Category Archives: history

The Making of the English Working Class, and Lord Byron hugs a Luddite

I’ve recently been re-reading E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class. For this book, ‘magesterial’, ‘dazzling’, ‘sheds lights on an overlooked period of our history’ and all the other dull clichés are for once apt. If these terms didn’t make me cringe so much I would employ all of them to describe what was Thompson’s ‘magnum opus’.

If anything, ‘often overlooked’ would be a startling understatement in this instance. The book covers the years 1780 to 1832, and examines the political agitation of those victims of history; the artisans and craftsmen who would soon find themselves made obsolete by the factory system, consumed by the black cloud of the industrial revolution, thrown to the urban slums and joining the mass of the newly emerging industrial proletariat. In the preface, Thompson describes his wish to:

‘rescue the poor stockinger, the Luddite cropper, the “obsolete” hand-loom weaver, the “utopian” artisan, and even the deluded follower of Joanna Southcott, from the enormous condescension of posterity’

These years truly were the ‘making’ of the new working class; the decline of a predominantly rural economy of artisan trade to one of mass industrialisation, urbanisation, slums and wage labour. The gates of Merrie England had been broken down by Adam Smith and the enemies of this outdated mercantilism of craftsmen, and the masses were being led towards the sooty heights of Cottonopolis and the workhouse.

There is little overlooked about the Industrial Revolution itself, it was covered heavily when I was at school, and seems to feature to a significant(ish) degree in the collective memory of the nation. We think of child labour, we see the slums, the words of Dickens, Brunel’s bridges, the counterbalance of the Romantics, Turner’s ominously blurred steam trains drifting through as yet unspoiled pastures.

Thompson’s focus, the ‘overlooked history’, is purely on those on the front line of these great changes, their political consciousness, aspirations and responses to what he calls, ‘these times of acute social disturbance’. He describes the activities of the followers of Jacobinism in England, reformers and revolutionaries who saw hope for salvation in the radicalism of the French Revolution, many of whom later prayed for a French invasion of Britain that would topple their own ancien regime. He describes the struggle for the vote, the growth of trade unionism among artisans, highly secretive and illegal, a mysterious picture conjured of masked craftsmen meeting nightly in wooded clearings, taking part in oaths and initiation rituals, drilling with pikes for the coming “‘levelution.”

The London Corresponding Society, the radical weavers of Spitalfields, Nottinghamshire, and Lancashire, the revolutionary journalists of Republican, Cap of Liberty, and Medusa are all brought back to the life. Radicals and demagogues, certainly popular men or devils, depending on who you spoke to, in their own time, are all but forgotten now. From speakers and campaigners like William Cobbett and Henry Hunt, to doomed conspirators like Arthur Thistlewood, leader of the Cato Street Conspiracy, and Jeremiah Brandreth, the unemployed stocking maker and ‘Nottingham Captain’, who led an ill-fated attempt to occupy the city in 1817. Compared with later popular history that was preserved at length by the socialist movement, the world Thompson describes is a labyrinth of riots, uprisings, conspiracy, insurrection, hanging and treason.

The Making of the English Working Class is a wealth of forgotten history, and the history of English radicalism is almost certainly forgotten, not being one that sits well with the still adored myth of the passive, stiff upper lipped, ‘free-born Englishman’. Two incidents described and analysed at length in the book exemplify this national amnesia, and both have current relevance.

The first is the obvious example of the Luddites, the radical handloom weavers of Nottinghamshire, Yorkshire and Lancashire. Threatened by the introduction of the automated looms of factory production that would render their trade somewhat obsolete, they rioted, smashed factory looms, and torched mills from 1811-1813. Many were executed, and hundreds were transported to the colonies. In our current understanding of the word ‘Luddite’, the radical political factor has been completely removed. Thompson is at pains to differentiate between our meaning of Luddite; a derogatory term for someone who is anti-technology, and this leading to a false idea of the weavers’ motivations; and what a Luddite was, an artisan making a futile attempt to protect his livelihood. Luddism also contributed to the agrarian riots of 1830, discarded in the popular imagination, known as the Swing Riots, which occurred in the southern counties and were one of the largest popular uprisings in the history of England.

The true meaning of Luddism is all the more surprising considering the appearance of a national celebrity in its midst. In 1812, after several years swanning and inseminating his way across the continent, Lord Byron took his seat in the House of Lords and made three speeches in defense of the rioters, and against the introduction of the Malicious Damage Act of 1812, that made frame-breaking a capital offense. Byron was one of the few parliamentary defenders of the Luddites, if not the only, and the law was passed. He never entered the House again, but instead devoted his pen to the cause of Radicalism for years to come, penning his Song For The Luddites, The Landlords’ Interest, and Wellington: The Best of the Cut-Throats. This was an episode where politics and literature truly crossed paths; as this monster of Romanticism, that enemy of the Industrial Revolution and mechanisation, found common cause with the riotous victim of the age, the unemployed weaver.

Nick Clegg and David Cameron both namechecked the 1832 Reform Act when they took power last year, pledging their tinkering with civil liberties law would resemble such a momentous event. Thompson does a wonderful job of exposing the fallacy of the idea of a historical ‘British democracy’ in describing the often violent and widespread campaign for male suffrage that led to the election of radical MPs and the passage of the Reform Act. Far from being a benevolent gift from the Commons to the people, the Reform Act was prefigured by decades of relentless agitation by reformers, the bloody highlight of which was the Peterloo Massacre, a massive meeting of radicals in Manchester that ended at the hands of charging cavalry. For all the habits of the modern politician to describe our democracy as ‘historical’, ‘great’ or ‘longstanding’, it takes only a cursory glance at Thompson’s work to remember that full suffrage was not granted to women and most men until 1918. In the true manner of reform granted by the state after popular agitation, the final legislated product promised little, the Reform Act still leaving the vast majority of men (six out of seven, it is believed), without the vote.

While lucidly describing these forgotten episodes of our history, Thompson also reveals the fallacy of many modern myths about the docile nature of England and its people. The book ends at the point of 1832, a watershed where artisan radicalism gave way to mass factory trade unionism and the beginnings of the socialist movement. In describing this transition of radical politics from one phase to another, Thompson mirrors the world of radicalism he found himself in as a leading light of the New Left, that crossroads between the Communist Party and its subservience to the Soviet Union, and anti-Soviet socialism.

The Hungarian Revolution of 1956, when the people of Budapest rose against their Communist rulers, proved the breaking point for many socialist intellectuals. Like the Dreyfus case, which proved a litmus test for a person’s politics for decades afterwards, the subsequent Soviet suppression of the uprising, and a person’s reaction to it, would reveal whether or not they were of a pro-Soviet persuasion. Thousands around the world abandoned their respective Communist parties in the face of the bloodbath in Budapest.

Many left the Communist Party of Great Britain, and EP Thompson was one of the first out the door, unlike our other ‘great’ socialist historian, Eric Hobsbawm, who has experienced a recent renaissance of sorts, who issued some fairly unflattering articles in support of the Soviet authorities, albeit, ‘with a heavy heart’. Thompson remained a socialist and criticised the Labour governments of the post-war period from a left-wing perspective, and was a major figure in CND, becoming partly famous for speaking passionately about nuclear weapons to Glastonbury crowds in the 1980s. His speeches in favour of nuclear disarmament, and against all too easily embarked upon wars must have resembled Byron’s impassioned speeches supporting the Luddites in the House of Lords. Through the jeers and shouting, he condemned the lawmakers who sat beside him;

‘When a proposal is made to emancipate or relieve, you deliberate for years, you temporize and tamper with the minds of men; but a death-bill must be passed off-hand, without a thought of the consequences’

It was the last time Byron would sit in Parliament, and like those frame-breakers and radicals who could find no redress through the laws of the land, Byron would contain his political activity to his poetry, mirroring Thompson’s overall argument, that the most radical reform can never be bestowed by parliaments.

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Shakespeare and conspiracy: the prospect of Roland Emmerich’s Anonymous

“What if I told you…that Shakespeare never wrote a single word,” plainly states Derek Jacobi at the beginning of the trailer for Roland Emmerich’s upcoming Shakespeare film, Anonymous. Shakespeare has made surprisingly few appearances on film, the last being 1998’s Shakespeare in Love,  a sort of Notting Hill-era Britcom with codpieces. It is, therefore, a shame Anonymous is not a film about Shakespeare, but takes as its subject the most peculiar aspect of Shakespeare’s legacy, the conspiracy theory that ‘the man from Stratford’ did not write the plays attributed to him.

The ‘anti-Stratfordian’ movement, as it is known, dates back to the mid-19th century, and the reasons behind the claims that somebody else wrote the plays are numerous. They frequently rely on reading the plays as autobiography, denial of evidence, and bizarre codes and ciphers believed to be hidden in the plays themselves, as well as a good dose of snobbery towards Shakespeare’s background. For a comprehensive debunking of the anti-Stratfordian myth, it is worth reading James Shapiro’s excellent book, Contested Will, or alternatively simply viewing the surprisingly clear Wikipedia page.

As for the candidates themselves, there are currently over fifty contenders, including Christopher Marlowe, Mary Sidney, Francis Bacon, Walter Raleigh, King James, and Elizabeth I. No less eclectic are their supporters over the years, who count among their ranks Mark Twain, Charlie Chaplin, Malcolm X, and Sigmund Freud.

Two prominent contemporary figures in the anti-Stratfordian camp are Derek Jacobi and Mark Rylance, who, in 2007, issued a ‘Declaration of Reasonable Doubt’ that features the signatures of several high-profile doubters, as an attempt to rally the anti-Stratfordian cause. In recent years the Shakespeare authorship conspiracy has gained greater mainstream interest:  the fact that Rylance even served as Artistic Director of Shakespeare’s Globe theatre between 1995-2005 reflects this. Jacobi and Rylance will both appear in Anonymous, and director Roland Emmerich’s signature featured on the 2007 declaration.

While favoured candidates for an alternative author swap positions fairly regularly, the current frontrunner is Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, an aristocrat, adventurer, playwright, and literary patron. Anonymous intends to fight his corner – with a few embellishments, namely that de Vere was also the illegitimate son of Elizabeth I, and had an incestuous relationship with her. Even in anti-Stratfordian ranks, this is a fringe theory, and one often met with derision.

By showcasing this dramatic and controversial theory, Anonymous could prove to be an own goal for the anti-Stratfordian camp. Oliver Stone’s JFK , released in 1991, is the daddy of conspiracy cinema. It succeeded in cementing the idea of a conspiracy in the public mind; following its release, more people were convinced of a cover-up and the US government even reviewed their records of the assassination. Its success lay in the simplicity of the plot, and the fact that it followed established and prominent theories of the Kennedy assassination, the ‘magic bullet’, the ‘second gunman’ etc. Could it be that Emmerich’s desire for blockbuster success via the most controversial and bizarre plot possible has overridden the anti-Stratfordian desire to maintain an image of legitimacy? Anonymous runs a serious risk of exposing them to ridicule.

In fact, the choice of such a bizarre theory seems so poorly considered that an intriguing, and just as unlikely, conspiracy of its own could be considered. What if Roland Emmerich is in fact a Shakespeare supporter,  is deep undercover in the enemy camp, and has gone to the trouble of shooting a multi-million dollar film that contends that Shakespeare did not write his plays, but with the most preposterous storyline possible – all as some kind of cunning ‘false flag’ operation to discredit the anti-Stratfordians. But, like the conspiracies themselves, this is an unreasonable theory based on zero evidence.

Belief in conspiracy theory in the modern world is widespread, a 2003 poll indicated that 75% of Americans believe in a JFK cover-up, a 2006 poll found that nearly half of all Britons believe the death of Princess Diana was not an accident, and we have only to look at recent conspiracies surrounding the 9/11 attacks and Barack Obama’s citizenship to see that the appetite for conspiracy remains strong. Not to mention the images of ‘Da Vinci Code tours’ that appeared in the wake of the book’s popularity, ferrying hundreds of Dan Brown enthusiasts around the Vatican to conduct their own examinations of the Sistine Chapel for hidden codes.

It is difficult to understand the current widespread appeal of conspiracy theories. In explaining his opposition to the Shakespeare conspiracies in Contested Will, James Shapiro writes, “No doubt my attitude derives from living in a world which truth is too often seen as relative and in which mainstream media are committed to showing both sides of every story…I don’t believe that truth is relative or that there are always two sides to every story.” This can seem a strong statement to make in our tolerant age, in which giving a fair hearing to every argument is highly placed. It is also a refreshing indictment of the very postmodern notion of treating every opinion as equally valid, often rejecting any notion of objective truth, even when such truth is provable.

In an extreme example, the devastating consequencies of this policy were made clear in the UK media’s reporting of the possible link between the MMR vaccine and autism. The scientific paper that made the link in 1998 was widely discredited by the medical community as ‘fraudulent’ and ‘dishonest’, and the scientific consensus is that there is no link between the MMR vaccine and autism, yet, in its mission to present both sides of the arguement equally, the media rejected the possibility of objective truth and carried on reporting the link as either possible, factual, or at least as important as the other arguement, leading many parents to deny their children the vaccine and thus leaving them exposed to potentially harmful infections.

Recourse to conspiracy theory can also be an act of desperation, or a response of collective hysteria to a profound event for which ready explainations are not forthcoming. They can also be interpreted as a response to what the anthropologist George Marcus termed a ‘crisis of representation’, or the widespread disengagement and disillusionment from political structures in Western society. Here, a direct connection is made between the disappearance of meta-narratives – ‘grand explanatory schemes’ – or the decline of ideology in an postmodern and post-political age (the idea that politics no longer offers positive ideas to improve the world, but merely sound administration through crisis, of which we are almost always in a permenant state of), and the need to seek answers elsewhere, often in conspiracy. The crisis of bureaucratic democracy becomes a crisis of truth. It is an outlet for frustration, where the majority no longer sees any real ‘choice’ in the political process, to quote Slavoj Žižek,

‘The political frustration of the majority is thus understandable: they are called to decide, while, at the same time, receiving the message that they are in no position effectively to decide, i.e. to objectively weigh the pros and cons. The recourse to “conspiracy theories” is a desperate way out of this deadlock, an attempt to regain a minimum of what Fred Jameson calls “cognitive mapping.”‘

Compared to these grand speculations, the world of the Shakespeare question is an almost insignificant one, but suspicion of Shakespeare has followed the general trend of more widespread acceptance of conspiracies, and the alternative theories have recently gained a degree of respectability. At the beginning of the trailer for Anonymous, when we see his ‘Shakespeare never wrote a single word’ speech, Jacobi is not hunched beside a fire in the back room of some dingy pub, but in a packed and professional looking auditorium, minus any kind of tin foil headgear. It is indicative that having once been a mark of eccentricity, the debate has become respectable, and despite the ridiculous storyline, Anonymous has the opportunity to re-energise the debate. And it intends to do this aggressively: in a press conference last year, Rhys Ifans, who will play Edward de Vere, mentioned that the character of Shakespeare will be presented as an ‘illiterate drunk’, a reference to the more snobbish aspect of the conspiracies: that Shakespeare was too poorly educated and un-gentlemanly to have written the plays. The inclusion of the incestuous royal relationship storyline could be a coup for Shakespeare loyalists,  but the real test of the film’s success will be whether it legitimises questioning the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays, or marks a return to the days of the tin foil hat.

A shortened version of this post appears at blogcritics.org – http://blogcritics.org/video/article/shakespeare-and-conspiracy-the-prospect-of/

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Danton and the French Revolution; between DW Griffith and Soviet Russia

In his introduction to Robespierre: Virtue and Terror, a collection of Maximilien Robespierre’s speeches and writings during the French Revolution, published in 2007 through Verso Press, Slavoj Žižek quotes the dictum ‘every history is a history of the present’. He is right to quote it; few historical events are as likely to be interpreted through the prism of prevalent political consensus as the French Revolution.

‘Our story is of two little orphans who suffer first through the tyranny of Kingly bosses, nobles and aristocrats. After the king’s government falls they suffer with the rest of the people as much through the new government, established by the pussy-footing Robespierre through Anarchy and Bolshevism. Strange that both these evil rulers were otherwise highly moral men except that they saw evil in all who did not THINK AS THEY DID. The lesson – the French Revolution RIGHTLY overthrew a BAD government. But we in America should be careful lest we with a GOOD government mistake fanatics for leaders and exchange our decent law and order for Anarchy and Bolshevism’.

So states the intertitles at the beginning of DW Griffith’s silent epic of the French Revolution, Orphans of the Storm. As a statement, this is about as bold and unequivocal as a filmmaker can be about the political intent of his film. Released in 1921, Orphans of the Storm is a remake of the lost Theda Bara film The Two Orphans, released in 1915. Lillian and Dorothy Gish play two orphans who find themselves in Paris during the Revolution, running afoul variously of lecherous aristocrats and characters of the revolution, including Robespierre, who eventually sends Lillian Gish and her lover to the guillotine.

The referral in the intertitles to ‘Bolshevism’ means that as much as it is a film about the French Revolution, it is equally a film about what Žižek calls the ‘most traumatic event of the 20th century’, the October Revolution, and personalities and events from France in 1789 are manipulated and made to resemble those of Russia in 1917.The last sentence of the intertitle already forms a connection between the proponents of revolutionary terror in France and the Bolsheviks of Russia, warning against any attempt at ‘Bolshevism’ in America.

Griffith was not a mad voice in a crowd. In the years immediately following the October Revolution, Americans were seized by an almost constant fear of a repeat event in their own country, spurred on by the overenthusiastic paranoia of Alexander Mitchell Palmer, Attorney General of the United States from 1919-1921. An earlier incarnation of Senator McCarthy, and a far more succesful one at that, Palmer fanned the flames of what is now known as the First Red Scare, initiating mass searches, arrests, and deportations of suspected radicals. Where McCarthy blacklisted obscure screenwriters and classified Charlie Chaplin as a threat to national security, Palmer was shipping hundreds of radicals, mostly guilty of nothing other than ‘being’ radicals, including the famous anarchists Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman, ‘back’ to revolutionary Russia. Through the French Revolution, Orphans of the Storm shows us the violent birth of 20th century communism, and at the same time expresses the early paranoia of ‘reds’ that America was to suffer for the next century.

If Orphans of the Storm is the birth, Andrzej Wajda’s 1983 release Danton documents the death, and the host for this allegory is Georges Danton, Jacobin and revolutionary leader. Once an ally of Robespierre, the film documents Danton’s unease with the excesses of the Terror, his eventual opposition to Robespierre and the Committee of Public Safety, the de facto government of France during the Terror, and his execution because of it in 1794. Wajda is as bold as Griffith in telling the audience that what they are watching is a political allegory of a modern issue, that the film is not about Paris in 1794, but Poland in 1983. We can safely say that Danton, played spectacularly by Gérard Depardieu, represents the Solidarność movement struggling against the Soviet-backed Polish state, which is represented in Robespierre and the Committee of Public Safety, who, symbolically, are portrayed by Polish actors who spoke Polish during filming, and were later dubbed into French.

In Danton, characterisation reflects the popular struggle against the Polish state. If history exists so that one day cinema can be made of it, Danton would have existed for the sole reason that Depardieu would play him. Danton is hulking, larger than life, full of bombast, an insurrectionary bon vivant with a taste for good living and fine dining, in comparison to the stern, prim, mathematical and cold Robespierre, the personification of austere Socialist Realism, and his wild-eyed and fanatical ally Saint-Just. Robespierre’s pre-revolutionary background of a country lawyer gives a mirror image in 1983; had there been no revolution (1789) or revolutionary crisis (1983) we could easily see him being still a quiet country lawyer, or a factory accountant in some industrial backwater of socialist Poland, extolling the virtues of rationing to his fellow workers. Robespierre is always the man summoned by history. If Danton is the freedom loving Polish people, Robespierre is the cold bureaucrat of the Polish state, while Saint-Just could equally be a young, unhinged ideologue of the Party of 1983.

In a marvellous scene we see this chasm mapped out; Danton has invited Robespierre to dinner, a first meeting between the two since his brief retirement from revolutionary Paris, which we see him return to at the beginning of the film. Danton intends to convince Robespierre that if the Terror is continued, the people will rise against the revolution, and that it should be ended so that they may continue with a less-bloody revolution as allies. We see him nervously flapping around various intricate dishes that have been prepared for Robespierre, upbraiding his supporters for having put the wrong flowers on the dining table, ‘He only likes blue flowers’, eager to impress his old friend. Robespierre arrives late, treats the meeting like a political mediation instead of a meeting of old friends, and declines food, leading Danton to fly into a rage and upbraid him for his coldness and unmanliness, and his distance from the people – ‘They say you’ve never had a woman’, he shouts, ‘You know nothing of the people’. Danton is the colourful freedom fighter, a man of the people, while Robespierre is the distant bureaucrat of the state machinery. This is Danton as a doomed version of Solidarność, who instead of perishing on the guillotine in Paris as Danton did, are rotting in the Soviet prisons in the depths of Krakow in 1983. But, as the communist states eventually fall in 1989, so too do Robespierre and his allies, executed after the coup of 9 Thermidor in 1794.

Žižek sums up the modern liberal attitude to the French Revolution as ‘1789 without 1793’; an appreciation for the overthrow of a despotic monarchy and aristocratic class, and for the values of modern democracy that the revolution gave birth to, but an abhorrence of the revolutionary excesses of the Jacobins and the Terror. He argues that without 1793, the ‘zero level of Jacobinism through which the fundamentals of democracy are established’, any talk of the democratic plus-points for liberals of 1789 becomes invalidated, as the revolution would almost certainly have failed, or been defeated. Then, the revolution becomes a product without its vital essence, or devolved of its harmful ingredient; like non-alcoholic beer, a ‘decaffeinated revolution’.

Orphans of the Storm is without a doubt a product of this attitude, albeit in the harsher climate of a rabid American anti-communism. Griffith’s intertitles talk of the exploitative and despotic nature of the monarchy, but also condemns Robespierre and the Jacobins. Danton also plays a major role in Griffith’s film, and in an attempt to find a plausible figure to represent his middle-ground, a completely fictional Danton is manufactured and created as a character who is a sober opponent of oppression, be it Royalist or Jacobin, opposed to both Kings and Terror in equal measure. Early on we see him chinwagging congenially with Thomas Jefferson, who is apparently in France as a diplomat, and the Marquis de Lafayette, a moderate royalist during the revolution who argued the case for a constitutional monarchy. A more historically accurate meeting between Danton and Lafayette would have been on July 17 1791, when Danton led a crowd against the National Constituent Assembly after they had decreed that the monarchy would remain in place, which was fired upon on the Champ de Mars on orders from Lafayette, leaving dozens dead.

What we get in Orphans of the Storm is a Danton twisted and distorted almost beyond recognition. Later, he is referred to as the ‘Abraham Lincoln of France’, and at one point witnesses a benevolent aristocrat distributing bread to the poor, and sadly tells him, ‘If more of the aristocrats were like you, things would be different’. Paralleling the dominant ideology of our times, whereby liberals may acknowledge the unjust nature of capitalist society, and have been handwringing over it since the economic crisis of 2008, but believe any fundamental shift in the structure of society to be unrealistic, and prefer instead tweaking reforms; Griffith believes that France would have been safe in the hands of a reformed and paternalistic aristocracy.

In the midst of exploitative aristocrats and marauding, fanatical sans-culottes, Danton is Griffith’s stabilising factor in the midst of chaos. He has equal distaste for both the aristocracy and the brutality of the fanatical sans-culottes who we see rampaging over Paris, fighting with soldiers, and wielding oversized butcher’s knives and sickles. Equally condemned is the figure of Robespierre, who in Griffith’s interpretation  we can take to represent Lenin.

When not leading a revolutionary crowd in Orphans of the Storm, Danton is quiet and reflective, not quite the bombastic ‘tribune of the people’, a thundering one at that, we see in Wajda’s film, which presents an overall more truthful version of Danton. When finally charged and dragged before the Revolutionary Tribunel in Danton, ostensibly for financial misdeeds, but equally for his opposition to Robespierre and the Committee of Public Safety, Danton is reminded, and acknowledges, that he himself had been instrumental in forming the Revolutionary Tribunel the previous year, which had been used to try and and send to the guillotine countless political enemies. This acknowledgement is important, and leads us to remember that Danton was no political innocent, he was a Jacobin, he had voted for the execution of the King, he sat alongside his friend Robespierre and the bloodthirsty Jean-Paul Marat as a member of The Mountain, the most radical group of the National Convention, so-called because they would occupy the high benches of the debating chamber, he had participated in the suppression of the moderate Girondist faction, and he had been instrumental in founding the Committee of Public Safety and had served as its first President.

Danton has long been a staple of literature, he has featured in as many novels, poems and plays as Robespierre himself, and the reason for this could be that he is one of the few figures of the French Revolution who fulfill both the aesthetic, and especially Romantic, ideal of the passionate revolutionary, the crusader for the people, and a safe ideological figure, free from the stain of tyranny in his eventual opposition to Robespierre and the excesses of the Terror. Other figures of the Revolution are unpalatable for various reasons and have been defined as such; the Girondins and other moderates are passionless, dull, and compromising, Lafayette was disgraced, Jean-Paul Marat is a psychopath, Saint-Just is the bloodthirsty fanatic, and Robespierre the calculating tyrant. Danton, or a whitewashed version of his character, ticks all the boxes for a literary ideal where others do not, and it is this version we see in Orphans of the Storm. In turn, when he is designated the ‘Abraham Lincoln of France’, a preposterous comparison if there was one, Danton is again manipulated to represent the figure of the pure and just American democracy, standing up against the revolutionary excesses of the young Soviet Russia.

Žižek recounts a popular anecdote about the Chinese prime minister, Zhou Enlai, that when asked his thoughts on the French Revolution, he answered, ‘It is still too early to tell’. It is now thought that he was misquoted and was instead referring to the 1968 upheavels, and this is a shame, not only for the loss of poetry from the statement, but because it is true; in 1921 the French Revolution is interpreted through DW Griffith and America’s anti-communism as a warning against ‘Bolshevism’ and the spread of communism, its 1983 version is that of the fall of Robespierre mirroring the eventual fall of the Soviet-backed Polish state, and in the West, in our time, we see it interpreted through the liberal democratic prism of ‘1789 without 1793’. The French Revolution continues to be twisted and manipulated to reflect the dominant ideology of the present, it is the ultimate ‘history of the present’.

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The First Blow

I’m a big fan of French New Wave, and as this blog continues I’ll hopefully get a chance to write more on it. I’m currently working my way through the five films Francois Truffaut made charting the life of his restless alter ego, Antoine Doinel, played in each film by Jean-Pierre Léaud. Starting with The 400 Blows in 1959 when he was just 14, Léaud and Truffaut give us Antoine realising unrequited love at the age of 17 in the 1962 short Antoine and Colette, through to his courtship and marriage of violinist Christine in Stolen Kisses and Bed and Board, and ending in 1979 with Love On The Run, by which time Léaud was in his mid-thirties.

Although Jean-Paul Belmondo is often held as the defining figure in French New Wave, due to his appearence in Jean-Luc Godard’s defining New Wave debut A Bout de Souffle in 1960 and his continued association with Godard throughout the sixties, Léaud’s claim to the title is resoundingly stronger. Along with his role as Antoine Doinel, he featured prominently in Godard’s Masculin, Feminin, Made in USA, La Chinoise, and Week End, as well as appearing briefly in Alphaville and Pierrot Le Fou. His involvement with both directors was such that when Truffaut and Godard eventually broke off their friendship, as documented in the excellent documentary Two In The Wave, released last year, Léaud was so torn between the two that he felt bartered with and bandied about like a child caught in the middle of a messy divorce.

Long before the degeneration of their friendship, when both Godard and Truffaut were critics and friendly rivals on the burgeoning film magazine Cahiers du Cinema, and Truffaut had just released the opening volley of fire at French cinema in the form of The 400 Blows, Godard wrote of his friend’s film;

‘The face of the French cinema has changed.’

Just a year after being banned from the 1958 Cannes Film Festival because of his uncompromising attacks upon the French cinematic establishment, Truffaut had successfully transformed his sobriquet from the ‘gravedigger of French cinema’, to its saviour. The 400 Blows was selected by de Gaulle’s culture minister André Malraux to represent France at the 1959 Festival, at which it won Truffaut the award for Best Director.

If The 400 Blows was the opening volley against an out of touch French cinema, the opening scene in the film presented traditional French society with no question of what it was to expect from this new age. We find Antoine Doinel at school, in trouble with his teacher having been caught passing a picture of a bikini-clad woman amongst his classmates. He is sent to stand in the corner as punishment, and is not allowed to play with his friends at breaktime, leading him to scrawl on the wall behind the blackboard;

‘Here poor Antoine Doinel was
punished by Sourpuss
for a pin-up fallen from the sky
it will be an eye for an eye’

The scene plays out as a condemnation of the old forms of learning and expression, and the target identified can clearly be seen as French cinema and the cultural establishment. We see the disciplinarian teacher boring his pupils with rote learning of an uninspiring poem called ‘The Hare’, and the teacher himself is shown to be representative of the generation of wartime Frenchmen and women who confronted the sixties, and everything that came with it, including the New Wave, with disdain and a feeling of powerlessness. At one point, the teacher laments the rebelliousness of his pupils with a cry of,

‘Poor France! What a future!’

In the same way the New Wave was rebelling against the cinematic age its founders existed in, so too are Antoine Doinel and his classmates unwittingly rebelling against traditional French society. This is even more pertinent when we consider the political situation in France when New Wave was born.

The Fourth Republic had collapsed in 1958, after what was essentially a coup d’etat by army officers in Algeria, leading to the founding of the Fifth Republic and the return of de Gaulle as president in an almost dictatorial capacity, having granted himself extraordinary powers and an unchallengeable seven-year term.

The radicalising effects of the Fifth Republic, the opposition to the war in Algeria, the continuous liberatory movement of the young through France during the 1960s, all these factors exemplified perfectly in the films of New Wave, manifested itself in the largest uprising in Europe for decades, and the largest since; the near-revolution of 1968. Students rioted and occupied their universities, and even more threatening to the established order, the country experienced the largest general strike in its history, with hundreds of thousands of workers occupying their factories and running them independently of their bosses.

The uncompromisingly emancipatory nature of the uprising, along with its potential for victory, was such that the workers and students were eventually forced back to work by ‘their own’ organisations, the French Communist Party and the official trade unions. The level of political liberation was such that workers and students found themselves in direct opposition to their traditional representatives, who sided with the state against revolution.

The changes in culture, sexuality, political structure, ideology, gender relationships, in France in the sixties were massive. Antoine Doinel and his classmates are at the age of twelve in The 400 Blows, and in 1968 they will be students or young workers, and likely to be involved in some way in the 1968 uprising, and it is easy to imagine an older Antoine with a paving stone in his hand.

In this way the opening scene of The 400 Blows is a metaphor for the changes France is about to experience, and just as many of the older generation felt a sense of helplessness when confronted with the liberated young of the sixties, and the ’68 uprising, the teacher can do nothing in the face of his rebellious pupils but lament for the future of the country. Their rebelliousness is not without a check however, for the immediate image we are confronted with when we leave the classroom is a looming close up of the powerful emblem of traditional French republicanism outside the school, the immovable ‘Liberte, Egalitie, Fraternitie’, carved in stone, a reminder of the power and constant presence of the state.

Refusing to remain passive observers and documenters, when 1968 came around Truffaut and Godard didn’t leave it up to Antoine Doinel and A Bout de Souffle’s eternal gangster Michel to voice their rebellion, and they became actively involved in protests, notably in the campaign for the reinstatement of the dismissed director of the Cinémathèque Française, Henri Langlois. Langlois had been dismissed by culture minister André Malraux, who had by this time turned against New Wave and sought to replace him with a government-appointed board of directors. The incident was a massive error of judgement on Malraux’s part, who had vastly underestimated the symbolic importance of Langlois and the Cinémathèque to filmmakers around the world. The campaign for Langlois provided a major rallying point for filmmakers’ involvement in the uprising and the campaign attracted support from names such as Hitchcock, Fellini, Chaplin, Fritz Lang and Akira Kurosawa. Nicholas Ray was also a robust supporter of the campaign and attended demonstrations in Paris, including one a week after Langlois’ dismissal alongside Truffaut, Godard, Jean-Paul Belmondo, Jean-Pierre Léaud, Marie Epstein, Bertrand Tavernier and others, during which the crowd was baton charged by the police.

After successfully forcing the Cannes Film Festival to shut down in 1968, Truffaut and Godard organised demonstrations in support of Langlois and he was reinstated later that year, although their partnership in the campaign was their last, and their friendship was bitterly broken soon after.

The 400 Blows heralded not just a new era of artistic and cinematic expression, but also the massive shifts that French society was about to experience. Antoine Doinel’s rebellion against his teacher and his parents exemplify this, as does his rebellion against the army in Stolen Kisses but nothing in the early New Wave films rivalled, as an opening declaration of opposition to all that had come before it, the first scene in which Antoine is chastised by his teacher. It is little wonder that the poetic lament for his situation and statement of revenge he scrawls on the wall is so reminiscent of the revolutionary slogans painted over Paris during the uprising of 1968. Sous les pavés, la plage – Antoine Doinel?

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Demonstrations and violence, some thoughts from Saturday

On Saturday I was on the TUC’s demonstration against public spending cuts, and about 500,000 of us marched through London from the Embankment, past the Palace of Westminster, and up to a rally in Hyde Park. Of the march itself, it was obviously well attended, being the largest in Britain since the 2003 demonstration against the Iraq War. It was colourful (trade unions in the UK having finally decided to emulate their continental cousins when it comes to flags/horns/drums/bibs/banners etc) and many of the people there were attending their first demonstration, many with their kids in tow.

Later on in the day some violence occurred, mostly confined to window smashing, and the Sunday papers were predictably hysterical about it. I was also at the student demonstrations in December, where some violence also occurred, and it might be useful to draw a comparison between the two. Unlike the violence that occurred during the student demonstrations, it did not originate from anger within the crowd itself, but was performed by the usual groups of ninja-suited anarchists, who by and large were outside of the main march. I say performed, this kind of thing is ritualistic in nature and can be pretty much guaranteed at any large demonstration in London. I also hesitate to use the word anarchists, as a term it has become fairly meaningless and everyone, including anarchists themselves, completely disagree on what set of ideas it describes. But as whoever might have been involved would term themselves as anarchists, it will have to do.

The anti-cuts movement, if one does materialise, is in its infancy, and tactically speaking, charging around Oxford St in balaclavas and smashing random shop windows has an air of inauthenticity about it. Others at the march seemed mostly bemused by these happenings, and seem to have felt that it was something separate from what they were doing. At best, it was self-regarding, mistimed, and tactically ill-advised and at worst, it served to actively alienate people. There may be a time for smashing the windows of banks, but this wasn’t it, and the mood of the general crowd wasn’t in it.

As during the summit protests of the 1990s and early 2000s, in Seattle, Genoa, Prague etc, violence becomes a mask to hide an intellectual deficiency, and a lack of wider analysis concerning the cuts and the implications of the economic situation as a whole. It was no indication of how angry people feel against the cuts, because this kind of violence is almost guaranteed at any demonstration in London.

The violence did detract from the event itself, but since it is the press who decides whether an event has been ‘overshadowed by violence’, I’m sure it would have been ‘overshadowed’ had only a couple of windows been smashed by an even smaller group of people, or had anything much happened at all.

From a quick glance at a few anarchist discussion boards today, even those on the more sensible end of anarchism who had been arguing years ago against the use of ‘black bloc’ tactics as outdated and achieving little, that anarchists should not seem unapproachable and dangerous, hiding behing masks, and should try to spread their ideas among other demonstrators, have been caught up in the excitement of the moment in believing that this was a breakthrough. Perhaps this is down to the example of Greece, where the recent campaigns against austerity measures have been characterised by mass violence. But from the outside, in a country like Britain, which unlike Greece has no recent history of political violence, and no large communist or socialist movements, these kind of random attacks on property seem no different to those being used ten years ago. This is still a mindset of being in the bubble of activism, where constant overexposure to those with the same ideas, and confined to tiny political groups, can lead you to believe your actions have little consequence outside of these groups.

The response of the left-leaning press has fared little better, with the Guardian, as usual adopting a calmer and less hysterical, but essentially similar position to the right-wing press, of a peaceful march having been ‘hijacked’. Among the stranger responses however has been from New Statesman columnist Laurie Penny, who has written an article describing her experiences in Trafalgar Square on Saturday. Aside from the usual comments from right-wing types that are to be expected, the comments from those who were on the march on Saturday have been fairly sceptical, and they believe large parts of her account have been fabricated. Not having spent too much time on Saturday in Trafalgar Square, I can’t confirm or deny her account.

The entire article has a bizarre feeling about it, from dismissing the half a million of so trade unionists on the main march as ‘humous eaters’, something any sane person would ascribe to a New Statesman columnist than to the firemen, teachers, binmen, council workers, train drivers, paramedics, who had come from all over the country to voice their opposition, to the obvious jumping on a new political bandwagon from somebody whose articles just six months ago were demoaning the Labour Party having ‘let us down’. She is clearly positioning herself as some kind of new Hunter S Thompson, reporting from the front line of a riot, although with absolutely none of his ability to write with artistic flair and avoid cliche, leading us to the atrocious and cringing way the article is written. It reads like fan fiction written by somebody imagining themselves on the barricades of the Rue Soufflot in 1848, definiantly facing down the forces of reaction, as a whiff of gunpowder blowing by on the cool wind as a red flag flutters in the distance. To say it is overly dramatic is an understatement;

“Now, night is falling on the Trafalgar kettle, and the square stinks of cordite, emptied kidneys and anxiety. We’ve been here for three hours, and it’s freezing; we burn placards and share cigarettes to maintain an illusion of warmth.”

“I find myself in front of the riot line, taking a blow to the head and a kick to the shin; I am dragged to my feet by a girl with blue hair who squeezes my arm and then raises a union flag defiantly at the cops. “We are peaceful, what are you?” chant the protestors. I’m chanting it too, my head ringing with pain and rage and adrenaline; a boy with dreadlocks puts an arm around me. “Don’t scream at them,” he says. “We’re peaceful, so let’s not provoke.””

For people of my generation in their early twenties, the obvious reference point we arrive at for mass violence during a demonstration is that of the Poll Tax Riot in 1990. To compare what happened on Saturday to that, as some eager people have been trying to do, is incorrect. The protest itself came on the back of months of localised opposition to the Poll Tax, through community organising, non-payment, and resistance to baliffs, and the riot was indicitive of the deep anger felt by those on the march. Contrary to what was said by those in government, the Labour Party, the police, the unions, and various smaller left-wing parties said, an inquiry afterwards concluded that there was;

‘no evidence that the trouble was orchestrated by left-wing anarchist groups’

The same can be said of the student demonstrations in December, which were popular outpourings of anger, but cannot, by anyone who was there, be said of the demonstration on Saturday. Maybe the anti-cuts movement will have its Poll Tax Riot, but when it does, the real demonstration of anger against the cuts will be when anarchists become superfluous to any window smashing.

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The Dancing Plague, and a raw deal for the Pied Piper

Recently I’ve been reading a book called The Black Death: A Chronicle of the Plague by Johannes Nohl. I had the good fortune to come across it in the used section of My Back Pages in Balham, a really excellent bookshop to visit if you happen to be in South London. It was first published in 1926, and offers an account of plague from 1348-1720, and does a good job of encompassing various outbreaks through those years in a fairly small book. I couldn’t find out much about Johannes Nohl other than that he lived from 1882 to 1963, and appears to have been a member of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany, the governing party of East Germany until (obviously) the Berlin Wall fell in the revolutions of 1989.

The book itself is very interesting and worth reading if you can get hold of copy, but something that particularly interested me was Nohl’s short account of ‘dancing plague’. Historically known as St Vitus’ Dance (St Vitus was a Catholic martyr, supposedly killed in 303 during the persecution of Christians by Emperors Diocletian and Maximian, although there exists no historical documents related to his life, or death, and he was historically venerated in the late middle ages through dancing before his statue), dancing plague was a form of mass hysteria that manifested itself through large groups of people, sometimes thousands, dancing uncontrollably and shouting or singing, and often experiencing hallucinations. Although obviously not related to bubonic plague, as it was a psychological affliction, they are interesting to note nonetheless. Most of these episodes occurred from the 14th to the 17th centuries, and were surprisingly well-documented through local chronicles and physician’s notes.

One of the first documented cases was in the 1020s in Bernburg, in Saxony, where a group of peasants took to dancing around a church in the middle of a Christmas Eve service. An outbreak in 1278 involved around 200 people dancing on a bridge across the River Meuse in Germany, leading to its collapse. In 1428, a monk from Schaffhausen danced himself to death, and outbreaks occurred throughout the next two hundred years, apparently across all of Europe, and one case was even recorded in Madagascar.

One of the most well-documented outbreaks was in Strasbourg in 1518. It began in July when a woman identified as Frau Troffea began dancing maniacally in the street, and by the end of the month had been joined by over 400 others, many of whom died of heart attacks, stroke, and exhaustion. The local nobility, suitably disturbed by these events, consulted physicians, who, surprisingly for medieval medicine, decided against any supernatural causes and declared the hysteria a ‘natural disease’. The cure prescribed was, in fact, more dancing. Wooden stages were erected and musicians paid to keep everyone moving, night and day, in what can only have been a grotesque medieval version of Horace McCoy’s They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, only with more death and less shattered Hollywood dreams.

Various explanations have been offered for the existence of the dancing plagues, none of which have been agreed on by historians. One is that sufferers were taking part in heretical rituals, although this explanation has been called in to question for its validity. Another is that the sufferers were afflicted with what is now known as Sydenham’s chorea, a disease characterised by ‘rapid, uncoordinated movements affected primarily the face, feet, and hands’, and is known to result from childhood infection as well as occurring in a large proportion of sufferers of acute rheumatic fever. Chorea can also manifest itself in epileptics, and Catholic legend held that invoking the anger of St Vitus could provoke compulsive dancing, so it is possible that people were brought before a shrine or statue of St Vitus when afflicted with chorea, although this would not explain how so many people were afflicted simultaneously in one locality.

Another explanation attributes the dancing to mass psychosis, caused by major mass psychological distress. In the case of the Strasbourg outbreak, famine had been prevalent in the region for some time, caused by extreme weather and crop frosts during the winter. Mass deaths occurred, as well as outbreaks of smallpox, syphilis, leprosy, and the ‘English Sweat’, a mysterious illness which struck Europe in the late middle ages, and apparently disappeared in the 1550s. Some scholars contend that the dancing was merely a response to a ‘shared stress’ to what can only have been a miserable existence.

Possibly the most interesting explanation though, and one that Johannes Nohl seems to have favoured, was ergotism. Ergotism is what results from long-term ergot poisoning, caused by the ingestion of alkaloids produced on fungus (ergot) that can grow on standing corn, rye especially, especially in warm and damp conditions. Rye bread was, at the time, the ‘poor man’s loaf’, and anyone who ingested ergot-laced rye was liable to be afflicted with what was historically known as St Anthony’s Fire, and later became ergotism, the physical symptoms of which are seizures, delirium, violent cramps, mental derangement, and later, gangrene. Ergot poisoning has also been offered as a possible explanation for what was termed ‘bewitchment’, and possibly for the convulsive symptoms of those who were later tried in the Salem Witch Trials.

As was recorded in physician’s notes, dancing seemed in some way to relieve the pain of suffering ergotism, and this is possibly the reason local authorities were prepared to employ musicians to play for sufferers. One outbreak of dancing mania, occurring in 1237, involved a large group of children travelling from Erfurt to Arnstadt, in central Germany, who appeared to have been dancing and jumping uncontrollably all the way. This incident is noted for its marked similarity to the legend of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, where a piper leads the children of the village of Hamelin away, dancing as they go to the sound of his pipe, never to return. If the legend had in some way originated from the phenomenon of dancing mania, far from being the villain of the story, the Pied Piper had possibly been playing to ease the pain of children who had been afflicted with St Anthony’s Fire.

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