Thursday, January 31, 2013

Sweet Commerce: Mau Mau, Ireland and the British peasantry

by Richard Mellor

It is not easy to understand the processes that take place in society, not because it’s hard to understand but because the process are deliberately obscured. Why is there is so much strife, poverty, violence and war? “Human nature is just selfish, naturally greedy” is one explanation we hear all the time.  The pope in Rome and most other religious figures will claim it’s due to rejection of or failure to become closer to god; their god of course. We are sinners, Christians are even born bad.

As a young man in the 1960’s and 70’s during the troubles in Northern Ireland and subsequent bombings in England, the discussions in the workplaces and pubs were about how the Catholics and Protestants just couldn’t get along.  The same with Muslims and Jews in Israel/Palestine, “Jews and Muslims have been killing each other like this for centuries” one guy told me recently.  This is not so, and in certain circles among political people, the discussions may well be about the underlying causes of these conflicts, but I am talking about the propaganda in the mass media and how this shapes the views of millions of workers. The main thing is that religion, race and other social divisions are used to obscure the dominant antagonism in society, the class question-----the exploitation of those who sell their labor power to live by those that buy it.  This is particularly so in the US where there are no classes apparently and identity politics is rife.

Dedan Kimathi, Mau Mau fighter
I am thinking of this as I just finished a book about the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya that took place between 1952 and 1960, The Histories of the Hanged by David Anderson and I strongly recommend it.  It was a brutal and violent conflict.  As a child I recall it being portrayed as a violent assault on white settlers but very few whites died although some did die horrific deaths.  But hundreds of thousands of Kikuyu were displaced, thrown from their land and resettled or unable to find work in the cities.  Over 1000 were hanged and many more killed in the conflict with settlers and British troops.  It was the land question that lay behind the revolt, a revolt that was never termed a rebellion by the British because to do so would have given the “terrorists” rights under the rules of war.  The US refers to these people as “enemy combatants” for the same reason.

Toward the end of the conflict Anderson gives an account of the attitude of the colonial authorities to Mau Mau prisoners who they called Mickeys:

“….while we were waiting for the sub-inspector to come back I decided to question the Mickeys.  They wouldn’t say a thing of course and one of them, a tall coal-black bastard, kept grinning at me, real insolent. I slapped him hard, but he kept on grinning at me, so I kicked him in the balls as hard as I could ... When he finally got up on his feet he grinned at me again and I snapped. I really did. I stuck my revolver right in his grinning mouth ... And I pulled the trigger. His brains went all over the side of the police station. The other two (suspects) were standing there looking blank ... so I shot them both ... when the sub-inspector drove up, I told him the (suspects) tried to escape. He didn't believe me but all he said was 'bury them and see the wall is cleaned up'."   

A Young friend of mine, a black guy from the Midwest was talking to me about racism and what that has meant for black people throughout US history, from the kidnappings that brought them here to the racist justice system that incarcerates them at alarming rates and everything in between.  He felt racial war would be more likely than genuine racial harmony. The US media tended to see the Mau Mau revolt as a race war at the time and I can hardly blame my young friend from drawing the conclusions he did although how strongly he held them I’m not sure. But I reminded him of the conclusions about social conflict that Malcolm X drew from his experiences when he said:

“I believe that there will be ultimately be a clash between the oppressed and those who do the oppressing….”
he said, “….I believe that there will be a clash between those who want freedom, justice and equality for everyone and those who want to continue the system of exploitation. I believe that there will be that kind of clash, but I don't think it will be based on the color of the skin...”

While skin color, gender and religious affiliation can lead to conflict, and are also additional forms of social oppression that we have to address----I don’t feel discriminated against by the society in which I live due to the color of my skin for example----the motive force for driving colonial people’s off their land was not a hatred for their color or religion, it is driven by the need for free labor and the expansion of the capitalist mode of production throughout the world.  Wealth in capitalist society is created during the labor process so people that have a means of subsistence from the land have to be separated from it in order to drive them in to the hands of the capitalist class who will willingly pay them a wage for their labor time.

Before the British capitalist class liberated Kikuyu farmers from their means of subsistence, they freed the British peasants, white people, from theirs. The taking of common land that fed and clothed these peasants sped up after the English revolution becoming private land through legal decree (the peasants having no political voice of course) and violence. But the capitalist mode of production was not yet advanced enough to employ all this Labor power, these “free” laborers, so the possessors of it having lost their means of subsistence, were driven in to extreme poverty and were forced to beg, poach or steal to survive.  The punishment for such immoral behavior was death or if you were lucky, the workhouse. 

Marx described the removal of one entire community in Scotland to make way for capitalist agriculture in the six years between 1814 and 1820:
“From 1814 to 1820 these 15,000 inhabitants, about 3,000 families, were systematically hunted and rooted out. All their villages were destroyed and burnt, all their fields turned into pasturage. British soldiers enforced this eviction, and came to blows with the inhabitants. One old woman was burnt to death in the flames of the hut, which she refused to leave.

The perpetrator, the Duchess of Sutherland he points out; 
“…appropriated 794,000 acres of land that had from time immemorial belonged to the clan. She assigned to the expelled inhabitants about 6,000 acres on the sea-shore — 2 acres per family. The 6,000 acres had until this time lain waste, and brought in no income to their owners. The Duchess, in the nobility of her heart, actually went so far as to let these at an average rent of 2s. 6d. per acre to the clansmen, who for centuries had shed their blood for her family. The whole of the stolen clanland she divided into 29 great sheep farms, each inhabited by a single family, for the most part imported English farm-servants. In the year 1835 the 15,000 Gaels were already replaced by 131,000 sheep.”

The same situation began in Ireland long before capitalist expansion reached the shores of present day Kenya.  But my point here is that the capitalist class is not driven by race or religious hatred, it is the necessity for free labor that motivates their actions described here.  But a ruling class, feudal or capitalist, must justify its right to govern society and rule over others. It must demonize them, portray them as lesser beings. Why else would they be the rulers and the others ruled?  They must be more intelligent, more industrious, more motivated, otherwise why would they not be the conquered instead of the conquerors?

Throughout history there is resistance to this process which is what the Mau Mau rebellion was. It is met by direct violence and legislation to back it up and Irish history documents this well.  In England from the reign of Henry VIII beggars and the poor were whipped, branded, and executed for their crimes. Their land was taken from them along with their lives if they resisted; “Thus were the agricultural people, first forcibly expropriated from the soil, driven from their homes, turned into vagabonds, and then whipped, branded, tortured by laws grotesquely terrible, into the discipline necessary for the wage system.” writes Marx.

If we read of the colonizing of Mexico or any other land, the process is similar, the Yaquii were driven off their land for the same reason, private property in land is paramount. The capitalist class, “…compels all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production; it compels them to introduce what it calls civilization into their midst, i.e., to become bourgeois themselves. In one word, it creates a world after its own image.”

The British ruling class and its intellectual warriors not only demonized its own working class, peasant or industrial worker, it portrayed other races as mere animals, but finds the necessity to convince its own working class that they are not so low and provide them with just a little more to prove it. Super exploitation of the foreigner could provide some extra loot for this task. Racism is the best tool for the justification of oppression and religion is a handy enabler, "How godly a deed it is to overthrow so wicked a race the world may judge: for my part I think there cannot be a greater sacrifice to God” wrote one British chronicler during a colonial expedition in to Ulster in Northern Ireland in 1574.

The Times of London wrote in the midst of the Irish famine as hundreds of thousands of them died: "They are going. They are going with a vengeance. Soon a Celt will be as rare in Ireland as a Red Indian on the streets of Manhattan...Law has ridden through, it has been taught with bayonets, and interpreted with ruin. Townships levelled to the ground, straggling columns of exiles, workhouses multiplied, and still crowded, express the determination of the Legislature to rescue Ireland from its slovenly old barbarism, and to plant there the institutions of this more civilized land."

James Froud was an English professor at Oxford, one of the historic training schools of the British and world bourgeois. He was a proponent of Anglo Saxon superiority and wrote of the Irish peasants at the time as "more like squalid apes than human beings.".
In the British press they were pictured as apes and were often described as “White Chimpanzees”, a step up from the “negro”. This had to be the case as the Irish have white skin, the same color as the British ruling class. Some said that the arrival of people of a different color in to Britain gave the Irish some breathing room.*

Racism has been a very useful tool in securing the aims of the capitalist class as they are forced by the laws of their system to seek new markets, raw material and Labor power and it is not the only tactic used to divide and weaken the working class, sexism and religious division is also useful to them. But it would be a mistake to attribute the motive for the exploitation by one nation of another to be a personal hatred of their culture, their color or their religion. Behind the racism and the violence and the expropriation of land and property is economics.

I was in Ireland recently and saw that there are efforts there to lay to rest in one place or commemorate the martyrs who died fighting for Irish freedom from British occupation.  Many of them that died at the hands of the occupying forces either in combat or through execution, were buried in unmarked graves or simply discarded. (For centuries, Irish revolutionists were sent to Australia as were the poor, political and religious dissidents).

In Kenya too there is an attempt to find the bones of those heroic Mau Mau buried in unmarked plots or simply discarded.  It is no accident that this took place in two different parts of the world.  The object is not to leave a people a place to visit their heroes; those that fought for their independence and freedom from colonial rule, all conquerors do it.  Bin Laden, though I would not place him in the same company as heroic figures like Che Guevara, Lumumba, and others, was dumped in the sea for the same reason.  The hatred of the occupier of one’s land of the ruling class that oppresses, is deep rooted and it is this hatred that must find no outlet, must not take organizational form or have any heroes.

The Mau Mau were presented by British colonialism as insane psychopaths, monkeys and incapable of living in a modern world just like the Irish.  They recently won a major victory in a British court that allows the few remaining Mau Mau fighters to sue the British government for compensation for the torture and brutality they faced under British rule.  It’s not going to amount to much bet even so, the British government opposed it. 

They blamed the Kenyans.

*The quotes on Ireland come from a document from the Irish Famine Society.  To receive this in pdf form send an e mail to:

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