Jenny Farrell

Jenny Farrell

Jenny Farrell is a lecturer, writer and an Associate Editor of Culture Matters.


Karl Eliasberg conducting, on 9 August 1942
Wednesday, 13 June 2018 15:19

The Siege of Leningrad, Shostakovich and the airbrushing of history

Published in Music

Jenny Farrell recounts the story of the genesis of Shostakovich's Leningrad synmphony.

The Cold War against Russia – and previously the Soviet Union – continues. This includes the removal from public memory of the many atrocities committed by Nazi Germany on the Soviet population, and the latter’s heroic role in the defeat of fascism.

On 22 June1941 Germany invaded the Soviet Union. It resulted in a holocaust in which at least 25 million Russians perished, more than half of the dead of World War II.

One of the most horrendous acts of barbarity was the German blockade of Leningrad: For almost 900 days, from 8 September 1941 to 27 January 1944, all supplies were cut off and the people of Leningrad systematically starved to death. Over one million Leningraders died. 

The Siege of Leningrad was recorded not only in books, but also in music. A resident in Leningrad at the time was composer Dmitri Shostakovich. He began work on a symphony immediately the attack began, expressing his thoughts on Soviet life, and the ability of his people to defeat the fascists. This seventh symphony is known as the Leningrad

It has four movements. The first is entitled War and begins with lyrical music describing a peaceful life in the USSR before the fascist invasion. A solo violin is interrupted by a distant drum and the ‘invasion theme’, which is repeated twelve times with a growing number of instruments, growing ever louder and shriller, creating a profound sense of unease. Military drums punctuate this section, which ends in an outcry of pain and horror. A quieter passage follows – a solo flute, then a bassoon, grieving the dead. Accompaniment is fragmented, so expressing the broken people it bewails. Dissonances dominate.

In the second movement, Memories, the mood changes to happier times, some dance melodies, although a note of sadness is also present.

The music of the third movement - Wide Expanses of Our Land – affirms the heroism of the people, their humanism, and Russia’s great natural beauty. The movement is a dialogue between the chorale, the solace given by the splendour of the homeland, and the solo voice – the violins, the individual in torment. Both the second and third movements express Shostakovich’s conviction “that war doesn’t necessarily destroy cultural values.”

About the final movement, Victory, Shostakovich commented:

My idea of victory isn’t something brutal; it’s better explained as the victory of light over darkness, of humanity over barbarism, of reason over reaction.

The movement begins by describing, musically, people at work in peacetime, full of hope and happiness, as the drums and guns of war overcome them. The music marches, fights and resists. Victory does not come easily. Shostakovich begins with the timpani roll that concluded the slow third movement, and gradually adds other voices. Slowly the music moves towards its conclusion, with brass fanfares and cymbal crashes. It forces its way into bright C major — the upbeat key of victory. Yet, the final chords in this most magnificent of keys contain a sorrowful sound. In full recognition of the realities, the unimaginable suffering of war, the symphony cannot end in simple triumph. 

Shostakovich composed most of the symphony while under siege in Leningrad. Despite his objections, the Soviet government evacuated the Shostakovich family along with other artists several months into the blockade. The Leningrad was performed on 9 August 1942 in his besieged home city. The score was airlifted in across Nazi lines. The orchestra only had 15 musicians left, so more were recalled from the front.

A clarinet player at this historic performance, Galina Lelyukhina, recalled rehearsals:  

They said on the radio that all living musicians were invited. It was hard to walk. I was sick with scurvy, and my legs were very painful. At first there were nine of us, but then more people arrived. The conductor Eliasberg was brought on a sledge, because hunger had made him so weak.

On 9 August 1942, the hall was packed, windows and doors open, for those outside to hear. The music was broadcast on the streets and to the fronts to inspire the whole nation. The Red Army pre-empted German plans to disrupt the performance by shelling the enemy beforehand to ensure silence for the two hours needed for the concert.

Blockade survivor Irina Skripacheva remembers:

This symphony had a huge impact on us. The rhythm incited a feeling of elevation, flight … At the same time we could feel the scary rhythm of the German hordes. It was unforgettable and overwhelming.

Today, along Russia’s western border NATO (including German) tanks and troops prepare for war.

Mary Ann McCracken
Tuesday, 15 May 2018 09:21

'Of no court tyrants we're afraid': the literature of the United Irishmen

Published in Poetry

Jenny Farrell introduces the literature of the United Irishmen, part of international and democratic liberation literature, expressing ideals which are still to be achieved.

24 May marks the 220th anniversary of the rising of the United Irishmen, a struggle for the overthrow of British rule in Ireland and the establishment of an Independent Irish Republic in 1798. This rebellion continued over the summer and into autumn and ended with the deaths of tens of thousands. The Society had almost 300,000 sworn members at the time.

The 17th century in Ireland marked the murderous and complete obliteration of the Gaelic system, beginning with the Battle of Kinsale 1601/2 and ending finally with the Treaty of Limerick 1691, the culmination of Britain’s systematic conquest of Ireland. Less than ninety years later, the American War of Independence led to the formation of the so-called Volunteers, to replace the British troops sent from Ireland to America. With the Volunteers, an important new factor entered the Irish political stage.

The French Revolution became a catalyst for further political development, culminating in the establishment of the Society of United Irishmen in November 1791. This Society consisted of parts of the Irish bourgeoisie and, as time went on, an emerging proletariat. Its membership was increasingly balanced between Anglo-Irish Protestants, Presbyterian Scots and Irish Catholics. The movement’s great strength was the conscious rejection of denominational sectarianism. Both America’s independence and the French struggle for freedom became models and a driving force for the movement. The United Irishmen encompassed in their demand for equality the Catholic population, women, and, internationally, slaves. These were not vague aspirations, but specific demands, reflected in the United Irishmen’s publications. Thus, Tone’s “Argument on Behalf of the Catholics of Ireland” argues in detail for the complete emancipation of Catholics. The “Northern Star” in its enthusiastic review of Wollstonecraft’s “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman”, calls for female politicians, as “I scorn the reasoning which says what has been shall be”. The United Irishmen also enthusiastically supported the non-consumption of tea and sugar in solidarity with the struggle against slavery.

Northern Star

The execution of Louis XVI in January 1793 and Britain’s entry into the coalition against France brought a clampdown on opposition at home. The Orange Order emerged; martial law was imposed. By the end of 1793, the opposition was isolated. A year later, the power of the United Irishmen had been broken, its leadership arrested or dispersed. It reconstituted as a secret organization. In contrast to 1791, it was now made up predominantly from the ranks of the radical petty bourgeoisie, the developing proletariat and the peasantry.

This new Society’s goal became “separation of Ireland from England and her establishment as an independent Republic”. Throughout his life, Wolfe Tone, the most active advocate of this course, recognised “the blasting influence of England” as the main obstacle to true Irish sovereignty. He sought the complete break with London while at the same time drawing closer to revolutionary France.
The United Irishmen made every effort to realise their plan. Military training took place during so-called “diggings”, joint fieldwork. Weapons were smuggled into the country. The revolutionaries, supported by France, made their first attempts at a violent overthrow in late 1796. They all, including the final nationwide uprising in 1798, were doomed to failure, due to the strength of the opponent, their own military and organisational weakness, treason, and bad weather, which prevented French troops from landing. The United Irishmen were crushed, their members arrested, executed, exiled.

wolfe tone

Political Journalism in the Age of the Revolution

The United Irishmen founded the radical press in Ireland. They had three newspapers, aspiring to cover the entire country: the Belfast “Northern Star” (ca 600 editions Jan 1792 – May 1797), the Dublin “Press”, and the Cork “Harp of Erin”. All leading United Irishmen wrote for their press, almost everybody under a pseudonym. Both inside as well as outside these newspapers, a number of literary writings appeared, penned with a political purpose, often breaking with literary convention. Among these were essay, satire, fable, dialogue, song, poetry etc., popularised through their newspapers, pamphlets or leaflets. Although these writings were in English, there is also an awareness of Gaelic culture in evidence, not least in the title “Harp of Erin” and reports on and reviews of Gaelic traditions in the “Northern Star”.


The essays of the United Irishmen begin with Tone. His contributions in the early 1790s represent an important step towards forming a radical opposition. Tone’s “Argument on Behalf of the Catholics of Ireland” addresses one of the fundamental problems of Ireland’s national movement, making Catholic emancipation a precondition for progress. Thomas Russell’s political essay “Letter to the people of Ireland” of 1796 led to his arrest and imprisonment without trial.

Satire thrived in a situation of political powerlessness, reprisals and draconian censorship. The Irish satirical tradition began with Swift in the early 18th century, in its most caustic form - social satire.
William Pitt and Edmund Burke enjoyed special satirical attention. A prime example is a personal satire published in the “Northern Star” in 1795 under the title “Mustapha’s Adoration of the sublime Sultan Pittander the Omnipotent”, in which the omnipotence of Pitt and his political guiles are described from the perspective of Mustapha, his worshipping slave. Another satire entitled “Pitt’s Ghost, being an account of the dissection, funeral procession. Epitaph of the Minister of state” is an obituary, based on the fictitious death of the politician, and proof that his badness reaches to the core. The dissection of Pitt’s ribcage reveals, his heart

was so remarkable as to deserve a particular description .....(it) was extremely cold to the touch, and very hard... The inside was perfectly black and consisted of a sort of powder which emitted an exceedingly foetid smell. When this powder was narrowly inspected, with the aid of a microscope a great many small shining objects were visible, shaped like swords, daggers and bayonets...

To his innermost being, Pitt is infested with war and aggression. The satire ends with his spirit yet among the living, Pitt making occasional appearances in Downing Street and Whitehall.

An example of social satire is “Billy Bluff and Squire Firebrand”, serialised in the “Northern Star”. With Firebrand and Billy, his informant, two representatives of the gentry and the submissive clergy are satirised. When Firebrand learns of a meeting between Billy’s neighbour and a Catholic priest, their toasts and songs, Firebrand’s reaction is typical of his class. Everything smacks of turmoil and rottenness, even the slightest gesture takes on political significance, he smells adversity and recalls times, “before men turned their thoughts to thinking,” in which it was possible

(to) imprison Catholics for keeping arms in their houses, .... (to get) a Presbyterian assassinated for voting against him at the vestry... (to fine) Quakers for not paying tythes.

Billy has a dream vision, in which members of all classes and denominations, poor and rich, sick and weak, come together, and the Union of all Irishmen becomes reality.

The “Chinese Journal” is a satirical travel diary, written from the point of view of a fictitious correspondent reporting on an English legation to the Chinese court. Following some initial impressions of an exotic environment, the narrator informs the reader of his meeting with the emperor. Reminiscent of “Gulliver’s Travels”, the reader gets an insight into the thinking of members of society and learns about the circumstances of their country. Here the envoy’s description of his English king:

The King, my Master, our mightiest son of the firmament! reigns in the hearts of all his subjects: his councils are all wise, his virtues unparalleled and his wisdom is more than tongue can tell.

Far from awe-struck, the Chinese emperor reveals knowledge of England:

I cannot help seeing some little regard for the nation which has produced a Newton and a Priestley, but your vainglorious boasting, your tyranny and conquests have brought upon you universal devastation.

Members of a Turkish legation, also in China, emulate the criticism. They ascertain the true motive for the journey of the English, claiming that London’s emissaries came to China on behalf of the East India Company with predatory intent. The narrator, himself part of the legation, is consternated, seeing himself, his country and his king in the dock. He escapes into a dream, which turns into a nightmare. He finds himself caught in the machinations of court proceedings from which he cannot escape. The radical reader recognises such dreams from personal experience: being dragged through the courts, is business as usual for a patriot.

Poetry appeared in many popular forms, including song: drinking songs, folk songs, dance songs, ballads. They gave people new confidence, and channelled fears into laughter or anger at opponents.
In politically turbulent times, songs can play an important role. Here, a balladeer draws our attention to the purpose of his appearance:

That something is a left us, we all must agree;
Though talking’s forbidden - Yet singing is free
Plain truth may be blamed and honesty wrong;
But sure there’s no harm in an honest old song.
One verse for myself, Sirs; and then I have done
Hard times and large Families make but poor fun;
And when children for bread cry around in a throng,
I’m oft forced to quiet their mouths with - a Song!

Ballads usually relate historical or current events, uprisings, attacks by the opponent, heroic acts of martyrs, revolts, landings, etc. Reciting a critical poem or singing a political ballad in the field, at work, “digging” (subversive military training in the field) or at festivals expressed political opposition and an awareness of common resistance to the ruling class. Firebrand expresses displeasure and anger at the songs sung by the people and their effect on public morality : “’tis songs that is most to be dreaded of all things” he confesses to Billy, his informant, and then continues:

Singing, Billy, is a d-n’d bad custom, it infects a whole country, and makes them half mad: Because they rejoice and forget their cares, and forget their duty, and forget their betters. By H-n’s I’ll put an end to singing in this part of the country, in a short time.

To reinforce this threat, he refers to the example of one of his neighbours, who

within three months ... sent two chimney-sweepers, three blind fiddlers, a ballad-singer, and a drunken man to the black hole and the flocks for singing and playing tunes against the law.

Firebrand’s fear of Billy is understandable, given lyrics like the following:

No longer lost in shades of night
Where late in chains we lay;
The sun arises, and her light
Dispels our gloom away.
Demanding Freedom All!
While kings combine
We boldly join,
Nor cease till tyrants fall,”

From another song

Of no court tyrants we’re afraid,
We’ll spin our term of freedom out:
Secure of each true patriot’s aid,
And put oppressors to the rout.

The poetry of the United Irishmen drew its political impetus both from their own egalitarian positions and from their revolutionary role models at home and abroad. They translated a whole series of French songs, including the Marseillaise. The songs and poems of the United Irishmen reveal their patriotic character most when they refer to Ireland. Titles like “To Ireland”, “Erin”, “Hibernia” are about the fate of the homeland deprived of its freedom. A considerable part of the poetry deals with the suffering and misery of individuals, their pain is symptomatic of the misery of all. It describes the fate of the peasants, expresses sympathy for the exiled, compassion for the enslaved, or the freedom fighters who died in battle and for their country - beacons of resistance and sacrifice. Their profoundly humane content and their social realism express forcefully the United Irishmen’s compassion for their people and the essence of their political and literary practice.

Internationalism is deeply engrained in their poetry. They stood up for the interests of the exploited and slaves. One example of this is “Negro’s complaint”;

Trembling, naked, wounded, sighing,
On this winged house I stand;
Which, with poor black man is flying
Far away from his own land.
Fearful waters all around me;
Strange the sights on every hand;
Hurry, noise, and shouts confound me,
When I look for Negro land.
Every thing I see affrights me;
Nothing I can understand:
With their scourges, white men fight me,
If I weep for Negro land.


Mary Ann McCracken, republican and social reformer, led the Women's Abolitionary Committee in Belfast during the height of the anti-slavery movement. She was the sister of one of the founding members of the United Irishmen Society.

The literary writings of the United Irishmen are part of international and democratic liberation literature. The ideals they fought for have yet to be achieved.

This article is indebted to Eckhardt Rüdebusch, “Irland im Zeitalter der Revolution”.


In Praise of Communism
Tuesday, 17 April 2018 11:52

In Praise of Communism

Published in Poetry

The outstanding German communist playwright and poet Bertolt Brecht was born on 10 February 1898, 120 years ago. To celebrate the anniversary, Jenny Farrell has sent us one of his poems, which was translated by her father, Jack Mitchell. The image is by Mark Titchner, an artist who lives and works in London.

In Praise of Communism

by Bertolt Brecht

It is reasonable. You can grasp it. It's simple.
You're no exploiter, so you'll understand.
It is good for you. Look into it.
Stupid men call it stupid, and the dirty call it dirty.
It is against dirt and against stupidity.
The exploiters call it a crime.
But we know:
It is the end of all crime.
It is not madness but
The end of madness.
It is not chaos,
But order.
It is the simple thing
That's hard to do.

John Heartfield: satirist, anti-fascist and fearless communist
Saturday, 14 April 2018 18:19

John Heartfield: satirist, anti-fascist and fearless communist

Published in Visual Arts

Jenny Farrell salutes John Heartfield, the creator of political photomontage, who died fifty years ago.

John Heartfield is one of the most important European artists. He works in a field which he created himself, the field of photomontage. Through this new form of art, he exercises social criticism. Steadfastly on the side of the working class, he unmasked the forces of the Weimar Republic driving towards war; driven into exile he fought against Hitler. The works of this great satirist, which mainly appeared in the workers’ press, are regarded as classics by many, including the author of these lines. - Bertolt Brecht

John Heartfield died fifty years ago, on 26 April 1968. He is the founder of political photomontage and a fearless communist and activist, who lived through two world wars.

Helmut Herzfeld was born on 19 June 1891 in Berlin. His parents abandoned Herzfeld, his brother and two sisters, at a very young age, in 1899. The children lived with relatives after that. After finishing school in 1905, the brothers moved first to Wiesbaden, and from there to Munich, in 1909, where Heartfield studied art. Initially, he worked as a commercial artist and later continued his studies in Berlin. In protest against chauvinist war propaganda and the greeting “May God Punish England”, Herzfeld translated his surname into English, calling himself John Heartfield thenceforth.

Heartfield’s brother Wieland and he worked closely together throughout their lives. Together they published the magazine “Neue Jugend” in Berlin in 1917-18, where John Heartfield pioneered a new typography. They founded the Malik-Verlag publishing house in 1917. When the Communist Party of Germany was founded, at the end of December 1918, Heartfield joined immediately. He produced stage sets for proletarian theatres, posters for the Communist Party, and contributed artwork for magazines and pamphlets.

Over the following years, he began experimenting with new ways of working with photographs. These photomontages were used for the book covers of the Malik-Verlag and other progressive publishing houses. Heartfield also collaborated with other anti-fascist artists, such as George Grosz, especially in creating collages in the early post-war years.

JF Fathers and Sons 

Fathers and Sons, 1924

Photomontage became Heartfield’s specific artistic weapon. He made photomontages commenting on contemporary politics, starting with the famous image “Fathers and Sons” in 1924. After 1930, he contributed frequently to the weeklies “Arbeiter-Illustrierte-Zeitung” (AIZ) and “Volks-Illustrierte” (VI), often collaborating with Wieland in creating montages. Heartfield’s photomontages on the covers of the widely sold AIZ, appeared at newsstands across Germany. He used Rotogravure, engraving pictures, words and designs, into the printing plate, to design montages on posters, which were distributed in the streets of Berlin in 1932 and 1933.

The spirit of class struggle and in particular of the October Revolution imbues the book covers he created for the works of revolutionary German, American, and Soviet writers, for the collected editions of Tolstoy, Gorky, Ehrenburg and Sinclair. He responded directly to world events: the British general strike in 1926; the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti in 1927; the planned frame-up of the eight Scottsboro boys in Alabama, USA, in 1931.

JF This is the god that they bring 1938

This is the God they they bring, 1938

When fascism took over in Germany, the Nazis targeted him immediately. A dramatic flight brought him to Prague, where he resumed his work for the emigrated AIZ and the Malik-Verlag. An entire series of photomontages was dedicated to the trial of Dimitrov in 1933, later, in 1936-37, to the battles of the Spanish Republic and the International Brigades.

JF the meaning of the hitler salute

The meaning of the Hitler salute, 1932

In 1938, Hitler demanded the extradition of Heartfield and other anti-fascists. This demand was rejected by the Czechoslovak government. He fled to London shortly before the Nazis marched into Prague in December 1938, where he was initially interned as an enemy alien. Following his release, he received permission to stay in Britain, whilst Wieland did not and had to flee to the United States. In London, Heartfield co-founded the active “Free German League of Culture” and earned his living as typographer and designer for British publishing houses.

Returning from Britain in 1950, he settled in the German Democratic Republic, initially in Leipzig and then in Berlin. Despite serious heart trouble, he continued working, creating stage settings and theatre posters for the Deutsches Theater in Berlin, and for the Berliner Ensemble, as well as political posters for the state.

John Heartfield wrote the following passage for the catalogue of the last two exhibitions held during his lifetime:

Since we are living in the nuclear age a Third World War would mean a catastrophe for the whole of humanity, a catastrophe the full extent of which eludes our imagination. Before the outbreak of the Second World War, on 13 October 1937, I made a photomontage entitled Warning. A cinema audience was shown watching scenes of horror caused by a Japanese air raid on Manchuria in the Far East. The caption read: 'today you will see a film from other lands. But know that if you do not resist unitedly today, it will kill you tomorrow.’ The campaign of extermination against the Vietnamese people, fighting heroically for their existence, caused me to change the first line of the caption. Now it reads: '... You will see a film from far-off Vietnam.’

“Now the war has reached the Near East. A short while earlier the monarcho-fascist putsch in Greece smothered every democratic political movement. The fire is at the gates!

“Today the people of peace of all countries must work together even more closely, and mobilise all resources to strengthen and save world peace, since warlike rulers are rallying for war. The Civil War in Spain was the fascist manoeuvre field for the Second World War; in the same way today’s wars endanger world peace.

“With his famous painting ‘Guernica’ Picasso supported the heroic anti-fascist writers in Spain. He succeeded his compatriot Goya in the struggle against war. He also created the wonderful lithograph of the world-famous flying dove of peace. That the dove shall never again be impaled upon a bayonet (as shown in one of my photomontages), all advocates of peace, whatever their political opinions, must close the ranks in the fight to maintain peace.

My brother Wieland Herzfelde, my trusted helper and co-combatant against exploitation and war, wrote a poem entitled ‘The Soldiers of Peace’. It begins with these words:

We are the soldiers of peace.
No nation
And no race is our enemy

And it ends:
Peoples, may your children
All be saved from war.
Preventing war
Shall be your triumph.

And to work for this great triumph has been the aim of his and my artistic work since our earliest youth.” - Berlin, 9 June 1967.

JF If you want armament deals finance peace conferences

Marx, Shakespeare, King Lear and the modern precariat
Saturday, 31 March 2018 11:52

Marx, Shakespeare, King Lear and the modern precariat

Published in Theatre

Jenny Farrell outlines a Marxist reading of Shakespeare, and illustrates it with an analysis of Shakespeare's King Lear.

Among Marxism’s core insights is that all history since the end of the primitive society has been a history of class societies and class struggle. Art does not arise in a vacuum; it is an integral part of the historical process and of human comprehension of the world. Therefore, the most appropriate way of reaching the core of a work of art is to understand it in the context of the time in which it originates and the social forces of that epoch.

With Shakespeare an art arises that is historically self-aware, conscious that the reality it represents is historical. Historical change is rooted in Shakespeare’s plays. They are built around a historical conflict. The task of interpretation – in both theatre and criticism – is to grasp this basic conflict. Any serious attempt to comprehend Shakespeare’s plays is to understand the time from which they come, the late Renaissance, early 17th c England: the early modern period as a time of epochal upheavals, the formation of the first phase of bourgeois society in which Shakespeare’s theatre originates.

In his tragedies, Shakespeare presents the fundamental conflict of opposing historical forces that arose after the collapse of the medieval world and the rise of the early bourgeoisie. These opposing forces within the bourgeoisie – in terms taken from the Renaissance – are humanism and Machiavellianism; humanism in the sense of an Erasmus of Rotterdam and Thomas More, Machiavellianism after Niccolò Machiavelli, author of The Prince, the famous breviary on gaining and retaining power.

A third force involved in the basic constellation are the representatives of the old order, the mediaeval-feudal world. The fourth player in this overall constellation is the plebeian element, the working people, who are given a voice for the first time as gravediggers in Hamlet. The conflict of the tragedies originates within these forces.

A Marxist reading of King Lear

The main social forces in the play:
Lear (doubled by Gloucester) is an absolute feudal monarch who has lost touch with his people and with his own understanding. His is the strictly ordered feudal world, where a person’s place within the hierarchy was clearly defined and could not be changed. Lear is incapable of understanding the kind of disrespect shown to him by his elder daughters. Their disregard for him and for his dignity once he has handed over his power and his kingdom to them shatters his world completely. When he abandons the society he has known, and is indeed ejected from it by these daughters, he enters the heath as a naked man, a man who has lost everything.

The tempest that rages on the heath is symbolic of what is going on in Lear’s head. In the middle of this violent storm, in the territory of the poor and “mad,” Lear gains a profound understanding of the condition of the dispossessed. Before he enters the hovel he prays for “you houseless poverty” for the homeless. He realises:

Poor naked wretches, whereso’er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your looped and windowed raggedness, defend you
From seasons such as these? Oh, I have ta’en
Too little care of this! Take physic, pomp.
Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,
That thou mayst shake the superflux to them
And show the heavens more just.

As he is exposed to the poor and the homeless, the evicted, he realises that this is going on in his own kingdom and that he has not taken an interest in the wretched. This insight is not madness but the opposite of madness. When Lear encounters Edgar, who pretends to be a mad beggar dressed in the most meagre of rags, if not indeed naked, his insight goes further again:

Thou art the thing itself. Unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor, bare, forked animal as thou art.—Off, off, you lendings! Come. Unbutton here. (tears at his clothes)

Here he discovers essential humanity, “the thing itself,” “unaccommodated man.” This is a crucial moment in Lear’s development. Symbolically, to emphasise this new understanding he tears off his clothes. Of course, there are also expressions of genuine madness, sometimes simply for comic relief; but very often there is hidden reason in these, such as in Lear’s mock trial of Goneril and Regan, with Edgar and the Fool as judges. He asks:

Then let them anatomise Regan. See what breeds about her heart. Is there any cause in nature that makes these hard hearts?

Lear here seeks a scientific, objective examination of what makes hard hearts. He has come a long way. Later in the play, when Lear meets the blinded Gloucester near Dover, he continues to be “unhinged,” commenting on social injustice:

A man may see how this world goes with no eyes. Look with thine ears. See how yon justice rails upon yon simple thief. Hark in thine ear: change places and, handy-dandy, which is the justice, which is the thief?

Or he observes:

Through tattered clothes great vices do appear;
Robes and furred gowns hide all. Plate sin with gold,
And the strong lance of justice hurtless breaks.
Arm it in rags, a pigmy’s straw does pierce it.

Edgar too recognises Lear’s deep new understanding, remarking: “Reason in madness”. This is a profound growth in humanity in Lear. Lear’s destruction means the loss of his new understanding of the plight of the dispossessed, his appreciation of the fundamental equality of human beings, the loss of his new humanity. This makes his death tragic.

Goneril, Regan, Edmund and Cornwall are the self-interested younger-generation Machiavellians in this play. It is clear to the audience from the start that they are adept at deception. However, just how inhuman they are is revealed only in their actions over time. In many ways they seem quite modern to us in their thinking and acting. Genuine affection, honesty and loyalty mean nothing to them; personal gain is everything, even if it costs the dignity and life of others.

Cordelia and Edgar are established as independent, loyal characters (Edgar after being initially deceived by the Machiavellian brother), willing to sacrifice their lives for justice. Cordelia and Edgar embody the tradition of Renaissance humanism; they are wise, honest and loyal and have a sense of the common good. Although Cordelia dies as a result of Edmund’s machinations, Edgar, who is proclaimed king by Albany, vows to rule in her spirit.

What is the play about?

The threat of a new Machiavellian order
A major theme in this play is the cataclysmic clash of social orders: the old absolute, feudal monarch is deprived of his royal status and power, his dignity, his right to house and home, by his elder daughters, the new Machiavellian generation. Alongside the dangerous, indeed murderous new power there are humanist forces that are in a position to lead society forward in an inclusive, honest and humane way.

Good kingship or leadership
In this play, as in Hamlet and Macbeth, Shakespeare brings to the fore the question of what makes a good leader, or king. Such leaders must be, above all, honest and wise and must act in the interests of the common good. Good leaders must be willing to sacrifice their lives in the defeat of evil forces.

The fundamental equality of humankind
Lear, the anointed king, is driven into a space outside this new society. At that moment, he shares his life with the naked wretches of his realm, recognises and affirms their common humanity. This in turn makes him realise the enormous social inequity and corruption in his kingdom, wrongs for which he is responsible. Ultimately, his experience leads him to understand that only a fair distribution of wealth can remedy this.

Social injustice created by social hierarchy
All the outcasts on the heath arrive at an understanding that the way things are in England is wrong. All of them describe corruption, the ignorance of the powerful, and the indifference towards the poor. They all envisage the possibility of a different kind of society, one in which, as the Fool says, the world will be put on its feet. This theme of a utopia, of what might be, is inherent in the central themes of the play.

Shakespeare is still relevant today. His plays are not about some hazy universal human condition – unchanging and unchangeable. His tragedies are rooted in history, in early capitalism. They are about his times and therefore about our times.

In an expression of their new historical place in early 17th c Britain, the bourgeoisie developed both a humanist and a Machiavellian rationale. These are two sides of the same society, its potential for both a utopian and a totalitarian direction. In the tragedies both potentials are put on stage, as well as characters caught in between. Interestingly, while we see a number of “pure” Machiavellians, few characters are cast as “pure” Christian princes or princesses, in Erasmus’s terms; examples might be King Edward I in “Macbeth” or even Cordelia in “King Lear”. These characters are often in the background, like a moral compass.

Instead, Shakespeare finds the idealised Renaissance image of humankind scattered among a number of people. The human potential that many of his characters show combines into a future vision of a social order commensurate with the needs of humankind and so points into the future of humanity. In this respect, Shakespeare’s positive characters are of their time and also born before their time in terms of their potential.

The Machiavellians present the greatest danger to the common good. They are depicted as dangerous and murderous. In each case their inhumanity causes the downfall of the tragic hero. Shakespeare’s historical optimism at the beginning of the era in which we still live allows him to end his tragedies with the destruction of the Machiavellians.

By revealing the nature of the epoch Shakespeare alerts us to the dangers. He points to who is the enemy of humanity and who fights to preserve it. In this sense, Shakespeare is not simply of historical interest, he has something valuable to contribute when we think about the times we live in now and our future.

King Lear takes the gravediggers’ understanding of human equality in Hamlet to a different level. Lear’s literal nakedness on the heath marks an unparalleled insight into common human nature and identification with the poorest of the poor. Lear discovers human dignity when he is stripped of everything.

In today’s world, the plight of the precariat and of refugees comes close to what Shakespeare was illustrating. Lear’s recognition of human dignity, of social injustice, and the need for an equal distribution of wealth, has lost none of its urgency. By putting before his audience the very essence of his time, and thereby ours, Shakespeare shows how it can and must change. This is what makes his plays so important for us now.

Jenny Farrell is the author of “Fear Not Shakespeare’s Tragedies. A Comprehensive Introduction.” Nuascéalta, 2016.

Paul Robeson: activist, communist and spokesperson for the oppressed of the earth
Saturday, 31 March 2018 11:06

Paul Robeson: activist, communist and spokesperson for the oppressed of the earth

Published in Music

On the 120th anniversary of Paul Robeson's birth, Jenny Farrell tells the story of his life. 

"The artist must take sides. He must elect to fight for freedom or slavery. I have made my choice. I had no alternative."

- Paul Robeson at a rally in London’s Albert Hall on 24 June 1937, in support of the democratically elected Spanish Republic.

Paul Robeson, son of an escaped slave, was born into apartheid America on 9 April 1898, 120 years ago. Best known as a bass-baritone singer, he was also an outstanding actor and consummate athlete, fighting against racial discrimination in sports. He was a fearless political activist in the struggles for emancipation at home, a supporter of all liberation movements, a friend of the Soviet Union and the socialist world. He sang in over 20 languages, including Chinese, Russian, and African dialects. He was the first singer to perform an entire programme of spirituals and songs of the African-American experience, giving them the recognition of a concert stage and making them known worldwide. Robeson was also the first to refuse to perform before segregated audiences. He was the first African-American actor to perform as Othello in the US, based on his ground-breaking interpretation of this character and the first in Britain since Ira Aldridge in the 19th century. He was the most significant African-American actor in the US on stage and screen and first African-American actor to gain international prominence, bringing dignity and respect to African-American characters. He was a worldwide symbol of the artist as activist and spokesperson of the oppressed of the earth.

When he died in 1976, he lived in seclusion with his sister in Philadelphia, standing firm on all his political convictions, yet never having fully recovered from the enormous pressure of the witch-hunt against him. The responsibility for this tragic trajectory lies with the racism and anti – communism of the McCarthy era.

Robeson met and married Eslanda (Essie) Goode, first African-American analytical chemist working at Columbia Medical Center in New York, activist, writer and orator, in 1921. When it became clear he could not work as a lawyer because of racism, he began his singing career in the mid-1920s with radically new interpretations of spirituals. The spirituals express the hardship of slavery in biblical language, and often contain veiled messages and resistance. Thus, “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child”, not merely expresses Robeson’s own experience of losing his mother at an early age, but also describes the severance of families through slavery. Further, Robeson’s interpretation adds his father’s experience of those African-Americans who fled the South to escape from slavery. Another spiritual, “Go Down Moses”, celebrates the release of the Israelites from captivity, something Robeson’s audience understood referring to their own freedom.

A turning point in Robeson’s life were his years in London, 1927-39. Here, he formed his outlook on world affairs, became an internationalist, fully embraced socialism, identified with the oppressed working class, regardless of colour. In London he discovered Africa and forged life-long friendships with Jomo Kenyatta, Nkrumah, Azikiwe (also, the future Indian leader Nehru) – and African seamen in the ports. Robeson began to study African culture, learn African languages, and embrace languages as gateways to the nations of the world: “It is fascinating … to find flexibility and subtlety in a language like Swahili, sufficient to convey the teachings of Confucius”. He also came to realise that alongside “the towering achievements of the cultures of ancient Greece and China there stood the culture of Africa, unseen and denied by the imperialist looters of Africa’s material wealth … and I came to learn of the remarkable kinship between African and Chinese culture.” Robeson indeed went on to develop a theory whereby a universal pentatonic tonality links musical folk cultures across the continents.

Robeson worked as a celebrated actor and singer in London, playing Othello and other important roles. During these years, he came to realise one could not rely on middle-class African-Americans in the emancipation struggle, recognising their dependence on their White masters. Robeson grasped that the lives of the oppressed were connected, evident in their music, and that alliances must be forged across geographical and racial differences, along the lines of class. He joined the working-class Unity Theatre in London, in an effort to help build workers’ theatres and develop a working-class culture in its full meaning.

Concomitantly, Robeson became active in the political issues of the time: the Spanish Civil War, anti-fascism, and the liberation struggles in Africa and Asia. Indeed, he became the supreme emblem of this global battle for emancipation. Through his interest in Africa, Robeson looked to the Soviet Union, which had overcome the backwardness of Czarist Russia. He first went there in 1934, struck by “a place where coloured people walked secure and free as equals” - he arranged for his son to attend school in Moscow for two years, a fact cited later as a reason to withdraw Robeson’s passport. Robeson learnt Russian to perfection and felt great empathy with the USSR.

Robeson sings the Song of The Volga Boatmen

Robeson’s journey to Spain in 1938 was a milestone in his life: “I sang with my whole heart and soul for these gallant fighters of the International Brigade. A new, warm feeling for my homeland grew within me as I met the men of the Abraham Lincoln Battalion … My heart was filled with admiration and love for these white Americans, and there was a great sense of pride in my own people when I saw that there were Negroes, too, in the ranks of the Lincoln men in Spain.”

His partisan involvement in the Spanish Civil War shows Robeson’s courage in the international struggle against fascism. In beleaguered Madrid, the Republican forces used Robeson’s music as a weapon, broadcasting it through loudspeakers to the fascist trenches.

When Nazi Germany invaded Poland in 1939, the Robesons returned to the struggle in America, only delaying for Paul to finish filming The Proud Valley, a film about an African-American becoming one of a mining community in Wales, filmed on location in the coalfields. This film, he “was most proud to make”, forged a deep bond between Robeson and the Welsh.

Back in the US, acting was an important source of income, e.g. playing Othello in the incredibly successful Broadway production in 1942/43, whilst continuing his political commitments.

In the US, Robeson used his celebrity effectively, in a prolonged campaign against segregation, heralding the boycotts of the civil rights era. He headed the anti-lynching movement, leading a delegation to the White House. When Truman refused to act, Robeson, in December 1951, presented a petition “We charge Genocide” to the United Nations, on behalf of the Civil Rights Congress, charging that the U.S. violated Article II of the U.N. Genocide Convention by failing to prevent the lynching of African-Americans.

At the Paris Peace Convention in April 1949, he stated: “It is unthinkable that American Negroes could go to war on behalf of those who have oppressed them for generations against the Soviet Union which in one generation has raised our people to full human dignity.” This speech resulted in a witch-hunt against him. In August 1949, the notorious racist and anti-communist assault took place at Peekskill, thwarting a concert which had been organised with Howard Fast and Pete Seeger. It left many seriously injured.

peekskill riots 

Angry locals from Westchester County, New York shout hate-filled insults at the carloads of concert-goers arriving to hear the singer Paul Robeson, the most famous African-American of the day, perform at an open-air concert in Lakeland Acres, north of Peekskill, on September 4th, 1949. A state trooper smirks and does nothing. Photo: History Today.

This his unyielding stand on the rights of African-Americans, and Robeson’s continued support of the USSR and world peace, led to his silencing. The state department withdrew his passport, and that of his wife and son, denying him the right to travel.

By 1952, Robeson was, according to Pete Seeger, “the most blacklisted performer in America”. No commercial hall was available to him, no producer promoted him, and his acting career finished. The FBI threatened concert organisers, shops and radio stations banned his records. From the height of fame, Robeson was turned into a non-person. From a career of intense activity he was blacklisted, deprived of public life and the source of his income. The African-American bourgeoisie failed to support Robeson, and colluded in this campaign.

He fought back by giving famous concerts, which circumvented the travel ban. He sang on the Canadian border to audiences on the other side. He gave transatlantic telephone concerts in England and Wales. The national ‘Let Paul Robeson Sing’ solidarity committee, the British Actors’ Equity Association and 27 MPs organised for Robeson to sing by telephone. This epic concert in St Pancras Town Hall on 26 May 1957, unforgettable for anybody who witnessed it, increased the pressure on the US government to return the passport.

 JF St Pancras town hall

In June 1958, years after taking his passport, the Supreme Court ruled that it was unconstitutional to deny a US passport on political grounds. Robeson immediately embarked on a worldwide tour, flying first to London. He sang to millions on television and radio and became the first lay person - and the first non-White - to take the pulpit in St Paul's Cathedral, with 4000 spectators inside and 5000 outside.

In the late 1950s, the world was changing, with African nations beginning to achieve independence. Robeson’s last concert tour in 1960, took him to Australia, where he gave the first recital at the Sydney Opera House - to the trade unionists who were constructing the building. He was the first to speak publically here about the oppression of the indigenous people by Europeans.

In Australia and elsewhere, Robeson sang “Ol’ Man River”, one of his best-known songs. Robeson changed the words of this song, originally written for The Show Boat, transforming it from acceptance of oppression to a song of resistance: the desire for freedom would prevail:

There’s an old man called the Mississippi,
That’s the ol’ man I don’t like to be.
What does he care if the world’s got troubles?
What does he care if the world ain’t free?

Tote that barge, lift that bale,
You show a little grit an’ you lands in jail.
But I keeps laffin’ instead of cryin’;
I must keep fightin’ until I’m dyin’,
And Ol’ Man River, he just keeps rollin’ along.

I would like to thank Christine Naumann, former curator at the Academy of the Arts Berlin, Paul Robeson Archives, for her advice.

Gibraltar, March 1988
Wednesday, 07 March 2018 11:21

Gibraltar, March 1988

Published in Poetry

30 years ago at approx 3.30pm Mairéad Farrell was murdered by the British state on Gibraltar. Standing by her side, also with his hands in the air, was Dan McCann who was also shot dead. A few hundred metres away Sean Savage was to have a similar fate. At the inquest the forensic scientist who examined Sean's remains said his killing had been a "frenzied attack" There were 29 bullet wounds in his body. All three were unarmed.

The following extract from a poem by Jack Mitchell is presented to mark the anniversary, and to mark International Women's Day. 

 from  GiB, A Modest Exposure

by Jack Mitchell

Deep inside Gibraltar Rock
There stands a town, or rather mock
Town, looking pretty
Like certain parts of Belfast City.
Here khaki cutthroats learn the art
Of taking a neighbourhood apart,
The stealthy approach, the dawn raid,
Crowd-dispersal with the aid
Of plastic bullets, CS gas,
The art of torture (not too crass),
Of close surveillance, hot pursuit,
With strict instructions, when you shoot
Be certain that you shoot to kill.

While, in their caves, at state expense,
These troglodytes of violence
Were taught tricks of the terror trade,
Outside, Gibraltarians paid
Their taxes and but scant attention
To this weird underground invention,
Until one mild March afternoon,
As balmy as an English June,
A Sunday, full of peaceful sounds
And strolling tourists on their rounds,
There came a change of quality.
The game became reality.
At sometime after three o'clock
The Thing they harboured in their Rock
Descended on them; out of the blue –
Slaughter in Churchill Avenue,
Panic amongst passers-by
As three young Irish people die,

Mown down by men with automatics.
The story goes, they were fanatics,
Dangerous terrorists, they said.
Who, the assassins? No – the dead.
It's sickening to hear them jaw
Of human rights and rule of law;
Their favourite view of human rights
Is down a loaded Browning's sights;
And as for rule of law, by God,
Whose law ordains a murder squad?
And murder it was, there on the Rock,
For all their gales of gusty talk.
Unarmed, unwarned, the Irish three
Were gunned down with malicious glee
By a gang of mindless yahoo brutes,
Great Britain's own Tonton Macoutes.

You meet them in the rugby clubs
And in idyllic country pubs.
The same white-collared yobbo clowns
Molest old folk in market towns.
All over Britain's blasted heath
They're springing up like dragons' teeth!
Born bullies, no, not born but spawned
In Yuppydom's malignant pond,
For twenty years or so matured,
With Bond and Rambo well manured,
Until they're rotten-ripe and drop
Into the Special Forces’ lap.
This concentrates their pith, and purges
Them of their last human urges,
Refining them to a noxious pearl
Within the Army's oyster shell.

Picture that dastardly attack,
How, first, they shot them in the back,
Straddled them where they lay half dead
And pumped their bodies full of lead,
Signing off with a shot in the face,
The SAS's coup d'isgrace.
Or was it the other way around?
Did the victims turn at some slight sound,
Throwing their hands up to provoke
The fatal words the Brownings spoke
Into their ears or to their face?
Such are the niceties of the case!
Whichever way, that awful spilling
Of human life was 'lawful killing' –
Or so the inquest said it was:
They had, they found, broken no laws,
Were gentlemen all – all honourable,
Their slight excess – exonerable.
Ah, Gentlemen they were – indeed,
Classic specimens of the breed.
Note how, in their message back to base,
Miss Farrell's name takes pride of place;
At every stage 'twas Ladies First,
Mairéad received their opening burst –
Perhaps by way of a bouquet
For International Women's Day?

The full poem is an epic poem attacking the system that cloaked the murders, and has an introduction by Gerry Adams and preface by Séamus Deane. It is published in book form and is available from: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. The price is £10 incl. p&p to UK and Ireland.

JF book cover

A witness to ruthless oppression: Maxim Gorky
Monday, 05 March 2018 22:36

A witness to ruthless oppression: Maxim Gorky

Published in Poetry

Jenny Farrell introduces the life and poetry of Maxim Gorky, who was born 150 years ago, and presents his poem Storm Petrel, prophesying revolution.

Alexei Maximovich Peshkov, or Maxim Gorky, was born 28 March 1868 in Nizhny Novgorod (named Gorky,1932-1990), and died 14 June 1936. He was a Russian and Soviet writer, the founder of socialist realism in literature, and a political activist.

Gorky’s father, a carpenter, died of cholera aged 31. The transition to his grandfather’s world of poverty and violence shocked him. His uncles stabbed their wives to death; one of them sent to Siberia. When Gorky visited the house of his childhood many years later, he could not enter it. Memories were too traumatic. Gorky owed his survival to his illiterate grandmother Akulina, whose storehouse of legends and fairy tales was inexhaustible.

Gorky’s grandfather taught him to read from the prayer book. The impoverished owner of a dye-house, he moved the family to the outskirts of town, where they lived among the outcast. The harshness of this existence stayed with Gorky for life.

His mother read secular books with him. Nearly nine in early 1877, he started elementary school, leaving it due to poverty, aged ten. All his life Gorky was aware of his lack of a formal education.

Only ten years old, he contributed to the family’s livelihood by collecting rags, nails, and horseshoes, or stealing wooden boards. His mother died of consumption that year, aged just 35. Alexei had to leave the house.

Along the Volga, he observed labourers and boatmen; he witnessed child prostitution in the towns. Depictions of violated women are among the most shocking scenes in Gorky’s writings.

Books increasingly captivated Gorky. He read secretly by night, loved Byron’s rebellion, and above all Dickens, who truly loved people.

Gorky’s stay in Kazan became a turning point. Here, he met people who not only suffered, but also fought to change social conditions. He felt inspired by the populists, or folk friends, members of a revolutionary movement of the 1870s. Stirred by passionate belief in the people, they sought political renewal; the more radical of them advocated revolution.

When the students went on strike at Kazan University, Vladimir Ulyanov (Lenin) was among them. Gorky joined a study circle, discussing emancipation. Serfdom had recently been abolished. The group debated Tolstoy’s ideas and asked Gorky to seek his advice on the creation of an agricultural colony.

In autumn 1888, Gorky began his years on the road, desiring to learn more of Russia and its people. After these travels, Gorky began writing. His story ‘Chelkash,’ about a harbour thief was an immediate sensation and Gorky was hailed the voice of the people. His pen name Gorky stems from that time. His father, Maxim, had been called the bitter one (“Gorky”) because he told people the bitter truth.

Gorky worked as a journalist and published the 3-volume ‘Sketches and Stories’ (1898-1899). He wrote with compassion and optimism about the barefooted and outcasts. His strong, colourful, keenly observed characters, affirm life and the power of humankind. He understood and depicted realistically their social context, at times, glorifying the rebels. At this early stage, Gorky met and befriended Chekhov, Tolstoy, and Lenin. Chekhov encouraged him to try drama, which resulted in his most famous play, ‘The Lower Depths’ (1902), based on his stories of outcasts, and without an individual hero. Stanislavsky directed the play in Moscow and it became an instant success in Europe and the US. Max Reinhardt’s theatre in Berlin, staged the play on 500 consecutive evenings. It became one of the most performed plays of world literature.

Gorky’s descriptions of the barefooted gained him a place in Russian literature. In the early 1890s, there were five million barefooted in Russia, due to the great famine. Many died of starvation, or perished in dirty hostels and overcrowded prisons. While in the past, the barefooted had been dismissed as wretched drunkards, thieves and murderers, Gorky describes them as confident people, rebels even, who defy the yoke of serfdom. Gorky’s hatred for the establishment had grown with his travels. He had experienced enormous class differences in Russia and ruthless oppression.

The first translations of Gorky’s work appeared in 1899: two years later Gorky was known worldwide. He made friends with the painter Repin, and the singer Shalyapin. His play “The Philistines”, the first time the working class appear on the Russian stage, was performed under police observation.

Gorky, exiled to Arzamas, central Russia, in 1902, met radicals there and supported the Social Democrats with money from his publications. He set up an illegal printing press, began publishing radical leaflets and hoped to achieve a united front of the working class and liberal intelligentsia. Russia’s war against Japan had shown that the Czarist Empire was on its last legs, opposition movements gained impetus.

On Bloody Sunday, 9 January1905, Czarist forces in St. Petersburg killed over a thousand demonstrators. Gorky’s arrest and imprisonment caused an international outcry, contributing to his release. Unrest spread across the country, students and workers went on strike, and the battle ship Potemkin’s crew mutinied. A general strike paralysed the country. The Czar had to introduce civil rights and convene a legislative assembly, the Duma. Gorky’s apartment looked like an arsenal. Workers rose, but surrendered after an eleven-day struggle.

In early 1906, Gorky travelled secretly to Finland where the Finns welcomed him enthusiastically. He met Lenin in Helsingfors. They decided that he should leave Russia and act as an unofficial ambassador for the new Russia, collecting money for the revolution. The US seemed suited for such a fundraising tour. American Socialists had put forward the plan. Sympathisers like Mark Twain and Jack London promised their Russian colleague help. Gorky topped the bestseller list and the Metropolitan Theatre played ‘The Lower Depths’ to a full house.

Gorky travelled via Berlin. He met with leaders of the German social democracy, Bebel, Kautsky, Liebknecht and Luxemburg. He saw Max Reinhardt and played Luca in ‘The Lower Depths’ at the Deutsches Theater. He urged all Western countries not to lend Russia money, warning it would go towards greater oppression.

For millions of Americans, Gorky’s name stood for Russian liberation. The trip was to be a goodwill tour from coast to coast. Arriving 10 April 1906, many greeted Gorky. Mark Twain called for support for the Russian Revolution. Gorky spoke of his enthusiasm for Walt Whitman, Edgar Allan Poe and Mark Twain. He praised the liberty of the American people. However, his support of the trade union leaders charged with murdering a former governor in Idaho and, worse, the revelation that Gorky had travelled to America with his partner Maria, while still married to Katya was too much for puritan America. Even Mark Twain objected, as did William Dean Howells, and Roosevelt refused to receive him. One year later, George Bernard Shaw refused to go to America because of Gorky’s treatment.

Only John Martin and Prestonia Mann, leaders of the American Fabian Society, welcomed him in their home. Gorky went on a lecture tour through the USA, speaking in Williamsburg, Boston, Baltimore, and Philadelphia. Increasingly, he criticised American society, and was sensitive to the Native Americans. He continued to praise Walt Whitman, pioneer of freedom and beauty, who filled his poems with a pagan love of life. He wrote several pamphlets commenting on the fetish of the dollar.

American publishers now no longer published Gorky’s books, mainly because newspaper magnate Hearst held the exclusive rights. Here in America, Gorky finished his play “Enemies” and began the novel “The Mother”. Both works deal with the workers’ unrest in Russia. In “Enemies” (1906) Gorky depicts class antagonism in capitalist society and the determined struggle of the proletariat. “The Mother” became the foundation text of socialist realism and one of the best-selling books of the 20th century. Gorky showed the rise of the workers’ movement, its revolutionary development under party leadership. For the first time, the proletarian revolutionary movement found realistic representation. With Pavel Vlasov, Gorky created a hero of the era – a proletarian revolutionary and party worker. The mother’s character vividly shows the growth of a revolutionary among the people.

Gorky’s attacks on the Russian government meant he could not return home. He received political asylum in Italy. He arrived in Naples on 26 October 1906, unaware that Italy would be his home for almost eight years and that he would write more than half of his works here. Gorky was already famous in Italy and his plays were performed to full houses. In November, he moved to Capri, where he received an invitation to the Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Workers’ Party in London. The congress opened on 13 May1907 at the Southgate Brotherhood Church in Islington and lasted until 1 June. Lenin, Trotsky and Plekhanov attended. Gorky lectured on contemporary Russian literature in Hyde Park.

Many Russian writers visited him on Capri, as did Repin, Rachmaninov, Shalyapin and Stanislavski. He felt especially close to Shalyapin, compatriot from Nizhny Novgorod, who sang about the strength and beauty of the Russian homeland.

Gorky lived in Capri until 1913, when the Russian Duma passed an amnesty act to celebrate the 300th anniversary of the Romanov dynasty. Together with Lunacharsky and Bogdanov, he set up a “Party school” to educate working class leaders. Gorky lectured in the history of Russian literature. At that time, Gorky was close to Bogdanov, who advocated a “religion of socialism,” and Gorky coined the term “God-building,” combining religion with Marxism. Lenin disapproved, opposed the school and founded his own in Paris. Lenin rejected religion outright and thought Gorky a romantic.

On 31 December 1913, Gorky returned to Russia and helped establish the first Workers’ and Peasants’ University, the World Literature Publishing House, and Petrograd Theatre. He published the first volume of his autobiographical trilogy, “My Childhood” (1913-14), followed by “In the World” (1916), and “My Universities” (1922). In these, author-narrator Alyosha Peshkov, describes growing up in a Volga River town, and his youth.

When World War I broke out, Gorky lampooned the jingoism and ostracised his adopted son Zinovy Peshkov for joining the army, calling on conscripts to refuse military service.

In 1915, he founded a publishing house for children’s books, to promote children’s interest in good literature and giving them a sense of the purpose of life. He also intended to publish a series on outstanding people.

In 1921-22, Gorky fought against famine, cooperating with Fridtjof Nansen to bring food to Russia. He stated in an interview with the Daily Herald that there was no reason not to recognise the Soviet Union, and lifting the West’s economic boycott would save lives.

Gorky left the USSR again in October 1921. He was unwell, overworked, and he didn’t always see eye to eye with the Bolsheviks and Lenin. He travelled via Finland, Sweden and Denmark to Berlin. In Helsingfors, he promoted Russia aid and arrived in Berlin in November. More than 100,000 Russians lived in Berlin with many Russian publishing houses. In Berlin, a doctor found his condition serious. Between autumn 1916 and winter 1922, Gorky had not written a single line. Now, he finished “My Universities” and some novels. The situation in the USSR became increasingly insecure, with a trial against 34 members of the Socialist Revolutionary Party. Gorky settled in Sorrento. Gorky’s return to his homeland in the summer of 1928, was motivated in part by the opportunity to participate in its cultural life.

In “The Artamonov Business” (1927) Gorky began his post-revolutionary social-psychological analysis of capitalism. Based on three generations of a merchant family, the novel depicts the rise and fall of capitalism in Russia between 1863 and 1917. His play “Yegor Bulychov” set on the eve of the October Revolution, demonstrates the moral decline of the bourgeoisie. A subtle psychological analysis of bourgeois individualism between 1870 and 1917 makes “Klim Samgin” a masterpiece of socialist realism. In it, Gorky created a comprehensive tapestry of the political movements over forty years of Russian history and showed how the hero’s middle-class intellectual life ends in historical fiasco. The communist character Kutuzov meets Klim Samgin with true humanity. Gorky portrayed the new heroes, and heroism at work emerges as a key moral criterion.

Gorky’s socialist realist method is his ground-breaking world literary achievement. His works remain widespread on all continents and contribute to the consolidation of proletarian class-consciousness. They continue to be a touchstone and benchmark for socialist writers all over the world.

Storm Petrel

by Maxim Gorky

High above the silvery ocean winds are gathering the storm-clouds, and between the clouds and ocean proudly wheels the Stormy Petrel, like a streak of sable lightning.

Now his wing the wave caresses, now he rises like an arrow, cleaving clouds and crying fiercely, while the clouds detect a rapture in the bird’s courageous crying.

In that crying sounds a craving for the tempest! Sounds the flaming of his passion, of his anger, of his confidence in triumph.

The gulls are moaning in their terror – moaning, darting o’er the waters, and would gladly hide their horror in the inky depths of ocean.

And the grebes are also moaning. Not for them the nameless rapture of the struggle. They are frightened by the crashing of the thunder.

And the foolish penguins cower in the crevices of rocks, while alone the Stormy Petrel proudly wheels above the ocean, o’er the silver-frothing waters.

Ever lower, ever blacker, sink the storm-clouds to the sea, and the singing waves are mounting in their yearning toward the thunder.

Strikes the thunder. Now the waters fiercely battle with the winds. And the winds in fury seize them in unbreakable embrace, hurtling down the emerald masses to be shattered on the cliffs.

Like a streak of sable lightning wheels and cries the Stormy Petrel, piercing storm-clouds like an arrow, cutting swiftly through the waters.

He is coursing like a Demon, the black Demon of the tempest, ever laughing, ever sobbing –he is laughing at the storm-clouds, he is sobbing with his rapture.

In the crashing of the thunder, the wise Demon hears a murmur of exhaustion. And he knows the storm will die and the sun will be triumphant; the sun will always be triumphant!

The waters roar. The thunder crashes. Livid lightning flares in storm-clouds high above the seething ocean, and the flaming darts are captured and extinguished by the waters, while the serpentine reflections writhe, expiring, in the deep.

It’s the storm! The storm is breaking!

Still the valiant Stormy Petrel proudly wheels among the lightning, o’er the roaring, raging ocean, and his cry resounds exultant, like a prophecy of triumph –

Let it break in all its fury!

Source: M. Gorky: Selected Short Stories Progress Publishers, 1955;
Online Version: Maxim Gorky Internet Archive ( 2002;

This harp shall never be silent: Tomás Mac Síomóin at 80
Tuesday, 13 February 2018 20:07

This harp shall never be silent: Tomás Mac Síomóin at 80

Published in Fiction

Jenny Farrell marks Tomás Mac Síomóin's birthday on 19 February with an essay on this subversive, internationalist writer, who translated the Communist Manifesto into Irish, satirises  contemporary neoliberal Ireland in poetry and prose, and is ignored and unofficially censored by the Irish literary-political establishment.

One of the tragedies that befell Ireland after Independence was that the aspirations for this newly liberated state were almost immediately replaced, as Liam O’Flaherty put it, by the “tyranny of the Irish Church and its associate parasites, the upstart bourgeoisie, the last posthumous child from the wrinkled womb of European capitalism”. O’Flaherty’s novels of the 1920s describe this sad state of affairs and its impact on the people of Ireland.

Following a few short years after partial Independence in 1922, the authorities of the Irish Free State set up the Committee on Evil Literature in 1926, from which grew the Censorship of Publications Board in 1929. The banning of Liam O’Flaherty’s “The House of Gold” was its first act. Ostensibly targeting ‘indecent’ literature, it was a de facto ban on intellectual exchange of any kind, causing intellectual and cultural stultification.

The impact of the official banning of books and its knock-on effect of unofficial and self-censorship can hardly be overestimated. While official banning is no longer implemented, unofficial censorship continues to this day. It is at its most serious in Irish language literature. Students keen to propel this native language into modernity are presented largely with inferior modern literature in their courses, or ‘safe’ stories idealising rural life. Socially subversive and global issues do not feature, being considered “too dark”.

But frustration generated by such unofficial, low-key censorship, has been the fate of Tomás Mac Síomóin. Small editions, absence from libraries and bookshops, missing from reading lists in school and universities – he is patronisingly regarded as too difficult, in short unsuitable. A developed modern literary culture doesn’t exist in Irish, he admits ruefully.

Mac Síomóin, who holds a PhD from Cornell University, worked as a biological researcher, university biology lecturer, journalist, editor, publisher and writer, initially exclusively in Irish. His literary output is remarkable by any measure. He writes poetry, short stories, novels, and stands out as a translator of world literature, both fiction and poetry, into Irish, or Irish poetry into Spanish, Catalan and English. He also writes non-fiction.

Mac Síomóin has won literary awards from the Irish Language authorities, which have never quite translated into the national recognition and literary fame they deserve. Out of disgust at the abandonment by modern Ireland of the social, linguistic and cultural ideals of the Irish Revolution and their replacement by Anglo-American consumerist values, Mac Síomóin left Ireland, like so many writers before him. He began to translate some of his own work into English in an effort to reach a broader audience. Among these translations are his collection of short stories, “The Diary of an Ant”, and the novels “The Cartographer’s Apprentice” and “Is Stacey Pregnant”.

JF TMS Harp Cover

Two further books, the non-fiction exploration of the Irish neocolonial psyche, “The Broken Harp” , and his brilliant re-writing of Swift, “An Immodest Proposal”, he penned directly in English, and which has been published along with Swift’s original text and one by O’Flaherty, “The Cure for Unemplyment”, by Nuascéalta under the title “Three Leaves of a Bitter Shamrock” (2014).

As is evident in every word he writes, Mac Síomóin is an internationalist and has deep regard for social revolutionaries, both in his native Ireland and abroad. He has translated Mayakovsky into Irish, he has written a novel set in revolutionary 19th century Cuba and written while living in contemporary Cuba. He has translated and published “The Communist Manifesto” into Irish. His most recent book is the bilingual (Irish-Spanish) account of the contribution of the Argentinian-Irish Bulfin family to the cause of Irish independence.

Apart from its roots in the 20th century Gaelic poetries of Ireland and Scotland, mainly Máirtín Ó Direáin and Somhairle Mac Ghill-Eathain, Mac Síomóin mentions a range of international influences on his poetry, such as Fernando Pessoa, Nicanor Parra, and Antonio Machado, on his work. The Czech, Miroslav Holub, in English translation was an early influence, his dual vocation of scientist and poet serving as a model for his own life path.

Currently, he is working on a book of translations into Irish of his selection of the Spanish poetry of Antonio Machado: “Ceol an Easa” (Waterfall Music) to be published in 2019. A semi-autobiographical book of memories and musings is still in the forge. An “Interview with the Devil”, a text in Irish (or possibly bilingual), is still in the preparatory stage.

Mac Síomóin has in common with O’Flaherty and others that he writes scathingly, in the great Irish satirical literary tradition, of contemporary neoliberal Ireland and the inhumanity of the contemporary world. This has found its expression in dystopian visions, where hope of emancipation is scant, but extant in some small way.

The plot of Mac Síomóin’s first and longest novel, the untranslated “Ag altóir an diabhail: striptease spioradálta Bheartla B (At the devil’s altar: the spiritual striptease of Beartla B), develops in a rural lunatic asylum, where an inmate (Everyman) is driven to madness by his failure to solve the enigma of woman, in this case, the cyborg Juliet. The tawdry illusions that cloak the idyllic valley in which the asylum is located—essentially contemporary Ireland, are peeled off, one by one.

In his novels, Mac Síomóin presents the reader with imprisoned people. In “The Cartographer’s Apprentice”, they are confined to a certain space and time, which is governed by a menacing theocracy. In “Is Stacey Pregnant”, the prison is a traffic jam, from which there is no escape and that ends in sinister disappearances of people engineered by a new-old breed of Orwellian pigs. Inhuman machinations, willingness to sacrifice people, denial of dignity, lurk everywhere. Such dystopia has its firm and growing roots in our 21st century normality. Yes, it may strike the reader as extreme, but taken as hyperbolic metaphor, it serves perfectly the purpose of highlighting the true and unmasked nature of our times. Mac Síomóin writes with a Swiftian black humour that creates enough distance for the reader to reflect on the text.

Mac Síomóin has no time for “rural idyll” literature. “Thinking outside the box is of the essence of my vocation as a writer” he says. “We inhabit a unidimensional material universe plus its cognitive shadow, our rationalization of that reality. Alternative organizations of experience within this reality are subversive, evil, forbidden by herd wisdom.” Such “dystopian” narratives, fragment a fundamentally amoral reality, laying the groundwork for a radical conceptual re-ordering. Thus, the traumatic car jam of “Is Stacey pregnant?” is an imagined Euro-Ireland in the grip of neoliberalism. A traumatic stress applied to this society dissolves its previous ideological superstructure and social cohesion. “The Cartographer’s Apprentice” relates the need of all coherent societies to guarantee conformity to their norms. Signaling dysfunctionality is part of the creative destruction that must always precede the new”, he says.

Intriguingly, Tomás Mac Síomóin adopts a different voice in some of his poetry. Here, we encounter the same interests but a different handling of the material, a separate tone. Mac Síomóin equates poetry writing, for simplicity’s sake with painting, where all the infinite and ever-evolving resources of language, rhythm, metaphor etc. are available to the poet to create whatever effect he wishes, whatever image he wishes, or feels impelled to create, for example.

Tomás Mac Síomóin continues a glorious tradition. The generation before him produced authors with a social conscience and political understanding, writing in Irish. Among these are such outstanding political activists as O’Flaherty and Mac Grianna, members of the CPI; Ó Conaire, former IRA member, trade union activist and socialist, once contesting an election; Pearse, cultural nationalist and leader of a military uprising against British imperialism in 1916; Ó Cadhain an IRA member, socialist and political prisoner.

All contributed significantly and lastingly to Literature in Irish, unafraid to creatively generate new linguistic forms, contributing at this level, too, to the growth and renewal of the Irish language. It hardly needs pointing out, that this is the natural way for a language to expand in its contemporary registers, not by bureaucratic decree.

In this sense, Tomás Mac Síomóin - through the pioneering nature of his Irish language literature as well as his political understanding and contribution - is very much in the tradition of O’Flaherty, Ó Conaire, Pearse, Mac Grianna and Ó Cadhain.

Tomás Mac Síomóin, who turns eighty on 19 February, has stood firm against those who would rather he wrote of thatched cottage idylls or middle-class, mid-Atlantic, midlife crises. He shows us the world as it is and invites the reader to see it as incommensurate with humanity`s ideal. In order to change the world one must first understand it. As Liam O’Flaherty wrote:

And the censorship of literature was imposed, lest men like me could teach the Irish masses that contact with dung is demoralizing, that ignorance is ignoble and that poverty, instead of being a passport to Heaven, makes this pretty earth a monotonous Hell.

Terry Eagleton’s comment in his article “Only Pinter remains” (The Guardian, 2007), that “For almost the first time in two centuries, there is no eminent British poet, playwright or novelist prepared to question the foundations of the western way of life” applies equally to Ireland, if ‘eminent’ means known to the general reading public. In Ireland, too, the literary-political establishment suppress any serious challenge to the status quo. This is why we need writers such as Tomás Mac Síomóin.

Let me end with one of his poems, about Victor Jara, the great Chilean communist poet and singer, who was brutally murdered by Pinochet’s goons after they had destroyed Salvador Allende’s socialist Chile on September 11th 1973. Jara's weapon was his guitar. During the extended English genocidal campaigns in Ireland, Gaelic poets and harpists were systematically hunted down and murdered.

The same old brutality, at the service always of the same old domination by the same old ruling classes.


by Tomás Mac Síomóin

They heard a harper
Boldly strum
On the floor of their hell;
Weaving the dawn
Through the words of his song
They smashed his fingers
One by

But untouched
By nimble fingers
Each chord sang
Its song of the dawning,
Of mankind’s hope,
Of the wretchedness of our days

They ripped each rebel chord
From its wooden bed.
‘Viva la muerte’ howled
Those sons of Cain.

Failing to silence
The poet’s bright song they brought
A slender hempen noose
To throttle a poet
Who dared weave treason
Through the joy of his poems

A rebel hand drew back
the grave`s stone lid
In the dawn’s bleak light
The grave is empty;
That selfsame angel proclaims again
To the selfsame deaf man
That this harp shall never be silent
From now to the crack of doom. 


In Praise of Communism
Friday, 09 February 2018 22:21

In Praise of Communism

Published in Poetry

The outstanding German communist playwright and poet Bertolt Brecht was born on 10 February 1898, 120 years ago. To celebrate the anniversary, Jenny Farrell has sent us one of his poems, which was translated by her father, Jack Mitchell. The image is by Mark Titchner, an artist who lives and works in London.

In Praise of Communism

by Bertolt Brecht

It is reasonable. You can grasp it. It's simple.
You're no exploiter, so you'll understand.
It is good for you. Look into it.
Stupid men call it stupid, and the dirty call it dirty.
It is against dirt and against stupidity.
The exploiters call it a crime.
But we know:
It is the end of all crime.
It is not madness but
The end of madness.
It is not chaos,
But order.
It is the simple thing
That's hard to do.

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