Imagining Toussaint Louverture by Charles Forsdick

The oppression of non-white people didn’t go away. It was transformed; subsumed into structures and institutions; discernible in asymmetric economic inequality or a culture that promotes white superiority. It has taken white tyranny to reach the heights of Nazi salutes on the street and the death of an anti-racist protester for the ‘post-racial’ fabrication to die a necessary death.Forsdick T02889

Contemporary politics is afflicted by an historical amnesia that we must resist. By looking to figures such as Toussaint Louverture, leader of the only successful slave revolt in history, we on the Left can make sense of what informs white supremacy, and what has defeated certain strains of it in the past. In this blog, Charles Forsdick, author of Toussaint Louverture: A Black Jacobin in the Age of Revolutions, examines how Louverture’s legacy has been mobilised in the past and how we can ‘recover and restate the incendiary political implications of his life, actions and revolutionary thought’.


Of the three most notable leaders associated with the Haitian Revolution, it is Toussaint Louverture – as opposed to Jean-Jacques Dessalines or Henri Christophe – who has attracted the most sustained attention in the Atlantic world and beyond. In Haiti itself, Dessalines (known in Haiti as the ‘Liberator’) is the only one elevated to the status of divine lwa in the vodou pantheon, and the national anthem (the Dessalinienne) is named after him, but outside the country Louverture (the ‘Precursor’) has achieved a visibility and recognizability as an anti-imperialist revolutionary comparable perhaps only to Che Guevara. As the scholar Deborah Jenson has claimed, the diverse catalogue of representations of Louverture can be tracked back to his own lifetime when, often acting as his own spin doctor, the leader of the Haitian Revolution deployed self-representation and harnessed early Atlantic print culture as a means of managing the understanding of his actions on a wider international stage. Continue reading

For the Many, Not the Few: Jeremy Corbyn and Percy Bysshe Shelley

As he had throughout his election campaign, Jeremy Corbyn invoked the words of Percy Bysshe Shelley, to a crowd of thousands at Glastonbury festival. Here, Jacqueline Mulhallen, author of Percy Bysshe Shelley: Poet and Revolutionarylooks at the radical political history of The Mask of Anarchy, the poem Corbyn quotes, and examines the dialogue between Corbyn and Shelley’s activism.


At the end of the election campaign on June 7, 2017, Jeremy Corbyn gave a speech in Islington which ended with his quoting the following stanza:

Rise like lions after slumber

In unfathomable number

Shake your chains to earth like dew

Which in sleep have fallen on you –

Ye are many, they are few.

Some of the enormous crowd listening joined in with the last line. ‘You should never be afraid of saying you like poetry’, Mr. Corbyn said.  And certainly not this poem. It was Shelley’s The Mask of Anarchy, the most famous and popular political poem in English. The Labour party had been using a modified form of the last line as their election slogan, ‘For the many, not the few’.

In the early 1990s, the Poll Tax campaigners used the line ‘We are many, they are few’ as their slogan.  The poem was recited in 1989 by the students occupying Tiananmen Square, and in 2011 by those in Tahrir Square.  It gave the title to Amir Amirani’s great film of the Stop the War demonstration in 2003. Further back, it was chanted by the garment workers of New York in 1909, mostly young immigrant women, striking for better pay and conditions (they won), and shortly afterwards, during World War I, Olive Waterman, a young member of Sylvia Pankhurst’s East London Federation of Suffragettes, used to draw crowds in Victoria Park by reciting Shelley.  It has long been a part of working class consciousness.  Shelley’s Queen Mab was known as the ‘Chartist’s Bible’ and Engels told Eleanor Marx that they all knew Shelley by heart back then’.   It may well have been The Mask of Anarchy that they knew at the very least.

Shelley wrote the poem in 1819.  Although he was living in Italy at the time and had given up political activism for poetry, he kept in touch with leftwing political thought in England by reading Cobbett’s Register and The Examiner, edited by his friend, Leigh Hunt.  A perfectly legal and peaceful meeting of Manchester workers, gathered in St Peter’s Fields to hear Henry Hunt (no relation to Leigh) talk about his ideas for reform of Parliament, was attacked by a troop of militia men, not professional soldiers, who slashed at these men women and children, killing and wounding.  Shelley’s friend Thomas Love Peacock, sent him all the papers with accounts of what became known as the ‘Peterloo Massacre’.  The Mask of Anarchy was Shelley’s response.

It is a long poem in ballad form and it tells of a dream.  A long procession of masked politicians led by the Foreign Secretary, the Prime Minister and the Lord Chancellor (the names are blank and we can fill in their modern equivalents).  They are followed by ‘Anarchy’, for Shelley the capitalist system, but Anarchy is brought to a standstill by an amazing event.  A young woman throws herself in front of the horses. Her name is Hope.  Anarchy and his crew are defeated.

The central part of The Mask of Anarchy explains that ‘freedom’ is in fact the freedom of having sufficient to live on, education, comfort – all these questions were addressed in Labour’s manifesto.  Shelley then goes on to suggest another demonstration

Let a vast assembly be

And with great solemnity

Declare with measured words are ye

Are, as God has made ye, free

At around the same time, Shelley wrote a number of other poems inspired by Peterloo and the essay A Philosophical View of Reform, in which he pointed out that the reform of Parliament sought by Hunt and others would not be sufficient to improve the conditions of the workers, who, he says, are ‘ill-fed, ill-clothed and ill-educated’.   It is capitalism that Shelley is criticising, and this at a time when the industrial revolution was just beginning and the working class was not yet ‘made’. The parallels with today could not be clearer. Workers are so ill-fed that some resort to food banks.  They are housed in tower blocks with no protection against fire.  Education cuts, constant examinations (the SATS) and the introduction of university fees have destroyed the education system. Yet he could see that the workers had the solution in their hands. Many people have said that Jeremy Corbyn has given them Hope.corbyn for the many

The publishers to whom Shelley sent his poems did not dare to publish them, although in 1832, when the movement for the reform of Parliament looked like succeeding, Leigh Hunt at last published The Mask of Anarchy.  Since then, it has been part of the consciousness of the working class movement, both on the streets and among revolutionary intellectuals like Marx and Engels, and The Mask of Anarchy has provided the key slogan of many campaigns.  Paul Foot, the great journalist and campaigner and author of Red Shelley, talked about him at the annual Marxism events in London in the 1980s and 1990s.

In February 2003 a ‘great assembly’ took place – the huge anti-war demo in Hyde Park which echoed around the world in the first global protest.  Jeremy Corbyn was one of the speakers on that occasion, and it is only fitting that he should turn to Shelley to give a voice to his campaign.


Percy Bysshe Shelley: Poet and Revolutionary by Jacqueline Mulhallen is available from Pluto Press.


Jacqueline Mulhallen wrote and performed in the plays Sylvia and Rebels and Friends. Her ground-breaking book The Theatre of Shelley (Open Book Publishers, 2010) has been internationally acclaimed. She contributed a chapter on Shelley to The Oxford Handbook to Georgian Theatre (OUP, 2014) shortlisted for the Theatre Book Prize 2015.

Leila Khaled: The Poster Girl of Palestinian Militancy’ International Woman’s Day

We’re celebrating International Woman’s Day with ‘the poster girl of Palestinian militancy’ and subject of Sarah Irving’s biography: Leila Khaled. Leila Khaled: Icon of Palestinian Liberation tells the story of Khaled’s remarkable life as a female activist in a man’s movement. From hijacking planes, to her involvement in radical sects, Leila Khaled’s activism made her as era-defining as Che Guevara.


When Leila Khaled hijacked her first plane, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine was a left-wing organization with international links and the declared intention of winning the return of the Palestinian people to the lands they had left only 20 years before. This was the era of Che Guevara, killed in Bolivia just two years earlier, and of liberation struggles in South East Asia. The right of oppressed peoples to resist by armed means was discussed worldwide, and the heroes of these movements decorated the walls of student bedrooms and left-wing homes. The second wave of feminism was also breaking, adding another aspect to the environment in which news of this young female hijacker would be received.

In Leila’s Middle East home, Israel had just defeated the combined armies of Egypt, Jordan, and Syria in the Six Day War, humiliating the Arab world militarily and capturing the remaining Palestinian territories west of the River Jordan and north of the Sinai. Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, including thousands of refugees from the initial establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, had been living under Jordanian and Egyptian rule, but were now subject to Israeli military occupation. Despite this, the world’s attention to the Palestinians themselves was minimal. They were seen by the West as a small, dispossessed refugee people, caught up in the hostility between Jews and Arabs in the Middle East, and of little importance except as an excuse for aggression by Arab powers. Amongst the Palestinians of the refugee camps of Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria, discontent had been brewing. A resistance movement, which had been growing since the mid 1960s, had been further radicalized and popularized by the Six Day War and by Palestinians’ increasing suspicion of the hollow support voiced by Arab regimes. As Rosemary Sayigh, who lived in Lebanon throughout the 1970s, puts it:

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Ellen Wilkinson and the Jarrow Crusade October 1936

On the 80th anniversary of the Jarrow Crusades, Paula Bartley, author of the biography ‘Ellen Wilkinson: From Red Suffragist to Government Minister’, chronicles the story of the people who marched and the woman who lead them; Ellen Wilkinson. 

Eighty years ago today –  on 5th October 1936 – two hundred unemployed men and their local MP, Ellen Wilkinson, left Jarrow to walk to London. They carried a petition, signed bybartley-t02567 nearly 12,000 Jarrow citizens, which they hoped to present to Parliament. The petitioners, it said, ‘humbly pray that His Majesty’s Government and this honourable House will realise the urgent need that work should be provided for the town without delay’.[1]

In 1936 Jarrow was one of the most disadvantaged and depressed towns in England: out of a population of 35,000, 6,000 were on the dole and 23,000 were on relief. Only 100 out of 8,000 skilled manual workers were employed. There was no work. ‘No one’ Wilkinson declared, ‘had a job, except a few railwaymen, officials, the workers in the co-operative stores, and the few clerks and craftsmen who went out of the town to their jobs each day’.[2] The town, she cried, was down and out.

Conditions in Jarrow were aggravated by world-wide economic catastrophe. In 1929 the Wall Street crash, largely caused by greed and speculation, had precipitated a worldwide economic crisis. Banks collapsed, businesses went bust, consumer spending plummeted, currencies lost their value and unemployment rose. At the time, the Labour Party was in Government but it could not agree on how to resolve the crisis and in 1931 it broke apart leaving a Conservative-dominated National Government in power for the rest of the 1930s. Bankers caused the mess but the British worker was forced to pay for the clean-up. The Tories quickly cut public expenditure.  Unemployment rocketed, to the detriment of British towns like Jarrow with a strong industrial base.

jarrowJarrow had once been a prosperous town, proud of its ship building and steel industry.  In 1931 Jarrow lost its steel works and three years later the prestigious Jarrow ship yard was demolished, a closure Wilkinson insisted that ‘cut the throat of Jarrow’ as the vast majority of the working population depended upon it for employment.
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The Life of W.E.B. Du Bois and Black Lives Matter

In this essay, Bill Mullen, author of the forthcoming W.E.B. DuBois biography Revolutionary Across the Colour Line, considers the historical precedence set by DuBois’ thought. This survey of DuBois’ radicalism (evidenced in his advocating of the redistribution of public wealth, his alignment with Pan Africanism and solidarity with working class movements worldwide) allows us to contextualise the political motivations of the Black Lives coalition network, following the recent publication of their agenda. 

Mullen WDBJust weeks ago the Movement for Black Lives in the U.S. released its political platform.  The six-part document called for a wide range of reforms of American capitalism: a universal health care system; a constitutional right to free higher education; cuts in military expenditures and re-investment in local infrastructures; a progressive restructuring of tax codes to ‘ensure and radical and equitable redistribution of wealth;’ a guarantee of the right of workers to organise. The document also called for the demilitarisation of U.S. police, an end to capital punishment, and the end of surveillance of Black communities by law enforcement.1

The Movement for Black Lives platform is a document the late W.E.B. Du Bois would have would have proudly endorsed.  Indeed, in 1935, at the height of the Great Depression, Du Bois published in the Pittsburgh Courier newspaper The Atlanta Creed, a bullet point program for Black equality and liberation.  The ‘Creed’ called for ‘Business for Public Welfare, and not for Private Profit;’ ‘No monopoly of land, materials, or machines in private hands;’ ‘Political power not for jobs but for public recognition of the Negro’s right to share equally and proportionally in all public expenditures; for protecting all labour in wage and work; and for redistributing wealth from the rich to the poor through taxation and nationalisation.’ Most boldly, Du Bois called for Socialism: ‘We believe in the ultimate triumph of some form of Socialism the world over; that is, state ownership and control of the means of production, and equality of income; we believe that the ultimate power in the state should rest in the hands of those who work, and that the state should be ruled by them.’2

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Frantz Fanon for Our Times: Reflections on Peter Hudis’ Biography of Fanon

fanon3Tithi Bhattacharya writes on Peter Hudis’ new biography of Frantz Fanon.

‘To Peter we owe a particular gratitude.  He did not write a simple narrative biography of Fanon— that would have been a historicist exercise in which the past of Fanon would connect seamlessly to our present and we ‘draw lessons’ from it.

The past is a tricky customer and both Fanon and Peter understand that well.  So following the methodology that Walter Benjamin recommends, Peter has blasted Fanon out of linear, empty time and has constellated for us moments in Fanon that are necessary to consider for our present.

These distilled Fanonian moments that Peter offers us may have been important or not so important for those seeking to change the world in Fanon’s own time.  But they are recognizably relevant for our times and what is significant is how Peter has captured these fugitive concepts to help change the world for a new generation.

So I will outline a few of those moments that Peter has picked, that have flashed for him, in our ‘moment of danger’ and explore their significance.

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A Philosophical View of Reform: The Politics of Percy Bysshe Shelley

Today, the British government frames the argument around national debt by referring to the need for ‘us’ to make sacrifices or the fact that ‘we’ have been living beyond ‘our’ means and need austerity to survive economically. Despite evidence to the contrary, this ideology resonates with Percy Bysshe Shelleymany people who think that in some way, we are all responsible for the financial crisis. We live within this widespread, false ideology, and some of us fight against it. However, a look back to the nineteenth century reveals that this fight was already taking place, and that capitalism was employing many of the tricks it still uses today. Jacqueline Mulhallen looks at the political life of the radical romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley in her new biography and reveals that there was much more to him than first meets the eye.


Debt in the time of Shelley

‘In 1819, Percy Shelley was writing A Philosophical View of Reform. In its pages, he is clear about whom he considered responsible for the national debt, which at that time was bigger than it had ever been before – in 1815 the interest amounted to £37,500,000. Shelley, like many people today,  fought against the common consensus and blamed the bankers and the nation’s financial institutions. He clearly expressed his contempt in them; the ‘stock jobbers, usurers, directors, government pensions, country bankers: a set of pelting wretches who think of any commerce with their species as a means not an end’ and whose position in society he believed was based on fraud. Shelly himself surprisingly came from the landed aristocracy, however he had no love for this class either, as their existence was built upon force and was what he labelled ‘a prodigious anomaly’. He also talked of the rise of the newly wealthy as a different form of aristocracy who created a double burden on those whose labour created ‘the whole materials of life’. He could see that they together formed one class – ‘the rich’.

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