…and no, I never use the term “Troubles”, which is such a cutesy underestimation of what actually occurred – a civil war that lasted for a solid 30 years. With that in mind:
…and no, I never use the term “Troubles”, which is such a cutesy underestimation of what actually occurred – a civil war that lasted for a solid 30 years. With that in mind:
The amount of material on loyalist culture is abysmal. This is not a culture that is especially adored anywhere, with the possible exception of Scotland and Toronto, Canada. There was never a massive diaspora to America, which in turn would have laid the groundwork for an entire culture of expats (complete with music, film, novels, and generations of Americans far removed from Ulster yet still claiming to be Ulster Scot). The Ulster Scots are generally one step removed from hillbillies in the United States, with the the more respectable members of the diaspora largely confined to the UK and Canada. One can still see Canadian flags being tossed about on July 12th Parades in Belfast..
Of course, this is mostly due to the fact that the loyalist has stayed put. They are the working class of Northern Ireland, and as opposed to the forced diaspora of the Famine, the North was sufficiently industrialized to sustain itself and integrate itself with the rest of Europe’s trade (the fact that the North’s loyalty was guaranteed, as opposed to Western Ireland, certainly aided things as well). But most importantly, no one talks of the “overseas Belfast Loyalist community” anymore than they would talk of Lancashire, or Manchester, or Newcastle’s “overseas community”. These were/are local industrial hubs, and at least until the Thatcher years, they were successful.
Belfast also followed industrial-city suit by attracting a large, “red” working force. Unions were the norm here; the shipping yards which formed the backbone of Belfast’s industry, and which employed a vast quantity of loyalist men, were unionized. These were not open unions however; following partition, it became very difficult for a Catholic to find work within union jobs. This did not stop a nascent left-wing from growing however, and a non-sectarian Communist group came into being in Belfast during the 30s. Numbers were limited, although like many Northern British working class cities “Communism” wasn’t equated with devil worship.
The arrival of the civil rights movement changed the attitudes of many loyalists, who felt that their way of life was being threatened by outside aliens like the specters of the “IRA” (who as noted in the previous post had nothing to do with the civil rights group, NICRA). The Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), the amalgam of two pre-Troubles parties, was quickly viewed as just another Irish nationalist group. Many loyalists became bitterly disillusioned, not only by the supposed attacks against their community by the “IRA”, but were beginning to feel sold out by mainstream political parties as well. Ian Paisley’s ultra-right wing Democratic Unionist Party may have had a fundamentalist Protestant at the helm, but at least they were offering a fighting chance against the depredations of both the Irish “terror” and mainstream Unionism.
Socialist/Marxist Loyalism remained alive however, as best exemplified by David Trimble throughout the early 70s. Trimble, a member of the loyalist paramilitary UVF and later founder of the Progressive Unionist Party (PUP), maintained an interesting outlook; as much as the republicans had done with their Marxism (which they took seriously and were certainly not dilettantes), and confined that Marxism within the prism of republicanism, loyalist Marxism could do the same – a Marxism for loyalists, for the working class of Northern Ireland (which of course predated the economic downfall of most of the great industrial hubs of the UK in the 80s to follow, and with which would have a major engagement during the dark days of Thatcherism and the de-industrializing process of the 80s).
Central to the initial concept for loyalist Marxism was the “Two Nations” manifesto, jointly arrived upon by Northern loyalist Marxists and a strange southern entity called the British Irish Communist Organization, another loyalist communist group strangely formed and administered by Irish in the Republic. The general notions were that a) Ulster loyalists constitute their ethnicity, their own “nation” rather than Britons who were just “living across the sea”, and that b) the two nations (Irish and Ulster Loyalist) had a right to coexist without supremacy/hegemony of any kind. What this translated as was an acceptance that both Ulster loyalist Marxism could exist with republican Marxism, WITHOUT THE TWO NECESSARILY DEPENDENT ON ONE ANOTHER OR EVEN IN CONTACT WITH ONE ANOTHER. The transnational aspect of Marxism was gone, although not to the degree of Stalinism wherein “communism in one country” was given precedence over another.
It was a novel idea which was propagated during the 1974 Ulster Shop Steward strike, which brought an end to the very short-lived experiment in power sharing. It was also a bloody period, in which 39 died, mostly during clashes with Ulster paramilitary groups.
Which brings me to the intransigence of paramilitary backed leftist/Marxist groups, as well as Marxism in hardline sectarian communities in general. It is folly to believe that you can have two Marxist groups, of roughly the community (Trotskyite, Leninist, post colonial, etc) operating at the same time, in some kind of vacuum, in which the OTHER group with identical views are also operating at the same time/place but without any kind of communication with the other. I believe that that is the central flaw of the Two Nations concept, as it pertains to the day-to-day functioning of a purportedly universally appealing agenda. It is divisional, and while it addresses the immediate problems of sectarian communities that are forced to live with each other during emergency periods, it is not a long term solution – and the sectarianism of Northern Ireland is long term. “The Troubles”, the most recent spasm of violence that wracked the area for thirty years, is only the latest manifestation of a long gestating problem, and longer term solutions are needed.
Can Marxism rise above sectarianism? Yes, I believe it can – evidence of this exists in abundance with certain anarchist communities in the Middle East, and I have seen how non-state Marxist groups can cooperate with each other in the Middle East, particularly in Lebanon. Although Northern Ireland is falling back in love with sectarianism, although segregation has become embedded in cities such as Belfast (where if you moves into a given neighborhood, it’s like you’ve made a personal, political commitment to whichever sectarian group runs the neighborhood), I have also seen the growing popularity of hard-left groups such as the SWP and People Before Profit – an electoral group which has won seats in Stormont, in both neutral and republican ridings. And I’ve seen an entire, newly-educated group of young people who are both driven to improve their communities as well as reach out to the other. Sectarianism isn’t impossible.
It seems like I resurrect the same dead horse to whip every May, every year. On the other hand, something astonishing happened in Paris in 1871, an eruption that arguably was greater than any other rebellion or revolution to follow. That’s a bold statement, and I make it not to denigrate any of the other revolutionary foundation stones; rather, the Paris Commune produced an incredible experiment in genuinely equitable society, one that was honestly built on equity, camaraderie, and real justice, not the bourgeois deformation of all three.
We should remember the Commune for what it achieved, rather than grousing about its fall or swearing blood grudges against the descendants of the Versailles bourgeoisie. This society was as much about joy as it was equal distribution of food or new parliamentary systems. This is the joy, the sheer happiness of becoming united with each other, with the birth of a new society, overthrowing a useless, tyrannical system. And it has to be remembered as a moment, a singularity in time that exists by itself via a recognition of the circumstances of that moment. It was the Moment of recognition that created the moment of joy. And it did not correspond to any historical norms, therefore making the Moment unpredictable.
It almost goes without saying that this moment was quashed by ruthless, barbaric, right-wing thugs who operated in the open and revealed the true nature of the bourgeoisie – a nature built on greed, spite, and blind hatred of anything that wasn’t/isn’t them. However, certain changes had been installed that were irreversible, changes and demands which would become givens throughout world society and all of the mass movements to come. Revolutions don’t necessarily fail – frequently they create new, greater bedrock for future generations to stand on and demand their freedom. In that sense, May Day should always pay its respects to the sacrifices made in one of the world’s greatest experiments in democracy.
For the next ten days, I will be throwing up as much Commune material that my fingers can produce. Besides commentary, quotes, articles and declarations, there will be reviews of two books and a bonkers play from the typically bonkers Bertolt Brecht. Let’s open the shrine and make it better by contribution; let’s commemorate the fallen and celebrate the victories they achieved and which they still achieve through our own contemporary actions .
Vive la Commune!
I’m currently reading the autobiography of Big Bill Haywood, one of the founders of the militant American union orgs, the Industrial Workers of the World. This is NOT a great book, and offers almost zero insight into the actual personal life of one of the greatest labour activists in the world, but it is a wonderful peak of the horrific conditions of industrial labour in turn-of-the-century America, and the violent, deadly opposition workers faced when they attempted to fight back and form unions. Anyway, here’s a passage from the bio, a fable that Big Bill told fellow IWW internees awaiting trial in Chicago on trumped-up charges. The punchline is at the very end. Racial implications are rife in this story, so prepare yourself for some triggers.
The fruit-growing landowners of the golden state had determined to rid themselves of members of the IWW. The first move on their part was to introduce Japanese workers in the orchards and vineyards.
Some of the little yellow men joined the IWW which, unlike many other labour unions of America, admitted them the same as white or men of any other colour.
But the Japanese were not satisfied to work for small wages under the miserable conditions imposed by the Fruit-growers Association, so they formed co-operatives, saved their money, and began purchasing land for themselves, becoming serious competitors of their former employers.
Fearful that the Japanese would buy the entire fruit-growing region of California, having already bought most of the land in the Vaca Valley, laws were passed by the legislature forbidding the sale of land to the Japanese, and a Federal law was passed in Washington restricting their immigration to the United States. There was already a law restricting the immigration of the Chinese.
The fruitgrowers were again compelled to employ migratory white labour, until a wonderful idea developed at one of the conventions of the Fruitgrowers’ Association. One of the delegates got up and suggested that it would be possible to train monkeys to pick and pack fruit. This was decided upon without hesitation, and steps were taken to get a lot of monkey fruit pickers.
The Chimpanzee was decided upon as the most intelligent.
Splendid little houses, all nicely painted, were built and equipped for the monkeys. They were actually fed and taught to what they were to do. When the fruit grew ripe, the owners brought their friends from the city to see how ingeniously they were solving the labour problem.
The monkeys were restless in their houses, as the air was aromatic with the ripened fruit. When they were turned loose, they hurriedly climbed the trees. But instead of doing as they had been taught – to bring the fruit down and put it in a box – the mischievous little rascals would dart about, selecting the choicest fruit, take a bite or two, throw the rest away, and go after more.
Before the day was gone, and the monkeys with paunches full had gone back to their houses, much damage was done.
The wise fruit-growers had to seek another method. The next day, each monkey had a muzzle put on. They went up into the trees rapidly enough, but none of them would pick any fruit. They were busily engaged in trying to rid themselves of the frightful contrivance that prevented them from eating and enjoying themselves.
The fruit-growers were in an awful predicament with so many monkeys to feed which would do no work in return. They appealed to the Governor of the state, who regretfully replied that as the offenders were not men, they were not amenable to the law. If they were IWWs, he could have them imprisoned and perhaps have their leaders shot, but over monkeys he had no jurisdiction.
The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, who had never interested itself on behalf of the IWW or the Japanese, learning that the monkeys were being neglected, threatened to prosecute the fruit-growers if the little animals were not properly taken care of.
The chimpanzees came to be as disliked as much as the IWW. Some of the fruitgrowers owned cotton plantations in Imperial Valley on which they had trouble getting white and black wage slaves sufficiently docile for the work of picking cotton. It occurred to them that the monkeys could be made to pick cotton, and there would be no trouble about them trying to eat it.
So all the monkeys were shipped to the new location. Strange to say, they could pick cotton and at a speed that made their owners happy. Here was the solution to the labour problem as far as picking cotton was concerned. But their satisfaction was short-lived.
One day, while all the monkeys were at work, chattering while they gathered the white bolls of cotton, a gentle breeze wafted a white tuft from a monkey’s hand. It amused him to see it floating through the air. He tossed up another bit, and another. The other monkeys, catching the spirit of the fun, began to do the same. At first little bits and then handfuls, till the air was full of fleecy cotton. It looked as though the first snowstorm had struck southern California.
The overseers were alarmed.
There was no way to stop the monkeys in their eager playfulness, which, before they had tired themselves out, had almost destroyed the entire crop of that particular plantation.
In some peculiar manner the monkeys on other plantations learned of the fun, and their pranks caused the same disastrous result.
The fruit and cotton growers were at their wits’ end. They knew not what to do with the monkeys, until deportation was finally decided on, and the Chimpanzees were shipped back to the forests of Africa, where they now gather together, and the eldest, with a grin on his face, hanging by his tail, tells the younger generation how they won the strike in California.
The world lost one of its’ greatest satirists/fantasists this week. Terry Pratchett has come to the black desert under a night sky, at the far too early age of 66.
Humor is universalized by genuine empathy for humanity, as well as a desire to satirize blowhards and idiots in power. Pratchett had both in spades, and they were made manifest in his never-ending carousel, the Discworld series.
I grew up reading Pratchett, and I’m re-reading Good Omens in his memory. Though this book also bears the stamp of another great fantasist, Neil Gaiman, the tricks of language and the rollicking laughs that one can receive from the Apocalypse are wholly Pratchett’s.
The AVClub, a pop culture website, wrote a moving essay comparing Pratchett to Vonnegut, and I believe this is true – Pratchett was far more concerned in creating (an admittedly silly) mirror of ourselves than he was in daring battles, elves, princesses, yadda yadda yadda. He was a man who brought joy to the masses, and his death will leave a hole in many hearts.
It’s hard to find words when confronted with the finality of death, especially a premature one. But his spirit will be with us forever, as long as his many books exist and bring happiness to generations.
RIP Sir Terry.
“A man who is warm cannot understand a man who is cold”.
Survival is hard enough. It gets harder in a gulag. Someone once said to me that I have to live one day at a time, with little future plans and a forgetful attitude towards the bad elements in my past. I can’t help but think that the person in question served a little time.
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is the story of a single day of surviving the brutal, unrelenting conditions of a gulag work camp, where work is only stopped if the temperature drops below minus 20 Celsius. For those of you living in temperate climes, minus 20 feels like someone is throwing handfuls of nails in your face, particularly when it’s windy. It is physically painful to endure.
Ivan Denisovich spends the day trying desperately to get sick leave, and failing to do so, is forced to engage in the kind of nonsensical make-work projects that were the hallmark of the labour camps. In this case, it’s building a new jail in the middle of the tundra.
There is very little in the way of the American-styled prison experience. There are no gangs. No rape. There’s a vague sense of camaraderie, as everyone is on the same horrible boat, but basically the prisoners are simply fighting to survive, one day at a time. It shapes them of course; aside from a few fresh fish that have just arrived and maintain some semblance to their former selves, the prisoners are twisted into the human equivalent of starving donkeys.
Meals consist of the absolute bare minimum to keep people alive. Denisovich is delighted when he finds extra meat in his bowl of watery soup. That’s a key element of the novel itself: taking pleasure in minutiae which would otherwise be meaningless in civilian life. As grim as the surroundings are, as unforgiving as the elements are, this book is essentially a celebration of life, as taken one day at a time.
The Brits attempted to make a film based on this book, which was definitely hit and miss. The fact that every “Russian” had a midlands British accent didn’t help matters. And these are actors – naturally photogenic people with a bit of dirt on their faces. They lack the terrible physical effects of working in the perpetual cold, day after day, year after year, on what amounts to starvation rations.
Every character in the book suffers from some ongoing disease, ranging from low-level TB, gout, pneumonia, and of course frost bite. Those lucky, lucky prisoners who are assigned indoor jobs don’t have to deal with any of that, and there’s a clear dichotomy between the indoor and outdoor slaves, but for the most part none of these men will be the same, assuming they live long enough to serve their time.
However, with all of that taken into consideration, the book is galvanizing and ultimately positive, a tribute to humanity’s ability to survive and even achieve happiness in the worst possible conditions. This was a literary sensation Russia, particularly during the thaw following Stalin’s death and Khrushchev’s not so secret denunciation of Stalin and the “cult of personality”. Voices like Solzhenitsyn can and must be heard – that’s the importance of prison books, regardless of how rote they may seem. Guantanamo Bay is still open for business, and there are currently one million people behind bars in America alone (with an 80% black population). Voices need to be given to the voiceless, no matter how deep the system has buried them.
My apologies for the infrequent posts. There is a reason; this author will be moving to Shanghai in a matter of days, and needless to say that things are a tad chaotic. I will attempt to create a new blog devoted to my experiences – it will be very interesting to leftists to see what life is like in a pseudo-communist locale. In the meantime I’ll still try to remain to update the site, but considering circumstances, posts will not be posted on a weekly basis.
Solidarity forever and ever.