Jun 04 2018


This is an edited version the article, written by Eddie Ford,  which first appeared in Weekly Worker. This blog has often warned how the use of the Crown Powers could stymie any attempt to set-up an independent Scotland. This article provides a warning to those who look to Jeremy  Corbyn to lead a new Labour government. Under the Crown Powers the British establishment can call on the monarch to appoint an alternative Prime Minister.






Jeremy Corbyn-  a genuine or a platonic republican?

Although politicians might not have been invited to the royal wedding on May 19th at Windsor, this was definitely a political event. Its purpose was to demonstrate once again the central ideological role of the monarchy – which, as we all know, stands ‘above politics’, so that it can serve the common interests of the ‘entire nation’, whatever your class position, as opposed to outsiders. No doubt this is part of the reason why Markle must become British herself. Continue reading “THE ROYAL WEDDING – PROVIDING POLITICAL COVER FOR THE UK STATE’S CROWN POWERS”

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Apr 07 2017


Steve Freeman of the Republican Socialist Alliance and the Left Unity Party draws on the revolutionary democratic political tradition in England, linking the Levellers, the Chartists and the Suffragettes. He outlines its strengths compared with the social democratic and economist political tradition of Labour and most of the British Left sects. Steve argues that Socialists should be championing the revolutionary democratic tradition today.


“Westminster? It’s old, defunct, a waste of time. I hate the place” – Mhairi Black MP *

Westminster does not look or work any better from the inside or the outside. In May 1991 Tony Benn MP proposed fundamental reform. He introduced the Commonwealth of Britain Bill in the House of Commons, intended to make Britain a federal republic. The current Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn MP seconded the Bill. The Bill’s first hurdle on the parliamentary road to a republic was to get permission from the Queen to submit it to the Commons. Then there has to be majorities in the Commons, Lords and then finally with the royal assent the Bill becomes law.

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Mar 20 2009

Half truths, mistruths and anything but the truth— a brief history of a century of wartime propaganda

Category: Emancipation & Liberation,Issue 17RCN @ 4:31 pm

Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.


The government of the United States had a major problem. It was April 1917, and on the sixth day of that month, eager to get into the First World War, they declared war on Germany.

Their big problem was this.

Although the American government was up for a fight, the American public was steadfastly pacifist. They saw the war in Europe as just that, a European war, nothing for them to get themselves involved in. Something clearly had to be done to get the population of the United States into a more warlike frame of mind.

On April 13, 1917, president Woodrow Wilson set up the Committee for Public Information, or the Creel Commission as it came to be known. The commission was headed by George Creel, a well-known muckraking journalist, the other formal members being the secretaries of war, state and the navy.

With the Creel Commission’s arrival, modern wartime propaganda in the media age was born. Its aim was to turn pacifist America into a society thirsty for war, to make patriotism and hatred of all things German the noblest aim of every American citizen.

In this the Creel Commission was spectacularly successful. Within months of its formation the American public’s mind was filled with hatred for Germany, German immigrants, anything at all German.

How did the Creel Commission manage to engineer such a remarkable turnaround in public opinion in such a short timeframe?

Quite simply, the Creel Commission understood how to use the media that was available to them (radio, telegraph, films, newspapers, &c.), and harnessed it to change public opinion, with appeals to patriotism and a huge disinformation campaign.

Blatant lies about German soldiers murdering babies and hoisting them up on their bayonets were spread, lies supplied by the British intelligence services, whose stated aim was to control the thoughts of the world (or more specifically at that time the thoughts of the influential intellectual and political classes of the United States). These lies were so powerful that they still persist to this day.

The Creel Commission distributed pamphlets, urging the public to keep an eye open for German spies and recruited the then fledgling Hollywood film industry to produce luridly titled films, such as To Hell with the Kaiser, The Claws of the Hun and The Kaiser, the Beast of Berlin.

The Four Minute Men

Telegraphs, cables, radio, all were employed to turn the American population against Germany and all things German, but Creel’s real master stroke was the creation of a group of orators who came to be known as The Four Minute Men.

June 5, 1917, was the date set when all males would have to register for the draft. Many feared a repeat of the draft riots of the Civil War (one of the causes of those riots being a provision whereby those able to afford three hundred dollars could pay a substitute to go and fight for them).

One month before draft registration George Creel unleashed the Four Minute Men on the American public. Their first subject was Universal Service by Selective Draft. In movie theatres the length and breadth of the United States a slide was shown announcing the appearance of the local Four Minute Man.

He would deliver a speech which was never longer than four minutes, a speech designed to stir patriotism and anti-German feeling in the audience.

Four Minute Men were usually local professional men possessed of good public speaking skills, and from May 12 to May 21, cinema audiences were harangued by 75,000 orators, promoting the idea hat in honour of future draftees, registration day should be treated as a festival of honour.

The Four Minute Men were spectacularly successful. On draft registration day, ten million men signed up, where only two months previously no one had wanted anything to do with a European war.

The Four Minute Men went on from this triumph to address their audiences on such topics as Why We Are Fighting and What Our Enemy Really Is. They spoke at lodge and labour union meetings, lumber camps and on Indian reservations.

They operated in 153 universities, there were even junior Four Minute Men who spoke in high schools. By the time the war was over they had given 755,190 speeches to a total of over 314 million Americans. They reached more than 11 million people a month and were the First World War’s most effective form of propaganda.

With the United States finally in the war, and with ever-growing rumblings of discontent and fears of revolution on the home front, the writing was on the wall for the German war effort.

When Germany finally surrendered in 1918, many people on both sides came to realise the huge part that propaganda and the Creel Commission had played in the German’s ultimate defeat, not least among them an Austrian corporal with a funny toothbrush moustache who was to learn the lessons of the Creel Commission well, indeed he was to learn them to devastating, truly devastating, effect.

Right up to the present day the lessons of the Creel Commission are evident whenever states have to convince their populations of the correctness of their decision to go to war, or their support for one side over another in some conflict in which they are not directly militarily involved.


In the very recent past we have seen the Israeli propaganda machine at its ruthless best, defending the Zionist state’s armed wing, the IDF, as it behaved in a manner which would have drawn admiring looks from any playground school bully.

Whenever Israel was challenged or in any way criticised on the enormity of its actions in Gaza, the stock answer on our television screens from a string of literate, media trained Israeli spokespersons was that Israel had the right to protect itself from rockets fired from Gaza.

The lack of questioning of the Israeli government’s party line by a supposedly free media in so-called Western democracies shames those newspapers, radio and TV stations which failed to do so. No reporters were allowed into Gaza and in the hugely compliant mainstream western media, few even bothered to ask the questions, What have you got to hide? or even, But why are Hamas firing rockets into Israel?

Barely anyone connected to the mainstream media explored or attempted to explain the history of the Palestinian conflict, and there was very little mention of the fact that since the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 they have mounted what in mediaeval times would have been called a siege of that city.

And while many may disagree with Hamas they are the democratically elected ruling party in Gaza.

Shamefully biased

While there was no chance of Israel losing militarily, there was even less chance of them losing the propaganda war in the west, thanks to the shamefully biased coverage that the savage attack on Gaza received from the compliant BBC and western news channels and newspapers. (I consciously use the word attack and not war, because war hints at some level of comparable military ability.)

No one, however, should really be surprised by the BBC’s compliance. Its attitude toward the Palestinians during the attack was augmented soon after by its shocking and disgusting refusal to broadcast the aid appeal for Gaza, which brought it condemnation from all sides. The BBC pleaded protection of its independence and impartiality, but the corporation is not now, and never has been, a neutral organisation.

Even in its early days, in 1926, during the general strike, it would not allow Ramsay MacDonald the right of reply to Conservative prime minister Stanley Baldwin. Lord Reith, the BBC’s first director, outwardly gave the impression that he was keen to defend the corporation’s independence and impartiality from the intrusion of the state, but in reality he was prepared to block any views being aired which did not chime with those of Baldwin’s Tory government.

Bearing this in mind, the shockingly biased reporting we viewed on our screens should not leave anyone open-mouthed with astonishment. If a crude rocket fired from Gaza fell on an empty school in Israel, this would receive equal or better coverage than the fact that weapons using the latest technology were falling on occupied buildings filled with real people in Gaza.

Propaganda, it would appear, is not just about stirring up patriotic feelings and creating hatred for the enemy, it can also work at a very effective level for the state by promoting one side’s view in a conflict while largely ignoring the other’s. It can also be a powerful manipulator of perception by what it chooses to omit to tell us.

Not that Gaza is the only example of state propaganda at work in recent times. In the build-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003 we were assured that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction; there were sexed up dossiers designed to scare us; the Iraqi people deserved democracy and not some tyrant ruling over them; and that we were just the people to deliver that democracy to them.

Of course Saddam Hussein was an evil tyrant, but he did not officially become so in the eyes of the West until he invaded Kuwait and threatened the flow of oil to the west. Up to that point he had been a puppet of the west, had even been armed by them, basically allowed to do what he wanted in his own little fiefdom.

When he gassed the Kurds at Halabja in 1988 it didn’t cause too much of a stir in the western media, but once he stepped out of his little box and into Kuwait he became the devil incarnate. Following the first Gulf War there followed a long period leading up to the second, in which sanctions and propaganda were the weapons of choice.

Fever pitch

In the year leading up to the invasion in 2003, the propaganda reached fever pitch. The gassing of the Kurds at Halabja went from an event which had been largely ignored and became a crime against humanity, and the alleged possession of weapons of mass destruction was high on the agenda as a reason for invasion as Saddam was demonised by his former friends.

Sexed up dossiers flew in the face of the evidence of the weapons inspectors who had quietly but effectively been disarming Iraq since the end of Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait. The propaganda machine went into overdrive, and yet, it didn’t quite succeed, as millions took to the streets around the world to demonstrate against and oppose the planned invasion.

But they went and did it anyway (which is fair comment on the kind of democracy that we live in, and by extension also the one which was planned for Iraq). Of course, no weapons of mass destruction were found, but Saddam was overthrown and Iraq got its democratic government. Oh, yes, and western companies did rather well out of the reconstruction of Iraq.

However, the fact that so many people opposed the war in Iraq demonstrates that even the most vehement state propaganda cannot fool all of the people all of the time. And despite the age of the embedded war reporter being upon us, where reporters are given guided tours of the battlefield rather than roaming free to report what they see, still the truth of the horrors of war, and the things done in our name, occasionally seeps through.

Remember the pictures from Abu Graibh of the torture taking place there? Or the iconic picture of the little Vietnamese girl horribly burned by napalm fleeing her village? Or Seymour Hersh’s uncovering of the My Lai massacre in Vietnam?

Hersh was not actually in Vietnam, but uncovered the story by following a trail of rumour and stories around the United States. Which can only leave you wondering what the huge press corp actually in Vietnam were doing to fill in their time.

Even now, we are living through a time of war time propaganda, as our liberties are curtailed and the state places us all under increasing surveillance, all necessary, we are told, if we are to win the War on Terror.

As socialists, we understand that to win the current war on terror is actually quite easy, it’s just a matter of stopping invading other countries to plunder their resources. By making others feel more secure we thus increase our own security, it’s that simple. Resources thus saved could be used to fight the real wars on terror, such as the terror of the elderly, living on pittance pensions, having to choose between eating or heating their homes in winter.

However, I digress.

From the Creel Commission to the War on Terror, state wartime propaganda has tried, through various mechanisms and with varying degrees of success, to unite populations behind the state’s view.

Ironically, however, a side effect of the creation of the Creel Commission was to have devastating consequences for the left in the United States.

During the First World War, in the States, nearly nine million people worked in war industries and a further four million were in the armed forces. When the war ended, economic difficulties and labour unrest rose to the surface as war industries were left without contracts, leading to many being made redundant.

There were two main union/socialist groups in the United States at that time—The Industrial Workers of the World (the IWW or Wobblies), led by Bill Haywood, and the Socialist Party, led by Eugene Debs.

The Russian Revolution was still fresh in many minds and there was a widespread paranoia regarding anarchists, communists, socialists and dissidents. Following a string of bombings by anarchists, America was beset by fear, in what was to become known as the Red Scare.

Because the IWW and the Socialist Party had both been outspoken objectors to the war, this made them unpatriotic in the minds of much of the American population, and to be even loosely associated with them would arouse suspicion.

A shipyard strike followed by a general strike in Seattle in 1919 was wrongly attributed to the IWW. Charges that they were inciting revolution were levelled against them. Newspaper headlines across the country urged that the strike be put down. The mayor of Seattle guaranteed the city’s safety by announcing that 1500 police and the same number of troops were available to him to break the strike. The strikers, fearing they couldn’t succeed, and might damage the labour movement, called off the strike.


All strikes in the next six months were demonised in the press as plots to establish communism, conspiracies against the government and crimes against society.

May Day rallies in 1919 in Boston, New York and Cleveland ended in riots and on June 2 another multi-state bomb plot was uncovered, all leading to an increase in tension, in which workers who went on strike were seen as enemies and fair game for persecution.

The Boston Police went on strike in September, as did the steel workers in a nationwide strike a few weeks later. The Boston police were sacked and replaced, and the steel strike ended without the workers getting any of their demands.

Strikers were branded red and unpatriotic as a general state of hysteria swept the nation. Colleges were seen as hotbeds of revolution and current or prior membership of a leftist organisation led to many secondary school teachers being dismissed.

The Justice Department formed the General Intelligence (or anti-radical) Division of the Bureau of Investigation. It compiled 200,000 cards in a filing system detailing radical organisations, individuals and case histories nationwide.

Thousands of alleged radicals were deported or imprisoned. Counsel was often denied, they were not allowed contact with the outside world and they were often beaten and held in inhumane conditions. (So, Guantanamo was nothing new in America’s history!)

On January 2, 1920, in 33 cities across the United States, more than 4000 supposed radicals were arrested. The New York legislature expelled five socialist assemblymen and 32 states passed laws making it illegal to fly the red flag.

Eventually, saner heads prevailed. Twelve eminent lawyers published a report detailing and condemning the Justice Department’s abuse of civil liberties. The decision to bar the socialist assemblymen was treated with disgust by newspapers and many prominent politicians of the day.

Newspapers came out against proposed anti-sedition bills, in which they saw the seeds of censorship, and business leaders realised that deporting immigrants (many of whom were wrongly branded communist) was leading to the loss of cheap labour. Finally, the Red Scare fizzled out.

Before it did so, however, the propaganda techniques created by the Creel Commission in wartime had extended its tentacles into peace time and dealt a major blow to the left in the United States.

It also gave birth to the modern day public relations business which, with its agenda of controlling the public mind, has never looked kindly on the left, neither in peace time nor in time of war. But it has never been able to quite kill the left off, either.

It should not be forgotten that around the time the Creel Commission was inciting a pacifist population to war that, on the other side of the Atlantic, John McLean stood in the dock of the High Court in Edinburgh on May 9, 1918, charged with incitement to mutiny and sedition, and uttered the unforgettable words, I stand here, then, not as the accused, but as the accuser of capitalism, dripping with blood from head to foot.

State propaganda may commit vast resources to induce their populations to approve of their military ventures, but by putting a socialist perspective on the facts we can always see through the lies and deceptions and shine a light on their darkness.

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Mar 13 2007

The Republic of the Imagination

Category: Emancipation & Liberation,Issue 14RCN @ 8:46 pm

The Republic of the Imagination

In August 2006, Allan Armstrong interviewed the literary critic and poet John Manson about his life and works

Could you please give us some background information about your life?

John Manson

John Manson

I was born on a croft on the coast of the Pentland Firth in 1932. My mother was widowed in 1941. Within that year, 1941-2, she lost her husband, my father, and his brother, who lived with us (both to pneumonia), and her own brother, a wireless operator, whose ship was torpedoed. She worked until 1968 with no pension, except the old age pension at 60.

In 1950 I went to Aberdeen University to study English Literature and Language and completed the first three years. In the winter term of 1952-3, I attended David Murison’s Extra-Mural lectures on Scottish Literature and must have heard of Hugh MacDiarmid’s work there for the first time. At the same time I became interested in Franz Kafka and have followed the two strands of Scottish and European (and World) literature ever since. At the same time, or perhaps a little later, I began to read articles from a Marxist point of view, although I wasn’t living in class-conscious circumstances. I started to do some writing. This was the period of the Korean War, the colonial repression in Malaya and Kenya, and the suspension of the constitution in British Guiana.

At home in the summer of 1953 I began to have a partial breakdown of health (psychosomatic) – no hospitalization – and this went on for a few years. In 1955 my mother and I moved to a smaller place in Sutherland and I recovered my health there to a large extent. For the first time, I felt free from pressure. Later I qualified as a primary teacher and taught in Fife, Edinburgh and Dumfries and Galloway.

I began to read widely in literature. Of the novels I read at that time, I expect the works of Maxim Gorky and Mikhail Sholokhov would most stand rereading. I also read the trilogies of Konstantin Fedin and Alexei Tolstoy. When Dr. Zhivago, Lolita and One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich were published I read these as well. MacDiarmid published some of the Zhivago lyrics in The Voice of Scotland and introduced a selection of Pasternak’s work in a translation by his sister, Lydia Pasternak Slater (she moved to Britain before the Second World War).

The poets I read at that time were Christo Botev, the national poet of Bulgaria, in Paul Eluard’s French translation; Nicola Vaptsarov, also Bulgarian, who was shot by the Fascists; Martin Carter of (then) British Guiana, whose Collected Poems and Selected Prose, University of Hunger, was published in early 2006; and Nazim Hikmet, who is now regarded as the major poet of Turkey in the last century. I also became aware of Louis Aragon’s poetry in 1956, through his weekly paper, Les Lettres Francaises; and then read two of his 6 volume series, Les Communistes, and other novels in French. I still have a copy of a letter from Collet’s, listing eight volumes of Antonio Gramsci in Italian. Some of the other writers in whom I became interested at this time will emerge during my answers. I read the early works of Alan Sillitoe and Arnold Wesker, nearly all Ernest Hemingway and George Orwell, and at least one each of John Steinbeck, Sinclair Lewis, Erskine Caldwell and James T. Farrell.

How would you describe yourself in political terms?

A non-Party Socialist, since the dissolution of the CPGB

What do you see as the significance of the literary side of politics?

Politics is part of the public life of the times and it should be recreated as an important aspect of culture.

You see 1991 as forming a break in a certain period of literary politics. Why is this?

1991 witnessed the collapse of the Soviet Union and the dissolution of the Communist Party of Great Britain. It’s the end of an era in that sense, but not the end of other Communist Parties. It’s much more difficult to say how this affects the literary side of politics. The Portuguese Communist, Jose Saramago, won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1998, for example.

You see Hugh MacDiarmid as the most important literary figure in Scotland in the 20th century. Why is this?

MacDiarmid was a great lyrical and satirical poet and he was also a national regenerator through his anti-imperialist writing. He had enormous influence on other people, mostly when they were young and this influence extended to the worlds of art, music, history, language, philosophy, politics and economics as well as imaginative literature. He made the greatest single-handed contribution to ensure that Scotland would not be, as in the line from Tom Buchan’s poem, a one-way street to the coup of the mind. He wrote instead:

For freedom means that a lad or lass
In Cupar or elsewhaur yet
May alter the haill o’ human thocht
Mair than Christ’s altered it

I never set een on a lad or a lass
But I wonder gin he or she
Wi’ a word or deed’ll suddenly dae
An impossibility.

(Complete Poems, 1, pp. 257-8, Hugh MacDairmid, Manchester, 1993.)

MacDiarmid was at the centre of a number of political and literary controversies:

a. His alleged Scottish fascist past

b. The ‘bomb London’ poem from the Second World War(On the Imminent Destruction of London, in The Revolutionary Art of the Future – Rediscovered poems by Hugh MacDairmid, edited by John Manson, DorianGrieve and Alan Riach, Manchester, 2003.)

c. His ‘flytings’ with Hamish Henderson and Ewan MacColl.

What are your views on these particular issues?

MacDiarmid was never a Fascist in the sense of a supporter of a right-wing dictatorship; he didn’t belong to a Fascist group, for example. A study of his article in The Scottish Nation (1923), Programme for a Scottish Fascism, shows that he saw ‘a Scottish Fascism’ as Nationalist –

‘Scotland First’ for us as it was ‘Italy First’ for them’ – and Socialist – ‘… a Scottish Nationalist Socialism … will restore an atmosphere in which the fine, distinctive traits and tendencies of Scottish character which have withered in the foul air of our contemporary chaos, will once more revive.’

He thought that …Fascism in Italy must incline to the Left. He also quoted The Fascist Movement in Italian Life where Pietro Gorgolini says that,

Fascism understands the immense social importance of land, hence it condemns absentee and unproductive possession, which leaves vast tracts of land uncultivated that could be highly productive.

(Hugh MacDiarmid: Selected Prose, pp. 34-8, Alan Riach, editor, Manchester, 2000.)

Obviously, MacDiarmid thought this kind of ‘fascism’ could be applied to the Scottish Highlands but he failed to give weight to the fact that the Peasant Leagues were being broken up in Italy at this time. At the time MacDiarmid wrote the article he was a member of the Scottish Home Rule Association, the ILP and the No-More-War Movement through the League of Nations. He was also becoming interested in Social Credit.

Similarly, MacDiarmid took ideas from Wyndham Lewis’s book on Hitler (1931) which seemed to chime with his own.

Hitler’s ‘Nazis’ wear their socialism with precisely the difference which post-socialist Scottish nationalists must adopt. Class-consciousness is anathema to them, and in contradistinction to it they set up the principle of race consciousness.

(The Caledonian Antisyzygy and the Gaelic Idea in Essays of Hugh MacDiarmid, Duncan Glen, editor, London, 1969.)

He takes over the concept of ‘Blutsgefuhl’ or ‘blood feeling’. He equates Hitler’s attacks on ‘Leihkapital’ (loan capital) with Major Douglas’s (the main advocate of Social Credit). MacDiarmid was very impulsive and often wrote reviews and articles in great haste. MacDiarmid was certainly deceived by Hitler as a man in 1932-3.

Here are some quotations from his Free Man articles At the Sign of the Thistle:

In view of the recent discussion in Scotland of the necessity of militant action, readers should carefully weigh what [the poet] Mr [John] Gawsworth says:-[Hitler] is as much a prophet as Mahomet, Mussolini, or Lenin, but he is an armed prophet’.

Compare the mental calibre of the members of the Scottish Development Council with men like De Valera in Ireland, Hitler in Germany, Gandhi in India.
(9/7/32) The SDC had been formed in 1931.

… it is just this vital force, this resourcefulness and colour which attracts me in Hitler as, say, against the utter nullity of Sir Robert Horne or the horrible local preacherism, writ large, of Ramsay MacDonald.

I agree with Hitler in one thing – probably the only thing in which I do agree with him at all – and that is his doctrine that action must not negate propaganda.

b. MacDiarmid saw London as metropolitan city, the centre of empire.

c. MacDiarmids ‘flytings’ with Hamish Henderson were public. Ewan MacColl records his private discussions in his autobiography, Journeyman. MacColl writes:So why had he chosen to single out the folk revival as a special target for his venom? Because of the kailyard, the nineteenth century parochialism which had poisoned Scots literature and condemned it to a debilitated existence in the cabbage patch. MacDiarmid had rescued it and, with the help of a talented band of devotees, restored it to its proper role. And now it was being threatened again by vandals calling themselves folk-singers, by a movement which had within it seeds which, if allowed to germinate, would produce such a crop of weeds that the kailyard would triumph again. MacDiarmid’s fears were not entirely unfounded.
(Journeyman, an autobiography by Ewan MacColl, pp. 284-5, Ewan MacColl, London, 1990.)

Macdiarmid had positives as well as negatives. He drew attention to modern epics such as Pablo Neruda’s Canto General and Hikmet’s Human Landscapes.

Could you explain how you came to persuade MacDiarmid to fully publish his Third Hymn to Lenin?

On my first visit to Macdiarmid’s house, Brownsbank, in February 1955 I asked him if it had been published in full (one-third had already been published in Lucky Poet). I saw he made a mental note and he published it in the next issue of The Voice of Scotland in April. Almost fifty years later I discovered that it was originally written as part of The Red Lion project (in the mid-Thirties) and that he then realised that it could be regarded as a ‘third hymn’ – but it wasn’t directly conceived as a ‘hymn to Lenin’ like the first and second hymns. Although it does address Lenin in parts of the poem it is more of a ferocious attack on the housing conditions in Glasgow and on the modes of thought which allowed these conditions to exist.

MacDairmid: a great lyrical & satirical poet

MacDairmid: a great lyrical & satirical poet

How did you discover the material which formed the basis for The Revolutionary Art of the Future – rediscovered poems by Hugh MacDiarmid?

In 1990 the National Library of Scotland purchased (for £250,000) the archive of material which Kulgin Duval and Colin Hamilton had been buying from him in his lifetime. An American University would have paid double. This has been classified into 246 folders and notebooks. As soon as I opened one of these I realised that some important poems had remained unpublished through lack of opportunities at particular times.

Other people had realised this before but perhaps I made a more thorough search than they did and recorded them in typescript. I had made several (more limited) discoveries of uncollected and unpublished poetry and prose on previous occasions, e.g. From Work in Progress in Penguin (1970), now retitled Kinsfolk, and the eight stories in Annals of the Five Senses(1999).

Your house contains many photographs and maps of places associated with MacDiarmid. Do you see ‘place’ as being important in his work?

Yes. Langholm, his birthplace; Whalsay, where he lived in the 1930’s; and also Liverpool and London. In Liverpool he wrote the poems in the abcbdd stanza (with the truncated sixth line) which he didn’t use before or after, when he was thinking back to Langholm; and in London he began The Red Lion project perhaps because he joined the CP there in August 1934 and had also just read Allen Hutt’s pamphlet Crisis on Clydeside.

Scott Lyall’s book, Hugh MacDiarmid’s Poetry of Politics and Place was published last year by Edinburgh University Press.

You have also located unpublished Lewis Grassic Gibbon writings in your researches.

Gibbon signed a contract with Faber to write a biography of William Wallace. He never completed it, but I found the first ten pages in the National Library of Scotland. Gibbon presents Wallace, At the head of a force that bore the significant title of the ‘Army of the Commons of Scotland’ and that after his defeat at Falkirk, not again, tell on tale, did the Commons of Scotland gather to battle under their ain folk till the Covenanting times.(William Wallace – Knight of Scotland, Lewis Grassic Gibbon, with introduction Braveheart in Kinraddie by John Manson, in Cencrastus, no. 61.)

In an important literary/political debate in the 1930’s Lewis Grassic Gibbon and James Barke seemed to reject a Scottish national identity. Yet MacDairmid later claimed that Gibbon had become a supporter of a Scottish Workers Republic. What is your view of this?

MacDiarmid may have drawn this impression from his last meeting with Gibbon in Welwyn Garden City in September 1934 but there is no evidence for it in Gibbon’s writing. Less than five months later he was dead.

You have spent some time recently working on James Barke. What do you see his significance was/is in the literary side of politics?

I think The Land of the Leal remains an important popular novel. Major Operation should also be republished though it is spoiled a bit by speeches like MacKelvie’s on materialism (in the context of the novel).

Jim White, a long time member of the Communist Party, has claimed James Barke was a Party member. Why do you dispute this?

Jim only had Bill Cowe’s word for it. I’ve rehearsed the evidence in my essay, Did James Barke join the Communist Party? (Communist History Network Newsletter, 19, 2006, published by Politics section, School of Social Sciences, University of Manchester, M13 9PL, website)

Why do you think James Barke was a member of the Freemasons?

I’ve no evidence here. Maybe it was the Burns connection? He was also a member of the Boys Brigade 1920-22 and spoke warmly of the Brigade in an article in 1956 (among other organisations).

Sorley MacLean doesn’t appear to have figured as much as MacDiarmid, Barke or Gibbon in your work on the literary side of politics. Is there a reason for this?

The reason is that I have no Gaelic and am therefore dependent on translations of his work. I’ve read his poems and his prose collection Ris a’ Bhruthaich (1985) and Joy Hendry and Raymond Ross’s Critical Essays (1986), the interviews he gave, and I’ve also heard him reading.

You have translated several European writers, particularly from the ‘God That Failed’ tradition, e.g. the Italian, Ignazio Silone; from dissident communists, like Victor Serge; and you have been interested in and sympathetic to non-Communists like the Icelander, Halldor Laxness. Why do you draw from these traditions?

A misunderstanding here. I’ve only translated one letter of Silone from Italian and though I’ve translated two books and a number of articles by Victor Serge I only became aware of him in the 1970s. But I’ve certainly been reading and rereading Silone from time to time since the late Fifties initially because he recreated the life of peasant societies and later because he reveals the debates within the minds of some of his leading characters with regard to the Communist Party.

The poets from whom I have translated the most are Pablo Neruda (Chile), Louis Aragon (France) and Paul Eluard (France) – Communists, though Eluard was out of the Party for a decade, roughly 1932 to 1942. They had lifelong careers as authors and wrote intensely personal as well as political poetry – Resistance poetry in the case of Aragon and Eluard, anti-Franco and anti- Yankee poetry in the case of Neruda. Another poet I have translated, Cesar Vallejo (Peru), was also a Communist. But I’ve also translated from poets whose political positions cannot be so easily identified, e.g., Eugenio Montale (Italian), Constantine Cavafy (Greek), Manuel Bandeira (Brazilian), Henri Michaux (Belgian), whose work appears in my pamphlets.

Again I’ve read and reread Laxness since the late fifties, initially Independent People, about Icelandic crofters, and Salka Valka, about fishing communities (along with the Latvian, Vilis Lacis’s A Fisherman’s Son). I have read Max Frisch (Swiss), whose novels deal with questions of identity and who was also a great dramatist; Elias Canetti, Nobel prize-winner (1981), for his threevolume autobiography; Andre Malraux (France), for his novels of the political life of the Thirties; Albert Camus (France), for his stories and his posthumously published novel, The First Man, involving the search for his roots (Nobel prize-winner 1957); many of the works of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir (France), and more recently, the novels of the recently deceased Pramoeda Ananta Toer, who spent many years in the Indonesian gulag.

What attracted you, in particular, to Victor Serge, who has been part of the anarchist and Trotskyist tradition in the past?

I was first attracted to Serge in the 1970s through his novels, of which six have been translated into English (and one is currently being translated – Les Annees Sans Pardon. It was through Serge’s literary and historical works that I first became aware of the Left Opposition in the Communist Party; and this led to a much slighter knowledge of other Oppositionist novelists like Panait Istrati (Roumania) and Charles Plisnier (Belgium).

Why do you think there has been a resurgence of interest in Victor Serge recently?

I think Serge appeals because of his probity. But this doesn’t mean that I think he was right about all the positions he took up, particularly after the Second World War where he preferred the semi-dictatorship of the right to the Communist government which would have been in power if the ELASEAM hadn’t been defeated by our own forces (Carnets, p. 158, Victor Serge, Arles, 1985.). Recently I’ve heard that the well-known American essayist, the late Susan Sontag, wrote a preface to Serge’s The Case of Comrade Tulayev.

You are not just a literary critic and translator but also a poet. How important is this to you?

It is important to express my feelings but most of my poems are occasional rather than constructed to a theme. It’s only after they’re written that I begin to see the themes.

Why do you see the land as so important in a Scotland that has become very urbanised?

Simply my own experience.

I’ve lived the life and done the work. And it was also the experience of my forebears on both sides.

You have had a working relationship with the writer, David Craig. How did this develop?

I met David at Aberdeen University in 1951. In On The Crofters’ Trail (1990) which is dedicated to me as ‘poet and crofter’, David writes that … our discussions of literature and history have been incessant ever since.

How much influence have the places you have lived had upon you?

Caithness negative (as explained), Sutherland positive (my adopted county] West Fife positive, modern industry (then) and historical background, Edinburgh positive for its libraries and galleries.

You wrote to Emancipation & Liberation, in response to the article, Beyond Bayonets and Broadswords, which was trying to retrieve the revolutionary roots of Scottish Presbyterianism’s left wing. What prompted you to contribute to the wider discussion on Jacobites or Covenanters?

This was purely a literary interest, since the article made mention of MacDairmid’s literary use of the ‘white rose’. (Beyond Bayonets and Broadswords, Allan Armstrong, Emancipation & Liberation no. 5/6, and letter by John Manson, Emancipation & Liberation, no. 10.)

What is your view of the impact of Scottish Presbyterianism on society after your early experiences?

I found the impact of the particular brand of Presbyterianism with which I came into contact (when I was powerless myself) as harmful and repressive. I try to express this in my poem, To An Unconceived Child. Ian Macpherson’s Shepherd’s Calendar (1931) comes closest to my own experience. The author, Tom MacDonald (Fionn MacColla) called it nay-saying. (10 At the Sign of the Clenched Fist, p. 185, Fionn MacColla, Edinburgh, 1967.)

What literary projects are you currently involved in?

I’ve reconstructed the manuscript of Mature Art, which MacDiarmid hoped to publish with the Obelisk Press in Paris (before its occupation in 1940). After that he withdrew, and sometimes adapted, sections of the poem which he included in In Memoriam James Joyce (1955) and The Kind of Poetry I Want (1961). The poem has never been published in full and some parts remain unpublished. I’ve also found the plan of The Red Lion, but not all the parts.

A major project has been making a selection from the letters to MacDiarmid in the National Library of Scotland and Edinburgh University Library, which may well number fifteen thousand.

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