The first hero that I remember having was Duncan Edwards, the Manchester United footballer who was killed along with many others in the team in the Munich air crash of 1958. The second was Yuri Gagarin.
Sixty years ago today, Yuri Gagarin entered history as the first human being in space. A few years earlier, just before my 8th birthday, my father had taken the time to get me interested in the Soviet Union’s feat in putting Sputnik into space. I was entranced and remained an avid follower of the space race for decades. I followed the Russian dogs going up, and Gagarin’s flight was the obvious next step.
It wasn’t revealed for forty years that the cosmonaut ejected from the capsule before it crash-landed, parachuting to earth. And it was definitely sad for Gagarin that he was thereafter too valuable to put at threat and so he was never allowed to return to orbit. No matter. That first flight was a glorious triumph for mankind!
On March 18th 1871, the revolutionary, anti-religious, and radical socialist communards of Paris refused to accept the authority of the the French government, and for two months ruled the city in the name of the people.
The background to the uprising was the defeat of the French in its war against Prussia, the capture of Emperor Napoleon III, and a two month siege of the capital by the Prussians. During the siege, the city was defended by the local National Guard (not the regular Army). In February of 1871, the new French government signed an armistice with the Germans. In March, the French government attempted to take into their control the cannons that had defended Paris; they were rebuffed by local militia and the revolution began.
After a hastily arranged campaign, a governing Commune was elected on 27th March with a heavily-radical majority. The next day, in their first acts, the Communards abolished military conscription and the death penalty, and adopted the red flag rather than the tricolour. Over the following weeks, they imposed a policy of church and state separation, elimination of rents during the siege, and the right of employees to take over a business if the owners had fled. Canteens and orphanages were established throughout the city.
By March 20th the Thiers government at Versailles had raised enough troops (mainly returned prisoners of war) to start skirmishing with Commune forces on the outskirts of Paris. At the end of the month, the Commune decided to take the fight to Versailles, but their advance was quickly overwhelmed by French Army forces.
During April, the French forces pressed their attacks on Paris. The Commune established a Committee of Public Safety (the same project as operated the Reign of Terror in the 1790s) and arrests of suspected French allies began.
The final assault on the Commune by the forces of reaction began late in May. 60,000 government forces found a way inside the city and neighbourhood by neighbourhood they destroyed the communards. The National Guard had not expected the government forces to be able to enter the city and few barricades had been erected inside. The National Guard was greatly outnumbered and out-gunned by the government Army, and soon mass executions of Guard prisoners were taking place.
After a week of vicious street fighting, executions and counter-executions, the cemetery of Pere Lachese was the final holdout for the Commune. After a fight that lasted all day, the last 150 National Guard surrendered and were executed.
In the end, there were 7,300 casualties on the French Army side (of whom about 900 were killed), while the number of Commune defenders killed reached perhaps 10,000.
Anarchists played a large part in the activities of the Commune, and the subsequent death and imprisonment of anarchist leadership strongly affected the growth of the movement for decades thereafter. Marx, Lenin, Engels, Bakunin and others wrote about the Commune as the first great proletariat revolution.
The Paris Commune has been the inspiration for any number of later similar events, in Moscow, Petrograd, Shanghai, and elsewhere. The early Soviets adopted the red flag and called their Ministers Commissars in direct tribute to the events in Paris.
150 years ago today, Rosa Luxemburg was born in Zamosc, Poland. As a writer, editor, economist, philosopher, and organizer, Luxemburg was an important force in the early Communist movements in Germany.
While still a schoolgirl in Poland in the 1880s, she organized a general strike and was a member of the Proletarian Party. After fleeing to Switzerland to escape arrest, she studied at the University of Zurich where she was awarded a Doctorate of Law. After moving to Germany she co-founded the anti-war Spartacus League.
She opposed both Leninism and moderate social democracy, and was murdered by the proto-fascists after the Spartacist uprising of 1919.
Today would have been Nina Simone’s 87th birthday. She gave us such joy and passion and most importantly a withering and uncompromising understanding of the black condition in America. This review of a Simone biography is well worth reading. She was fierce in her joy and I love her for it.
Also, fifty-six years ago today, the revered Malcolm X was murdered by adherents of the Nation of Islam (NOI). At his funeral, Ossie Davis called him “our shining black prince”.
After years in the NOI’s leadership, Malcolm renounced the inherent racism of that organization and the alleged financial, political, and moral corruption of Elijah Mohammed. Without ever caving to white power, and maintaining his belief in the ultimate weapon of armed struggle, he sought, through Sunni Muslim beliefs, to raise the self-esteem of blacks in America.
Malcolm X’s Autobiography stands with Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech, and Nelson Mandela’s speech on his release from prison as the most influential statements of civil rights in the twentieth century.
Today is the 100th anniversary of the death of the Russian anarchist and scientist Pyotr Kropotkin.
Kropotkin was a proponent of a decentralised society free from government and based on voluntary associations of self-governing communities and worker-run enterprises. Among other books and articles he wrote the important Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution.
After spending most of his life in exile, he returned to Russia after the Revolution but was disillusioned by the Bolsheviks. He died of pneumonia aged 78.
One hundred and two years ago today, on 15th January 1919, the Spartacist heroes Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht were tortured and murdered by fascist Freikorps mercenaries of the German social democratic government.
Who remembers that government today? No-one. But the memory of the two heroes lives on in glory. As Luxemburg wrote on the day of her death, speaking as the embodiment of the masses: “I was. I am. I shall be!”
The Black Panther revolutionary Fred Hampton was murdered by the FBI, the Chicago Police department, and the Cook County Attorney General’s office on this day in 1969.
Among a host of other radically progressive actions in his short life, he founded the Rainbow Coalition, an organization that brought together the Black Panthers, Young Patriots and the Young Lords, and an alliance among major Chicago street gangs to help them end infighting and work for social change.
Fred Hampton was shot and killed in his bed during a predawn raid at his Chicago apartment.
Some idea of his significance to the culture of black progressivism can be found on YouTube where a search on “Fred Hampton” produces hundreds of items, including video recordings of his speeches. And quoting wikipedia:
“Jeffrey Haas, who, together with his law partners G. Flint Taylor and Dennis Cunningham and attorney James D. Montgomery, were the attorneys for the plaintiffs in the federal suit Hampton v. Hanrahan, wrote a book about these events. He said that Chicago was worse off without Hampton:
Of course, there’s also the legacy that, without a young leader, I think the West Side of Chicago degenerated a lot into drugs. And without leaders like Fred Hampton, I think the gangs and the drugs became much more prevalent on the West Side. He was an alternative to that. He talked about serving the community, talked about breakfast programs, educating the people, community control of police. So I think that that’s unfortunately another legacy of Fred’s murder.”
Fred Hampton and his groups showed that there was an alternative to Dr. King’s firm moderation, and both were shot down for speaking up for the people against the power.
Since its establishment by the United Nations in 1977, this date has been “celebrated” (or, more often, sadly mourned) as the Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People.
“Let us together resolve to renew our commitment to the Palestinian people in their quest to achieve their inalienable rights and build a future of peace, dignity, justice and security. ”- United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres.
Each year, as their territory and their rights are gradually eliminated, this resolution becomes ever more important.
1123 — the first numbers in the Fibonacci sequence — allows us to celebrate November 23rd as Fibonacci Day. This is in honour of Italian Leonardo Bonacci of Pisa who discussed the sequence in 1202.
The Fibonacci sequence goes as follows: 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, 144 and on to infinity. Each number is the sum of the previous two. They were known in India well before Fibonacci and were called Virahanka numbers.
It might seem just like a simple mathematician’s trick, but the Fibonacci sequence is found throughout nature. For example, the petals on flowers follow the sequence — most flowers have three (like lilies and irises), five (parnassia, rose hips) or eight (cosmea), 13 (some daisies), 21 (chicory), 34, 55 or 89 (asteraceae). Spirals, such as in pine cones or conch shells, are also built up in Fibonacci sequences.
One could spend an entire Fibonacci Day finding more examples, from spiral galaxies to DNA sequences to fractal diagrams.