Tag Archives: communism

The Irish Front – Republican Congress in London

IrishFront

 

The Irish diaspora has a long history of involvement in radical politics in Britain. Their contribution to the labour movement in the form of the Chartists, producing leading lights such as Feargus O’Connor and Bronterre O’Brien; the matchmakers strike in 1888 in East London; the London dockers strike of 1889; the influence of James Connolly and Jim Larkin; and the first Labour Minister for Health in the minority government of 1924 being the Irish-born John Wheatley; is well-established. The Irish have also formed their own branches of home-grown organisations in Britain, such as the IRB, the Gaelic League, and the IRA. I have recently started a postdoc at the Irish Centre for the Histories of Labour and Class at NUI Galway which examines the impact Irish independence had on the British working-class in the period 1922-1945. Part of this explores the life and politics of the Irish working-class diaspora in Britain at the time. In the Ireland of this time, arguably one of the most important, and certainly one of the most debated radical organisations to be formed (and fall-apart) was Republican Congress.

Congress was formed as a left-wing split from the IRA in 1934. For a number of years, the left within the IRA, led by Peadar O’Donnell, Frank Ryan, and George Gilmore amongst others, had attempted to reform the organisation in a leftward direction, convinced that the gun alone would not achieve the Republic. The IRA, they believed, needed to take-up social issues, engaged alongside the workers and small farmers in their day-to-day struggles to convince them of the relevance of the fight for the Republic that would bring an improvement to their lives. The IRA had made overtures in this direction with the formation of the socialist-republican Saor Éire in 1931, but the ensuing ‘red scare’ put paid to that venture. After a number of subsequent failed attempts of reform by the left, which culminated in a vote at the 1934 Army Convention, O’Donnell and the others walked out. A conference held in Athlone, County Westmeath on the weekend of 7-8 April issued a manifesto proclaiming the creation of Republican Congress with the call ‘We believe that a Republic of a united Ireland will never be achieved except through a struggle which uproots Capitalism on its way.’[1] The momentum behind Republican Congress grew throughout the summer of 1934. Strong branches were created in Achill, Leitrim, Kilkenny, Dublin and Waterford.[2] Congress engaged in many social campaigns to improve the lives of working-class people in Ireland, such as through the creation of the Tenants Leagues to fight for improvements in housing for the slum-dwellers of Dublin. Congress held its inaugural conference at Rathmines town hall from 29-30 September 1934, where, as is well known, it split. First-hand accounts are available from George Gilmore and Patrick Byrne here and here. Despite this, Congress continued to campaign until the end of the decade, the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936 giving it a new lease of life.

Congress did not just organise in Ireland however, but also had a branch among the Irish diaspora in London. This included many talented individuals who would later go to fight and die in Spain such as Charlie Donnelly, Michael Kelly, and Tommy Patten. The Republican Congress in London even produced its own newspaper, Irish Front. I have been able to locate one copy of this dated 11 May 1935, Issue 5 of Vol 1, which is reproduced here. My apologies for the poor quality, it is a copy of a copy of a copy. From the issue I have found, Irish Front, although poorly-produced, provided a well-informed left analysis of Irish and British issues for the Irish diaspora. Its notices also give a tantalizing glimpse into the political activities of the Irish diaspora in Britain. The London branch of Congress would later fuse with other small organisations in 1938 to create the Connolly Association, an organisation which continues to this day and whose most famous member was the historian C. Desmond Greaves, author of a number of important works on twentieth-century Irish socialist and republican history, including The Life and Times of James Connolly (1961). Irish Front is an important publication in the history of labour and republican radicalism among the Irish in twentieth-century Britain. I appeal to anyone who may know of any other copies that are available, regardless of whether these be in a library or among your personal papers, in whatever quality, to please get in touch with me at

david DOT convery AT nuigalway DOT ie

Thank you, your help is much appreciated!

[1] George Gilmore, The Irish Republican Congress (Cork: The Cork Workers’ Club, 1978), p. 30.

[2] Patrick Byrne, The Irish Republican Congress Revisited (London: Connolly Publications Ltd, 1994), pp. 21-22.

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Filed under British History, Irish History, Labour History, Literature, Social History, Socialism, Spanish Civil War, Twentieth Century

Jewish Waterford, 1893-1940

Cormac Ó’Gráda’s book Jewish Ireland in the Age of Joyce, was a ground-breaking work for looking at religious and ethnic minorities in Ireland historically. I recently heard Ó’Gráda speaking as part of the UCC Historical Society’s History Week. Ó’Gráda spoke about the potential of the 1901 and 1911 census, especially in relation to the study of minorities in Irish life from that period. With that in mind, and following on from some tentative work which I had done for my PhD thesis, I’ve decided to sketch a portrait of Waterford’s Jewish community from the end of nineteenth century up to the beginning of the Second World War.

The Beginnings of the Jewish Community in Waterford

According to Louis Hyman, in his history of Irish Jewry up to 1910, ‘At the close of the seventeenth century, the Council of the Waterford Corporation encouraged the settlement of foreign merchants.’ One man who applied to trade freely in the city was Jacob Nunes who was given the freedom of the city to conduct trade in 1701.[1] Thus Nunes has a fair claim to being Waterford’s first Jewish settler. Again, Hyman notes that ‘individual Jews resided in Waterford in the eighteenth century, and some were there in 1805, one of them, surely Josias Jacob, registered with the Dublin Goldsmith’s Company in 1809. About the middle of the nineteenth century, the grandparents of the late Professor James Desmond Bernal settled in the town.’[2] According to the census of 1871, there was still only a solitary Jew in Waterford, however that was all about to change. With the introduction of what are popularly known as the May Laws, many Jews in Tsarist Russia made their way to Britain and Ireland. As Hyman notes, this movement of Jews from what was sometimes called Russian Poland, and Lithuania, had the effect ultimately of strengthening the communities of Jewish settlers in places other than in Dublin and Belfast.[3]

One of the earliest mentions of the new Jewish community in Waterford comes from 1893 with the death of Joseph Diamond at the age of 68, who lived on 8 Manor Street in the city centre, a street in Waterford that would in time form a central part of the Jewish community in the city.[4] Many of the Jews then settled in Waterford were Welsh, and were part of the Jewish community in Britain that were middle-class emigrants from Central Europe, what were known in Ireland as “English Jews”. The lives of these Jewish people were in stark contrast to those who would come to make up the bulk of Britain, Ireland, and Waterford’s Jewish communities in time, those fleeing pogroms and persecution in Russia.

Shortly after the death notice of Joseph Diamond, the Jewish Chronicle noted that a congregation had been established in the city, with Mr R Smullian as president, and so prayers were held for the  Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, for probably the first time in Waterford’s history.[5] A year later, the Jewish Chronicle again mentioned the new congregation noting that:

Mr and Mrs Goldring presented a Scroll of the Law to the newly-established congregation. In the evening they gave a party to which every Jewish resident of Waterford was invited. Mr M. Simon presided  and great satisfaction was expressed by the Chairman, Mr Hanasan[sic], President of the congregation, Mr R. Smullian, Mr Levy, Mr Diamond and others at the formation of the congregation.[6]

With the congregation up and running in Waterford city, the Jewish community there could do perform rites of their faith in their new home, rather than travelling to other cities in Ireland with synagogues. The development of the congregation breathed life into the city’s Jewish community and it wasn’t long before the city saw its first Jewish wedding, something which attracted a great deal of interest from Waterford people generally:

On Wednesday 14th inst the first Jewish wedding that has been solemnised in Waterford took place in the synagogue 88 the Manor. The couple were Miss Fanny Diamond and Mr Jack Lappin. The ceremony was performed by Rev J. E. Myers of Cork assisted by the local minister Rev Simon Aarons. The wedding created a great deal of interest  in Waterford and the synagogue was filled with Christians. Rev J. E. Myers  preached on Sabbath morning and also at a special service on Sunday evening, the latter attended by several Christians. Mr Goldring, President, and his wife have made handsome presents to the synagogue. Mr Robinson is Treasurer and Mr J. Levy is Hon Sec.[7]

The development of the community was of interest in particular to JE Myers, who ministered to the Cork congregation, and who visited Waterford on a number of occasions.[8] The community was growing in strength and in no time, there was a plan to open a Hebrew School in the city.[9] As the Jewish community grew and developed, children were born into families in Waterford, like the Sherowitz family. The progress of the community in Waterford was followed closely by the Jewish Chronicle, and many notices, no matter how small, relating to the city’s community, appeared throughout its pages. And so we know that some of the members of Waterford’s Jewish community got involved in politics, like Harris Sherowitz who sent a letter to John Redmond MP on the Aliens Act in 1905, signed by many, in the hopes that he would seek amendments to it. There was a significant difference between the size of the community in 1901 and by 1911. The interwar period was the peak of the Jewish community in Waterford, built as it was by the community that had developed and was captured in the census of 1911. Waterford’s Jewish community was at its most numerous in the city then: there were around 62 Jewish people in Waterford at that date. It was never bigger, before or since. While these numbers obviously pale in their significance when placed next to the Jewish communities of Dublin, Cork or Limerick, nevertheless the Jewish community in Waterford left their mark on the city. These maps show where Waterford’s Jewish community settled in the city (click images to enlarge them):

Fig. 1: Jewish Settlement in Waterford, 1901

Fig. 1: Jewish Settlement in Waterford, 1901

As you can see from Fig. 1 above, the very small community that existed in 1901, was centred in the main around John Street and Manor Street. This concentration would remain in 1911, as you can see from Fig.2, below:

Fig. 2: Jewish Settlement in Waterford, 1911

Fig. 2: Jewish Settlement in Waterford, 1911

To get the full effect, Fig.3 below shows both the 1901 and 1911 settlements overlaid on each other:

Fig.3: 1901 and 1911 Jewish Settlement in Waterford, overlaid on each other.

Fig.3: 1901 and 1911 Jewish Settlement in Waterford, overlaid on each other.

These few streets then, encompassed Waterford’s Jewish community until the beginning of the Second World War.

The Figure of the ‘Jewman’ in Popular Imagination and Memory in Waterford

Once the community strengthened, and became a more visible presence in the city, centred as it was around John Street and Manor Street, the figure of the ‘Jewman’, in that peculiar Irish turn of phrase, was a figure of curiosity and later, folk memory. In Waterford a song was sung called ‘The Jewman’, and according to Dermot Power was popular at one time with workers in Denny’s Bacon curing factory back in the late 1920s and 1930s, when the community was at its height. If as Hyman’s history of the Jews in Ireland has it ‘they knew no trade but peddling’, a fact contested in Ó’Gráda’s work, then this aspect of Irish Jewry is well summed up in the opening verses of ‘The Jewman’:

 At the top of town, Anne Street, a lady does dwell,

Her name I won’t mention, I dare not tell,

One cold winter’s morning the Jewman did call,

And unslung his bag outside of the hall.

He knocked at the door with his usual grin,

Saying good morning, missus, is your husband within

Says she no he’s not I want nothing today,

Ah take something said the Jewman don’t send me away.[10]

In the song, the woman takes some blankets on the promise of payment the following week, and duly the following week no payment is forthcoming, so the Jewman makes a grab for his goods, is hit over the head with a can by the woman before both are brought before a court, the song finishing with the testimony of ‘a big red nosed Bobby’ and a suitably amdmonished Jewman:

Said the Jew oh your Worship my poor head is sore,

And I’ll never go look for me wool anymore.[11]

As Cormac Ó’Gráda notes of such songs, and this particular one seems to have existed in a variety of versions Dublin as well, were indicative of views among Irish people that were ‘more xenophobic than strictly Anti-Semitic.’ Indeed, he contends that ‘the outlook of most Irish people of all persuasions was blinkered, parochial, and prejudiced by today’s standards.’[12] Such was the power over the local imagination of this figure, the ‘Jewman’, that one of Waterford’s lanes, Kneeff’s Lane, was popularly known as ‘Jewman’s Lane’. Indeed, the popular folk memory of the ‘Jewman’ and ‘Jewman’s Lane’ were revisited in a recent documentary about the Barrack Street area in the heart of Waterford city (the relevant segment is from 36:00 to 38:45):

As we’ve seen, the first Jewish marriages and other occasions were of deep interest to many locals, and something of this interest first present in the 1890s remained in the 1930s, as when the Munster Express carried a small notice relating to the Jewish Day of Atonement in September 1931.[13] Members of Waterford’s Jewish community found themselves in court on occasion, and in a rare display of anti-Semitism, a local District Court judge told a member of the family that he should count himself lucky, given what was happening to his people in Hitler’s Germany, though many rushed to defend the judge saying his comments were not meant in such a way.[14] There was also this joke which appeared in the pages of the Munster Express:

Munster Express, June 26 1936

Munster Express, June 26 1936

Still, whether this properly reflects the relationship between the Jewish community and their hosts is difficult to ascertain for certain, perhaps like the figure of the ‘Jewman’ this was more parochial than anti-Semitic. One of the more unusual stories involving Ireland’s Jewish community and Waterford comes from the late 1930s as well. Frank Edwards, a member of the Communist Party of Ireland and rugby player with Waterford City RFC and teacher in Mount Sion, took a leave of absence from his teaching duties in the school to join the International Brigade  to fight fascism during the Spanish Civil War. Upon returning, Edwards was refused his old job and barred from teaching in any Catholic school. Rev. Herzog, the Chief Rabbi in Ireland, gave Edwards a job teaching in Zion Schools, recently established on Bloomfield Avenue in Dublin, where Edwards would work for the next thirty years.[15]

The legacy of Waterford’s Jewish Community

Ray Rivlin’s Jewish Ireland: A Social History, contains a chapter on sport and entertainment.[16] The chapter opens with the story of Maurice Woolfson, a Jewish Waterford man who led local club Evergreen, when they achieved great victory on the field in the 1930s. The Woolfson name is an important one in the early history of Waterford soccer. Isaac Woolfson, was in the 1930s, chairman of the Waterford and District Association Football League and a key figure in establishing the first Employer’s League in 1931, forerunner to the factory leagues. Like many of the figures explored in Anthony Clavane’s Does Your Rabbi Know You’re Here?, men like Isaac, Maurice and later ‘Duffy’ Woolfson, emigrant Jews from the poor edges of Russia, who were not of the middle-class “English Jew” origins of earlier Jews in Waterford, used sport, and soccer in particular as a means of integration and acceptance. Cormac Ó’Gráda, discussing the wide variety of sporting and other bodies established by Ireland’s Jewish community noted that success in the sporting arena ‘fostered communal pride’ but he also noted that it wasn’t long before many Irish Jews, and the membership of their sports clubs, moved beyond the community itself. [17]In 1938, with Maurice Woolfson as chairman, Evergreen won the FAI Minor Cup, beating Sligo United 2-1 in a game held at Kilcohan Park in the city. On his leaving for Dublin 1940, the loss was lamented by all involved in the club.

The Woolfson family dispersed from Waterford but returned in 1971 for the inauguration of the Maurice Woolfson Perpetual Challenge Trophy for the local Schoolboy League at half time during a League of Ireland game between Waterford and Finn Harps. However, as was noted by a journalist at the time, the contribution of the Woolfson family to Waterford soccer amounted to a lot more than just a silver trophy, ‘no matter how magnificent’.[18] The same might be said of the entire Jewish community, who breathed life into the streets on which they lived in Waterford, leaving a long lasting impression on the city and its people.


[1] Hyman, Louis, The Jews of Ireland: From Earliest Times to the year 1910, Shannon: Irish University Press 1972, p.22

[2] Hyman, The Jews of Ireland, p.79

[3] Hyman, The Jews of Ireland, p156 and 161

[4] Jewish Chronicle, 1 September 1893

[5] Jewish Chronicle, 22 September 1893

[6] Jewish Chronicle, 20 October 1894

[7] Jewish Chronicle, 23 November 1894

[8] Jewish Chronicle, 27 March; 17 July 1896

[9] Jewish Chronicle, 6 November 1896

[10] Power, Dermot, The Ballads and Songs of Waterford from 1487, Waterford: Munster Express 1992, pp.10-11

[11] Power, Ballads and Songs of Waterford, p.11

[12] Ó’Gráda, Jewish Ireland in the Age of Joyce: A Socio-economic history, Princeton: Princeton University Press 2006, p.180

[13] Munster Express, September 25 1931

[14] Munster Express, Septembr 27 1935

[15] Rivlin, Ray, Ireland: A Social History, Dublin: The History Press Ireland, 2011, p.110

[16] Rivlin, Ray, Jewish Ireland, pp.209-210

[17] Ó’Gráda, Jewish Ireland, pp.186-187

[18] Munster Express, April 23 1971

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Filed under Irish History, Memory, Nineteenth Century, Social History, Spanish Civil War, Sports History, Twentieth Century

Is Political Violence Wrong?

Two months ago, I was looking through some files of the Supreme Court of the Soviet Union during the 1920s in the State Archive of the Russian Federation in Moscow. I didn’t find anything of use for my research. I was looking at short notes sent by the Court to the authorities of particular prisons informing them that such a person(s) had been sentenced to be shot, and that they should have the executions carried out. (The death penalty was common around the world at that time, and the Soviet Criminal Code of 1922 suggested it for a number of offences against the state and public order. Interestingly, murder was not punishable by death.) These were then followed by notes sent by the Court to a local morgue to request that the body or bodies be taken away. I was going to reel up the microfilm and move on, but I felt compelled to keep reading. The documents were formulaic and bureaucratic, which was precisely why they interested me. I was looking at the bureaucracy of killing.

I’m used to seeing protocols of meetings of the political police whereby lists of people have the word «Расстрелять» (shoot) written after their names, but these documents were more mundane, more ‘real’, and hence more disturbing. Maybe that day, or the day after, a man (these cases concerned men) was going to be walked out to a wall somewhere and his life would be deliberately taken. His lifeless body would fall to the ground, awkward and ugly. The body would have to be taken away and disposed of. I was a witness to part of this process, even after all these years. I’m used to reading about death through the discursive constructions utilized to justify, excuse, and perpetuate it, and that’s basically what my work is about. What I was reading here was the concrete reality of killing and its practicalities, and I was surprised that I had rarely thought about that aspect of Soviet state violence.

Violence is an almost permanent theme throughout history, and we continue to live in a time of considerable political violence. We are also now witnessing forms of violence in the 21st century European Union that we thought had been left behind: citizens taking to the streets to protest and finding themselves in conflict with the police.

The question that I’m asking here, and to which my response cannot be definitive, is whether instances of political violence can be judged to be right or wrong, justifiable or not. It’s not really a question about history as such, but I would like to bring my perspective to the question as an historian who works on the theme of violence.

Let me begin by asserting the legitimacy of the question: the answer is not obvious. We live in parts of the world where the dominant discourse typically (though, importantly, not always) postulates that violence is wrong, and condemns those perceived to be responsible. We assume that peace-keeping and peace negotiations are good things, and should happen. When the ‘Arab spring’ broke out two years ago, the initial reaction of the Western world was to stress the importance of the violence coming to an end, for there to be negotiations. When another deadly round of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict occurred last November, the priority of the world’s powers, again, was for the violence to end immediately, on both sides.

Political violence is, actually, very political. Some lives are more valuable than others. I don’t agree with this, but it is an unspoken assumption of international relations and even domestic politics. It appears that electorates in most advanced countries are not overly concerned about this.

We need to understand what the term ‘political violence’ actually means. The standard understanding is the infliction of bodily harm on a person, and perhaps also to property, for, or as a consequence of, a political purpose. There is, however, no reason why the definition should be confined to physical actions. Violence can also be considered to be structural, inscribed into the structures of socio-economic and political relationships. The concept of ‘structural violence’ can be traced to the sociologist Johann Galtung, and has been popularized more recently by the well-known intellectual as ‘objective violence.’[1] Galtung, in an influential 1969 article, argued that the absence of action can also be considered a form of violence when that action is possible, and necessary, to alleviate suffering and death.[2]

We all have some idea of the shocking realities of global income inequalities and the scale of poverty and hunger. In 2010, 925 million people were calculated to live in hunger.[3] This situation is perhaps indicative of a subconsciously racialized view of the world, despite all of our overt hostility to racism: the world’s poorest, after all, are not white. Poverty, however, is not ‘natural’ in some social-Darwinist sense. I don’t know how to tackle the problems of poverty, of unequal access to resources and wealth on a global scale, but I do know that they are solvable. We managed to put humans on the moon over forty years ago, and I am sure that we could sort out most of the problems on this planet if the political will were in existence. In reality it’s not, and so the problems persist.

If this constitutes violence – and I accept that it is – then who or what is to blame? I’m certainly no expert on this, and the answers are surely complex.  In addition to corrupt regimes in some poor countries, a foremost reason must surely be capitalism as it operates on a global scale. In this sense, capitalism kills more people than communism or fascism ever did because it helps to cause or sustain enormous structural violence, although one is not likely to read that in school history textbooks.

Capitalism – and the liberal-democratic political forms that allow it to flourish – is more deadly than communism or fascism (though conventional wisdom tells us otherwise). The latter two dictatorial, ‘totalitarian’ political forms are relatively unstable – inherently unstable in the case of fascism – or at least not likely to last for long if sustained violent campaigns are consistent features of their operation. Capitalism as a means of socio-economic and indeed political organization, by contrast, rests to a considerable extent on what the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci explained through the concept of ‘hegemony’, by which he meant the ability of the dominant class to represent its interests in such a way that they are accepted as ‘natural’ or ‘common sense’ by society in general. The concept is similar to Michel Foucault’s explanation of how knowledge in any era or sphere is related to power in the form of discursive ‘regimes of truth.’ Living in the capitalist truth regime means that basic concepts of liberalism, private ownership of means of production, free trade, and the (endless) pursuit of personal profit as something to be valued positively, are generally held to be ‘natural.’ Of course, one can read or hear alternative viewpoints all the time, but we’re talking here about dominant ideas in a society.

This is not a left-wing rant. I may be a self-conscious socialist (though not a Marxist or any other qualifying ‘–ist’), but I think the above observations are fairly neutral. The reason I make them is to draw attention to the ways in which we perceive political violence, which again can be highly political.

Our perceptions of political violence are influenced to a very significant extent by our assessments of those who commit it, as opposed to the actual violence itself. When focus is put on the actual violence itself, regardless by whom committed, our attitudes do tend to change. For instance, the standard narrative of the Vietnam War is that TV and other media coverage of the actual violence effected a pivotal shift in American public opinion about the war. Overall, though, our societies tend to associate ‘crimes against humanity’ with oppressive, dictatorial regimes. To take the most obvious examples, the enormous violence committed by the Nazi and Stalinist regimes are inextricably linked with the persons of Hitler and Stalin in ways that are not rational, even (still) in scholarly works. It’s probably not an exaggeration to state that the general popular explanation of the Nazi and Stalinist phenomena is that Hitler and Stalin were terrible, evil men, perhaps with some personality disorders. By contrast, a political leader like Barack Obama is generally perceived to be very ‘human’, a family man who fist-pumps cleaners (I’m sure there just happened to be a camera there) and plays basketball. He is ‘one of us.’ Despite the increasing disquiet in some media quarters about American drone attacks in Pakistan and Afghanistan and the CIA’s rationalization of these, or the devastating, even genocidal consequences likely to result from sanctions against Iran,[4] it was quite easy for most liberal-minded people to shelve these concerns – that is, if they were aware of them – and rejoice in his recent re-election.

Ok, now to try to work out where I’m going with this! Let’s return to the question. I contend that political violence is wrong, but that violence may be necessary under certain extreme circumstances for protection.

Political violence is rarely carried out for its own sake, or presented in terms of naked self-interest; it is usually justified by its practitioners as necessary for the salvation of a greater number of others. The Bolsheviks in early Soviet Russia provided the foremost expression of this paradox: we kill the class enemies, declared one Chekist (political police employee), because ‘we value and love life too much.’[5] The Bolsheviks believed that through violence in the service of establishing socialism, they would help to eradicate violence itself from human relations.

The problem of political violence is largely one of moral righteousness, as well as ideological and cultural arrogance: ‘the purpose absolves me of this crime against others.’ We see this consistently throughout history and in our own time. Violence may be effective. However, because violence strikes at the core of our moral being, because the act of severe violence is not assessed in rational, economistic terms by most people – and is actually utterly repulsive to most of us – anything resembling ‘excessive’ violence is not only counter-productive but morally corrosive.

Whatever later Marxist theorists of violence (such as Frantz Fanon or even Žižek) might say/have said about revolutionary violence as a means of developing the revolutionary subject’s consciousness,[6] violence (against people) corrodes the ideals of social justice, because it is the ultimate injustice. Yet social injustices form another large part of the problem of political violence: people don’t commit political violence because they are ‘evil’, or simply brainwashed tools of some crazy ideology, but usually because they are acting against some perceived injustice. (The fact that it is probably impossible to reason or negotiate with truly fanatical terrorists who fight for unacceptable causes should not obscure this completely.) This is why the standard calls for peace sometimes seem so empty: we must really examine and address the reasons for violence, insofar as we can and should. Furthermore, we must expand our understanding of violence to accommodate notions of structural injustices, and make this an issue of political weight. Democratically-elected politicians, after all, are obsessed with public opinion.

For left-wing revolutionary activists/thinkers and movements today, some of whom aim to re-apply and/or adapt the thought of such figures as Lenin,[7] the question of violence may become an immediate one, if it has not already. Should conflict with the police be encouraged? Should bank buildings be burned down? Should a revolution be physically fought for, come what may?

I think not, and I think the lessons of the past bear this out. Violence requires a ‘hardening’ of hearts, and it is not easy to ‘soften’ them again afterwards. Besides, it is much easier to destroy than to replace. The most profound revolutions tend to result from an evolutionary process, because they depend upon changes in ideas and culture. This is where a profound revolution must take place, and academics must play a crucial role in this. Why? Academics are paid to read, think, write, and teach. It’s a privilege, but it also brings responsibility. In some respects I think the discussion in the academic world about open access journal publishing and other means of better ensuring public return on taxpayers’ investment in academia is somewhat misplaced: we must accept that what we write in journals and monographs is not often appealing to the wider public, so we need to complement these bedrocks of academic endeavour with a greater willingness to communicate with a wide public audience through other, more accessible means, and to really adapt what we know and understand to what is currently important.


[1] Slavoj Žižek, Violence, London: Profile Books, 2008.

[2] Johann Galtung, ‘Violence, Peace, and Peace Research’, Journal of Peace Research, Vol.6, No.3 (1969), pp.167-191.

[5] Quoted in James Ryan, Lenin’s Terror. The Ideological Origins of Early Soviet State Violence, London and New York: Routledge, 2012, p.115.

[6] See Christopher Finlay, ‘Violence and Revolutionary Subjectivity: Marx to Žižek’, European Journal of Political Theory, Vol.5, No.4 (2006), pp.373-97.

[7] See for example Sebastian Budgen et al, Lenin Reloaded: Towards a Politics of Truth, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007.

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Filed under Historiography, Soviet Union, Twentieth Century

Kafkaesque Nightmares

Review of Jo Langer, Convictions: My Life With A Good Communist (2nd ed. London: Granta, 2011)

convictions

In the early 1950s, the Czechoslovak revolution, like the Russian before it, began devouring its own children. Former high officials of the Communist Party were arrested, tortured, and forced to sign false confessions detailing their activities as imperialist/ Trotskyist/ Titoist/Zionist spies. Those who had spent time in the west before or during the Second World War were most vulnerable, likely to have been traitors, corrupted into serving capitalism. Jews, ironically and sickeningly, were as a group also particularly vulnerable, as in a new twist on the racist stereotype of the ‘wandering Jew’, were deemed ‘cosmopolitan’, open again to the lure and corruption of the west and in particular, that of Israel. Ironic and sickening in that communism was supposedly an ideology that knew no boundary of ethnicity or religion, and in that the accused communist Jews were often the first who for years had been ‘wandering’ in the west due to being forced into exile for their communist and anti-fascist activities, many volunteering in the fight against Franco in Spain, and continuing their struggle in the underground resistance throughout Europe during the Second World War. Communist states, supposedly solidly built on anti-fascist foundations, now saw those with the clearest anti-fascist credentials as suspect. Even those at the very top of the pyramid were prone to a crushing fall, and the terror culminated in the infamous trial of former secretary-general of the party Rudolf Slánský and thirteen other defendants from 1951-3. Of these, eleven were Jewish, and in total, twelve were hanged. The story of the trial has been told well in the account of one of the defendants, Artur London in his 1968 book L’Aveu, published in English variously as The Confession and On Trial, and made into a film by the former name in 1970 by Costa-Gavras. A powerful accompaniment to London’s account is that of Jo Langer, wife of an imprisoned victim of the trial, Oscar Langer.

In her memoir Convictions: My Life With A Good Communist (1979), we get a viewpoint so often missing from history – that of those who are left behind; the families of the victims, left to fend for themselves against the cancer of lies, intimidation and surveillance that spread throughout society. Jo and her husband, both communists and Jews, had lived in the United States during the war. Many of their family members had perished in Nazi concentration camps. Despite the safety and relative prosperity of life in the US, Oscar immediately accepted an invitation back to Czechoslovakia after the war to play a role in the reconstruction of his country. Jo, Hungarian by birth, unhappy in her marriage and relatively content with life in the US, was wont to leave but nevertheless overcame her reluctance and accompanied her husband to Bratislava. Their immediate deprivation was seen as temporary, and a necessary discomfort to be endured while Czechoslovakia, with help from the Soviet Union, rebuilt the country along socialist lines. Oscar, a leading member of the party in Slovakia, went further however. Throughout her memoir, Jo gives us snippets of the guilt she was made to feel for anything considered even a small luxury while others in the world went without basic necessities – the ever-present ‘Chinese coolie’ in their relationship as she terms it.

And yet Oscar, despite his devotion to the party, was arrested and placed on trail, accused of assisting Slánský. Avoiding eventual execution, he was nevertheless imprisoned, tortured, kept in solitary confinement and forced to give a confession as to the nature of his relationship with Slánský, whom he had never even met. Twice he attempted suicide, and both times failed. Jo was kicked out of her home and with her two daughters, banished to a remote village in rural Slovakia, her apartment given over to accommodate party officials. Deprived of work and the right to live in Bratislava, she and her daughters eked out an existence of poverty and fear. Eventually allowed back to Bratislava, she recounts how all her old friends kept away from her and how all doors remained closed to her and her family because of her husband. Scraping by in a dilapidated basement working mostly translating official documents into Hungarian, she suffered constantly. Not allowed to see her husband for three years, she nevertheless fought on, battling the bureaucracy and at times, paying grovelling visits to officials she despised and lived in fear of, in the hope of seeing the release of her husband, once estranged, but now united with her against the terror. And yet she fought alone. Oscar, despite all that existed before his eyes, refused to believe the party and his comrades could be responsible, believing instead that the security apparatus was acting above the party.

In 1960, Oscar was amnestied and released. His return was bittersweet however. His wife felt him more domineering than ever, never commending her for what she had done to survive, eager to forgive party officials and hold meetings in their house for the reform of the party while Jo worked to provide for their family both outside and within the home. His relationship with his children Susie and Tania was no less strained. In short, he failed to see what lay before his eyes, preferring to believe instead in an imaginary world where the party could do no wrong and where his wife and children were at fault for being too decadent and not struggling enough to build socialism in their country. Weakened by his ordeal, he died two years later.

Jo and her daughters would eventually escape as the tanks rolled in to crush the Prague Spring in 1968. The hopes for ‘socialism with a human face’ convinced others, but never her, having seen the result of 1956 in her native Hungary, and the opportunism of those who had committed her husband to prison embrace socialist reform in 1968, biding their time for the return to totalitarian rule. Her account, though cynical at times, is an important and ultimately heartrending one. Her struggle – as a worker, Hungarian, communist, Jew, immigrant, and woman – is inspiring and shocking. She presents a courageous testimony to the Kafkaesque ordeal of Central and Eastern Europeans in the twentieth century, and the complexity of individual lives witness to and struggling to wake from this nightmare.

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Why History Matters

By James Ryan

Last August, I went to Krakow on holiday. It was the perfect city-break: a beautiful old city, bustling but small enough to walk around comfortably; welcoming but foreign enough to realize that you’re away from home; hot and sunny in summer; and cheap Ryanair flights. I didn’t deliberate for long when choosing a holiday destination, and the deciding factor wasn’t just a long-held desire to visit Poland. It was Auschwitz. Located about fifty kilometres from the city centre, or an hour’s bus journey, lies the town of Oświęcim, renamed Auschwitz by its German occupiers during the Second World War. It is the most infamous place on earth.

I work as an academic historian, researching state violence in Soviet Russia/the Soviet Union. I have spent almost a decade attempting to understand why and how highly idealist political activists come to practice and justify violence on an enormous scale. It makes sense that I had a strong desire to visit Auschwitz (even on my holidays). History for me – as for probably every historian in the world – isn’t just work, it’s a passion. I realized this when I was in school and wondering what I wanted to be when I grew up. For some reason, I really liked learning all those dates from the Renaissance period, and thought it would be a lot of fun to teach history myself. Then I thought it would be even better if I could continue studying it as well as teaching, and become a lecturer. When I mentioned this to my teacher, he told me that I would need to do a PhD. I didn’t know what a PhD was, but quickly found out that it came with a title and decided that I wanted one!

The reason I mention this is not narcissism, but because within a few months of having my professional life planned out in my head, I began to have serious doubts. I liked history, but I wasn’t sure what the point of it was. Why not try to become a ‘real’ doctor, or a psychologist, or something more practical? Or, if I did want a more academic route, why not study something more intellectually stimulating, like philosophy? I’m glad now that I stuck with my original instinct, but those doubts have had an important effect on me. They have ensured that I have always approached the discipline of history with the belief that it should be more than just fun (and anyway I’d rather watch a film or sport for fun), that it should yield important information and understanding, that it does actually matter.

So, does history really matter, and if so, why? There is, unfortunately, a particular need for historians to address this question today. In a climate of financial cut-backs, disciplines in the humanities are more likely to be targeted than the salaries and bonuses of university presidents/vice-chancellors and their retinue. In Ireland, the Department of Education is considering the removal of history as a compulsory subject up to junior cycle (GCSE equivalent) in secondary school, which would likely mean that a majority of Irish students would enter adulthood without any meaningful understanding of national, or global, history. In this context, on the pages of Ireland’s leading broadsheet in recent months appeared an article that argued not only that history is nothing more than mythology, but that it’s actually harmful (The Irish Times, 9 June 2012 ).

It might sometimes be thought that historians live in the past, desperate to work out the details of events long since completed. This would be a mistake, for history as an academic discipline has meaning through the present and its effects on the future. Each of us is an historical being. We can only live in the present, we can only envisage the future, and we can only draw on the past for experience and guidance. We are narrative beings, constructing stories about ourselves in an effort to create a sense of individual identity, with our sense of ‘who we are’ derived from who and where we have come from, what we have done, and what we would like to do. Most of us like to think that life isn’t just a series of random events, that there is some sense of ‘destiny’ or purpose to the universe and our individual lives. What is true of us individually is also true of us collectively, however the collective is defined.

History is certainly potentially dangerous, and one can argue intelligently that historical awareness is perhaps more dangerous than historical ignorance. The poet and philosopher Paul Valery (1871-1945) once observed: ‘History is the most dangerous product the chemistry of the intellect has ever concoted…It sets people dreaming, it intoxicates them, spawns in them false memories…keeps old wounds open’. History is often, and has often been, used and abused by those in positions of political power.

However, we cannot avoid the past and should not attempt to do so, for it has formed us in ways that we might not even realize. Our cultures, our political institutions, our political attitudes, our political ideologies, and our individual identities are all bound up with the past. For example, our cherished ‘Western’ institutions and concepts of ‘democracy’, ‘freedom’ and ‘human rights’ are historically conditioned, and it is useful for us to understand their origins. If modern democracy owes its origins to the French Revolution, then it arose with ‘the despotism of freedom against tyranny’, to use Robespierre’s words, the same words that one Bolshevik deliberately chose as the title of a newspaper article in 1918 when justifying the Bolshevik dictatorship in Russia. Perhaps the most striking and disturbing reality of post-Second World War global history is the willingness of the self-conscious champions of freedom, led by the ‘land of the free’ itself, to risk global annihilation in pursuit of this ‘freedom’. They should have learned their history.

What does it mean to learn from the past? The famous expression of the historian George Santayana, that ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it’, is frequently cited in defence of History. It is, in itself, inadequate.

First, historians don’t just remember the past, they interrogate it. We all remember the past, but it is how we remember it that matters. It is a natural instinct to suppress bad memories, and national histories are often remembered in more or less sanitized, or at least politicized, form. This is sometimes quite deliberate, as indicated by a commission that was established in Russia by President Medvedev in 2009 (and dissolved earlier this year) to combat historical ‘falsification’, but which was seen by many historians and others as a means of enforcing a whitewash of the activities of the Red Army during the Second World War. The purpose is to allow citizens to tap into a sense of national belonging, of national achievement and triumph, to generate loyalty to the state, and to further legitimize the incumbents of state power. The discipline of History, by contrast, should teach us the complexity of the past and, by extension, help us to appreciate the complexity of our own times. The greatest danger associated with history is not historical awareness itself, but the absence of a well-educated, well-trained, professional, independent, and articulate historical profession that assumes the responsibility of enlightening (and when necessary correcting) such awareness.

Second, Santayana’s expression presupposes that there are lessons to be learned from the past. However, these lessons are not always clear. For a start, the mistakes of the past are not always agreed upon, let alone the lessons to be learned. Take the figure of Lenin, for example, on whose political thought I based my PhD. For some, he was the devil incarnate, responsible for setting in motion much of the human carnage of the last century. For others, he represented the purity of the socialist revolution before its ‘betrayal’ by Stalin. This brings us back to Auschwitz. Santayana’s expression is now inscribed above the door of one of the buildings in the camp. Looking up at it last August, I had to look past dozens of young Israeli soldiers in their uniforms. I doubt the lessons that they took with them that day were the same as those felt almost instinctively by so many of us as we walked through the corridors in reverential silence, past horrific and poignant images.

History is the story of human existence. There really is little that is beyond the scope of the historian, and as a discipline it is especially well-suited to cross-disciplinary perspectives. It makes sense for the historian to read up on philosophy, sociology, political science, economics, psychology, psychiatry, anthropology, linguistics, geography, etc. It is the most comprehensive of the humanities disciplines, and there is no reason why it should not be as intellectually stimulating as any other. It is crucially important to study history, to engage with it deeply, precisely because its significance is rarely fully understood and its lessons are not always agreed upon – nor necessarily should they be. History is contestable. Historians are entrusted with interpreting the past as well as recording it, and these interpretations are then contested and debated by others. History is like a mirror that we hold up to ourselves, individually and collectively. It is intended to encourage reflection, especially on the things we don’t like to see. Those who study it gain a great depth of perspective on what it is to be human, and how societies function. Whether or not students of history (or of any other discipline) are able to change the world for the good of others, knowledge and depth of understanding are inherently good things to have: they enrich our lives. It is unfortunate that all too often historians are content with an ‘ivory-tower’ existence, or brief appearances on TV documentaries as means of ‘reaching out’ beyond the confines of academia. We, as historians, have an enormous amount to contribute to contemporary debates, on a wide variety of issues, and I think we should be a lot more assertive in this regard.

 

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