This is a blog about remembering. A blog not about politics but about the aesthetics of politics. It is about remembering what we owe to various degrees of socialist reforms over the past few decades, and centuries. Socialism today may be a victim of its own success. It might be less relevant today because it has achieved so much of what it set out to do. I have already written a blog as to why I think socialism is still relevant – https://justinfenech.wordpress.com/2015/04/25/why-we-still-need-socialism/ – the purpose of this blog is to pay homage to the heroes (and heroines) of history’s kinkiest ideology, an ideology which fulfilled the aims of the French Revolution, put the church, the aristocracy and the oligarchs in their place and gave us a society, which, whether you’re a socialist or not, is perhaps the best humanity’s ever known.
Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.
The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.
Criticism has plucked the imaginary flowers on the chain not in order that man shall continue to bear that chain without fantasy or consolation, but so that he shall throw off the chain and pluck the living flower. The criticism of religion disillusions man, so that he will think, act, and fashion his reality like a man who has discarded his illusions and regained his senses, so that he will move around himself as his own true Sun. Religion is only the illusory Sun which revolves around man as long as he does not revolve around himself.”
Karl Marx, Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right
The most misunderstood, misquoted passage in political history, also, the most numinous, the most poetic. Marx writes how religion is the chain that yokes man to illusion, religion makes man more susceptible to oppression, for he is more gullible, more drugged into submission, this, in my view, is the most profound understanding of religion and society ever uttered. Socialism segregates religion and state precisely because religion is an opiate. To emancipate man you must emancipate first his mind. Make him less happy with his sad lot, drive him to learn, ask, enquire and be determined. All the rest will follow.
“The emancipation of woman will only be possible when woman can take part in production on a large, social scale, and domestic work no longer claims anything but an insignificant amount of her time.”
Friedrich Engels, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State
Socialist thinking very early on recognised the importance of women in society. To remove women from their role of domestic animals, to give them the opportunity to work, contribute to society, just as men did, to liberate them from the ancient oppression of their reproductive demands, get them out of the kitchen and the bedroom, get them into work, into society, and society will be more equal, more prosperous, more humane. It’s interesting that prominent early feminists were also Marxists, like Clara Zetkin and Eleanor Marx.
“The few own the many because they possess the means of livelihood of all … The country is governed for the richest, for the corporations, the bankers, the land speculators, and for the exploiters of labor. The majority of mankind are working people. So long as their fair demands—the ownership and control of their livelihoods—are set at naught, we can have neither men’s rights nor women’s rights. The majority of mankind is ground down by industrial oppression in order that the small remnant may live in ease.”
Yes, Helen Keller – the above quote sounds like something Che Guevara or Lenin might say, but it was spoken by one of the world’s first advocate for the rights of the disabled. She was an active member of the Socialist Party and this is a helpful reminder that socialism isn’t just about emancipating workers and the working-classes, but also those who are disenfranchised, marginalised, different. Before socialism, if you were poor, disabled, a woman, sick, you had to hope and pray that some private wealthy philanthropists catered to your needs. If they didn’t, you were on your own.
“We have absolutely abandoned any idea of nationalist loyalty. We are deliberately putting a world order before our loyalty to our own country.”
One of Britain’s most radical Prime Minister, a Labour leader and socialist thinker, here he argues something that seems counter-intuitive but profound: that loyalty to the nation is another blinding force, like religion. Nationalism leads to war and confrontation, which, naturally, is never a good state of affairs for the working class. Attlee was reflecting something Voltaire had expressed a few centuries earlier: “It is lamentable, that to be a good patriot one must become the enemy of the rest of mankind.” Attlee helped dismantle the British Empire and end colonialism; during his term India, Burma and Ceylon were given their independence and, although a socialist, Attlee was a staunch anti-Stalinist. He was right on a lot of historical issues.
“No society can legitimately call itself civilized if a sick person is denied medical aid because of lack of means.”
The charmingly named, charmingly spoken health minister in Attlee’s government was the driving force and inspiration behind the National Health Service. The first state-run, free-of-charge national health service anywhere in the world. Despite all the NHS’ flaws and shortcomings it is beautifully revolutionary and literary life-saving. It now meant that if you were sick and poor you didn’t have to beg for mercy from doctors who ran their practices like private businesses, you can go to a hospital and, whether you have cancer or a common cold, can be treated for free. The NHS raised the floor of Britain, raised people’s health, wellbeing, and naturally aided the economy. Bevan also said, and in this he encapsulates the raison d’etre of socialism: “Man must first live before he can live abundantly.” The world owes the Welshman a great deal.
“What do you want with this theme of the “special suffering of the Jews”? I am just as much concerned with the poor victims on the rubber plantations of Putumayo, the Blacks in Africa with whose corpses the Europeans play catch. You know the words that were written about the great work of the General Staff, about General Trotha’s campaign in the Kalahari desert: “And the death rattles of the dying, the demented cries of those driven mad by thirst faded away in the sublime stillness of eternity.” Oh that “sublime stillness of eternity,” in which so many cries of anguish have faded away unheard, they resound within me so strongly that I have no special place in my heart for the ghetto. I feel at home in the entire world, wherever there are clouds and birds and human tears.”
Rosa Luxemburg, herself a Polish Jew, was one of the most daring of socialists, a martyr for free-thinking (which is in itself a hard, brave thing to pursue), because she went against the party-line. Most socialists in her time were extremists, ready to fight the rising wave of fascism with a yet more extreme form of communism. But Luxemburg saw through all the political rhetoric and saw the true evil of the 20th century: not fascism as such nor communism as such, but totalitarianism in any guise. She refused “the special suffering of the Jews”, and understood that humanity, in order for it to be truly humanist, should not be blinded to the suffering of just one people (and suffer the Jews did!) but to the suffering of all humanity. A thought which is beautifully relevant in our media age, where we can, from the comfort of our homes, learn of the suffering going on in places like Haiti, Saudi Arabia, Nicaragua, Somalia – and not just the “special suffering of the Syrians”.
“Saints should always be judged guilty until they are proved innocent, but the tests that have to be applied to them are not, of course, the same in all cases. In Gandhi’s case the questions one feels inclined to ask are: to what extent was Gandhi moved by vanity — by the consciousness of himself as a humble, naked old man, sitting on a praying mat and shaking empires by sheer spiritual power — and to what extent did he compromise his own principles by entering politics, which of their nature are inseparable from coercion and fraud? To give a definite answer one would have to study Gandhi’s acts and writings in immense detail, for his whole life was a sort of pilgrimage in which every act was significant.”
George Orwell, Reflections on Gandhi
Everyone knows George Orwell. Everyone knows 1984 and Animal Farm. I could have easily quoted from those landmark, commercial masterpieces. But I chose a quote that really inspires me, for, it reminds me how important it is to be cynical, to doubt, question, enquire. The best way to avoid totalitarianism is rationalism, enquiry, and a free, unbiased press. Socialism is a kinky ideology, and the likes of Castro, the Sandinistas, Mao and other communist regimes have tried – and are trying – to deceive the world by launching a professional PR campaign that serves only to disguise their true crimes. If we can learn to see through the likes of Gandhi, Mother Theresa, Princess Diana, Popes, imams, populists and saints, we can learn to see through any would-be dictator.
“Subsidies for the oil, gas and coal industries are projected to cost taxpayers more than $135 billion in the coming decade. At a time when scientists tell us we need to reduce carbon pollution to prevent catastrophic climate change, it is absurd to provide massive subsidies that pad fossil-fuel companies’ already enormous profits.”
The progressivist icon of the anti-Trump anti-Clinton faction of the American populace makes the evolutionary link between green politics and socialism (without being a silly-minded, vegan eco-terrorist like Green Peace or other eco-fascists). Sanders realises that a lot of the harm being done to the planet comes from big corporate greed, monopoly and influence. Climate change is also leading to droughts and natural disasters that pulverise the already-impoverished, in Africa, Haiti, and Asia; leading to mass migration, political desperation and necessary abuse of the environment – the three most prominent ills of our generation.
The song, with words by Cuban independence hero and author Jose Marti, contain the immortal refrain:
- Con los pobres de la tierra
- Quiero yo mi suerte echar:
- El arroyo de la sierra
- Me complace más que el mar.
- (With the poor people of the land
I want to share my fate:
The breeze of the mountains
Pleases me more than the sea.)
Helen Keller meeting President Eisenhower.
The Falling Soldier, photo by Robert Capa of a Republican soldier being shot during the Spanish Civil War – the fight against fascism.
What still needs to be done: La chureca, Nicaragua.