Behind the symbolism of statues lies a more fundamental battle over the reality of British racism, past and present, argues John Westmoreland
Amid the hand-wringing, sermonising waffle in the mainstream media one particular charge against protesters fighting institutionalised racist murder is gaining traction in the mainstream media.
It has been difficult to brand the protesters, who are clearly on the right side of the argument, as mere looters and thugs and make it stick. Boris Johnson and Priti Patel can barely conceal their hatred of mass democracy, but they have had to temper it.
The chosen ground for their main attack seems to be a culture war where they hope to draw academic opinion to their side, while smearing the protests with the charge of cultural vandalism.
The Daily Mail is leading the charge on this culture wars front. Sarah Vine writes about statue removal as “toppling our history”.
“Where this will end I do not know. As I write, Labour-led councils across Britain are threatening the future of any statues deemed to be offensive to the new cultural commissars … I can see a not-too-distant future where it’s not the likes of Colston being torn down, but Winston Churchill who’s being evicted from Parliament Square.”
Her concern she says is that ‘our history’ would be ‘wiped away’.
By ‘our history’ Vine clearly means national history – the history of the nation written and guarded by the Tories. And Vine should know. When her husband, Michael Gove, was Minister for Education he attempted to turn history into a national narrative based on H.E Marshall’s ‘Our Island Story: A History of Britain for Boys and Girls from the Romans to Queen Victoria’.
The Tories favour history that denies class and any form of history from below. Working-class history, black history, women’s history have all been fiercely resisted by Tory Education Ministers. This turns ‘our’ history into little more than a justification of the nation’s past.
The statues and street names dedicated to prominent ruling class figures are intended to make us feel proud of our country and those who have led it, and accept our lot as the best it could be. With noble and enlightened figures steering the ship of state there is little active role for us other than to obey. And our obedience itself is a crucial part of the story.
History books record our protests, or at least the main ones, but remind us that we failed to change much, and soon came round to enlightened government once our grievances were brought to the attention of the great and good.
A national history is one where the leaders are celebrated as the history makers and the working class is acknowledged for submitting to their rule.
Dissatisfaction with national history is surfacing. The domination of Whitehall by the statues of imperialists, racists and warmongers is an assertion of ruling class values, and an insult to all those on the receiving end.
The toppling of statues is therefore more than an affront to Tory sensibilities. It is a direct challenge to class rule and the national consensus they depend on.
A new history is possible
In the fallout from the BLM protests, young activists are asking why they didn’t get taught about Colston, slavery, and colonialism. It’s a good question. Education needs to be taken over as well as our public spaces.
We clearly need an alternative to national history. Our history is a weapon in our liberation. We may be on the dawn of a turning point in the history of ideas if our side wins.
In particular, we need to learn about how history is made with a view to empowering the coming generation to make history for themselves, because a history that can help us end oppression, stop war and save the planet is urgent.
This doesn’t mean tearing up history books and destroying the architectural and cultural heritage that has been bequeathed to us, as people like Sarah Vine claim. Rather there needs to be a renaissance in analytical history that can uproot the liberal consensus that has been stifling the subject.
A democratised curriculum explored through teaching and research and credited by peer approval might seem like a distant dream. But right now there is an excellent opportunity for teachers and students to press their case.
Marxist histories are at a premium.
Culture and revolution
Culture is contested at all major turning points in history. Cultural icons are destroyed and created as contending classes battle for supremacy.
Tribes that battled the Roman Empire destroyed Roman culture when they got the upper hand. When Boudicca and her forces defeated the Romans at Colchester they chucked the statue of the Emperor Claudius in a river. The Romans exterminated rebellious tribes and erased their cities when they were victorious, as when they wiped out Carthage.
The reformation saw the destruction of churches and their statues, to sever links with the papacy and assert the rights of the Tudor dynasty.
When Parisians took control of Paris in the Commune, they pulled down the Vendome Column in a protest against war and the oppressive Second Republic.
In the years when fascism dominated Germany and Italy between the wars books were burned and culture became naked propaganda. But when those regimes fell eagles, flags, fascist symbols and paraphernalia, as well as the statues of the dictators fell with them.
The so-called ‘culture war’ today is part of a worldwide protest against the rule of the one per cent. We are not fighting a culture war. Ours is part of a fight for tolerance and equality and liberation from the monotony and violence of capitalism. Pulling down a statue or two is not going to change the balance of forces, but it is a harbinger of more profound changes to come.
Of course they are going to fight back. They are happy that right wing thugs are travelling to London to ‘defend Churchill’ and war memorials. Boris Johnson is sending barely concealed messages of encouragement to the thugs. And the response of Keir Starmer and the Labour front bench has been pitiful. Starmer’s insistence that only legal methods should be used to remove offending iconography means kicking the demand for change into the long grass and giving the Tories some cover.
Ridding our public spaces of racists and warmongers is part of our sloughing off the muck of ages. The past need not be the nightmare from which we are forever trying to escape. It’s full of heroic fighters – often poor, black and white, men and women – from whom we can learn. Let’s use history to prepare for the fight ahead.
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John is a history teacher and UCU rep. He is an active member of the People's Assembly and writes regularly for Counterfire.
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