As we have been shown this year, if we did not already know, Spring comes in its own time. Roughly around the calendar yes, but not exactly. It’s not like the clothing merchants, who withdrew the gloves in March and left people like me, who regularly lose them, with frozen hands unable to buy cheap replacements while the models stood in windows in shorts and bikinis.
But spring wild flowers are already out and have been for weeks, though the city is not a great place to see them. However in gardens, parks, canal banks and on empty sites, the dandelion, much disregarded as a decorative flower has been flaunting its bright yellow flower for weeks and will continue to do so for quite a while yet.
In early April I spent a few days in Wicklow by the Dartry river. In a very short walk to Ashford I encountered eight types of wild flowers in bloom, including furze (or gorse), daisies,
groundsel, cat’s ear, speedwell, and of course dandelion. On a longer walk heading away from the river I came upon primrose, lesser celandine and wild or barren strawberry (not knowing how to tell the two apart at this time of year). And a mystery plant also (see photo). Swathes of wild garlic (creamh), grew both sides of the country road; I had long thought this plant a foreign import but it seems I was wrong. It certainly spreads when established however, as witnessed by this Wicklow road and wooded areas of Dalkey Hill where I have also seen large patches of it. My father transplanted some to our garden but rarely used it in cooking – or if he did, not often enough, for it soon took over large areas of the smallish garden.
At a Wicklow hotel garden’s bird feeder, blue tit, chaffinch and some other species flicked in to take a snack and flicked out again, making it very difficult to photograph them but which of course did not bother them at all.
Returning through Ashford (Áth na Fuinseoige) I came across one of our
feathered anglers, the smaller grey heron. Patience personified, this species stands in the water waiting for the appropriate moment to strike, apparently not feeling the cold. But perhaps this one did feel it, for it stood on the bank.
The Gael reckoned the start of Spring with the feast of St. Brigid (and probably the Goddess Brig before her), February 1st, when the ewes come into milk, with their expected birth of lambs. As Brigid/ Brig was associated with butter in some traditions it is possible that some early butter was made from sheep’s milk, though that is not recorded in records, as far as I know. The lambs and many other animals born in Spring had no choice regarding when to appear – that had been decided in the Autumn or Summer of the year before when their mothers mated. Birds, on the other hand, who are more vulnerable, mate in the Spring itself.
In Dublin city until perhaps a week ago, there was very little sign of Spring apart from the lengthening of the day. The blind wandering poet Antoine Ó Raifteirí (1779-1835), writing in the month of January, was already anticipating spring in one of his better-known poems:
Anois teacht an Earraigh beidh an lá dúl chun síneadh,
Is tar éis na féil’ Bríde ardóigh mé mo sheol;
Ó chur mé ‘mo cheann é, ní stopfaidh mé choíche
Go seasfaidh mé síos i lár Chondae Mhaigh Eo.
He’s thinking of heading home to County Mayo, he feels Spring coming but will wait until Bridget’s feast day to “hoist his sail” and since it’s in his head now won’t stop till he gets there. We might have been anticipating Spring ourselves in January this year and into February — though cold and wet enough — but if so we were in for a shock towards the end of the month and into March with “snow dumps”.
The birds have to set up their territory even so and in fact the robin (Spideog) was marking its territory in song sporadically through December and January, often enough even at night in the city and particularly near street or train station lighting. The polygamous wren (Dreoilín), if not already at it followed in February. The seagulls at their nesting sites on roofs were calling and mating in mid-March but may have been delayed a little by the snow; however they are hardy birds. Some blackbird males have been singing since March and now are all in full throaty song. In March also we heard the high-pitched “peeps” of those acrobats, the tits as they foraged for invertebrates through the branches of tree and bush and at the end of April, also the bursts of chaffinch song which remind us often of caged canaries — and why not, when the canaries are often taught that very bird’s song to sing.
January was the time to hear adult foxes in the city, the somewhat frightening scream of the vixen and the two or three-times bark in quick succession of the dog fox. This month the cubs, born a month earlier, will venture out of their den and may be heard sometimes by night at play too, though this is more likely in the months to come.
The trees and ground plants apparently respond more to length and angle of sunlight to tell them it is time to grow from seed or to burst open into bud and some of them are doing so now in late April, for example the birch (Beith). Others delay and the ash trees (source of our camáin or hurley sticks and much else) are still in their black hard bud stage in late April and the oak waits along too. Trees that flower tend to do so first and put out leaf later, as the blackthorn (Draighneán donn) did in February with its little white blossoms which will develop into sloes (airne) later in the year. In March hawthorn (Sceach geal), willow (Sail, from which we get “The Sally Gardens”) and elder (Ceireachán), all of which may be seen in gardens or parks (and the elder growing even on empty sites) were already green-misting in tiny leaf and are now well advanced. The “candles” of the horse chestnut (Crann Cnó capaill), to be seen in parks and in some leafy suburb streets, are however forming alongside the tree’s large leaves right now at the end of April (Aibreán) and the rowan (Caorthann) and sycamore (Seiceamar) of the whirling seeds are also in stages of leaf.
Spring is really coming for us but for many plants, mammals and birds, it is already here.
PS: When checking The Tree Council of Ireland for tree species names in Irish, I was shocked to find that they do not supply them. Nor reference the huge number of places across the land whose names in English are corruptions of the original Irish place names derived from the names of trees.
The San Jordi feast day is the national Catalan one. San Jordi (Saint George) is the patron saint of many nations, in all of which he slays a dragon or a monster, sometimes to save a princess and sometimes not. In some legends, the monster is a human.
In Catalonia, the tradition grew up to present a book to a man and a flower (now a rose) to a woman but often now one brings a book, takes one and takes a rose. Casal Catalá d’Irlanda organised this event today with the support of Chapters Bookshop in Parnell Street, Dublin.
Casal Catalá is a Catalan cultural organisation which has chapters or branches in different parts of the world. The Ireland branch organised to bring books, roses and refreshments to the event, also promoting it. The attendance was mostly Catalan with a sprinkling of others, including Irish; there were a number of children present.
The Senyera, the traditional flag of Catalonia and Valencia was displayed close by where the event was being held, upstairs in Chapters Bookstore. The Catalan legend of St. Jordi was performed by Berta Freixas (with amusing interventions from Joan Pau) and Diarmuid Breatnach told the story of how the Irish mythological character Cú Chulainn came by his name.
Joan Pau and Marina Aresté Dolcet then played ukeleles as accompaniment to three Catalan songs, for which they distributed song sheets and which most people joined in singing.
People had gathered to meet and greet from 3pm but some were still arriving at 5.30pm as the event neared the end. This was the 2nd year the St. Jordi celebration had been organised by Casal Catalá d’Irlanda. They have organised a number of other Catalan traditional events but also some to promote Catalan understanding of Irish language and history.
The prison experience and escape of IRA man Seán Murphy as related by himself in book form was launched on 31st March to a large audience in Wynne’s Hotel. Republicans of all shades not part of Sinn Féin (and perhaps some of those too) attended the event, bought copies of Having It Away and queued to have them signed by Seán’s widow, Betty Murphy. Seán O’Mahony, whose assistance with the publication of the book was acknowledged by Sean Murphy’s family, presided over the event.
On 13th August 1955, a party of the IRA led by Ruairí Ó Brádaigh raided Arborfield British Army Depot and came away with many guns and ammunition; the party’s members were Seán Murphy, Donal Murphy (no relation), Frank Skuse, Jack Hick, Tom Fitzgerald, Joseph Doyle, Liam Walsh and Paddy Considine. One of the party’s vehicles was apprehended by British police and the weapons later recovered. Three IRA Volunteers of those ten who took part were captured and, after trial, sentenced to life imprisonment. Donal Murphy and Joseph Doyle were two of them, the third was Seán Murphy and the book is his story.
The book is what most people would call “a great read”. Murphy’s descriptions of the grim realities of prison life, his interactions with other prisoners political and non-political, as well as the screws (prison officers) and Governor, are pointed and yet often humorous.
Cathal Goulding was in the jail before Murphy arrived and after an attempted escape was obliged to wear “patches”, these being large and of a contrasting colour, sown on to a prison uniform. A prisoner wearing “patches” was under constant surveillance in the prison and was kept in solitary confinement when not on exercise. The prison Governor tried to get Goulding to promise not to escape, which Goulding felt unable to do, considering it his duty to escape whenever a decent opportunity presented itself.
Murphy’s opinion expressed in the book is that Goulding should have given his promise and then escape when possible, considering that one was not bound to honesty with one’s captors. Murphy’s position is not without rationality and even morality but it is in strange contrast to he and his two co-accused refusing to provide a defence against the charges, since that would have meant “recognising the British court”.
The Republican prisoners considered themselves political prisoners but they did not seek segregation from social prisoners as later generations of Republican prisoners have done. And in fact, Murpy made friends among a number of prisoners convicted of social rather than political offences, some of whom went to some lengths to help him and put their scheduled liberty at jeopardy in doing so. Murphy has this to say about them (and Sean O’Mahony quite rightly included that phrase too in his written introduction): “Taken all round, the circle of friends we had collected in this prison were made up of men, generous and decent almost beyond belief and one would be hard put to find their equals in any walk of life.”
On the other hand, interaction with other political prisoners also forms part of the narrative. These included Klaus Fuchs, a German Communist who had fled Nazi Germany and became naturalised in Britain. He was a physicist and after the War was hired as part of the team developing the Atomic Bomb at Los Alamos in the USA. From there he had passed information to the USSR to help them in their development of the their own atomic weapon. for which he was sentenced in 1950 to fourteen years imprisonment and had his British citizenship removed. Released not long after Murphy’s escape, having served nine years, we went to the GDR (East Germany) where he remained until his death in 1988 at the age of seventy-six.
Although Fuchs was already there when Murphy arrived, other prisoners arrived afterwards from the struggle against the British in Cyprus. These were from EOKA, a Greek-Cypriot guerrilla organisation which from 1954-’59, fought to end British rule in Cyprus and for union with Greece (“enosis”). Many soldiers, guerillas and civilians were killed in the conflict, the British executed a number and also practiced torture on prisoners. In addition, the British recruited their colonial police force exclusively from among the Turkish minority on the island, which helped entrench and deepen communal tensions. Unlike EOKA B, which was considered right-wing, had links to fascist Greek colonels and was responsible for a massacre and rape of Turkish-Cypriot civilians, Eoka had socialist national liberation leanings and one of the prisoners in jail with Murphy went on to translate James Connolly’s writings into Greek. Some of EOKA supporters, like Bishop Makarios, later went on to advocate complete independence from either Greece or Turkey but an attempted EOKA B coup sparked a Turkish invasion and another massacre, this time of Greek-Cypriot civilians. Today the island is partioned between an independent Cyprus and the Turkish state, each area more or less abandoned by the other major ethnic group.
One of the EOKA prisoners sharing Wakefield Prison with Murphy was Nicos Sampson who had a dark history by then and which got no lighter as time went on.
Almost incredibly, one of the Eoka prisoners, serving five years in jail, was a member of the British Army who had deserted and fought alongside the Greek Cypriots – his name was Tony Martin.
The typography of the book leaves much to be desired – something seems to have gone amiss between editing, proofing and checking the galley copy. Punctuation has suffered and occasionally spelling too; sentences are broken up by large spaces and footnotes end up half-way down the the next page. Somehow however, though one is aware of those faults, the narrative grabs most of the attention.
More irritating than the faulty typography are the omissions: what went wrong that of the escape party of five, only one made it? How did those left behind fare? Did the British seek his extradition from the Irish state? What did Murphy make of the subsequent twists and turns in the Republican movement and of its various splits? Some information on the subsequent lives of some players in the prison and escape organisation is provided in two pages of Biographical Notes but I found it nowhere enough to satisfy my curiosity. For example, Murphy rates Cathal Goulding very highly in the book’s narrative yet I am given to understand that he did not support the line taken by what became Official Sinn Féin (and eventually The Workers’ Party) and the Official IRA, led by Goulding.
All that said, the book is very readable and also well worth reading.
Although Murphy’s writing reveals a strong leaning towards socialist republicanism and therefore the comment in the Irish Times obituary that “he did not embrace Goulding’s move to socialism” should be treated with caution. Nevertheless he did not by all accounts support the Official IRA after the 1969 split in the Republican movement; this may have been due to the failure of the IRA leadership to organise support for an escape, while most of those who did spring him seem to have come from the Saor Uladh or Christle faction groups. Murphy appears to have dropped out of active participation in politics after his escape but in recent years was known to be opposed to the Belfast Agreement.
Seamus Murphy was born 1935 and raised in Castledermot, Co.Kildare and joined the IRA while attending Terenure College, Dublin. In 1963, four years after his escape and return to Ireland, Murphy married Betty O’Donaghue from his home county in 1963; they settled down in Bray and had a son, Pearse. Murphy was writing his memoire unbeknownst to most people and though he received some assistance with it he died in 2015, three years before it was published.
Women’s Day and the approach of Easter again might be appropriate times to remind ourselves of the great role women in Ireland have played in the nation’s struggles. Most Irish people, including sadly some of those who wear it, will be unaware that the idea to create the Easter Lily was that of Republican women and that they were the first to produce and sell them.
The Easter Lily emblem, although in close relationship to the Easter Rising of 1916, represents to some all of those who have died for Irish freedom. Traditionally, some people will wear the emblem at Easter, whether in the paper form or enameled metal, at Easter, while some wear the latter all year around.
THE WOMEN CONCEIVE OF THE EMBLEM IDEA
In 1926, three years after the defeat of the Republican forces by those of the Irish Free State (sic), the Republican women’s organisation Cumann na mBan1 produced the Lily badges and sold them. They used them to raise funds for the Republican prisoners of the Free State and for their dependents but it was also a way for them and others to declare visibly their support for the Republicans at a time when the new State had an iron grip on its opposition, many of its enemies in jails or in concentration camps, in hiding or had left the country. The formal executions of prisoners by the State had ceased in 1923 but the assassinations carried out by CID and Irish Army murder squads had continued afterwards (80 formal executions and up to as many as 153 shooting of captured fighters and assassinations).
It may also have been intended as a visible counterpoint to the British Legion’s “Poppy”, which was worn by thousands in Ireland in those years (tens of thousands Irish had been killed in the British Army and a great many maimed) .
The 12,000 Republican prisoners of the Free State included around 400 women, members of Cumann na mBan, Sinn Féin or of the Irish Citizen Army but towards the end of 1923 most of these were released. However, it was a brave person who publicly declared their support for the defeated Republic — the banned Cumann na mBan, most of whose members had opposed the Treaty, stepped forward to occupy that dangerous public space.
A SPLIT IN THE REPUBLICAN MOVEMENT
The same year that Cumann na mBan developed the Easter Lilly, De Valera and Aiken, formerly of the Republican forces, formed the Fianna Fáil (“Soldiers of Destiny”) political party to campaign within the Dáil (the Irish Parliament) for a Republic, their elected public representatives entering in 1927, having taken the Oath of Allegiance to the Free State and of fidelity to the English monarch in Ireland.
Meanwhile, the rest of the Republican movement, IRA, most of Cumann na mBan and Sinn Féin, remained opposed to participation in what they considered to be an endorsement of the partition of Ireland. During the early period thereafter Fianna Fáil continued to grow while Sinn Féin and the IRA declined in numbers and electoral votes but largely supported Fianna Fáil electorally at first, though the IRA prohibited its members from joining the party.
While Fianna Fáil was heading towards Constitutional methods, the IRA in November 1926 captured 11 Garda Síochánabarracks, in the course of which they shot dead two Gardaí. The Free State reacted immediately, interning 110 IRA men without trial the following day. The following year IRA Volunteers assassinated Free State minister Kevin O’Higgins for his responsibility in executions of Republican prisoners during the Civil War.
FROM PAPER FLOWER TO BADGE
Originally the Easter Lily was actually a three-dimensional paper flower rather than a badge. The flower on which it was modeled was the Easter Lily but now is more imagined as the Calla Lily (Zandeteschia aethiopica). Anne Matthews, who wrote a rather hostile history of Cumann na mBan, also wrote in her blog a good account of the origins of the Easter Lily emblem within the organisation.2
“In early 1926 the reformed (fourth) Sinn Fein party3 instigated the first Day of National Commemoration, to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rebellion at Glasnevin Cemetery on Easter Sunday. Cumann an mBan planned to take part in this event, and early in February the executive saw an opportunity to use the event to raise some funds and perhaps increase membership and they decided to hold a flag day at the cemetery.
“Over a series of meetings of the executive committee the women discussed the idea of the flag day, and decided instead to make it a ‘Flower Day’. Sighle Humphreys said they had considered flowers that bloomed in spring such as the crocus and the pansy, but eventually decided on a flower known generically as the Easter lily (botanical name is Lilium longiforum).
“Within weeks Fiona Plunkett sent a circular letter to all branches of Cumann na mBan to explain the purpose of the Flower Day.
“ ‘The flower we have decided upon is a lily (enclosed find sample) as we consider this would be the most suitable for Easter and it has also the Republican colours…You ought to call a meeting of all Republican women and young girls… and arrange for the collection at masses and at Commemoration Parades, football matches or fairs during the preceding week.‘
“The first Republican Easter lily was a paper flower. Cumann na mBan ordered 45,000, and asked the IRA for support by issuing a joint proclamation and assisting them in selling the flower. The men refused the invitation. The first Easter lily ‘Flower Day’ made a profit of £34 (£1,453 at today’s rates — DB4) but despite their disappointment with lack of support from the IRA, they gave them half the profits. Undaunted, the women continued with the Flower Day campaign every Easter. In 1929 and Cumann na mBan in its circular proclaimed:
“Funds are needed to create an atmosphere favourable to our army… Funds are needed to educate people to resist the Free State and Northern “governments” …When you buy an Easter lily you are directly helping to overthrow foreign rule in Ireland.”
“By the early 1930s the membership of Cuman na mBan had shrunk to such small numbers they could not do it alone and an Easter lily committee was formed comprising members of Cumann na mBan, the IRA, and Sinn Fein, consequently Cumann an mBan lost control of the venture.
“In 1933, there was difficulty in sourcing Irish-made paper for the artificial flowers, and as Cumann na mBan were spearheading a ‘buy Irish’ campaign, a decision was taken to stop making the flowers and instead create a paper flag/badge, which could be worn on the lapel. However, the Lilium longiforum/ Easter Lily did not transfer well to the flag and the resulting image is more like the Calla Lily. The design they chose is the same design that is sold to this day.
“In 1937 Cumann na mBan made a statement about the money raised by the Easter lily campaign:
‘The men of Easter Week laid down a very definite road for the Irish people to travel towards freedom… All those who support the lily campaign can rest assured that the money raised is devoted to no other purpose than the propagation of these ideals and the securing of the necessary materials for their realisation.‘”
THE LILY EXTINGUISHES THE TORCH
Fianna Fáil continued its policy of participation in the Dáil in opposition until it was able to form the Government in 1932, abolished the Oath of Allegiance and brought in a new Constitution in 1937, and soon became the political party most often in Government of the Irish State. On coming into power in 1932 Fianna Fáil unbanned the IRA, released interned Republican prisoners and during the early years Republicans largely supported the party even if they didn’t join it.
Cumann na mBan continued to sell the Easter Lily and not only they, Sinn Féin and IRA wore and sold it but many supporters of Fianna Fáil also. But in the mid-1930s the differences between Fianna Fáil and Republicans who contested the legitimacy of the Dáil sharpened and during this period too the IRA grew considerably in numbers. Agitation around social conditions within the new state was attracting more people to the IRA as was the struggle against the “Blueshirt” fascist movement and their supporters among the original Free Staters’ political party, Cumann na nGaedheal. In 1935 the Fianna Fáil Government again banned the IRA, along with the Blueshirts.
In February 1935, after the IRA killed Richard More O’Ferrall (due to his eviction of 11 families from his lands in 1934), the Fianna Fáil Government cracked down hard including introducing trial without jury in the Special Criminal Courts and Military Courts, against the sentences of which no appeal was permitted.
The FF party’s leadership instructed its members to stop selling the Lily. However, as many would no doubt at least continue to purchase and wear the emblem, the party attempted to introduce a replacement badge, the “Easter Torch”.
It was abandoned after a number of years having failed to gain popularity and many FF members and supporters continuing to wear the Lily.
In 1967 Sinn Féin produced a version of the Easter Lily paper badge with a gummed surface on the reverse. This seemed an interesting innovation, doing away with the need for a pin but as the day wearing it progressed, the badge had a tendency to become unstuck at one end or another – and sometimes both – and to curl unattractively.
Sinn Féin and the IRA both experienced an acrimonious split over a number of issues in 1969 from which emerged “Official SF” (and OIRA) and Provisional Sinn Féin (and PIRA). For the annual traditional commemoration of the Easter Rising in 1970, the ‘Officials’ continued with the new gummed version while the “Provos”, less for aesthetical than for symbolic reasons perhaps, reverted to the older pin-secured version of the badge.
Whoever baptised the Official SF and OIRA “Stickies” as a result is unknown but the use of the term became so widespread as to gain almost official (forgive the pun) status. The party continued to be known by that nickname through a number of splits and incarnations and today, the Workers’ Party have not quite shaken it off.
An attempt to baptise the other Republicans as “Pinnies” or “Pinheads”never really gained ground.
SELLING THEN – WEARING TODAY
Those who sold the Easter Lily in the Six Counties or who wore it were liable to arrest under the colonial statelet’s Flags and Emblems (Display) Act (1954-1987). It was not formally illegal in the Twenty-Six Counties (the Irish State) but sellers were subject to Garda Special Branch harassment under the excuse that the sellers did not have a license to sell (they declined to ask the partitioned State for permission and perhaps they would not have been be granted one). Flags and donations were seized by Gardaí and sellers at times arrested.
“Whenever they tried grabbing the Lilies and money from me, I slung it all on the ground. Let them go picking it all up if they wanted it!” commented a veteran Republican to me a couple of years ago. One can imagine that in such a situation, onlookers might pick the money and badges up, some to return to the victim or his comrades and some perhaps to keep for themselves. In either case, the Special Branch would be presented with the difficulty of badges blowing in the wind and coins rolling in all directions.
Today, the Easter Lily is visible much less than it was up to perhaps the 1980s. It is viewed by most people who know what it represents (many do not) largely as a Republican emblem (either SF or “dissident”). That is a pity. It should be viewed, I would submit, as a badge of national resistance, of anti-imperialism and as a commemoration honouring generations of men and women who have fought the colonial occupation and exploitation of their land. But let us also remember that it was the women who created the emblem and braved non-cooperation and repression to popularise it.
1 Cumann na mBan (“The Women’s Association”) was an Irish Republican organisation formed in 1914 in Wynne’s Hotel in response to the formation of the Irish Volunteers in 1913. It was organised, as were the Volunteers, along military lines and although set up originally as an auxiliary to the men’s organisation, it had its own uniform, structures and commanders. In that respect and in its insurrectionary intentions, it was the first women’s organisation of its kind in the world. Other revolutionary women at the time joined the Irish Citizen Army, also the first of its kind in the world, where women and men were accorded equal status. Both organisations played prominent roles in the 1916 Rising along with a number of other organisations. Cumann na mBan survived the ICA by a number of decades.
2 See url in References and Further Information at end of article
3 The word “fourth” is a reference by Matthews to the various incarnations of the party which started off as a nationalist one seeking a dual Irish and English monarchy for Ireland, with limited autonomy. The current party to which people normally refer when they say “Sinn Féin” may be seen as the party’s fifth or even sixth version, although the current party claims its origin in the first incarnation.
In most of the World, most people would say that they are in favour of a system of democratic rule – whether their states embrace that system or not. The typical western European system of government is usually called a “democracy” or a “western democracy”, with political parties representing different interests competing for popular support in general elections, the victorious party or parties then forming a government.
Since these states are capitalist and, whatever about the victory of one political party or another are clearly run to protect and expand the interests of big business (monopoly capitalism), we must ask ourselves why for the most part the capitalists and their supporting parties support the “western democratic” system and why parties who make much of their support for social justice support this system too. And why the majority of people, who are of course not at all capitalists but are in fact exploited by them, participate in this system.
But first, let us note that there are those who don’t at all like the western democratic system: chief among these are the monarchists and the fascists. Monarchists aspire to a system where society is ruled by (usually) a single individual, whose entitlement to that office is through bloodline, through ancestry. Traditionally the rule of the monarch was influenced or moderated by advisors, whether officially appointed by the monarch or by interest groups, or unofficially as with the monarch’s personal friends or lovers.
Monarchy has a long history in human society, with inheritance mostly through male lines but by no means always. Usually it was supported by a social caste or two, an upper stratum in society, or aristocrats or priesthood and often the higher priests were themselves from the aristocratic caste. This system was called feudalism and the aristocrats and monarchy controlled land, taxing the various productive classes within society. Within the aristocracy there were frequent struggles for extension of their power and (taxable) lands and, at times, against the King also.
These struggles went backwards and forwards in societies and between states also until capitalism overthrew feudalism and put its own power in place. And since capitalists have always been in a minority and as capitalism was particularly weak in its early days, the bourgeoisie (capitalists) needed the support of small businessmen, artisans, labourers of town and country, small farmers …. to be successful, they had to give those masses a reason to support the capitalists. What they gave them was some variant of democracy. The capitalists (bourgeoisie) promoted “liberty” (freedom), as in freedom of thought and speech, of religious worship, of assembly, of writing, of movement but all within certain boundaries, the extent of these depending on the country and the times. Increasingly the bourgeoisie had to grant the right to elect a government not just to themselves but to other social groups also. Second-to-last to be granted after many struggles was universal male suffrage, which included workers without any property, but last of all was womanhood, also after fierce struggles.
Fascists are neither monarchists nor feudalists and though often having a single figurehead who would seem to wield monarchical power, their source is clearly within capitalism. In Germany and in Italy, fascism was supported by big industrialists but in the latter also by big landlords (who still ruled in quite a feudal way in parts of the country). Even in countries where fascist movements did not succeed in coming to power (for example the Blueshirts in Ireland and the Blackshirts in Britain), fascism was supported by elements of the ruling classes.
“EVERYBODY’S A DEMOCRAT”
Aside from the exceptions then, of monarchists, feudalists and fascists, everybody’s for democracy, right? Well, not really. The capitalists who support western democracy today may support the fascists tomorrow, if they consider it necessary. And some of the principal opponents of the capitalists, the communists, don’t support it either. They call it “bourgeois democracy” and see it as a way in which the capitalists fool the people that they are making choices to make a real difference while whichever party or parties come to power are going to ensure that the measures they take will benefit the capitalists or at the very least not harm their interests. James Connolly, a Scottish-Irish Marxist without a party, declared that “governments in capitalist society are but committees of the rich to manage the affairs of the capitalist class”.1
In fact we may observe here that many people who are not communists believe something similar, which may account for the fact that routinely around 30% of those eligible in the Irish state do not vote.2 In Scotland, England and Wales the average turnout traditionally has been slightly higher, until the huge slump in 2001 which recorded an overall UK turnout of below 60% for the first time.3 Post-Nazi West German general election turnout climbed from over 70% to reach its highest point of over 90% in 1972 and has been falling steadily since to over 72% in 2017.4
From the highest-performing of the Nordic countries to big European powers, the average legislature election turnout varies from between just over 60% to just over 80%, while in the USA it is around 55%, which means that between 20% and 45% of people in the western democracies do not participate in their elections.5 Such ironic statements as “It doesn’t matter who you vote for, the Government gets in” are common enough and “all the parties are the same” is an even more commonly-expressed sentiment. The satirical comment from Britain that “Guy Fawkes6 was the only man to enter Parliament with honest intentions” finds a general acceptance, even often among people who do vote.
The trend towards small majorities in winning parties and of coalition governments (or governments ruling with the tolerance of an opposition party) also suggests that people can see less and less difference between the established political parties. The Irish state for example has had coalition governments of some kind since the 1981 General Election (and that itself was a very interesting year electorally, with the election and near-election of a number of Republican Hunger Strikers on both sides of the Border).
People vote for all kinds of reasons apart from a belief in the party for which they are voting. Some vote according to local or family tradition, while others vote for one party in order to keep out another they consider worse. Voting for a popular individual is by no means rare. Some vote to exercise what was a hard-won right and also to try and get what they consider the best out of the system. But voting in general elections does not really reflect the fundamental social desires of the population. We can see this when for example polls show that most people do not want cuts in services, yet all the main parties either propose cuts in services or have refused to rule them out of their program when in government.
It might appear that people could put together a party campaigning for social justice, get the workers and a section of the lower middle class to vote for it and take power in that way. That is certainly the whole basis on which social democratic political parties with trade union backing have sold themselves for the past two centuries. But it seems possible onlyin the absence of examining history and the current realities.
Public opinion is formed not only by people’s experience but also by years of the system’s indoctrination and by the current mass media – the latter not only favour the system in place but often the newspapers, radio stations and TV programs are owned by one or two capitalists. When the mass media is owned instead by the State, it follows the interests of the ruling sections of society. Low confidence in the people’s own potential also plays a big part. There are in addition legal and financial constraints, domestic and foreign, on a party in government breaking with the capitalist norms. In the last analysis, there is always the Armed Forces and the coup.
The best that a worker’s party can do through the electoral system is to cause the capitalists some difficulties around particular initiatives or introduce a few reforms but without changing the system itself.
DEMOCRACY: THE SAFEST OPTION
Given the apparent potential, despite all its difficulties, for a party to hamper the designs of the capitalist class, why do capitalists continue to support this system and as a general rule to prefer it over others, even over fascism? It’s not just because in general, despite wide-scale cynicism and falling election participation, the system works well for them. And it’s not just because fascist societies are inherently unstable in the longer run. No, it’s because the democratic system is much better for capitalism than the other alternative, which is social revolution.
When enough people feel that they are suffering under a system and that that system cannot be changed through voting, what will be logical conclusion? Clearly that a new system is necessary, one that serves the people rather than the capitalists — but that system cannot be achieved through voting. Have enough of the people thinking that and becoming organised around imagined alternatives and social revolution will be the result. Western democracy perpetuates the illusion of potential to change the system to reflect the people’s needs and desires, while fascism clearly does not.
Therefore the capitalists, who in their daily dealings of expropriation of the labour power of billions and natural resources have no belief whatsoever in democracy, go to substantial lengths to promote parliamentary democracy as either the best system of government or at least the best possible system in an imperfect world. For the capitalists, parliamentary democracy is the safer option and it worries them that engagement with the process is falling. The capitalists promote parliamentary democracy through the history and principles taught in the educational system, through laws enacted, through the mass media, through novels and films and through promotion of political or philosophy commentators. And also through denigration of who they see as opponents of their system historically or in the present. The ideal of democracy, whatever about its actual practice, is high in our culture.
ORIGINS OF DEMOCRATIC SYSTEMS
The word “democracy” comes to us from the combination of two Greek words: “demos” and “kratos” The first word means “people” and the second “power”, literally “people’s power” or “rule by the people”. It is supposed to describe the Athenian city state system developed and practiced five centuries Before the Common Era (or 500 BC) and which waxed and waned for many years until the city came under Roman dominion. However this democracy of voting rights extended only to male freemen, a very small portion of the population. Around the same time, the city state of Rome also developed a kind of democracy, built around distinct voting colleges or social groups but ruled overall by the Senate, where most of the members were upper-class patricians. Women and slaves were again excluded from this democracy, as were immigrants.
The big slave-owning societies gave way to feudalism and much is made of the Magna Carta of 1215 in Britain when barons forced King John into a written agreement to respect laws and rights – but whose? Yes, in the main, the barons’, with some limited rights for serfs and ‘free men’ (whom the barons would have needed to fight for them against the king if necessary).
The first successful overthrow of monarchy by capitalism was in Britain in 1649, when a majority of Parliament, backed by commercial and financial interests in the City of London, rebelled against King Charles I (and eventually beheaded him). At the same time, movements such as the Levellers and the Diggers sought to impose their concepts of the rights of working people on to the Parliamentarians. Over the centuries there have been many struggles for rights to vote, to belong a trade union, for relief from heavy taxation and expropriation, for fair trial etc., including the Peasant’s Uprising of 1381 and the Chartist’s struggle of 1838 to 1857. People struggling for some measure of democracy and rights were dismissed from work, exiled, jailed, deported to penal colonies, tortured and executed. But universal suffrage, with the right to vote of every citizen at the age of majority (originally 21, then reduced to 18 in 1969) did not enter the British system until 1928. The Irish Free State beat that by five years, with voting rights in the 26 Counties for men and women over 21 years of age in 1923. Of course, this was also a time of considerable repression in the land.
LOOKING TO THE FUTURE
The communists espouse a system they call “proletarian democracy” but it has not had a great record overall so far. In Soviet Russia the Bolsheviks turned quickly on their former political party allies and on movements that had supported them among workers, peasants and the armed forces and after that on many members of their own party.
Other revolutionary socialist trends such as Anarchists, Trotskists and some Marxist-Leninists say the problem was not proletarian democracy but the “bureaucratic”, “revisionist” or “Stalinist” way in which it was administered. But how did that proletarian democracy allow itself to be used in such a way? Might that not point to a serious flaw in that system?
On the other hand, Anarchism and Trotskyism have not managed to hold a society long enough for us to judge their own systems of democracy (although critics would say that their general behaviour in managing their own organisations does not give cause for optimism) and states run by people claiming to be marxist-leninists opposed to the USSR have not produced anything like democracy for the people either.
Clearly a way for people to have an equal say in decisions and to participate in their implementation is a necessity for any kind of egalitarian social or political system. Clearly also, if a fair and just society is to be achieved, power must be taken out of the hands of those who use it to exploit the labouring people and to steal natural resources. Perhaps, after a revolution and the expropriation of the rich, the broad outlines of the parliamentary democratic system can be used by the people, combined with checks prohibiting for example involvement in any profit-making schemes and the power of instant recall of a representative when a certain number of the electors demand it. Constituencies might be based on industrial and agricultural sectors and other social groups rather than as they are now, on area alone.
We might want to do away with political parties and have individuals stand on declared policies for election. We could restrict the amount of electoral literature and posters permitted per individual. Of course, we could not prevent such individuals belonging to a party but their election would be as individuals advocating certain policies and they could be elected even if disowned by their party. Such a system would help erode the practice of putting the party first before the needs of the people and encourage the election of individuals on policy advocated and on track record.
Some advocate a decentralised system of self-governing communities relating freely with one another but it is difficult to see what chance such a system would have of working initially, when the old is being overthrown but also possibly mobilising for a comeback and with other parts of the world still under capitalism.
Much more than voting will be required for a real democracy, such as means of engaging people in decision-making at all levels and in toleration of criticism. In this latter area the performance of certain political individuals and all socialist or Irish Republican parties does not give reason for optimism. Again and again we see critics expelled or silenced, or even maligned and threatened, the cult of the individual, cliques pushing for power, the promotion of the party above the interests of the masses, written words censored, untruths promoted, critical thinking discouraged. And sadly, we see many people willing to go along with these practices, whether out of physical fear, fear of isolation or simply not wishing to desert a comfortable path.
It is uncomfortable to be criticised and it is easy to lose patience with critics. However, criticism should be tolerated not only in order to encourage freedom of speech but because no matter how right we think we are and how much we’ve thought it through, we can’t always be right. At the very least, the critics oblige us to justify whatever programs we put forward and criticism can reveal faults, great or small that might otherwise have been overlooked. Toleration of criticism also helps us to relegate our egos to second place next to what is good for an egalitarian social system.
It seems clear that toleration of criticism must be an essential component of any genuine revolutionary democracy. And if that is to be practiced after the revolution, it must be practiced NOW, in our organisations of struggle whether political or social. That practice of toleration of criticism in pre-revolutionary society is one of the most important fronts of organisational struggle at this moment, in preparation for the revolution and the construction of a just society on the rubble of the old. If we fail in this, everything else we do, no matter how well, will come to naught.
Narrated by Roger Waters of the Pink Floyd band, a useful documented discussion on how the population of the USA, the main political and financial supporter of the Israeli Zionist State, is conned into supporting Israel.
NB: “The US mind” is the subject, not “the American mind” — there is no reference to Latin American or Canadian thinking on the issue.
The film exposes the use of the US media combined with Israeli propaganda, pressure on politicians and media figures and demonisation of opponents.
Interestingly, at least one prominent commentator argues that the USA agrees with Israeli policy largely because it agrees with its own — but doesn’t tell us what that US policy is, much less explain it. Perhaps that’s beyond the film’s scope or the film is aimed at liberal opinion and exposing naked imperialism would be going too far — but in places, the narrative does hint at it.
Interestingly too that line of argument undermines the narrative that the Israel lobby (incorrectly termed “the Jewish lobby”) is the dominant factor is US policy towards Israel. A USA Jew also points out that most of his co-religionists in the US do not agree with the hard, right-wing, neo-liberal politics of the Israeli leaders.
Worryingly, in reference to a strand of fundamentalist Christianity in the US which supports Israeli policy, a commentator tells us that one in three US citizens believes that the Bible is factual.
But very encouragingly, the film argues that Israel is at last — finally — losing its propaganda grip on US youth in the colleges and in black communities.
Worth watching to understand the history of US public support for Israel but also to learn how untruthful propaganda works with regard to words.