Nov 14 2009

James Connolly – ‘An unrepentant revolutionist’

Category: Emancipation & Liberation,Issue 18RCN @ 8:54 pm

This article, written by Jim Slaven, is taken from the James Connolly Foundation website.

James Connolly was born in Edinburgh in 1868. He led a truly remarkable life. Before transatlantic flights, telephones or the internet Connolly did not just join the fledgling socialist movement he instigated much of it. He was responsible for the formation of political parties, trade unions, workers armies and newspapers in Scotland, Ireland and the United States. He was a theoretician, military commander, propagandist, playwright, politician, songwriter as well as father, husband, cobbler, labourer and street cleaner.

Ground breaking initiatives

Indeed it is the scope and sheer ambition of Connolly’s writings, interests and activities that allow his significance to be distorted through cherry picking individual grapes from the vineyard of his life. For that reason I’ll resist the temptation to quote him at length and instead appeal to readers to view his life and work in totality. James Connolly was by his own description ‘an unrepentant revolutionist’. He judged every event by its potential to advance the cause of the economic reorganisation of society. This led him to take groundbreaking initiatives and adopt intellectual positions which often jarred with other socialists. He cared not a jot. Believing the role of revolutionary was to lead not follow.

He was unwavering in his support for women’s rights at a time when that was far from popular, even among socialists. Arguing feminists and socialists were ‘different regiments in the one great army of progress’. On religion, where his position is complex and often misunderstood, he rejected the orthodox Marxist view instead embracing a position closer to Feuerbach. While criticising (with some venom) church hierarchies he attempted to find progressive common ground with their congregations.

The great lesson of Connolly’s political philosophy is that the struggles for socialism and national liberation were not antagonistic but complimentary. He rejected the idea that a nation could be free while workers were enslaved or that workers could be free while their nation was enslaved. Furthermore he warned nationalists of the scourge of neo colonialism before the term had been coined. He argued that socialists should not just participate in the national liberation struggles but be in the vanguard. There are of course numerous examples of this phenomenon over the last century from Africa to Latin America.

Having declared during the Boer war that he ‘would welcome the humiliation of British arms in any conflict’ it is not surprising that at the outbreak of the 1914 war Connolly was one of few socialist leaders who opposed the war. Dismayed that other socialists did not oppose the imperialist war Connolly argued it was a great opportunity for revolutionaries in Ireland. This argument echoed Lenin’s call that the only ‘truly revolutionary’ position for workers was to ‘turn the imperialist war into a civil war’. For Connolly this opportunity was not to be passed up and he decided upon a course of action which would change Ireland forever.

James Connolly’s life will always be viewed through the prism of the 1916 Easter Rising. In a revolutionary action which challenged the Empire at its very core and inspired others from India to Egypt, Connolly’s role was crucial not just militarily but intellectually.His influence can be seen in the text of the 1916 proclamation which declares the ‘right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland’ and for a republic which ‘cherishes all of its children equally’. His execution by the British state has led to a distortion in analysis of his life. Nationalists focus on his position in the pantheon of Irish martyrs and socialists reject his involvement in the republican uprising as an aberration. Such partial interpretations have hindered a full appreciation of his contribution.

Permanent memorial

While it is right and proper that we should argue for Connolly to be recognised with a permanent memorial in the city of his birth, as he has been in Belfast, Dublin, New York and many other places. This should not be an argument only about bricks and mortar. The most fitting memorial to Connolly will be the end of the British state and the establishment of a socialist republic. The current constitutional and political juncture offer an opportunity to rescue Connolly from the political margins, recognising his life and work as an example which guides us towards the ‘reconquest’. As Scotland’s greatest poet, the Gael, Sorley MacLean said:

The great hero is still
sitting on the chair,
fighting the battle in the Post Office
and cleaning streets in Edinburgh

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Nov 14 2009

Savings in the Down-Turn

Category: Emancipation & Liberation,Issue 18RCN @ 8:50 pm

Efficiency ones or just savings
Public sector restraint
And reducing waste
New realities demanding
These new measures
For we all have to tighten our belts
During this down-turn

Which refuses to say
What we are all saving for
And who we all are
While we still fight wars
And order Trident Mark 2
As Lords and Ladies lunch
At the Palace or at the Club
During this down-turn

That affects us all apparently
The rich who grew rich
On the human waste they created
The lives they gambled away
In their Stock Market
And the new poor, new homeless
Along with the previous poor
And the previous homeless
Who have no belts to tighten
During this down-turn


Nov 14 2009

Book Review: A Celebration of the Life and Work of Robert Burns 1759-1786

Category: Emancipation & Liberation,Issue 18RCN @ 8:47 pm

A Celebration of the Life and Work of Robert Burns 1759-1786 An Independent Revolutionary Radical By James D. Young; Printed and published by Clydeside Press; £3.95

What does Robert Burns mean to me? Edinburgh People’s Festival Published by WP Books; £3.00

It is the 250th anniversary of the birth of Robert Burns and we have seen a plethora of publications and television programmes “celebrating” the life of the Bard. Every Scottish celeb and every Scottish public figure have been vying to claim Burns as their own or rather to claim themselves as inheritors of the Burns tradition. It is apposite therefore that J.D. Young’s pamphlet A Celebration of the Life and Work of Robert Burns 1759-1786 An Independent Revolutionary Radical, seeks to criticise the cult of Burns and to claim that the only true inheritors of the Burns legacy are independent revolutionaries and radicals like Burns himself.

Young’s pamphlet, as welcome as its message might be as an antidote to celebrity culture, makes far from easy reading. Young’s style is academic and feels disjointed. The mix of history and poetical analysis does not gel and the reader is left bemused by the seemingly endless tangents and confusing sub headings (I expected the section headed Burns Scottish Nationality and Women to give me a bit more insight than the fact that “there has not been a great deal written about these women.” However, Young does set Burns on the Scottish political stage of his time as an independent thinker and a revolutionary. The efforts of generations of establishment and often misogynistic Burns Suppers have failed in their attempts to neuter Burns. We are familiar with the tactic of the modern media of “taming” revolutionary figures. Those they cannot tame, they demonise. It is sickening to listen as some bourgeois establishment figure delivers the Immortal Memory with no understanding of Burns republicanism, his revolutionary fervour or his ability to love. Despite my personal difficulty with the writing, Young’s pamphlet is an important and timely reminder of the fact that Burns is ours. He was one of us and they have no right to claim him.

For a celebration of Burns though another publication is worth a mention. What Does Robert Burns Mean to Me published by Edinburgh People’s Festival. These personal responses to Burns’ poetry manage to covey the scope, the scale and the joy of Burns work. Wee contributions from a selection of people including Timothy Neat, (Hamish Henderson’s biographer), the late Bill Speirs (former general secretary of the STUC), Annie McRae (teacher and poet), Tony Benn, Denise Mina (author), reveal the very essence of the multi faceted Burns. This Burns IS the revolutionary, the visionary and the lover. It is the Burns we grew up with before we knew who he was. It is the Burns who is about feeling and passion and most of all about the essential quality for any would be revolutionary – Love.

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Nov 14 2009

It was the worst of times, it was the best of us!

Category: Emancipation & Liberation,Issue 18RCN @ 8:44 pm

In this article Rod MacGregor looks at how the Danish people took effective action to protect their Jewish population from Nazi extermination

October 1, 10 p.m., 1943 Copenhagen.

Nazi occupation forces knock on the doors of the Danish Jewish population. In Denmark, the “final solution” to the “Jewish problem” is under way. The following morning, out of a population of between 7500 and 8000 Jews, only 284 are in custody, of whom 50 were later released, and only 202 deported. The rest, it seems, had vanished into the autumn night. Where were they? How had they seemingly just disappeared?

April 9, 1940 — In direct violation of a non-aggressiontreaty signed the previous year, German forces invaded Denmark (Norway was also invaded on this day). Quickly realising the military mismatch between the two countries, after a few skirmishes the Danes surrendered. In doing so they hoped to work out an advantageous outcome for themselves. Although this was a pragmatic stance by the Danishthe government, it was one that many ordinary Danes did not agree with, believing that their country should have put up more resistance to the Nazi invaders.

The Germans announced a protectorate and promised non-interference in Denmark’s internal affairs. In return Denmark, to some extent, allowed their industry and agriculture to aid the German war effort.

Hitler’s pet canary

There followed an uneasy “truce” between the Danish government and the German authorities, as the Danes supplied food for the Germans and the Germans, in turn, allowed the Danes to continue life much as before the invasion. Other than underground newspapers, there was very little resistance activity at this point, a situation which led Churchill to call Denmark “Hitler’s pet canary.”

For Denmark’s population of around 8000 Jews, life changed very little for them after the German invasion. They were allowed to keep their homes, businesses and assets, unlike in other Western European countries. Nor were they required to wear a yellow badge to identify themselves and thus isolate them from the rest of the Danish population, and they continued to hold religious services.

Reich plenipotentiary in Denmark, Cecil von Renthe-Fink, had some influence on this, concluding that to treat the Danish Jews as they did Jewish populations in other conquered territories would antagonise the rest of the population, and have a detrimental effect on Germany, as Danish agriculture supplied food for the Germans.

This did not, however, stop high-ranking Nazis planning for a “final solution” to the “Jewish problem” in Denmark. At the beginning of 1942 Himmler and Heydrich proposed that the Nuremberg anti-Jewish laws should be put into effect in all Western countries under German occupation. But Denmark still had its constitution and monarchy intact, and was neutral though under German occupation. Around this time the American press reported that the king of Denmark had threatened to abdicate if the Nuremberg laws were implemented.

Von Renthe-Fink was advised from above “to find occasions to point out that it would be prudent for Denmark to prepare in good time for the final solution.”

But prudence (as seen by the Germans) was not, at this point in time, high on the agenda of the Danes, and when in June 1942 the Germans tried to pressure the Danes into introducing the infamous “Jewish badge” decree, it was reported that King Christian said that he would be the first Danish citizen to wear the badge.

Karl Werner Best was appointed Reich plenipotentiary to Denmark in succession to von Renthe-Fink, and Himmler thought that Best would be pliable as he was a former legal advisor to the Gestapo. But Best had left the Gestapo to escape from Heydrich, and when some anti-Jewish measures were proposed he pointed out that they would almost certainly cause a constitutional crisis and suggested that the only action which should be taken should be the dismissal of all Jews in the civil service (of whom there were thirty-one).


Best, too, like von Renthe-Fink before him, believed that at that time and given the circumstances, it would be counter-productive to the German war effort to single out the Danish Jews for special treatment. He was also keen for Denmark to be seen as a “model protectorate”, an example of how life could be good under German rule. Basically, he didn’t want to rock the boat.

There followed a game of constitutional cat and mouse, with the Germans trying to find ways of implementing their final solution and the Danes resisting them. This was how things went until August 1943. On the fifth day of that month neutral Sweden renounced an agreement which allowed German troops stationed in Norway to use the Swedish railway system.

This had a galvanising effect on some Danes. The dock workers at Odense were inspired by the Swedish action and refused to repair German ships, and riots and arrests followed. On 9 August Scavenius, the Danish prime minister, threatened to resign if the arrested men were required to be tried by Danish courts.

Martial law was introduced at Odense and on 24 August, 1943, the German-occupied Forum Hall in Copenhagen was blown up by the Danish resistance. The following day all of Denmark’s shipyards were on strike.

The Scavenius government resigned on 28 August and the following day the German military commander, General von Hannecken, proclaimed martial law throughout Denmark. Danish defence forces were interned, while the Danish fleet either sought internment in Sweden or scuttled itself.

Even with martial law proclaimed, von Hannecken and Best could not take over the government of Denmark. Though the Danish government was no more, they had to deal with a Committee of Ministerial Directors, whose job it was to act on behalf of the absent Danish cabinet.

However, on September 8, 1943, Best asked for police reinforcements and assistance from the German army “so that the Jewish problem can be handled during the present siege conditions and not later.” On September 16, Hitler gave his approval and plans for Denmark’s “final solution” were prepared.

Best informed German naval attache Georg F. Duckwitz of the plans on September 11, and this was to prove a key moment in the events which were about to unfold. Duckwitz flew to Berlin two days later and tried, unsuccessfully, to have the plan cancelled. He flew to Sweden two weeks later to discuss the possibility of smuggling Denmark’s Jews across the Øresund, a narrow strait of water which separated the two countries.

Finally, Duckwitz, who had friends in Denmark’s Social Democrat party, sought a meeting with Hans Hedtoft, a leading member of the party, who later recalled,

I was sitting in a meeting when Duckwitz asked to see me. ‘The disaster is going to take place,’ he said. ‘All details are planned. Your poor fellow citizens are going to be deported to an unknown destination.’ Duckwitz’s face was white from indignation and shame.

October 1 (Ros Hahsanah or Jewish New Year) at 10 p.m. was when the operation would swing into action, the Germans figuring that most of the Jews would be at home on this particular day.

Hedtoft immediately warned C. B. Henriques, head of the Jewish community, and Dr Marcus Melchior, acting chief Rabbi of the Krystalgade Synagogue. So it was that on September 30, 1943, Rabbi Melchior stood before members of his synagogue in Copenhagen and warned those present of the Germans’ plans for the night of October 1. Those present were urged to contact anyone they knew who was Jewish and also to contact their Christian friends so that they could pass on information about the Germans’ terrible plan to any Jewish friends that they had.

Act of sheer humanity

So, when the Nazis knocked on doors and found no one there, where were the Jews? In an act of sheer humanity the Danish people had hidden them.

Some were hidden in hospitals, some hid with non-Jewish neighbours, people even walked up to Jews In the street and gave them the keys to their apartments so that they would not be at home when the fascists tried to implement their “final solution.”

What was truly remarkable about the actions of the vast majority of the Danish population was the spontaneity of their actions. They were not taking orders from any government, there was no centralised resistance plan to hide and save the Danish Jews from the Nazis. It was a case of “this far and no further” with their accommodation of the Germans. When the Nazis decided to single out one section of Danish society for persecution the Danes saw them not as Jews, but as Danes, and acted accordingly.

Courage and humanity

There are numerous examples of the courage and humanity of the Danish people in this most awful of times. A young Danish ambulance driver learned of the round-up on the day it was announced at the synagogue. He simply circled all the Jewish sounding names in the phone book and drove round Copenhagen warning them. When some became nearly hysterical because they had nowhere to hide he drove them in his ambulance to Bispebjerg Hospital. He knew that Dr Karl Koster would conceal them there. “What else could I do?” was the young ambulance driver’s reply when he was asked why he had taken this particular course of action.

At Bispebjerg Hospital Dr Koster hid hundreds of Jews, as arrangements were made to smuggle them to neutral Sweden, which was a tantalisingly short boat ride away. The psychiatric hospital and nurses’ quarters were teeming with hundreds of fleeing Jews, who were fed from the hospital kitchen. Despite the obvious dangers involved in this course of action the entire staff co-operated. Just one Nazi collaborator or sympathiser could have brought the whole escapade to a tragic ending. Donations flowed into the hospital from the Danish people to help in the struggle to save the Jews of Denmark.

Professor Richard Ege was later asked why he had hidden so many Jews in his building and replied, “It was a natural reaction to help good friends.” His wife commented, “It was exactly the same as seeing a neighbour’s house on fire. Naturally, you want to do something about it.”

An anonymous pastor put it succinctly when he said, “I would rather die with the Jews than live with the Nazis.”

It would be wise at this juncture to point out that this was not some glorified, high octane “Whisky Galore” style adventure, where the cheeky wee Danes ran around hiding human “contrabrand” from those pesky Germans. The consequences for anyone caught hiding Jews would, in all likelihood, have been every bit as severe as for the Jews themselves, should they have been caught.


While the vast majority of the Danes opposed the Germans, like everywhere they went, the Nazis had their sympathisers. After the war 40,000 Danish citizens were arrested on suspicion of collaboration with the Germans. 13,500 of them received some kind of punishment, including 78 who were sentenced to death (with 46 death sentences actually being carried out).

But this only serves to make the Danish peoples’ protection of their fellow Danes more admirable. Knowing that they had an enemy within who would betray them to the Germans, as well as the occupying Nazis, did not deter them from their spontaneous, humanitarian efforts.

But hidden as they were it would be impossible to conceal all of Denmark’s Jews for any significant length of time. Now they had to be transported to neutral Sweden. On September 30, Neils Bohr, the famous nuclear physicist, had been smuggled to Sweden, where he was informed that he would have to go to London to be safe from the Nazis. He refused to leave Sweden until he had spoken to the foreign minister. He informed him at the meeting that he could not leave Sweden until until the Swedes agreed to open their doors to the Danish Jewish refugees. When the foreign minister was uncooperative, Bohr insisted on seeing the king of Sweden. King Gustav agreed that Sweden would accept them. Bohr asked Sweden to announce this on its newspapers’ front pages and also in a radio broadcast to Denmark. Only after the broadcast did Bohr leave for England.

The Jews were smuggled out of Denmark and over the water to Sweden. Some made the journey in fishing boats, others in rowing boats or kayaks. Others were concealed in freight cars on the ferries between Denmark and Sweden. The underground broke into empty freight cars which the Germans had sealed after inspection, put the refugees in the cars and then resealed them with forged or stolen seals so that the Germans would not reinspect them.

In this manner, in a short space of time, Denmark’s Jews who had evaded capture were spirited out of the country. Some fishermen took money for doing this, while others only took money from the wealthy, but sadly, there will always be profiteers in any desperate situation.

As the rescue moved on, the underground resistance ousted the profiteers and became active in organising the exodus of the Danish Jews, providing finance, which came mostly from donations of large sums of money from wealthy Danes.

Not all went smoothly, however. At the port of Gilleleje eighty Jews were found hiding in the loft of a church, betrayed by a Danish girl in love with a German soldier, and the Gestapo was becoming suspicious of increased activity at Danish harbours, forcing rescues to be conducted from isolated coastal spots, while the Jews hid in the woods and cottages away from the coast while awaiting their turn to be rescued.

But the Danes‘ heroic efforts to help their fellow citizens did not end there. Those who were captured ended up in Theresienstadt concentration camp. This was bad enough, but Theresienstadt was not a death camp, though of the 360 sent there, twenty died on the journey and fifty actually in the camp itself. The Danish administration continually harried the Germans as to the fate of their citizens in a manner which no other country did, which probably accounted for the high survival rate of the Danish Jews compared to other countries.

Even when the Danish Jews returned to Denmark at the end of the war their experience was different to that of survivors returning in other countries. Quite often Jews would return to their homes to find them either occupied or looted, and it was made quite clear to them that they were not welcome.

When the Danish Jews returned they found their homes and possessions had been looked after by neighbours, even in some cases down to family pets being cared for.

Some historians make the case that Werner Best had informed Georg Duckwitz of the date of the Jewish round-up, knowing that Duckwitz would tell the Danes, others going so far as to imply that they actually colluded in the action. These are the arguments of academics long after the event. At the time the Jews of Denmark were in genuine and mortal fear of their lives and the Danish population had no knowledge of any background political machinations, real or not, when they spontaneously protected their fellow citizens from persecution of the worst kind.

Why were the Danes able to save their Jewish population when other countries could not, or did not care enough even to try?

One obvious advantage that Denmark had was a neutral country, Sweden, which agreed to accept the refugees, and was only a short boat trip away.

Another theory is that the Germans were patchy in their willingness to pursue the final solution in Denmark. It was 1943 and the Germans had tasted defeat at Stalingrad and in North Africa. Did Karl Werner Best try to earn brownie points by not pursuing the final solution with too much vigour? Many records were destroyed and perhaps we will never know the real answer to this one. On October 4, 1943, however, he reported to Berlin that Denmark was now “Jewfree” although one can’t help but think that he was a little bit sketchy in his report about how this state of affairs had come to pass. To use diplomatic language he may have been “economical with the truth.”

Mass involvement

Be these things as they may, few Jews would have escaped from Denmark without the mass involvement of the Danish population in response to what they saw as an unacceptable act. Danish society had, over the centuries, developed what the Danes called livskunst (the art of living). Caring for one another, respect for individual and religious differences, co-operation, self reliance and good humour were the distinctive features of livskunst, and these undoubtedly shaped the Danes’ response to the Germans inflicting their “final solution” upon a section of Danish society.

How often as socialists do we talk of action from below, how often do we talk in praiseworthy terms of a movement from below? This clearly was the case in the rescue of the Danish Jews and as such, we as socialists can learn much from it. It astounds me that it took me five-and-a-half decades to hear of this story. The heroes and heroines of this tale were not necessarily socialists nor communists, although no doubt some of them were.

But whatever their political affiliations, in October 1943, the Danish people could not have acted in a more socialist manner. What could be more socialist than risking everything to protect a persecuted minority from a murderous regime?

Proclamation of the Danish Freedom Council

The Danish Freedom Council condemns the pogroms the Germans have set in motion against the Jews in our country. Among the Danish people the Jews are not a special class but are citizens to exactly the same degree as all other Danes . . . We Danes know that the whole population stands behind resistance to the German oppressors. The Council calls on the Danish population to help in every way possible those Jewish fellow-citizens who have not yet succeeded in escaping abroad. Every Dane who renders help to the Germans in their persecution of human beings is a traitor and will be punished as such when Germany is defeated.

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Nov 14 2009

Solidarity with Scottish PSC action

Category: Emancipation & Liberation,Issue 18RCN @ 8:32 pm

Five members of the SPSC are on trial, charged with “racially aggravated conduct” for protesting against the Israeli government backed Jerusalem Quartet in Edinburgh. We publish this statement of solidarity from anti-Zionist Jews.

International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network (IJAN) Statement, 11 August 2009

We are writing to express our unwavering support for the action taken by the Scottish Palestine Solidarity Campaign (SPSC) activists to protest the Israeli state sponsored Jerusalem Quartet performance at the 2008 Edinburgh International Festival.

This protest was undertaken in support of the call from Palestinian civil society for full boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel for their vast violation of Palestinian rights and ethnic cleansing. The consistent actions taken by the SPSC in support of this call and to challenge Israeli apartheid demonstrates the depth of their commitment to anti-racist politics and organizing.

As a Jewish network committed to justice and a full recognition of the rights of the Palestinian people, we reject the false premise that a challenge to the injustice of Israeli apartheid is a “racially motivated” act targeting Jewish people. It is in fact the premise that Israel represents all Jewish people that is a racist equation. This equation has justified the establishment and maintenance of a brutal Israeli regime in Palestine guilty of ethnic cleansing and apartheid, and, with the latest attack on and blockade of Gaza, genocide. This equation is the only one that has led to anti-Israel attacks on Jewish institutions. Demonstrating against Israel is not the same as demonstrating against Jews. To claim otherwise is to fuel the misperception and violent consequences of this dangerous equation.

Not all Zionists are Jewish and not all Jews are Zionist. A growing number of Jews are speaking out on the violence being done in our name and on the attempt to justify it by exploiting the persecution of our ancestors. The Jewish British MP Gerald Kaufman spoke in anguish while the massacres in Gaza were taking place: “My grandmother did not die to provide cover for Israeli soldiers murdering Palestinian grandmothers in Gaza.” We share and echo his denunciation. The history of British and European anti-Jewish persecution cannot be an excuse for British and European collusion with the persecution of the Palestinian people.

As Jews for whom the State of Israel does not speak, we commend the actions of the Scottish PSC. In these actions we see a consistent commitment to anti-racist politics and practice. We trust such consistency; it is only through the consistent and unrelenting commitment to anti-racism, and through recognition of the humanity of all people, can the safety and rights of any people be maintained.

We denounce the perpetuation of hatred and violence by governments of the UK and other parts of Europe that participated in and permitted centuries of prejudice and persecution of the Jews of Europe and that now colludes with the racism of the Israeli State. We further denounce the targeting of those whose stand against all forms of racism, including those perpetrated against the Palestinian people. We see a familiar silence from these governments as crimes against the people of Palestine escalate, and we are reminded that while many stood against it, others stood for and many stood aside during the life and death struggle against European fascism and genocide of the last century.

True solidarity with the Jewish history of persecution in Europe means solidarity with the people of Palestine. This solidarity honors histories of persecution and is the only one that can lead to justice in Palestine. Justice is the only prospect for peace and equity, and the only prospect of an end to the threat that Israel poses to all living there. It is the responsibility of any government committed to equality, justice and democracy to challenge ethnically-motivated State repression and apartheid and to not only allow but applaud those who have the courage to confront it.


The International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network (UK, United States, Canada, France, Switzerland, Spain, Argentina, Morocco, Israel)

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Nov 14 2009

Afghan women bear the brunt of the hypocritical “war on terror”

Category: Emancipation & Liberation,Issue 18RCN @ 8:26 pm

A piece written for The Commune by members of the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan

Recently the media has widely reported the deaths of British troops in Afghanistan with the escalation of violence. Additionally, there is much debate of British policies in Afghanistan. What the people of Britain miss here is the suffering of the Afghan people. Foreign troops have not even killed half as many Taliban as innocent civilians. Blind bombings have killed more than 8000 people, a figure which is bound to increase. Even wedding parties have been targeted several times, killing many women and children.

The so-called ‘new’ strategy of Obama’s administration and the influx of troops to Afghanistan has dragged our people further into the bloody war, and this government has proved itself much more war-mongering than Bush with his killings and ever horrifying oppression. Some people prefer the Taliban over the foreign troops, as they provide better security and safety from attacks of foreign troops, while others simply join to take revenge for the death of their loved ones killed in air raids or other attacks.

Fine slogans, bloody hands

If we glance back at history, US governments have never brought “peace” and “democracy” in any country. It has only forced war on countless countries, causing destruction, killing and disasters. Afghanistan is no exception. Everyone knows that the so-called “war on terror” of the US and allies is just a fake. It is an open secret today that all of the terrorist bands in Afghanistan and region, from Osama to Al-Qaeda, Taliban and Mujahideen warlords are products of the Cold War-era White House. The US poured billions of dollars into the pockets of Islamic fundamentalists who not only turned Afghanistan to ashes and hell for its people, but also posed a threat to the people around the world. And this dirty game is still going on. The US and allies invaded our country under fine slogans of “democracy”, “women’s rights”, “liberation” and so on, but today they are supporting and helping the dirtiest enemies of such values in Afghanistan. They talk about democracy, but shake bloody hands of fundamentalist elements such as Abdul Rab Rasul Sayyaf, Burhanuddin Rabbani, Qasim Fahim, Mohammad Mohaqiq, Yousif Qanoni, Ismail Khan, Din Mohammad, Haji Almas, Atta Mohammad, Rashid Dostum, Mirwis Yasini (all of them part of the current puppet regime) and many other such warlords who for decades have waged war against democratic values in Afghanistan and have committed untold crimes and brutalities against Afghan people. It is to throw dirt on values like “democracy” and “human rights” to impose the above-mentioned criminals and their like as policy makers in Afghanistan. But this is what the US and its allies have done to our poor people in the past eight years.

The US and its allies are in Afghanistan only for their own regional, strategic and economical interests. Having its military bases in Afghanistan, the US can tighten its grip in Asia and compete with its rivals: China, Russia and Iran. In addition, it has opened its new Guantanamo in Kabul, the Bagram Airbase. This prison houses more than 600 inmates who have no right “to challenge their detention”. There have been many reports of abuse in the prison and many prisoners are said to be innocent.

In the grip of the drug mafia

The world has been deceived to believe that the US brought “democracy” to Afghanistan but everyone should know that they have turned Afghanistan into the opium capital of the world, controlled by a drugmafia. Nourishing democracy in such a situation is a fantasy! While they talk about a “counter-narcotics drive”, in fact hidden efforts were made to increase the production of opium over 4,500% since 2001, and now Afghanistan produces over 92% of the world‘s opium. The whole country is in the grip of a drug-mafia and its consequences are alarming not only for Afghans but for the people of the world, as the drugs of Afghanistan mostly finds their way to the streets of London, New York and other Western cities. But the US, Britain and some other Western countries gain hundreds of billions of dollars from this dirty business. The biggest drug-traffickers of Afghanistan are all friends of the US and high-ranking officials of its puppet regime. For instance Wali Karzai, brother of Hamid Karzai, controls the largest drug network in Kandahar province.

Elections are one of the most important principles of democracy and a lot of hue and cry was raised to show the world this ‘democracy’. But the election in Afghanistan is just a dirty show to legitimise the puppet regime of Hamid Karzai for another term. Even children in Afghanistan know that the next president has already been chosen by Washington and not the people’s vote. Our people knew this therefore they had no interest in taking part in the election. Even international observers and many media reports confirm the low standard of voting processes and the large-scale fraud in the election, and a low turnout of voters.

Freedom of speech is another key pillar of democracy harshly crushed in Afghanistan. 23-year old Pervaiz Kambakhsh printed some articles from the Internet about women and Islam and distributed it among his friends. Initially accused of blasphemy, he was sentenced to death but after a lot of pressure from around the world his sentence was reduced to 20 years in prison. Malalai Joya, the brave young MP who unmasked the warlords of the Parliament and their Western masters, was suspended because these criminals, who only talk in the language of guns, couldn’t tolerate her. Today no democracy-minded, serious anti-fundamentalist group can operate openly in Afghanistan. RAWA still runs its programs and activities semi-underground and our members are facing daily threats and risks both from the warlords and the intelligence agency of the puppet regime. Even the book shops that sell our publications have been threatened.

Western-supported warlords still control much of the country and impose their law-of-the-jungle on our suffering people. They are killing, looting and oppressing our people, but according to US terminology, they are not regarded as terrorists, since they work according to the directions of the Pentagon and White House. Prominent warlords such as Abdul Rashid Dostum, Atta Mohammad, Pirum Qul, Alum Siah, and many others have their own independent “governments” in different regions of Afghanistan. They have their own local bands, belonging to certain commanders backed by much more powerful warlords, who are involved in looting people, the abduction and raping of girls, drug smuggling, bribery and many other crimes. The local police and judiciary are composed of people appointed by these warlords. Therefore there is obviously no implementation of law, justice and security in such places; and our people have no door to knock on for help.

Dirty, bloody enemies of our people

Despite great claims of a “war on terror”, today the Taliban and other terrorist groups have become stronger than ever and dominate large swathes of Afghanistan. They have also been able to carry out suicide and road bombings, killing scores of innocent people. We believe the US is not serious and honest in its war, since annihilating such a band of illiterate men would be a piece of cake for a superpower. These Taliban provide a perfect justification for the US to extend its occupation in Afghanistan because if the Taliban are defeated and “terrorism” is uprooted then the US would have to leave Afghanistan. In fact there are reports on how the US is extending a friendly hand towards the terrorist Gulbuddinis and Taliban – the dirty, bloody enemies of our people – and holding secret negotiations and talks with such brutal groups. Other foreign countries, like Iran and Pakistan, have a hand in supporting these Taliban bands.

Security is one of the vital needs of our people but it is currently in the most disastrous state, as we have described. Piled on top of this, poverty, unemployment, corruption and the lack of access to all kinds of amenities, makes life hell for our people. 20 million out of an estimated 33.6 million population are today under the poverty line. The rate of unemployment has never been this high, forcing people to join the ranks of the Taliban, turn to armed robbery or flee the country.

The US puppet regime of Hamid Karzai is the most corrupt in our history. Afghanistan was ranked 172nd out of 180 countries in Transparency International’s Global Corruption Report 2008. Bribery and the embezzlement of money is a norm in government institutions. There is no sight of reconstruction despite the jaw-dropping 32 billion dollars of aid. An international aid expert recently discovered that 80 cents of every dollar somehow goes back to the donor countries, and the rest of it is grabbed by national and international NGOs, while only a few cents reach the people.

Catastrophic conditions

The Western media created a lot of hype about the so-called “liberation of Afghan women”. But in fact, shamefully, the situation of women has got worse in the past eight years. Our women still endure catastrophic conditions. Girls have been abducted, raped and shot dead on their way to school by warlords. Both the warlords and Taliban still oppress our women. The famous case of acid being thrown on the faces of schoolgirls shook the world, but what is heart-wrenching is that this is just the tip of the iceberg and such horrible crimes against women are increasing. Many schools have been burned down, or been threatened and consequently shut down. Due to this insecurity the number of girls in education has dropped dramatically in the recent years. Laura Bush proudly calls the 6 million female students an achievement, but still today the literacy rate for women is 5%.

Many women working in television or radio stations have been threatened, assaulted and even murdered. Shaima Rezai, Zakia Zaki, Saange Amaj and Nadia Anjuman were killed. Nilofar Habibi, a girl working in a local television station in Herat, was stabbed by men who had warned her not to appear on television again.

Today, our women are suffering from two sides: at the hands of the misogynists in power, and domestic violence. 70% of Afghanistan is lawless, that is, in the hands of the Taliban or warlords. The appalling anti-women laws of the Taliban are well-known to the world, but the regions which warlords and other local commanders control are far worse than under the Taliban. Women are vulnerable and silent victims of rape, abduction, murder and other crimes. There are limitless cases of rape, from 3-year old children to 73-year old women.

Domestic violence is another pain our women suffer. Women have gone through unimaginable tortures at the hands of husbands and family members. Nafisa’s husband scalded her with hot water and cut her nose and ears with a knife. 16-year old Nazia’s inhumane 40-year old husband cut both her ears and nose, shaved her head, broke her teeth and drove her mentally unstable. These women see no support from the courts. The criminals are not punished and this is why many women see suicide as the only way out in such situations. The rates of self-immolation among women have risen very high in the recent years, with hundreds of cases officially acknowledged. In all the cases of the sufferings of women we should remember that this is a very small fraction of the actual number of cases, as many families hide such incidents due to the backward traditions of our society.

The Afghan government, which is comprised of misogynists, not only provides no support to suffering women, but further still it passes anti-women laws which push women to despair. Recently Karzai made a secret deal with fundamentalists to gain their support for his re-election by signing a law which permits Shia men to deny their wives food and sustenance if they refuse to obey their husbands’ sexual demands, and has many more such shocking articles against women. Brad Adams, of Human Rights Watch said,

The rights of Afghan women are being ripped up by powerful men who are using women as pawns in manoeuvres to gain power. These kinds of barbaric laws were supposed to have been relegated to the past with the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001, yet Karzai has revived them and given them his official stamp of approval.

Faced with three enemies

From the above, we can see that today our people are faced with a total of three enemies: the Jihadi fundamentalists in the government, the Taliban and the foreign troops. There is a war raging in our country and the situation for the people can’t get any worse. If the troops withdraw from Afghanistan it will lessen the problems of the country.

The Western governments not only betray Afghans but also their own people. They are putting their soldiers’ lives in danger for a war which only adds to the pain of the Afghan people. Afghans are day by day rising against the occupation and now demand the complete withdrawal of troops. We do not want the occupation, and know that no nation can liberate another nation. It is duty of the democratic minded forces and individuals of Afghanistan to fight for liberation, democracy and justice in the country. The troops have only complicated the Afghanistan situation. With the withdrawal of troops one of the problems of Afghanistan is solved, then it will be up to our people to struggle against the fundamentalists. If Western powers stop their support and sending weapons to such groups, then they may not have any chance of standing up to our people’s resistance.

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Nov 14 2009

Portugal’s Left Bloc Consolidates Its Gains

Category: Emancipation & Liberation,Issue 18RCN @ 8:19 pm

In European elections in June the Left Bloc in Portugal made the most significant gains of any member of the European Anti-Capitalist Alliance. In September, the Left Bloc made further advances in the Portuguese General Election. We asked Raphie de Santos, a supporter of the Fourth International, to analyse the evolution of the Left Bloc. Raphie’s mother escaped to Portugal in the 1930s from Franco’s Spain, only to seek refuge in Scotland during the 1950s from Salazar’s dictatorship. A shortened version of this article appeared in Scottish Socialist Voice, no. 348.

The Left Bloc (Bloco de Esquerda) has firmly established itself as the fourth largest party, just behind the Peoples Party (Partido Popular), in Portugal after their near 10% vote in the 27th September 2009 legislative elections, up 3.5% from 2005. This consolidated their 10.7% vote in the 2009 European elections when they displaced the Communist Party slate, the Unitarian Democratic Coalition (the Coligação Democrática Unitária or CDU bloc), as the largest left wing formation. The Left Bloc now has 16 members of the Portuguese Parliament, 350 local councillors, 3 members of the European parliament and over 4,200 members. How did the Left Bloc, in the ten years since its formation, becomes Europe’s largest far left party? This article sets out to try and establish this.

A brief history of Portugal

Portugal (from the Latin Portus Cale which means port of the Celts) is a country of 11 million people descended from the Celts, Germanic peoples, Moors and Romans. First formed as country in 868 AD, it was at war with neighbouring Spain for centuries facing long periods of occupation, only freeing itself of Spanish influence in 1640 when John IV was proclaimed King. This dynasty – the House of Braganza – ruled until 1910 when a revolution disposed of the monarchy. During this period, Portugal had been one of the early imperial powers building up an empire in Brasil, Africa, India, China and the East Indies only to see it decline.

The 1910 revolution ushered in a period of financial hardship which was exacerbated by participation in the First World War. A military coup took place and over a number of years Salazar, an economist, who offered solutions to Portugal’s bankruptcy, took sole power and established a military dictatorship. Opponents of the regime were murdered or put in concentration camps. A campaign was started by exiled dissidents in Britain and human rights activists to highlight what was happening to political prisoners in Portugal. This led to the establishment of Amnesty International.

The dictatorship was to last until the 1974 Red Carnation Revolution. Portugal was fighting anti-imperialist uprisings in Angola and Mozambique. Conscripted soldiers were inspired by the rebels they fought against and organised a left-wing coup. This coup took place on 25th April 1974, and six days later on May Day, millions took to the streets, for the first time in decades, to demonstrate their support for the coup which was evolving into a revolution.

For over a year it was not clear which direction the revolution would end up facing: a capitalist democracy or a revolutionary participatory democracy. All over the country there were land seizures, the establishment of workers, peasants and community councils. A situation of dual power was emerging between the capitalist parties that had emerged after the fall of dictatorship and the new forms of popular power. The decisive event came on November 25th 1975 when an ultra-left coup was easily put down.

An ultra-left group, the Revolutionary Party of the Proletariat – Revolutionary Brigades (Partido Revolucionário do Proletariado – Brigadas Revolucionárias) (PRP-BR) and army officers, led by Otelo Carvalho, had been behind it. The PRP-BR had links to the UK’s SWP (then the International Socialists) who defended their comrades’ actions. The coup allowed capitalist politicians such as Mario Soares from the social democratic Socialist Party (Partido Socialista) to say you can either have a capitalist democracy or a communist dictatorship. The revolutionary process in Europe that started with May 68 in France effectively came to an end.

The origins of the Left Bloc

The Left Bloc was formed by three currents that had emerged from the politics of the revolution. These groups were the People’s Democratic Union (União Democrática Popular, UDP) a pro-Albanian maoist group (Portugal has a large peasant population); the Revolutionary Socialist Party (Partido Socialista Revolucionário) (PSR) the Portuguese section of the Fourth International; and Politics 21 (Política XXI) a group of ex-Communist Party thinkers.

The PSR had stood for several years in elections and had gained no more than 2%, and then stood on a joint slate with PXXI gaining over 3%. The Left Bloc’s real success was attracting initially hundreds and then thousands of independent activists from the political movements.

The Communist Party (PCP)

Portugal’s left had been dominated for years by Europe’s most Stalinist communist party (Partido Cominista Portugues) (PCP) – for example it supported the unsuccessful coup against former Soviet leader Mikhael Gorbachev. They are unique amongst western communist parties in that they were clandestine until April 1974 and consolidated themselves as a pole of resistance during the dark years of the dictatorships. Therefore, they had and have a credibility which did not exist amongst other European communist parties whose policies strategy and tactics had been visible to the working class since the end of the Second World War.

But the PCP played a key role between 1974-1976 in legitimising the capitalist democracy which was counterposed to the developing revolutionary participatory democracy. However, they kept clear of the move to social democracy and Eurocommunism in other European communist parties and this saw their vote decline from a peak of 19% in 1979 to around a 7% in the two legislative elections in 2002 and 2004. They are now in a the CDU bloc with the Ecologist Party (‘Os Verdes’) and the Democratic Initiative (Intervenção Democrática). Both these organisations are PCP fronts under the complete control of the party.

A similar situation exists in the unions where the largest union organsiation – the General Confederation of the Portuguese Workers – is under the control of the PCP.

Breaking the bureaucratic control of the PCP

This left nowhere for the activisits in the many political movements and the smaller left groups to go. The solution to this was the formation of the Left Bloc. Discussions on the formation of the Left Bloc began in mid-1998. The PSR, the UDP and PXXI took the first steps to reaching a basic political agreement and setting the basis for the new movement, without rushing into a fusion, without disolving the existing organisations, and without requiring unity in all areas of activity. The presence from the beginning of independents, who supported the project, was a crucial aspect of the Left Bloc and gave it a much broader appeal than that of a simple electoral alliance of the three organisations.

At the same time a political and organsisational agreement between the organisations committed them to making the Left Bloc a space for the convergence of positions and practices, not an area for political disputes, thereby enabling rapid progress in building the structures needed for the electoral and political campaigns that followed.

The Left Bloc has beome increasingly popular over the last ten years, especially amongst youth, with imaginative campaigns and dynamic proposals. The majority of its support comes from colleges, cities and educated youth or adults from the countryside, gathering in both urban educated communities and dynamic labor unions, together with defenders of human rights and women’s rights, the rights of immigrants and minorities (they are especially involved in supporting a strongly multicultural society), and also many ecologists. At this point the Left Bloc is seen by some an alternative and refreshing “new” left political party compared to the older and more established PCP and SP. It is a diverse entity formed by people from multiple backgrounds.

The Left Bloc proposed Portugal’s first law on domestic violence, which was passed in parliament with the support of the PCP and the SP. It has fought for other important laws on civil rights and guarantees, including the protection of citizens from racism, xenophobia and discrimination, gay marriage laws, laws for the protection of workers, legalisation of drugs and anti-bullfighting laws. They have also campaigned for free legal safe abortion laws, allowing women to decide what they want to do with their bodies.

Some 600 trade union leaders, at factory and national level, appealed for a vote for the Left Bloc in September 2009’s elections. In Portugal they still have workers’ commissions (a remnant of the 1974 revolution) that are directly elected in each workplace. In Portugal’s biggest workplace, Ford-Volkswagen in Setubal, the Left Bloc’s supporters are the majority.

As an example of the Left Bloc’s innovative campaigning style, they created a board game and circulated it amongst young people. If the dice fell on a social problem you had to move back, if it fell on one of the Left Bloc’s proposals you could move forward and win. It was a big hit.

Collective revolving leadership

The Left Bloc operates a policy of having a revolving collectivist leadership.

This is to avod a situation where the party depends on one or a few individuals. When the Left Bloc first had members of the Portuguese parliament it revolved the representatives every 5 months. The National Committee of 80 people meets every two months. It is elected in proportion to the voting on the major resolutions at the annual conference.

Women must have minimum of 30-40 % of all positions in the party. This goes right down to the election to the NC based on support for resolutions.

Prospects after the election

At the time of writing (28th September 2009) the election has produced a hung parliament. The former incumbent – the Socialist Party (SP) – a centre social democratic party has the largest share of the vote at 36.6%. But they have overseen rises in taxes and cuts in pay to try and reduce Portugal’s budget deficit. Unemployment is nearing 10% and all this has seen an erosion of SP votes amongst their working class base. Some went to the Left Bloc, but others went right to the Peoples Party.

Portugal is the poorest country in Western Europe with an average annual salary of 15,000 euros and a third of workers taking home less than 600 euros a month. There have been large demonstrations with up to 100,000 teachers protesting and a general strike across Portugal. The right wing Social Democratic Party (PSD) has 30% of the vote and it proposes a program of cuts in public services. As in Scotland, the SP may form a minority government and rely on other parties, such as the PSD, to get key legislation passed.

The Left Bloc will be in the forefront of the opposition, both within and outside the parliament,to the austerity plans of the major parties. They will focus their campaigning around opposition to privatisation, rights for part-time workers and defending public services and pensions, with a wealth tax to help redistribute wealth.

The Left Bloc is an inspiration to all of us with its high levels of organisation and creative campaigning. This has led them to become Portugal’s third major political force despite the dominant role of social democracy and a large influential communist party. This hints at the direction radical anti-capitalist left parties across Europe could take and how the Scottish Socialist Party could grow from its current position.

A beacon of hope

The slogan of the resistance to the dictatorship which my mother applied to struggles everywhere “O povo unido jamais sera vencido” – “a united people will never be vanquished” – is embodied in the Left Bloc and offers us hope that the unfinished revolution of 1974 will see its successful completion with the replacement of capitalism with a just and open multicultural society that can inspire all of us to strive for the same result across the globe.

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Nov 14 2009

History and Resistance: The Rise of Latin America’s Indigenous Movements

Category: Emancipation & Liberation,Issue 18RCN @ 7:41 pm

Not unlike the incorporation of labor, which proved to be the crucial political juncture of the twentieth century, the mobilization of indigenous Latin Americans represents what could be for many countries the most pivotal political event of the current century (1) –
Kent Eaton

The injustices in all countries [are] committed by their bad governments and their owners, who are called capitalists. They impose their own laws in favor of big business owners, forgetting about the people, the poverty, and the misery, and they take away our natural resources so that we can’t enjoy what is ours… [we must] look for ways to unite ourselves so that some day we will be free from this slavery that today the whole world suffers from. We are obligated to seek spaces and paths that allow our imprisoned compañeros and our children to have a dignified life. (2) –
Victoria, Zapatista Good Government Council, July 2009

This article is concerned with the thread between history and the present, the link between struggles in separate parts of the world, and the neoliberal world order in which we all live. In particular, it is an investigation into the response to the experience of living in a society structured around the needs of neoliberal capitalism by one of the most historically colonised and exploited peoples anywhere in the world: the roughly 40 million indigenous people of Latin America.

As indicated by the quotes above, the mobilisation of indigenous people in Latin America, and the demands they are pressing – which are quite contrary to the role set out for them by their ruling ‘elites’, or strategic planners in Washington – is constituting perhaps the most potent contemporary challenge to the neoliberal status-quo anywhere in the world. This is an admittedly one sided account, however we have all heard enough about the kinds of ‘progress’, ‘economic growth’ and ‘democracy’ currently on offer from neoliberalism. The indigenous movements studied in this article often see things a different way: World Bank structural adjustment programs and elite “democracy” as continuing historical oppression, exploitation and racism, while further stripping people of their ancestral land and natural resources.

As an initial caveat, it is clear that any exploration into such a topic can only give the briefest impression of the events occurring and issues at stake in Latin America. What I am attempting to do here is simply give an initial context, and to encourage the pursuit of further reading on the topic. Therefore, in the space allocated I will try and frame the global context of Latin America’s indigenous struggles. I will also draw a few comparisons between highland Scotland’s and Latin America’s experience of being brought into the modern world order, attempting to show how all peoples of the world are subject to similar historical forces to one degree or another. Thus, a sense of internationalism between ordinary people is necessary for any effort towards a more humane world. Finally, I will give selected examples of the struggles being waged by indigenous movements in Mexico, Guatemala, and Bolivia, and what lessons and inspirations we can take from them.

Neoliberal Order

So what are the basic principles of the neoliberal world order which both indigenous peoples in Latin America, and ourselves, are having our lives and societies shaped by? The guiding tenets of neoliberal capitalism are often called the “Washington Consensus”, described by Chomsky as “an array of market-orientated principles designed by the government of the United States and the international financial institutions that it largely dominates (the International Monetary Foundation (IMF), the World Bank etc.), and implemented by them in various ways – for the more vulnerable societies (e.g. in Latin America) often as stringent structural adjustment programs.” (3) The basic rules are to remove the barriers to trade and finance (so long as this favours the wealthy countries of the world), end inflation, privatise as much of the economy as possible (thus reducing social spending), and politically, “the government should ‘get out of the way’ – hence the population too, insofar as the government is democratic.” (4) The result is a society with massive profits for the few, high inequality, increasing poverty, low wages and low levels of political participation for the rest, amounting to “improved weapons of class war” for “the major concentration of power in the world, arguably in world history: the governments of the rich and powerful states, the international financial institutions, and the concentrated financial and manufacturing sectors, including the corporate media.” (5)

The reality of this structure of class forces is that in terms of the priorities of global power and the resulting neoliberal economic policies, programs for participatory democracy, human, social, economic and cultural rights, the redistribution of wealth, and the conservation of resources and the environment, are completely disregarded. Brief as this basic analysis is, it gives an idea of the structures of power facing both ourselves and indigenous and nonindigenous people in Latin America wishing to act together to improve their lives. In fact, to follow Chomsky’s line of analysis a little further, he suggests that for investigating the effects of neoliberal “democracy” and “free” markets we should look to Latin America as “the obvious testing ground”, as with almost no external competition, “the guiding principles of policy, and of today’s “Washington consensus” are revealed most clearly when we examine the state of the region.” (6)

In fact, Latin America has the highest levels of inequality anywhere in the world. Yet to understand the roots of this inequality, and where Latin America’s indigenous social and political movements are coming from in their resistance, it is necessary to understand their historical past, and even to draw comparisons with our own.

History Revisited

Earlier this year I embarked upon several holiday trips around the highlands and islands of Scotland. Perhaps my most revealing journey was the return trip from the Isle of Harris in the Outer Hebrides, which took me to Skye by ferry, then by bus through the western highlands, including Glencoe, until I finally arrived in Glasgow. What had struck me on my trip, and on the journey home, was the emptiness of the landscape – not as an untouched ‘wilderness’, but rather by the story told by countless roofless stone dwellings and blackhouses, where the only residents are the sheep sheltering from the wind. A trip to the bookshelf of any tourist shop is enough to give answer to curiosity on why no people remain, and the Highland Clearances of the 18th and 19th centuries are still strong in folk memory. Despite attempts to erase memories of the past – when the west of Harris was cleared, the graveyard was also demolished “to erase any rights and history of the people” (7) – both principled histories and folk song and story record what happened to turn the highlands and islands into one of the most sparsely populated regions in Europe. In the name of ‘improvement’, i.e. landlords looking to increase the productivity and profit of their estates, landlords ‘cleared’ (which often meant forceful and violent eviction) the people from their land to make way for large scale sheep farming or sporting estates, and as noted by Ken Andrew: “A harsh land, a harsh sea, and a harsh climate were hard enough burdens to be borne by the people, but harsh overlords backed by unfair laws, and servants of these laws, were the final tribulations, which brought a way of life to an end for many for the benefit of a privileged few.” (8)

One of the historical legacies of the clearances for Scotland has been the effects on Gaelic language and culture. The 2003 census showed that the number of Gaelic speakers has dropped to 58,000 – meaning that the language is struggling to survive.

The incorporation of the highlands and islands region into the British state through cultural and economic imperialism has a historical and contemporary parallel with other peoples and groups all over the world. This is particularly true of indigenous movements in Latin America. However, even in comparison with other experiences, the effects of colonialism and imperialism on the indigenous peoples of the Americas are staggering.

In 1492, when Columbus ‘discovered’ the Americas, the continent contained around 100 million people, roughly one fifth of the human race. Ronald Wright explains that due to conquest, slavery, slaughter, and mainly Old World disease, by 1600 “after some twenty waves of pestilence had swept through the Americas, less than a tenth of the original population remained. Perhaps 90 million died…it was the greatest mortality in history.” (9) The civilisations, cities, writings and learning of the Maya, Aztecs, Inca, Cherokee and Iroquois (among many other indigenous peoples and groups) were destroyed, to be replaced by “imitation Europes” (10), with the indigenous nations “captive within white settler states built on their lands and on their backs.”(11) Pedro Alvarado, the man with a “psychotic mind” (12) who played a key role in defeating the Aztecs of Mexico, subjugated the Quiché and Cakchiquel Maya kingdoms in what is now modern day Guatemala. It took him the better part of the 1520s, along with a continued influx of Europeans, cavalry, steel, and most importantly disease, but eventually the Cakchiquels surrendered on 10 May 1530. He then subjected them to slavery, the paying of heavy tribute, and forced mining and washing for gold.(13)

In 1532 the Castilian Francisco Pizarro and his men took advantage of the fatal error of being underestimated by the Inca Emperor, and slaughtered Inca Atawallpa along with between 5,000 – 10,000 of his followers, (14) thus paving the way for the conquest of an Empire 3,000 miles long and several hundred miles wide, including the Inca of Peru and the Aymara of Bolivia. Thus the Andean peoples of modern day Peru, Ecuador, Chile and Bolivia were subjugated under Spanish rule, with structures of power that have held intact into the period of the modern republics, under the shadow of U.S. dominance. As the statue of the Duke of Sutherland still looks over the lands in Scotland where his agents burned the original inhabitants from their homes, Pizarro Palace in Lima, Peru, is a reminder to the indigenous peoples of the Andes of their defeat and their place within the new European order.

The historical experience of continued exploitation, colonialism, and racism has marked the memory of all these peoples. However, Ronald Wright, whose book is rightly considered a classic, notes that with remarkable historical resistance, the culture, ideas and traditions of many of these peoples still exist today. In the Andes 12 million people still speak the language of the Inca, and there are still over 6 million speakers of Maya languages: if Guatemala were truly democratic, then it would be a Maya republic. (15) Rather than being seen as relics of a past age, “they are living cultures, defining and defending places in the contemporary world. Only the West assumes that modernity and Westernization must be synonymous.” (16)

What are the traditions and values of these cultures? And what place for themselves are they trying to define and defend in modern societies? Importantly, what implications does this have for their relationship with the neoliberal order described above?

Resistance Awakening

As outlined above, the context for indigenous peoples in Latin America organising themselves and acting together to press their demands for autonomy, recognition, respect and collective territory is one of historical exploitation and suppression, as well as the contemporary structures of power that form the neoliberal order, as exemplified by Fiorentini’s description of the situation facing indigenous groups in rural areas:

“In the face of agribusinesses’ ever-concentrated land grab, extractive industries—state or international, and local and national government collusion, indigenous people all over Latin America are all living varied versions of the same ecological and social nightmare. Through environmental destruction like deforestation and pollution, direct violent eviction and territorial encroachment, or manipulative and coerced removal, indigenous communities are left without their traditional means of subsistence and thus are forced to join the overwhelmingly indigenous and mestizo urban poor or, well, die.” (17)

Against this sobering backdrop, however, indigenous organisations are managing to win victories, as the examples below indicate. These movements act not just to defend existing culture, rights and territories, but to extend participation in the national politics of the states within which they reside, combining with other movements to advance radical notions of democracy and resource and land management in accordance with various Andean and Mesoamerican values, such as self government and small scale collective ownership. (18)


One of the areas where indigenous groups have achieved widespread attention for their resistance to both state power and neoliberal capitalism is Mexico, in particular the Zapatistas. To recap, on the day that the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) came into effect, on 1 January 1994, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) initiated an armed uprising in protest of the policies of the Mexican State and the effects that NAFTA would have on (Maya and non-Maya) peasants in Chiapas in southern Mexico. Since then, the movement has continued to exist and essentially form systems of autonomous government parallel to the state. (19) In the view of Neil Harvey, the Zapatistas were “a well organized indigenous army with a mass base of support”, that struggled for land reform, civil rights, democratisation of the political system, and the collective rights of women and indigenous peoples.” (20) This program had a significant effect on Mexican national politics, and as Sarah Washbrook explains the Zapatistas were active in “criticizing the authoritarian regime and its neoliberal economic policies and contributing to anti-globalization campaigns and movements for greater democratization.” (21) However, it is worth noting within the Zapatistas there have also arisen contradictions and divisions in its aims, and the movement is not as nationally significant as during the 1990s. (22)

That said, the Zapatistas are still in a standoff with the Mexican state to this day, and exert a great influence on the inspiration and imagination of popular struggle in Mexico and further afield. On 14 June 2006 a teacher’s union strike in Oaxaca city sparked into a popular uprising with a strong indigenous base, the significance of which is explained by Sedillo: “The success of the ensuing six-month-uprising was fuelled by strong ideas of traditional forms of land tenure and the subsequent strategies for self-governance that indigenous communal life entails.” (23) The Oaxacan People’s Popular Assembly (APPO) occupied the state capitol for six months, including middle-aged women occupying TV and radio stations throughout the city. The assembly was based on indigenous consensus organising as used for thousands of years, and they demanded the removal of the governor Ulises Ruiz Ortiz. They were driven out by acts of state violence (murder, disappearance, rape, torture and police led drive-by shootings), however their struggle continues unabated. (24)

Needless to say, the Zapatistas’ and other group’s campaigns for meaningful democracy, land reform and rights while opposing neoliberal reforms and authoritarian power has met opposition from the Mexican and U.S. Governments. The Zapatistas have endured state repression, most notably the paramilitary massacre of 13 men and 32 women who were members of an indigenous human rights organisation, while they were praying in a chapel. (25)

In fact, a wider backlash is being prepared by the U.S. and Mexican states to this unacceptable challenge from indigenous groups to their authority and interests. The U.S. government is supplying the Mexican government with a funding package in order to strengthen the Mexican security apparatus, known as the ‘Merida Initiative’, beginning with an initial$400 million. In the words of the U.S. State Department, this will help to “confront criminal organizations whose illicit actions (allegedly drug traffickers) undermine public safety, erode the rule of law, and threaten the national security of the United States.” (26) However, the U.S. military is simultaneously undertaking a detailed mapping of indigenous lands in Mexico, known as the ‘Bowman Expeditions.’ The researcher assigned to the project, Lt. Col. Geoffrey B. Demarest, has previously been the US Military Attaché to the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala 1988-91 during the U.S. backed repression and torture in that country, and has written on the relationship between land mapping data and successful counter insurgency campaigns. Tellingly, Demarest claims that “informally owned and unregulated (i.e. indigenous) land ownership favors illicit use and violence”, and also that “strategic power becomes the ability to keep and acquire ownership rights around the world.”

The aims of these actions are revealed by Mexican geographer and academic Oliver Froehling, who argues that the Merida Initiative and the mapping “subscribe to a military/political strategy” in which “the control and displacement of indigenous communities intends to remove potential political hot spots, contribute to military control of the region, and ultimately ‘liberate’ national resources for the benefit of the government and, in turn, its transnational allies.” (27) Importantly, according to Sedillo, this indicates that to U.S. strategic planners “the greatest resistance to the neoliberal world order in Mexico comes from indigenous communities claiming autonomy and self determination in the form of communal territory.” They are also aware of the tie between indigenous groups, their culture, and the land they occupy – and thus the best way to remove their opposition to neoliberal order is to move them from their land and simultaneously rob them of their culture and means of subsistence, leaving the way open for the exploitation of valuable mineral and other resources. (28) Thus, currently the struggles of indigenous groups in Mexico hang in the balance between a high level of indigenous awareness and organisation, and the building backlash of the Mexican and U.S. ruling elites.


The other major Maya area is Guatemala, where Pedro Alvarado first removed autonomy and dignity from the indigenous population in the 1520s, leaving the Maya nations captive within the Ladino state “built on their lands and on their backs.” There are 11 million people in Guatemala, and roughly 60% are indigenous Maya, divided into 23 ethnic groups and around 16 Maya languages. (29) As indicated by the past career of Geoffrey B. Demarest, Guatemala has suffered a civil war, with left revolutionary organisations and Maya groups fighting the state (and by proxy the U.S.), which lasted through the 1980s and only ended in 1996 when peace accords were signed. The Maya were the war’s greatest victims, and of the quarter of a million left dead and hundreds of thousands of refugees, most were Maya. The army also admitted to destroying over 450 Maya villages. (30) Despite this loss, Arturo Arias argues that today “Mayas walk with a quiet confidence and self assurance they did not have 25 years ago.” (31) To understand why this is, and the advances that Guatemalan Maya have made since 1996 towards shedding the exploitation and racism that has bound them for almost 500 years, we need to look at what their demands are for the establishment of Maya rights. In 1990 Maya academic Demetrio Cojtí Cuxil published a set demands that would be required to safeguard the “Maya nation”, which included: “control and utilization of natural resources, political autonomy, Maya representation in congress, Maya participation in public planning…the pre-eminence of international law, the reorientation of the cultural policies of the Guatemalan state…and a reduction of the discrepancy in material development between the (Ladino and Maya) nations.” (32)

These demands reflect the needs of indigenous people throughout the Americas, as articulated by Rigoberta Menchú, the Nobel-prize winning Guatemalan Maya: “What concerns us is the Indian today and of tomorrow. Why should we merely survive? We need to develop our ancient culture and offer it up as a contribution to the human race.” Her interview with Ronald Wright also includes some powerful insights into differing kinds of development and wealth distribution, differences between participatory and elite based democracy, and the relationship between indigenous peoples and the land, the abuse and unfair distribution of which “has generated the most conflict” between invader and invaded. (33)

In Guatemala today great steps forward have been taken, with a multitude of Maya organisations, Maya representation in Congress, and Maya language dictionaries, novels, literary criticism and political works being published, including bilingual editions. This means that Maya is being written down for the first time since the Spanish conquest. (34) Arias concludes that the Maya have now moved into a “post-colonial” mode of living, having broken free from “internal colonialism” (35) However, in terms of the demands made by Cojtí Cuxil, struggles remain for the Guatemalan Maya. Crucially, the demands for gaining control over the country’s natural resources and political autonomy are described by Arias as “still in the gestation stage.” (36)


Perhaps the country that has seen the most staggering advances by both indigenous movements and the population in general against historical oppression and the contemporary neoliberal order is Bolivia. Bolivia was following the standard model of a neoliberal U.S. client state during the 1990s, a “democracy” with most of the population excluded from any meaningful decision making and privatisation of much of the economy. Bolivia has the largest natural gas reserves in Latin America outside of Venezuela, and the state oil and gas company was significantly privatised (or ‘capitalised’ as it is referred to in Bolivia) in 1996. (37) However during the 1990s and early 2000s the population of Bolivia as a whole, with a special role played by Aymara indigenousbased organisations, has completely changed the direction of the Bolivian state. A series of mass actions has forced the ruling political class and their powerful multinational supporters to relinquish their monopoly on the levers of power. The Water War of 2000 forced the government to scrap a contract with a U.S. corporation to privatise the water of the city of Cochabamba. The Gas War of 2003, in which leaders of mass based social and political movements demanded the nationalisation of Bolivia’s natural gas, forced the president Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada to flee to the U.S. after his orders to quell the protests left 60 dead and hundreds injured. As he left, 500,000 protesters converged on the capital La Paz. (38)

Finally, in 2005 the social and political movements – trade unions, agrarian unions, and various social movements and community organisations – gained a staggering victory: they forced the president Carlos Mesa to resign. He had passed a law which did not grant national control over gas reserves, and in reponse:

approximately 15,000 people filled the Plaza Marillo in La Paz on 30 May. On 1 June mostly Aymara peasants blockaded access to La Paz. Meanwhile, in the city of Cochabamba, peasants and factory workers led a massive march through the city centre. By 4 June all of Bolivia’s major highways were blockaded at 55 points throughout the country, bringing it to an economic standstill and provoking an exasperated Mesa to stand down. (39)

Following on from this, in 2005 Evo Morales became the first indigenous person to become a head of state in Latin America, when the former leader ofthe coca growers union was elected president with 53.7% of the vote, at the head of the Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) coalition, representing both trade unions, indigenous emancipation groups, and a raft of other social movements. It was the only time since Bolivia returned to democracy in 1980 that a candidate received over 50% of the vote, and it was the highest turnout in recent Bolivian electoral history. This has led some foreign observers (particularly in the U.S. establishment) to perceive of Bolivia’s democracy as heading in the “wrong direction.” (40) The election also swept the ‘traditional’ political parties from political significance. In analysing the results, the Bolivia Information Forum concluded: “[the vote] was not just a vote for Evo Morales…it was a vote against a system of political parties that no longer played a role in representing people’s interests. It was also a strong rejection of the liberalising economic policies pursued by successive governments in Bolivia since the mid-1980s.”(41) On his election Morales said:

What happened these past days in Bolivia was a great revolt by those who have been oppressed for more than 500 years… This uprising of the Bolivian people has been not only about gas and hydrocarbons, but an intersection of many issues: discrimination, marginalization, and most importantly, the failure of neoliberalism. We face the task of ending selfishness and individualism, and creating… other forms of living, based on solidarity and mutual aid. We must think about how to redistribute the wealth that is concentrated among few hands. This is the great task we Bolivian people face after this great uprising. (42)

Two of the major demands of popular movements in Bolivia had been to nationalise Bolivia’s natural gas and to hold a referendum on redrafting the constitution to better represent the country’s indigenous majority. In May 2006 Bolivia’s natural gas was re-nationalised. (43) The new constitution was ratified on 24 January 2009 by 61% of the vote, after heated negotiations with a recalcitrant opposition. An additional clause limiting land ownership to 5,000 hectares (not to be applied to already existing land ownership, which was a concession to the opposition parties) was passed by 80.65% of the vote. Key aspects of the constitution gave recognition of indigenous nations within the state, and recognised their right to cultural development and self government. Also, the state is to be held responsible for the social welfare of the population. Natural resources (including gas) are the property of the Bolivian people, administered through the state, and in terms of controlling the state, democracy is conceived as an inclusive participatory experience rather than simply periodic elections. (44)

Importantly for this radically democratic process is the influence of Andean cultural practices and traditions. The idea of an indigenous cultural heritage of democracy (the practice of assembling together face to face) and communal ownership of natural resources (ownership of water and gas as a collective cultural right) has been a powerful force in drawing together various organisations into popular coalitions. (45) Thus Aymara and wider Andean traditions and experiences influence the daily associational life as well as organisation and protest, including “principles of (rotating) leadership, accountability (extensive community consultation), community service, collective work [and] redistribution.” (46)

Where the process in Bolivia will go is uncertain. One factor to consider is that the opposition from the Bolivian ruling class, who have lost political but not economic power, and their allies in the U.S. government and transnational corporations, is not going away anytime soon. The opposition subjected Morales to a recall referendum, which he won with 67.4% of the vote in August 2008. Opposition groups, particularly in the wealthy department of Santa Cruz, hoped to destabilise the development of a new constitution and pushed for greater regional autonomy from central government. The U.S. ambassador Philip Goldberg was ordered to leave the country after being accused of conspiring with the opposition to destabilise the country. (47) Eaton argues that the reason wealthy groups in Santa Cruz were pushing for regional autonomy was because with the general population becoming involved in the political life of the country, this “directly challenged the special access that economic elites previously enjoyed in national political institutions” (48) (a special access that very much exists in Britain). Usually ruling classes would try to overthrow the popular democratic government with military force, the “authoritarian option”, however the situation in Bolivia and internationally doesn’t make this “feasible”. Or, they would try to force popular leaders to “moderate their anti market rhetoric”, which Morales has not done, or hope to bank roll another party into power: but the MAS is simply too popular. (49) It is a testimony to the changing times in Latin America and the strength of the mobilisation of the population in Bolivia that the only option left for the Bolivian ruling class is to attempt to exit from the national political scene and remove decision making on their affairs to a regional area where they would still be able to hold power. However despite some concessions in the new constitution, power clearly remains with the popularly controlled national executive, for now.


There are of course no certainties for the future of indigenous and non indigenous movements in Latin America. The neoliberal order which they challenge is powerful, and movements can be subject to ‘moderation’, corruption, division and steps backward. However, this article endorses the quote given in the introduction, that the effort of indigenous peoples in Latin America to organise themselves and gain control over their own lives “could be for many countries the most pivotal political event of the current century.” In doing so, they are confronting not only the neoliberal present, but the colonial past. We may remember that here in Scotland people still struggle to regain their lands, which are held by a tiny proportion of the population. In 1997 residents managed to raise $2.4 million to buy their Island of Eigg from their landlord. One of the recent landlords had called the islanders “drunken, ungrateful, dangerous and barmy chancers” and had threatened them with eviction. Also, Knoydart was ‘cleared’ in 1853, and in 1999 locals raised the money to buy it back and set up the Knoydart foundation for its care. (50)

What is clear from this analysis is that most of all the indigenous people of Latin America are looking to their future- how they wish it to look, not how their colonisers or strategic planners in Washington wish their lives to be structured. In fact, all over Latin America people are taking a stand against neoliberal doctrine and wider forms of oppression and exploitation and advancing principles conducive to a more socially just, materially equitable, and politically participatory way of living. How these conflicts with the ruling order are resolved will not just depend on individual national struggles, but on a spirit of internationalism and mutual solidarity between peoples in Latin America and the wider world. From this perspective, there is much to be optimistic about. In May 2009 the 4th summit of the Indigenous Peoples of the ‘Continent of Life’ gathered, bringing together regional indigenous groups from all over Latin America. They issued a fundamental demand: a “transformation of the singular nations toward plurinational nations, societies, cultures, and the overcoming of all forms of exploitation, oppression and exclusion.” May their vision, and ours, be realised.


1 Eaton, Kent, ‘Backlash in Bolivia: ‘Regional Autonomy as a Reaction Against Indigenous Mobilization’, Politics and Society, Vol. 35, No. 1, (March, 2007), p71
2 Bellinghausen, H., ‘They Believe that the Capitalist System is the Origin of Injustice’, La
Jornada, accessed:
3 Chomsky, Noam, ‘Profit over People: Neoliberalism and Global Order’, (London, 1999), p19
4 Ibid, p20
5 Ibid, p164
6 Ibid, p94
7 The Highland Clearances,
8 Edited from an article by Ken Andrew, courtesy of Chebecto Community Net, taken from ibid, thedukesstatue.htm
9 Wright, Ronald, ‘Stolen Continents: Conquest and Resistance in the Americas’, (London, 1992), p14
10 Ibid, p13
11 Ibid, p4
12 Ibid, p56
13 Ibid, p60-61
14 Ibid, p80
15 Ibid, p4
16 Ibid, p9
17 Fiorentini, Francesca. ‘Movement Pachamama: Indigenous Movements in Latin America”, Left Turn, Issue 33, (June, 2009), accessed at:
18 Ibid
19 Washbrook, Sarah, ‘The Chiapas Uprising of 1994: Historical Antecedents and Political Consequences’, Journal of Peasant Studies, Vol. 32, No. 3, (June, 2005), p442
20 Harvey, Neil, 1998, The Chiapas Rebellion and the Struggle for Land and Democracy, London and Durham, NC: Duke University Press, p3, 12 in ibid, p422-423
21 Ibid, p418
22 Ibid, p444
23 Sedillo, Simon, Threat of Genocide: US Military Mapping Against Mexico’s Indigenous, ‘Left Turn’ (June, 2009)
24 Ibid
25 Ibid, p420
26 U.S. State Department, accessed:
27 Sedillo, Threat of Genocide, 2009
28 Ibid
29 Arias, Arturo, ‘The Maya Movement, Postcolonialism and Cultural Agency’, p2, accessed:
30 Ibid, p4
31 Ibid, p5
32 Ibid, p9
33 Wright, ‘Stolen Continents’, p273
34 Arias, ‘The Maya Movement’, p5-6
35 Ibid, p12
36 Ibid, p10
37 Bolivia Information Forum, accessed at:
38 Albro, Robert, ‘The Culture of Democracy and Bolivia’s Indigenous Movements’, Critique of Anthropology, Vol. 26, No. 4, (2006), p388
39 Ibid, p387
40 Ibid, p388
42 Cited from PubliusPundit, accessed:
43 Albro, ‘The Culture of Democracy’, p388
45 Albro, ‘The Culture of Democracy’, p393-394
46 Ibid, p396
48 Eaton, ‘Backlash in Bolivia’, p92
49 Ibid, p93

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Nov 14 2009

Highland Migrant Workers

Category: Emancipation & Liberation,Issue 18RCN @ 7:31 pm

Bill Scott uses the traditional song, Erin Go Bragh to explore the historical role of migrant workers in Scotland

In our feudal past, apart from the merchant towns such as Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen, Scotland was almost purely an agricultural community. Three quarters of Scotland’s total land area is still agricultural land, mainly hill and upland grazing suitable only for sheep and cattle rearing.

Up until the 19th century the largest single source of employment for men was in agriculture with women also making up a sizeable proportion of the workforce. Then came the Industrial Revolution and the Clearances. Hundreds of thousands of potential farm workers emigrated to the New World or to find work in the mines (Fife, Lanarkshire, the Lothians) and factories of Edinburgh, Dundee, Glasgow and the West of Scotland.

But the new industrial workforce still needed to be fed. So where were cheap, and therefore profitable, agricultural workers to be found? The answer then as now was in migrant workers.

As male labourers became less plentiful the farm owners of fertile South and Central Scotland turned to female workers from the Highlands. In the martial Gaelic society of the Highlands & Islands women had always been the main harvesters. The main harvesting implement was the light toothed sickle which women wielded more efficiently cutting the grain and straw down to the root. Escaping grinding poverty and the rigid social convention enforced by the Kirk young Highland women flocked to take part in the hairst (harvest).

In 1827 a minister complained that the roads of Argyll were full of Highland women who had bought fripperies and fineries from wages earned at the hairst. Having been away the whole time from the restraining moral influences of males like himself! For these young women the hairst was viewed almost as much a holiday as work. Large groups of women from the same community would sign up and travel together taking a piper with them to play on the road as they walked to the hairst. Once they arrived they would live in communal bothies.

The Lothian hairst attracted labour from as far afield as Argyll and Wester Ross. At that time 46% of the agricultural labour force in the Lothians was female, higher than anywhere else in Scotland. As the Clearances accelerated the self-sufficient shielings and crofts of old were burnt to the ground and folk moved off the land to accommodate first the more profitable sheep and then hunting, fishing and shooting estates. The Napier Commission reported that in the 1880s Many young women went to the Lothians. It is sheer necessity that compels them to go. Whilst going to the herring (gutting and cleaning fish for the then new and very profitable herring industry) was a long term occupation, with many married women involved, the harvest shearers coming to the Lothians were mainly in their mid-to late teens.

Further labour came from the agricultural North East where the harsher climate meant that crops took longer to ripen. North East harvesters moved from farm to farm in the Lothians and then worked the harvest north through Stirlingshire, the Carse of Gowrie, Fife or even westwards into Ayrshire. Eventually they would arrive back in time for the hairsts in Banff, Buchan and Huntly.

The women who came south were paid £1 a week for their back-breaking labour but it seems that the independence gained and the possibility of romance far from the eyes of watchful ministers and fathers was also a strong attraction. A common concern in official and religious tracts of the period was this loss of social and sexual control over these mobile women earning their own wages. Some were even known to smoke!

In the early days shearers lived in farm outbuildings but as time passed purpose built bothies were constructed – still pretty basic with no running water and no toilet. Though living conditions were poor the hairst workers appear to have been well fed, with porridge, milk, bread, beer and very occasionally meat provided in addition to wages – with labour scarcer something had to be done to ensure these migrant workers would return the next year.

Many shearers embarked at Aberdeen to sail to Leith for the Lothians. In Leith the shearers disembarked at a place in the docks that locals derisively called “Teuchters’ Landing”. The former Waterfront Bar in Leith has now acquired this pretty unhappy name.

In the later part of the 19th Century after the Irish (and Scottish) Potato Famine, Irish male labourers, using the scythe-heuk, gradually replaced female shearers. The migrant Irish labourers mainly came from Donegal and originally worked in Dumfries & Galloway before gradually spreading out to other parts of Scotland. The scythe cut more corn, more quickly but male labour was more expensive which perhaps explains why there was still a demand for female labour in the Lothians as late as the early 1900s.

But the Clearances and grinding poverty also drove male agricultural workers south from the Highlands. This Scottish song from the mid-19th Century tells the story of a Highland Scot who is mistaken for an Irishman. At that time both groups were almost equally despised in Lowland Scotland being categorised as uncivilised savages, Papish (the Highlanders were actually more likely to be Episcopalian or even ‘Wee Frees’ but why let the facts stand in the way of prejudice), bog-walkers who couldn’t even speak English. Both groups were also in competition with locals for jobs and, because the Irish and Highlanders were often literally fleeing famine, were often prepared to work for very low wages, causing resentment as they undercut the locals.

The song, Erin Go Bragh, was revived and given a more modern arrangement – but retaining the biting irony of the original – by Dick Gaughan, a Leither, who is proud of his, second generation, Irish roots. The lyrics given here are close to those given on Dick’s website (there is always argument about how to set broad Scots down in writing).

The song demonstrates that West Highlanders had far closer links with their Irish cousins than they did with Lowland Scots. Stan Reeves of Edinburgh’s Adult Learning Project has experienced going into a village pub in County Cork to hear a song melody from the Western Isles with new more locally relevant lyrics attached, the song having been brought there perhaps over a hundred years before by Hebridean herring fishermen. Similarly tunes can be heard in the West Highlands that almost certainly originated centuries before in Ireland.

What the song also demonstrates is that intolerance and racial prejudice can start a lot closer to home than despising Poles or Lithuanians and accusing them of taking our jobs. How daft does, Lowland jobs for Lowland workers sound? Best to be like the bold Erin Go Bragh of this song and identify with others who are oppressed. Who knows some day it might be you yourself under attack.

But of course hundreds of thousands of Highlanders did not do as bold Erin Go Bragh did and retreat to the Highlands. Instead during the Clearances fully half of those forced off the land settled in Central Scotland. They found jobs in the factories, mines and mills. They joined trade unions. They became part of local Lowland communities. In the best sense of the word they were assimilated but so too were Lowland Scots.

Before the Clearances there was a clear divide in Scottish society between the Lowlands and Highlands, each viewing the inhabitants of the other with suspicion and as other to their own way of life. After the Clearances the songs and stories of the Highlanders were transferred into the families and communities they became part of. Yes that sometimes meant a sentimental attachment to a life and culture that had in reality been far from idyllic. But many now Lowland Scots genuinely did have a granny (because the older Highlanders were most reluctant to leave and least able to succeed as economic migrants) and a place they thought of and, for a time, had a clear memory of, as ‘home’ in the Highlands.

But in addition the Highlanders’ oral history of oppression, rebellion and struggle – the Massacre of Glencoe, the ’45, the Sutherland Clearances, the Battle of the Braes & the Land League – became incorporated as a seamless whole into the Lowland Scots narrative of the Covenanters, the United Scotsmen and the 1820 Rebellion. Gaelic and Lallans oral history became “our” history. It is that capacity to incorporate incomers which should give us hope that the current racism and prejudice towards migrant workers can, and will, be overcome as new Scots add the weft of their oral tradition to the rich cloth of Scots working class history.

Note: Nowadays Erin Go Bragh is better known as the Anglicisation of a Gaelic phrase used to express allegiance to Ireland. It is most often translated as Ireland Forever. Speakers of Irish often claim that it is a corruption of the Irish, Eire go brach. However the Scottish Gaelic phrase Eirinn gu brath, literally means, Ireland until the Day of Judgement and is pronounced almost identically to Erin Go Bragh. So it’s possible that a phrase which has come to strongly represent Ireland could have come originally not from the Irish (Gaeilge) but instead from the Scottish (Gaidhlig). Dick Gaughan’s website is at:

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Nov 14 2009

August 1969

Category: Emancipation & Liberation,Issue 18RCN @ 7:25 pm

Patricia Campbell reviews a crucial event in Irish history which occurred 40 years ago. This article first appeared in Fourthwrite (Summer 2009)

August 1969 was the year that transformed the face of the North forever. The civil rights marches of the previous year had launched a movement for change that the Stormont regime found impossible to cope with through normal democratic process.

Used for decades to having its every order obeyed, or at least having those who objected compelled to fall in line, the Unionist Party and its machinery of power decided to resort to the old tactic of subjugation through force. People demanding that antidemocratic practices end would be driven off the streets and battered into acquiescence – or pay a heavy price for challenging the authority of the regime. This method had worked in the past. In fact the very state had come into being through the bloody intimidation of that section of the population that had objected to its formation in the first place.

British governments in 1920/21/22 had allowed James Craig and his colleagues in the Unionist Party to use widespread sectarian violence in order to establish a 6-County state. Between July 1920 and July 1922, 453 people had been killed in Belfast, 37 members of the Crown forces and 417 civilians; 257 Catholics and 157 Protestants and two of no known religion. Of the city’s 93,000 Catholic inhabitants, 11,000 had been forced from their jobs and 23,000 driven from their homes. This was the environment in which the northern state was created.

During the early months of 1969, supporters of the unionist state had viciously attacked a series of peaceful demonstrations. A march by students in January was ambushed outside Derry and clearly identified among the attackers were numerous members of the police reserve, the ‘B’ Special. In incident after incident for the following few months, thus the level of violence increased. The RUC riot squad was responsible for a number of deaths when members of the force used their batons on civilians in Derry City, Dungiven, Co. Derry and Coalisland, Co. Tyrone.

When the Derry Citizens Defence Association (DCDA) was formed in July of 1969, it decided to organise a defence of the Bogside in order to prevent further lethal attack by the RUCC and ‘B’ Specials. The Stormont regime was unwilling to curb the activities of any of its supporters and made no attempt to prevent the Apprentice Boys parade taking place in Derry on 12 August. There was little doubt that rioting was going to break out when thousands of unionists began strutting along the city walls, reminding the inhabitants of their second class status in Northern Ireland. As the Apprentice Boys march was coming to an end the expected happened and fighting between the RUC and local residents intensified.

Unlike previous occasions, the RUC met with stiff resistance from the people of the Bogside and found it impossible to gain control of the area as the DCDA organisation proved effective. Key to the success of the defenders was their decision to occupy the high flats in the centre of the district and use is as a strong point to hurl stones and Molotov cocktails down on the advancing police below.

The struggle lasted throughout the night and into the next day and still the RUC was unable to penetrate the Bogside. Tension grew throughout the North as all sides watched the conflict develop. Nationalists and republicans were anxious to see what could be done to help the defenders while Unionism was becoming increasingly hysterical as it watched its absolute authority being challenged on the streets.

Grassroots unionism was demanding that live ammunition be used against the Bogsiders but Stormont’s cabinet knew that with the world watching so closely, it would be a gross mistake. With the situation under scrutiny, the Unionist regime understood that Britain would exact a very high price from the Belfast parliament if its police force were to be seen to carry out a Sharpville style massacre in Derry with the world’s press watching.

Under increasing siege

With the Bogsider defenders under increasing siege, word was circulated in all nationalist and republican areas that it would be necessary to organise demonstrations to take pressure off the people in Derry. Demonstrations were organised in nationalist towns across the North and RUC and ‘B’ Specials were dispatched to contain the events. In town after town these events grew increasingly violent. Police and ‘B’ Specials began to use the live ammunition that their supporters had been demanding and gunshot casualties were inflicted on nationalist civilians in several towns. In Armagh city ‘B’ specials shot and killed a Catholic civilian making his way home from a local bar.

The greatest violence, however, broke out on the night of the 14th August in Belfast. A protest march had taken place on the 13 and in its aftermath the IRA exchanged gunfire with the RUC, wounding one constable. On the night of the 14th crowds of unionists gathered in the Shankill area and other unionist districts. As daylight began to fade, shooting broke out. Desultory at first and growing in intensity as time went by. As darkness fell, the RUC sent armoured cars equipped with heavy machine guns into the lower Falls and Ardoyne firing into houses and killing several of the occupants.

As the armoured cars raced through the narrow streets they had little difficulty winning control of these districts. Once in charge, the RUC started to systematically shoot out street lighting. With the streets in darkness and the inhabitants terrified, crowds of unionist arsonists supported by off duty ‘B’ Specials started to pour into the lower Falls and Ardoyne and other nationalist areas in Belfast. IRA units in Belfast were seriously under resourced in August 1969. The republican army’s head quarters staff had taken a decision to reduce its arsenal in Belfast in order to ensure that local unit commanders would not precipitate a sectarian blood bath by undisciplined operations. The decision was well meant and had a certain logic in light of the progress of the civil rights movement but in the context of Northern Irish reality it was a mistaken and naive judgement.

Badly outnumbered they put up a spirited resistance to the counter revolutionary assault and joined by veteran members of the organisation prevented a much greater amount of damage being inflicted on the nationalist community.

It was nevertheless, beyond doubt that the nationalist communities in the Falls and Ardoyne areas had suffered greatly with a huge number of homes burned out and many families driven from their property. The trauma was enormous and evoked memories of the worst days of the 1920s. Within days efforts were being made to find arms and to organise military defence of these districts. The IRAwas to split over the issue and in practice this period signalled the end of peaceful, non-insurrectionary protest.

The British government sent troops into Derry and Belfast but refused to curb the powers of the Stormont regime. In time it became obvious that London had little interest in radically reforming Northern Ireland and the Home Secretary of the time, Jim Callaghan, told nationalist politicians that theycould have ‘reform’ but it had to happen within the parameters of a Stormont regime. This dictate of ‘any colour you like so long as it’s orange’ was to ensure that the very existence of the state had to be challenged if change was to occur and that is exactly what was to happen. Nothing was the same after August 1969. The Orange state was in free-fall.

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