Radical voices from America
The 20th century has been the American century, a triumph of exploitation and consumerism. Former An Phoblacht editor MÍCHEÁL MacDONNCHA reviews a selection of books offering a radical perspective from America that all too often goes ignored.
We often lament the extent to which Ireland has become culturally Americanised. The Hollywood production line and the deluge of mindless, tuneless `music' that comes to us across the Atlantic or is parroted over here by home-grown `stars' is consumerism at its worst. But America does have a real culture and even a real progressive tradition about which we know far too little.
This past year I finally read four books I had long meant to read but never got around to. They all speak of what might have been had the radical American voices of the 20th century won through. Instead, we had the triumph of the American Empire, which betrayed its own people and left a trail of blood across the planet. Our recent visitor Bill Clinton may have been good for the Irish peace process but he did nothing to change the role of his country as the chief exploiter of the world's poor. Bush, of course, will be worse still.
The Iron Heel
By Jack London.
Jack London is best known for his story The Call of the Wild, the subject of several films, but he also wrote a powerful political novel The Iron Heel. It presents a nightmare vision of failed revolution, the rise of a capitalist elite in the USA, the desertion of the unions to the side of the capitalists and the triumph of fascism. At the same time the revolutionary spirit of the socialists is celebrated and we know that in the end they prevail. Full of observations of how different individuals and groups react in the face of violent change, this remarkably prophetic book, which foresaw many of the developments of the 20th century, was first published in 1907.
The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
The first of these is Steinbeck's masterpiece. He follows the Joad family, driven from their Oklahoma farm by landlords to join the tens of thousands on the road to California, where worse awaits them. In the dialect of the `Oakies' we hear a language of defiance and hope being born, a language that became universal in a century when dispossession and displacement was the fate of millions on every continent. Set in the 1930s, this is a novel about migrants that is very relevant to Ireland in 2001.
Chapters on the journey of Tom Joad and his family alternate with chapters painting the bigger picture. Addressing the landlords, he writes of what happens when the migrants get together in the camps along the highway:
``Here `I lost my land' is changed; a cell is split and from its splitting grows the thing you hate - `We lost our land'. The danger is here, for two men are not as lonely and perplexed as one. And from this first `we' there grows a still more dangerous thing: `I have a little food' plus `I have none'. If from this problem the sum is `We have a little food', the thing is on its way, the movement has direction.''
Keen observation and vivid writing make Steinbeck's books compelling and while Of Mice and Men lacks the magnitude and sweep of the Grapes of Wrath, it too is a brilliant piece of literature.
The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Edited by Claybourne Carson.
Forty-five years ago this month a black woman, Rosa Parks, was arrested in Montgomery, Alabama, after she refused to give up her bus seat to a white man. Thus began the Civil Rights movement and the political campaign of its leader, Martin Luther King Jr. In the short space of 13 years, African-Americans rose from their knees, exposed the vicious racism pervading American society and won basic rights, the denial of which amounted to the continuation of slavery by another name. The assassination of King dealt a devastating blow to that movement and reading this book it is easy to see why powerful forces wanted him dead. His ceaseless work and early death meant that King could not write an autobiography and this book was compiled from his extensive sermons, lectures, speeches and notes on his life.
King has become an icon, but he was a man of action and of ideas and his ideas are too little known. In his last months, he spoke put against the war in Vietnam and against the system in America that impoverished people of all races:
``I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today: my own government... If America's soul becomes totally poisoned, part of the autopsy must read ``Vietnam''... A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defence than on programmes of social uplift is approaching spiritual death...''
King has been placed on a pedestal as an `American hero' while the nature of the mass movement he led, as part of a collective leadership, is ignored. Consumerism has divided and conquered in the American century but the need for political struggle is as keen as ever. In our present situation in Ireland we could heed his warning against the ``tranquilising drug of gradualism'' and his message to striking workers in Memphis in 1968 is universal in its application:
``Never forget that freedom is not something that is voluntarily given by the oppressor. It is something that must be demanded by the oppressed.''