Archive for the ‘History’ Category

Letters from Long Kesh: 40th Anniversary of Internment

August 9, 2011

Today marks the 40th anniversary of the introduction of internment without trial. Even by the standards of the late 1960s and early 1970s (batoning civil rights marches, August 1969, the Falls curfew, Bloody Sunday to name but a few), internment was immensely reactionary and incredibly stupid. The introduction of internment against not just Republicans and Provisionals but a wide range of civil rights activists and perceived opponents of the regime resulted in a swift escalation of violence, deepened divisions, and proved just how politically and morally bankrupt the Unionist regime was. The fact that the British Army took the opportunity to test sensory deprivation on a dozen prisoners (as well as more run of the mill forms of torture being applied on a more widespread basis) just made matters worse. For anyone interested in the details of internment and the torture experiments, I’d recommend reading online the now-deceased ex-internee and anarchist John McGuffin’s books Internment (1973) and Guinea Pigs (1974, 1981).

As we know, internment provoked widespread opposition. Just how widespread was shown by the fact that from January to July 1972, the Irish Times carried a regular column from inside Long Kesh (the Letters from Long Kesh), written by Des O’Hagan, a member of the NICRA Executive and leading member of the Republican Clubs in Belfast. 22 Letters appeared. This outraged some of its more traditional constituency, including one member of the board of O’Hagan’s employer before he was lifted, Stranmillis College, who wrote to the Irish Times to say that he was a life-long reader, but now would stop buying the paper due to the publication of the Letters from Long Kesh. Douglas Gageby, however, kept publishing them regardless. On the other hand, another correspondent believed that the humanity, eye for detail, and sense of humour in the Letters betrayed signs of genius, and stated that

I would think that a collection of some kind of O’Hagan’s prison journals would be one good thing that could be salvaged from Internment.

And (better late than never) the Letters from Long Kesh are being republished for the 40th anniversary of internment. From the press release:

The Letters are a unique and invaluable contemporary account of life among the internees. They recount the reaction of the internees to some of the major events during the most bloody and tragic year of the Troubles, including Bloody Sunday (which occurred during an anti-internment march), the escalating bombing campaign, and the suspension of Stormont.

They also reveal the daily rhythm of life as an internee – the cold, the banter among the men, the battles with the authorities for better facilities, the close friendships, the political debates, the sense of helplessness as events spiralled outside the prison walls, the efforts
to ensure the availability of drink for St Patrick’s Day, the struggle against depression, the arguments over who made the tea – all told with compassion and an engaging sense of humour.

The Letters (which have an introduction and annotations) cost a fiver, and more information can be got by writing to longkeshletters@gmail.com

I am including one of the Letters below, from February 19th 1972.

SECURITY AS USUAL DURING IMPROVEMENTS
(OR THE CASE OF THE BOOKLESS LIBRARY)

The celebration of the first six months of internment (one sincerely hopes that this is not going to be a spectacular bi-annual event competing with Easter parades, the Twelfth and other illegal promenades) has prompted me to review the improvements in the amenities of Long Kesh; possibly also readers are interested in the ethos of the camp as I understand it, and this, I can categorically state, has not altered in any way.

Let me say at the outset that I now feel, as one of the reluctant pioneers of what I am afraid must be regarded as not an entirely successful project, a certain attachment – or rather a faint quickening of Behan’s “curious quickening” – for my present home.

On that account my judgments may tend to lack objectivity, but I hope that these proffered comments are not construed as simply malicious or vindictive. In a sense then, this is in the nature of a half-term report which could be of some use to future architects of similar schemes (though I would be the first to recommend that any tentative plans be scrapped and a less contentious form of public diversion be substituted). There is probably some demand for another Stormont, a minor royal residence or a new employment exchange.

It is in the nature of things where one day is remarkably like another that small changes should assume major dimensions. For example the decision by someone up there that boots should be provided for the internees is a welcome index that our dialogues with the camp bureaucrats actually do at times go beyond the barbed wire boundaries. Complaints, demands, requests are normally met by an intransigent negative, regularly described in the phrase “for security reasons.” But the boots are more important in another, far more serious, sense because of the gigantic international plot revealed by Dr. Paisley some years ago, when he divined in the Civil Rights Association a conspiracy born from the Machiavellian marriage of Moscow and Rome. Dr. Paisley was as usual correct, as I discovered last week.

(more…)

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Hobsbawm on Where We Are and Where We Might Go

January 16, 2011

Just put this up on Cedar Lounge Revolution too.

The prospect of a new Eric Hobsbawm book is always one to pique your interest. And today in the Observer, there is an interview with Hobsbawm on How To Change the World: Tales of Marx and Marxism. Unfortunately, the interview is conducted by Tristam Hunt MP, but still makes for interesting reading (there’s another, and shorter, interview in the New Statesman, and a review in the Daily Telegraph here). I have to say though that one’s confidence in the publishers and those writing about it is slightly diminished by the fact no-one seems to have noticed it is 162 years since The Communist Manifesto was published, and not Das Kapital.

So what is the book about? It is a collection of previously published and new essays, including, Hunt tells us, “some fine new chapters on the meaning of Gramsci”. Hobsbawm seems to be arguing that the current crisis has breathed new life not only into interest in Marx, but also into the possibility of systemic change, though he is unclear as to how it might come about.

he rediscovery of Marx in this period of capitalist crisis is because he predicted far more of the modern world than anyone else in 1848. That is, I think, what has drawn the attention of a number of new observers to his work – paradoxically, first among business people and business commentators rather than the left. I remember noticing this just around the time of the 150th anniversary of the publication of The Communist Manifesto, when not very many plans were being made for celebrating it on the left. I discovered to my amazement that the editors of the [in-flight] magazine of United Airlines said they wanted to have something about the Manifesto. Then, a bit later on, I was having lunch with [financier] George Soros, who asked: “What do you think of Marx?” Even though we don’t agree on very much, he said to me: “There’s definitely something to this man.”

Hobsbawm sees the resurgence of Marx as coming about in particular from the fact that the crisis has proven neo-liberal economic orthodoxy completely wrong – we are in a crisis of a kind it said could not happen, in his view. The collapse of the USSR and associated countries, in Hobsbawm’s view, by removing a lot of the passion from the situation, allowed people to look at Marx afresh. Globalisation has become the victim of its own success.

You see, in a sense, the globalised economy was effectively run by what one might call the global north-west [western Europe and North America] and they pushed forward this ultra-extreme market fundamentalism. Initially, it seemed to work quite well – at least in the old north-west – even though from the start, you could see that at the periphery of the global economy it created earthquakes, big earthquakes. In Latin America, there was a huge financial crisis in the early 1980s. In the early 1990s, in Russia, there was an economic catastrophe. And then towards the end of the century, there was this enormous, almost global, breakdown ranging from Russia to [South] Korea, Indonesia and Argentina. This began to make people think, I feel, that there was a basic instability in the system that they had previously dismissed.

Hobsbawm continues his in his view that one of the main consequences of the fall of the Soviet Union has been the destruction of any meaningful form of social democracy.

In fact, one of the things I’m trying to show in the book is that the crisis of Marxism is not only the crisis of the revolutionary branch of Marxism but in the social democratic branch too. The new situation in the new globalised economy eventually killed off not only Marxist-Leninism but also social democratic reformism – which was essentially the working class putting pressure on their nation states. But with globalisation, the capacity of the states to respond to this pressure effectively diminished. And so the left retreated to suggest: “Look, the capitalists are doing all right, all we need to do is let them make as much profit and see that we get our share.”

That worked when part of that share took the form of creating welfare states, but from the 1970s on, this no longer worked and what you had to do then was, in effect, what Blair and Brown did: let them make as much money as possible and hope that enough of it will trickle down to make our people better off.

The significance, he says, of the current crisis is that living standards are clearly failling once again, and so the question of reformism will emerge once more.

Again, he continues with a pre-existing line, namely his argument that the traditional proletariat is no longer sufficient to change society on its own. Instead, it must form the backbone of progressive alliances. Hence Hobsbawm stating that

Today, ideologically, I feel most at home in Latin America because it remains the one part of the world where people still talk and conduct their politics in the old language, in the 19th- and 20th-century language of socialism, communism and Marxism.

Against some of the more excitable comments about the student protests, Hobsbawm questions the extent of the shift in student consciousness and reminds Hunt that the last major student protests (i.e. 1968) didn’t actually amount to all that much (an argument I have a great deal of sympathy for). In another argument I have some sympathy for, he seems unimpressed with Zizek as well.

I suppose Zizek is rightly described as a performer. He has this element of provocation that is very characteristic and does help to interest people, but I’m not certain that people who are reading Zizek are actually drawn very much nearer rethinking the problems of the left.

Hobsbawm, like everybody else on the left, feels that the coalition is taking the opportunity provided by the crisis to pursue a Thatcherite ideological agenda.

Behind the various cuts being suggested, with the justification of getting rid of the deficit, there clearly seems to be a systematic, ideological demand for deconstructing, semi-privatising, the old arrangements – whether it’s the pension system, welfare system, school system or even the health system. These things in most cases were not actually provided for either in the Conservative or the Liberal manifesto and yet, looking at it from the outside, this is a much more radically rightwing government than it looked at first sight.

I don’t think I’d agree with the remark that the government didn’t look this rightwing from the start. I think that was an illusion about Clegg and the Orange book LibDems, and perhaps even about Cameron, that some of the British centre-left allowed themselves to indulge in, culminating of course in the Guardian’s deluded and foolish call for progressives to vote LibDem. Hobsbawm calls for the Labour Party to concentrate on defending public services from cradle to the grave, and pointing to improvements it made in power. In other words, to move further to the left than Ed Miliband has positioned it so far.

Hunt points out that Hobsbawm’s book’s final paragraph notes that

the supersession of capitalism still sounds plausible to me

. Hobsbawm’s response suggests that he believes a move to socialism unlikely, but that he thinks the neo-liberal era may well be left in the past.

The record of Karl Marx, an unarmed prophet inspiring major changes, is undeniable. I’m quite deliberately not saying that there are any equivalent prospects now. What I’m saying now is that the basic problems of the 21st century would require solutions that neither the pure market, nor pure liberal democracy can adequately deal with. And to that extent, a different combination, a different mix of public and private, of state action and control and freedom would have to be worked out.

What you will call that, I don’t know. But it may well no longer be capitalism, certainly not in the sense in which we have known it in this country and the United States.

In a sense then, there’s not a lot new in this interview, and probably not a lot new in terms of Hobsbawm’s views on contemporary politics, as noted by the Telegraph review. I suspect that for the CLR audience, those of us who read it will find the more historical, philosophical or interpretive reflections on Marx and his followers as being of more interest than Hobsbawm’s political message, which seems perhaps unduly limited and perhaps defeatist.

Cuba Si!

July 26, 2010

More rubbish about World War I

July 20, 2010

I see our estemmed Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness, has added his voice to those seeking to rehabilitate the Irishmen who fought in World War I. Actually, in his case, he is more seeking to rehabilitate those with a nationalist bent who fought in World War I.

It is also right to recognise in the period ahead the sacrifice of those Irishmen who fought in the First World War. While some may question the value of their actions no one can set aside the scale of the loss or doubt the personal tragedy.
Republicans have no wish to erase the memory of their bravery or their part in Irish history. Many working class Irishmen fought in the British Army at that time because of the unrelenting poverty that they and their families experienced. Their motivation and their experience were articulated by Tom Kettle, an Irish National Volunteer, who shortly before his death at the Somme in September 1916 wrote these lines to his daughter:
Know that we fools, now with the foolish dead,
Died not for Flag, nor King, nor Emperor,
But for a dream, born in a herdsman’s shed,
And for the Secret Scripture of the poor.
Among the courageous Irishmen who gave their lives in that war also were those who fully believed in their actions and the choices they took. Their sacrifice and their loss are no less worthy of remembrance.
The experiences of republicans, nationalists, unionists and all others form part of our collective memory. They are part of who we are as a community, as a nation.
While we must remember these events we also must critically engage with our past. The past one hundred years, while a fraction of the life of the nation, was taken up by partition, divergence, exclusion and conflict.
These failures must be consigned to the past. I believe that Ireland is now set on a course towards unity, convergence, inclusion, and lasting peace.
This is not a bland aspiration. In this way we will deliver equality, prosperity and reconciliation for all our people in all their diversity. In this way we will build a nation of which our children can be proud and a republic worthy of the name.

I couldn’t be bothered going on a long rant about this, but let me make a couple of points. Firstly, I’m amused that whoever wrote this speech saw no problem in citing Kettle’s clearly Catholic religious nationalism. Which in itself is enough to make one puke, rather than engage a desire to emulate it and respect it. Secondly, who cares if people believed in what they were fighting for? That doesn’t make it right. I’m tempted to break Godwin’s Law here as a fine example, but I’m sure we could all come up with answers closer to home. And lastly, some visual aids about what these people were really fighting for.

As I believe the saying goes,

Down with Imperialism!

A New Age of Liberty has Dawned

July 14, 2010

Irish Defence Forces Say No to British Army War Memorials in Barracks

July 12, 2010

As any long-time readers (and all the people who get here by searching for images of Nadine Coyle) will know, one of my favourite hobby horses is the poppy. More specifically, the way that the wearing of the poppy has been promoted in Ireland as some act of reconciliation. Here is some of what I had to say on the issue previously (previous posts here and here):

“In addition, I am sickened by the way in which a war that cost tens of millions of lives over the oppression of the peoples of other continents is trivialised and presented as a good things by idiots because Catholics and Protestants fought in it together, and we should all unite and honour their memory. Well no. We shouldn’t. We should condemn imperialism. And we should condemn the type of facile politics that produces the trivialisation of the greatest imperialist war in history. And reject them. If people want to wear a poppy, it should be a white one.”

The determined attempts to inject the commemoration of those who died in the furtherance of imperialism into culture across the island have a received a lot of support from influential people in the south such as Mary McAleese. And the southern army has participated in this as well. In its own words

The Defence Forces also give significant support to the recently established annual event organised by the Royal British Legion at the National War Memorial Gardens, Islandbridge, with its emphasis on the Battle of the Somme and the Great War.

However, it seems that a limit has been reached, and not before time. Unlike the Guards, who essentially have long viewed themselves as having organisational continuity with the RIC (hence the Guards band playing songs associated with that era for example), the Defence Forces have recently rejected attempts to have a memorial to British troops placed in their barracks in Cork. The reason given was that the Defence Forces – whose Irish-language title of Óglaigh na hÉireann is a reminder of their self-image and origins in the Treatyite wing of the IRA – represented a different tradition to that of the British army.

In considering any monument or event commemorating the Great War, the department wishes to ensure that due regard be had to the separate traditions of the Defence Forces and membership by Irish people of the British armed forces.
“The dedication of memorials in Defence Forces barracks and churches to personnel and units of the British services could give rise to confusion in relation to the separate traditions.
“As a general principle therefore, it is not intended that any further memorials be erected on Defence Forces properties relating to military service other than with Óglaigh na héireann.

The Royal Munsters Fusiliers Association, a commemorative society, had wanted to put a window in the garrison church in Cork for the centenary of the outbreak of World War One. Its spokesperson had the following to say.

It does not seem to gel with what Taoiseach Brian Cowen has recently said with regard to honouring the dead on all sides.
“This is not a subject that is ever broached in our schools and it is only when you delve further, you realise how much a part of our heritage this is.
“A lot of these men went out to fight these wars in the hope of helping Ireland and I think now they are being hard done by. We appear to be heading in the wrong direction in remembering their sacrifice with this decision.”

I couldn’t disagree more with his final sentence. What we need to remember is that a lot of those who went out to fight, in WWI in particular (though note he talks about wars in the plural), did think they were helping Ireland. But they were also doing so as part of an imperial project to which the Irish Parliamentary Party was dedicated. If we are to face up to this period in all its complexity, the imperialist nature of the Irish nationalist elite – and probably a large proportion of its electorate – must be faced up to. Putting an end to the culture of celebration of imperialism through facile words about the different traditions in Ireland shedding blood together, and unyieldingly shining a light on Ireland’s imperialist heritage is essential, especially if we are to understand our island’s role in the world today.

UPDATE: WP Cork city councillor Ted Tynan has issued a statement on this issue warning that commemoration of the dead must not slip into glorification of imperialism and war.

The Pacific: The End

July 2, 2010

Back in April, I put up a piece discussing the first two episodes of the Stephen Spielberg/Tom Hanks World War II co-production The Pacific. As I noted in that blog, I was a huge fan of Band of Brothers, and had been eagerly anticipating this series ever since I had first heard of plans for it. To be frank, it was a disappointment. I’ve had the last episode ready to watch for about a month, and only just did so, and that in itself is a reflection of a lukewarm response to the show. In short, it failed to engage you as successfully as Band of Brothers did. It’s difficult to make direct comparisons, given the different nature of the shows, but they are inevitable, and can’t be ignored when writing or even thinking about The Pacific. The Pacific concentrated on a much smaller numbers of individuals, and had much more on the home front, including a final episode about the return of the Marines to the US. It told the three invididuals’ stories more strongly, especially that of John Basilone, but the consequence was that the surrounding characters were much less developed. I think that was a large part of the problem. Band of Brothers had a large range of engaging characters and an ensemble of brilliant actors. The Pacific simply paled in comparison.

The Pacific was tremendous at showing the horrors of the war in the Pacific, and the sufferings of the troops involved there (as usual with this sort of thing, not a great deal of how the civilians were affected). Whether it was the horror and brutality of combat, the food and water shortages, or the humiliating and debilitating diseases the Marines were afflicted by, it gave a much rounder picture of the soldier’s experience than did Band of Brothers, which was pretty much the soldier-as-uncomplicated-hero. But, with the smaller number of characters properly sketched and the amount of space devoted to time away from the war, it didn’t have the same impact as the combat scenes in Band of Brothers, being to an extent more about the spectacle than the effects. That was a key, and disappointing, difference. I think the film-makers made a mistake there. The home front stuff was interesting, and well done; but again, being focused largely on Basilone, detrimental to the impact of the show. I can understand that it was important to show the experiences of the Marines in Australia and the like (not least with Australia because it was obviously so important to the men themselves), but you don’t really watch a programme about World War II for the love stories. That may well be my problem, rather than the producers’, but it slowed everything down, and added not a lot.

At least until the final episode, which I thought sent the series out on a high, dealing with the different experiences of the veterans, and their different attitudes. The return to work, the search for women, the attempt to understand survival, and to fit back in to the community and civilian life. These are common themes I suppose of people returning from war, but they were handled effectively, especially Sledge’s experiences at the Polytechnic when he explained to the young lady behind the desk what the Marine Corps had trained him to do, and then his relationship with his parents.

Maybe part of my different reaction is due to the smaller number of veterans interviewed, inevitable after another decade had taken its toll. But watching the documentary at the end of Band of Brothers I think did re-cast the experience of the previous episodes and give them an added depth, that the lack of a similar one for The Pacific failed to do. This could of course be Sky’s fault for not showing it if it exists. One quick point about some of the spin coming from Hanks and co, that I alluded to before, which was the point about the programme reflecting a racial element to the struggle. I still felt this was dealt with in a tokenistic manner, and there is of course the question of whether thinking that the word “japs” is automatically more racist than “krauts” during wartime. This is not to deny that there was a large racial element in the conduct of the war, just to say that didn’t come out as strongly as expected from the hype. Despite the strong finish, it’s hard not to agree with Bakunin’s comment on the previous thread where he said:

I’m six episodes in and I think it is nowhere near as good as BoB. The acting, stories, and writing are not as sharp nor interesting. I think The Pacific drops off the longer it goes on.

Which is a shame. None of us can deny the importance of the sacrifice of those who fought against fascism in whatever theatre and in whatever way, and that it is a good thing to see their experiences recorded in this way. It’s just unfortunate to come away feeling that it could have been done better given what we had seen this team do before with Band of Brothers. I felt there were more interesting stories lurking there that failed to come out because of the decision of the producers to concentrate on a much smaller number of men.

Thoughts on Saville

June 17, 2010

I have put up a long piece discussing the Saville Report on Cedar Lounge Revolution.

Getting to Leningrad’s VE Day Celebrations in a New-Old Style

May 9, 2010

I can’t see Citybus adopting this as its next design.

And today, like every day, it is worth recalling the sacrifices of all those who gave their lives and their efforts in the struggle to defeat the Nazis.

The Pacific

April 5, 2010

Just finished watching the first two episodes of The Pacific, the quarter of a billion dollar HBO 10-part series from Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks examining the Second World War in the Pacific from the viewpoint of a number of US Marines. I was a big fan of Band of Brothers which was made by the same people. Band of Brothers was such a great show partly because each episode began with an snippets discussing the events covered from some of the actual people involved who were members of Easy Company whose story the series told. You never knew who was who until the end of the series, and the documentary that accompanied it. I wasn’t sure if The Pacific would do the same, given that it concentrates on fewer people and that being made a decade later there must be significantly fewer survivors. Thankfully, this series also started with interviews with (still anonymous) veterans. It may be a false feeling, but seeing veterans talk, even if only for one or two sentences, before the events is a much more effective reminder of the reality of the war than even the best war film or TV series.

That said, is it any good? The short answer is yes. It was superb, just as good as Band of Brothers was, even if it skipped the training regimen that was covered so well by Band of Brothers. That meant less time for characterisation, but the quality of the writing and the whole production, including the battle scenes, was such that it didn’t matter. What The Pacific had that Band of Brothers didn’t was an element of the view from back home in the United States. And more bad language. Both of which gave added depth of a different nature. Tom Hanks, in the publicity for the show, has been making the point that the war in the Pacific was different to that in Europe. To paraphrase, he has been saying that in Europe, you had people who at least recognised each other as forming part of the same civilisation, and accepting of the same rules of war, such as taking prisoners. He has been saying that in the Pacific it was instead a battle between two sets of people who both believed in their own racial superiority and the barbarism of their enemy. It was thus a nastier and more lethal conflict.

These interviews may cause us to doubt Hanks’ grasp on the war on the Soviet front, but it seems to me there is a lot of truth in what he is saying about racism being an important factor in the way the conflict in the Pacific was fought (it seems to me no accident that the atomic bomb was dropped on Japan rather than Germany). Having said that, in the first two episodes there was not much overt sign of the racial element, other than in the odd reference to Japs, Nips, and disparaging references to yellow monkeys and the like. They felt more of a passing nod than anything else, but that may change in the future.

Overall then, this was event television at its very best, bringing home the brutality of the conflict, the desperation and reckless courage of those involved, and doing so in such a manner that it flew by. I can’t wait for next week.