Stand Back Socialist! Stand Back!

‘The Will of the People’ would be nothing more than the whim of the tyrant mob, the most blind and ruthless tyrant of all’ – Father Kane

‘All hail, then, to the mob, the incarnation of progress!’ – James Connolly

Business owners and establishment politicians are often represented as the “incarnation of progress” in modern society.  The public is often portrayed as a mass or “mob”, unworthy of making decisions or of the responsibility to change history.  In 1910, James Connolly eloquently and passionately conveyed how it was and is the public – ordinary people together in force and solidarity – who have made the significant changes and improvements in society throughout history.

In 1910 James Connolly wrote Labour Nationality and Religion in response to a discourse against Socialism by Father Kane in Dublin. Father Kane referred to the will of the people, essentially, as the will and rule of the ‘mob’.  Connolly embraces the word mob and uses it to encapsulate the positive role it has played throughout human history.

I thought it would be interesting to share this ever-relevant discourse here, starting with Father Kane’s impression of the public, and then Connolly’s response to it.

Father Kane on socialism and the “mob”:

In Socialism there could be no healthy public opinion, no public opinion at all except that manufactured by officialdom or that artificially cultivated by the demagogues of the mob. There could be no free expression of free opinion. The press would be only the press of the officials. Printing machines, publishing firms, libraries, public halls, would be the exclusive property of the state. We do not indeed advocate utter licence for the press, but we do advocate its legitimate liberty. There would be no liberty of the press under Socialism; no liberty even of speech, for the monster machine of officialdom would grind out all opposition – for the monster machine would be labelled, ‘The Will of the People’, and ‘The Will of the People’ would be nothing more than the whim of the tyrant mob, the most blind and ruthless tyrant of all, because blindly led by blind leaders. Brave men fear no foe, and free men will brook no fetter. You will have thought, in your boyhood, with hot tears, of the deeds of heroes who fought and fell in defence of the freedom of their fatherland. That enthusiasm of your boyhood will have become toned down with maturer years in its outward expression, but mature years will have made it more strong and staunch for ever, more ready to break forth with all the energy of your life and with all the sacrifice of your death in defiance of slavery. You may have rough times to face; you may have rough paths to tread, you may have hard taskmasters to urge you toil, and hard paymasters to stint your wage; you may have hard circumstances to limit your life within a narrow field; but after all your life is your own, and your home is your own, and your wage is your own, and you are free. Freedom is your birthright. Even our dilapidated modern nations allow to a man his birthright – freedom. You would fight for your birthright, freedom, against any man, against any nation, against the world; and if you could not live for your freedom, you would die for it. You would not sell your birthright, freedom, to Satan; and I do not think that you are likely to surrender your birthright, freedom, to the Socialist. Stand back! We are free men. Stand back, Socialist! God has given us the rights of man, to our own life, to our own property, to our own freedom. We will take our chance in the struggle of life. We may have a hard time or a good time, we may be born lucky or unlucky, but we are free men. Stand back, Socialist! God has given us our birthright, freedom, and, by the grace of God, we will hold to it in life and in death.

Connolly’s response:

After you have done laughing at this hysterical outburst we will proceed to calmly discuss its central propositions. To take the latter part first, it is very amusing to hear a man, to whom a comfortable living is assured, assure us that we ought to tell the Socialist that “we will take our chance in the struggle of life…

How can a person, or a class, be free when its means of life are in the grasp of another? How can the working class be free when the sole chance of existence of its individual members depends upon their ability to make a profit for others?

The argument about the freedom of the press – a strange argument from such a source – is too absurd to need serious consideration. Truly, all means of printing will be the common property of all, and if any opposition party, any new philosophy, doctrine, science, or even hair-brained scheme has enough followers to pay society for the labour of printing its publications, society will have no more right nor desire to refuse the service than a government of the present day has to refuse the use of its libraries to the political enemies who desire to use those sources of knowledge to its undoing. It will be as possible to hire a printing machine from the community as it will be to hire a hall. Under Socialism the will of the people will be supreme, all officials will be elected from below and hold their position solely during good behaviour, and as the interests of private property, which according to St. Clement are the sole origin of contention among men, will no longer exist, there will be little use of law-making machinery, and no means whereby officialdom can corrupt the people.

This will be the rule of the people at last realised. But says Father Kane, at last showing the cloven foot, “the will of the people would be nothing more than the whim of the tyrant mob, the most blind and ruthless tyrant of all, because blindly led by blind leaders”. Spoken like a good Tory and staunch friend of despotism! What is the political and social record of the mob in history as against the record of the other classes? There was a time, stretching for more than a thousand years, when the mob was without power or influence, when the entire power of the governments of the world was concentrated in the hands of the kings, the nobles and the hierarchy. That was the blackest period in human history. It was the period during which human life was not regarded as being of as much value as the lives of hares and deer; it was the period when freedom of speech was unknown, when trial by jury was suppressed, when men and women were tortured to make them confess crimes before they were found guilty, when persons obnoxious to the ruling powers were arrested and kept in prison (often for a lifetime) without trial; and it was the period during which a vindictive legal code inflicted the death penalty for more than one hundred and fifty offences – when a boy was hung for stealing an apple, a farmer for killing a hare on the roadside. It was during this undisturbed reign of the kings, the nobles, and the hierarchy that religious persecutions flourished, when Protestants killed Catholics, Catholics slaughtered Protestants, and both hunted Jews, when man “;made in God’s image” murdered his fellow-man for daring to worship God in a way different from that of the majority; it was then that governments answered their critics by the torture, when racks and thumbscrews pulled apart the limbs of men and women, when political and religious opponents of the state had their naked feet and legs placed in tin boots of boiling oil, their heads crushed between the jaws of a vice, their bodies stretched across a wheel while their bones were broken by blows of an iron bar, water forced down their throats until their stomachs distended and burst, and when little children toiled in mine and factory for twelve, fourteen and sixteen hours per day. But at last, with the development of manufacturing, came the gathering together of the mob, and consequent knowledge of its numbers and power, and with the gathering together also came the possibility of acquiring education. Then the mob started upon its upward march to power – a power only to be realised in the Socialist Republic. In the course of that upward march the mob has transformed and humanised the world. It has abolished religious persecution and imposed toleration upon the bigots of all creeds; it has established the value of human life, softened the horrors of war as a preliminary to abolishing it, compelled trial by jury, abolished the death penalty for all offences save one, and in some countries abolished it for all; and to-day it is fighting to keep the children from the factory and mine, and put them to school. The mob, “the most blind and ruthless tyrant of all”, with one sweep of its grimy, toil-worn hand, swept the stocks, the thumbscrew, the wheel, the boots of burning oil, the torturer’s vice and the stake into the oblivion of history, and they who to-day would seek to view those arguments of kings, nobles, and ecclesiastics must seek them in the lumber room of the museum.

In this civilising, humanising work the mob had at all times to meet and master the hatred and opposition of kings and nobles; and there is not in history a record of any movement for abolishing torture, preventing war, establishing popular suffrage, or shortening the hours of labour led by the hierarchy. Against all this achievement of the mob its enemies have but one instance of abuse of power – the French reign of terror – and they suppress the fact that this classic instance of mob fury lasted but eight months, whereas the cold-blooded cruelty of the ruling classes which provoked it had endured for a thousand years.

All hail, then, to the mob, the incarnation of progress!

The Age of Uncertainty

“Don’t mourn for me friends,
Don’t weep for me never,
For I’m going to do nothing,
Forever and ever”.

Those of you with an interest in sociology and economics (which, so far, seems to be at least some of the followers of this blog) should enjoy this excellent series of programmes by the liberal economist John Kenneth Galbraith: The Age of Uncertainty.  Originally broadcast in 1977 and co-produced by the BBC, the series has a quality to it, and relative objectiveness (despite my disagreements with the ideological outlook of its creator) which documentaries of such topics tend to lack in this neo-liberal period.

It’s rare to come across such creatively made documentaries as this -especially nowadays – which is truly artistic in its presentation and tone.  The visual effects and audio soundtrack are as tongue-in-cheek and subtle as Galbraith himself, whose language and presentation is often witty and ironic.  There are 15 episodes in the series (and a book), the first episode I have linked below.

 

More Orwell: Dickensian Orwellian

After reading three of Mr. Arthur Blair’s books in 2015 (including a selection of essays and short stories), I thought I had finished with old George for the year in order to get on with reading other works.  Last week, however, I was given a loan of another collection of Orwell essays from a neighbour (after getting locked out of the house, they invited me in for a chat).  I feel an obligation to now finish this book so that I can return it to its enthusiastic lender.

Included in it is an enjoyable piece about Charles Dickens and proletarian themed writing.  The essay is literally called Charles Dickens.  A point is made about the portrayal of working-class people in literature, which I agree with, and I thought it was worth sharing here:

[Dickens] was not… a ‘proletarian’ writer.  To begin with, he does not write about the proletariat, in which he merely resembles the overwhelming majority of novelists, past and present.  If you look for the working classes in fiction, and especially English fiction, all you find is a hole… a great deal has been written about criminals, derelicts… But the ordinary town proletariat, the people who make the wheels go round, have always been ignored by novelists.  When they do find their way between the covers of a book, it is nearly always as objects of pity or as comic relief.

 

The World’s Most Controversial Topic – The Ordinary Life

It’s easy to confuse “what is” with “what ought to be”. Especially when “what is” has worked in your favor – Tyrion Lannister, Game of Thrones

What am I writing about?

Blogs today often have an “about” section.  For now, for various reasons, I am not going to have an “about” page.  Instead, I will use my early articles to give a sense of what you might expect from this blog.  This article is about what I will write about – you will obviously get a sense of who I am from it too.  To that end, it seemed appropriate for me to tell you about my some of my own influences, as I will incorporate, to an extent, a derivative of their styles (albeit, probably a poor one!).  I thought it would also be fun and indulgent.

Writers who have inspired me were concerned with more than action-packed narrative and building tension – the kinds of things that one is taught of in school.  Some of them did not use exciting first lines which would “hook the reader in“; some of them did.  Many of my favourite influences did not pander to the reader but instead demand the reader to commit to them, and you could estimate from the first line or paragraph (and the width of the book) just what kind of experience lay ahead of you either way.

All of those writers wanted to convey a message about the world in which we live.  Their message, whether literal or underlying, had a purpose they were propagating. This is an inherently political act.  The theme that many of my influences incorporated was based on the complexities of simple everyday living.  Their subject was the ordinary anonymous life.  Simply put, they were concerned with how the majority of people who live and work within a given society are affected by that society; by its mores, laws, politics, and economics.  In our epoch, this theme is inseparable from the issue of class.

what i am probably not

There is nothing wrong with escapism; secret agents desperate to avoid the next World War, superheroes with supernatural powers, or witty detectives solving crimes at bourgeois soirées.  Such larger-than-life entertainment is essential in its own way.  Nor are escapism and socio-political stories mutually exclusive categories, as Game of Thrones exemplifies, it being both an action-packed fantasy and, at times, quite an insightful social commentary, as is the brilliant V For Vendetta.  But I doubt I’ll be falling under the same categories as Agatha Christie, Frederick Forsyth or Ian Fleming, and I certainly do not have  the illustrative skills of a graphic novelist.

what i might be

I am more concerned with the theme of class – the issues that face the “99%”, the proletariat.  I don’t know if that subject invokes the same sense of escapism, excitement and sheer entertainment as the other authors I have already mentioned, but it carries a strong message, and people evidently relate to it.  I believe it has proven timeless.

If not as dramatic as other forms of fiction, discussing class issues has historically been a controversial subject, and I believe – given contemporary events around the world – it is as controversial as ever.  Many great writers have been exiled, imprisoned, assassinated, or have had publishers decline their work.  Class division is the most imposing obstacle to true equality, freedom and progress in the world today, and that makes it dangerous.

Perhaps for those reasons, stories which raise the issue of class-divisions are not necessarily ones that are propagated by the “mainstream” or encouraged by teachers in schools or writing classes.  Marx may be the world’s most referenced author, but his works are not usually stocked on the shelves of Eason.  For various reasons, discussion of such a topic is implicitly, if not openly, repressed by society.  Thus, the issue of class is not always present.  Either, we are not class-conscious, or because, in our pursuit of social advancement we are reluctant to write or say anything which might compromise our progress as individuals.

Despite all this, “class” is not a new theme, or an under-discussed theme; nor is it considered a strictly “mainstream” theme, although writers who have explored this subject are renowned.   Some  of these writers and books are listed below.  They have literally changed my outlook on life and have educated me profoundly.

a fun list of some of my favourites (who you should read if you haven’t done so already)

George Orwell is one of the most famous writers within this genre.  Orwell (Eric Arthur Blair), spent much of his career writing on (and fighting for) issues concerning ordinary people; his non-fiction Down and Out in Paris and London is a relevant example, as is his fictional 1984, whose protagonist, Winston Smith, is virtually anonymous in a totalitarian society; even more anonymous than Smith are the ‘proles’ whom the state hardly considers worth monitoring. (Orwell’s Politics and the English Language is an educational read for any writer who is concerned with communicating effectively and conveying an important message, as is his essay Why I Write – both of them discuss the inherently political nature of writing).  Anyway, Orwell is an influence.

Robert Tressell’s classic The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists portrays the everyday challenges of working class people from their own perspective (an achievement I have not seen any novel do as effectively since).  Tressell’s novel was published by his daughter posthumously, and it became very popular.  It has been called the socialist’s bible and is credited with “winning the 1945 general election for the Labour Party“.  Today, it is rarely discussed in the media or mentioned along other classics, but many, including myself, consider it a life changing book.  Notably, Orwell considered it a ‘book that everyone should read’, and declared that ‘a considerable novelist was lost in this young working-man whom society could not bother to keep alive’.

Not so proletarian, but relevant, is John William’s novel Stoner, which chronicles the lonely and anonymous life and death of struggling writer William Stoner – it illustrates the quiet unnoticed life many of us live, and describes the intricacies of one’s existence which can hinder fulfilment, contribution, and acknowledgement in the world.

Steinbeck’s simple folk-story The Pearlpowerfully describe the dramatic events in the lives of poor working people, as does Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea.  Both of these stories tell of humble people struggling to obtain the unobtainable in a cruel and unfair world.  In The Pearl, the chimera Kino and Juana struggled to reach for, turned out to be very monstrous indeed.  For me, these stories touched on the concept that “everyone can achieve whatever they want, if they only work hard enough”, and expose it as a delusion.

James Joyce’s novels and short-stories, such as Dubliners, were based on the intrigue, beauty and obscenity of everyday life and unknown people.  Another Dubliner, James Plunkett, wrote one of Dublin’s greatest novels Strumpet City, based on the build-up and events around the 1913 Lockout.  Plunkett’s story explores the lives of a cross-section of society; privileged middle-class landlords, clergy, struggling working class, and the completely destitute; the tramp Rashers Tierney, who is almost invisible to the world around him, is one of the most striking characters of the novel.

The list of related books, stories, authors related to such a topic goes on and on – Dostoevsky, Trotsky, Plato, Marx, Chomsky… – but I could not omit just one more of my significant influences, Victor Hugo.   Hugo had a more romantic and dramatic view on the life of the ordinary person, as he painted vividly throughout his epic Les Miserables.  That tremendous novel was written from a bourgeois point-of-view, but nevertheless, from the point-of-view of a writer who knew the value and importance of discussing topics that are a reality for the majority of people.  Hugo himself evolved over the course of his life from being a conservative royalist to a more radical republican.  He wrote Les Miserables while in exile in Guernsey.

So long as there shall exist, by reason of law and custom, a social condemnation, which, in the face of civilization, artificially creates hells on earth, and complicates a destiny that is divine with human fatality; so long as the three problems of the age—the degradation of man by poverty, the ruin of women by starvation, and the dwarfing of childhood by physical and spiritual night—are not solved; so long as, in certain regions, social asphyxia shall be possible; in other words, and from a yet more extended point of view, so long as ignorance and misery remain on earth, books like this cannot be useless – Victor Hugo

I believe that the world can be a place where love, understanding and collaboration – not profit – are the driving forces of human progress, and I would like my writing to be indicative of that sentiment.  From what I have experienced, the proletarian life – that unacknowledged entity – is the fundamental force for creating an egalitarian and productive world, through a powerful movement of solidarity and democracy.  The working class is potentially the strongest force for change.  Class-consciousness is key to achieving that change.  What more exciting subject, or worthy subject, is there to write about?  And what more accurate and relevant perspective is there to write from? As a writer, or as a reader, why be oblivious of that great, limitless content?