Sunday, 18 September 2016

7 Great Poems Every Radical Should Know

This article was originally published on The Radical Tea Towel Company's blog:

This selection of poems is by no means exhaustive. There are hundreds and hundreds of radical poems I could’ve included, but these are just a few of my favourites – I hope you’re inspired by them too!

1) Dulce et Decorum Est – Wilfred Owen

Though this poem has become an absolute classic over the years, its radical pacifist message shouldn’t be ignored. Indeed, few poems could be more relevant in today’s world. At this very moment, people’s lives are being ravaged and devastated by violence and war. Soldiers are killed and innocent civilians are slaughtered every day.

Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum Est” is one of the few poems that truly encapsulates the real horrors of war. He begins with a description of soldiers marching through sludge until, nine lines in, the men are gassed and fumble about looking for their gas masks.

His carefully chosen words and ingenious use of rhythm bring to life the terror experienced by the men of the First World War. For example, his image of “someone still yelling out and stumbling, / And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime…” is frighteningly vivid, testament to Owen’s skill as a writer and to the realism of his verse.

But Owen, having spent time in the trenches, realised that the realities of war are all too often ignored. Rather than focusing on the fearful nature of conflict and violence (evident in Owen’s description of blood “gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs” and of “incurable sores on innocent tongues”), we tend to aestheticize and glorify the act of going to war.

We instil patriotic ardour into our people, and we present the death of young men as a sacrificial and heroic act. For Owen, though, war is not heroic, nor is it glorious. Indeed, it is precisely the opposite – a horrifying and terrible waste of young life.

So it is Owen’s own experiences of war that led him to see that Horace’s ode was wrong: it is not “Sweet and right to die for your country.” Rather, Horace’s aphorism is just an “old lie” perpetuated to accentuate the false necessity of war. That’s why this poem is so important for pacifists and radicals today.

2) Jerusalem (And did those feet in ancient time) – William Blake

This is yet another classic poem, and you may think it an odd choice. Before I actually began to concentrate on Blake’s words, I imagined this was simply some patriotic and nationalistic call to arms. But the poem is actually far more than that.

True, the poem is certainly a rallying call to the people of England. But when Blake exclaims that ‘his sword will not sleep in his hand’ and that he will not ‘cease from Mental Fight’, rather than advocating war or imperialism, Blake is actually imploring us to devote ourselves to the improvement of our country. He hopes that we might turn England from the land of ‘Dark Satanic Mills’ into the New Jerusalem, a socialist utopia.

This may seem somewhat far-fetched, but if you look at some of Blake’s other poems, his progressive and liberal values become clear. For example, his poem ‘London’  (another great poem for radicals) depicts the bleak and wretched lives of the poor – hence he describes the “chimney-sweeper’s cry” and the “hapless soldier’s sigh”.

It’s clear, then, that Blake had quite radical sympathies for those living in poverty. Thus, it can be inferred that, when he dreamt of the ‘New Jerusalem’, he probably envisioned a land of equality and affluence, not plagued by capitalism or neo-liberalism.

So, to me the poem seems to express the hope that an anti-establishment, socialist movement might be created to bring about real change in England’s “green and pleasant land.” What could possibly be more radical?

3) The Masque of Anarchy – Percy Bysshe Shelley

Shelley wrote this poem in 1819, the year of the Peterloo massacre, when a group of peaceful protesters were charged down by cavalry in St Peter’s Field, Manchester. They were demanding the reform of parliamentary representation – back then, the ‘democratic’ system was fundamentally undemocratic, with only a handful of men being able to vote.

In the poem, Shelley describes the rule of Murder, Fraud, Hypocrisy, Destruction, and finally, Anarchy – all of these represent the false authorities of “God, and King, and Law”. Shelley, seeing this injustice, beseeches the people of England to recognise the wrongs in their society and to act upon them:

“Rise, like lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number!
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you:
Ye are many—they are few!"

He lists the inequalities of life, the struggles of hunger, low pay, and slavery, and calls all the people of England together from their “daily strife” and their “woes untold”. Spurred on by a vision of Hope, they must refuse to succumb to the injustice of these authorities. But Shelley urges against vengefulness and violence. Rather, the people of England must form a “great assembly… of the fearless, of the free” and engage in non-violent protest, despite the bloodthirsty actions of their oppressors.

Once they have united, they must “Declare with measured words” that they are free. And even if some are killed by tyrannous authorities (as in the Peterloo Massacre), they will act as a source of inspiration to all who came after. They must demand their freedom, and they must demand change, says Shelley, but without becoming violent tyrants themselves.

This poem was one of the first ever arguments in favour of non-violent action, and it was often quoted by Gandhi during his campaign for a free India. This alone shows what a great radical poem it is, one that inspires us to change the world we live in for the better.  

4) The New Colossus – Emma Lazarus

This poem, part of which is etched onto the base of the Statue of Liberty, has a beautiful message of love, compassion, and warmth.

Emma Lazarus describes how the statue shall stand as a “Mother of Exiles” with a beacon glowing “world-wide welcome,” and shall cry with silent lips the poignant and moving words:

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

This message of sympathy and hospitality is one that all progressives can share. Indeed, the poem is particularly pertinent today in light of the current refugee crisis and the huge swathes of people currently travelling across land and sea to escape war. If anyone, it is those people that should be welcomed with open arms.

5) Still I Rise – Maya Angelou

This poem, like no other, seems to encapsulate the opposing forces of struggle and perseverance, suffering and hope. This dichotomy is clear from the very start of the poem with the lines: “You may trod me in the very dirt / But still, like dust, I’ll rise”.

Angelou, as a black woman living in the USA, has suffered from persecution and mockery (“You may shoot me with your words, / You may cut me with your eyes, / You may kill me with your hatefulness”), but she refuses to let that hold her back: still, she will rise. She refuses to give up her supposed “haughtiness” and “sexiness” – in fact, she revels in it, acting as if she had a gold mine in her back yard and diamonds between her thighs. She rejects stereotyping, and she refuses to be restrained.

She refuses, too, to be held back by the suffering of her ancestors and their pasts. Thus, “Out of the huts of history’s shame” and “Up from the past that’s rooted in pain” she rises. She turns that struggle into ambition and optimism, a resolution expressed in one of the poem’s most inspiring lines: “I am the dream of the hope of the slave.” In these words, she conveys the determination and hopefulness of all those who have been tormented and anguished, and this is what makes her message into such a great radical, hopeful poem.

6) Mushrooms – Sylvia Plath

This poem is slightly less well known, but likewise inspiring and encouraging in its hopefulness. What Plath is actually talking about is hard to define, but its clear that the poem is about a movement of some sort, perhaps feminism, that is fighting against persecution and tyranny.

Like the mushrooms, those who partake in this movement fight for freedom, quietly acquiring the air, heaving the needles and the pavement above them, a metaphor for their oppressors. The freedom-fighters have struggled (they “Diet on water, / On crumbs of shadow, / Bland-mannered, asking / Little or nothing”) but still there are so many of them, and their struggling will not have been in vain.

Indeed, one day they will succeed: they are “nudgers and shovers” who will multiply and, one day, “Inherit the earth”. If this poem is about the plight of women and their struggle for emancipation, then Plath is attempting to incite a silent revolution amongst the women of the world. She hopes that one day, women will no longer be seen as “meek” and even “edible” but will in fact be equal to their male counterparts. In this sense, the poem is yet another radical and inspiring call to arms.

7) The Man With the Hoe – Edwin Markham

This poem was originally inspired by Millet’s famous painting, “L’Homme a la houe”, but the poem is now just as famous as Millet’s work. Socialist and compassionate in its themes, the poem depicts a haggard man working in the fields with the “burden of the world” on his shoulders. He suffers despair and he never has any source of hope, working as he does all day in the fields.

Markham questions and laments the injustice of this way of life, and argues that this image demonstrates “the world’s blind greed” that has led to such inequalities and inhumanity. Humanity itself, he says, has been betrayed.

In the final two stanzas, Markham questions the “masters, lords and rulers in all lands” and asks them how they will “Make right the immemorial infamies, / Perfidious wrongs, immedicable woes” that have led to this man’s suffering and poverty. He asks, too, how the human race will be judged in light of these inequities.

Though this poem seems bleak, it can also be read as another source of inspiration. We, the people of the world, can change things. We can end the inequality that blights so many lives. We can bring about the “whirlwinds of rebellion” of which Markham speaks!

Tuesday, 13 September 2016

On Our Shared Humanity - Calais, Lesbos, and the Refugee Crisis

This article was originally published on The Radical Tea Towel Company's blog page:

A couple of weeks ago, I was giving a speech at my old school about the refugee crisis and my time working in refugee camps. My speech was part of “Culture Week”, a school initiative designed to broaden the horizons of younger students, and the chosen theme for this year was migration.

I talked about how I’d decided to go to Calais when I saw that photo of Aylan Kurdi lying lifeless on the Turkish beach; how I’d worked alongside the charities Help Refugees and L’auberge des Migrants to deliver aid to the Calais Jungle; and how I’d later flown out to Lesbos and worked in Moria camp and on the shores of the Greek island as refugees crossed the threshold of Europe.

One of the things that I said when I started my speech was that I didn’t want to focus on the politics of the situation. It’s easy to get carried away with questions of border policy and the social or economic viability of solutions. These are all important points that need to be considered when addressing a crisis like the one we currently face, but I felt that the talk would be most effective if I were to focus wholly on the human aspect of the situation. After all, I went to Calais and Lesbos for humanitarian reasons, not political ones.

In retrospect, I think that was the right decision – to focus on the personal, rather than the political, the human rather than the logistical. I could speak for days about how there are currently 60 million refugees worldwide; how this is the largest refugee crisis since World War II; and how there are approximately 294 unaccompanied minors living in the Calais Jungle, desperately in need of safety. I could also tell you about the hundreds of refugees who have drowned in the Mediterranean, and the terrible brutality of French police in Calais.

These are all harrowing facts and statistics and they should be widely shared. They conjure up images of young children alone in an alien country, of weeping mothers grieving the death of their loved ones, and of refugees fleeing tear gas and rubber bullets. These are all things that I have witnessed first hand, and when I talked at my school about these experiences the room fell silent.

And yet, there still seems to be a sense of distance when we reflect on refugees in this way – when we present them as numbers on a graph or as helpless masses in need of charity. True, there is emotional power in talking about mothers and their children, but there is a certain rhetorical detachment. It was when I spoke about particular individuals I’d met that I felt people really took interest. It was when I got beyond the shocking facts and the images of pity that I felt I really made a connection with my audience.

So when I spoke about the Afghani man who I’d met in Lesbos, who had a successful life as an aviation engineer in Kabul before being forced to flee, I felt people really began to listen. When I told them about his fascination with Arsenal football club and about his Afghani girlfriend, shock and pity was replaced by understanding and sympathy.

The same happened when I told my audience about the 14 year-old Syrian boy who I’d met in the Calais Jungle and who, just like them, wanted to continue his education and go to university. My audience was fascinated by my young Syrian friend’s eagerness to learn French and to perfect his English, as if refugees are somehow different from children in the UK. It’s this, really, that we should all be focusing on – that we all have a shared humanity.

In fact, this was probably the most important thing that I learnt whilst volunteering – that behind every number, there is an individual, and that those individuals are exactly like you and me. Whatever we label people – refugees or economic migrants – we are all human beings. We all have dreams and ambitions, we all have passions and fears. And most importantly, we all deserve the right to a fulfilling and happy life. This, I hope, is what my audience took away with them.

If there ever is a solution to the refugee crisis, then this sense of a shared humanity must be at its core. Because we all live in the same world, and we all face difficulty and hardship, albeit in different measure. We only live the lives we do because of the chance and perhaps fortuitous circumstances of our birth. Any of us could one day be fleeing war, and that’s why we have a duty to our brothers and sisters in Syria, in Iraq, in Afghanistan, across Europe and across the world who are doing exactly what we would do if we were in their position.

Monday, 12 September 2016

On The Importance of Voting

This article was originally published in The Huffington Post ( just before the EU Referendum. And yet, I thought it relevant enough to repost now, since it is not only about voting in referenda, but about voting in general.

This Thursday, on the 23rd of June, millions of people will be going to polling stations throughout the UK in order to cast their vote. The people of the UK will be deciding whether we should remain or leave the European Union, a decision that will have a drastic influence over the future of our country. It will affect every one of our lives, and it will determine the role the United Kingdom plays in the world for decades to come.

The chance to vote is not something we should take lightly, not only because of the power each of us holds in our own hands, but also because the right to vote is something we should all treasure. When we cast our votes on Thursday, we should remember that in 1780, only 3% of the population of England and Wales could vote. That 3% was, of course, made up of wealthy white males who thought they and they alone should decide the future of their country.

We should also remember that there are still many people throughout the world who are denied the right to vote or whose votes simply don’t count. Even though universal suffrage is a key element of our democracy, we are still lucky to have it. In countries like North Korea, Zimbabwe, Syria, and China, citizens have little or no say in how their countries are run. To many people throughout the world, the idea that a government would hold a referendum seems an idealistic dream for the distant future. We, in the UK, are living that dream of democracy.

But we shouldn’t just feel fortunate that we have this right to democratically choose our governments. We should also feel grateful. Now, I’m not saying we should be thanking politicians or the establishment or the monarchy for granting us this right to vote. After all, the right of universal suffrage was not given to the citizens of the UK out of good will or kindness from benevolent bureaucrats. It was fought for.

We should feel grateful to all those who struggled and persevered so that we could go to the polling stations on Thursday. We should feel grateful to Thomas Paine, whose book The Rights of Man called for an expansion of suffrage beyond wealthy elites. We should feel grateful to the radical speaker Henry Hunt and the 11 people killed at the Peterloo Massacre of 1819, attacked by local yeomanry for calling for their right to vote. They were martyred for their fellow men and women.

Then there are the Chartists, the 19th Century radical campaigners for parliamentary reform. Their six-point programme included demands for universal suffrage and voting by secret ballot – both of which we take for granted. All of these revolutionaries gave us what we have today, and we should commemorate their struggle by casting our votes on Thursday.

But these groups were only the beginning of this battle. When we vote, we must also feel indebted to the suffragettes and to Emily Davison, that great feminist figure who fought for her rights as a woman. Indeed, she gave her life for the cause of female suffrage. At the Epsom Derby of 1913, Emily Davison stepped out in front of King George V’s horse in a symbol of protest. Four days later, she died from her injuries.

Alongside Emily in this battle for woman’s right to vote were Mary Wollstonecraft, Emmeline Pankhurst, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and many, many others. They suffered persecution, alienation and abuse so that women could have equal voting rights to men.

And last but not least, we must remember Martin Luther King Junior and all those men and women who took part in the civil rights movement. If they hadn’t marched on Washington in 1963, and if they hadn’t clung so ferociously to their heartfelt dreams, black men and black women might still not be able to vote in the United States. Martin Luther King Junior was assassinated for fighting for his beliefs – he gave his life so that he and his fellow black Americans could have the right we enjoy today.

That, I suppose, demonstrates the importance of voting. Not just because we are voting in an incredibly important referendum, but because we are so lucky that we can vote at all. It hasn’t always been like this. We haven’t always had this great democratic right. So, when we put our slips in the ballot box on Thursday, whether we are men or women, black or white, Christian or Muslim, working-class or bourgeoisie, we should remember those who gave their lives so that every one of us could have this right.

When Thursday arrives, I urge you to go to the ballot box and vote. If you feel alienated and disenfranchised by the current political climate, I don’t blame you. But you still ought to go to the polling station and vote or, at the very least, spoil your ballot – it may seem pointless, but it shows that you care and ensures you won’t be dismissed as entirely apathetic.

Turning out to vote on Thursday is the least we can do for all those campaigners and martyrs who championed the rights we enjoy today. Whatever your stance on the referendum, let your voice be heard.

Sunday, 11 September 2016

A Patriotic Vision For The Left

This blog was originally published on The Radical Tea Towel Company's blog page: 

For a long time now, the words “nationalistic” and “patriotic” have seemed to me to be largely associated with xenophobia, bigotry and prejudice. Political parties like UKIP and the British Nationalist Party have long been claiming that only they are proud of their country and their people.

UKIP’s 2015 General Election manifesto was emblazoned with the slogan “Believe in Britain” as if no other political party did. The English Defence League adopted St George’s flag (ignorant to the fact that St George was Syrian) as if to suggest that they were the true guardians and lovers of our country, and that no other political party could really care for England.

A quick Google search reinforces this unusual association between bigotry and patriotism. The so-called “patriot movement” consists of various conservative movements in the United States that include organised militia members, tax protesters, conspiracy theorists, and radical Christians who believe in an impending apocalypse. ‘Patriotism’ apparently equates with ‘loony’, too.

And just as these illiberal, conservative groups often pose as patriotic, so the left has forever been accused of the opposite: of having a deep loathing for the United Kingdom and wanting to systematically dismantle all of its traditions and institutions. In his novel A Time of Gifts, Patrick Leigh Fermor describes his early perception of left-wing politicians as men and women determined to see the destruction of everything ‘British’, from country-life and religion to cricket and farming.

This view of the left as anti-patriotic was evident in The Daily Mail’s childish and brutal attack on Ralph Miliband, the socialist writer and late father of Ed Miliband. The tabloid absurdly branded Ralph as “The man who hated Britain” for no other reason than his left-wing political stance, despite the fact that he fought for Britain in the Royal Navy. Of course, The Daily Mail consistently publishes utter nonsense, but its influence and power cannot be ignored – these are views held by a large amount of the electorate.

The persistence of this perception is terrifying: if you type “Corbyn hates” into Google, the first two suggested searches are not (as you might expect) “Corbyn hates inequality” or “Corbyn hates injustice”, but instead, Google suggests the two searches “Corbyn hates England” and “Corbyn hates Britain”. Although Google may not be trustworthy when it comes to politics (I wonder why…), it seems that many in England agree with Cameron when he says Corbyn has a “security-threatening, terrorist-sympathising, Britain-hating ideology”.

This branding of the left, and the Labour Party in particular, as anti-British or anti-patriotic, is very damaging indeed. Previous polling has shown that nearly 8 out of 10 British people are proud of their nationality, and so any party hoping to win in 2020 must reflect that pride. And I believe that it can be done.

The rise of the SNP in Scotland and the popularity of Plaid Cymru in Wales show that patriotism and socialism can and should be synonymous. Nationalistic politics does not have to mean regressive politics. Loving your country does not necessitate xenophobic values and inward-looking views. Caring about our country does not mean we must abandon our concern for the rest of the world, nor does it mean we should redirect foreign aid to benefit ourselves alone (one of UKIP’s manifesto pledges).

I also believe that patriotism, while it involves pride, does not mean we must agree with everything our country has and will do. Being patriotic does not mean we must celebrate our terrible imperialist past, nor does it mean applauding war and supporting unnecessary violence.

For too long, we’ve allowed the word ‘patriotism’ to be wrongly defined, and we as radicals must reverse that. We should not be afraid to call of waving the English flag and calling ourselves patriots, because patriotism can mean pride in our National Health Service, in our welfare state, and in our democracy. Patriotism can mean the love of our diversity, our tolerance, and our acceptance of other cultures. Patriotism can mean the love of our artistic history and our support of progressive values (notable in our fight against Nazism). It doesn’t have to mean a passion for the monarchy, a love of tradition, or a constant support of war, as many now see it.

Patriotism certainly can be dangerous – there’s no denying it. That’s possibly why Marx opposed it so much (“The working men have no country”), seeing it as divisive, anti-internationalist, and a direct cause of conflict. But, as I have attempted to demonstrate, it doesn’t have to be. If we love our own country, we do not have to hate the countries of others. Love of one thing does not necessitate the hatred of another.

So patriotism isn’t necessarily a bigoted ideology. Indeed, if argued correctly, a left-wing patriotic ideology could unite the British people like no other, ending the politics of fear (exemplified by the scapegoating of the poor and foreigners) and ensuring pride in and passion for our liberal institutions. That is why the Labour party and the left as a whole must embrace the word patriotism, rather than shying away from it – not just to increase their electability, but to bring people together.

Whilst right-wing politicians brand the people of the UK as scroungers and wasters (just this week, Alan Duncan claimed that achievement equals wealth, suggesting that millions of British people are lazy and unsuccessful), and whilst the Tories take benefits from working people and dismantle the NHS, the Left must stand for compassion and love, protecting our people and its institutions – what could possibly be more patriotic? The left are the true patriots, and we must prove it.