Friday, April 27, 2012

The Conspiracy of Silence by Hugh MacDiarmid from Scottish Vanguard

At the Inaugural meeting of the John MacLean Society recently in Glasgow, I spoke of the way in which his significance and influence had been played down by the Labour Party and the Communist Party, with the consequence that although he died in 1923, no adequate biography of him has yet been published – only a very inadequate one by Tom Bell, and a number of smaller and even less satisfactory accounts of the man and his work by Tom Anderson, Guy Aldred, Harry McShane and others. There is nothing new in this, of course. The conspiracy of silence has always been one of the most effective weapons of the powers that be. They have always been adept at the art of sweeping inconvenient truths under the carpet, and at the associated arts of misrepresenting, falsification, and, in short, systematic brain-washing and insidious indoctrination. That is why it is only now – half a century after the events that the shameful lies, vicious intrigues, anda deliberate distortions of our political and military leaders in the First World War are only coming to light.
This is why historians and students generally are not allowed to have access to vital documents until half-a-century or more has elapsed. As a colony of British (i.e. English) Imperialism, Scotland has been especially subjected to these mendacious and distorting processes. Most of the standard histories of Scotland are neither more nor less than camouflaged English propaganda. The whole subject requires radical research and rewriting. No wonder the late Malcolm Hay of Seaton had to publish an important book entitled “The Chain of Error in Scottish History”, and the late Miss M.E.M. Donaldson’s book entitled, “The Suppressed History of Scotland”. In the same way the bulk of teaching in our Schools and Colleges is shameless propaganda for the existing system. The diet provided for our children consists to an enormous extent of sheer lies. So far as the Labour Movement in Scotland is concerned there is the additional difficulty to come by after a few years. The Labour Research Committee has begun a long overdue task and is now trying to assemble what it can of the necessary books, pamphlets, and documents generally bearing on the history of our Trade Unions and the various societies and individuals concerned to disseminate revolutionary ideas. It is a very difficult task and has been so long neglected that there must always be serious gaps in our documentation of this great struggle.
The present writer has been mainly concerned with poetry and other literacy matters. In particular I have been anxious to show just how, and why, after the death of Burns, the few poets who were alive to the political and economic problems of the time were swept into a backwater by the cataract of adulation of Burns which virtually monopolised public attention. Who were these disregarded poets? What were they saying that impelled the authorities and conformist public opinion generally, to condemn them to oblivion. There was Tom Hood, whose “Song of the Shirt” has been called “the most terrible poem in the English language”. There was John Duntson and Evelyn Douglas (who wrote under the name of John Barlas) and James Thomson (“B.V.”) author of “The City of Dreadful Night” and above all there was Francis Adams, author of “Songs of the Army of the Night” – a series of anti-imperialist, anti-militarist and out-and-out Socialist poems. All these men were far in advance of their time in their ideas. Just the other day I was reading James Connolly’s “Labour in Ireland”, and the preparatory essay to it by Robert Lynd, in which I came across the following passage:
It was obvious that all the ballot-boxes in Ireland at the time of the strike was no remedy amidst economic disaster. After the failure of the strike, the economic disaster of the Dublin poor must have seemed irretrievable by anything short of a miracle. Connolly saw the strong growing stronger and the weak growing weaker, and he may have thought that all that was left for a brave man to do was to put himself at the head of the weak and to lead them in one last desperate assault on the invincible powers of evil. The alternatives that presented themselves to him were, in his view, to go down fighting or to go down without striking a blow, and he was not the man to go down without a blow. This question of Connolly’s mood and purpose in the insurrection is one to which returns in perplexity again and again. Did he expect to win? Did he expect the Germans to send assistance over the wreck of a defeated British Navy? Did he imagine that Ireland would rise and defeat the most gigantic British Army that’s known to history? I have discussed these questions with many people, and everybody has his own answer. The most convincing answer I got was from T.M. Kettle. “No”, he said, “I don’t think Connolly expected to win. Connolly was a man of brains. It seems to me that if you want to explain Connolly you can only do so on the lines of that poem of Francis Adam’s “Anarchists”.
‘Tis not when I am here,
In these homeless homes,
Where Sin and shame and disease
And foul death comes.

‘Tis not when heart and brain
Would be still and forget,
Men and women and children
Dragged down to the pit.

But when I hear them declaiming
of ‘liberty’, ‘order’, and ‘law’,
The husk-hearted gentleman,
And the mud-hearted Bourgeois.

That a sombre hateful desire
Burns up slow in my breast
To wreck the great guilty Temple
And give us rest.

“Connolly”, Kettle went on, “felt the intolerable outrage of the triumph of, “The husk-heated gentleman, And the mud-hearted Bourgeois”. And Robert Lynd says – and I agree – “That seems to me the true interpretation of the last passion of James Connolly”.

Despite the neglect of Francis Adams and the other Scottish Socialist poets I have named, no better proof of the change afoot in Scotland today is available than the fact that in the last years or two these poets have been coming to the surface again. Two books devoted to James Thomson have been published and two books devoted to John Davidson, and one book to Tom Hood. Scottish literary history is being slowly but surely rewritten. Francis Adams is still almost an unknown name. I have written several articles about him and he was represented in “The Oxford Book of Scottish Verse”. But his work demands, and would amply repay, far more attention than it has yet received. It has been pointed out that after 1832 “the Scottish national inspiration in literature failed altogether. For more than sixty years (a period that saw the publication of many of the greatest books in modern literature) no Scottish writer attempted to forge in the smithy of his soul the uncreated conscience of his race.”  The country of Dunbar and Burns was silent, “and so long as a writer of the calibre of Francis Adams can be neglected, it is better that it should be silent.”

Burns himself has not escaped the falsifying process. He is generally esteemed for the wrong reasons – not on the basis of his best poems, but on the basis of sentimental songs of much less value than his political poems, satires and epistles. The idea has been sedulously enforced that when he joined the Dumfries Volunteers he betrayed his principles.  It has been alleged in many of the 3000 books devoted to Burns that he did so out of sheer economic necessity – in order to safeguard his job as an exciseman. But the real reason has been carefully concealed. It is now known that he was a member of the ‘Friends of the People’, and that the true significance of the “patriotic” scare at the time was not fear of a French invasion, but was aimed at the “Friends of the People.” So to counter that, the idea of men like Burns was to infiltrate the Army with men of revolutionary sympathies. That was the explanation of Burn’s action which has been long misrepresented. The Burns of the Burns Clubs presents no danger to the Powers-that-be; the Burns with which I am concerned is a different matter altogether.

There are, in addition to John MacLean and Francis Adams many Scots whom the authorities, and their agencies in journalism, book publication, education etc., have condemned to oblivion – men like Professor John Millar, who in some important issues anticipated Karl Marx; or John Swinton, who aided the negroes in South Carolina before the Civil War, became a friend of Walt Whitman, and knew Karl Marx personally; and Thomas Muir of Huntershill, and many others. In my last book I had this to say on the subject, “The sustained vindictiveness meted out by the Establishment to its opponents leads Philip Mairet in his book ‘Pioneer of Sociology’: ‘The life and Letters of Patrick Geddes’, to say: “The worst enmities were aroused by his achievements when he had failed to move men in a position to do what he proposed, and simply took action himself. Some of them privately hoped his schemes would miscarry, or even sought openly to obstruct them. If nevertheless, a plan if his achieved conspicuous success, ill-wishers sometimes had to bear the reproach of being asked, “Why did you not do this before? You could have done it”, and it was this that rankled. Years after, when such resentment might well have been forgotten, they were strong enough to frustrate the efforts in Edinburgh, first by a professor and later by the chancellor (Sir J.M. Barrie) to honour Geddes with an L.L.D.”

And I proceeded to say, “This continued malevolence reminds me that a young historian of my acquaintance, researching into the life and activities of Thomas Muir, found the officials at Register House and at the National Library, while apparently being as helpful as possible, assuring him there was nothing else in their keeping beyond what was already known and used by such historians as H.W. Meikle, George Pratt Insh, and others. But he persisted and found a lot of material casting new light on the whole business in their repositories. He found boxes of correspondence and other invaluable material in the Kilmarnock Museum and elsewhere that had lain quite unknown to these historians. I am sure the same thing is true of many issues in Scottish History. Material contrary to the official assumptions has been-and still is- carefully concealed.”

That is why, in thinking of the world-wide adulation of Burns, I have found myself obliged to write: “The Burns movement largely represents a filching away of Burns from the people of whom he was the incomparable spokesman, and hypocritical homage to him by the very types whose pretensions, were he alive, he would flay with his satire. Burns cult, forsooth! It has denied his spirit to honour his name. It has denied his poetry to laud his amours. It has preserved his furniture and repelled his message. It has built itself up on the progressive refusal of his lead in regard to Scottish politics, Scottish literature, and the Scottish tongue.” H.McD.

This article first appeared in Scottish Vanguard Vol. 2 No.7 July 1968

Democracy and Class Struggle says what Hugh Macdiarmid says about Scotland is also true of Wales and we are pleased to hear that the Great Unrest Group is starting a History Commission to write a People's History of Wales which will recover our airbrushed history of Peoples's struggle.

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