All posts by Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin

From Enlightenment to Enfrightenment: Romanticism as a Tool for Elite Agendas

We have seen […] that nationalism, that magnificent song that made the people rise against their oppressors, stops short, falters and dies away on the day that independence is proclaimed. Nationalism is not a political doctrine, nor a programme. If you really want your country to avoid regression, or at best halts and uncertainties, a rapid step must be taken from national consciousness to political and social consciousness.
— Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, 1961

Introduction

Romanticism is an eighteenth century artistic, literary, musical and intellectual movement which emerged as a reaction to Enlightenment ideas of science, reason and human progress. Its effect on politics has been to reassert conservative ideas about society based on hierarchy and individualism as the Romantics looked back to medieval times and monarchism for inspiration. Enlightenment ideas focused on the laws as a counter to monarchical privilege and looked to concepts of citizenship and republicanism as the way forward, ideas which were taken up by workers’ movements the world over. However, Romantic ideas of the exclusivist nation are coming to the fore again in a world altered by the positive and negative effects of international worker mobility, immigration and desperate refugees.

The Enlightenment and politics – ‘You were, crucially, a citizen, not a subject’

In the early 18c in Europe the power of the monarchical system began to wane and enlightenment ideas about the running and ruling of society began to take hold. Those ideas focused on the idea of the ‘patrie’. Like many enlightenment ideas, patria was a word derived from pater [father] from ancient Rome and would later be equated with republicanism. Louis chevalier de Jancourt (the biographer of Leibniz) wrote in the Encyclopédie that patrie “represents a father and children, and consequently that it expresses the meaning we attach to that of family, of society, of a free state, of which we are members, and whose laws assure our liberties and our well-being.”1 This new emphasis was based on equality of all before the law rather than on the narrow definitions of ethnicity used in definitions of the nation.

In the pre-modern polity, society was made up of separate feudal sovereignties that were at the same time local power centres. Different ethnic groups lived in insular, heterogeneous communities with local and agrarian independent economies. The economy developed as kingdoms expanded into other ethnic areas. The transition from ethnicity to nationhood happened when the members of different ethnic groups developed a common culture making them into a ‘nation’.

However as Anthony Pagden writes:

Unlike the nation, the patria was a community, a group. You owed it your love and your life, but you were also a part of it. You were, crucially, a citizen, not a subject.2

Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de La Brède et de Montesquieu (1689–1755), generally referred to as simply Montesquieu, was a French judge, man of letters, and political philosopher.

The patria was loosely connected to the concept of a republican government where the citizen, as Montesquieu wrote, would be asked to love the laws and the homeland (patrie) and that this love would require “continuing preference of the public interest over one’s own.”3

These ideas about the patrie have “come to be called modern civic patriotism. It was benign, generous, outward-looking, and in principle at least excluded no one”.4 They can be seen as universal in that they described a form of politics, republicanism, that was not concerned with language, religion or ethnicity but with the idea that all were citizens and equal before the law.

Equality before the law is the principle that each person must be treated equally by the law (principle of isonomy) and that all are subject to the same laws of justice (due process). This principle arose out of the discontent that prevailed under monarchical rule whereby the king or queen was above the law, so that equality guaranteed that no one or group of individuals could be privileged or discriminated against by the rulers.

This principle was enshrined in Article 7 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) which states that: “All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law”.

Photograph of the Great Chartist Meeting on Kennington Common, London in 1848

Equality before the law is a basic principle of legal documents like the Irish Constitution, for example:

All citizens shall be held equal before the law (Article 40 of the Constitution). This means that the State cannot unjustly, unreasonably or arbitrarily discriminate between citizens. You cannot be treated as inferior or superior to any other person in society simply because of your human attributes or your ethnic, racial, social or religious background.

The universal aspect of such principles is an important aspect in that universalism accepts universal principles of most religions and is inclusive of others regardless of other persons ethnic, religious or racial background.

As an approach to ethnic difference in society, universalism is similar to instrumentalist approaches which accepts a minimal set of qualifications for membership of a community, unlike the primordialism of conservative nationalism which tries to fix exclusivist kinship, historical traditions and homeland of the ‘nation’.

The Romantic reaction – ‘from patriotism to tribalism’

It was in Germany that nationalism came to emphasise the ethnic basis of the nation with the ancient origins of the German language symbolising the German Volk stretching back into pre-history. In his essay On the Origin of Language [1772], Johann Herder argued for the national origin of language. He wrote, “[i]t [the urge to express] is alive in all unpolished languages, though, to be sure, according to the degree of each nation’s culture and the specific character of its way of thinking.”5

La République universelle démocratique et sociale, painted by Frédéric Sorrieu in 1848. Top left: Le Pacte, Top right: Le Prologue, Bottom left: Le Triomphe, Bottom right: Le Marché. He was notable for his works testifying the liberal and nationalist revolutions in France and in Europe.

Herder’s influence could be seen in the widespread cultural and linguistic movements that swept Europe from the 1780s to the 1840s. Influenced by the Romantic Movement, the cultural nationalists emphasised the volksgeist of the peasantry as the true basis of the nation. Language became the target and the site for conflicting political ideologies as definitions of the nation were formed on ethno-linguistic grounds.

However, the early nineteenth century also saw the rise of workers movements such as the Saint-Simonians and Fourierists in France and the Chartists and Owenites in the United Kingdom. The industrial revolution had caused a profound change in the social and economic make-up of society internally which resulted in the creation of self-conscious classes and heightened class antagonism.

Thus the workers movements took Enlightenment ideas of equality to their logical conclusion in the form of class struggle and social revolution while the Romantics looked to the peasantry for their ideal, reasserting the primacy of the older vertical structure of society (containing all classes).

The rise of nationalism saw the growth of exceptionalism as ethnic exclusivity became the norm. Under the influence of Romanticism and ideas of ethnic purity, and in parallel with the rise of the centralised nation state, the ethnic homogenisation of the populace meant the (near) destruction of indigenous local languages and local foreign language communities.

For example, there existed in France about thirty patois or popular Romance languages. In A Cultural History of the French Revolution, Emmet Kennedy describes a report to the Convention on 16 prairial Year II (4 June 1794) where the abbé Grégoire lists the extensive range of patois, dialects and languages in France as “Bas-Breton, Bourguinon, Bressan, Lyonnais, Dauphinois, Auvergnat, Poitevin, Limousin, Picard, Provençal, Languedocien, Velayen, Catalan, Béarnais, Basque, Rouergat, and Gascon.” According to Kennedy, “[o]nly about a sixth (fifteen) of the departments around Paris spoke French exclusively. Elsewhere bilingualism was common.”6

Yet, in another report to the Convention in 1794, Barère links the areas where “foreign” languages are to be found, such as Basque, German, Flamand and Breton, with the areas of insurrection and counterrevolution. Barère writes, “[f]ederalism and superstition speak Bas-Breton; emigration and hatred of the Republic speak German; counterrevolution speaks Italian, and fanaticism speaks Basque. Let us break these harmful instruments of terror.”7 In post-revolutionary France linguistic redefinition took on serious political overtones as the question of self/other was redrawn along linguistic lines. Already the interests of the state were taking precedence over the rhetoric of the democratic nation.

Nur für Deutsche (Eng. “Only for Germans”) on the tram number 8 in occupied Kraków.

Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762 – 1814) took exceptionalist and chauvinist ideas of the nation even further. He wrote:

The German, if only he makes use of all his advantages, can always be superior to the foreigner and understand him fully, even better than the foreigner understands himself, and can translate the foreigner to the fullest extent. On the other hand, the foreigner can never understand the true German without a thorough and extremely laborious study of the German language, and there is no doubt that he will leave what is genuinely German untranslated.8

Fichte, like Herder, shifted cultural value from the elites to the common people (volk). According to Tim Blanning in The Romantic Revolution:

Folk art, folk dancing and folk songs were not to be despised for their roughness but treasured for their authenticity. They were the ‘archives of a nationality’, the ‘national soul’ and ‘the living voice of the nationalities, even of humanity itself’.9

The Romantics promoted popular ballads which had been seen as “the dregs of fairy-tales, superstitions, songs, and crude speech”.10 Of particular note was the Ossian cycle of epic poems published by the Scottish poet James Macpherson from 1760. The work was an international success and was translated into all the literary languages of Europe. Even though Ossian was soon realised to be a creation of its author and not from ancient sources it was highly influential both in the development of the Romantic movement and the Gaelic revival.

As in other forms of culture the Romantics emphasised all that was backward-looking and medieval in opposition to Enlightenment figures who had tried to create a new culture based on reason and science. Moreover, Romantic folk culture was very different from working class culture which developed during the Industrial Revolution. With the influence of socialist ideas and movements over the following decades, working class authors and poets produced many fine poems, ballads and novels about the struggles of ordinary people.

It is interesting to note that in the late seventeenth century and the early eighteenth century, the cultural elites of Europe were more interested in French than their own languages and went on the Grand Tour of Europe to broaden their horizons and learn about language, architecture, geography, and culture.

Also, it is ironic that the thrill of romanticism often came from the safety of modernity (in the form of enlightenment science) as the development of steamboats and railway systems allowed the new middle classes to experience the sublime in the beauty of dramatic landscapes like the Alps.

Nationalism – ‘countering the worst excesses of neoliberalism’

The influence of Romanticism on politics shifted revolutionary thinking from burgeoning socialist movements to nationalism instead. Nationalism is the perfect class conciliatory ideology in that it retained the full social order/hierarchy (i.e. it includes the elites) and homogenised the people by excluding other national languages and foreign communities while putting the elites into positions of leadership and control.

Using divide and rule tactics and stirring up xenophobic attitudes and fears, the elites ran the new homogenised nations and used them for their old purposes: war. Modern global power struggles of the twentieth century started with nation set against nation in the First World War.

A postcard from 1916 showing national personifications of some of the Allies of World War I, each holding a national flag

Throughout the twentieth century the rise of globalism and neoliberalism led to a breakdown in nationalist ideology as the world became more and more economically interconnected leading some to believe that we had moved on to an era of postnationalism. However, postnationalism is an internationalistic processs whereby power is partially transferred from national authorities to supernational entities like the European Union. Power is transferred from local elites to the super elite of the European Commission.

However, nationalist sentiments are still used to allow elites to consolidate power and new nationalist movements have risen in many parts of the world as people turn to local elites to try and counter the worst excesses of neoliberalism. This has led to Hindu nationalism in India, Trump’s “Make America Great Again” and “America First” campaigns, the United Kingdom’s Brexit, anti-immigration rhetoric in Hungary, Germany’s Pegida, France’s National Front, and the UK Independence Party.

Douaumont French military cemetery seen from Douaumont ossuary, which contains remains of French and German soldiers who died during the Battle of Verdun in 1916

Conclusion

Romanticist sentiments are still used and manipulated to keep the masses on board with the agendas of the elites thereby diverting people away from questioning the social and political systems under which they live and work. As the global economic and financial crises deepen there is the worrying possibility that more and more people will be dragged into the national and international power struggles of elites rather than examining and fighting for their own social, economic and political interests; i.e., a revival of political and social consciousness.

  1. The Enlightenment: And Why it Still Matters by Anthony Pagden (Oxford Uni Press, 2015), p. 259.
  2. The Enlightenment: And Why it Still Matters by Anthony Pagden (Oxford Uni Press, 2015), p. 259.
  3. The Enlightenment: And Why it Still Matters by Anthony Pagden (Oxford Uni Press, 2015), p. 260.
  4. The Enlightenment: And Why it Still Matters by Anthony Pagden (Oxford Uni Press, 2015), p. 261.
  5. On the Origin of Language: Two Essays by Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Johann Gottfried Herder (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986), p.149.
  6. A Cultural History of the French Revolution by Emmet Kennedy (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989), pp. 325-6. See also Peasants into Frenchmen: The Modernization of Rural France, 1870-1914 by Eugen Weber (London, Chatto & Windus, 1979), p. 326.
  7. A Cultural History of the French Revolution by Emmet Kennedy (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989), pp. 325-6. See also Peasants into Frenchmen: The Modernization of Rural France, 1870-1914 by Eugen Weber (London, Chatto & Windus,1979), p. 326.
  8. Addresses to the German Nation [1808] by Johann Gottlieb Fichte, trans. R.F. Jones and G.H. Turnbull (Chicago and London: The Open Court Publishing Company, 1922), p. 130.
  9. The Romantic Revolution by Tim Blanning (Phoenix, Great Britain, 2010), p. 119.
  10. The Romantic Revolution by Tim Blanning (Phoenix, Great Britain, 2010), p.120.

Romanticism and Music

Narcotic: drug that produces analgesia (pain relief), narcosis (state of stupor or sleep), and addiction (physical dependence on the drug). In some people narcotics also produce euphoria (a feeling of great elation).”

Introduction

Romanticism is a philosophical movement of the nineteenth century which had a profound influence on music which can still be seen right up to today. Its main characteristics in music are the emphasis on the personal, dramatic contrasts, emotional excess, a focus on the nocturnal, the ghostly and the frightful, spontaneity, and extreme subjectivism. Romanticism in culture implied a turning inward and encouraged introspection. As Hegel wrote: “The entire content [of romantic art] is therefore concentrated on the inner life of the spirit”.

Romanticist-influenced music increased its audience dramatically from the early theatres of the nineteenth century to the mass pop concerts of the modern era. Romanticism changed music from being a progressive force in society to being a narcotic and self indulgent individualist experience. In modern times it has been industrialised and commercialised and sells individualism and political impotence to the very people who turn to it for solace from desperation in a highly alienated society.

The most regrettable aspect of this alienation is that music has become more and more distant from people’s movements for progressive change. In the past, progressive music; i.e., music which was in tune with the history of people’s political struggles, tended to come from the people themselves, in the form of ballads or music from progressive composers and lyricists. With the commercialising of the pop music industry in the twentieth century, music moved from something to be consumed on a mass basis rather than produced by people on a local basis – by writing, playing or singing, as it was in the past with balladeers, choirs and progressive composers.

Here we will look at the influence of Romanticism on music from the Classical period in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries through to the development of the pop music industry in the twentieth century. Also examined will be composers and singers who resisted the pressure of the Romantic influence and wrote and played music that was rooted in hardship and struggle and an awareness of international issues and crises as they affected the ordinary people of those countries.

Classical Music – ‘structures should be well-founded’

While classical music in general has a broad meaning the Classical period was an era of classical music between roughly 1730 and 1820. Enlightenment respect for the politics, aesthetics and philosophy of classical antiquity (Classicism) combined with the development of ‘natural philosophy’ – the precursor of the natural sciences – had a profound effect on music: “Newton’s physics was taken as a paradigm: structures should be well-founded in axioms and be both well-articulated and orderly.” The effect of Enlightenment ideas on Classical music was to mark a change to a lighter, clearer texture compared with the Baroque music that came before it.

Thus the findings in science broadly affected or influenced culture in general. At the same time technical developments in musical instruments and the increase in size and standardisation of orchestras changed the way music was played. The major composers of this time were Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven, Joseph Haydn, Christoph Willibald Gluck, Johann Christian Bach, Luigi Boccherini, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, Muzio Clementi, Antonio Salieri, and Johann Nepomuk Hummel.

Joseph Haydn Playing Quartets

Romantic Music – ‘more explicitly expressive and programmatic’

Romanticism originated at the end to the 18th century mainly as a reaction to the Age of Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution which were perceived to be using science to destroy nature and man’s traditional way of life. The Romantic emphasis on feeling was in direct contrast with Enlightenment ideas of progress with reason and science being the primary source of knowledge. The philosophers and scientists of the Enlightenment had desired to move away from the Feudalism and Scholasticism of the religiously dominated Middle Ages. Unfortunately, the Romantic artists, composers and poets took a new interest in aspects of medievalism that the Enlightenment philosophers had tried to defeat. Enlightenment ideas were also taken up by the new elites who used science in the exploitative ways so hated by the Romantics.

However, despite the impression one might get from the Romantics’ emphasis on emotion, Enlightenment ideas were not devoid of feeling. Anthony Ashley Cooper, 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury (1671 – 1713) believed that all human beings had a ‘natural affection’ or natural sociability which bound them together. Francis Hutcheson (1694 – 1746) wrote that “All Men have the same Affections and Senses”  while David Hume (1711 – 1776) believed that human beings extend their “imaginative identification with the feelings of others” when it is required. Similarly, Adam Smith (1723 – 1790), the writer of Wealth of Nations, believed in the power of the imagination to inform us and help us understand the suffering of others.1

The Romantic reaction towards Classical music and the ideals of the Enlightenment in one sense was not surprising given the failure of those ideas ultimately in the French Revolution. As Friedrich Engels wrote in Anti-Dühring in 1877:

The French philosophers of the eighteenth century, the forerunners of the Revolution, appealed to reason as the sole judge of all that is. A rational government, rational society, were to be founded; everything that ran counter to eternal reason was to be remorselessly done away with. We saw also that this eternal reason was in reality nothing but the idealised understanding of the eighteenth century citizen, just then evolving into the bourgeois. The French Revolution had realised this rational society and government. But, the new order of things, rational enough as compared with earlier conditions, turned out to be by no means absolutely rational. The state based upon reason completely collapsed.

As Engels notes this resulted in the Reign of Terror and then Napoleonic despotism. The ideals of the Enlightenment philosophers were destroyed by an intensification of competition. He writes:

The promised eternal peace was turned into an endless war of conquest. The society based upon reason had fared no better. The antagonism between rich and poor, instead of dissolving into general prosperity, had become intensified by the removal of the guild and other privileges, which had to some extent bridged it over, and by the removal of the charitable institutions of the Church. The development of industry upon a capitalistic basis made poverty and misery of the working masses conditions of existence of society.

How is it then that it is the Romantics that are more associated with the revolutionary ideas of the time? Why were they seen by critics and historians as reactionary or politically irrelevant? According to Max Blechman in Revolutionary Romanticism:

The early romantics were revolutionaries: not because they believed in a political insurrection in their homeland […] but because through public expression they hoped to redefine the meaning of progress and revolutionize the values of modern civilisation.” […] Romanticism in Germany (as in France and England) was a protean [ever changing] movement, and the writings of formative romantics were contradicted by those of late romantics, some of whom broke with the early romantics’ idealism for various forms of conservatism.2

The Romantics, instead of questioning the class basis of society, which was becoming more and more sharply delineated, reached back to the simpler life, religiosity and culture of the Middle Ages. The idea of chivalrous heroes, the mystic and supernatural, untouched nature and the security of spiritual beliefs formed the basis of a new culture of individuals and heroes battling against crass modernity. Romantic composers put much more emphasis on showing their innermost thoughts and feelings about love, hate and death through powerful expressions of emotion. Romantic music developed “the use of new or previously not so common musical structures like the song cycle, nocturne, concert etude, arabesque and rhapsody, alongside the traditional classical genres.”

In general, Romantic music was “more explicitly expressive and programmatic” and public concerts were held for the urban middle class compared to earlier periods when they were mainly the domain of aristocrats. The string section was enlarged and the piano took over from the harpsichord as an accompaniment to songs (lieder) such as Schubert’s Winter Journey. The main composers in the Romantic style were Schubert, Brahms, Berlioz, Tchaikovsky, Mendelssohn, Dvorak, Chopin, Grieg, Schumann, Rimsky-Korsakov, Liszt, Elgar and Wagner.

Many of these composers were also associated with that great combination of Romanticism and politics – Nationalism – and composed music using folk tunes, dance rhythms and local legends for this purpose. As nationalist leaders developed ideas of race and a unified nation (often based on territories containing many different ethnic and cultural groups) composers created the musical soundtrack to the burgeoning centralisation and homogenisation of modern states. One of the most negative aspects of nationalist political structures was the First World War, where the peoples of these relatively new states were set against each other in the style of the earlier feudal monarchies: in the interests solely of their leaders.

Hanns Eisler – ‘One cannot always write optimistic songs’

While Romanticism reached its peak during the period of 1800 to 1850, its influence continued on throughout the twentieth century. Hanns Eisler (1898-1962), an Austrian composer who fought in a Hungarian regiment during the First World War, resisted the debilitating effects of Romanticism in his music. After the war he became more and more radicalised and threw himself into the class politics of the day. Eisler had a long artistic association with Bertolt Brecht:

Eisler wrote music for several Brecht plays, including The Decision (Die Maßnahme) (1930), The Mother (1932) and Schweik in the Second World War (1957). They also collaborated on protest songs that celebrated, and contributed to, the political turmoil of Weimar Germany in the early 1930s. Their Solidarity Song became a popular militant anthem sung in street protests and public meetings throughout Europe, and their Ballad of Paragraph 218 was the world’s first song protesting laws against abortion. Brecht-Eisler songs of this period tended to look at life from “below” — from the perspective of prostitutes, hustlers, the unemployed and the working poor. In 1931–32 he collaborated with Brecht and director Slatan Dudow on the working-class film Kuhle Wampe.

Hanns Eisler (left) and Bertolt Brecht, his close friend and collaborator, East Berlin, 1950

Eisler’s connection with the class politics and struggles of the people is demonstrated in his awareness of the problems of composing in difficult times. He stated:  “It is: consciousness-reflection-depression-revival-and again consciousness … It must be done that way, otherwise it is not good. One cannot always write optimistic songs … one must describe the up and down of actual situations, sing about it and comment on it.”3  The dialectics of the process of consciousness and reflection helped him to work with ideas that are sorrowful without falling into a state of resignation. In one of his song series ‘Ernste Gesänge’ for baritone solo and string orchestra, Albrecht Betz notes:

The third song, ‘Verweiflung’ [Despair], is a fragment from Leopardi’s famous poem ‘A se stesso’; Eisler has condensed it and freed it of all its features of Romantic discontent. Sorrow, as well as occasional anger, is sublimated in the composition’.4

Similarly, in music practice, Eisler also avoided the Romantic element: “I am always horrified to hear a group of union workers, toughened by many class struggles singing, “La, la, la, la, la, la, laaaa, aaaa,” or “I am so lonesome when I remember you.”5    Eisler and Brecht had a lot in common. Both had “an anti-romantic attitude” and “a rejection of the psychological and the autobiographical”. Betz writes:

Both had in view the ‘avoidance of the narcotic effects’ of art, the aim to conduct experiments so as to bring it to the height of rationality which would correspond to the scientific age in which they lived, and above all to arm it with a theory which would rationalize the functions of this art.6

Woody Guthrie – ‘This Machine Kills Fascists’

Another singer songwriter who would also avoid the ‘narcotic effects’ of music was Woody Guthrie (1912 – 1967). Brought up in Oklahoma, USA, Woodrow Wilson Guthrie was an American singer-songwriter, one of the most significant figures in American folk music. Guthrie wrote hundreds of political, folk, and children’s songs, along with ballads and improvised works. One of his most famous songs “This Land Is Your Land” was inspired by his reaction to Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America” on the radio.

Guthrie with guitar labeled “This machine kills fascists” in 1943.

Guthrie experienced hardship at first hand when he joined the thousands of migrants going to California to look for work during the Dust Bowl period. He became concerned by the conditions of life endured by working-class people and started writing songs about unemployment, migration, trade unions, labour struggles, and anti-fascist songs. All his life he believed in the power of music to change society and people’s attitudes. He performed regularly and wrote thousands of songs, poems and prose reflecting the life of working class people, neatly summing it up in the terse statement: “All you can write is what you see.”

Nueva Canción – ‘oppositional in every respect’

By the 1960s, a counterculture movement was making inroads into popular culture with movements like Nueva Canción (New Song) in Argentina, Chile and Spain, the General Strike centered in Paris in May 1968 in France as well as the Civil Rights Movement in the USA. The Nueva Canción (NC) movement started in Chile and soon spread all over Latin America. It went through three main phases in Chile: “The first was one of protest, the second of direct political engagement and the third moved away from direct political engagement to focus on glorifying and documenting the life of working people.” On a formal level Nueva Canción used “non-mainstream musical devices in their compositions such as traditional styles, and their rhythmic patterns, harmonic progressions and scales associated with folkloric music as well as Andean instruments in their arrangements. The songs were thus oppositional in every respect to the new ‘invading’ culture and embodied in sound and content something fresh but at the same time familiar which seemed to appeal to a mass of Chileans.”

Violeta Parra in the 1960s

Composers like Violeta Parra (1917 – 1967) [also songwriter, folklorist, ethnomusicologist and visual artist] and Argentine singer, songwriter, guitarist, and writer, Atahualpa Yupanqui (1908 – 1992) were two of the most important and influential figures in the Nueva Canción popular musical movement which “was anti-imperial in its stance against commercialised American and European music while its content covered many issues associated with the peoples of the region such as “poverty, empowerment, imperialism, democracy, human rights, religion, and the Latin American identity”.”

They led a movement which was anti-Romantic in that they fought back against the narcotic effects of individualist, self-absorbed, introspective music and instead they encouraged a turning outward, an openness and interest in society and their position in that society, a positive attitude towards how society could be changed for the better.

Jazz, Pop and Rock – ‘part of the entertainment industry’

Earlier in the twentieth century jazz had been a popular form of music among the oppressed but it to fell victim to commercialisation. As Tim Blanning says:

From the time it emerged toward the end of the nineteenth century, jazz fit very well with the Romantic aesthetic, for it was nothing if not spontaneous, improvisatory and individual. Its African-American origins also made it the potential ally of liberation movements. During much of the twentieth century, however, for all of jazz’s ability to express the suffering and aspirations of an oppressed community, the genre was very much part of the entertainment industry.”7

However, by the 1970s commercialised pop music had regained the upper hand again, starting in the late 1960s as the Beatles opened up the way for some of the most self indulgent, narcotic music ever composed, often described as ‘progressive’ rock.

During the early 1960s the Beatles continued a rock and roll lively, dancing style developed by singers like Bill Haley and Elvis Presley. However, by the late 1960s, under the influence of the burgeoning drug culture, the tone changed and Romanticism gained the upper hand. Their music became “a music of introspective self-absorption, a medium fit for communicating autobiographical intimacies, political discontents, spiritual elevation, inviting an audience, not to dance, but to listen-quietly, attentively, thoughtfully’.”8

While the Vietnam war was the basis of many radical outpourings during the late 1960s and had even influenced the pop music industry charts, by the 1970s the entertainment industry had recovered to produce some of the most ‘tune in and drop out’ music ever produced by prog rock bands such as Pink Floyd, Genesis, Led Zeppelin etc. During the 1970s, artists like David Bowie and Eric Clapton overreached, when Bowie gave a ‘Nazi salute’ in London and Clapton stated that Britain was becoming a ‘black colony’ at a concert in Birmingham, both in 1976.

Indeed, in relation to Clapton, Blanning writes:

Arguably the greatest living master of the electric guitar, Clapton personified the Romantic aesthetic: ‘The classic Clapton pose-back to the crowd, head bowed over his instrument, alone with the agony of the blues-suggests a supplicant communing with something inward: a muse or a demon … his entire career can be seen as a search for a form in which he could express the staple blues emotions-fear, loneliness, anger and humour- in a personally valid way’.9

Fear, loneliness and anger became mainstays of Romanticism in the pop music of the 1970s and 1980s music with Punk (‘anger is an energy’), Morrissey (‘the pope of mope’) and U2 (‘I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For’), not to mention the New Romantics and Heavy Metal. In more recent years, U2’s albums Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience directly reference William Blake’s illustrated collection of poems of the same name. Blake was an English poet, painter, and printmaker who is considered a seminal figure in the history of the poetry and visual arts of the Romantic Age. Blake held visionary religious beliefs and opposed the Newtonian view of the universe.10

Blake’s Newton (1795) demonstrates his opposition to the “single-vision” of scientific materialism: Newton fixes his eye on a compass (recalling Proverbs 8:27, an important passage for Milton) to write upon a scroll that seems to project from his own head.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe – ‘Classicism is health, romanticism is sickness’

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749 – 1832), the German writer famous for the novel The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774) is considered to have been one of the originators of the Romantic movement but in later life he described Romanticism as a ‘disease’.11  The effect of the Romantic ‘disease’ on music has been to turn it inward and convert its listeners into modern lotus eaters.

Mendelssohn plays to Goethe, 1830: painting by Moritz Oppenheim, 1864

In The Odyssey, Book IX, Odysseus is blown off course but reaches a land inhabited by people who live on a food that comes from a kind of flower. He sends a few men to investigate but upon tasting the lotus they fall into a peaceful apathy and lose interest in going home until Odysseus drags them out and leaves at once. Similarly much modern music has a narcotic effect on mass audiences who are overwhelmed by emotion while at the same time attain personal catharsis.12

Odysseus removing his men from the company of the lotus-eaters

Conclusion

The current geopolitical crises involving Venezuela, Syria, Yemen, Iran, Palestine and China are in need of mass political campaigns to bring about awareness and pressure against the drumbeats of a third world war. Building collectivist movements with a radical collectivist culture and moving away from the individualism and irrationalism of Romantic culture of the nineteenth and twentieth century is a necessary step towards real political change. Music, of all the arts, can be a powerful force in the creation of a collective consciousness. Composers of music and song highlighting the various issues affecting people today are necessary. Therefore, examining the issues around the form and content of music in society is an urgent requirement if music is to have an important cultural role in the future.

  1. The Enlightenment: And Why it Still Matters, Anthony Pagden (Oxford Uni Press, 2015) pp. 72/3.
  2. Revolutionary Romanticism: A Drunken Boat Anthology, Max Blechman (City Lights Books, 1999), p. 5.
  3. Hanns Eisler Vokalsinfonik – Vocal Symphonic Music Berlin Classics CD, Sleeve notes, p. 24.
  4. Hanns Eisler Political Musician, Albrecht Betz [Trans Bill Hopkins] (Cambridge Uni Press: Cambridge, 1982) pp. 235/7.
  5. Hanns Eisler: A Rebel in Music: Selected Writings, Hanns Eisler (Author), M. Grabs (Editor) (Kahn and Averill, London, 1999) p. 143.
  6. Hanns Eisler Political Musician, Albrecht Betz [Trans Bill Hopkins] (Cambridge Uni Press: Cambridge, 1982) p. 92.
  7. The Triumph of Music: Composers, Musicians and Their Audiences, 1700 to the Present, Tim Blanning (Penguin Modern Classics, 2008) p. 114.
  8. The Triumph of Music: Composers, Musicians and Their Audiences, 1700 to the Present, Tim Blanning (Penguin Modern Classics, 2008) p. 121.
  9. The Triumph of Music: Composers, Musicians and Their Audiences, 1700 to the Present, Tim Blanning (Penguin Modern Classics, 2008) p. 118/9.
  10. The Romantic Rebellion: Romantic Versus Classic Art Illustrated, Sir Kenneth Clark (John Murray Pub., 1973) p. 167.
  11. The Roots of Romanticism by Isaiah Berlin (Princeton Uni Press, 1999) p.130.
  12. Homer The Odyssey (Penguin Classics, 1988) p. 141.

NATO and the Culture of War: Ireland’s History of Resistance

This year marks the 70th anniversary of the founding of NATO with the signing of the North Atlantic Treaty on 4 April 1949. Established as a peacetime alliance between the United States and Europe to prevent expansion of the Soviet Union, NATO has grown in size and and changed from a defensive force to an aggressive force implementing Western policies of expansion and control.

NATO now has 29 members ranging geographically east to west from the United Kingdom to countries of the former Soviet Union and north to south from Norway to Greece. NATO’s intervention in the Bosnian war in 1994 signaled the beginning of a new role for a force effectively made redundant by the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Since then NATO has escalated its presence on the international scene taking on various roles in Afghanistan in 2003, Iraq in 2004, the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean in 2009 and culminated in the bombing of Libya in 2011 with ‘9,500 strike sorties against pro-Gaddafi targets.’

The main argument for the existence of NATO was for it to be a system of collective defence in response to external attack from the Soviet Union. Although during the Cold War NATO did not carry out military operations as a defence force, its changing role has now implicated its members in a culture of aggressive war which they had not originally signed up for.

For former colonial powers the NATO culture of war on a global scale is nothing new. The geopolitical agendas of expansionism for Western elites that NATO serves is the modern form of the colonial adventures of the past which have long passed their sell-by date. The culture of war which passes for ‘the white man’s burden’, ‘bringing freedom to other countries’ or ‘saving them from communism’ legitimizes aggressive action abroad while giving a sense of pride at home of a worthwhile military doing a great job.

War as a means to an end and war as culture

The culture of war then is different from culture wars (e.g. competing forms of culture like religion). Since the Enlightenment, war has been described as a means to an end, serving essentially rational interests. The benefits of war at home like ending the feudal system, repelling invaders, etc. were seen to apply abroad too by helping others through systems of alliances; for example, the Second World War alliance to end Hitlerite fascism.

However, there are those who see war as an end in itself, as part of the human condition. Writers like Martin Van Creveld have argued that:

War exercises a powerful fascination in its own right — one that has its greatest impact on participants but is by no means limited to them. Fighting itself can be a source of joy, perhaps even the greatest joy of all. Out of this fascination grew an entire culture that surrounds it and in which, in fact, it is immersed.

However, not all cultures of war are the same. Van Creveld conflates the culture of war of imperial nations with the culture of war of resistance to colonialism and imperialism. Britain’s wars were fought for the benefit of British elites. But Ireland, for example, has a long history of opposition to British colonialism and Ireland’s culture of war has similar symbols and traditions to Britain yet very different content. Over the centuries generation after generation of Irish men and women have taken part in wars of resistance to colonial domination. While the British culture of war may have been a proud culture of successful militarism, in Ireland it was a desperate fight for independence from an all-powerful enemy always willing to throw its vast armory into the fight against ‘treachery to the King’.

In other words, the culture of war was imposed on a people as a way to survive military, economic and political domination. Which brings up the question of whether war really is a part of the human condition.

War and ‘primitive tribes’

It has been a Romantic trope to look back to the ‘primitive tribes’ as a way of understanding our own society and how they may have looked before feudalism and the burgeoning capitalism’s ‘satanic mills’ were set in motion. Yet, it is interesting to see the descriptions of ‘primitive people’ from our history books, as Zinn writes:

When Columbus and his sailors came ashore, carrying swords, speaking oddly, the Arawaks ran to greet them, brought them food, water, gifts. […] These Arawaks of the Bahama Islands were much like Indians on the mainland, who were remarkable (European observers were to say again and again) for their hospitality, their belief in sharing.”

Bartolome de las Casas, who, as a young priest, participated in the conquest of Cuba, wrote:.

They are not completely peaceful, because they do battle from time to time with other tribes, but their casualties seem small, and they fight when they are individually moved to do so because of some grievance, not on the orders of captains or kings.

Their resorting to violence and killing was a form of defence which ultimately failed:

On Haiti, they found that the sailors left behind at Fort Navidad had been killed in a battle with the Indians, after they had roamed the island in gangs looking for gold, taking women and children as slaves for sex and labor.[…] Total control led to total cruelty. The Spaniards “thought nothing of knifing Indians by tens and twenties and of cutting slices off them to test the sharpness of their blades.” Las Casas tells how “two of these so-called Christians met two Indian boys one day, each carrying a parrot; they took the parrots and for fun beheaded the boys.” The Indians’ attempts to defend themselves failed. And when they ran off into the hills they were found and killed.

Thus, we can see that while there was occasional violence against other tribes these tribes lived in peace until faced with the extreme violence of their invaders.

Development of warrior societies

Recent research in archeology seems to suggest now that we don’t need to look to ‘primitive tribes’ abroad anymore but can see similar experiences in research on our own ancestors here in Europe and nearby regions.

In an article by John Horgan, “Survey of Earliest Human Settlements Undermines Claim that War Has Deep Evolutionary Roots“, he looks at the recent work of anthropologist Brian Ferguson, an authority on the origins of warfare:

Ferguson closely examines excavations of early human settlements in Europe and the Near East in the Neolithic era, when our ancestors started abandoning their nomadic ways and domesticating plants and animals. Ferguson shows that evidence of war in this era is quite variable. In many regions of Europe, Neolithic settlements existed for 500-1,000 years without leaving signs of warfare. “As time goes on, more war signs are fixed in all potential lines of evidence—skeletons, settlements, weapons and sometimes art,” Ferguson writes. “But there is no simple line of increase.” By the time Europeans started supplementing stone tools with metal ones roughly 5,500 years ago, “a culture of war was in place across all of Europe,” Ferguson writes. “After that,” Ferguson told me by email, “you see the growth of cultural militarism, culminating in the warrior societies of the Bronze Age.”

It seems then that the history of the development of warrior societies and their enslavement of peaceful peoples is the basis for our cultures of war: the wars of those imposing slavery on people and the wars of those resisting.

The idea of a inherent human condition of war promoted by Van Creveld may be covering up for the felt need or desire for a culture of war to dissuade those who may be thinking of imposing slavery or dominance on a people, as a form of defence in an aggressive, militarized world, for example, the Jews in Nazi Germany .

The Irish people have a long history of resistance to British forces and Ireland’s long experience of foreign aggression has led it to be wary of foreign military associations. Thus, today Ireland is still not a fully paid up member of NATO. In the nineteenth century the British used every form of simianism and Frankensteinism to depict the Irish people who had the gall to combine against them.

Ridiculing resistance: “The Irish Frankenstein” (1882) and “Mr. G O’Rilla, the Young Ireland Party” (1861)

This all changed during the First World War when Britain desperately needed new recruits and issued posters now depicting a proud Irishman as a country squire. Guilt was the weapon of choice in these posters as Britain declared to be fighting for the rights of small nations like Ireland, who was not participating.

WWI British Army Recruitment Posters: “Ireland “I’ll go too – the Real Irish Spirit”” and “Ireland “For the Glory of Ireland””

Of course, after the war was over and the main nationalist party, Sinn Fein, won 80% of the national vote, the British government’s reaction was to send in soldiers and criminals to put down the rebellion instead. This strategy failed, leading to negotiation and the signing of a treaty which led to the creation of Northern Ireland.

Ireland’s culture of resistance: the Wexford Pikeman by Oliver Sheppard and IRA Memorial, Athlone

Ireland and NATO

In 1949 Ireland had been willing  to negotiate a bilateral defence pact with the United States, but opposed joining NATO until the question of Northern Ireland was resolved with the United Kingdom. However, Ireland became a signatory to NATO’s Partnership for Peace programme and the alliance’s Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council in 1999.

In December 1996, the Peace & Neutrality Alliance (PANA) was established in Dublin. According to their website, ‘PANA seeks to advocate an Independent Irish Foreign Policy, defend Irish Neutrality and to promote a reformed United Nations as the Institution through which Ireland should pursue its security concerns.’A wide range of groups and a growing number of individual are affiliated to PANA. This wide anti-NATO sentiment was reflected in the attack on US military planes in 2003. In February 2003 the Irish Times reported:

The Army has been called in to provide security around Shannon Airport after five peace activists broke into a hangar and damaged a US military aircraft early this morning. It is the third embarrassing security breach at the airport where US military planes are refuelling en route to the looming war with Iraq.

One anti-war activist Mary Kelly was convicted of causing $1.5m in damage to a United States navy plane at Shannon airport. She attacked the plane with a hatchet causing damage to the nose wheel and electric systems at the front of the plane.

In 2018 the First International Conference Against NATO was held in Dublin. The conference was organised by the Global Campaign Against US/NATO Military Bases which itself is a coalition of peace organisations from around the world.

However, there are still forces in Ireland pushing for full membership of NATO. A recent article in an Irish national newspaper stated that ‘Ireland has been free-riding on transatlantic security structures paid for by American and European taxpayers since 1949’ and that ‘very few politicians think much about Ireland’s security in any depth and even fewer believe we should join NATO. None is likely to provide grown-up leadership on national security.’ A combination of realism and guilt that has been tried on the Irish people many times before and rejected. The writer recognises that ‘few people advocate such a course and most are quite attached to the State’s long-held position of military neutrality.’

Conference on the 70th Anniversary of NATO

Getting other nations to develop a similar attitude and leave NATO was the objective of the recent International Conference on the 70th Anniversary of NATO held in Florence, Italy, on 7 April 2019. During the conference Prof. Michel Chossudovsky (Director of the Centre for Research on Globalization) presented the The Florence Declaration which was adopted by more than 600 participants. The Florence Declaration was drafted by Italy’s Comitato and the CRG and calls for members “To exit the war system which is causing more and more damage and exposing us to increasing dangers, we must leave NATO, affirming our rights as sovereign and neutral States.

In this way, it becomes possible to contribute to the dismantling of NATO and all other military alliances, to the reconfiguration of the structures of the whole European region, to the formation of a multi-polar world where the aspirations of the People for liberty and social justice may be realised.”

Romanticism and the Rise of the Superheroes: Who are the Saviours of the Oppressed?

Myth, Reification, Tradition, Modern

For what is a man, what has he got?
If not himself, then he has naught
To say the things he truly feels and not the words of one who kneels.

— Paul Anka, My Way

Oh! isn’t it a pity, such a pretty girl as I
Should be sent to the factory to pine away and die?
Oh! I cannot be a slave, I will not be a slave,
For I’m so fond of liberty,
That I cannot be a slave.

— Lowell Mill girls protest song in 1836 strike.

The rise of the superheroes in cinema is demonstrated by the proliferation of superhero films today and is a phenomenon that is unprecedented in culture. Many superhero films are based on superhero comics while some are original for the screen, some are based on animated television series, and others are based on Japanese manga and television shows.

This essay will look at the history and origins of superheroes in Romantic ideas, comparing them to an opposing ideology of working class heroes who compete with superheroes for the attention of the oppressed masses who are to be ‘freed’ and/or saved, especially in the 20th century.

According to Cooper Hood in Screen Rant:

2019 will be the year of superhero movies, seeing the release of a record-setting amount: a whopping eleven films. As the superhero movie craze continues, next year looks poised to be the prime example of how invested Hollywood as a whole really is. There’s the usual amount of Marvel movies, but increased output from Warner Bros. and DC, as well as some final Fox X-Men titles. All of these make up an astonishing ten confirmed 2019 superhero movies.

This is nearly double the 2018 output of six live-action superhero movies: Black Panther, Avengers: Infinity War, Deadpool 2, Ant-Man & the Wasp, Venom and Aquaman.

Superheroes take their inspiration from earlier heroes such as Robin Hood and the Scarlet Pimpernel but the idea originates in Romantic ideas about heroes that save the world and the powers of the superhero.

Despite their designation as science fiction, superheroes have their ideological roots in the anti-science, individualistic philosophy of Romanticism.

What is Romanticism?

Romanticism is a movement in the arts and literature that emphasises inspiration, subjectivity, and the primacy of the individual and originated in the late 18th century. It was also a reaction to the Industrial Revolution and the Age of Enlightenment, and in particular, the scientific rationalization of nature — all components of modernity.

In the The Roots of Romanticism, Isaiah Berlin discusses the Romantic’s negative view of science:

The only persons who have ever made sense of reality are those who understand that to try to circumscribe things, to try to nail them down, to try to describe them, no matter how scrupulously, is a vain task. This will be true not only of science, which does this by means of the most rigorous generalisations of (to the Romantics) the most external and empty kind, but even of scrupulous writers, scrupulous describers of experience – realists, naturalists, those who belong to the school of the flow of consciousness, [e.g. Proust and Tolstoy] labour under the illusion that it is possible once and for all to write down, to describe, to give any finality to the process which they are trying to catch, which they are trying to nail down, unreality and fantasy will result.1

Thus the Romantics fundamentally oppose the general values and objectives of science and in particular Realist and Naturalist artists who use scientific knowledge or methods to develop their art. It goes without saying then that on a philosophical level scientific ideas about the progress of mankind are also rejected by the Romantics.

This is because for the Romantics, “new abysses open, and these abysses open to yet other abysses.”1 However, scientists understand that new abysses open as they dig deeper into new levels of understanding. Yet, they are not afraid and they don’t throw up their hands in frustration or despair: they see these discoveries as new paths and concepts also to be explored fearlessly.

Berlin believes that one of the most influential writers against the science-based Enlightenment and who began the Romantic backlash was Johann Georg Hamann who believed, according to Berlin, that “the sciences were very well for their own purposes” but that:

this is not what men ultimately sought. If you asked yourself what were men after, what did men really want, you would see that what they really wanted was not at all what Voltaire supposed they wanted. Voltaire thought that they wanted happiness, contentment, peace, but this was not true. What men wanted was for all their faculties to play in the richest and most violent possible fashion. What men wanted was to create, what men wanted was to make, and if this making led to clashes, if it led to wars, if it led to struggles then this was part of the human lot.2

This view of violence and war as irrational chaos that cannot be controlled is also an element of superhero narratives which the superhero tries to overcome.

“The Reign of the Superman”, short story by Jerry Siegel (January 1933)

Superheroes: emotions over logic

These ideas of individualism, emotion, personalised motivations and cynicism towards the concept of a progressive society are all part of the Superhero psyche. Mason Woodard writes:

One of the first Romantic elements of Batman is his motivation. He is a vigilante, sometimes hunted by Gotham Police. But the reason Bruce fights crime even in face of the law is because a common criminal murdered his parents when Wayne was just a boy. The emotion of avenging his parents and stopping this from happening drives him far more. This is an example of emotions over logic, a Romantic idea. […] One component of Romanticism embodied by Superman is to trust your instincts and emotions before logic and reasoning. Superman will often be seen saving his love, Lois Lane, or a group of kids in the midst of a massive fight, even when a logical analysis tells you to sacrifice the people and finish off the baddie (even though Superman does win in the end).

Thus the personalised empathy of the superhero covers over the narcissism of a costumed attention-seeker.

The Golden Age and the Warrior

The Romantics looked back to the Golden Age of the autonomous, powerful warrior who looks after his tribe and is the earliest version of this idea – the peasant as noble savage.  The Golden Age denotes “a period of primordial peace, harmony, stability, and prosperity. During this age peace and harmony prevailed, people did not have to work to feed themselves, for the earth provided food in abundance. They lived to a very old age with a youthful appearance, eventually dying peacefully, with spirits living on as “guardians”.”

There may have been some material basis for the concept of a Golden Age. Old European culture, for example, is believed to have centred around a nature-based ideology that was gradually replaced by an anti-nature, patriarchal, warrior society when Europe was invaded by the Kurgan peoples from c. 4000 to 1000 BC. It was believed to have been a tumultuous and disastrous time for the peoples of Old Europe and may have led to the concept of the Fall. The idea of a fall, the end of a Golden Age, is a common theme in many ancient cultures around the world. Richard Heinberg, in Memories and Visions of Paradise, examines various myths from around the world and finds common themes such as sacred trees, rivers and mountains, wise peoples who were moral and unselfish, and in harmony with nature and described heavenly and earthly paradises.

The Romantic view of the Golden Age was a reaction to the contemporary slave-like conditions of the working class in factories and mills. Romantic rejection of modernity was rooted in this over-rationalisation of the worker and its affect on the human spirit. This rationalisation could be seen as the continuation of earlier slavery but in a modern day form as ‘wage slavery’.

Friedrich Nietzsche

‘Supermen’ or ‘Übermensch [Overmen]’

This modern slavery had a profound affect on Nietzsche who defined the first ‘Supermen’ or ‘Übermensch [Overmen]’ (super – Latin: over/beyond) as a goal humanity can set for itself. The Overman would be a new human who was to be neither master nor slave and all human life would be given meaning by how it advanced a new generation of human beings. Like Marx, Nietzsche recognised the social uses of religion to divert attention and action away from the exploitative nature of the social and economic system itself. The individualism of Nietzsche’s ideas also attracted the anarchists. According to Spencer Sunshine:

There were many things that drew anarchists to Nietzsche: his hatred of the state; his disgust for the mindless social behavior of ‘herds’; his anti-Christianity; his distrust of the effect of both the market and the State on cultural production; his desire for an ‘overman’ — that is, for a new human who was to be neither master nor slave; his praise of the ecstatic and creative self, with the artist as his prototype, who could say, ‘Yes’ to the self-creation of a new world on the basis of nothing; and his forwarding of the ‘transvaluation of values’ as source of change, as opposed to a Marxist conception of class struggle and the dialectic of a linear history.

William Bell Scott Iron and Coal (1855–60)

While Marx and the Anarchists had opposing views on the role of the state, what Marx did have in common with anarchist thinkers like Mikhail Bakunin and Peter Kropotkin was the belief that wage slavery was a class condition in place due to the existence of private property and the state. This class situation was based on the lack of direct access to, or ownership by workers of, the means of production.

Henceforth the working class took to the stage as social classes started lifting themselves up particularly in the aftermath of the revolutions of the 19th and 20th centuries.

In the 20th century the battle was on for who would become the saviours of the oppressed – the fictional superheroes who fought crime or working class leaders who advocated social change? On a philosophical level the battle between Romanticism and Enlightenment ideas resurfaced between elite individualism and the opposing collectivist historical materialism of Marx.

James Connolly (1868 – 1916)

In Ireland, for example, the changing relationship between the master and the slave could be seen in the formation of the Irish Citizens Army (ICA) by James Larkin, James Connolly and Jack White on 23 November 1913. Connolly wrote of the ICA in Workers’ Republic in 1915:

An armed organisation of the Irish working class is a phenomenon in Ireland. Hitherto the workers of Ireland have fought as parts of the armies led by their masters, never as a member of any army officered, trained and inspired by men of their own class. Now, with arms in their hands, they propose to steer their own course, to carve their own future.

James Connolly, an Irish working class hero, led the ICA into a failed uprising against British colonialism in 1916 and was executed by the British not long after. He was a self-taught scholar, a socialist, and an outstanding Labour leader of Ireland. While some may see the uprising as a failed Romantic gesture this could not be further from the truth from Connolly’s philosophical and ideological perspective.

Irish Citizens Army

Superhero reified

Ultimately the question has to be asked – do superheroes ‘save’ the people? Of course, they are symbolic heroic figures and so do not save anyone. Is it possible then to become a real life ‘superhero’? This idea is developed in the film Kick-Ass where a fictional ‘reification’ of the superhero concept happens. Kick-Ass “tells the story of an ordinary teenager, Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson), who sets out to become a real-life superhero, calling himself “Kick-Ass”. Dave gets caught up in a bigger fight when he meets Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage), a former cop who, in his quest to bring down the crime boss Frank D’Amico (Mark Strong) and his son Red Mist (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), has trained his eleven-year-old daughter (Chloë Grace Moretz) to be the ruthless vigilante Hit-Girl.”

While initially Kick-Ass is constantly getting his ass kicked by thugs precisely because he does not have super powers, he eventually saves the day by arriving on the scene strapped to a jet pack fitted with miniguns and kills the remaining thugs. Thus, in the ‘real world’ Kick-Ass has to resort to ‘real weapons’ and falls into the normal superhero pattern of solving crimes with the usual extra-juridical killing and cathartic ending.

Problems of Romanticism

Overall then, there are different problems associated with superheroes, particularly from the point of view of the very people to be saved. At first, in an era of socio/political cynicism and helplessness in the face of poverty, corruption and crime, superheroes are cathartic as we purge our emotions watching the difficulties they have ‘solving’ our problems. In this way action is shifted sideways as we wait for a hero to arrive rather than being active ourselves.

Secondly, the ideology of superheroes comes from above, from elites, and not from below, from the masses themselves and therefore is directed towards the agendas of elites. Superheroes are bourgeois vigilantes who ultimately do not question the structure of society itself but merely try and solve the problems created by structural inequality.  Emotions are poured into superhero individualists who battle against crime while diverting attention away from questions of collective control of society and progress.

Thirdly, they represent the anti-logical emotionalism of Romanticism, itself a reaction to science and enlightenment. While described as science fiction, superheroes are given fanciful powers that have more in common with the ancient Greek gods than modern science.

To give them credibility in providing results for the struggling oppressed, superheroes must have super powers, (as people know you need more than an individual poor-man’s resources to battle against the system itself), ergo, the need ultimately for the superpower of working class solidarity and collectivist action to bring about real changes in society.

  1. The Roots of Romanticism: Second Edition (The A. W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts) (Princeton Uni Press, Princeton, 2013) by Isaiah Berlin (Author), Henry Hardy (Editor), John Gray (Foreword), p. 140.
  2. The Roots of Romanticism: Second Edition (The A. W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts) (Princeton Uni Press, Princeton, 2013) by Isaiah Berlin (Author), Henry Hardy (Editor), John Gray (Foreword), p. 50.

Cuba: Trump Turns the Vise

January the 1st, 2019 marked the 60th anniversary of the Cuban Revolution. Back in December 1958 the city of Santa Clara fell to the combined forces of Che Guevara, Cienfuegos, and Revolutionary Directorate (RD) rebels led by Comandantes Rolando Cubela, Juan (“El Mejicano”) Abrahantes, and William Alexander Morgan. Upon hearing the news of the defeat of his forces by the Fidel Castro-led revolutionaries, Batista left Cuba and flew to the Dominican Republic on 1 January 1959.

Havana (October 2018)

Since then the Cuban people have struggled to maintain their independence as allies came and went and enemies tried to reverse the revolution. In recent years President Obama attempted to normalise relations between Cuba and the United States (known as the Cuban Thaw) by reducing U.S. travel and remittances restrictions and reopening the U.S. embassy in Havana and the Cuban embassy in Washington. Obama even became the first U.S. President to visit Cuba since 1928.

However, since the election of Donald Trump many of these gains have been reversed.

Havana (October, 2018)

In November 2018 the US government reversed the positive changes brought in by Obama. The Trump government will disallow most individual visits and (as before Obama’s changes) Americans will have to travel in groups licensed for specific purposes. Most importantly Americans will be barred from staying in state-owned hotels, and frequenting state-owned restaurants and stores. The plan seems to be to starve the government of revenue while at the same time encouraging the growth of the private sector;  e.g., private accommodation and restaurants.

Havana (October, 2018)

A recent article noted:

The Trump administration is adding new names to a list of Cuban tourist attractions that Americans are barred from visiting. The 26 names range from the new five-star Iberostar Grand Packard and Paseo del Prado hotels in Old Havana to modest shopping centers in beach-side resorts far from the capital. All are barred because they are owned by Cuba’s military business conglomerate, GAESA.

Santa Clara (October, 2018) Che Guevara Mausoleum

Adding to these difficulties is the existence of two operating currencies: the Cuban peso (CUP) and the Cuban convertible peso (CUC). The CUC is pegged to the dollar and is worth 25 times more than the CUP. One Cuban convertible peso (CUC) is about one Euro. Most Cuban citizens are paid in CUP but consumer goods are priced in CUC. While it was announced a few years ago that this system was going to end, it is still going strong.

Havana (October, 2018)

Disparity

It is a system that could cause major problems for the government. While most citizens are paid in CUP — 1000-2000 pesos (40-80 Euros) per month — those working in the tourism sector can earn CUC. One can earn 30 CUC (30 Euros) driving a tourist from the airport to the centre of Old Havana or 20 CUC (20 Euros) a night in a private Airbnb room letting.  The local bars, restaurants and even supermarkets all use CUC. Cigar factory workers are paid in CUP, yet one Cohiba cigar could cost 10 CUC in the factory shop. On my recent trip there I asked the bar and restaurant staff in Havana for CUP notes (the three peso note carries a picture of Che Guevara) only to find them asking all their workmates if they had any CUP and eventually arriving back triumphantly with the requested notes and handing them to me as a gift, demonstrating the growing gap in the value of the two currencies.

Havana (October, 2018)

Is it possible that the growing disparity between those who earn CUP and those who earn CUC is creating a well-off new middle class? It is interesting to note that Trump’s Cuban policies seem to be created to ensure the exacerbation of these discrepancies. Is there a political strategy developing here? If we look at the essential elements of recent Colour Revolutions we generally find the combination of a disgruntled middle class and mobile data access to the internet.

To avail of the internet in Havana most people buy ETECSA prepaid internet cards and go to a nearby WiFi hotspot (usually the local park). However, data packages are becoming available. They are expensive if you are earning only CUP and only the relatively well-off will be able to afford them (e.g. 4GB of data for $30 – a month’s wages in CUP). But for those working in the tourist sector this should be affordable potentially creating the basis for a powerful social media in Cuba.

The growth of the private sector can be seen in the number of new private restaurants, bnb/pension type accommodation, cafes and bars in Havana. Yet many of the Cubans I met could not afford to buy even a sandwich in the cafes as they are priced in CUC. The collapse of state enterprises already under a lot of stress could lead to cheap real estate being bought up by the cash-rich and generally benefit non-supporters of Castro and left wing ideology, politically and financially.

As it is, there is increasing pressure on the government with only 1.2 percent growth in the economy and a 40 percent drop in Venezuelan oil deliveries (since 2014) in a society where state-run companies account for and control most economic activity.

Havana (October, 2018)

Embargoes

The difficulties for the Cuban people are increased by the ongoing United States-led embargo against Cuba. In October 2018 the UN General Assembly adopted its annual resolution to end the embargo. Ma Zhaoxu, China’s permanent representative to the United Nations stated that the blockade “is contrary to the principle of the United Nations Charter and cause[s] huge financial and economic damage for Cuba” and “hinders Cuba’s ability to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals”.

For the Cuban people it will be a case of ‘resist to exist’ like the Palestinian situation but in Cuba one can see frustration and determination for a better life all around. The 60th anniversary celebrations of 2019 will be a most important symbolic reminder in the discussions on the differing possible paths for Cuba’s future.

• All photos by Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin

The People’s Christmas: Art, Tradition and Climate Change

COME, bring with a noise,
My merry, merry boys,
The Christmas log to the firing;
While my good dame, she
Bids ye all be free;
And drink to your heart’s desiring.

With the last year’s brand
Light the new block, and
For good success in his spending
On your psaltries play,
That sweet luck may
Come while the log is a-teending.

Ceremonies for Christmas by Robert Herrick (1591–1674)
(Psaltries: a kind of guitar, Teending: kindling)

No season has so much association with music as the mid-winter, Christmas celebrations. The aural pleasure associated with the tuneful music and carols of Christmas has been reduced in recent years by the over-playing of same in shopping malls, banks, airports etc.. yet it is still enjoyed and the popularity of choirs has not diminished.

However, the visual depictions of mid-winter, Christmas celebration have also been popular since the 19th century through books, cinema and television.

The depictions of Christmas range from religious iconography through to the highly commercialised red-suited, rosy-cheeked, rotund Santa Claus.

Yet, between these two extremes of the sombre sacred and the commercialised secular lies a popular iconography best expressed in the realm of fine art and illustration. Down through the centuries the pagan aspects of mid-winter celebration and Christmas such as the Christmas tree, the Yule log, wassailing and carol singing along with winter sports such as ice skating and skiing have been depicted by many different artists. These paintings and illustrations are also beloved for the visual pleasure they afford.

More importantly, they show aspects of Christmas which are becoming more important now in our time of climate change. That is, their depictions of our past respect for nature.

In recent times, as we gradually learned to harness nature for our own ends through developments in science we also became less and less worried about the vicissitudes of nature. Our forebears, however, knew all too well hunger and cold in the depths of winter and in their own religious and superstitious ways tried to attenuate the worst of winter hardship through traditions and practices which would ensure a bountiful proceeding year.

For example, the Christmas Tree is a descendant of the sacred tree which was respected as a powerful symbol of growth, death and rebirth. Evergreen trees took on meanings associated with symbols of the eternal, immortality or fertility (See my article on Christmas Trees here). Evergreen boughs and then eventually whole evergreen trees were brought into the house to ward off evil influences. Burning the Yule log was an important rite to help strengthen the weakened sun of midwinter.

The Christmas Tree (1911), Albert Chevallier

Wassailing, or blessing of the fruit trees, is also considered a form of tree worship and involves drinking and singing to the health of the trees in the hope that they will provide a bountiful harvest in the autumn. Mumming has also been associated with the spirit of vegetation or the tree-spirit and is believed to have developed into the practice of caroling even though mumming is alive and well in many places in Ireland and England. All these nature-based practices seem to have been banned by the church at different times and then gradually integrated into church rituals (presumably because the church was not able to stop them).

Therefore our relationship with nature was demonstrated through winter activities both inside and outside the home. Outside activities consisted of ice skating, caroling, wassailing, bringing home the Yule log and the Christmas tree. Inside activities consisted of large gatherings of family and friends eating, drinking and parlour games. The indulgence of Christmas activities was balanced by an overriding concern that nature had been propitiated or appeased.

One aspect the many depictions of these activities have in common is the festive gathering of large groups of people. Modern depictions of Christmas tend to emphasise the nuclear family gathered around the Christmas tree with the focus on what Santa brought for the children. Thus Christmas today is experienced as a more isolated experience than in the past. The decline of the nuclear family in recent decades with single parent families, divorce, cohabitation, etc. has created extended family gatherings more akin to the past village groupings. Outdoor activities have also declined though one can still hear carollers singing on occasion, though still common in city streets.

Many artists of over the years have tried to depict the essence of Christmas and midwinter traditions (see my article on midwinter traditions here) and thus helped to keep them in our consciences.

Let’s look at some of the illustrations and paintings that depict mid-winter festivities over the centuries.

Carole

Carols

Poetry and song are our earliest records of Christmas celebrations. According to Clement Miles the word “‘carol’ had at first a secular or even pagan significance: in twelfth-century France it was used to describe the amorous song-dance which hailed the coming of spring; in Italian it meant a ring- or song-dance; while by English writers from the thirteenth to the sixteenth century it was used chiefly of singing joined with dancing, and had no necessary connection with religion.”1 The word carol itself comes from the Old French word carole, a circle dance accompanied by singers (Latin: choraula). Carols were very popular as dance songs and processional songs sung during festivals. In medieval times the Church referred to caroling as “sinful traffic” and issued decrees against it in 1209 A.D. and 1435 A.D. According to Tristram P. Coffin in his Book of Christmas Folklore, “For seven centuries a formidable series of denunciations and prohibitions was fired forth by Catholic authorities, warning Everyman to ‘flee wicked and lecherous songs, dancings, and leapings’” (p. 98). 

Mummers by Robert Seymour, 1836

Mumming

The processional aspects of caroling are linked to mumming, an ancient tradition which was mentioned in early ecclesiastical condemnations. During the Kalends of January a sermon ascribed to St Augustine of Hippo writes that the heathen reverses the order of things as some of these ‘miserable’ men “are clothed in the hides of cattle; others put on the heads of beasts, rejoicing and exulting that they have so transformed themselves into the shapes of animals that they no longer appear to be men … How vile further, it is that those who have been born men are clothed in women’s dresses, and by the vilest change effeminate their manly strength by taking on the forms of girls, blushing not to clothe their warlike arms in women’s garments; they have bearded faces, and yet they wish to appear women.”2 The original idea of wearing the hides of animals, Miles writes, may have sprung “from the primitive man’s belief ‘that in order to produce the great phenomena of nature on which his life depended he had only to imitate them’.3 

Indeed, in Ireland, mumming is a tradition that is still going strong. In a recent article in The Fingal Independent, Sean McPhilibin notes that “In North County Dublin the masking would be traditionally made from straw and would have been big straw hats that cover the face and come down to the shoulders.” McPhilibin also states that mumming was “a mid-winter custom that in Ireland and North County Dublin and in parts of England as well, the masking element is accompanied by a play. So there’s a play in it with set characters. It’s a play where the principal action takes place between two protagonists – a hero and a villain. The hero slays the villain and the villain is revived by a doctor who has a magical cure and after that happens there’s a succession of other characters called in, each of whom has a rhyme. So every character has a rhyme, written in rhyming couplets.[…] The other thing to say about it is that you find these same type of characters all across Spain, Portugal, France, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, over into Slovenia and elsewhere.”

James Frazer, in The Golden Bough, discusses at length many international examples of people being completely covered in straw, branches or leaves as incarnations of the tree-spirit or the spirit of vegetation, such as Green George, Jack-in-the-Green, the Little Leaf Man, and the Leaf King.4

Wassail

The word wassail comes from Old English was hál, related to the Anglo-Saxon greeting wes þú hál, meaning “be you hale”—i.e., “be healthful” or “be healthy”.

There are two variations of wassailing: going from house to house singing and sharing a wassail bowl containing a drink made from mulled cider made with sugar, cinnamon, ginger and nutmeg, topped with slices of toast as sops or going from orchard to orchard blessing the fruit trees, drinking and singing to the health of the trees in the hope that they will provide a bountiful harvest in the autumn. They sing, shout, bang pots and pans and fire shotguns to wake the tree spirits and frighten away evil demons.

The wassail itself “is a hot, mulled punch often associated with Yuletide, drunk from a ‘wassailing bowl’. The earliest versions were warmed mead into which roasted crab apples were dropped and burst to create a drink called ‘lambswool’ drunk on Lammas day, still known in Shakespeare’s time. Later, the drink evolved to become a mulled cider made with sugar, cinnamon, ginger and nutmeg, topped with slices of toast as sops and drunk from a large communal bowl.” (See traditional wassail recipe here)

The Lord of Misrule

The Lord of Misrule was a common tradition that existed up to the early nineteenth century whereby a peasant or sub-deacon appointed to be in charge of Christmas revelries, thus the normal societal roles where reversed temporarily. The Lord of Misrule “would invite traveling actors to perform Mummer’s plays, he would host elaborate masques, hold large feasts and arrange the procession of the annual Yule Log.”

The Mount Vernon Yule Log
Jean Leon Gerome Ferris (1863–1930)

The Bean King

During the the Twelfth Night feast a cake or pie would be served which had a bean baked inside. The person who got the slice with the bean would be ‘crowned’ the Bean King with a paper crown and appointed various court officials. A mock respect would be shown when the king drank and all the party would shout “the king drinks”. Robert Herrick mentions this in his poem Twelfth Night: or, King and Queen:

NOW, now the mirth comes
With the cake full of plums,
Where bean’s the king of the sport here ;
Beside we must know,
The pea also
Must revel, as queen, in the court here.

Twelfth-night (The King Drinks)
David Teniers the Younger (1610–1690)

Merry Christmas in the Baron’s Hall (1838)
Daniel Maclise (1806-1870)

Merry Christmas in the Baron’s Hall (1838)

Daniel Maclise’s painting Merry Christmas in the Baron’s Hall (1838) contains many aspects of the traditional Christmas festivities. The Lord of Misrule stands in the centre holding his staff and leading the procession of musicians and carolers coming down the stairs. Father Christmas, ‘ivy crown’d’, sits in front of the wassail bowl and is surrounded by mummers (the Dragon and St George sit side by side) and local people. On the left side of the picture we see a group of people playing a parlour game called Hunt the Slipper.

Maclise was influenced by Sir Walter Scott’s poem Marmion: A Tale of Flodden Field, published in 1808. Marmion is a historical romance in verse of 16th-century Britain, ending with the Battle of Flodden in 1513. Marmion has a section referring to Christmas festivities:

The wassel round, in good brown bowls,
Garnish’d with ribbons, blithely trowls.
There the huge sirloin reek’d; hard by
Plum-porridge stood, and Christmas pie:
Nor fail’d old Scotland to produce,
At such high tide, her savoury goose.
Then came the merry maskers in,
And carols roar’d with blithesome din;
If unmelodious was the song,
It was a hearty note, and strong.
Who lists may in their mumming see
Traces of ancient mystery;
White shirts supplied the masquerade,
And smutted cheeks the visors made;
But, O! what maskers, richly dight,
Can boast of bosoms half so light!

(See full text here)

It seems that Maclise was also taken enough by the poem to pen his own poem about his painting which was published in Fraser’s Magazine for May in 1838. The poem is titled: Christmas Revels: An Epic Rhapsody in Twelve Duans and was published under the pseudonym, Alfred Croquis, Esq. The painting includes over one hundred figures covering many different traditions of Christmas and in his poem Maclise describes most of the activities taking place as some these excerpts from the poem demonstrate:

Before him, ivied, wand in hand,
Misrule’s mock lordling takes his stand;
[…]
Drummers and pipers next appear,
And carollers in motley gear;
Stewards, butlers, cooks, bring up the rear.
Some sit apart from all the rest,
And these for merry masque are drest;
But now they play another part,
Distinct from any mumming art.
[…]
First, Father Christmas, ivy-crown’d,
With false beard white, and true paunch round,
Rules o’er the mighty wassail-bowl,
And brews a flood to stir the soul:
That bowl’s the source of all their pleasures,
That bowl supplies their lesser measures

(See full text here)

Winter Landscapes

Winter Landscape near a Village
Hendrick Avercamp (1585 (bapt.) – 1634 (buried))

 

The Hunters in the Snow (1565)
Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c.1525-1530–1569)

 

Outdoor Activities: Skating, Markets and Fairs

Patineurs au bois de Boulogne (1868)
Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841–1919)

 

 

Russian Christmas
Leon Schulman Gaspard (1882-1964)

 

The Christmas Market in Berlin (1892)
Franz Skarbina (1849-1910)

 

Christmas Fair (1904)
Heinrich Matvejevich Maniser

Nature-Based vs Anti-Nature

Polydore Vergil (c.1470–1555), the Italian humanist scholar, historian, priest and diplomat, who spent most of his life in England, wrote this about Christmas:

Dancing, masques, mummeries, stage-plays, and other such Christmas disorders now in use with the Christians, were derived from these Roman Saturnalian and Bacchanalian festivals; which should cause all pious Christians eternally to abominate them.5

However,  Clement Miles takes a more positive view of these traditions. He writes: “The heathen folk festivals absorbed by the Nativity feast were essentially life-affirming, they expressed the mind of men who said “yes” to this life, who valued earthly good things. On the other hand Christianity, at all events in its intensest form, the religion of the monks, was at bottom pessimistic as regards this earth, and valued it only as a place of discipline for the life to come; it was essentially a religion of renunciation that said “no” to the world.”6

Now we have a religion of consumerism and mass consumption with Santa Claus as its main protagonist. The one extreme of the sacred St Nicholas has flipped over to the other extreme of Santa, the corporate saint. Either way the pious and the consumer pose no threat to the status quo.

Catharsis

There is no doubt that the Christmas festivities were used by elites as a form of social catharsis. The Lord of Misrule and the Bean King, encouraged by raucous mummers and lively caroling, allowed the lowly to throw off pent-up aggression and feel what it was like to be in a position of power for a very short period of time. This brief social revolution was an important part of midwinter celebrations such as the Roman Kalends and the Feast of Fools. Libanius (c.314–392 or 393), the fourth century Greek philosopher, wrote:

The Kalends festival banishes all that is connected with toil, and allows men to give themselves up to undisturbed enjoyment. From the minds of young people it removes two kinds of dread: the dread of the schoolmaster and the dread of the stern pedagogue. The slave also it allows, so far as possible, to breathe the air of freedom.7

The survivals of an ancient time when man and nature were at peace (see article here), and not enslaved and forced to overexploit our natural resources for the benefit of the few, were allowed to resurface briefly at the time of year when the labouring classes were mostly idle and, once sated, posed little threat. Yet, retaining the memory of past respectful attitudes towards nature and old traditions of social upheaval will go a long way towards healing our damaged home into the future.

  1. Clement A. Miles, Christmas Customs and Traditions: Their History and Significance, Dover Publications, 2017,  p. 47.
  2. Miles, Christmas Customs and Traditions, p. 170.
  3. Miles, Christmas Customs and Traditions, p. 163.
  4. James Frazer, The Golden Bough, Wordsworth, 1994. See: The tree-spirit p. 297, Green George p. 126, Jack-in-the-Green p. 128, the Little Leaf Man p. 128 and the Leaf King p. 130.
  5. Hazlitt, W. Carew, Faiths and Folklore of the British Isles, 2 vols, New York: Benjamin Blom, Inc., 1965, pp. 118-119.
  6. Miles, Christmas Customs and Traditions, p. 25.
  7. Miles, Christmas Customs and Traditions, p. 168.

Cultural Marxism: The Quixotic Catch-All

The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.
— H. L. Mencken, In Defense of Women, 1918

Cultural Marxism is a strange catch-all term being thrown around a lot these days. Why is it strange? Because if you scratch below its surface all that seems logical melts into air.The term ‘cultural Marxism’ is used to cover feminism, multiculturalism, identity politics, civil rights, postmodernism and globalism. It has also been used recently to describe multiculturalist curricula in the education system.

Let’s take a look at these concepts in a little more detail:

Feminism

Marxist ideas about women covered ideas of equality and examined the historical and contemporary position and exploitation of women. Marx and Engels wrote about death from overwork, cheap labour, women and children in the mills, etc. They appear to have had a low opinion of feminism. In a letter from Engels to Paul Ernst, Engels writes:

Furthermore, I am not at all acquainted with what you call the feminist movement in Scandinavia; I only know some of Ibsen’s dramas and have not the slightest idea whether or to what extent Ibsen can be considered responsible for the more or less hysterical effusions of bourgeois and petty bourgeois women careerists.

Therefore, the inclusion of feminism into the meaning of cultural Marxism is odd.

Multiculturalism

Marxist ideas are based on the idea of citizenship and the state, that all citizens should be treated equally under the law with the common identity of “citizen”. However, it seems that the deeper the political and financial crises of the state and the subsequent whittling down of the rights of the citizen, the more emphasis is put on multicultural policies, as if to provoke the majority population into negative reactions. Marxist ideology was reflected in Article Two of the constitution of the Russian Socialist Federated Soviet Republic of 1918 whereby citizenship was held :

(22) The Russian Socialist Federated Soviet Republic, recognizing the equal rights of all citizens, irrespective of their racial or national connections, proclaims all privileges on this ground, as well as oppression of national minorities, to be contrary to the fundamental laws of the Republic.

One description of multiculturalism in Western countries notes that multiculturalism “was seen to combat racism, to protect minority communities of all types, and to undo policies that had prevented minorities from having full access to the opportunities for freedom and equality promised by the liberalism that has been the hallmark of Western societies since the Age of Enlightenment.”

If it was necessary for minority groups to fight for rights, “to protect minority communities”, “to undo policies that had prevented minorities from having full access” to opportunities then it seems that this too also has very little to do with Marxist ideology. Being involved in the struggle for basic rights does not necessarily mean you are a Marxist.

Identity politics and civil rights

The same can be said for identity politics whereby people of a particular religion or race form exclusive political alliances and move away from traditional broad-based party politics. It is true that minority cultural groups have experienced exclusion in the past and today, and fight for their rights but Marxist ideas focus on the concept of class, not race, religion or ethnic group. Marxist politics is formulated on the basis of class struggle not the political objectives of individuals or minority groups.

Postmodernism

Strangest of all is the inclusion of postmodernism in descriptions of Cultural Marxism. Postmodernism is a movement characterised by an attitude of rejection of meta-narratives such as Marxism. A meta-narrative (or grand narrative) is a theory that tries to give a totalizing, comprehensive account of history, culture, etc. based upon the appeal to universal truth. Postmodernism calls into question various assumptions of Enlightenment rationality, the idea of man free from Church-run society. Yet such Enlightenment ideas form the basis of Marxist philosophy and socialist ideology.

Globalism

Globalism is a word associated with world-systems or other global trends. The term is associated with “post-war debates of the 1940s in the United States. In their position of unprecedented power, US planners formulated policies to shape the kind of postwar world they wanted, which, in economic terms, meant a globe-spanning capitalist order centered exclusively upon the United States.” Again, not very Marxist concepts, cultural or otherwise. You are more likely to find Marxist ideas in anti-globalisation movements.

It can be seen from all of the above that the basic ideas associated with cultural Marxism have more in common with crises of neo-liberalism and international capitalism than with Marxism. It may be true that the origins of ‘cultural Marxism’ lie in the Frankfurt school of the 1930s in the attempts of critics like Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, Herbert Marcuse and Walter Benjamin to mix Marxist ideas with Freud to break down the effects of the church and state on revolutionary consciousness but it seems that later anything not associated with the conservative values of the nationalist “white”  Christian became ascribed to cultural Marxism.

Monolithism

While the neo-nationalist right ascribes many different ideas and movements to cultural Marxism it can be shown that in the main they all actually benefit the political right. This is through monolithism (something having a uniform or inflexible quality or character), an approach that can be used as a sleight of hand to implement other agendas. Below are three different ways monolithism can be used to stifle dissent.

It is in the education system that we can begin to see monolithism being used to appear progressive and concerned with minority issues (multiculturalism) while at the same time implementing a right wing agenda. For example, recent changes in the French education system have been criticised for devoting more time to a 14th century Malian king, Mansa Kankan Mussa, (who was also a great scholar, an economist as well as an art lover!) compared to the study of Napoleon or even replacing French revolution lessons. By treating French history as monolithic (i.e. for the political right the threatening (revolutionary) and non-threatening elements can be treated as one), the baby can be thrown out with the bath water, and the revolutionary tradition of the French people can be safely removed from the education system. Therefore the progressive parts of French history can be removed while appearing to be concerned about minority history. The added bonus is that non-threatening ethnic historical figures can be chosen too.  (A more subtle approach than in Ireland where the study of History is being made optional at junior cycle in the secondary schools)

The second way dissent can be silenced using monolithism is to portray minority groups as being made up of similar people all sharing similar views. As Kenan Malik writes:

Multiculturalists tend to treat minority communities as if each was a distinct, singular, homogenous, authentic whole, each composed of people all speaking with a single voice, each defined primarily by a singular view of culture and faith. In so doing, they all too often ignore conflicts within those communities. All the dissent and diversity gets washed out. As a result, the most progressive voices often gets silenced as not being truly of that community or truly authentic, while the most conservative voices get celebrated as community leaders, the authentic voices of minority groups.

The ‘authentic’ conservative gets privileged over the dissenting critic, once again serving the political right.

A third way monolithism works is in the change from the Marxist idea of class struggle (the proletariat vs the bourgeoisie) to categories of the oppressed vs the oppressor (a postmodern non-class concept). Yet again, we see a non-Marxist idea being ascribed to cultural Marxism. The oppressor is changed from the bourgeoisie to all privileged people. So, for example, white people become the ‘oppressor’ and black people become the ‘oppressed’, the privileged vs the underprivileged, despite the fact that white people can have very varied economic backgrounds from very poor to ultra-rich. This way of grouping people (colour, creed, ethnicity) creates identities which are not class-based and therefore, from the perspective of the political right, also non-threatening.

Moving targets
It is ironic that what the main targets described by the term cultural Marxism all have in common is the removal of the class (or individual) dissenting elements, or simply have no connection with Marxist ideology at all. The overriding concern, then, is that politics will be reduced to competing groups realigned along specific cultural boundaries, all blind to clever elite manipulation. Firing the term cultural Marxism at any divergent social, cultural or political activity will not enlighten people about what is really happening under their noses but will send them off tilting at windmills instead.

Rocinha Favela and the Future of Urbanism

During a recent tour in Brazil, I visited the Rocinha Favela in Rio de Janeiro. Rocinha is the largest favela in Brazil and runs up a very steep hill near the centre of Rio. It is believed at least 70,000 people live in Rocinha (some estimates suggest more than double that number), living in houses made from concrete and brick. It is officially described as a neighbourhood and has very basic sanitation, plumbing and electricity. Rocinha also has shops, hairdressers, banks, art galleries and many other businesses. The word favela itself is derived from a skin-irritating plant of the spurge family: removing these plants to live in these areas was not easy so the people called the hills after the plant.

View of sea from top of Rocinha favela (Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin 2018)

History

The favelas go back to the late 1800s when soldiers, brought in for a local war, had no place to live and so settled in the hills. After the end of slavery and the growth of city life many people moved to the cities and the favelas spread. A later industrialisation drive in the 1940s brought many more people to the cities and the favelas expanded dramatically. In the 1970s there were public housing projects but these too disintegrated into new favelas. As the drugs trade increased in the 1980s so too did the growth of gangs and gang warfare. In Rocinha, like many slums, it also has an ongoing conflict between police and drug dealers.

Locals perform samba drumming, Rocinha (Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin 2018)

UPP and BOPE

The state began a war on the drug gangs in 2008 with the Pacifying Police Units (UPP) moving in, usually after an initial operation by BOPE (Special Police Operations Battalion) who scour the area for heavy weapons and drug caches. The main purpose of the UPP is to stop armed men from ruling the streets and end drug trafficking. However, there seems to be an uneasy peace between the UPP and the drug gangs. While walking through the narrow ‘streets’ of Rocinha, a man with a revolver pointed in the air walked through our group and twice we were asked to refrain from taking photographs as we walked past armed groups of men.

Cemented-over bullet holes, Rocinha (Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin 2018)

Cinema

If you look at any listicle of Brazil’s best films you will probably see two films, Elite Squad (2007) and Elite Squad: The Enemy Within (2010) contained within. These films follow the actions of a BOPE squad in a favelas and does so without pulling any punches. Different, conflicting elements of society are portrayed in both Elite Squad films. The BOPE and police are shown to have corrupt elements, ultimately manipulated by political figures. The middle class are shown in the discussions about the nature of power in university lectures (with particular emphasis on Michel Foucault) and the students are shown working in charitable organisations in the favelas with the nod from drug gang leaders. The main narrative of the films is the idea of corrupt police making financial deals with the drugs gangs – Elite Squad (2007), and changing to corrupt politicians making money by taxing the whole community after the drug gangs have been pushed out – Elite Squad: The Enemy Within (2010).

Overhanging wires on telegraph poles, Rocinha (Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin 2018)

Tourism

The global success of these two films has probably been one of the factors in encouraging tourism in the favelas While the drug gangs generally do not appear to target tourists there have been incidents where tourists have been injured or killed by both the police and the drug gangs usually as the result of some accident or misunderstanding. In general, tourism, like in many other places, is a quick-fix solution for local businesses but does little in the way of any real social or economic development of the favela neighbourhoods.

Local store, Rocinha (Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin 2018)

Whither the favelas?

While slums became common in Europe and the USA in the 19th and 20th centuries they are predominantly found in developing countries today. The Little Ireland slum in Manchester, for example, became a source for social scientist Friedrich Engels’ book titled The Condition of the Working Class in England published in Germany in 1845. According to the UN World Cities Report 2016: Urbanization and Development – Emerging Futures:

The percentage of slum dwellers in urban areas across all developing regions has reduced considerably since 1990, but the numbers have increased gradually since 2000 except for a steep rise of 72 million new slum dwellers in sub-Saharan Africa.

Also, according to one article on the world’s five biggest slums:

Around a quarter of the world’s urban population lives in slums. And this figure is rising fast. The number of slum dwellers in developing countries increased from 689 million in 1990 to 880 million in 2014, according to the United Nations World Cities Report 2016.

The biggest slums in the world today are: Khayelitsha, Cape Town, South Africa (Population: 400,000); Kibera, Nairobi, Kenya (Population: 700,000); Dharavi, Mumbai, India (Population: 1 million); Ciudad Neza, Mexico City, Mexico (Population: 12 million); and Orangi Town, Karachi, Pakistan (Population: 2.4 million).

Favela mural, Rocinha (Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin 2018)

Urbanisation and the flight from the land

The development of industrialised farming has been one of the major reasons for the the flight from the land.  There is also the perceived view that economic opportunities are greater in the cities. Governments invest less in rural communities because of lower population densities and this creates a vicious cycle. In Ireland today, for example, friends of mine in rural areas still can’t get broadband speeds fast enough to play video clips on their computers and in August the government announced the closure of over 160 post offices nationwide. Meanwhile the urbanisation of Dublin has extended into neighbouring counties while pubs and shops in the rural areas close due to a lack of footfall. While the pressure on Dublin has not produced slums it has created huge increases in rents and a growing homelessness problem.

So what can be done about slums? There appears to be three main approaches to the question of the future of slums around the world today: (1) Renovation: top-down and bottom-up approaches, (2) Demolition for rehousing and rebuilding, and (3) Demolition for parkland.

Local bakery, Rocinha (Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin 2018)

Renovation: top-down and bottom-up approaches

Around the world slum upgrading has consisted of concrete paths, sanitation, safe drinking water, water drainage systems and public transport. The Brazilian state has done some top-down upgrading in the favelas, putting in basic sanitation and social services but much more needs to be done with masses of wires on telegraph poles and cabling bundled along the side of the paths. However, with the global neo-liberal move towards privatisation of public housing there doesn’t seem to be much hope for governments doing serious renovation of slums in the near future. More importantly, in my opinion, has been the bottom-up slum upgrading, for example, in Orangi Town, Karachi in Pakistan where the residents installed sewers in 90% of 8,000 streets and lanes, digging them by hand themselves. This kind of community spirit builds solidarity which is more important for the residents in the long run in their struggle against uncaring states:

In 1980, the development expert and entrepreneur, Akhtar Hameed Khan, observed how many communities were self-organising to fill the gap in services – from building homes and schools to water delivery – and launched the Orangi Pilot Project (OPP). Now globally renowned, the project has not only led the DIY sewerage projects which continue to expand to this day, but has built a network to manage a plethora of programmes that range from micro credit to water supply, to women’s savings schemes. OPP’s director Saleem Aleemuddin told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that when activists began working in the area in 1980, the lack of sanitation was the most “obvious” and “problematic” area for residents. While it took the OPP around six months to convince local residents to invest and pay for the installation of the first sewerage line on their street, it was not long before people were taking their lead and organising themselves. “Since the government gets almost nothing in revenue from the slum, it therefore pays the least interest to its [slum] developments too,” Aleemuddin said. “In fact, people in the town now consider the streets as part of their homes because they have invested in them and that’s why they maintain and clean the sewers too.”

Favela houses, Rocinha (Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin 2018)

Others argue that the slums should be seen as similar to the medieval towns and parts of cities preserved all over Europe:

The tight-knit structure of settlements built in the Middle Ages serves as an important lesson on making modern developments compact and keeping key services easily accessible to the people using them.

Thus, they argue, slums could be converted into a form of green, eco-friendly living areas such as Cambridge where people walk everywhere now instead of driving. However, it is more likely to become a form of gentrification as usually it is wealthier people who can afford to do the extensive and detailed building and repairs (not to mention the demands of state preservation policies in the case of medieval buildings).

Government plans for Rocinha (Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin 2018)

Demolition for rehousing and rebuilding

The demolition of slums for rehousing projects does not have a great history. It tended to shift the social problems of the slums to other parts of the city. In Ireland in the 1960s, Dublin’s slums had reached a breaking point as urbanisation and the collapse of slum houses put pressure on the government to move people out to suburban Ballymun into high-rise 15-storey flat complexes. However, by the 1980s Ballymun was seen as a social sink and had to be regenerated itself in the 2000s and the blocks demolished. Also, this strategy can be a cynical ploy as the flats built on the sites of the former slums are sold as properties on high-value city-centre land

Local kindergarten, Rocinha (Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin 2018)

Demolition for parkland

A prime example of a slum demolition is the Kowloon Walled City in Hong Kong which eventually became the Kowloon Walled City Park. What started off as a Chinese military fort in the 1800s became one of the most densely populated slums in the world. It was extended upwards in the 1960s to become a city of over 30,000 people in 300 buildings occupying little more than 7 acres (2.8 ha). The residents were compensated (with some being forcibly evicted) and demolition was concluded in 1994. Today it is a 31,000 m2 (330,000 sq ft) park which was completed in August 1995.

In Brazil, this is always a possible future for the favelas in Rio. Not many realise that the sculpture of Christ the Redeemer on top of Corcovado mountain is in the middle of the Tijuca Forest – a massive reclamation project of land which had suffered from erosion and deforestation caused by intensive farming of sugar and coffee in the nineteenth century. The whole area was replanted with plants and trees of the rainforest and is one of the biggest urban forests in the world today.

Cabling on streets, Rocinha (Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin 2018)

Climate change and the future of urbanism

The future of slums around the world seems tied to a kind of trendy belief in the necessity of planning for an urban future. However, there are those that believe that an alternative to the constant growing urbanisation is to create a model that would attract a part of the urban population back to the rural environment. The potential for creating jobs in the agricultural sector in the future must be seen in the context of sustainable soil management and the difficulties that will be facing food production in future projected changes in temperature, ultraviolet radiation, soil moisture and pests which are expected to decrease food production.

Governments would be better off to develop projects to modernise the rural areas with the type of facilities and services that can be obtained in the cities to attract people back to the land. Collapses in various crops or crop destruction around the world due to unexpected frosts, drought, hurricanes, floods, etc can only be expected to increase, leading to food insecurity and the potential for global food price increases and food riots.

Malcolm X mural, Rocinha (Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin 2018)

The very existence of a slum shows a government’s inability or reluctance to deal with mass population shifts. It reveals a fundamental structural problem in democratic processes and redistribution of tax wealth. For a government to allow a section its own citizens to live a Hobbesian existence exposes the rhetoric of a government for all. How can this be changed and slum issues be resolved? As the Orangi Town example above shows, solidarity and activism can solve practical problems efficiently even if it is letting the government off the hook of responsibility. As has been seen in the past, the social contract only operates when both government and people keep their sides of the bargain. When, or if, it breaks down the anger constantly bubbling underneath can spill over. While revolutionary changes around the world in the past, in general, are often attributed to their great leaders, the fact is that it is usually down to the most expropriated and alienated people in society to get the great social change juggernaut moving in the first place.

• All images in this article are from the author.

Irish Seanad votes in Favour of Occupied Territories Bill

Frances Black

Yesterday the Irish Seanad voted in favour of the Occupied Territories Bill which will prohibit the importation of goods or services from illegal settlements in occupied territories, including Israel’s settlements in Palestine which violate the Geneva Conventions. The Bill was introduced by the well-known Irish singer Frances Black whose albums feature both Irish ballads and traditional music. She was elected to Seanad Éireann as an independent Senator on her first attempt in 2016.

The Ireland-Palestine Solidarity Campaign welcomed the Seanad vote (25 in favour, 20 against) in support of Senator Frances Black’s ‘Control of Economic Activities (Occupied Territories) Bill. According to the IPSC Chairperson, Ms. Fatin Al Tamimi (a Palestinian-Irish citizen):

We in the IPSC, and Palestinians around the world, warmly welcome this historic vote, the first its kind in any Western country. Once again, Ireland is making history and leading the way in its solidarity with the Palestinian people. We thank and salute all those Senators and parties who have pledged to support the Bill, and we will be asking the Irish people to ensure that these politicians support its passage at all stages of the lawmaking process.

Black has been campaigning for some time now for the rights of the Palestinian people. She states:

I have long been passionate about the struggle of the Palestinian people, which shows clearly how trade in settlement goods sustains injustice. In the occupied territories, people are forcibly kicked out of their homes, fertile farming land is seized, and the fruit and vegetables produced are then sold on Irish shelves to pay for it all. We condemn the settlements as illegal but support them economically. As international law is absolutely clear that the settlements are illegal, then the goods they produce are the proceeds of crime. We must face up to this – we cannot keep supporting breaches of international law and violations of human rights.

Frances Black discusses the Bill that would support banning goods from Israel’s settlements.

According to an explanatory note on the bill’s main provisions:

Under international criminal law, the transfer by a State of its civilian population into a territory it has militarily occupied is a ‘war crime’, as well as a ‘grave breach’ of international humanitarian law. Importantly, it is also a crime under Irish law, no matter where in the world it is committed. Ireland has a duty to ensure these laws are respected and to uphold the humanitarian principles outlined in them. To this end, the Control of Economic Activity (Occupied Territories) Bill 2018 seeks to prohibit trade with and economic support for illegal settlements in territories deemed occupied under international law. It would restrict the import and sale of goods produced in such settlements, Irish involvement in the provision of services in such settlements, and the extraction of resources from occupied territories without the consent of the legitimate authority of that territory. This economic support underpins the long-term continuation of illegal settlements, established in clear violation of international law. In tabling this bill we are stating that Ireland should not provide economic or political support for them, wherever they arise.

The Bill, inter alia, specifically covers the importation and sale of settlement goods:

6. Importation of settlement goods

(1) It shall be an offence for a person to import or attempt to import settlement goods.
(2) It shall be an offence for a person to assist another person to import or attempt to import settlement goods.
(3) For the purpose of the Customs Act 2015, the import of settlement goods is hereby prohibited.

7. Sale of settlement goods

(1) It shall be an offence for a person to sell or attempt to sell settlement goods.
(2) It shall be an offence for a person to assist another person to sell or attempt to sell settlement goods.

Many Irish politicians believe that the passing of the Occupied Territories Bill will send a strong message that the issue of illegal settlements is being taken seriously and needs to be addressed.

The Israeli Embassy in Ireland has been highly critical of the Bill and commented that:

The absurdity in the Seanad Éireann initiative is that it will harm the livelihoods of many Palestinians who work in the Israeli industrial zones affected by the boycott.

However, the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) is a Palestinian-led movement for freedom, justice and equality. BDS upholds the simple principle that Palestinians are entitled to the same rights as the rest of humanity. It was Palestinian Civil Society that called for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel as a form of non-violent pressure on Israel until it complies with international law and universal principles of human rights in 2005.

​(Image credit Trocaire)

Earlier this month former Pink Floyd star Roger Waters urged people to support the Occupied Territories Bill 2018 at a concert in Dublin.

Ms. Fatin Al Tamimi also commented that:

These have been great months for Palestine in Ireland, a country which punches well above its weight when it comes to solidarity. At least seven local councils have voted to support the Palestinian-led global Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, including Dublin, the first EU capital to take this stand, and most recently Mid-Ulster Council and Fermanagh & Omagh District Council. She said that last month saw the launch of a campaign for an Irish boycott of Eurovision 2019 and noted that barely a week goes by without solidarity vigils or protests outside shops selling Israeli products in Ireland.

As the activist for Palestinian human rights, Professor Mazin Qumsiyeh says:

I find that ingenuity in resistance, the ability to persevere — what we call sumud — to be tremendously inspiring. Our people are able to continue their lives despite the incredible odds arrayed against them and not only to persist but also to find some measure of success. As the graffiti on the wall says, ‘to live is to resist’.

A Journey to Iran: Elections, Ramadan and Couchsurfing

In the current media build-up against Iran it is easy to get lost in the confusion and hype about the Iranian government and miss out on an understanding of the problems facing the Iranian people and how they are coping with them. The current economic situation is worsening as the UN Security Council, the United States and the European Union imposed sanctions on Iran begin to bite. Major sectors of the Iranian economy have been affected such as the energy/petroleum industry, banking, the Central Bank of Iran, shipping, insurance, international trade and foreign firms dealing with Iran. In addition to these problems there is a shortage of fresh water, a problem associated with climate change as drought and rising temperatures put stress on existing reserves. Other environmental issues include vehicle emissions, refinery operations, and industrial effluents which have made Tehran one of the most polluted cities in the world.

Even under so much pressure from so many different economic, environmental and international stresses the Iranian people have managed to maintain their dignity and famous hospitality as I found out traveling there last year. I was invited over for a conference for five days but ended up staying for five weeks, traveling north, west, and then south of Tehran. I took a train north to Tabriz and then on through the mountains to the border of Armenia and similarly west through plains to the mountains on the Turkish border. But it was in Tehran and in the south to Isfahan and Shiraz that I had most of my experiences meeting Iranian people. Everywhere I went – restaurants, cafes, galleries and on the streets – people approached me to practice their English and make friends.

There are many interesting places to see in Tehran; e.g., the 435-meter-high Milad Tower which was completed in 2007, the more recent 270-meter pedestrian overpass of Tabiat Bridge (2014) and the Azadi Tower, the 45-meter-high marble-clad monument commissioned by Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the last Shah of Iran, to mark the 2,500th year of the foundation of the Imperial State of Iran in 1971. The latter is surrounded by about 4 or 5 lanes of traffic but can be negotiated like most streets in Tehran by raising one’s hand Moses-like and parting the traffic.

Elections in Tehran (Photo: Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin)

​I happened to arrive on 19 May 2017 during the presidential election campaigning between incumbent president Hassan Rouhani (MDP – Moderation and Development Party – a pragmatic-centrist political party) and Ebrahim Raisi (CCA – Combatant Clergy Association – a conservative organisation). Out on the streets of Tehran campaigning between opposing groups with posters of their respective candidates was generally by young people and mainly good-natured. While I was advised not to go out on the streets at night, I found the street campaigners to be very friendly and they in turn advised me to be careful with my camera and not to take photos of police and soldiers which could result in confiscation (especially as I did not have a journalist visa). During the polling I visited two polling stations and was offered tea and invited in to sit down and observe the electors queuing and voting. Outside I made some conversation with the armed soldiers guarding the station who were also friendly and quite relaxed. After the voting took place, the twelfth such election in Iran, Rouhani was re-elected for a second term. Again the streets filled up with people and cars coming to a standstill for the celebrations. He received 23.5 of 41 million votes counted and was inaugurated on 5 August 2017.

Azadi Tower, Tehran (Photo: Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin)

Soon after I visited various historical and cultural sites in Tehran. In terms of recent history it is interesting to visit the former Embassy of the United States, the site of the Iran hostage crisis in 1979 and which is now a museum. One of the best known historical sites in Tehran is the Saadabad complex that covers an area of 110 hectares and is located at the northernmost part of Tehran. It has 18 palaces which belonged to the royal families of Qajar and Pahlavi in a beautiful garden. Reza Shah of the Pahlavi Dynasty lived there in the 1920s, and his son, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, moved there in the 1970s. After the 1979 Revolution, the complex became a museum. I also visited the National Museum, the Museum of Contemporary Art and Honarmandan Park (Artists Park) learning about a wide range of past and present Iranian culture. Honarmandan Park has the Iranian Artists Forum which is a set of galleries located inside the park along with a vegetarian restaurant, a theatre and outdoor sculptures. Here I met 2 Iranian artist sisters who discussed with me the difficulties they encountered trying to show work abroad. Both are now in Canada, at least temporarily.

Naqsh-e Jahan Square (Imam Square), Isfahan (Photo: Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin)

During the day the streets were quiet as it was the Holy Month of Ramadan (May 27 to June 25, 2017) but in the evening, after sundown, the city came alive as people went out to the cafes and restaurants or to picnic in the parks. I got to know a regular taxi driver, Ahmed, and his English-speaking son, Mojtaba, who brought me to Mount Tochal, a mountain and ski resort located on the Alborz mountain range, close to the metropolitan area of Tehran. Mountain climbing is very popular in Iran (another Iranian acquaintance of mine from Mashhad lost 9 friends in an avalanche last December). Life is tough for a taxi driver in Tehran with so much air pollution and traffic, one of the downsides of having cheap petrol. Ahmed and his wife lived in an apartment in Tehran along with Mojtaba, a languages student who hopes to continue his studies in Germany. On one taxi journey to the National Museum, Ahmed passed me back a dinner his wife had made for me as he knew it was difficult to get food during the day during Ramadan. When I decided to go south, Mojtaba helped me to get train tickets to Isfahan. Iranian trains are slow but comfortable and are a great way to see the countryside. Mojtaba came down to Isfahan with me for the day and we were met in the train station early in the morning by Atefah (just graduated from art college) and her sister (medical student) and their mother who had invited me to stay with them through the Couchsurfing website.

During the day we went to  visit Chehel Sotoun (“Forty Columns”), a pavilion in the middle of a park at the far end of a long pool. It was built by Shah Abbas II to be used for his entertainment and receptions and beautiful paintings of such scenes adorn the walls of the pavilion. Later we went for a picnic at night in Naqsh-e Jahan Square (Imam Square), the jewel in the crown of Isfahan architecture (constructed between 1598 and 1629) and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The square is surrounded by buildings from the Safavid dynasty, one of the most significant ruling dynasties of Iran, often considered the beginning of modern Iranian history. Around a thousand people sat around with their families on rugs and enjoyed picnics. Atefah’s mother also laid out a picnic while Atefah rushed over to two foreigners whom she had spotted to ask them to join us. Turned out to be an Australian mother and son who were traveling around Iran together. We were all taken off to see some of the famous Isfahan bridges over the Zayandeh River which was completely dried up at this time of the year. We visited the Si-o-se Pol pedestrian bridge which was built in 1632, the Joui pedestrian bridge built in the 17th century, the Khajou pedestrian bridge (1650), and the Marnan pedestrian bridge (1599).

In conversation with Atefah, she told me that the water shortages have become so serious that they have water only 4 days a week at home now. Iranian meteorological services say that 97% of the country is affected by drought but it is particularly bad around Isfahan where demonstrations have broken out over water in the  past. She also said that foreign goods are becoming more and expensive and the inflation rate is around 10%. She is trying to go to Germany for further study and says that the decreasing grants and the worsening exchange rate is making it increasingly harder for her to get the visas necessary.

Si-o-se Pol Bridge, Isfahan (Photo: Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin)

The next night I was brought to hospital by Atefah’s family due to dehydration as I had not been drinking enough water. I dreaded going in as I was used to very long waits at home. However, I was seen very quickly and was soon moved to a cubicle and put on a drip. After about three hours I was released and brought to an overnight bus I had booked to Shiraz. Couchsurfing again I stayed with Mohammed and his family. Over the next couple of days he showed me around Shiraz and then drove me to Persepolis, the ceremonial capital of the Achaemenid Empire (ca. 550–330 BC). It is situated 60 km northeast of the city of Shiraz and is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Persepolis is believed to have been a grand ceremonial complex but only occupied seasonally. Mohammed also talked about similar problems regarding water, inflation and food prices. At this time in June the temperatures in Shiraz were nearing 40 degrees. That same week the temperature in the southwestern Iranian city of Ahvaz (between Isfahan and Shiraz) soared to 53.7 degrees (29/6/2017), Iran’s highest temperature ever recorded and the highest June temperature in Asia on record.

Persepolis (Photo: Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin)

I decided to fly back to Tehran and stay in a hostel for the last night. I arranged to meet Ahmed and Mojtaba in a cafe to drive me to the hostel. Upon inquiring if they knew where the hostel was they answered in the affirmative but that they had already decided that I was going to be staying with them instead. And so I was taken off to their apartment to meet Ahmed’s wife, have dinner, a last walk around Tehran streets and then given Mojtaba’s bed while he slept on the couch. In the morning we arose and they brought me the 40 kms to Imam Khomeini International Airport for my flight home.