Robert Ballagh's 'The Thirtieth of January' and Bloody Sunday, 1972
Thursday, 11 August 2022 14:36

Robert Ballagh's 'The Thirtieth of January' and Bloody Sunday, 1972

Published in Visual Arts

Jenny Farrell gives the background to Robert Ballagh's new painting, marking the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday

When Robert Ballagh, the outstanding contemporary Irish painter, found a growing need to mark the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, he felt more and more drawn to paintings that had impacted on him in the past. The most compelling one in relation to the Derry massacre was Goya’s The Third of May (below), a painting depicting the execution of Spanish people on Spanish soil by the invading French army.  

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Ballagh’s painting is entitled The Thirtieth of January. The parallels in the situation are clear: On Bloody Sunday, Irish people were executed on Irish soil, by British soldiers.

Bloody Sunday, 30th January 1972

Bloody Sunday was a turning point in the North of Ireland conflict. It broke the civil rights movement, which in the late 1960s had highlighted internationally the sectarian, repressive Unionist regime by peaceful demonstrations, demanding equal rights for Catholics. 

On 13 August 1969, the British Labour government had brought British troops onto the streets, initially to stop sectarian gangs, but then, aided and abetted by the police, attacking nationalist communities in Nazi-like pogroms.

In June 1970 the Tories came to power with Edward Heath as Prime Minister, and the British state took on a menacing role.  The Tories (the Conservative and Unionist Party) were allies of the N. I. Unionist Party, that had controlled the sectarian state since its establishment in 1921. This led to a surge in repression of the Catholic community, culminating in internment without trial in August 1971.

During the introduction of internment, the First Battalion of the Parachute Regiment (1Para) shot dead ten residents, including a mother and a priest, in the Ballymurphy Massacre. A plan drawn up in London by the highest government circles was aimed at crushing resistance through acts of “collective punishment” of the Catholic community in the North of Ireland. 

A civil rights demonstration was called for in Derry on 30th January 1972, which demanded an end to internment. The agreement between the chief constable in Derry and the Northern Ireland Civil Rights organisation (NICRA) had been that the peaceful march would stay within a Catholic area. The IRA had also made clear there would be no armed presence on the day.

Increasingly, the British Tories and their Unionist allies had been incensed by the existence of “Free Derry”, a Catholic residential area of the city that had become a no-go area for the British security forces since the pogroms of August 1969. It was here the civil rights demonstration was set to take place. It was later claimed that an attack on such a demonstration was expected to lead to a direct confrontation between the shock troops of 1Para and the IRA, and result in “Free Derry” being subjugated. If this plan failed to materialise then the demonstrators, who were deemed by the British high command to be part of the enemy, could be taught a lesson. And so the massacre in Derry was planned by Heath and high-ranking military. A 16-soldier-strong company of  1Para was responsible for all the shootings on the day. It included the same soldiers who had been blooded and commended for the Ballymurphy Massacre. 

A number of  inquiries into Bloody Sunday followed, none of which led to  a conviction of those responsible. Although the evidence against the military was overwhelming, only one paratrooper, “Soldier F” was initially charged 49 years later with murder of two of the fourteen dead on Bloody Sunday, and then the charges were dropped. The same “Soldier F” had received a commendation for his role in the Ballymurphy massacre. Currently the British government is pushing through an amnesty for all those guilty of murder in the North of Ireland in an attempt to stop once and for all the possible prosecution of their military and associated killer squads.

This inability of the British judiciary to deliver justice in such blatant cases has acted as a weeping wound in Ireland. Several of Ireland’s best artists have taken a stand in their work, including Thomas Kinsella, Brian Friel, and Robert Ballagh.

The title of Robert Ballagh’s painting, The Thirtieth of January, makes in itself clear the connection to Goya’s The Third of May. But of course the visual language is compelling. While in Goya’s picture, the outline of Madrid sets the location of the executions in 1808, in Ballagh’s it is the Derry skyline, its walls, St Columb’s cathedral, the Presbyterian church and indeed with Walker’s Monument still in place, which was blown up in 1973. Where there is a hillside behind the Spanish victims on the left of Goya’s picture, in Ballagh’s painting the eye moves upwards from the Bogside to working-class terraces.

In both paintings the focus is on the victims, the people against whom and on whose territory the atrocity is being committed. They are the figures whose faces we see – the soldiers are faceless. While Goya chooses the moment of execution of the central rebel (others already lie dead beside him), Ballagh depicts a scene directly after the shooting has started. He shows us two victims, one dying, the other dead. Looking at the picture, we are faced with a group of distressed people running towards us, a press image that went around the world. Father Daly is holding up a white bloodstained handkerchief, trying to shield this group carrying the first victim of the massacre, the mortally wounded Jackie Duddy, out of range.

These people are clearly recognisable. They also hold white bloody handkerchiefs, underlining a peaceful protest crushed in blood. In Goya’s painting, too, a monk is by the side of the rebel, offering support, along with others. In addition to this, another priest, Father Hugh Mullan, had been shot dead in the Ballymurphy Massacre. So there are many layers of associations in this figure.

Centred in the foreground is another victim, covered in a white bloodstained cloth, echoing the handkerchiefs. The stark white, associated with peace, innocence and martyrdom, reminds viewers of the brilliant white shirt of the man about to be executed in Goya’s painting. He is flanked on the right by a group of faceless soldiers, their weapons by the hip indicating indiscriminate shooting without aim. Another solder on the left in a kneeling position closer to the body suggests “Soldier F” who knelt to shoot dead Barney McGuigan, as he waved a white handkerchief high above his head, trying to go to the aid of the dying Patrick Doherty. “Soldier F” was responsible for a number of the cold-blooded killings, and the sole soldier to be accused of murder, only to be cleared later.

Ballagh makes clear that the marchers were unarmed. We see two placards on the ground reading “Civil Rights Now” and “End Internment”. A Civil Rights banner occupies the upper centre of the picture, like a title.

The painting not only references Goya, but also Picasso’s Guernica, itself a picture about foreign invaders murdering a native population and inspired by Goya. Like Picasso, Ballagh decided on a monochrome painting. The covered dead man’s hand in the centre foreground still holds the broken end of the “End Internment” placard in his right hand, in much the same way as the slain man in Picasso’s painting grasps the broken sword. The left hand also echoes Picasso’s in its reach towards the left corner of the painting, as well as in its gesture. Picasso and Ballagh’s black-and-white execution evokes newspaper images; in Ballagh’s case most of the press photographs and footage from the event were in black and white. The only colour are the blood red splashes on white. The smoke behind the silhouetted demonstrators in the background suggests the use of tear gas seen in so many photographs of police attacks on demonstrators.

In the left corner, under the foot of the kneeling soldier, we see a sheet of paper with the Royal Coat of Arms and writing on it. They are the words of Major General Robert Ford. The title is the massacre’s military code name, Operation Forecast, and is dated January 30, 1972. The text reads:

I am coming to the conclusion that the minimum force necessary to achieve a restoration of law and order is to shoot selected ringleaders amongst the Derry Young Hooligans.

Ballagh leaves no doubt but that the killings were ordered at the highest level. In this respect, too, the painting goes further than any Inquiry has ever done. Michael Jackson, a senior officer in command, was later promoted to Commander-in-Chief of the British Land Forces.

Art history and political history are connected. Art doesn’t exist outside of time, and there is a tradition in art that does not shrink away from a commitment to justice, to taking sides. Neither does this diminish the artist – think of Mikis Theodorakis and Pablo Neruda, and of course Goya, all of whom have produced work that has echoed through time. Goya’s painting inspired Picasso’s 1937 Guernica and the 1951 Massacre in Korea; it has also been an enduring influence on Robert Ballagh’s work.

 

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The power of this work, through Ballagh’s interpretation, was picked up by a community art group in Derry who recently asked his permission to reproduce his The Third of May on a wall in Glenfada Park, one of the murder sites on Bloody Sunday. They did this because they could see the direct connection between the terror and the anger of their own experience and that depicted in The Third of May. In both pictures, the viewer is a direct witness to the events and, standing alongside the artist in the midst of this slaughter, feels involved.

Beside it, up until recently, the group had displayed their copy of Picasso’s Guernica. When artists take the side of the people against oppression, they resonate and are understood worldwide because the condition of the victims of wars for profit, power, and control is global. Bloody Sunday is a part of the world history of colonialism, occupation and people’s resistance, and Robert Ballagh’s painting expresses this insight, demonstrating the necessity of art.

Robert Ballagh's speech at the unveiling of the artwork

Well, it's a long, long time since I was standing here, inside the Guildhall. Believe it or not, in the early 1960s I was in a showband and we used to play at dancers here in the Guildhall. Can I say, it's great to be back! To my mind the 13th of August, 1969 is a truly significant date in recent Irish history.

Let me explain. On that date sectarian gangs, aided and abetted by the police, made violent incursions into nationalist communities, burning houses and driving people from their homes. The response was immediate; widespread rioting broke out and the British government took the precarious decision to deploy troops onto the streets of the north. At  the time the British home secretary James Callaghan ruefully observed: "It was easy to send them in but it will be much more difficult to get them out!”

On the other hand the Irish government was  caught completely unawares; successive governments having ignored the north for decades. Initially the Dublin government set up field hospitals and a few refugee camps to help those fleeing the conflict. A relief fund was established to alleviate the distress and a covert plan was agreed to import arms to be made available to northern nationalists in the event of a repeat of the sectarian attacks of the 13th august.

When the plan was rumbled, leading members of the government (including the Taoiseach, Jack Lynch) denied all knowledge and scapegoated Ministers C.J. Haughey and Neil Blaney who were summarily dismissed from their posts. Two arms trials followed which resulted in all defendants being found not guilty. The official reaction in the south to the unfolding violence in the north left many nationalists feeling that, in the future, they would be on their own.

In the visual arts response to the violence was triggered by a surprising intervention by the artist Michael Farrell. In 1969 the most important annual display of contemporary painting, the Irish Exhibition of Living Art, was due to open in Cork and then travel to Belfast. At the opening in Cork, on receiving his prize for the best painting in the exhibition, Michael declared that he was giving his prize money to the northern refugee fund and that he was withdrawing his picture from the exhibition in Belfast. Obviously Michael’s pronouncement provoked serious reflection by the rest of the artists in the exhibition. I was one of those artists and had been awarded second prize for a painting entitled ‘Marchers’. It was from a series inspired by the civil rights marches in America and the civil rights campaign in the north. 

Eventually 10 artists including myself decided to follow Michael’s example and withdraw from the exhibition in Belfast. Some time later Michael informed me that he was planning to stage an exhibition of the withdrawn works in Dublin and that he had secured a venue in Kildare St., opposite Leinster House that was the HQ for an organisation called the Citizens Committee. I later learned that it received funding and support from the government's northern relief fund. 

I agreed to help hang the exhibition but when I arrived at 43 Kildare Street I discovered that there was a scarcity of equipment. Someone suggested that I try the basement. Unfortunately there were no tools there only several large wooden crates. This discovery instantly provoked a panic attack because, at the time, the air was thick with rumours of guns being smuggled north. Subsequently I learnt that the crates contained not guns but radio equipment which eventually helped set up Radio Free Belfast and Radio Free Derry.

The opening of the exhibition was performed by Paddy Devlin who later went on to become one of the founders of the SDLP.

Michael asked me to design an exhibition poster featuring one of his paintings. Soon afterwards, however, I found myself faced with an awkward dilemma. I was invited to take part in an exhibition organised by the Arts Councils of Scotland, Wales, Ireland and Northern Ireland and since the last venue for the exhibition was Belfast I had to decide whether I should continue my boycott or perhaps try to make some relevant imagery. I opted for the latter. That was the easy part – the difficult part was what to do. I resorted to art history and scrutinised those artists who had responded to similar circumstances in their own time.

The first picture that stood out by a mile was The Third of May by Francisco Goya. In this painting Goya depicts an actual event in Madrid when occupying French soldiers executed Spanish patriots. Since I was acutely aware that I couldn't possibly improve on Goya’s masterpiece I decided to refrain from interfering with his superb composition and instead to simply paint it in a contemporary style which would hopefully bring it to the attention of a wider audience.

I did the same with Rape of the Sabine Women by Jacques Louis David which was his response to the internecine violence which occurred in the aftermath of the French Revolution. Eugene Delacroix also addressed the phenomenon and that was the French Revolution with his painting Liberty Leading the People.

I have to say I was disappointed by most reviews of my work in the exhibition as it toured Edinburgh, Cardiff and Dublin. Most critics dismissed my efforts as a hollow mockery of great art and certainly none we are prepared to acknowledge my desire to link art to the unfolding conflict in the north.

When the exhibition arrived in Belfast I hoped that, at last, someone might recognise the political content of the work. In those days the Arts Council of Northern Ireland had a gallery on Bedford Street in Belfast with the equivalent of a shop window. The exhibition officer Brian Ferran decided to hang Liberty Leading the People in the window. After the exhibition closed I called Brian to ask if there had been any public reaction. He told me that they received just one complaint. It was from a DUP counsellor. He was unhappy with the naked breasts on display. I have to admit that I was frustrated by the failure of many people to take on board what I was trying to say. So, some time later, I decided to paint a picture that would make my intention clear. I called it My Studio, 1969.

The year 1971 saw the introduction of internment without trial by the Stormont government. This proved to be a disastrous intervention as its implementation was largely one-sided and consequently lead to widespread civil unrest with demonstrations, rallies and protest marches.

One such march was organised for the 30th of January, 1972 in Derry. The decision by the British authorities to deploy the parachute regiment on the day, proved calamitous. As we know, 13 innocent civilians were shot dead. When news of the mass murder spread I recall the mood of the people becoming convulsed with rage at what had happened.

When a march to the British Embassy in Dublin was announced, my wife Betty, together with our daughter Rachel, who was only three at the time, and myself decided to make common cause with the protesters. I clearly remember the anger of the crowd as it moved through the city. Anything that could be identified as English was not safe. I remember hearing the shattering of plate glass windows as we passed the offices of British Airways at the bottom of Grafton Street. When the march reached Merrion Square it joined a large crowd that had already assembled in front of the embassy. It seemed to me that the mood of the crowd had shifted from anger to a hunger for vengeance. Initially stones and other objects began to fly in the direction of the embassy; next it was glass bottles but before long these had morphed into petrol bombs. At that stage I suggested to my wife that we quit the scene, since being responsible for a three-year-old in a possible riot situation was not ideal. Later we learned that we had missed the final conflagration but also, thankfully the violent chaos of a police baton charge that left many wounded in its wake.

Later that year the IECA took place in the Project Arts Centre in Dublin and several artists exhibited work that was provoked by Bloody Sunday. In it I chalk marked on the gallery floor the outlines of 13 bodies and then poured blood which I had obtained from a friend who worked in the Dublin abattoir over each victim. Later, as part of the same exhibition the artist and writer Brian O'Doherty, who was based in New York, staged a performance where he changed his name, as an artist, to Patrick Ireland in protest over the events of Bloody Sunday.

After the whitewash by Lord Widgery the poet Thomas Kinsella composed a truly powerful poem Butchers Dozen and Brian Friel responded to Bloody Sunday with his play Freedom of the City, which was set in the Guildhall. 

Not long ago some young people from the Pilots Row Community Centre approached me to request permission to create a mural based on my painting The 3rd of May after Goya to mark the anniversary of Bloody Sunday. Naturally I told them to go ahead.

Finally, on completion, when they asked me to unveil the mural in Glenfada Park I did so on a cold wet January afternoon. I was unaware at the time that this experience had planted a small seed in my subconscious which only germinated as the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday approached. As I began to feel a compulsion to create a new picture the approach of the young people from Pilots Row determined my response.

Once again Goya's example became crucial. In his painting the central cluster of victims demands your full attention; consequently I decided to replace them with the iconic image of Father Edward Daly with those carrying the body of Jackie Duddy.

The soldiers in Goya’s firing squad are French soldiers on Spanish soil shooting Spanish people whereas, in my picture, the soldiers are obviously British soldiers on Irish soil shooting Irish people.

Another artist who influenced my approach is Picasso. His painting Guernica, created in response to the Nazi bombing of the Basque town of the same name, has always fascinated me and it was the monochrome nature of his composition that I adopted for my picture, except that I allowed myself one extra colour – red, to represent the blood spilled on Bloody Sunday.

In order to remind people that the march on the 30th of January was an anti-internment march I decided to include a broken placard inscribed ‘end internment’.

In my painting I wanted to point out that even though the Saville Inquiry accepted that all of the victims were unarmed and above suspicion so far no one has been proven guilty of any crime. Hence the inclusion of the statement by Major General Robert Ford.

A long time ago I received an invitation to speak at a rally in Guildhall Square after the Bloody Sunday 21st anniversary march. At the time I was both humbled and terrified as I had rarely spoken in public before. Consequently I took the invitation seriously and invested considerable effort in preparing what to say. On the day, a cold rainy one, I managed to get through the speech and, as a result, was relatively pleased with myself. That night I stayed with a local family and, the following morning, as I tucked into an Ulster fry, we were joined by two young family members. One asked, “What did you think of yesterday?” The other replied, “Brilliant, except for that fellow from Dublin – he just went on and on!”

So bearing in mind that particular admonition I will tax your  patience no further. Thanks!

 

Philosophy, cultural relativism, anti-intellectualism and the far right
Thursday, 11 August 2022 14:36

Philosophy, cultural relativism, anti-intellectualism and the far right

Published in Cultural Commentary

Jim Aitken analyses the links between philosophical and cultural relativism, anti-intellectualism and far right politics, in a wide-ranging, discursive essay. The image above is of the Night of the Long Batons (29 July 1966), when the federal police physically purged politically incorrect academics who opposed the right-wing military dictatorship of Juan Carlos Onganía (1966–1970) in Argentina from five faculties of the University of Buenos Aires

The postmodernists would detest a title such as this one. They claim to be opposed to elites – who are seen as somehow remotely intellectual – while at the same time claiming a relativism in all artistic production which could rank the novels, say, of Nadine Dorries alongside the work of Dostoevsky. In all things, it seems, there is this relativism that seeks to bridge gaps between so called high and popular art forms and between thought and opinion; between all forms of discourse, even when there is very little of it about.

The deconstructiveness of their thought is also highly sceptical. While a healthy scepticism is certainly agreeable before making judgements and decisions, to continually vacillate is to create a vacuum which can be so easily filled by unwelcome forces. Today, these forces are the forces of the far right, both within the Tory Party and outside of it. And these forces are in power, or fighting for power, across Europe and the rest of the world.

Amazingly, these trenchant forces all claim they are challenging the elites that are holding back their bizarre vision of progress. These elites, they maintain, reside in universities, in the civil service (called ‘The Blob’ in The Daily Telegraph and Daily Mail), on the left (as always), in the scientific community, in literary, artistic and media circles, among academics and so-called experts, and in the actual vacuum that is social media. In America they are called liberal elites while here in the UK all opposition is derided as mere ‘wokery.’

The grand narrative of capitalism

And this state of affairs can be attributed, in part, to the woolly relativist thinking that says there is no such thing as class when there are billionaires and those living in dire poverty, and where the grand narratives of socialism and communism have been discarded while the other grand narrative of capitalism continues plundering the planet and its peoples.

In a sense the outrage at liberal elites and wokery; at Black Lives Matter and climate protests, and against anything remotely left, whether politically or culturally, shows the deep unease within the actual real elites who continue to run the affairs of state. These elites are the same ruling classes that have always been in power and their shift further to the right actually shows their unease. This is because these ruling classes realise there is a strong reaction against their divisiveness of people on the basis of class, race, religion, gender and sexual orientation. And they also realise the enormity of the forces gaining momentum against climate chaos, as well as those appalled at the corruption within the state. Before it was Jews and witchcraft as scapegoats, now it is migrants, Muslims and general wokery.

We have been here before. This classic anti-intellectualism is designed to divide people and blame others rather than the elite caretakers of the chaos that is capitalism. To divert attention, divide and rule. But throughout history there have been those who have consistently challenged how things were and sought radical change.

In the ancient world both Confucius (551-479 BC) and Socrates (469-399 BC) tried to achieve a higher level of good governance for their respective states by simply asking questions. Neither had a dogmatic manner but their aims were both the same – to educate by posing questions that can be enlarged upon and debated. Socrates was found guilty of corrupting the Athenian youth of his day and sentenced to death. Confucius never attained any high office of state though some of his former students did and made appeals on his behalf.

Around the time of Socrates there was a group of philosophers called the Sophists. While they did foster critical thinking, some like Protagoras and Hippias used logic simply as a suave exercise in cynical virtuosity to prove things like sin and virtue can be synonymous or that evil can be as desirable as good. Their logic simply led to an earlier form of relativism, negativism and a thorough lack of human values that Socrates believed would ultimately undermine Greek society.

Similarly, today’s anti-woke brigade of continually outraged Conservatives thrive in the absence of any socialist alternative offered. They are the adherents of political postmodernism which claims that class is dead despite Victorian levels of inequality. They applaud what they call good old fashioned common sense and rail – as Gove did during the Brexit campaign – against experts. This attitude took on deeply disturbing scenes at a Trump rally when he encouraged his audience in shouting ‘Fire Fauci’, the Chief Medical Officer in America, who was calling for measures to be taken against the rising cases of Covid.

History is littered with anti-intellectualism and it is clear that rich and powerful individuals do not wish scrutiny; do not wish to be intellectually or culturally challenged because their rule would be in jeopardy. However, the much-used phrase telling truth to power remains suspect for Chomsky. He maintains that the ruling classes are only too well aware of the truth and that they seek simply to conceal it and the people who should be told the truth are the masses oppressed by the rich and powerful.

Ancient Chinese and Roman emperors were constantly ill at ease with scholars and writers. It was said during the Dynasty of Qin Shi Huang (246-210 BC) that political power was consolidated by suppressing freedom of speech. Books like the Shi Jing (a poetry classic) and the Shujing (a history book from c.6th century BC) were ordered to be burned. Anyone refusing to give up their copies would be executed. The imperial library though still kept copies of such texts which confirms Chomsky’s view.

In imperial Rome too the Emperor Augustus (63 BC -14 AD) had his henchmen search houses for books he did not wish to be circulated. The poet Juvenal once said it is better to criticise emperors once they have died.

Rich, powerful, ignorant and stupid

The richest and most powerful capitalist economy on Earth has nurtured a culture of ignorance and stupidity. For decades now the United States has been well down the league table internationally for educational attainment. While Hollywood can show the luxurious living of the wealthy, along with the US media more generally, it seems there is little appetite to focus on the millions in jail, millions more homeless, and tens of millions living in poverty. In this mix could be added the extent of the drug problem, both legally prescribed by Big Pharma and drugs circulated by criminal cartels. There is also the incredible death toll annually caused through the domestic sale of weapons, running at 30,000 per year with some 11,000 deaths from this figure caused through suicide.

There is nothing to feel patriotic about with such figures, and those who would argue such a case would simply be labelled communists or socialists as if the use of those words brings to an end any more discussion. This is effectively saying that social conscience is both ludicrous and dangerous.

The show trials that took place in Soviet Moscow and the McCarthy trials that took place in Washington both revealed a sense of paranoia with alternative ideas. The left-wing ideas that were disseminating in the US would have improved the social conditions of the American masses and the ideas of many of those charged with being enemies of the State in the Soviet Union were highly intelligent and original thinkers. People like Kamenev, Zinoviev and Bukharin were leading Party figures and their loss robbed the revolution. As for Trotsky’s expulsion and eventual assassination, the international socialist and revolutionary movement would have a permanent split that could only aid the capitalist powers. Murdering opponents is stupid because it holds back progress by instilling fear, which works as a barrier to a better system being developed. Ideas should always have free rein, especially ones that are suspect so that they can be shown to be suspect. Discourse must always be seen as desirable because it can invariably lead to desirable conclusions.

While the bureaucracy of the USSR simply ossified the entire system without the vital intellectual input required in such a historical development, the actively encouraged ignorance in the West has given us Trump, Johnson, Bolsonaro, Modi and others.

A Trump supporter being interviewed by Jordan Klepper replied to his questioning – ‘Do I have proof? No. Do I have articles? No. But my mind is made up.’ This kind of response is a fairly commonplace one precisely because it has been cultivated that way. Fox News and GB News both cultivate ignorance through demanding their views are the stuff of common-sense. The shock-Jockery of the hosts fill the airwaves with bile and legitimise draconian legislation like the Borders and Nationality Bill going through Parliament, as well as denying they hold any racist or sexist views.

In fact, most news media have become smiley and friendly forums for entertainment as much as informing viewers about our world. Since Brexit there is even less of a focus on the wider world with the result that even greater insularity prevails. That simply mirrors the media in the USA and fosters a culture of unquestioning acquiescence.

It was Oscar Wilde in his wonderfully satirical play The Importance of Being Earnest (1895) who captured exactly the point of not educating the populace. Lady Bracknell tells Earnest:

I do not approve of anything that tampers with natural ignorance. Ignorance is like a delicate exotic fruit; touch it and the bloom is gone. The whole theory of modern education is radically unsound. Fortunately in England, at any rate, education produces no effect whatsoever. If it did, it would prove a serious danger to the upper classes, and probably lead to acts of violence in Grosvenor Square.

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Wilde is ridiculing the upper classes that Lady Bracknell is talking about. Exactly the same sense of satire took place in Parisian clubs like the Le Chat Noir around the same time when Aristide Bruant, made famous by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and his poster of him with his black cape and red scarf, would poke fun and insult his upper-class clientele. They would similarly be rolling in laughter like Wilde’s audiences. They control everything, after all, so why would they not feel safe?

It was Walter Bagehot (1826-1877) in his The English Constitution (1867) – clearly not the British one since that would include Celts - who seemed to grasp the essence of Conservatism:

The Conservative turn of mind denotes adhesiveness to the early and probably inherited ideas of childhood, and a very strong and practically effective distrust of novel intellectual suggestions which come unaccredited by any such influential connection.

 Psychologists would call such characteristics arrested development. To this day when Conservatives are ever challenged they claim their opponents are being political as if to imply that they are somehow not. It is politically infantile but when they find themselves in serious trouble in their Parliaments there is always the reserve teams on hand to help them out. They are the patriotic demagogues like Trump, clowns like Berlusconi and Johnson, the military and emerging Fascist parties.

It was the Italian philosopher Giovanni Gentile (1875-1944), the father figure of Fascism, who was responsible for a solution to guarantee capital’s security. Like Marx, he was much influenced by Hegel but arrived at totally different conclusions. He was proud to be called by Mussolini ‘the philosopher of Fascism’ and went on to co-write with Il Duce The Doctrine of Fascism (1932) as well as serving as Minister for Education in his Government and becoming a member of the powerful Fascist Grand Council.

For Gentile the idealism of Hegel had to have action and Gentile went on to develop his own brand of thought which he called actual idealism. One of his key texts gives a clear indication by its title what he was on about –Theory of Mind as Pure Act (1912). In order to move away from class conflict, from both liberalism and Marxism, Gentile offered up corporatism as his solution whereby there would be the collective management of the economy by employers, workers and state officials. Corporate groups would organise society through its various areas such as agriculture, military, business, science and so on. The already rich would be perfectly secure and the workers would be firmly in their place. Today’s giant corporation Amazon comes immediately to mind in this regard and its model would be applauded by Gentile.

Fascist dictatorships are the most stupid ones of all. The horror and the evil of Auschwitz was also absolutely insane. During the Spanish Civil War the Franquist General Astray confronted the Spanish writer and philosopher Miguel de Unamuno at the University of Salamanca with cries of Muera la inteligencia! Viva la Muerte! (Death to the intelligentsia! Long live death!) And during a burning of left-wing books in General Pinochet’s Chile, soldiers burned a book on Cubism believing it had something to do with Castro’s Cuba.

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It was the American science fiction writer Ray Bradbury (1920-2012) who wrote Fahrenheit 451(1953) and this novel came out of the McCarthy witch-hunt trials that also threatened to – and did – burn books. As an emerging writer this alarmed him. It has an Orwellian feel to it in that firemen exist not to put fires out but to start them. If books are found to be in anyone’s home then the fire brigade is on its way to burn them. The central character Montag becomes disillusioned with his job and goes over to the other side where a small group of book lovers seek to protect all literature for future generations. Though Bradbury was conservative himself, he was appalled by the anti-intellectualism of his nation and went on to say how he believed the emergence of the mass media was hampering reading and an interest in books.

As well as making sure education has little impact, the ruling classes also manage to trivialise what is genuinely important – like our social conditions, wages, prices, housing, alternative progressive politics - and make popular the vacuous cult of celebrity. Again, Wilde stated in an interview for the St. James Gazette concerning his play, that:

(The Importance of Being Earnest) is exquisitely trivial, a delicate bubble of fancy, and it has its philosophy…That we should treat all the trivial things of life very seriously, and all the serious things of life with sincere and studied triviality.

Trivial TV

This comment sums up much of the TV we watch and it is clearly designed that way. And it has been going on for an exceedingly long time. TV and radio hosts are adept at talking trivia and it was pointed out by Epictetus (c 56- c 135 AD):

When we blather about trivial things, we ourselves become trivial, for our attention gets taken up with trivialities. You become what you give your attention to.

Bombarded by trivia and with a clear control over any opposing ideas, so-called democracy seems a safe haven for capital to flourish. For another science fiction writer Isaac Asimov (1920-1992) this was the anti-intellectual basis of democracy:

Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.

Such a statement is all too near today’s political and cultural malaise. Of course, the concept of truth itself is suspect for the postmodernists which merely enables more and more exploitation of various kinds – through the mass media, through attacks on trade unions, climate protestors, Black Lives Matter activists, women campaigning against domestic violence – to take place.

Ruling classes have a fear and loathing of history. Liz Truss, the new Foreign Secretary and Brexit Minister, recently lauded our wonderful nation as the greatest on earth and told her audience that all nations have warts in their pasts and that dwelling on the past is not what matters but creating a brighter future is what truly matters.

Harold Wilson, twice a Labour Prime Minister, was considered by his politics tutor at Oxford to be the finest student he had ever had. He received a triple first in Philosophy, Politics and Economics and became the youngest Oxford don of the century at age 21.  Before becoming MP for Ormskirk he had previously been a lecturer in Economic History at New College and a research fellow at University College. With such a brilliant academic pedigree it seems incredible that he would boast that he had never read Marx’s Das Kapital.

Francis Wheen tells us in Marx’s Das Kapital (2006) that Wilson claimed to have got as far as page two ‘and that’s where the footnote is nearly a page long. I felt two sentences of main text and a page of footnotes were too much.’ Any cursory look at the opening pages of this text would show that there are indeed footnotes in the opening pages, but none more than a few sentences. Such a comment is a clear case of anti-intellectualism.

Before the English socialist Henry Hyndman actually acknowledged his debt to Marx and his text, he had initially told Marx that he did not wish to mention him by name in his England for All (1881) – presumably, like Bagehot before him, using England to mean Scotland, Wales and Ireland as well he told Marx he could not do so because the English ‘had a horror of socialism’ and ‘a dread of being taught by a foreigner.’ Take Back Control, Get Brexit Done and Build Back Better are founded upon such xenophobic nonsense.

Marx’s book was never published in England during his lifetime. Activists, writers and academics had to rely on French and German editions until it was eventually published. The Irishman George Bernard Shaw found the book a marvellous read, having read the French edition in the British Library where much of Marx’s research had been done. For Shaw the book ‘revealed capitalism in all its atrocity’ and his passion for the text never dimmed. Not so Shaw’s fellow Fabian, HG Wells, who dismissed Marx as ‘a stuffy, ego-centred and malicious theorist.’

Yet, what took place was an enormous flowering of thought that came from Marx’s ideas. Of particular significance is also Marx’s Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 which only appeared in English in 1959, having first been published in German in Moscow, 1932. These papers are also known as the Paris Manuscripts because the text was written there when the youthful Marx was a Left-Hegelian.

Refining Hegel’s concept of estrangement or alienation, Marx showed how such a concept has its origin in the exploitative economic system of capitalism. He also made clear the fateful consequences in the social formation of human individuals, and therefore in society as a whole.

Philosophers and writers found this a fertile analysis ripe for development. The notion of being alienated within society came to be explored in literature, literary theory, cultural theory, art, psychoanalysis, social sciences and in philosophy.

The existentialist philosophers, particularly in France, fused Marx’s ideas into their texts. Chief among them was Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980). He was much more than just a philosopher, he was also a dramatist, novelist, biographer, literary critic and a political activist. Sartre had read Heidegger and Husserl and their influence is clear in his work. In the 1960s he had said that Marxism was the spirit of the age.

It is sad to see that this flowering of intellectual ideas that took place in France is now a country where the dominant narrative is Islamophobia, with writers and journalist like Michel Houellebecq and Alain Finlielkraut among the most Islamophobic. The demise of France intellectually is traced in The End of the French Intellectual (2016) by Shlomo Sand. The rampant racism there – as here – can be attributed to the imperial past, but also to the thinkers who came after Sartre like the postmodernists.

According to Jacques Derrida (1930-2004), Marx is now no more than a spectre. All we have left of him is Spectres de Marx (1991) which claims to be a work of mourning. A debt to him had been paid but with the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, would anything of Marx remain? The capitalist triumphalism that greeted this collapse found its best expression in Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man which came out in 1992. We are all liberal democrats now, he seemed to say, with liberal democracy the settled will of all people.

Only contemporary capitalism is becoming less liberal with attacks on wages, living standards, Muslims and migrants along with vapid anger directed at liberal elites – a group that had no mention whatsoever in Fukuyama’s book. And furthermore, just as Marx and his followers had claimed that capitalism, in its ravenous desire to seek more and more profit, would tumble under the weight of its own contradictions, this very system is seemingly prepared to ignore the warnings of climate catastrophe that awaits humanity unless we change tack. This is the logic, sadly, of where we are.

Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes The sleep of reason produces monsters No. 43 from Los Caprichos Google Art Project resized

There is a wonderful capricho (‘whim’ in English) etching by Goya (1746-1828) of a man who has fallen asleep at his writing desk.  Unknown to the man, various owls and bats fly above him as he sleeps. Goya called his piece El sueño de la razón produce monstruos (The sleep of reason brings forth monsters). In this etching Goya is reminding us that reason must be ever vigilant so that monsters do not reappear. The collapse of communism never created any peace dividend and never ushered in so-called liberal democracy, and is showing an extremely illiberal tendency with people like Trump, Johnson and Bolsonaro the clowns now taking over the asylum.

If the system of Capital is all about accumulating more Capital at whatever expense then the monsters are already on the loose. The victory over communism has been simply the opportunity for Capital’s monsters to fly wherever they want and create as much destruction as they can so long as profits are made. They even call it collateral damage.

Yes, we have been asleep. Our reason, our thinking has been defective, if not completely absent. Everything seems to point to our demise except for the groups mentioned earlier – climate protestors, Black Lives Matter activists, women’s groups along with all the community groups up and down the nation trying to keep the poor from sinking further. The challenge is to link all these groups and more to demand a world free from the greed that destroys us so that there can still be a world.

ADN-ZB Katschorowski 5.10.71 Berlin: Festtage-

Bertolt Brecht (1898 – 1856), in his play The Life of Galileo (1937), explores how truth can be problematic to those in power. They don’t want to face it because it changes their sense of themselves in the world, and therefore changes their relationship to everyone else. They would rather ignore truth completely. When Galileo asks them to look through the telescope and see for themselves the truth of how the cosmos is, they all refuse.

Galileo also says in the play:

Someone who doesn’t know the truth is merely a fool. But someone who does know it and calls it a lie is a criminal.

But lies and stupidity are still force-fed to us.  George Orwell (1903-1950), in his novel 1984, published in 1949, tells us that one of the three mottos supplied to the masses is IGNORANCE IS TRUTH. Ironically, a dumbed down reality TV show called Big Brother takes its title from the anonymous leader of Oceania featured in the novel. The warning Orwell was giving us in this novel simply has to make us question three-word slogans like Take Back Control and Get Brexit Done.

The pernicious anti-intellectualism that permeates contemporary capitalist countries also leads to a frightening level of political illiteracy. Brecht captured this sense particularly well in his era:

The worst illiterate is the political illiterate. He hears nothing, sees nothing, takes no part in political life. He doesn’t seem to know that the cost of living, the price of beans, of flour, of medicines all depend on political decisions. He then prides himself on his political ignorance, sticks out his chest and says he hates politics. He doesn’t know, the imbecile, that from his political non-participation comes the prostitute, the abandoned child, the robber and, worst of all, corrupt officials, the lackeys of exploitative multinational companies.

This pretty much sums up the state of the western, liberal democracies today. Ignorance is desirable for the ruling elites. Marx, studying the capitalism of his day, predicted the growth of such multinational companies. He followed the logic of capitalist competitiveness, accumulation and insatiable greed. It has brought us to where we are today.

Sophistry and postmodernism seem weak tools to deal with this impasse. Terry Eagleton, in his book The Illusions of Postmodernism, published in 1995, castigates it by saying that it ‘does not envision a future for us much different from the present.’ This statement remains a powerful indictment against it. Marx’s famous statement in his Theses on Feuerbach of 1845 said that philosophers had only ever interpreted the world, and if this can be updated for today we may be able to say something like this – that the postmodernists have only deconstructed the world. The point remains to change it.