenting on contemporary politics, starting with the famous image “Fathers and Sons” in 1924. After 1930, he contributed frequently to the weeklies “Arbeiter-Illustrierte-Zeitung” (AIZ) and “Volks-Illustrierte” (VI), often collaborating with Wieland in creating montages. Heartfield’s photomontages on the covers of the widely sold AIZ, appeared at newsstands across Germany. He used Rotogravure, engraving pictures, words and designs, into the printing plate, to design montages on posters, which were distributed in the streets of Berlin in 1932 and 1933.
The spirit of class struggle and in particular of the October Revolution imbues the book covers he created for the works of revolutionary German, American, and Soviet writers, for the collected editions of Tolstoy, Gorky, Ehrenburg and Sinclair. He responded directly to world events: the British general strike in 1926; the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti in 1927; the planned frame-up of the eight Scottsboro boys in Alabama, USA, in 1931.
This is the God they they bring, 1938
When fascism took over in Germany, the Nazis targeted him immediately. A dramatic flight brought him to Prague, where he resumed his work for the emigrated AIZ and the Malik-Verlag. An entire series of photomontages was dedicated to the trial of Dimitrov in 1933, later, in 1936-37, to the battles of the Spanish Republic and the International Brigades.
The meaning of the Hitler salute, 1932
In 1938, Hitler demanded the extradition of Heartfield and other anti-fascists. This demand was rejected by the Czechoslovak government. He fled to London shortly before the Nazis marched into Prague in December 1938, where he was initially interned as an enemy alien. Following his release, he received permission to stay in Britain, whilst Wieland did not and had to flee to the United States. In London, Heartfield co-founded the active “Free German League of Culture” and earned his living as typographer and designer for British publishing houses.
Returning from Britain in 1950, he settled in the German Democratic Republic, initially in Leipzig and then in Berlin. Despite serious heart trouble, he continued working, creating stage settings and theatre posters for the Deutsches Theater in Berlin, and for the Berliner Ensemble, as well as political posters for the state.
John Heartfield wrote the following passage for the catalogue of the last two exhibitions held during his lifetime:
Since we are living in the nuclear age a Third World War would mean a catastrophe for the whole of humanity, a catastrophe the full extent of which eludes our imagination. Before the outbreak of the Second World War, on 13 October 1937, I made a photomontage entitled Warning. A cinema audience was shown watching scenes of horror caused by a Japanese air raid on Manchuria in the Far East. The caption read: 'today you will see a film from other lands. But know that if you do not resist unitedly today, it will kill you tomorrow.’ The campaign of extermination against the Vietnamese people, fighting heroically for their existence, caused me to change the first line of the caption. Now it reads: '... You will see a film from far-off Vietnam.’
“Now the war has reached the Near East. A short while earlier the monarcho-fascist putsch in Greece smothered every democratic political movement. The fire is at the gates!
“Today the people of peace of all countries must work together even more closely, and mobilise all resources to strengthen and save world peace, since warlike rulers are rallying for war. The Civil War in Spain was the fascist manoeuvre field for the Second World War; in the same way today’s wars endanger world peace.
“With his famous painting ‘Guernica’ Picasso supported the heroic anti-fascist writers in Spain. He succeeded his compatriot Goya in the struggle against war. He also created the wonderful lithograph of the world-famous flying dove of peace. That the dove shall never again be impaled upon a bayonet (as shown in one of my photomontages), all advocates of peace, whatever their political opinions, must close the ranks in the fight to maintain peace.
My brother Wieland Herzfelde, my trusted helper and co-combatant against exploitation and war, wrote a poem entitled ‘The Soldiers of Peace’. It begins with these words:
We are the soldiers of peace. No nation And no race is our enemy
And it ends: Peoples, may your children All be saved from war. Preventing war Shall be your triumph.
And to work for this great triumph has been the aim of his and my artistic work since our earliest youth.” - Berlin, 9 June 1967.
Jenny Farrell outlines a Marxist reading of Shakespeare, and illustrates it with an analysis of Shakespeare's King Lear.
Among Marxism’s core insights is that all history since the end of the primitive society has been a history of class societies and class struggle. Art does not arise in a vacuum; it is an integral part of the historical process and of human comprehension of the world. Therefore, the most appropriate way of reaching the core of a work of art is to understand it in the context of the time in which it originates and the social forces of that epoch.
With Shakespeare an art arises that is historically self-aware, conscious that the reality it represents is historical. Historical change is rooted in Shakespeare’s plays. They are built around a historical conflict. The task of interpretation – in both theatre and criticism – is to grasp this basic conflict. Any serious attempt to comprehend Shakespeare’s plays is to understand the time from which they come, the late Renaissance, early 17th c England: the early modern period as a time of epochal upheavals, the formation of the first phase of bourgeois society in which Shakespeare’s theatre originates.
In his tragedies, Shakespeare presents the fundamental conflict of opposing historical forces that arose after the collapse of the medieval world and the rise of the early bourgeoisie. These opposing forces within the bourgeoisie – in terms taken from the Renaissance – are humanism and Machiavellianism; humanism in the sense of an Erasmus of Rotterdam and Thomas More, Machiavellianism after Niccolò Machiavelli, author of The Prince, the famous breviary on gaining and retaining power.
A third force involved in the basic constellation are the representatives of the old order, the mediaeval-feudal world. The fourth player in this overall constellation is the plebeian element, the working people, who are given a voice for the first time as gravediggers in Hamlet. The conflict of the tragedies originates within these forces.
A Marxist reading of King Lear
The main social forces in the play: Lear (doubled by Gloucester) is an absolute feudal monarch who has lost touch with his people and with his own understanding. His is the strictly ordered feudal world, where a person’s place within the hierarchy was clearly defined and could not be changed. Lear is incapable of understanding the kind of disrespect shown to him by his elder daughters. Their disregard for him and for his dignity once he has handed over his power and his kingdom to them shatters his world completely. When he abandons the society he has known, and is indeed ejected from it by these daughters, he enters the heath as a naked man, a man who has lost everything.
The tempest that rages on the heath is symbolic of what is going on in Lear’s head. In the middle of this violent storm, in the territory of the poor and “mad,” Lear gains a profound understanding of the condition of the dispossessed. Before he enters the hovel he prays for “you houseless poverty” for the homeless. He realises:
Poor naked wretches, whereso’er you are, That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm, How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides, Your looped and windowed raggedness, defend you From seasons such as these? Oh, I have ta’en Too little care of this! Take physic, pomp. Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel, That thou mayst shake the superflux to them And show the heavens more just.
As he is exposed to the poor and the homeless, the evicted, he realises that this is going on in his own kingdom and that he has not taken an interest in the wretched. This insight is not madness but the opposite of madness. When Lear encounters Edgar, who pretends to be a mad beggar dressed in the most meagre of rags, if not indeed naked, his insight goes further again:
Thou art the thing itself. Unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor, bare, forked animal as thou art.—Off, off, you lendings! Come. Unbutton here. (tears at his clothes)
Here he discovers essential humanity, “the thing itself,” “unaccommodated man.” This is a crucial moment in Lear’s development. Symbolically, to emphasise this new understanding he tears off his clothes. Of course, there are also expressions of genuine madness, sometimes simply for comic relief; but very often there is hidden reason in these, such as in Lear’s mock trial of Goneril and Regan, with Edgar and the Fool as judges. He asks:
Then let them anatomise Regan. See what breeds about her heart. Is there any cause in nature that makes these hard hearts?
Lear here seeks a scientific, objective examination of what makes hard hearts. He has come a long way. Later in the play, when Lear meets the blinded Gloucester near Dover, he continues to be “unhinged,” commenting on social injustice:
A man may see how this world goes with no eyes. Look with thine ears. See how yon justice rails upon yon simple thief. Hark in thine ear: change places and, handy-dandy, which is the justice, which is the thief?
Or he observes:
Through tattered clothes great vices do appear; Robes and furred gowns hide all. Plate sin with gold, And the strong lance of justice hurtless breaks. Arm it in rags, a pigmy’s straw does pierce it.
Edgar too recognises Lear’s deep new understanding, remarking: “Reason in madness”. This is a profound growth in humanity in Lear. Lear’s destruction means the loss of his new understanding of the plight of the dispossessed, his appreciation of the fundamental equality of human beings, the loss of his new humanity. This makes his death tragic.
Goneril, Regan, Edmund and Cornwall are the self-interested younger-generation Machiavellians in this play. It is clear to the audience from the start that they are adept at deception. However, just how inhuman they are is revealed only in their actions over time. In many ways they seem quite modern to us in their thinking and acting. Genuine affection, honesty and loyalty mean nothing to them; personal gain is everything, even if it costs the dignity and life of others.
Cordelia and Edgar are established as independent, loyal characters (Edgar after being initially deceived by the Machiavellian brother), willing to sacrifice their lives for justice. Cordelia and Edgar embody the tradition of Renaissance humanism; they are wise, honest and loyal and have a sense of the common good. Although Cordelia dies as a result of Edmund’s machinations, Edgar, who is proclaimed king by Albany, vows to rule in her spirit.
What is the play about?
The threat of a new Machiavellian order A major theme in this play is the cataclysmic clash of social orders: the old absolute, feudal monarch is deprived of his royal status and power, his dignity, his right to house and home, by his elder daughters, the new Machiavellian generation. Alongside the dangerous, indeed murderous new power there are humanist forces that are in a position to lead society forward in an inclusive, honest and humane way.
Good kingship or leadership In this play, as in Hamlet and Macbeth, Shakespeare brings to the fore the question of what makes a good leader, or king. Such leaders must be, above all, honest and wise and must act in the interests of the common good. Good leaders must be willing to sacrifice their lives in the defeat of evil forces.
The fundamental equality of humankind Lear, the anointed king, is driven into a space outside this new society. At that moment, he shares his life with the naked wretches of his realm, recognises and affirms their common humanity. This in turn makes him realise the enormous social inequity and corruption in his kingdom, wrongs for which he is responsible. Ultimately, his experience leads him to understand that only a fair distribution of wealth can remedy this.
Social injustice created by social hierarchy All the outcasts on the heath arrive at an understanding that the way things are in England is wrong. All of them describe corruption, the ignorance of the powerful, and the indifference towards the poor. They all envisage the possibility of a different kind of society, one in which, as the Fool says, the world will be put on its feet. This theme of a utopia, of what might be, is inherent in the central themes of the play.
Shakespeare is still relevant today. His plays are not about some hazy universal human condition – unchanging and unchangeable. His tragedies are rooted in history, in early capitalism. They are about his times and therefore about our times.
In an expression of their new historical place in early 17th c Britain, the bourgeoisie developed both a humanist and a Machiavellian rationale. These are two sides of the same society, its potential for both a utopian and a totalitarian direction. In the tragedies both potentials are put on stage, as well as characters caught in between. Interestingly, while we see a number of “pure” Machiavellians, few characters are cast as “pure” Christian princes or princesses, in Erasmus’s terms; examples might be King Edward I in “Macbeth” or even Cordelia in “King Lear”. These characters are often in the background, like a moral compass.
Instead, Shakespeare finds the idealised Renaissance image of humankind scattered among a number of people. The human potential that many of his characters show combines into a future vision of a social order commensurate with the needs of humankind and so points into the future of humanity. In this respect, Shakespeare’s positive characters are of their time and also born before their time in terms of their potential.
The Machiavellians present the greatest danger to the common good. They are depicted as dangerous and murderous. In each case their inhumanity causes the downfall of the tragic hero. Shakespeare’s historical optimism at the beginning of the era in which we still live allows him to end his tragedies with the destruction of the Machiavellians.
By revealing the nature of the epoch Shakespeare alerts us to the dangers. He points to who is the enemy of humanity and who fights to preserve it. In this sense, Shakespeare is not simply of historical interest, he has something valuable to contribute when we think about the times we live in now and our future.
King Lear takes the gravediggers’ understanding of human equality in Hamlet to a different level. Lear’s literal nakedness on the heath marks an unparalleled insight into common human nature and identification with the poorest of the poor. Lear discovers human dignity when he is stripped of everything.
In today’s world, the plight of the precariat and of refugees comes close to what Shakespeare was illustrating. Lear’s recognition of human dignity, of social injustice, and the need for an equal distribution of wealth, has lost none of its urgency. By putting before his audience the very essence of his time, and thereby ours, Shakespeare shows how it can and must change. This is what makes his plays so important for us now.
Jenny Farrell is the author of “Fear Not Shakespeare’s Tragedies. A Comprehensive Introduction.” Nuascéalta, 2016.
On the 120th anniversary of Paul Robeson's birth, Jenny Farrell tells the story of his life.
"The artist must take sides. He must elect to fight for freedom or slavery. I have made my choice. I had no alternative."
- Paul Robeson at a rally in London’s Albert Hall on 24 June 1937, in support of the democratically elected Spanish Republic.
Paul Robeson, son of an escaped slave, was born into apartheid America on 9 April 1898, 120 years ago. Best known as a bass-baritone singer, he was also an outstanding actor and consummate athlete, fighting against racial discrimination in sports. He was a fearless political activist in the struggles for emancipation at home, a supporter of all liberation movements, a friend of the Soviet Union and the socialist world. He sang in over 20 languages, including Chinese, Russian, and African dialects. He was the first singer to perform an entire programme of spirituals and songs of the African-American experience, giving them the recognition of a concert stage and making them known worldwide. Robeson was also the first to refuse to perform before segregated audiences. He was the first African-American actor to perform as Othello in the US, based on his ground-breaking interpretation of this character and the first in Britain since Ira Aldridge in the 19th century. He was the most significant African-American actor in the US on stage and screen and first African-American actor to gain international prominence, bringing dignity and respect to African-American characters. He was a worldwide symbol of the artist as activist and spokesperson of the oppressed of the earth.
When he died in 1976, he lived in seclusion with his sister in Philadelphia, standing firm on all his political convictions, yet never having fully recovered from the enormous pressure of the witch-hunt against him. The responsibility for this tragic trajectory lies with the racism and anti – communism of the McCarthy era.
Robeson met and married Eslanda (Essie) Goode, first African-American analytical chemist working at Columbia Medical Center in New York, activist, writer and orator, in 1921. When it became clear he could not work as a lawyer because of racism, he began his singing career in the mid-1920s with radically new interpretations of spirituals. The spirituals express the hardship of slavery in biblical language, and often contain veiled messages and resistance. Thus, “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child”, not merely expresses Robeson’s own experience of losing his mother at an early age, but also describes the severance of families through slavery. Further, Robeson’s interpretation adds his father’s experience of those African-Americans who fled the South to escape from slavery. Another spiritual, “Go Down Moses”, celebrates the release of the Israelites from captivity, something Robeson’s audience understood referring to their own freedom.
A turning point in Robeson’s life were his years in London, 1927-39. Here, he formed his outlook on world affairs, became an internationalist, fully embraced socialism, identified with the oppressed working class, regardless of colour. In London he discovered Africa and forged life-long friendships with Jomo Kenyatta, Nkrumah, Azikiwe (also, the future Indian leader Nehru) – and African seamen in the ports. Robeson began to study African culture, learn African languages, and embrace languages as gateways to the nations of the world: “It is fascinating … to find flexibility and subtlety in a language like Swahili, sufficient to convey the teachings of Confucius”. He also came to realise that alongside “the towering achievements of the cultures of ancient Greece and China there stood the culture of Africa, unseen and denied by the imperialist looters of Africa’s material wealth … and I came to learn of the remarkable kinship between African and Chinese culture.” Robeson indeed went on to develop a theory whereby a universal pentatonic tonality links musical folk cultures across the continents.
Robeson worked as a celebrated actor and singer in London, playing Othello and other important roles. During these years, he came to realise one could not rely on middle-class African-Americans in the emancipation struggle, recognising their dependence on their White masters. Robeson grasped that the lives of the oppressed were connected, evident in their music, and that alliances must be forged across geographical and racial differences, along the lines of class. He joined the working-class Unity Theatre in London, in an effort to help build workers’ theatres and develop a working-class culture in its full meaning.
Concomitantly, Robeson became active in the political issues of the time: the Spanish Civil War, anti-fascism, and the liberation struggles in Africa and Asia. Indeed, he became the supreme emblem of this global battle for emancipation. Through his interest in Africa, Robeson looked to the Soviet Union, which had overcome the backwardness of Czarist Russia. He first went there in 1934, struck by “a place where coloured people walked secure and free as equals” - he arranged for his son to attend school in Moscow for two years, a fact cited later as a reason to withdraw Robeson’s passport. Robeson learnt Russian to perfection and felt great empathy with the USSR.
Robeson sings the Song of The Volga Boatmen
Robeson’s journey to Spain in 1938 was a milestone in his life: “I sang with my whole heart and soul for these gallant fighters of the International Brigade. A new, warm feeling for my homeland grew within me as I met the men of the Abraham Lincoln Battalion … My heart was filled with admiration and love for these white Americans, and there was a great sense of pride in my own people when I saw that there were Negroes, too, in the ranks of the Lincoln men in Spain.”
His partisan involvement in the Spanish Civil War shows Robeson’s courage in the international struggle against fascism. In beleaguered Madrid, the Republican forces used Robeson’s music as a weapon, broadcasting it through loudspeakers to the fascist trenches.
When Nazi Germany invaded Poland in 1939, the Robesons returned to the struggle in America, only delaying for Paul to finish filming The Proud Valley, a film about an African-American becoming one of a mining community in Wales, filmed on location in the coalfields. This film, he “was most proud to make”, forged a deep bond between Robeson and the Welsh.
Back in the US, acting was an important source of income, e.g. playing Othello in the incredibly successful Broadway production in 1942/43, whilst continuing his political commitments.
In the US, Robeson used his celebrity effectively, in a prolonged campaign against segregation, heralding the boycotts of the civil rights era. He headed the anti-lynching movement, leading a delegation to the White House. When Truman refused to act, Robeson, in December 1951, presented a petition “We charge Genocide” to the United Nations, on behalf of the Civil Rights Congress, charging that the U.S. violated Article II of the U.N. Genocide Convention by failing to prevent the lynching of African-Americans.
At the Paris Peace Convention in April 1949, he stated: “It is unthinkable that American Negroes could go to war on behalf of those who have oppressed them for generations against the Soviet Union which in one generation has raised our people to full human dignity.” This speech resulted in a witch-hunt against him. In August 1949, the notorious racist and anti-communist assault took place at Peekskill, thwarting a concert which had been organised with Howard Fast and Pete Seeger. It left many seriously injured.
Angry locals from Westchester County, New York shout hate-filled insults at the carloads of concert-goers arriving to hear the singer Paul Robeson, the most famous African-American of the day, perform at an open-air concert in Lakeland Acres, north of Peekskill, on September 4th, 1949. A state trooper smirks and does nothing. Photo: History Today.
This his unyielding stand on the rights of African-Americans, and Robeson’s continued support of the USSR and world peace, led to his silencing. The state department withdrew his passport, and that of his wife and son, denying him the right to travel.
By 1952, Robeson was, according to Pete Seeger, “the most blacklisted performer in America”. No commercial hall was available to him, no producer promoted him, and his acting career finished. The FBI threatened concert organisers, shops and radio stations banned his records. From the height of fame, Robeson was turned into a non-person. From a career of intense activity he was blacklisted, deprived of public life and the source of his income. The African-American bourgeoisie failed to support Robeson, and colluded in this campaign.
He fought back by giving famous concerts, which circumvented the travel ban. He sang on the Canadian border to audiences on the other side. He gave transatlantic telephone concerts in England and Wales. The national ‘Let Paul Robeson Sing’ solidarity committee, the British Actors’ Equity Association and 27 MPs organised for Robeson to sing by telephone. This epic concert in St Pancras Town Hall on 26 May 1957, unforgettable for anybody who witnessed it, increased the pressure on the US government to return the passport.
In June 1958, years after taking his passport, the Supreme Court ruled that it was unconstitutional to deny a US passport on political grounds. Robeson immediately embarked on a worldwide tour, flying first to London. He sang to millions on television and radio and became the first lay person - and the first non-White - to take the pulpit in St Paul's Cathedral, with 4000 spectators inside and 5000 outside.
In the late 1950s, the world was changing, with African nations beginning to achieve independence. Robeson’s last concert tour in 1960, took him to Australia, where he gave the first recital at the Sydney Opera House - to the trade unionists who were constructing the building. He was the first to speak publically here about the oppression of the indigenous people by Europeans.
In Australia and elsewhere, Robeson sang “Ol’ Man River”, one of his best-known songs. Robeson changed the words of this song, originally written for The Show Boat, transforming it from acceptance of oppression to a song of resistance: the desire for freedom would prevail:
There’s an old man called the Mississippi, That’s the ol’ man I don’t like to be. What does he care if the world’s got troubles? What does he care if the world ain’t free?
Tote that barge, lift that bale, You show a little grit an’ you lands in jail. But I keeps laffin’ instead of cryin’; I must keep fightin’ until I’m dyin’, And Ol’ Man River, he just keeps rollin’ along.
I would like to thank Christine Naumann, former curator at the Academy of the Arts Berlin, Paul Robeson Archives, for her advice.