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Iconoclasm and Trafalgar Square

Edward Colston is not the first target from those calling for the cleansing of British streets of slave traders and apologists for the slave trade. The writer and broadcaster Afua Hirsch wrote an article "Toppling statues: Here's why Nelson's column should be next (GUARDIAN, 22 August 2020) in which she argued that the statue of Admiral Nelson should be lopped off his column.

Afua said that one of the obstacles abolitionists of the slave trade had to overcome was the influence of Nelson. She said:

"While many around him were denouncing slavery, Nelson was vigorously defending it."

She went on to say Nelson used his position to:

"...perpetuate the tyranny, serial rape and exploitation organised by West Indian planters, some of whom he counted among his closest friends".

Upset by Hirsh's article, the SUN (22 august 2017) tried to defend Nelson's column by reeling out Chris McGovern of the Campaign for Real Education. He stated that that Hadrian's Wall was built by a system based on slave labour, as though that was a valid excuse for keeping the status quo and celebrating the British Empire. However,it is McGovern who should get a "real education". In fact Hadrian's Wall was built by the skilled Roman legionary masons, with thousands of auxiliary soldiers providing the labour. A 500 strong unit of Moors manned the wall which would not go down well with the Sun's anti-immigration politics (Black Past November 2011).

Not many tears were shed when the IRA destroyed Nelson's Pillar with explosives in O'Connell Street, Dublin, in 1966. This was an act of nationalism against "the Brits". Although socialists have no interest in defending Admiral Nelson's career - socialist oppose all wars on grounds of class, who would want to be associated with the murderous actions of the IRA and their nationalist politics?

The DAILY TELEGRAPH journalist, Leo Mckinstry, railed against those who wanted to remove Nelson from his column. "Marxist vandals" (11 June 2020) he called them, forgetting that William Morris in NEWS FROM NOWHERE had proposed for the square to be planted with an orchard of apricot trees - 'the fair abode of gardens'. According to Owen Holland:

"...at some unspecified point in Nowhere's history, Nelson's column will have been pulled down to make way for and orchard. The stall and the trees will have displaced the assemblage of symbolic monuments recalled by Guest, including Nelson's column and Hamo Thorneycroft's statue of General Charles George Gordon..." (William Morri's UTOPIANISM, p. 212, 2017).

Although NEWS FROMNOWHERE is romantic and whimsical, steeped in Morris's love of the Pre-Raphaelite and medieval, it is an important book as Morris is one of the few who has made a stab at describing a socialist society free from wage labour, labour markets and the buying and selling of labour power. It would also be a society free from the images of imperialism. And he wrote it in 1890, just before the mushrooming of modern technology. He tackles many of the issues raised by those sceptical about what they would be signing up to as supporters of a socialist revolution. In the novel, Guest has a fleeting memory of the "Bloody Sunday" demonstrations.

And William Morris, along with Engels attended the Battle of Trafalgar Square, known as "Bloody Sunday" on 12 November 1875. The police beat and battered the demonstrators protesting about unemployment and coercion in Ireland. The demonstration was organised by the Social Democratic Federation and the Irish National League. Workers learnt from bitter experience the level of violence the state was prepared to use to put down dissent. The police were able to use arbitrary violence and if that failed the cavalry and troops were in reserve. For a socialist revolution to be successful, the machinery of government, including the police and the armed forces of the state, must be converted from an instrument of oppression into the agent of emancipation through the revolutionary use of the vote.

An anonymous reviewer of Morris's John Ball in To-day commented that:

"...we are not altogether without hopes of some day being present when Mr. Morris unveils a statue of John Ball in Trafalgar Square" (loc cit p. 22).

In addition to John Ball as a candidate to replace Nelson on his column there is Robert Kett, hanged at Norwich castle in 1549. He set up a camp on Mousehold Heath where some 10,000 camped for several weeks while petitioning the Crown to stop the enclosure of common land. Naturally, nobody listened and the army was sent to quell them. In the battle, on the outskirts of Norwich, 3.000 were killed. The enclosure of the commons led to wage slavery and to the imprisonment of the working class within the wages system of class exploitation.

However, there is a plaque to Kett on the castle wall and a local primary school is named after him. St Albans Council has no interest in recognising John Ball who was hung, drawn and quartered in the market square after the failure of the Peasants Revolt. He was meant to have been forgotten.

Sculptures are one thing, civic statues another. It's a form of idolatry that: endorses the value of politicians & leaders, soldiers and capitalists and empire builders. The artist, scientists, writers and musicians may not offend in this way but why laud one and not another? Who decides that Beethoven is a better musician than Russ Conway and so is more worthy of a statue?

As for Nelson, he may have supported the slave trade but he was also a war criminal. He cowardly betrayed hundreds of prisoners on boats under his command who were then systematically executed in Naples. His actions saved the interests of the ruling class but many of the press-ganged sailors at Trafalgar most probably wondered what they were doing there. At the time of the Battle of Trafalgar over half the Royal Navy's 120,000 sailors were pressed men.
(https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Impressment)

In fact, Trafalgar Square has an association with the Socialist Party of Great Britain. Socialist rallies were once held their annually, organised by the then national organiser, Cyril May. A photograph of the rally appears on the front cover of the SOCIALIST STANDARD of January 1974. Behind the five speakers is a pertinent banner for the 21st century "Workers of the World. Unite for Socialism". Not black workers, not Asian workers not white workers but all workers no matter where they are or where they live. Trafalgar Square became a place for working class unity.

For a few hours on a Sunday afternoon, the square lost its association with Admiral Nelson and the Battle of Trafalgar. It lost is history with imperialism and colonialism. It became a site of socialist activity and class struggle. So political lessons can be learnt from Trafalgar Square but not necessary those found in the text book of Tory Historians.

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