Fifty-five years ago this week, a Vietnamese nun poured gasoline and set fire to herself in Hue. Twenty-five years ago today, Timothy Leary died in his sleep.
After all these years, I honestly don’t know whether Dr. Leary’s work helped us understand why the monk’s death was important to us, or whether he helped mask us from the true meaning by taking us elsewhere. Many saw no conflict in actively protesting and actively tripping. In fact, many claimed then that the “enlightenment” received through herbal and chemical stimulation was an important component of our political activism. These days, I wonder more often whether we were just bullshitting ourselves and simply following the pleasure principle.
In the end, of course, both the revered Buddhist martyr and the revered western materialist trod the same path into being and nothingness.
The class conflict driving the revolt had been building for decades. Labour shortage followed the devastation of the 1348-’49 Black Death, meaning that labourers could make new demands and seek new opportunities, though the lords did not cave in. 1351’s Statute of Labourers was one parliamentary response which involved trying to cap wages, restrict mobility, and keep serfs tied to the land, and this contributed further to the ongoing resentments. But the more immediate causes of the 1381 uprising included the introduction of new taxes, the most infamous of which was the 1380 poll tax and its heavy-handed collection.
On 30th May 1381, a group of Essex peasants, armed, refused attempts to collect the tax. After the protesters had raised hell in Essex, Kent, and London — and beheaded the Archbishop of Canterbury among others –they even negotiated with King Richard II, demanding the end of serfdom, the pardon of criminals, and the removal of corrupt royal advisors. Richard II agreed to the demands but Tyler was killed in June at a meeting, and the King quickly raised a force that brutally suppressed the uprising over the next few months.
Historians debate the importance of the Revolt to English history. What is not in doubt is that 1381 Revolt became a touchstone for socialist thinkers in the nineteenth century. As William Morris wrote in A Dream of John Ball, people win and lose battles yet ‘the thing that they fought for comes about in spite of their defeat, and when it comes turns out not to be what they meant,’ and so others ‘have to fight for what they meant under another name.’
Today is the 51st anniversary of Ohio National Guardsman shooting dead four unarmed students at Kent State. Eleven other kids were injured.
Although the President’s Commission on Campus Violence equivocated and blamed both Guardsmen and students, it did finally conclude that “the indiscriminate firing of rifles into a crowd of students and the deaths that followed were unnecessary, unwarranted, and inexcusable.”
It was murder, pure and simple, though the US justice system refused to press charges against the Guardsmen. After all, as Nixon himself said just a few days before the massacre, student protesters were just bums.
Sometime in the mid-1960s, I read a novel by Franz Werfel called Forty Days of Musa Dagh. It told how a number of Armenian villages refused to be exterminated by the Ottoman Empire without a fight in 1915. I have no Armenian or Turkish background, but it was such a stirring story of heroic resistance against a racist holocaust that the memory of their struggle stayed as a bright light in my consciousness.
Over the years, on occasion, a politician or two has bruited the idea of declaring the Turkish actions as genocide and I have cheered them on. Now, finally, with Joe Biden we have a US President who is willing to stand up and say it.
There is no doubt that the current Turkish regime will shout and complain about this “insult” to a fellow NATO member. But frankly, the Erdogan regime, a semi-fascist state already, doesn’t deserve to be in NATO and is quite happy to commit another genocide against its own Kurdish people in a continuation of its bigoted behaviour. Perhaps if we properly remember the slaughter of the Armenians we might have some chance of stopping such atrocities in the future.
Sixty years ago today, the Cuban people fought back bravely against the United States government-sponsored invasion by those who would put the corrupt Mob casino bosses and American corporations back in charge of their beautiful country.
Agreeing to the Bay of Pigs invasion — America returning to type — was probably the most inept decision ever taken by John Kennedy. Within hours, the CIA-backed invaders were already lost, and the whole enterprise collapsed within two days. Hundreds of combatants died and more than 1,000 “exiles” were captured and held for an extended period.
The invasion hardened attitudes to the States throughout the region, made Castro an even bigger hero than he was already, and strengthened Che’s revolutionary hand within the Politbureau. It was a major failure by every possible metric and is still celebrated as such. The U.S. cannot forgive the Cubans for this defeat, and thus we have had several generations of economic, diplomatic, and military sanctions against Cuba.
Also today, after more than 60 years, we celebrate the retirement of Roaul Castro, last survivor of the revolutionary leadership that defeated, first, Batista and the Mafia, and then the U.S. government.
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.
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.
Do you remember a year or two back when it was impossible to escape the marketing web for fidget spinners. They were everywhere, everyone gave them away. Looking further back, at just about the time I got interested in girls, the hula hoop was king. Well, even before that there was a time when the fad was yo-yos:
Image: Vancouver Sun, 1933/4/19, p.12
Good to see our local shops were keeping up with the trends!
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!”
On a cold morning 130 years ago today, the US cavalry massacred more than 250 disarmed Lakota men, women, and children near Wounded Knee Creek in South Dakota. A few days earlier they had murdered the great chief Sitting Bull.
The massacre at Wounded Knee was one of the final and most vicious military acts in the government’s century-long plan of genocide against native Americans, and twenty soldiers earned the Medal of Honor for their part in the brutal affair.
We must never forget that the American’s vaunted Manifest Destiny meant death for millions of indigenous peoples.