If you want peace, prepare for antiwar

My first album was Rock Against Bush, a punk collaboration with proceeds going to fight against George W Bush’s campaign for re-election. It was 2004 — I was ten — and I had spent much of the past year in the backseat of a minivan in rural Manitoba, recurrent scenes of yellow canola and white snow overlaid with ceaseless radio reports of the war in Iraq and the early stages of the Global War on Terror.

This was my introduction to politics as such: normally a catch-all euphemism for decisions over life and death, its deeper meaning was on full and open display that year, formulated in the “shock and awe” doctrine of Bush’s neoconservative revival. There was no pussyfooting around the question of power. The message was loud and clear: America was not a country to be fucked with.

This act of blatant warmongering ignited one of the most profound events in world history. The antiwar protests of 2003-4 drew together much of the world against American imperialism. The global unity of that moment was unprecedented; the despair and fury inescapable. In a certain sense, of course, the movement failed: the war was started; it has not yet ended. But its symbolic resonance at that time was powerful enough to unite, however temporarily, uncountable disparate movements and groups into an organised, everyday resistance.

As the war dragged on, shock and awe gave way to monotony and apathy. The violence of the Global War on Terror was normalised. As 43 turned into 44, the doctrine of regime change and nation building was replaced: the goal was no longer to eradicate terrorism, it was to manage it. War was bureaucratised and drone strikes became a weekly occurrence. The last vestiges of the antiwar movement, which had long since petered out, were subsumed into Obama’s unfulfilled promise for change.

The war is ongoing but it passes unremarked. Organisations of a certain ideological stripe still actively oppose it, but they lack the popular support and everyday appeal they enjoyed in 2003. “Boots on the ground” may be unpopular, but even Bernie Sanders, the “radical” hero of the resurgent left, supports drones and strikingly refuses to challenge the military industrial complex.

But in the last few weeks I have heard low, rumbling echoes of the antiwar sentiment so formative to my understanding of politics. America’s missiles strikes in Syria, its sixteen million dollar “mother of all bombs”, and its aircraft carriers looming threateningly over the Korean peninsula are the Trumpian version of Bush’s shock and awe. Let me be clear: there is no fundamental difference between the militarism of the 45th president and that of the 44th and the 43rd. But his brute, blatant bellicosity leaves far less room for doubt. It certainly cannot be ignored.

So let us be ready: The response of the world to the explosive violence of 2003 was a unified global outcry led not by states, but by activists, organisers, community groups — and punk bands. If, as many expect, Trump launches a new major war, the antiwar movement should be ready to spring into action immediately, organising incessantly to reforge the global struggle for peace.

We must learn from the mistakes of the past: we can no longer pretend the problem is any particular president or doctrine. 46 will be no better. We must challenge the foundational belief that war is an acceptable means of regulating global affairs to the benefit of the United States. International resistance will not be enough: as the Iraq war demonstrated, it is all too easy for American elites to wage war unilaterally. American bodies must be at the frontlines of the resistance. Neither will verbal dissent suffice. Elites do not need popular support when they have power. That basis of power must be challenged as well.

Outright war could return at any moment, instantly transforming the public into a potential resistance. In the absence of a flashpoint, the burden will be on antiwar activists to organise opposition to the new status quo of perpetual war. We must prepare immediately. There is no alternative.

 

Dictionary of Radical Euphemism

When I’m talking politics with non-radical family, friends, acquaintances, and strangers, I’m sometimes forced to use euphemism so they don’t dismiss me for using scary words like Communism or Expropriation. I often wonder what they’d think if they had some way of decoding it…

Voila! A list of my most commonly-used euphemisms and what they really mean.

  • Book clubAn insurrectionary organisation that wants to destroy everything you hold dear.
  • Boring: Anything that is not rapidly accelerating the inevitable collapse of capitalism.
  • Cheaper pharmaceuticals: The abolition of the money-form of value, the appropriation of the productive forces by the worker, the end of alienated labour, and the free provision of the means of sustenance to all.
  • Common assumption :  Liberal bourgeois propaganda, bullshit.
  • Current economic system: A tyrannical form of society built largely on historical slavery, racism, and sexism in which the suffering masses are condemned to spend almost their entire lives toiling for the private profit of a few god-kings, ie., capitalism.
  • Different form of society: FULLY  AUTOMATED  LUXURY  SPACE  COMMUNISM  !
  • Economists: Marx, Gramsci,  Connolly, Luxemburg…
  • End police brutality: End police.
  • GovernmentThe government, the state, the media, movie theatres, large businesses, small businesses, your work-from-home uncle, universities, high schools, daycare twitter, facebook, google, Donald Trump, Elon Musk, Nigel Farage, NATO, NORAD, NAFTA, NASA, NSA, FBI, CIA, GCHQ, CSIS, ISIS, the United Nations, UNESCO, UNICEF,  lizard people and the Queen.
  • Historians:  Marx, Gramsci,  Connolly, Luxemburg…
  • History: Millennia of oppression.
  • Philosophers:  Marx, Gramsci,  Connolly, Luxemburg…
  • Political activism: Armed revolution.
  • Political scientists:  Marx, Gramsci,  Connolly, Luxemburg…
  • Property: Theft.
  • Rational discussion: Breaking windows and punching nazis in their f**king faces.
  • Reduce military spending: Abolish the military, the United States, and NATO.
  • Sociologists: Marx, Gramsci,  Connolly, Luxemburg…
  • Someone I know: A comrade I follow on twitter who I’d choose over you any day.
  • TirednessDespair bound up inseparably with existential angst and depression at the unspeakable horror unfolding around me in every waking moment.
  • We know (that): Marx wrote (that).
  • World peace: The destruction of all states and the liberation of humanity.

On Ur-Populism

This post was written in response to one that appeared on The Laurentian Consensus, which argues in favour of a definition of populism based on the wisdom and participation of ordinary people. Laurent is onto something with his definition and his post is well worth reading, but as I don’t feel a particular commitment to populism as a term, I’m more interested in understanding how it is used in contemporary political “analysis” — it’s vague, yes, inconsistent, yes, but I think we can identify some broad trends. After all, words don’t ever have NO meaning.

The fact that Trump and Sanders, SYRIZA and Hitler (and a whole host of others) have been called populist shows it doesn’t have much to do with the traditional left-right spectrum or with particular policy commitments. I think there are similarities though in rhetorical style and campaign strategy. I’m reminded of Umberto Eco’s Ur-Fascism, particularly this bit:

Fascism was philosophically out of joint, but emotionally it was firmly fastened to some archetypal foundations.

So we come to my second point. There was only one Nazism. We cannot label Franco’s hyper-Catholic Falangism as Nazism, since Nazism is fundamentally pagan, polytheistic, and anti-Christian. But the fascist game can be played in many forms, and the name of the game does not change. The notion of fascism is not unlike Wittgenstein’s notion of a game. A game can be either competitive or not, it can require some special skill or none, it can or cannot involve money. Games are different activities that display only some “family resemblance,” as Wittgenstein put it…

Fascism became an all-purpose term because one can eliminate from a fascist regime one or more features, and it will still be recognizable as fascist. Take away imperialism from fascism and you still have Franco and Salazar. Take away colonialism and you still have the Balkan fascism of the Ustashes.

We tend to think of politics in terms of programs, which usually means defined sets of policies, but even revolutionary politics can be seen as advancing programs of anti-capitalism, anti-racism, and the like.  I think this is the most important element of politics, but it’s obvious that other things matter. Imagery, for instance, plays a big role: mainstream politicans’ religious message discipline, icon worship, and personal stylists are evidence of that.  But I think Eco is onto something big when he centres style in politics and I see no reason this emphasis should be limited to fascism.  Being the semiotician that he is, Eco writes about a discursive or cognitive style: the way thoughts and objects are linked together to form ideas. However, it doesn’t take much to see how this kind of style spills over into political rhetoric, political strategy, political action, and — heaven help us — political regimes. (This is, in my view, a major reason why terms like fascism and populism and neoliberalism are so vaguely defined: Mussolini the fascist pig is qualitatively different from Officer Bubbles the fascist pig, but there’s nevertheless a family resemblance in their political style.)

“But in spite of this fuzziness,” can we identify the features of Ur-Populism, or Eternal Populism? To me the answer’s clearly yes, and though I don’t want to get into a rigorous analysis here, I’ll conclude with a few thoughts on what some of them might be. Laurent has already identified key elements of populism: participatory democracy and belief in ordinary people. (A classmate of mine suggested one difference between left-wing and right-wing populism: left-wing populism tends to be about remaking society to raise ordinary people to their full potential, while right-wing populism is about celebrating ordinary people and their society as they already are.)

  • If there’s one indispensable feature of populism, it’s mass appeal: sometimes it’s implicit, often explicit, but populism tries to unite a large group of people under its wing. This doesn’t have to be a majority — Trump, for instance, is making no attempt to appeal to 50%+1 of Americans — but represents a sizeable chunk of the population nonetheless. In some respects, this is true of all mainstream politics, but populism is unique in elevating this above all other aims. The Liberal Party of Canada’s “big tent” strategy is one of the best examples of this.
  • Mass appeal tends to be anti-establishment. This is true many of the most ready examples of populists, including the four I cited at the beginning: Trump, Sanders, SYRIZA and Hitler. Again, it’s not an uncommon political strategy, but populists tend to emphasise this aspect of their politics even after they’ve attained power.
  • Anti-establishment politics promise sweeping change. Populists don’t get into power by promising to raise the capital gains tax inclusion rate from 50% to 55%, or by suggesting a minor reduction in the size of the civil service. They win by promising novelty, abolition, replacement, transformation, reform, and revolution.

The more I think about it, the more populism today appears to be a catch-all term, but appearances aren’t necessarily reality and in this case I think it’s a strength. The business of government today is, to quote Laurent, “increasingly centralized, expert and de-politicized”. This is inevitably going to alienate swathes of voters, so it’s no surprise that parties adopt populist rhetoric to compensate — just as neoliberals promise transparency and accountability as they privatise public functions, or low spending and balanced budgets even as they encourage everyday citizens to sell their souls to capital by taking on a lifetime’s worth of various forms of debt. Any magician will tell you that misdirection is the only trick in the book, so in an age of post-democracy, everyone’s a populist.

James Connolly on practical politics

LET US BE PRACTICAL. WE WANT SOMETHING PR-R-RACTICAL.

Always the cry of hum-drum mediocrity, afraid to face the stern necessity for uncompromising action. That saying has done more yeoman service in the cause of oppression than all its avowed supporters.

The average man dislikes to be thought unpractical, and so, while frequently loathing the principles or distrusting the leaders of the particular political party he is associated with, declines to leave them, in the hope that their very lack of earnestness may be more fruitful of practical results than the honest outspokenness of the party in whose principles he does believe.

In the phraseology of politics, a party too indifferent to the sorrow and sufferings of humanity to raise its voice in protest, is a moderate, practical party; whilst a party totally indifferent to the personality of leaders, or questions of leadership, but hot to enthusiasm on every question affecting the well-being of the toiling masses, is an extreme, a dangerous party.

Yet, although it may seem a paradox to say so, there is no party so incapable of achieving practical results as an orthodox political party; and there is no party so certain of placing moderate reforms to its credit as an extreme – a revolutionary party.

The possessing classes will and do laugh to scorn every scheme for the amelioration of the workers so long as those responsible for the initiation of the scheme admit as justifiable the ‘rights of property’; but when the public attention is directed towards questioning the justifiable nature of those ‘rights’ in themselves, then the master class, alarmed for the safety of their booty, yield reform after reform – in order to prevent revolution.

Moral – Don’t be ‘practical’ in politics. To be practical in that sense means that you have schooled yourself to think along the lines, and in the grooves those who rob you would desire you to think.

In any case it is time we got rid of all the cant about ‘politics’ and ‘constitutional agitation’ in general. For there is really no meaning whatever in those phrases.

Every public question is a political question. The men who tell us that Labor questions, for instance, have nothing to do with politics, understand neither the one nor the other. The Labor question cannot be settled except by measures which necessitate a revision of the whole system of society, which, of course, implies political warfare to secure the power to effect such revision.

If by politics we understand the fight between the outs and ins, or the contest for party leadership, then Labor is rightly supremely indifferent to such politics, but to the politics which center round the question of property and the administration thereof Labor is not, cannot be, indifferent.

To effect its emancipation Labor must reorganize society on the basis of labor; this cannot be done while the forces of government are in the hands of the rich, therefore the governing power must be wrested from the hands of the rich peaceably if possible, forcibly if necessary.

In the phraseology of the master class and its pressmen the trade unionist who is not a Socialist is more practical than he who is, and the worker who is neither one nor the other but can resign himself to the state of slavery in which he was born, is the most practical of all men.

The heroes and martyrs who in the past gave up their lives for the liberty of the race were not practical, but they were heroes all the same.

The slavish multitude who refused to second their efforts from a craven fear lest their skins might suffer were practical, but they were soulless serfs, nevertheless.

Revolution is never practical – until the hour of the Revolution strikes. Then it alone is practical, and all the efforts of the conservatives and compromisers become the most futile and visionary of human imaginings.

For that hour let us work, think and hope; for that hour let us pawn our present ease in hopes of a glorious redemption; for that hour let us prepare the hosts of Labor with intelligence sufficient to laugh at the nostrums dubbed practical by our slave-lords, practical for the perpetuation of our slavery; for that supreme crisis of human history let us watch, like sentinels, with weapons ever ready, remembering always that there can be no dignity in Labor until Labor knows no master.

– Socialism Made Easy, 1909

A memory of James Connolly – Cathal O’Shannon

 

A lovely account of James Connolly by a man who knew him well. It originally served as the introduction to a 1950s edition of Labour in Ireland. As this edition is not readily available, I have transcribed it and posted it here. Further information and PDF download at the bottom.

[ix]

Nobody who ever met James Connolly could fail to carry away the impression that he was an exceptional man. Nobody who ever talked to him on a serious matter could fail to be convinced that he was a man possessed of the essential qualities of greatness. And at this distance of time, when it is possible to arrive at a conception of some, but not the full measure of his life-work and achievement, to estimate the effect of his thought his writings and his actions on history, it can scarcely be denied that in Connolly there was more than a touch of genius.

In stature and in appearance the living Connolly would not have suggested to the casual observer that there were any outstanding qualities or merits in the man. He was short, rather squat, broadly and sturdily built, with unusual breadth of shoulders. But a close examination revealed that what Francis Sheehy-Skeffington called his bullet head carried a countenance and eyes that could belong only to a man who gave himself to hard and accurate thinking, to boring as it were right into the centre of a problem, and to judging and weighing a man or a measure with a penetrative analysis that left no room for doubt of its thoroughness.

These qualities of Connolly’s were seen at their best in his private conversations, in committee work, in public speech, and his writings. Few men indeed reflected their real selves so clearly in their writings as Connolly did, and even now, those who had the honour of knowing him intimately, can hear the very accent of him as they re-read the articles and books he wrote.

It would not be quite accurate to say that he spoke slowly. But he was not a rapid speaker and he always spoke with great [x] deliberation and carefulness. And he was never hesitant or halting, although he had had in early life to conquer, by sheer force of will, a natural impediment in speech. This gave to his pronunciation of certain words an uncommon peculiarity ; and this actually helped to emphasise the feeling of deliberation and of carefulness which his spoken words conveyed.

To hear a lecture or speech of Connolly’s was a memorable experience. But it was much more than that ; in a very real sense it was part of a good working-class education. Since 1910, when I first heard him, I have heard every prominent speaker in Ireland, most of the big Labour men in Great Britain, and some of the best speakers among the Continental Socialists. But somehow or other Connolly’s addresses had something in them different and apart from any I have heard anywhere. He was not exactly a great orator, although he could rise to oratory too. But he had a method, a style, a manner that exactly fitted and adorned the splendid material he used in his speeches. He was never slipshod, never flamboyant, but always earnest, simple and informative. He spoke as one who had carefully thought out what he was going to say, and before saying a single word he had obviously chosen just the right words that would convey his meaning and his message. His sentences came then freely and naturally enough, and every word told effectively.  And in a single speech his was master of all the styles every aspect of his subject required. But he never played to the gallery. He always had respect for the intelligence of his audience, and he invariably suited the form of his address and the manner of presenting his argument to the particular audience before him. The result was that from Connolly you got a cogent, coherent and reasoned statement of a case, presented in the clearest manner, illustrated by the most telling allusions, with the argument marshalled in the coldest and calmest fashion, yet warmed with the burning fire of sincerity and sympathy. And it was always chock-full of good [xi] stuff, as informative and as educative as his writings, but never put in a school-masterly way and never above—nor yet below—the heads of those listening to him.

The effect of Connolly’s oratory was remarkable. If it did not arouse the wild and whirling enthusiasm evoked by the outburst of a demagogue, it created enthusiasm of a different kind. It compelled assent as well as respect, it carried conviction and it aroused enthusiasm of the more lasting kind, a quiet, enduring enthusiasm which forced the hearer to act on Connolly’s side rather than cheer his words. Need I say that to secure that effect his public speech had enough of the element of passion to stir the heart as well as the head? But it was passion that was kept under control, and all the time emphatically the product, not of rhetoric, but of conviction and a red-hot sincerity.

It has been said, and with a certain amount of truth, that there was an aloofness about Connolly, a coldness which did not attract, a something which did not permit him to be known intimately by the generality of people—in short that he was difficult to know. So far as that was true, it was, I think, because he was essentially the thinker as well as the man of action. He was never the hail-fellow-well-met kind of person, and he never professed an over-flowing geniality which, with most of those who display it, is generally on the surface. But to speak of Connolly as cold and aloof is to speak only half the truth. To those who knew him he was the most intimate of friends and colleagues, and if once you penetrated his outward mask of reserve you found as warm-hearted a man, as genial a companion, as close a comrade, as sympathetic a confidant as man could desire. That is certainly the impression he left on me, whether I regard him as personal friend, or as associate in public and national affairs, or as mentor and comrade in trade union activity, in political council, in industrial struggle and conflict. Above all he gave you a feeling of confidence, not only in his judgment, not only in his knowledge, not only in his principles [xii] but in himself as man, as friend, as leader, and it was a confidence for which he gave you reasoned, reasonable, and convincing foundation. Some of that confidence he conveyed to his audience, whether a small committee or a public meeting, critical or uncritical. And if you were worthy of it—but only if you were worthy of it—he made you his own confidant, unbared himself to you and, as even those who heard him once only at public meetings will remember, he had an excellent seasoning of humour for even the most serious things he said or did.

As a leader Connolly’s outstanding qualities were his foresight, his dogged courage and determination, and his basing of his every act of life on what might be called his working class outlook and philosophy. To say that is not to say that Connolly’s head was in the clouds in the vulgar sense of that expression. Far from it, for indeed his feet stood firmly on the solid earth and no Irishman of his generation was more realist than he. But he had high ideals and big aims, and his principles were definite and fixed. They had become part of himself at a comparatively early age, and were developed and expanded in later years. But in the fullness of his manhood there was nothing academic about his philosophy. It was practical and realistic, and, while he did not abandon any jot or tittle of his principles, he never hesitated to fit his action to the circumstances of the time and the position in which he found himself. In this respect he very nearly approached the ideal of leadership—he was in the van and actually led, because he knew where he was going and why he was going there, and he took steps to carve out his own path. On the way to his goal, he knew he would meet with obstacles and difficulties, but they must be surmounted, and if to surmount them called for time and patience and occasionally for a step or two backward, Connolly would not hesitate, but would suffer the delay, not gladly indeed, but recognising that rebuffs of this kind must be met and endured. But all the [xiii] time he kept in marching order ; and his eye was fixed steadily on the ultimate goal. Someone—I think it was Jim Connell, the author of “ The Red Flag ”—said that Connolly seemed to care little whether other people agreed with him or not, but that he took care that he was right, whatever other people might think or do. That gives a true impression of Connolly and it is of the very essence of leadership. He used to put it in another way. Irishmen, he would say, have plenty of physical courage but they lack moral courage. Connolly’s moral courage was as much a part of himself as his physical courage, and it is a quality without which there is no real leadership.

Connolly’s philosophy of the Labour movement, I have said, was definitely working-class. He was of the working class, and his aim was the advancement of the working class to power. He made no bones about that, he was quite frank about it, and he never turned aside from it. His every thought, his every word, his every act was never for a moment divorced from the hard, and often hellish, realities of the life of the working class.

“ The working class,” he said, “ can think and speak only in language as hard and definite as its life. We have no room for illusions in our struggle, least of all for illusions about freedom.” Hence he was the ruthless enemy of humbug, hypocrisy, pretence and, as he said, he was a bigot in his opposition to these shams. But this bigotry was reasoned and deliberate. It was not the result of mere blind prejudice, it was a product of knowledge of the facts of life, of the realities,  “ hard and definite,” of the conflict between classes.

That was why he recognised that the political strength of Labour depended on its industrial strength. “ Without the power of the industrial union behind it,” he said, “ Democracy can only enter the State as the victim enters the gullet of the serpent. Therefore political power must, for the working classes, come straight out of the industrial battlefield as the expression of the organised economic force of Labour ; else it cannot come at all. [xiv] With Labour properly organised upon the industrial and political field each extension of the principle of public ownership brings us nearer to the re-conquest of Ireland by its people ; it means the gradual resumption of the common ownership of all Ireland by all the Irish—the realisation of Freedom.”

Cathal O’Shannon

 

Biographical note

James Connolly was born in 1868 of Co. Monaghan parents and was reared in Scotland. In 1896 he came to Ireland and in Dublin founded the Irish Socialist Republican Party and its organ The Workers’ Republic. After some years in the United States he established the Irish Socialist Federation in New York in 1907 and a monthly The Harp in 1908.

Returning to Ireland in 1910 he joined Cumannacht na hÉireann, the Socialist Party of Ireland, became a member of the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union, and in 1911 was appointed the Union’s Belfast Secretary and Organiser for Ulster. He took an Active part in Dublin’s big Labour war in 1913-14 and in October 1914 became Acting General Secretary of the Union and Commandant of the Irish Citizen Army.

In 1915 he issued a new weekly series of The Workers’ Republic and through it and arming and training the Irish Citizen Army he campaigned vigorously for insurrection.

Co-opted a member of the Military Council of the Irish Republican Brotherhood in 1916, he signed at Easter the Proclamation of the Irish Republic with the six other members of the Provisional Government. As Commandant General of the Dublin Division of the Army of the Republic he directed the insurgent operations in the city. Seriously wounded, he was court-martialled after surrender, and was executed by a British firing squad on May 13, 1916, in Kilmainham Jail.

 


Transcription note:

Transcribed from the original publication, to which it formed the introduction. The biographical note at the end of the document followed the author’s attribution. Page numbers are in square brackets. The original spelling and punctuation have been preserved. —JB

 

Original bibliographic information:

O’Shannon, Cathal. “Introduction”, Labour in Ireland. Fleet Street, Dublin at the Sign of the Three Candles. n.d. (ca. 1950).

Download PDF: James Connolly, Cathal O’Shannon.