Cover 4

In May 1999 the cover of Issue 4 featured a new interpretation of the Starry Plough, the flag of Irish socialism, by Catherine Lyons.

The Hidden Connolly 3

Issue 3 (November 1998) featured more articles by James Connolly unpublished since his execution.

Home Thrusts

[Workers’ Republic, 15 September 1900]

A Critic.

Cork’s own city has provided itself with a critic who, in the Evening Special of last Saturday, runs full tilt up against the President of the British Trades’ Union Congress, and against Socialism in general.

The Cork critic is a curiosity in his own way. He is in the first place a born journalist; you can see that with the first glance at his writings. The first qualification of a journalist on a capitalist paper is a perfect readiness to write columns of matter upon any subject which may turn up, without wasting any time acquiring a knowledge of what he is writing about.

So with this Cork critic. Every line he writes gives evidence of the density of his ignorance on all matters Socialistic, but he apparently conceives that fact to be of trivial importance for he continues to spread himself out on the question with a recklessness of grammar and an ignorance of economic teaching not to be surpassed by any collection of old women in the land.

As to the grammar, will the reader cast his eye over this gem from the edi­torial in which this critic lets himself loose upon an unoffending community.

Speaking of the President of the Congress he writes: “He does NOT look at Labour and Economic questions from NO mere sordid bread and butter point of view.”

If the schoolmaster was indeed abroad when this journalistic critic was developing I would suggest that for the sake of that schoolmaster’s reputation this Cork critic should never tell what school he had attended.

Further on in this interesting article he declares that the President “soars aloft into the regions of Philosophy, and lectures the world on the prehistoric state of man AND OTHER WILD ANIMALS.”

The confusion of thought shown in the paragraph, the entire inability to discriminate between a reference to the accepted facts of biological and eth­nographic science and the mere speculations of philosophy is proof enough that the writer’s sole acquaintance with these subjects was limited to the names he juggled with so deftly, and used so wrongly.

But it is when he essays to argue out his position that this poor scribe becomes really touching in his simplicity. Here, for instance, is a specimen of his reasoning, and a sample of his knowledge, which should not be lightly passed over but should rather be preserved and carefully framed as a literary curiosity, born of an intellectual freak.

Pickle’s Philosophy of Collectivism1 put into a nutshell amounts to this: Everybody is to own everything, and nobody is to own anything. A nice comfortable philosophy for a considerable section of the world. Take for instance the man without any brains. What need he care if he has none? His neighbour has enough for the two, and as he would have the same right to an even share of the country’s wealth as his brainy neighbour he would be the better off of the two, because he would have everything with­out worry or exertion.

There now, that is a gem. You will observe that the idea it means to convey is that Socialism means an equal divide of the wealth of the world— an idea which nobody holds now outside of lunatic asylums or the editorial rooms of capitalist newspapers.

Nobody ever heard a Socialist advocate a divide up, and when you hear any person tell you that Socialism means dividing up depend upon it he is either a fool who does not know what he is talking about, or else a rogue who means to deceive you.

Socialists say the land and all things necessary to life should be made public property and the journalistic tout for the capitalist class shouts out that that means an “equal divide.”

Now just to emphasise the foolishness of such talk remember that “all things necessary to life” includes the rivers and canals. Do you suppose then that Socialists propose to divide up the Lee, the Blackwater, or the Liffey, and apportion to each inhabitant of Ireland a share which he can carry away in his pockets?

We do not propose to divide anything but the labour and that we hope to divide if not equally, at least equitably. When that division comes off I think that an enlightened community will find for this Cork scribe some function more suited to his intellect, or to his lack of it, than writing articles upon subjects he does not understand.

“Take for instance”, he says, “the man without any brains.” Certainly my friend, anything to oblige you, I will take your case—your case in every sense of the word. And really it is touching to observe how the poor uninstructed instinct of this scribe brought him at once to the point which affected him most—the man without any brains.

Under Socialism those who labour will receive the full reward of their labour, no part whatever being deducted for the upkeep of a master class. The only deduction permissible being that proportion of the product necessary for the renewal of raw material and appliances.

The man who has brains will be expected to do his best, and the man who has no brains (a curious kind of animal he would be) will be expected to do his best, and both would be rewarded according to the length of time they spent per day, week, or year, in the service of the community.

Possibly the man with brains would not receive more per hour than the man not possessed of brains; he would however have that incentive to exert his intellect which would come from the knowledge that he would be honoured and respected by his fellows in proportion to the worth of his labours.

The respect and honour of our fellows is payment enough for full grown men after our material wants are satisfied, and only perverted intellects and debased natures conceive a useless superfluity of wealth or powers of master­ship to be necessary as an incentive to human ambition.

A truly civilised society would no more think of rewarding a man because nature had endowed him with brains, than it would think of rewarding another man because nature had endowed him with good looks.

Yes, my Cork friend, the man without the brains will be looked after. Be under no apprehension.

Then our friend asks again:—Is the man who spends most of his share in public houses and lets his family suffer, to be entitled to an equal share of the spoil just like the industrious man who spends his money to good account.

The question thus put implies that the questioner would answer in the negative. The question has little bearing on Socialism, as Socialism only pro­poses to secure a man the reward of his labour and does not presume to dic­tate how he shall use that reward.

But observe the folly of the question and the implied answer. A man is presupposed to have a certain share of wealth, to drink that share and leave his family to suffer. As a remedy it is proposed to decrease his share as a punishment for his drinking. But by decreasing his share you shorten the period required to exhaust his funds, and therefore bring to want so much sooner the family about which you professed to be so solicitous. Which is as absurd as the remainder of your attempts at reasoning.

It is like the case of the henpecked husband who had his wife charged at the Police Court with assaulting him. The lady was fined, the husband had to pay the fine, and he spent the rest of the week trying to figure out where his satisfaction came in.

The question belongs to the regime of capitalist society and not at all to Socialism, under which the family would not be dependent at least for neces­saries upon the dissolute husband, but the fact of the question being put is here mentioned as showing the habit some people have of thinking the condi­tions of the present into the future, instead of honestly attempting to master the problem they pretend to discuss.

The greatest minds of our time both in Science and Philosophy have given in their adhesion to Socialism; their works on the subject are accessible to all in most of our free libraries; the fact that such libraries are free does not surely lessen the educational value of the books contained therein; what then can be thought of the scribe who sneers at “Free Library Philosophy” and “Free Library Gleanings”?

What can be thought, except that this sneer is the only honest thing in his writings, betraying as it does the hatred with which his class view every facil­ity for popular education, everything which would equip the worker for the task of measuring his intellect with the much vaunted brains of his masters.

That sneer and that hatred reveal who has most to fear from such a contest.

SPAILPÍN.

How to Release Larkin

[Irish Worker, 1 November 1913]

We have always held that when we are at war we should fight according to the rules of war, and that means that the first aim and object of all our activi­ties ought to be to disable and destroy the enemy. Everyone familiar with the history of working class revolts in the past knows that these revolts generally failed through the fact that the revolutionists tried to practise their ideas of humanity before the war was over and their victory assured; they, in short, wished to practise peace in the midst of war. The enemy, the possessing gov­erning classes, on the other hand, having no scruples of conscience and desir­ing only their own victory, proceeded ruthlessly to the work of extermination; and so naturally and inevitably the established order won over the working class idealists. We do not propose to make that mistake. We are at war. Our enemy is the governing class; the political force of that enemy is the Liberal Government. Next year it may be the Conservative Government, and Sir Edward Carson may be again prosecuting Irish rebels as he did in the past;2 but this year and this moment it is the Liberal Government that fills the jury box with employers to try strike leaders; that sets policemen to ride roughshod over the law guaranteeing the right of peaceful picketing; who orders the bludgeoning of men and women in the streets of Dublin; that has turned Dublin into an armed camp, in which the citizens walk about in terror of their lives in the presence of uniformed bullies—in short, it is the Liberal Govern­ment that has lent itself to the employers to imprison, bludgeon, and murder the Dublin working class.

Therefore, the Liberal Government must go.

Larkin is in prison, jailed by this cowardly gang!3 We appeal to the workers everywhere in these islands to vote against the nominees of that gov­ernment at every contested election until Larkin is released. To-day we are sending a telegram to the electors of Keighley,4 asking them, in the name of working class solidarity, to vote against the murderers of Nolan and Byrne,5 against the bludgeoners of the Dublin working class, against the jailers of Larkin.

It is war, war to the end, against all the unholy crew who, with the cant of democracy upon their lying lips, are forever crucifying the Christ of Labour between the two thieves of Land and Capital.

JAMES CONNOLLY.6

Notes

1    Pickle was the British TUC president under the critic’s gaze.

2    Carson, leader of the Ulster Volunteers, set up a few months earlier to resist home rule, had previ­ously been the British government’s Solicitor General.

3    Larkin had just been sentenced to seven months in prison for a seditious speech.

4    Where a by-election was impending.

5    James Nolan and James Byrne were killed by a police baton-charge on 30 August.

6    The Liberal candidate was defeated at Keighley and Larkin was released the following day.

Jimi Hendrix and the war

In the final Red Banner (Issue 63, March 2016) Michelle Charlton looked at how a great musician faced the realities of war at home and abroad.

In the pantheon of 1960s counter-culture Jimi Hendrix’s slot is assured. It seems that few documentaries about the radical atmosphere of the period can do without some footage or other of him wielding his guitar, or a snippet of his music to soundtrack images of peace ’n’ love, protestors on the march, or whatever. But the association between Hendrix and that generation of change was a genuine one, albeit complex.

It wasn’t always thus, however. In February 1967, with the Jimi Hendrix Experience’s debut single ‘Hey Joe’ moving up the top ten on the back of a Top of the Pops performance, their frontman was asked by a Dutch interviewer what he thought of American military interference in Vietnam. His reply can still cause surprise:

Did you send the Americans away when they landed in Normandy? That was also purely interference… but that was concerning your own skin. The Americans are fighting in Vietnam for a completely free world. As soon as they move out, they will be at the mercy of the communists. For that matter, the yellow danger should not be underestimated. Of course, war is horrible, but at present it’s still the only guarantee of peace.

The “yellow danger” had also featured in an interview the previous month: “After China takes over the whole world, then the whole world will know why America’s trying so hard in Vietnam.”1

Hendrix had a military background himself. Facing a prison term in 1961 after being caught in a stolen car twice in succession, he got a suspended sentence when the judge heard he was signing up for the military. But there is no evidence that he resented the army, and certainly none that he opposed its role in society. “I’m in the 101st Airborne. That’s the sharpest outfit in the world”, he wrote to his aunt. “If any trouble starts anywhere, we will be one of the first to go.”2 He wore the badge of the ‘Screaming Eagles’ with pride. His terrible eyesight apparently didn’t stop him making the grade as a sharpshooter, and years later he recalled the pure thrill of his parachute jumps.

But a year in, he wanted out. He told the psychiatrist that feelings for another soldier were causing him to lose sleep and weight, wet the bed, and masturbate excessively. In the end his superiors agreed to discharge him for “homosexual tendencies”.3 The extensive tales of Hendrix’s heterosexual exploits lead us to conclude that he was definitely faking it, and he always maintained that he was invalided out with a broken ankle from a parachute jump, a claim accepted and repeated by his biographers until recently.

The years of peace after the Korean war may have seemed a favourable time to join up, but with tensions resurfacing on the Korean border, the Cuban missile crisis threatening wider conflict, and US involvement in Vietnam gradually escalating, the prospect of being sent away to fight could have seemed very real. His musical ambitions provide a more likely explanation for his escape, however. He had formed a band with fellow soldier Billy Cox and was gigging whenever their army schedules allowed, but this was what he wanted to do all the time, without waiting two more years for his discharge papers. But again, no sign of opposition, disgust, or even unease with the US war machine can be found.

Hendrix shared the view of many Americans that their military was a force for good in the world, defending democracy against the red menace. Many black Americans had been driven into the army by poverty and racism, and if Hendrix had been a white Seattle teenager, the chances of him having to sign up, or even being arrested in the first place, would have been a lot less. However, the very fact of extensive black involvement in the military often served to breed some kind of pride and loyalty towards it.

Storming Britain’s pop scene from September 1966 on, Hendrix would have found himself in a milieu where opposition to the Vietnam war was largely taken as read. It was easier to oppose the war in Britain, a country not directly involved or known for repressing dissent as violently as the US did. For Hendrix to maintain a pro-war viewpoint for at least six months, and especially to express it publicly, took some doing—and caused some hostility.4 As was already evident from his songwriting, he was an intensely reflective person, and this must have been an opinion he had thought through and held sincerely.

But this all changed, and quite quickly. “Maybe I’ll have more to say later when I get more political”, he replied in August 1967 when dodging a question about ghetto uprisings in the US.5 In November he played his one and only Irish gig, in Belfast, and was interviewed for the Queen’s University student paper, telling them shamelessly: “I have no views on Vietnam because it doesn’t affect me personally.”6 But he had at least shifted from openly supporting the war to sitting on the fence.7

It’s unlikely that socialist artist Franklin Rosemont read the interview. That same month in the underground magazine Chicago Seed he was writing that Hendrix “ruthlessly attacks not only imperial­ism but the entire foundation of oppressive Western civilisation… the music of revolt has found its poet”.8 Of Hendrix’s output up till then, only ‘I Don’t Live Today’ could have inspired such a judgement. Musically and lyrically, it evokes the plight of native Americans, and Hendrix routinely dedicated it to them in concert.

Although the claim is exaggerated, it illustrates the way the wind was blowing. Hendrix was being identified with the counter-culture perforce, adopted by opponents of the system as one of their own, regardless of his own political statements or lack of them. They knew something he didn’t, at least not yet: that his attempt to make music which honestly faced up to life as it was couldn’t help but bring him into some kind of conflict with the powers that be. Almost as much as his hero Bob Dylan, Hendrix infuriatingly refused to be drawn into clear political statements. His interviews abound with vague nods in the direction of radicalism, but just as many airy refusals to be tied down to any specific group or philosophy. Gradually, though, his name got associated with a benefit here, a cause there, and before long he was firmly established as a musician of the left—although this was not as uncomplicated a label as it might seem.

As with many others, 1968 forced the issue. The war in Vietnam intensified, putting an end to pious hopes of a peaceful compromise. Martin Luther King was assassinated, and the uprisings across black America delivered an obituary for the non-violence he espoused. Student revolutionary movements spiralled, and the Black Panthers’ open call to physically resist and overthrow the racist power structure had a mass appeal. Hendrix’s response to it all was never un­ambiguous, though.

‘House Burning Down’, from that year, portrays him brushing aside indifference to violence and demanding to know “why did you burn your brother’s house down”. He is told: “We’re tired and disgusted so we paint red through the sky”, but replies: “the truth is straight ahead—so don’t burn yourselves instead—try to learn instead of burn”.9 This seems to be a straightforward pacifism in the King mould, but the lyrics are only half the song. Musically, it is incendiary, speaking a fascination with the creative potential of violence, with Hendrix going to great lengths in the studio to create a sound matching the inferno he is meant to be against. “We made the guitar sound like it was on fire”, he proclaimed.10

His guitar then took on the US national anthem. It had featured in Hendrix concerts from mid-1968 on, but was given its peak performance at the Woodstock festival of August 1969. What seems initially just a modernised version of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ soon cuts away to a swirling tussle of extended notes moving abruptly from one end of the scale to the other, distortion recoiling into feedback. It represents “a compelling musical allegory of a nation bloodily tearing itself apart, in its own ghettos and campuses, and in a foreign land which had never done anything to harm its tormentors”.11 Or as Hendrix himself put it, “We play it the way the air is in America today. The air is slightly static, isn’t it?”12

At the end of 1968 he told a magazine that he was writing a song dedicated to the Black Panthers, and that there was a limit to peaceful protest:

Do it about three or four times, and then if it doesn’t happen then get your Black Panthers and your little army groups, not to kill anybody, but to scare them.… I know it sounds like war but that’s what’s gonna have to happen, it has to be a war if nobody is going to do it peacefully. Like quite naturally you say make love not war and all these other things, but then you come back to reality and there are some evil folks around and they want you to be passive and weak and peaceful so that they can just overtake you like jelly on bread.… You have to fight fire with fire.
You have to do something—not frustrated like throwing little cocktail bottles, you know, here and there, breaking up a store window. That’s nothing, especially in your own neighborhood. You should have people like the Black Panthers, who are trained, commanders, only together…13

It looks here as if Hendrix’s objection is not to political violence itself, but to misdirected violence: don’t burn your brother’s house down but your enemy’s house, and on an organised mass scale instead of isolated outbreaks of frustration.

By May 1969, though, he was dismissing them: “we have some sheep fighting under the form of Black Panthers and some sheep under the Ku Klux Klan. They are all sheep”.14 Being guilt-tripped into supporting the cause seems to have annoyed him above all. The ambivalence, even confusion, of his attitude to the Panthers comes across in a March 1970 interview:

It isn’t that I don’t relate to them… I naturally feel part of what they’re doing. In certain respects. But everybody has their own way of doing things.… But not the aggression or violence or whatever you want to call it. I’m not for guerrilla warfare.15

“Jimi wasn’t politically active”, as the Experience’s bassist wrote,16 and his music was where he expressed himself properly. When it came to the war raging around him, he did that best on New Year’s Day 1970 in a perfomance justly characterised as “one of Hendrix’s most towering achievements”.17 The Experience had split up by then, and he was now playing with his old army friend Billy Cox on bass and Buddy Miles on drums as the Band of Gypsys, resulting in a markedly different sound. This was their second day playing the Fillmore East in New York, with the gigs recorded for an album.

Hendrix and Miles shared lead vocals on the opening number, ‘Who Knows’, after which Hendrix spoke to the crowd while retuning:

Happy new year, first of all, and I hope you have about a million or two million more of ’em. If we can get over this summer, heh, heh, heh. We’d like to dedicate this one to—the sorta draggy scene that’s going on—all the soldiers that are fighting in Chicago and Milwaukee and New York—oh yes, and all the soldiers fighting in Vietnam. We’d like to do a thing called ‘Machine Gun’.18

The US had a lot to get over from that summer, as swelling numbers of protestors met with increasingly ferocious responses from the state. The reference to soldiers is probably to both sides of that struggle, and meant above all to emphasise that there was a war going on at home as well as the one 9,000 miles away. Hendrix locates the battlefields of that war specifically here, and it is worth enquiring what exactly he had in mind.

In Chicago eight activists were on trial for conspiracy for protesting against the Democratic Party convention. Hendrix “laid some bread on us for the trial”, as one of them later told in the counter-culture jargon of the day,19 and the FBI noted his proposed involvement in a benefit gig.20 The defendants wasted no time in reducing the trial to farce. Black Panther leader Bobby Seale was bound, gagged and tied to a chair in court before getting four years for contempt. Chicago police murdered leading Black Panther Fred Hampton in December.

The mention of Milwaukee is more puzzling, a city that wouldn’t headline a list of contemporary political hot spots. But its black community faced heavy pressure from the police, with one man shot dead in 1969 in suspicious circumstances. The city’s new branch of the Black Panthers faced systematic police violence and harassment, with the ‘Milwaukee Three’ beaten and framed for attempted murder of a policeman in September. The repression succeeded in closing down the Milwaukee Panthers.21

Hendrix could hardly be playing New York and not add it to his list, but the city had seen plenty of rebellion and repression in 1969. Twenty one Black Panthers were on trial there, having been rounded up in a dawn raid and charged with involvement in bombings. The common link between the three apparently random cities Hendrix mentions is state repression of the Black Panthers, clearly indicating that ‘Machine Gun’ was inspired by them, at least in part. At the second show that day, Hendrix introduced his classic ‘Voodoo Child (Slight Return)’ as “the Black Panthers’ national anthem”.22

It wasn’t his first time. At a concert on 4 August 1968 he had dedicated ‘I Don’t Live Today’ to “all the soldiers that are fighting in Detroit, and Seattle and Washington. Oh yeah, and the soldiers fighting in Vietnam too.”23 Detroit and Washington DC were among the many cities which had erupted that April in response to King’s assassination. Hendrix’s reference to his home town, however, seems to relate directly to the Black Panthers. After two Seattle Panthers were arrested days before on trumped-up charges, a demonstration a mile from his birthplace spiralled into a violent confrontation with police.24

Hendrix’s handwritten lyrics to ‘Machine Gun’ survive, on the notepaper of a hotel where he stayed in June 1969,25 so it was about six months old now. Hendrix and Cox had performed it, with the Experience’s Mitch Mitchell on drums and Juma Sultan on percussion, on television in September, but this was a fairly un­inspired run-through, with most of the lyrics omitted and little of its musical potential on display.26 This time it would be different.

Performing the opening chords unaccompanied, Hendrix draws five short bursts from his guitar in quick succession, like gunfire. The next time he does it, Miles’s drums join in. “Machine gun”, goes the first line, “tearing my body all apart.” Over more “Gatling-gun snare shots”,27 Hendrix sings of military orders annihilating common humanity:

Evil men make me kill you
Evil men make you kill me
Evil men make me kill you
Even though we’re only families apart

But later on, the violence loses its power, rebounding on the oppressor:

I ain’t afraid of your bullets no more, babe, ain’t afraid no more
After a while your cheap talk don’t even cause me pain
So let your bullets fly like rain
Knowing all the time you wrong, babe,
And that you’ll be going just the same—
Three times the pain, and your own self to blame

Then, extracting sounds from his guitar like nobody else could, Hendrix paints a soundscape of war “that sonically matches Picasso’s ‘Guernica’… tortuously yet beautifully evokes a chaotic welter of tribulations”.28 The sound bends and breaks, dives down before coming up for desperate gasps of air, “a vast and infinitely moving picture”.29 Spinning reverb conjures up images of helicopter gunships and fighter planes, “mutated into a deathly, screaming howl”30 punctuated by the call-and-response gunfire traded with the drums. Miles, in a plaintive falsetto, presents the dual case of the invading soldier on a tour of duty and the soldier who resists him:

Don’t you shoot him down
He’s ’bout to leave here
Don’t you shoot him down
He’s got to stay here

Convulsions and bursts of pain cry out as Hendrix uses “the uncanny onomatopoeic power of his guitar to evoke the sounds of urban riots and jungle fire-fights”,31 while the percussion gets overtly martial, before it all ends, not in a climactic explosion but a slow death. As the applause dies down, Hendrix tells the crowd: “That’s one we don’t want to hear any more, right?” “No bullets!” adds Miles.

At the end of that month the Band of Gypsys headlined the Winter Festival for Peace at Madison Square Garden, a benefit for the Vietnam Moratorium campaign. It was Hendrix’s most overt support for a political initiative, but a disastrous gig which proved the end for the band. Mitchell replaced Miles for the year’s subsequent concerts. The “anti-war requiem”32 that was ‘Machine Gun’ would often feature but, for whatever reason, never with the same bite as it had on New Year’s Day.

Politics crept into Hendrix’s music more and more through 1970. ‘Ezy Ryder’ includes the line “Gotta get the brothers together and the right to be free”, but just thrown in there, apropos of nothing. ‘Freedom’ demands liberation from a pernicious individual rather than any social or political oppression, but is given an unavoidable political colouring, largely by the backing vocals of Albert and Arthur Allen. Billed as the Ghetto Fighters, they round off the song by repeatedly chanting: “Keep on pushing! Straight ahead!” in step with a military percussion that can only suggest feet on the march. ‘Straight Ahead’ became the title of the most transparently political lyric in Hendrix’s work:

we got to stand up, side by side,
got to stand together and organise—
power to the people, freedom to the soul—
pass it on to the young and the old33

It doesn’t succeed as poetry, and only Hendrix’s extraordinary guitar lifts the track above the ordinary. One critic believes that “his heart isn’t quite in this farrago of tub-thumping, positivist soul slogans… as if he’s trying to talk himself into these platitudes”.34 Fair enough musically, this misses the point politically: there’s no reason to conclude that Hendrix didn’t mean what he sang here, just that he failed to find a way to adequately express it as a musician.

Days after soldiers killed four anti-war protestors at Kent State University in May, Hendrix dedicated ‘Machine Gun’ at the University of Oklahoma to “all the soldiers fighting in Chicago, Berkeley, Kent State, Oklahoma”.35 Berkeley, California was in a state not far off martial law after a year and more of running battles between radicals and the forces of Governor Ronald Reagan. Playing there the same month, Hendrix introduced the song with: “I’d like to dedicate this to all the soldiers fighting in Berkeley. You know what soldiers I’m talking about.” He dedicated ‘Voodoo Child’ to the local People’s Park—opened in the teeth of violent state opposition—and to the Black Panthers, whose heartland was only a few miles away in Oakland.36

‘Machine Gun’ featured at the Isle of Wight Festival that August, but Hendrix’s introduction replaced American cities with what just seem to be random English equivalents: “we’d like to dedicate this one to all the soldiers that are fighting in Birmingham, all the skinheads, all the…” Mention of skinheads appeared to puzzle the crowd, and some laughter followed: the skinhead subculture was still new enough, and tended to be associated with right-wing politics if anything. “Yeah, well, you know what I mean, you know, yeah right”, Hendrix continued. “All the soldiers fighting in Bournemouth, London.” The seaside town of Bournemouth—which Hendrix pro­nounced in stereotypical American fashion as Bourne Mouth—was hardly a hotbed of radical protest, but he added as an afterthought: “Oh yes, all the soldiers fighting in Vietnam, I almost forgot. So many wars on.”

The festival was shambolic, though, as security battled to keep out non-paying customers before organisers eventually gave way and let them in. Hendrix was late on stage, and his equipment kept going out of tune. Before he got to the song’s first line, the frequency of the guards’ walkie-talkies crossed with that of his amps, and a clipped English accent was clearly audible over his guitar: “Security personnel, security personnel, are you receiving? Over.”37 Hendrix may have misfired in his attempt at identifying British street fighters to dedicate the song to, but the audio intrusion added a definite flavour of British military interference to it.

Days later in Copenhagen Hendrix dedicated ‘Machine Gun’ to “all people fighting for their own cause and their own rights… fighting for freedom”.38 The apparently widespread belief “that Hendrix didn’t have a political bone in his body”39 is spread by people with little understanding of bones, let alone politics. Initially convinced of US imperialism’s beneficent role in the world, he had moved to question the oppressive realities of American power at home and abroad, and soon identified himself with those in revolt against them. This identification was always problematical, premised on a reluc­tance to sign up to anything or anyone he hadn’t thought through fully, and his radicalism was frequently diffuse and confused. His early death in September 1970—a stupidly tragic accident with nothing rock ’n’ roll about it40—closed off any further political development, along with the intriguing musical directions he was still exploring. What we have is impressive enough, though: a musician of genius willing to open his mind and music to the cause of liberation.

Notes

  1. Quoted in Harry Shapiro and Caesar Glebbeek, Jimi Hendrix: Electric Gypsy (Heinemann 1990), p 387.
  2. Quoted in Charles R Cross, Room Full of Mirrors: A biography of Jimi Hendrix (Hodder & Stoughton 2005), p 91.
  3. Ibid, p 93-4.
  4. Shapiro and Glebbeek, p 387, quote a wry attack by Folksingers for Freedom in Vietnam on Hendrix’s attitude.
  5. Hendrix on Hendrix: Interviews and Encounters with Jimi Hendrix, edited by Steven Roby (Chicago Review 2012), p 53.
  6. Ibid, p 72.
  7. Cross, p 248-9, quotes Eric Burdon, a friend who recalled Hendrix sitting above his London flat getting angry at anti-war demonstrators passing by: “When the Reds come down from China and they take over North Vietnam, and South Vietnam, and then they go for Japan, and beyond, then are you going to understand why the U.S. is there fighting these guys?” This seems to fit: Hendrix’s flat at 23 Brook Street (now adorned by a blue commemorative plaque) was on or near the route of big anti-war demonstrations to the nearby US embassy in March and October 1968. However, Hendrix’s girlfriend didn’t start renting that flat until June, and Hendrix himself was in North America from February 1968 to the end of the year, bar one week in June: Tony Brown, Hendrix: The Visual Documentary (Omnibus 1992), p 80-97. If there is a kernel of truth in Burdon’s recollection, it must refer to 1966 or early 1967.
  8. Quoted in Peter Doggett, There’s a Riot Going On: revolutionaries, rock stars and the rise and fall of ’60s counter-culture (Canongate 2007), p 155.
  9. Jimi Hendrix, The Lyrics (Hal Leonard 2003), p 75.
  10. Quoted in Shapiro and Glebbeek, p 533.
  11. Charles Shaar Murray, Crosstown Traffic: Jimi Hendrix and post-war pop (Faber and Faber 1989), p 195.
  12. Hendrix on Hendrix, p 217.
  13. Ibid, p 150.
  14. Ibid, p 188.
  15. Quoted in The Jimi Hendrix Companion: Three Decades of Commentary, edited by Chris Potash (Schirmer 1996), p 28.
  16. Noel Redding and Carol Appleby, Are You Experienced? The inside story of the Jimi Hendrix Experience (Picador 1990), p 129.
  17. Keith Shadwick, Jimi Hendrix: Musician (Backbeat 2012), p 286.
  18. Hendrix, Band of Gypsys (album, Capitol 1970).
  19. Quoted in Doggett, p 337.
  20. https://vault.fbi.gov/james-marshall-jimi-hendrix/james-marshall-jimi-hendrix/view#document/p2
  21. Andrew Witt, The Black Panthers in the Midwest: The Community Programs and Services of the Black Panther Party in Milwaukee, 1966-1977 (Routledge, 2007), p 46, 51-3.
  22. Hendrix, Live at the Fillmore East (album, MCA 1999). Six months earlier he had introduced it to his audience as “a black militant song”: Shadwick, p 250.
  23. Quoted in Shadwick, p 208.
  24. The Seattle Times, July 30 1968.
  25. Hendrix, The Lyrics, p 102-3. See Brown, p 103-5.
  26. Jimi Hendrix, The Dick Cavett Show (DVD, Experience Hendrix 2002).
  27. David Henderson, ’Scuse Me While I Kiss the Sky: The Life of Jimi Hendrix (Bantam 1983), p 302.
  28. David Stubbs, Jimi Hendrix: The stories behind every song (Carlton 2010), p 110.
  29. Shadwick, p 288.
  30. Peter Doggett, Jimi Hendrix: The Complete Guide to his Music (Omnibus 2004), p 29.
  31. Murray, p 23.
  32. Greg Tate, Midnight Lightning: Jimi Hendrix and the black experience (Laurence Hill 2003), p 48.
  33. Hendrix, The Lyrics, p 154.
  34. Stubbs, p 131.
  35. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kvTxfUmiBxY
  36. Cross, p 296.
  37. Jimi Hendrix, Live: Isle of Wight ’70 (album, Polydor 1991).
  38. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qc2gZmcCAEk
  39. John McDermott with Eddie Kramer, Hendrix: Setting the record straight (Warner 1992), p 169.
  40. See Tony Brown, The Final Days of Jimi Hendrix (Rogan House 1997).

Socialist Classics: Rosa Luxemburg, ‘The Crisis of Social Democracy’

In Issue 62 (December 2015) Joe Conroy looked at a work that kept socialism alive amid the betrayals of the first world war.

In February 1915 Rosa Luxemburg was imprisoned in Berlin. She had been sentenced the year before for inciting soldiers to dis­obedience, but the sentence hadn’t been carried out. The authorities clearly believed that putting her off the scene now would be useful. From the outbreak of the world war, she had been among the most vocal of the few socialists in Germany who dissented from their party’s support for the war, and were now beginning to organise and make their voice heard.

While her imprisonment was a major blow to these efforts, official hopes that Luxemburg’s voice would be silenced went unfulfilled. She could still write behind bars, and worked on a scathing indictment of the war and the Social Democratic Party’s acquiescence in it. By April it was ready and smuggled out, but her comrades on the outside, harassed and with little resources, couldn’t get it printed. Only when she was released after a year was it finally published, in secret, but the demand necessitated numerous reprints. She signed it with the pseudonym Junius—used in eighteenth-century England by a defender of popular rights against the monarchy—and it has often been known since as the Junius Pamphlet.

Luxemburg begins by describing the atmosphere of the war, now the initial hysteria had settled down: “mass butchery has become a tiresome, monotonous everyday task”. War was now literally a case of business as usual:

The cannon fodder that was loaded and patriotically cheered on in August and September is rotting in Belgium, in the Vosges, in Masuria, on the killing fields from which crops of profit shoot up powerfully.… Business is flourishing upon the ruins.… Shamed, dishonoured, wading in blood and dripping with filth—thus stands capitalist society, as it is.… Dividends are rising, and proletarians are falling.

But even worse was the response from the sworn enemies of capitalism: “in the midst of this inferno a world-historic tragedy has occurred: the capitulation of international social democracy”. The parliamentary representatives of the Social Democratic Party of Germany had voted to give financial support to the war, and the party as a whole had hastened to give political support: “it forgot all its principles, its pledges, the decisions of international congresses just at the moment when they should have been applied”. It had called for all classes to rally around the national flag in wartime, “declared the class struggle to be extinct”, but the other side was cleverer:

Have private property, capitalist exploitation and class rule by any chance ceased to exist? Have the property owners perhaps declared in a flush of patriotism: in view of the war, we hereby hand over for its duration the means of production—land, factories, works—as common property, renounce the exclusive right to profit from commodities, abolish all political privileges and sacrifice them on the altar of the fatherland as long as it is in danger?… The abolition of the class struggle was, therefore, an entirely one-sided affair.

This capitulation, repeated by social democrats in the other warring countries, led thousands of workers to go to the front without protest, to kill and be killed. It was not just weakening the working class from an intellectual or political point of view, but literally decimating them, physically exterminating them:

It is our strength, our hope that is being mowed down there in swathes, day after day, like grass before the scythe.… The flower of our manhood and youthful strength, hundreds of thousands whose socialist training in England and France, in Belgium, Germany and Russia was the product of decades-long work of education and agitation, other hundreds of thousands who could have been won over to socialism tomorrow, are falling and decaying miserably on the battlefields. The fruit of the sacrifices and toil of generations over decades is destroyed in a few weeks, the elite troops of the international proletariat are cut down at the root of life.

The excuse that Germany was fighting a noble war for democracy against the evil Russian dictatorship is torn apart. That dictatorship was one of the most oppressive on earth, but the revolutionary move­ment in Russia was growing and preparing to challenge it—until the outbreak of war temporarily disorientated and suppressed it: “‘German rifles’ are crushing, not Tsarism, but its opponent.” German propaganda lamented the plight of Poles under the Russian empire, but Luxemburg—who was one of them—points out that others suffered under German rule, where “Polish children had the German ‘Our Father’ beaten into them with bloody welts on their bodies”. But what else would the warmongers do but excuse their actions as defensive?

When and where has there been a war, since so-called public opinion has played a role in government calculations, in which each and every belligerent party did not, with a heavy heart, draw the sword for the one single purpose of defending its fatherland and its own righteous cause from the shameless attack of the enemy? The legend is as much a part of warfare as powder and lead.

The war could only be understood in its global context. Luxemburg traces the development of German imperialism in particular, and its role in the international power play which formed the backdrop to the outbreak of 1914. Imperialism is “an innately international phenomenon, an indivisible whole that can only be understood in all its inter-relations”, she writes. Looked at in isolation, the Austro-Hungarian invasion of Serbia was a clear imperialist aggression, but “Serbia itself is only a pawn in the great chess game of world politics”, and she praises the Serbian socialists who saw that it would inevitably be dragged into the overall imperialist war, “a competitive struggle of an already fully-developed capitalism for world supremacy”.

From this she draws a general conclusion on the position of nations: “in today’s imperialist milieu there can no longer be any wars of national defence generally”. It was true enough to say that the nationalism of the great powers was a fraud designed to perpetuate oppression, even when they were invoking support for smaller states under their wing. But what about the attempts then being made by Egyptians or Africans or Irish to win national independence? Far from cloaking imperialist desires, they were throwing damaging spokes into the wheels of imperial chariots. Even though opposing empires naturally attempted to profit from their rivals’ discomfort, the demand to break away from empires deserved the full support of socialists.

A strange twist on Luxemburg’s anti-nationalism comes when she claims that “The highest duty of the Social Democracy towards its fatherland demanded that it expose the real background of this imperialist war… That would have been truly national”. To a large extent, she is trying to throw back at the party leaders their own pretensions of standing up for the German people. Her claim is that ordinary Germans would suffer from the war rather than benefitting, but to couch that in a nationalist phraseology—particularly one as inextricably imperialist as German nationalism was in 1914—is confusing, at best.

(Unfortunately, Luxemburg’s true position here is grossly distorted for English speakers by a translation published in New York in 1918 and still doing the rounds in print and on line, although it is often poor and sometimes inaccurate. She wrote that as long as imperialism exists, “the right of national self-determination has nothing at all in common with its practice”, but this is translated as “there can be no ‘national self-determination’”. The same translation says that “Today the nation is but a cloak that covers imperialist desires, a battle cry for imperialistic rivalries, the last ideological measure with which the masses can be persuaded to play the role of cannon fodder in imperialistic wars.” However, the words “Today the nation” have been dropped into the middle of a sentence, changing its meaning radically. Luxemburg was writing here about “The national phrase”, which imperialism has “perverted into its opposite”.)

But would the triumph of one particular side in the war be a more favourable result for the working class? This was like making “a choice between two beatings”, says Luxemburg:

For the European proletariat as a whole, victory or defeat of either of the two warring camps would be equally disastrous from its class standpoint. For war itself as such, whatever its military outcome, means the greatest conceivable defeat for the European proletariat, and the quickest forcing of peace by the international struggle of the proletariat can bring the only possible victory for the proletarian cause.

This contrasts with the ‘revolutionary defeatist’ position of Lenin, especially, that defeat of your own side would be preferable. Any anti-war agitation tends to weaken the particular state in which it takes place: successful agitation in Germany, for instance, would restrict the capacities of the German military. Luxemburg’s own activities show clearly that she never allowed the consideration of undermining the German war effort to hold her back. But defeat for one side necessarily implies victory for the other, and she is here speaking from the standpoint of the international working class. She was right to raise the idea of a third possibility coming out on top, of workers’ revolt exhausting the resources of both sides and ending the war altogether—and the final outcome of the war was not too far at all from that.

The war was confronting humanity as a whole with an over­arching choice: “either the triumph of imperialism and the destruction of all culture, and, as in ancient Rome, depopulation, desolation, degeneration, a vast cemetery; or the victory of socialism, i.e., the conscious struggle of the international proletariat against imperialism and its method: war”. The important thing was to learn this lesson, so that something could yet be salvaged from the slaughter:

Socialism is lost only if the international proletariat is unable to judge the depth of the fall, doesn’t learn from it.… The working class must always fearlessly look truth in the face, even the bitterest self-accusation… we will win if we have not forgotten how to learn.

What should socialists have done in August 1914? Not proclaim a revolution, but hold their nerve and speak the truth: “not ridiculous prescriptions and recipes of a technical nature, but the political watchword, clarity on the political tasks and interests of the proletariat in the war”. It is quite possible that such a stand would have proved un­popular in the first months of war hysteria. “At first we would perhaps have achieved nothing but that the honour of the German proletariat would be saved”, but even that would be no small thing. It would have maintained the socialist movement “like a rock in the roaring sea”, eventually attracting those sickened of the carnage and looking for solutions. When hatred of war connects with desire for a new world, such solutions become practical:

The madness will only stop and the bloody nightmare of hell will only disappear when the workers in Germany and France, in England and Russia finally awake from their intoxication, reach out a fraternal hand to each other, and drown the bestial chorus of warmongers and the hoarse cry of capitalist hyenas with the powerful old battle-cry of labour: Proletarians of all countries, unite!

A witness to the truth

Noel McDermott reviewed the memoirs of socialist stalwart Matt Merrigan in Issue 61 (September 2015).

Matt Merrigan, Eggs and Rashers: Irish socialist memories, edited and introduced by D R O’Connor Lysaght (Umiskin Press/Unite)

Matt Merrigan headed the Amalgamated Transport and General Workers’ Union south of the border between 1960 and 1986. Before, during and after that period, he was a constant presence on the Irish left, standing up for socialism in numerous ways, usually swimming against the political stream. Now we have his memoirs, an often fascinating look back on his life and struggles.

Early pages recount Merrigan’s childhood in Dolphin’s Barn, then still “the last urban frontier in south-west Dublin”. Eschewing tired nostalgia for the days when the canals actually divided city from county, he gives a very full account of a vibrant industrial district, peppered with the names of factories long forgotten. His father was an active trade unionist, but died when Matt junior was only seven. His own introduction to trade unionism and socialism came a decade later, when taking part in a strike that won reinstatement for a shop steward and recognition for the union.

By then Merrigan was working in Rowntree’s in Kilmainham, and he goes on to chart the later decline of Dublin’s confectionery industry, sacrificed to EU membership. His recollections of factory life are far from painting a picture of dark satanic mills, infused instead with “a camaraderie that is, in my view, unique to persons who work with their hands as part of a production unit that requires co-operation and adaptability”. Neither does he see manual labour as uniquely degrading: “The mobility of the street sweeper, largely un­supervised, may in fact be more job-satisfying that the better-paid computer operator.”

One strike he recalls was nicknamed “the dirty bib dispute”, demanding an apology from a supervisor who had offensively reprimanded a woman, the condition of whose overall failed to meet his standards. Such fights asserted the essential dignity of the worker in a way which went beyond mere pay rates. Women who married went to the back of the queue, losing wages and conditions and becoming first in line for redundancy, but Merrigan insists that “it was the single women who were the most intransigent in upholding this discrimination”. Such contradictions defy simplistic analyses of the extra oppressions foisted on women workers. The author repeatedly acknowledges his wife Rose, without whose support he would have been unable to play such a role in the movement as he did. While the recognition of women’s assistance to male activists is valuable, it does little to address the obstacles faced by women who want to take a hand in the movement themselves.

Merrigan spent the mid-1940s in a Trotskyist group, while all the time unsure of their independent existence, preferring to work inside a Labour Party that still had some life in it than to dwell in “the left-sectarian ghetto”. Launching a party with twenty members, their “dogmatic and apocalyptic concept of the inevitable embrace of socialism by Irish workers” kept them working away with little to show for it. There may well be hindsight at work here, and involve­ment with Trotskyists decades later only increased his contempt for “the shining halos of the self-appointed vanguards of the working class… Too many socialist Popes and no laity!” While a very healthy antipathy to Stalinism remained with him throughout his life, Trotskyist politics as such seems to have held as many repulsions for him as it did attractions, and formed only one strand in his political formation.

In light of that, it is disproportionate of the editor to intrude on the main text with lengthy explanations of the ins and outs of 1940s Trotskyism, particularly as he allows himself to ‘correct’ Merrigan’s appraisals. His footnotes and name index are full of necessary infor­mation to comprehend persons, parties and events mentioned by Merrigan. However, it is often unclear which notes are the author’s and which the editor’s, with one or two being a confusing mixture of both—and the fact that the notes were composed at various dates over the space of two decades doesn’t help.

Labour provided a political home for Merrigan for long stretches of his life, but he was more of a disgruntled and ill-tolerated lodger passing through than a warmly-welcomed permanent resident, and he was twice served with eviction notices. The party was led by “tail-wind clientelist politicians who never ever put their seats at risk for the policies and principles espoused on holiday occasions with tongue in cheek”. When a member, his intention was of course to fight against their like, but this turned out to be as sterile a ghetto as any Trotskyist sect. He frankly admits that his ten years on the party executive were “the most disillusioning and frustrating period of my life”.

His political involvement within and without Labour often brought him into contact with Noel Browne, still a left-wing icon to many, but as Merrigan puts it, “Those who loved him did so from afar.” Browne flitted from Clann na Poblachta to Fianna Fáil to National Progressive Democrats to Socialist Labour with intervals as an independent, but the constant in what the author calls “Browne’s political perambulations” is that he himself always knew best, and nothing as encumbrous as an organisation could ever expect him to play on their team. One of his many shortcomings was a failure to oppose the oppression of nationalists in the north, and Merrigan pithily sums up those blinded here by antipathy to religious back­ground: “They cannot see the anti-imperialist wood for the church steeples”.

He never saw the working class as angels incapable of doing wrong. He is scathing, for instance, of the way people swallowed the short-term promises of EU membership: “Workers who voted to join the EEC in such numbers bequeathed the dole queue to their sons and daughters.” Merrigan spent most of his working life as a union official, and his memoirs are full of those experiences, but he wasn’t blind to “the propensity of trade union bureaucrats to seek an accommodation with other bureaucrats in business and government”. This propensity reached its height in the era of social partnership, a concept he opposed, not just for its poor results, but on principle, based on

the basic social opposition of those who own property, wealth and wealth creation to those who sell their labour to the owning class… Economic and social consensus is not possible in a society driven by class differences.

Such an outlook qualifies you for the label ‘maverick’, an outsider refusing to accept the ‘realities’ of modern economic life. Added to this in Merrigan’s case was a refusal to waste too much time in organisations whose claims to espouse the workers’ cause rang hollow:

Many members of parties who purport to redress injustice, poverty and illiberal practices, in the face of the betrayal of these values by their leaders, live in the continuing hope of some apocalyptic reform of these leaders that would allow one to continue in the belief of honesty and integrity in the struggle for the stated objectives. I must confess that my tolerance for such religio-masochistic experiences is very tight, and consequently I found myself throughout my life on the margins of acceptability and, as perceived by some, eccentricity.

Here was no Noel Browne refusing to give and take in collective effort alongside others, and the book goes over his many efforts to work within existing political organisations and create new ones. But none of those organisations were able to allow someone like him make his contribution to the socialist cause, as they either accommodated to capitalism or failed to effectively draw workers into battle against it. “I don’t regret my non-conformity”, he writes, “as I did what I did as a conscientious witness to the truth as I saw it.”

This book bears valuable witness to the truths Matt Merrigan stood for, and the untruths he stood against. “I am still an old-fashioned, unreconstructed socialist”, he concludes, and looks back with some anger at the Ireland he faced in his latter days:

Where is the vision, idealism and compassion of the pioneers of the labour and socialist movement? Where is the great delirium of those brave men and women who risked prison and death in pursuit of liberty, freedom and equality for the downtrodden and dispossessed?

This is a lyrical evocation of socialist principle, all the more melancholy for his conclusion that such values are gone. But he shows no signs of regret for his years of effort in that cause, instead looking to the future with cautious optimism: “Hopefully a more enlightened generation will rededicate itself to salvaging and reinvigorating the values of socialism”. He tells us that his first strike as a teenager “kindled a spark that lit up my life”. The story of that life shouldn’t kindle a wistful remembrance of times past, but should help hand on the torch to those who can fight again and fight better.