Confucius: A Brief History of Master Kong

Today I am writing about a long overdue historical figure that I have admired for a long time: Confucius. The name itself is actually the latinisation of the title he was known by Kǒng Fūzǐ (which means something like Master Kong – Kong was his family name). His given name was Qiu. However, the Jesuit priests that got to China during the 16th century adapted it to their ears and languages, like it often happens with so many Asian names in Western culture.

I could write loads about him, but I will try to keep it to a brief overview, where I am mostly using the work of Michael Schuman as a reference. According to his research, there I a possibility that the great master may have been an illegitimate child. Confucius’s father, Kong He, die when the child was barely a couple of years old. Kong He was a lot older than Confucius mother, Yan Zhengzai, who was only a teenager at the time of the child’s birth on the 28th of September 551 BC. Schuman is of the idea that Zhengzai was shunned by the Kong family which is why Confucius was raised essentially in poverty. According to Burton Watson, it is evident from Confucius writing in his Analects that this experience of living a life of struggle and misery is what gave him a particular understanding and viewpoint of wealth and class. The child, perhaps guided by a higher purpose, or in an attempt to restore his family’s honour and glory, dedicated himself to the relentless study of history, literature ad philosophy.

Continue reading “Confucius: A Brief History of Master Kong”

Don’t Mention the Empire!


The British Empire holds a strange place in the UK’s national memory; many young people have little knowledge of it while many older people remember it fondly, with 65% of over 65s in a YouGov poll saying the Empire was something to be proud of in 2014.[1] Considering that the British Empire lasted for 500 years, it is rarely talked about, usually only brought up when talking about immigration or invoked as a nostalgic tool to invoke ‘Britannia’ in relation to issues such as Brexit.[2] Actual detail is rarely mentioned, it’s rarely covered in film or TV despite the UK’s love of period drama and the teaching of it in schools is minor, if existent at all.

I was never taught about the British Empire in school. I was never even taught about the slave trade, except for brief mentions during Black History Month – and then only the USA’s role was mentioned. I know some people a little younger than me at least were taught about the slave trade and going back to my parents’ school days of the 1960s and 1970s, the slave trade was mentioned. The British Empire overall though was barely touched upon. While teaching of the British Empire has reportedly been improved upon in recent years, it is still patchy due to a focus on certain aspects or periods of the Empire.

The problem with teaching about the British Empire is that it isn’t easy and it doesn’t make Britain look good. Take the teaching of World War Two in Britain – the Nazis were clearly evil and we fought against them, so we’re the good guys! Great detail is gone into on the Nazi atrocities, quite rightly. However any evil done by the British is glossed over to preserve the dichotomy. No talk of handing over Czechoslovakia to Hitler prior to the war; or the bombing of German civilians; or the British government doing nothing to help victims of Nazi persecution (the famous Kindertransport children were only allowed to enter the country if a non-governmental organisation found them a place to stay and a £50 bond per child was paid); the internment of those who came from countries who were part of the Axis Powers; and the blind eye turned to the rape of women and children, committed by Allied troops, by the Allied leadership to name a few. Acknowledging the atrocities committed by the Allies does not make the Nazis look at any better, nor does it mean disrespecting those who died – they were not the government. Acknowledging these atrocities does however damage the myth of a heroic Britain, of a past we should be proud of. That is exactly why the British Empire is such a touchy subject.

Exact numbers of those who died at the hands of the British Empire will never be known, and no estimation will ever be agreed on but let’s take a look at a couple of generally accepted figures. 3.1 million Africans were transported by the British to its colonies and other countries.[3] 1 million (at least) died in the Irish Potato Famine, while the British government exported food from Ireland and British landlords evicted families.[4] 4.3 million died in the Southern India famine of 1876–78, while the British government exported food from India and refused to provide any charity, instead forcing the starving to work for rations that were not enough to sustain them.[5] At least 28,000 Boer women and children and 20,000 Black people died in one of the earliest examples of concentration camps, created by the British Army during the Second Boer War.[6] These uncomplicated figures are enough to cause horror for any person with something resembling a moral compass. These are indefensible. These were civilians; the excuse of ‘they were attacking us’ just simply doesn’t count for these examples.

Now there are people who claim that the British Empire was a force for good, a highly controversial claim among many historians, but the major problem with the lack of education or thorough discussion of the Empire outside academic circles means that these claims are fed uncritically to the public almost always via newspapers and politicians who are using this argument for their own political means. For example, if we refer back to the atrocities above, the Daily Mail in one article claimed that during the British Empire ‘the occasional massacre was undoubtedly carried out’ but we played a role in ending the slave trade and ‘successfully exported’ democracy to countries that were colonies.[7] This of course shows a rather dismissive attitude to the deaths of millions and conveniently leaves out the British role in beginning the slave trade. This is not exactly unsurprising when you consider even Wikipedia refuses to use the Daily Mail as a source; that such an article makes no attempt to even vaguely consider history properly. It is also understandable in some respects why newspapers like the Daily Mail aggressively pursue such a position; they do not exist to teach history – or even tell the truth – they are there to push a particular opinion onto readers in the hope that readers will support their political aims at the ballot box to financially support their owners. This, of course, is not confined to just right-wing newspapers but to newspapers in general.

The problem is that when many peoples’ knowledge comes from journalists set on achieving political goals the actual debate and evidence of the Empire is not present. While historians cannot escape ideology completely, at least there is some kind of attempt at being critical of their perspectives and examining evidence. If an argument is to be made that the British Empire was ‘good’ then it should be put forward properly evidenced with historical rigour, with an actual chance of experts being able to debate the argument for its historical accuracy rather than political value. This is why it is so important that the British Empire is actually taught in schools so students have a chance to critically engage with the history rather than be fed carefully condensed politicised propaganda. An evidenced debate in schools has been favoured by school leaders and historians over a curriculum based on fostering patriotism.[8] This approach has also been favoured by students themselves.[9]

The lack of knowledge about the British Empire is particularly problematic because of how much of an impact it is having today. The British Empire created Apartheid in South Africa, and continued to resist imposing sanctions on the government till the end. Claims of violence between black and white South Africans has recently been the subject of interest amongst Trump supporters. The British Empire played a large part in the beginnings of the Israel-Palestine conflict, perhaps the most controversial conflict in modern history. After pitting Hindus and Muslims against each other for the British Empire’s own gain, the rushed partition of India helped cause the bloody legacy of the events of the partition that still plagues the relationship between India and Pakistan today. Intervention in Afghanistan began with the British Empire and the volatile state of the country can be linked back to British installed puppet governments. Proper understanding of these current events cannot be achieved without the knowledge of what past events caused them, and in so many cases the British Empire played some part.

It is even still having an impact on government policy as seen with the recent Windrush scandal with those who came to Britain and their descendants from former colonies in the Caribbean being threatened with deportation. The disregard for these people who spent their early lives under colonial control and then came to rebuild the UK due to lack of work available in their own countries because of colonial policy, all while having to cope with racism and poverty when they came to Britain. The recent scandal led to many of these people facing racism and poverty all over again; with many arguing that such behaviour would have never happened to white immigrants and that the decision to destroy records was racially charged. Whether such assertions are true or not, there is certainly an issue that being former colonial subjects that their history was not considered as important as white Britons.

Despite such claims that the British Empire was a good thing, even from politicians in government, there is a strong suggestion that perhaps the British government aren’t quite as proud about it as they claim. In 2011 a group of elderly Kenyans won the right to sue the British government for the torture they allege they suffered in the Mau Mau rebellion against the Empire. As a result of this an official review of colonial government papers, which unlike most government papers had not been passed onto the National Archives, was undertaken. The review found that they had been purposefully hidden, and that also thousands had been disposed of with the expressed intention by the secretary of state for the colonies so that any records that “might embarrass Her Majesty’s government” should be destroyed.[10]













Suffragette: Some Thoughts

It is somewhat staggering that it has taken just over a hundred years since the end of the Women’s Social and Political Union’s (WSPU) campaign for a film based on the British fight for women’s suffrage to be made. This is made even more staggering that on television the only production on women’s suffrage was the BBC drama Shoulder to Shoulder in 1974, which my mother recalls watching as a teenager. Therefore it is unsurprising that Suffragette has been under a lot of pressure to satisfy many, with varying different views, as the only available screen representation (Shoulder to Shoulder has yet to been released on DVD, nor does it seem to ever have been released on VHS) of such a significant movement in Britain.

I was one of the many, having been fascinated with the women’s suffrage movement since I was a child. Would the film address the differences within the movement itself, principally between the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) and the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU)? Would the film focus on leaders of the movement such as the Pankhursts’ or Millicent Fawcett or Emily Wilding Davison? Would the film mention or examine the class and race issues that were present within the movement?

I recall being surprised when the first details of the film were released that it would focus on a working class suffragette. The movement as a whole, and especially the WSPU, has been considered to be dominated by the middle classes. The hierarchy for certain was dominated by middle class women, with Annie Kenney the only working class woman involved in the WSPU leadership. Working class women had far more to lose than their middle class counterparts; after a prison sentence a middle class woman was generally more likely to have a home to return too, working class women less so.

However the choice to make the film’s protagonist working class was a brilliant decision, not just from a story perspective but also from a historic perspective. Rather than a film focusing on the politics or focusing on events and dates, the film focuses on the circumstances of Maud’s life (played by Carey Mulligan), that cause her to become involved in the WSPU; a victim of sexual abuse, an orphan, forced into a job that not only pays her poorly because she was a woman, but also one that would kill her young. As Maud explains when asked what the vote would mean to her, it could give her control over her life. Her fellow suffragettes similarly show the circumstances that allow inequality in a world without the vote. Maud’s colleague Violet, played by the outstanding Anne Marie Duff, like Maud had worked in poorly paid jobs since her teens and is married to a violent drunk, who despairs of her daughter facing the same future as her. The organiser of their activities Edith, played by Helena Bonham Carter, was denied the opportunity for a university education by her father and never got to realise her dreams. The framing of the reasons these women fought, and in such desperate and violent measures, highlights the struggle that women at this point in history had to deal with. It could have been easy to focus instead on just the battles, the politics and the prison sentences but as a film Suffragette gives us the motivations behind these women’s actions.

Nor does the film shy away from the consequences these women faced. The brutality of prisons sentences is shown several times throughout the film. I was pleased to see that a scene was included where Edith insists that as political prisoners they should be entitled to wear their own clothes while they are manhandled into prison uniforms. While not explained at length in the film, political prisoners were classed as first division prisoners, enjoying privileges such as wearing their own clothes among others. The authorities refused to acknowledge suffragettes as such, which was the reason for Marion Wallace Dunlop to go on hunger strike, which would soon become WSPU policy. While it would have been nice to seen such a scene explained in further detail, it is understandable because to keep the majority of the audience interested, the writer of the film, Abi Morgan, was treading a careful line throughout to avoid it becoming a history lesson.

Morgan also managed to avoid falling into the trap of making the male characters of the film one-dimensional. While certain men will try to claim that the film is anti-men (i.e. it actually illustrates the brutality and misogyny against women, especially when the film is set), a much more realistic portrayal exists in the film. The male characters with the exception of Edith’s husband are against women’s suffrage, just as most men and many women were at the time (which is also acknowledged on several occasions) but they are not portrayed as one-dimensional villains. Maud’s employer is shown realistically as a sex pest and cruel, something definitely not unrealistic for the period nor even now therefore I would argue not entirely one-dimensional. Maud’s husband Sonny, played by Ben Whishaw, despite his actions as the film continues becoming more deplorable, we see what many men from this period were like. While we may not like or find perhaps much sympathy for him, we can understand his feelings and actions which are shaped by the society he lives in. Similarly Brendon Gleeson’s Detective Steed, while we naturally root against him, he represents a man who believes in the law and the natural order of things, but he is not evil or a monster, he too is shaped by a patriarchal society.

This is certainly one of the strengths of the film, we are forced to acknowledge that this is our history, these are our ancestors, not heroes or villains from a fairy tale. Combined with the film’s questioning of the morality of suffragette techniques that could be branded as terrorism, the film poses moral questions and debates that historians have had for many years. There is no clear moral right and wrong, only shades of grey. Without debate women should have had the vote far earlier than they did, without debate the way the authorities dealt with women’s suffrage supporters both suffragettes and suffragists was wrong but were the suffragettes right to act in the way they did? The film does not give an answer for this question, instead it gives us the viewpoints and leaves us to decide. It is that which makes this film so brilliant. Whether as a viewer we agree with it or not, Maud gives us perhaps the most powerful answer a suffragette would give, and one we should certainly think upon:

We break windows… We burn things; cos war is the only language men listen to… cos you’ve beaten us and betrayed us… and there’s nothin’ else left.

Too Much Too Young- The Specials, Ska and West Brom!

As part of our music month, I am posting about a song which very much not only paints a picture of the political scene at the time, but showed a new movement arising in the urban hubs. The song I am talking about of course, is Too Much Too Young by the Specials, a band based in the Midlands and was one of the many taking advantage of the changing political landscape and the views of the time. As a band, they were one of the few to have both black and white members, which at the time in the late 70’s/early 80’s of Britain, this was a very weird thing to happen. Here is the song:

Too Much Too Young Lyrics by the Specials

Music and youth culture went hand in hand like bread and butter, and with the generation coming through containing a lot of the common wealth nations such as Jamaicans and more Asians mixing with the white children; it was a mixed society where the rules were broken and the club scene was somewhere you could not only let your thoughts be known but also to let your hair down. The club scene itself was often playing what was known as Ska music, which had its roots from Jamaica. The Specials used the Ska beat to vent their frustrations and the dissatisfactions of the British underclass growing up out of sight and mind on bleak and soulless inner-city council estates.

Image of the Specials

In this song in particular, we are hearing the dissatisfaction with the welfare state, how far too many young girls are getting children too early and missing out on the fun that could be had at the time. The title itself, Too Much Too Young, further illustrates that the society at this age were doing far much more than was perhaps expected of them, and in a way throwing their lives away before they had lived their lives to the way that they should have done. But the effect the lyrics had on the society which listened to them created an obvious message that this was the generation that were going to enjoy their lives; they weren’t going to live by the norms of getting a job, having a family. Instead they would party until the sun rose and not have any regrets about doing so. Even the build up of the band, with 2 Jamaicans and the bands colour scheme of black and white made the racist society look outdated. The Specials helped to create a new idea which many generations since have followed.

Image of some of the National Front activities in 1980’s England

The fact that at the time, the current political climate was full of massive demonstrations about putting a cap on the amount of migrants allowed to come into the country doesn’t sound too dissimilar to today. However it was an awful lot more violent, with groups such as the National Front regularly demonstrating against anybody that wasn’t a white Briton. The fact that groups such as The Specials so openly promoted integration amongst races would have angered a lot of the Front’s members. However it wasn’t just The Specials that were making big moves to integrate the blacks amongst the white community. Further down the road in the West Midlands, football club West Bromwich Albion had their own idea on how to integrate the races.

Image of the band- The Three Degrees on their tour of the UK, with West Brom players Laurie Cunningham, Brendon Batson and Cyrille Regis.

West Brom was a normal football club like many other: managed by a good manager in Ron Atkinson, they were playing competitive football at the highest level in England. However what made them different from most other teams was the fact that they were the first team to play more than one black player at a time, and they were regularly integrating with the squad. The amount of pressure that must have been on Cyrille Regis, (a brilliant striker who had a hunger for goals he regularly tended to), Laurie Cunningham, (a pacey midfielder who flew whilst on the ball and who was taken from us too early), and Brendon Batson, (a solid defender and who would later become an important member of the Players Football Association), is hard to imagine. These were the men that led the football of the late 1970’s early 1980’s forward, showing not just the fans but the players and the manager themselves that it could be done, and not only that but that they can play football.

Laurie Cunningham floating over the pitch

After reading the Three Degrees- The Men Who Changed British Football Forever by Paul Rees, I was struck by just how much not only these 3 men but the music of the time had on the society around them. Cunningham himself helped destroy the racial stereotypes in society around him but having a white girlfriend with whom he regularly went out with every weekend on the Birmingham club scene. He also became such a good footballer that he played for Real Madrid, one of the biggest teams in the World. Both Cunningham and Regis further emphasised that a mixed community worked by representing England on a number of occasions, letting their feet do the talking. In Rees book he regularly talks of the fact that Cunningham would let his feet do the talking, and although he was subject to an awful lot of racist abuse, he would consistently silence his doubters with his skill.

Video showing the skill and grace of Laurie Cunningham

The trio at West Brom and the music acts like The Specials all helped to change a period of racial prejudice and create a new period  rebelling against the system and acceptance of certain aspects at the same time. Too Much Too Young made not only people dance but think about their own lives and make them think of themselves. The fact it is convincing them not to get held down too early by family, marriage and life illustrates a changing shift at the time. It was songs like Too Much Too Young which really did help to shape a generation.  With the music and the way that football was changing, it has helped improve both society and the outlook on race within this country. If you have time, I would suggest reading the Three Degrees, it is an excellent book, talking not just about the football but the cultural significance of these 3 great football players and the spirit of the Midlands music scene.

I hope you have enjoyed reading this blog, and I hope you enjoy the rest of WUHstry’s music month.

Women’s Suffrage and the First World War

When war was declared in August 1914 the women’s suffrage campaign had been going on for fifty years. Some historians have argued women were close to achieving their aims while others have argued that women were no closer than previous years. However it is undeniable that the women’s suffrage campaign was radically interrupted by the onset of the war. The different suffrage organisations had different approaches. These approaches are important in our understanding of the beliefs and the women involved.

The most famous women’s suffrage organisation, the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) led by Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughter Christabel, took one of the most interesting and radical approaches. WSPU members, labelled suffragettes, had taken militant action in their fight for women’s suffrage in the years since 1910 and were deeply unpopular amongst many in the government. Therefore their role during the First World War would come as a shock. Upon the outbreak of the war Emmeline Pankhurst ordered that all activities relating to women’s suffrage would cease and the WSPU would concentrate on the war effort. The WSPU became engaged in the war effort by becoming directly involved with the recruitment of the armed forces, by surprisingly becoming closely involved with the government. They allowed the funds raised by the WSPU for women’s suffrage to be used for the war effort, to the anger of many in the organisation. With such actions along with an increasingly jingoistic rhetoric, the WSPU began to split. Many left and two new organisations were formed: Suffragettes of the Women’s Social Political Union (SWSPU) and the Independent Women’s Social and Political Union (IWSPU). Neither of these two organisations made much of an impact. What remained of the WSPU dropped their newspaper The Suffragette in 1915 for a new newspaper The Britannia. Finally in 1917, the WSPU disbanded and became the Women’s Party.

The National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) was the much larger organisation, although in popular memory the refusal to take part in militant activities and adopt a peaceful approach meant it has often been forgotten in comparison. Led by Millicent Fawcett the organisation was divided by the outbreak of the war. Up until a month before the war began, the NUWSS had been arguing for mediation attempts to prevent the war. However upon the outbreak of the war, Fawcett adopted the position of supporting the war effort. This was partly as an attempt to gain more support for the cause of women’s suffrage as one of the popular arguments against women’s suffrage was that women could not be trusted to vote, as they were pacifists. This led to divisions in the organisation which resulted in a split in the organisation. All of the national officers barring Fawcett and the treasurer resigned in protest against the position that the NUWSS took on the war. Most of these women joined groups focused on promoting peace.

Despite the support for the war the NUWSS gave, the organisation was never as jingoistic or as involved in the political side of the war as the WSPU was. The NUWSS focused on the role of women in the war. It contributed to the setting up of hospitals and employment of nurses. Similarly within the UK it organised registers for unemployed women to find them wartime work such as in munitions and as bus conductors.

Nevertheless the NUWSS did not abandon women’s suffrage entirely. Many branches of the organisation continued to demonstrate and petition in favour of women’s suffrage. The organisation also retained its structure which allowed it to quickly return to its campaign for suffrage.

The East London Federation of Suffragettes (ELFS) was an offshoot of the WSPU originally set up in 1913 by Emmeline Pankhurst’s middle daughter, Sylvia Pankhurst. The ELFS was unique in that its members and focus was on working class women rather than the middle and upper class women that dominated the movement. By 1914 the ELFS had become a separate organisation, leaving the WSPU over ideology. The outbreak of the war further drove Sylvia away from her mother and her sister Christabel, compared to their jingoistic nationalism Sylvia was a pacifist and the ELFS took an anti-war stance. The organisation focused on protesting against conscription and supporting working class women affected by the war. They campaigned against measures that tried to limit financial support to the wives of soldiers and also embarked on a number of charitable endeavours such as a toy factory and cut price restaurants. Many of those involved in the ELFS were drawn to socialism and communism with the organisation supporting the 1916 Irish Risings and the October Revolution in 1917. This led to the various name changes the organisation underwent, as did the organisation moving from focusing on women’s suffrage, to universal suffrage for all whom yet to have the vote. The organisation would continue to change its name and merge with various groups until after the war.

The Women’s Freedom League, created by a group of dissatisfied former WSPU members in 1907, like the ELFS were also anti-war. They were by no means as radical as the ELFS, the Women’s Freedom League warned that one of its leading members Charlotte Despard strong pacifist views were not their own. They were however concerned that their members would abandon the struggle for suffrage because of the war, and tried to encourage their members to continue. Their activities were limited by the war and like other women’s suffrage organisations they focused on a number of voluntary activities such as setting up the Women’s Police Volunteers and Woman’s Suffrage National Aid Corps.

Partial women’s suffrage was achieved in 1918, allowing women over the age of 30 who met certain criteria to vote. The fight for women’s suffrage would not be achieved until 1928, when women received equal voting rights with men. The contribution of women during the war has often been given as a reason for women finally being granted the vote. Many women who did volunteer or worked during the war were those who did not gain the vote as they were under 30 and failed to meet the conditions of being married to, or being a member of the Local Government Register or being the owner of property. Around 22% of women over the age of 30 therefore were exempt. Therefore it can be argued that the work of women and the contribution during the war from the women’s suffrage organisations did not achieve them the vote. These contributions however are important to remember not just in the history of the First World War but in the history of women’s suffrage. Such contributions could be seen as the women’s suffrage campaign’s reply to their detractors. However it also illustrates the differences between the women’s movements. It highlights that the women’s suffrage movement was by no means a monolithic movement, neither was it a neat split between those who believed in militant action and those who did not. It shows that some involved in the movement were solely preoccupied with gaining suffrage for themselves; some believed women’s suffrage was instrumental for ending war and violence and others saw women’s suffrage as part of an ideological belief of bettering society and creating equality. Thus the actions of suffragists and suffragettes during the First World War are an important element in the study of women’s suffrage in the UK.


Bartley, P., Votes For Women (London, 2007).

Smith, H. L., The British Women’s Suffrage Campaign 1866-1928 (Harlow, 2010).


‘Oh Dear, I Think I’m Becoming A God’: Vespasian and the Divine

Throughout his decade-long reign from AD 69 to 79, Vespasian actively refuted any claims of divinity and moves toward an imperial cult within the borders of Rome, but made little attempt to dispel divine worship of himself in the provinces in a bid to reinforce the central focus on Rome and the emperor as an individual to barbarian outsiders. Despite this lack of faith in his divine rule, Vespasian encouraged the existence of the imperial cult in the provinces, mirroring the moves of Augustus to solidify his reign following his controversial ascendency to imperial power through desperate civil war and affirmation by the army. Vespasian’s last words, rumoured to be ‘Vae, puto deus fio’ – ‘oh dear, I think I’m becoming a god’ – proved the emperor’s humility towards his assumed divine rule even at the brink of death, despite all outside endeavours to prove otherwise.

The first emperor to hail from the equestrian Flavian dynasty, Vespasian could not adhere himself to the well-reported divine rule of the preceding Julio-Claudian dynasty, as his family were significantly obscure and possessed little acclaim. Worse still, his family originated from Gaul and the emperor spoke with a peasant’s accent, undeniably a provincial emperor with even less claim to Romanitas than his predecessors in need of divine ancestry. In attempts to attest to Vespasian’s divinity through other means, Tacitus claimed the prosperous affairs and ‘chance happenings’ of his life were omens sent to prove his divine right to rule. Vespasian was said to have possessed numen, which can be received by animals and inanimate objects, through Suetonius’ account of an ox which broke free of its yoke to burst into Vespasian’s dining room and bow its head at his feet, implying the process of freeing Rome from tyranny and submitting to a new welcome ruler. This sign of change heralded by supernatural events emerged frequently during Vespasian’s rule, such as the miraculous regrowth of a cypress tree on his grandfather’s estate after being entirely uprooted by no evident storm. Furthermore, Suetonius, however unreliably, also spoke of a stray dog which burst into Vespasian’s dining quarters and placed a severed hand at his feet, a sign to Roman society of divinity and inherent power. Vespasian himself, as quoted by Suetonius, reported of a dream before his succession that his family would come into good fortune when Nero has a tooth extracted, which happened the very next day. Having kept the personal astrologer Seleucus despite banishing astrologers from Rome, Tacitus suggests Vespasian was gradually influenced by these strange happenings surrounding his life and reign.

Regardless of the emperor’s resistance to imperial worship in the capital, the provincials sought to competitively recreate the centre of the Roman Empire to display their deference to Rome and its solitary figure of power. In an attempt to maintain his auctoritas within the empire’s provinces, which Tacitus claimed he was lacking, Vespasian’s visit to Alexandria in AD 69 witnessed his public performance of miracles in apparent collaboration with the god Serapis to maintain provincial loyalty, healing two Alexandrians, one blind and one lame, despite his own doubt in his divine power. Further to this, Vespasian reportedly had visions of an ethereal Alexandrian man Basildes proffering symbols of royalty such as crowns and loaves, miraculously affirmed through a mirage. Less questionable sources include ancient pottery discovered by the locals of the Peloponnese bearing a striking likeness to Vespasian, cementing local belief in the divine interventions that led to his ascendency to imperial power. Further to this, a wax tablet discovered in Herculaneum described the tutelary deities of Vespasian’s offspring, cementing provincial belief in Vespasian’s dynastical divinity.

Vespasian’s curiosity in the rumours that the gods were on his side during his lifetime led to the action of his son and heir Titus to pursue immediate posthumous deification of Vespasian. Titus established a cult institution in the name of his father through the construction of the Temple of Vespasian near the Tabularium at Pompeii purely out of homage to his father and his efforts during his reign, a move devoid of political intentions but likely not devoid of political interpretation.

Despite a personal aversion to deification, appeals to godly ancestry and the apparent slew of omens following him throughout his lifetime, Vespasian utilised provincial interests in his divine right to rule to maintain loyalty to the imperial centre in his living years, and spent less than a year in mortal death before his successor placed his name among the deified Julio-Claudian emperors.


Henderson, Bernard William, Five Roman Emperors: Vespasian, Titus, Domitian, Nerva, Trajan, A.D. 69-117 (Cambridge, 1927).

Levick, Barbara, Vespasian (London, 1999).

Suetonius, Life of Vespasian.

Tacitus, Vespasian.

Scott, K., The Imperial Cult Under the Flavians (New York, 1975).

Victors of Circumstance – The Rise of Chinese Communism

The Chinese Communist Party, formally born in 1921 and reinvigorated by the victory of Mao Zedong in 1949, succeeded not only out of its political ingenuity and advances, but also through the failures and shortcomings of its competitors and enemies. Mao’s inspirational rhetoric on 1st October 1949 claimed that with the reign of the People’s Republic of China, the old China had died and New China was born, and with his dramatic social revolution in the face of dire socio-economic conditions and pleas to nationalism following the destruction of the Sino-Japanese war, it is clear how the CCP gained extraordinary public support throughout the Chinese nation. However, the widespread public disillusionment with the failures of the Nationalist party, the Guomindang, led them to support the only political opponent as the ultimate protest vote.

Historians are in general agreement that the communists succeeded from their own actions, but are divided on which actions secured their victory in 1949. It is widely agreed that the Sino-Japanese war played a crucial role in the mobilization of the Chinese people towards the communist party, simply through appealing to Chinese nationalism, which had taken a crippling blow as a result of the bloodshed witnessed by Nanjing in 1937, putting the Chinese in an extremely vulnerable and threatened position under the Japanese. The war seemingly defined China as a reinvigorated country and supplied them with the military unification they so desperately required to mobilise and unite the population. At the outbreak of war in 1937, the Chinese Communist Party and the Guomindang formed a second attempt at a United Front, where ‘the CCP agreed to abandon its radical land reform policy in favour of one of rent reduction’ to keep the peace. However, relations soon grew sour with communist expansion to the north and resulted in a return to hostilities, but the peaceful years had allowed the communists to grow significantly in influential territory and numbers, while their power as ‘heroic resisters against fascism’ had been witnessed by foreign visitors to Yan’an in that time. In 1941, the rectification movement saw the student faction’s last stand, which aided the communist movement’s political leadership by Mao and his theologies that sparked the movement. The communist party successfully implemented methods to enforce political orthodoxy such as self-criticism and written confessions which became key to future movements led by Mao, the majority of which succeeded through this technique which, through public admittance, gained sympathy and unwavering support.

The most attractive element of the communist party was their appeal to peasants and workers alike, launching workers’ strikes, local uprisings and army mutinies in February 1930. Mao Zedong prioritised the importance of social revolution under communism, and emphasised peasants education on matters such as government and politics, creating people’s councils in villages which invited all adults to vote regardless of class, while subsequently encouraging sub-associations to represent women and young people in local governments. To the population, Mao and the communists were appealing to them as no party had before. The party achieved their goals through the peasantry who had been their best defence against the Japanese in the years before, and sought to appease them through acting both ‘for the sake of the peasantry’ and ‘on the side of the peasantry’, the latter of which had proved more successful.

The communists succeeded as a party as well as a triumphant political victor through persistence and strong leadership. Under the control of Mao Zedong, his policies and determination as shown specifically in the 1940s shows a defiance in the party which may not have succeeded in his absence. Mao, a charismatic and defiant character with communism coursing through his veins, lay his priorities with the peasantry, the foundations for a powerful political control. In the face of opposition by the Guomindang which withdrew funding for communist troops and economically blockaded communist-controlled areas, drastically reducing CCP controlled population by 19 million between 1940 and 1942, Mao refused to accept defeat. He administered Border Regions to mobilise the communist populations, increasing industrial production, reducing militia and in turn reducing government expenses and encouraging peasant-led co-operative trades, much to the approval of members of all classes, having previously become disillusioned with the Guomindang who had slowly alienated students, as shown in the May 4th Movement of 1919 by intellectuals and the urban bourgeoisie. Spectacular movements such as these brought wide-eyed attention from the watching Chinese population, demonstrating that the CCP were far from weak, and could hold their own in conflicts with the Nationalists.

In the face of ‘the final extermination’ at the hands of Chiang Kai-shek in 1925, Mao’s defiance and refusal to accept defeat led to his return to Hunan where he gathered peasant support and consequently launched the Autumn Harvest Uprising, however largely unsuccessful, this bought the CCP most of Kiangsi province territory to fund what would be renowned as The Long March from 1934 to 1935. The 6,000 mile journey brought a positive reception from communities they passed through due to the communists’ respectful behaviour unrivalled by the Nationalists. However embroidered with mythical tales of heroic bravery in the face of adversity, for example the Luting Bridge of chains and fire, the realistic race of the communist forces against the Guomindang from Kiangsi province to the Shensi province marked the loss of 270,000 communist lives, but also a milestone in the party’s development as a formidable political and military enemy, the crux of their struggle for eventual victory. The historian Johnson elaborates that, alongside the militia, the emphasis on guerilla warfare in Mao’s approaches advanced the support of the communist party, in Mao’s words ‘because guerilla warfare basically derives from the masses and is supported by them, it can neither exist nor flourish if it separates itself from their sympathies and cooperation’. The CCP emerged well-equipped to capitalise on the Sino-Japanese war following a decade of guerilla warfare development while the Guomindang emerged war-weary and exhausted.

The historian John Roberts details that, among support in the countryside and the takeover of China’s main cities, the success of the CCP can be accredited to their victory in Manchuria. In 1948, Manchuria was the first state to accept the communist approach, following a vigorous battle since 1945 for ownership between the GMD and the communists, vying to claim the most developed industrial region in China since the Japanese invasion left behind an impressive infrastructure. The communist party had offered the countryside a revolutionary land reform that was to be expanded in 1950 following their victory. Taxes and services provided by the peasants in terms of food, labour and military industry would be repaid in land and other forms of wealth confiscated from the old elite. Despite the contentment of the civilians, however, the Guomindang returned armed and the consequent bloody Manchurian campaign took a drastic toll on Chiang Kai-shek’s forces, primarily through casualties and large numbers of desertions to the communist party in Lin Bao’s Fourth Field Army. Following this unanimous defeat assisted also by the rallying of northern Chinese peasants against the Guomindang, Chiang Kai-shek and his two million troops were forced to retreat from the mainland to Taiwan. While this would be assumed as a communist victory, the Guomindang did not disintegrate entirely despite the successes of communism.

Alongside the communists’ advantages were the Guomindang’s shortcomings which helped elevate the CCP to power in 1949. The Guomindang had remained untrustworthy in the eyes of the public for some time, as the May 4th Movement of 1919 demonstrated. Considered the first mass public movement of modern Chinese history, the movement brought to light public concerns with the Guomindang government’s plans for the future of the nation. The peasant population had been unsettled by the GMD’s compromises with intellectuals on who should be taxed and how, followed by the military conscription and heavy taxes brought into effect, the Nationalist government slowly lost its life force and public backing. Upon Sun Yat-sen’s death and Chiang Kai-shek’s consequent control in 1925, the Guomindang turned against their communist allies and sought to subdue the party, commencing the ‘final extermination’ of communist territories. The Guomindang’s response to the Sino-Japanese war further discredited their governing tactics in the eyes of the peasants as the opposing party that did not support Chinese foreign superiority and ultimate independence. Rampant inflation hindered the public’s trust, primarily the middle classes, in the Guomindang’s control of the economy. Having grown exhausted from incessant conflicts, Guomindang members had corrupted the party from the inside, and as a consequence financial scandals gradually lost the party its favour, losing both the party and its armies the will to rule, as opposed to the communists’ unwavering morale and incorruptible structure.

A debate raised by Wasserstrom questions whether there was even a revolution when the communists came to power in 1949, suggesting the drastic developments in Chinese society following the formation of the People’s Republic of China could not be directly or indirectly attributed to Mao’s victory. Wasserstrom also suggests that the changes brought forward by the communist victory would have been supported and implemented by their opponents in the GMD without such drastic methods, for example the complete eradication of the waning influence of foreign imperialism which led to the re-establishment of a central government control over Chinese territory, which was welcomed by the population after almost a hundred years of partial sovereignty and political state division. This in turn brought the reinstatement of domestic peace and agreement following years of civil warfare and overseas conflicts, and, closer to home, the work force was more than twice the size it had previously remained. Mao’s insistence on educational expansion brought literacy to all echelons of Chinese society, plus the drastically required improvements in public healthcare which consequently led to a growth in population. All aspects of Chinese society at the time were expanding, improving and moving forward with the age of the New China as Mao promised.

By 1947, the CCP had mobilised to advance on Beijing in January 1949, and by October, the Gate of Heavenly Peace begged an audience for Mao Zedong’s proclamation of ‘the birth of the new People’s Republic of China and to declare that China had stood up’, announcing the communist victory with a promise of nationalist rejuvenation and ultimate Chinese independence. While communism marched to victory in 1949, the party’s continued existence to this day stands as an effective memorial to their successes of that year. As a result of their encouragement of popular political protests which earned the population much-needed government alterations, attractive policies such as land reform appealing to every echelon of society, and their strategic territory occupations, the Chinese Communist Party earned its successes but its ultimate victory can be strongly attributed to the long-term failures of the opposing Nationalist government.


Davin, Delia, Mao Zedong (Gloucestershire, 1997).
Eastman, Lloyd E., Seeds Of Destruction: Nationalist China In War And Revolution (California, 2002).
Goldston, Robert, The Long March (London, 1972).
Johnson, Chalmers A., Peasant Nationalism and Communist Power (California, 1962).
Karl, Rebecca E., Mao Zedong and China in the Twentieth-Century World (London, 2010).
Mackerras, Colin, China In Transformation 1900-1949 (New York, 1998).
Moise, Edwin E., Modern China: A History (Harlow, 1986).
Pepper, Suzanne, Civil War in China: The Political Struggle, 1945-1949 (London, 1978).
Roberts, J.A.G., Modern China: An Illustrated History (Gloucestershire, 2000).
Sheridan, James E., China In Disintegration: The Republican Era In Chinese History 1912-1949 (New York, 1975).
Wasserstrom, Jeffrey N., Twentieth-Century China: New Approaches (London, 2003).

Zhao Ziyang – The Tiananmen Catalyst

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The ideological black sheep of the Chinese Communist Party during the 1980s, Zhao Ziyang was ultimately held in view by the party as a significant cause of the Tiananmen Square protests that led to the massacre of June 3rd and 4th 1989, resulting in the deaths of an unknown number of students, labourers and Beijing citizens.

Born on 17th October 1919, Zhao Xiuye’s wealthy landlord father was murdered in the process of land reforms undertaken by the Chinese Communist Party in the 1940s. However, Zhao confirmed his support of the party’s cause in joining the Communist Youth League in 1932 and progressed to party membership just five years later. Following the death of Mao and the subsequent power struggle resulting in Deng Xiaoping’s takeover, new agricultural reforms to paper over the cracks began in 1979 in the province of Sichuan, where Zhao Ziyang was provincial party secretary. That year, Zhao was rewarded for his achievements in the successful implementation of the reforms, accepting a promotion to Politburo membership in September. Zhao was promoted to vice premier in April 1980 and replaced Hua Guofeng as premier of the State Council 6 months later. This dramatic succession through the ranks was to foreshadow the speed at which Zhao was to be dropped from the party less than a decade later.

The political hierarchy constructed around Premier Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s was built through an intense shared opposition to Mao Tse-tung’s Cultural Revolution that claimed millions of Chinese lives in the 1950s. Deng surrounded himself with a faction of rehabilitated cadres who had felt the direct effects of the revolution, but they were a diverse and conflicting group who rarely saw eye to eye. Zhao Ziyang was particularly deserted, an economic pragmatist who found a strong sympathy for the student population, just as Mao had before him. Zhao became Deng Xiaoping’s protégé through his time in the party, standing in the liberal reformist corner of Deng’s ‘practice faction’ alongside Chen Yun, both of whom were concerned with the maintenance of central administrative control, however the two rarely found similarities beyond that. Zhao evolved into the active opposite of Chen in that he developed a drastically experimental and defiant approach to his political interests, as opposed to Chen’s docile personality. Zhao also definitively failed to appeal to Hu Yaobang, expressing a preference for the input methods of reform socialism that the party had been enacting since 1949. Despite his sympathy towards the student movements, Zhao found himself significantly intolerant of the media, journalists and writers who took certain liberties with the information they held, the contrast to Hu Yaobang’s acceptance.

The days that precluded the Tiananmen Square massacre on June 4th 1989 were to hammer the nails into Zhao Ziyang’s political coffin. Zhao was known for speaking out against the widespread corruption and embezzlement that fraught the party’s mobilisation, and as such sympathised with the student factions during the Beijing Spring of 1989. The controversial Tiananmen Papers solidify the suspicion that Zhao Ziyang supported the student causes against the majority wishes of the party, explaining that backing the students would in turn advance the party’s reforms after a period of political stagnation.

Although Zhao and comrade Hu Yaobang had failed to agree on many political occasions, which was often a result of their competition to take over the party following Deng Xiaoping, Zhao’s eulogy at Hu’s funeral on 22nd April 1989 described his comrade as ‘a great Marxist’, words which were met with unrest among party officials. The ceremony attracted 100,000 onlookers, most of whom were students who began demonstrations immediately following the ceremony, demanding an audience with government officials on their qualms against the corruption and economic chaos caused by the party in recent years. The party responded with an agreement to end the mourning period for Hu Yaobang prematurely, a decision which was opposed only by Zhao Ziyang, Wan Li and a small handful of others. Zhao promptly left for an arranged visit to North Korea the following day, and in his absence the party stirred against his increasingly bold activities. Confirming their concerns, upon his return Zhao headed directly for an audience with Deng Xiaoping to convey his disagreement with the party’s responses to the students, with his particular objection directed towards the April 26th editorial published in the People’s Daily which denounced the student movements as ‘turmoil’ that the party felt compelled to suppress with the implementation of martial law, condemning the suppression of the movements as ‘unwise’. Deng, in the name of prioritising stability, allowed Zhao to attempt his softer approach should the students push further. On May 4th, Zhao publicly announced that he believed the students were simply demanding that the party should correct their malpractices, in the hope that an announcement of the party’s calm reception of the demands would in turn calm the movements, yet this further strengthened them in revealing the clear divisions in opinions amongst the party leaders, which was exactly the students’ purpose for protest in the first place. As time passed rapidly in the student unrest, the students demands changed too fast for the party to respond in time and to an acceptable standard, as such the cracks appeared to show at an alarming rate. Zhao’s desertion was most prominent in his proposals made at the May 16th meeting of the Politburo Standing Committee, offering to retract the April 26th editorial and establish an investigatory organisation to look into party corruption, a proposal which was voted down four to one, even by Zhao’s oldest ally Hu Qili. It would soon be proved that the committee did not overwhelmingly dismiss Zhao’s proposals, but turned the concept of an audit on all private business companies into an audit on Zhao and the students instead.

It was on May 17th that Zhao personally acknowledged the patriotism with which the students moved and subsequently promised no reprisals if they called an end to the disruptions. Zhao was seen reaching out to hunger strikers, stating that ‘there is no fundamental conflict of interests’ between the party and the students, but his words fell on deaf ears and consequent confrontations with his mentor Deng led Zhao to offer his resignation, which was swiftly rejected as a public signal of a divide within the party that would provoke the volatile students further. Directly after the meeting, Zhao asked to be driven to Tiananmen Square, and through a megaphone he acted his last as general secretary, informing the congregated hunger strikers: ‘we’ve come too late’, Li Peng’s martial law had been given the go-ahead.

On the night of June 3rd 1989, protests broke out in Tiananmen Square alongside other university cities. People’s Liberation Army tanks surrounded the activists, consisting of docile students, enraged labourers and Beijing citizens. The first fatal shots were fired at 10:45pm under orders to clear Tiananmen Square by dawn the next day or face the threat of military reprimand, and the final shots fired just before 5:00am. The government would officially declare 6 PLA soldier fatalities and 1,114 injuries as the people fought back with makeshift weapons, whereas there is no existing reliable figure of civilian casualties but it is assumed to be in the hundreds.

Accused of neglecting the Party elders and Deng Xiaoping in particular through “surrendering to the bourgeoisie”, Zhao was exiled from the Party through the Fourth Plenum in late June and placed under house arrest. Zhao Ziyang died under close observation in Beijing in 2005, and was denied the funerary rites owed to communist party members. In an attempt to subdue a social and political fire, Zhao’s efforts simply directly stoked the flames, with fatal consequences.


Richard Baum, Burying Mao: Chinese Politics in the Age of Deng Xiaoping (New Jersey, 1994)

John Gittings, The Changing Face of China: From Mao to Market (Oxford, 2006)

Zhang Liang, The Tiananmen Papers (London, 2001)

Lost Causes: Levellers.

For the final post of our lost causes month we shall be looking at the Levellers, a group of rebels during England’s Civil War 1642-1651, who as a political movement attempted to bring ‘religious toleration, law reform, free trade, an extension to the voting franchise, and rights guaranteed under a written constitution and a government answerable to the People rather than to King or Parliament. As we can see by their ideals and political desires, the Levellers’, were well ahead of their time, and perhaps this is why they can be considered as a lost cause. In my opinion history rarely changes over night and if it does then it’s usually as a result of all the little factors building up and then finally exploding. This doesn’t happen in the case of the Levellers’ instead it could be considered as too much too soon and therefore they can be included in June’s L for lost causes that also begin with L month. However we mustn’t simply assign them to the Lost causes pile as I think that would neglect, another L –word, their Legacy which arguably has had influence on many political thoughts and ideas even today.

What’s in a name?

The name Levellers comes was first used to describe a section of Cromwell’s New Model Army who along with their London supporters wished to kill King Charles I of England. However it was later applied to a group of radicals under the leadership of John Lilburne, Richard Overton and William Walwyn. The name Levellers’ came from the idea that all the members of this faction wanted to bring everyone down to a common level; however it wasn’t originally used by the leaders of the group but it was later adopted by the group as the majority of the people recognised and by the time of their arrest and imprisonment in 1649 the current leaders Walwyn, Overton, Lilburne and Thomas Prince signed a manifesto in which they called themselves Levellers.

Political ideologies’

The Levellers had no set agenda, other than a broad commitment to the general good principles of abolition of corruption, religious toleration, having the Law in the common English that everyone could understand, and finally an extension of the Suffrage franchise. However these ideas changed over time with other ideas becoming more important such as the idea that the English common law and the Magna Carta was the foundation of English rights and liberties. Lastly they also believed in the idea of “natural rights”, where the people have certain right and liberties which they believed to have been violated by the king and his followers during the civil war. However what natural rights actually stood for remains ambiguous, with Thomas Rainsborough defining natural rights as those coming from the Bible, and Richard Overton considered that liberty was a part of everyman’s natural rights Therefore the Levellers cause can be considered as a lost one because what they wanted politically could be suggested as semi utopian ideals which weren’t not unpractical for the time, just a case perhaps of too much too soon.

Background and events

The Levellers began by handing out leaflets about soldier’s rights, along with extensions to the political franchise, as whilst the soldiers were fighting for parliament only a small amount actually could vote for it, and this is continued with the ideas that members of the House of Commons shouldn’t be allowed t serve for more than a year at a time as they were too corrupt. By 165 an official levelled party had been established under John Lilburne, John Wildman, Richard Overton and William Walwyn, asking for their political desires and the abolition of the monarchy and the house of lords, trial by jury and an end to the tax on people earning less than £30 a year (imagine that having no tax). The Levellers also had their own newspaper The Moderate and organised petitions as a demonstration of their supporters.

The Levellers are perhaps best known for their document An Agreement of the People 1647, a proposal created with the Agitators of the new model army. The document stated that all sovereign power should reside with the people of England instead of the monarchy; members of parliament should be elected in probation to the population of their constituencies; the existing parliament should be dissolved on the 30th of September 1648 and be elected biannual and sit every other year between April and September consisting of a single elected house which would act as the supreme authority within England, although there were limits to its power as it couldn’t interfere with freedom of religion and it couldn’t enforce conscription into the armed forces or prosecute anyone for their part in the civil war. The document was debated at the Putney Debates (October and November 1647) with Cromwell and Ireton trying to limit perceived extremism of the Levellers. A second extended version of the agreement was created after King Charles I’s defeat, by John Lilburne hoping to find a middle way between royal despotism and military dictatorship however they failed to achieve a complete document that could be used as the legal constitution when the king was put on trial in January 1649. A final agreement was created in May 1649 it included the following;
• The right to vote for all men over the age of 21 (excepting servants, beggars and Royalists)
• No army officer, treasurer or lawyer could be an MP (to prevent conflict of interest)
• Annual elections to Parliament with MPs serving one term only
• Equality of all persons before the law
• Trials should be heard before 12 jurymen, freely chosen by their community
• No-one could be punished for refusing to testify against themselves in criminal cases
• The law should proceed in English and cases should not extend longer than six months
• The death penalty to be applied only in cases of murder
• Abolition of imprisonment for debt
• Tithes should be abolished and parishioners have the right to choose their ministers
• Taxation in proportion to real or personal property
• Abolition of military conscription, monopolies and excise taxes

This final document was created whilst Liburne, Overton, Walwyn and Prince were under arrest by order of the Council of state and just before the army leveller s were suppressed as Burford, and these actions effectively put an end to the somewhat idealistic leveller movement.

The Levellers although considered a radical group politically were perhaps not as radical as they could have been actively as Oliver Cromwell and Fairfax were able to keep control of the Levellers in the army during the second civil war (). However it was in government that they caused the most problems, coming into conflict with the council of state and later growing unrest by the army Levellers over plans for the state invasion of Ireland leading to munities in April and May 1649. Heres were suppressed by Cromwell and Fairfax which lead to a decline of the Levellers influence as a result of no longer having the army to support them.

Although the movement itself was over by the end of 1649, some of the more radical members became involved in conspiracies’ to overthrow the Crowellian regime, which was regarded then as a betrayal of the principles which the civil war was fought over.

Therefore are the Levellers a lost cause, hmm it depends on your view of lost cause. Does lost cause apply to; something that was ahead of its time and therefore it is lost cause because it was never going to achieve much, even though world at that time was in a state of disarray that it could have achieved its goals if it had more support; or is it lost in that its simply forgotten or overlooked as a result of the wider picture of history and finally does the legacy of the Levellers over rule all of this, and leave you as a reader wondering why I covered this in the Lost Causes month.

My own thought is that the Levellers whilst I can see how they can be considered as a lost cause, I don’t think that they are one because, they can be demonstrated the beginnings of a wider perhaps more socialist movement and their political legacy and influence in this case has opened the way, albeit eventually, to greater equality . To conclude I would say the Levellers are a lost cause as in forgotten but not a lost cause overall, but feel free to comment if you agree or disagree all constructive comments are welcome.

Sophie 🙂


Chronicle of Two Announced Deaths

If you are a would-to-be revolutionary, it is in fact an extremely big irony to name your movement in remembrance of the leader of one of the most famous, and most obviously, lost causes in History. Well, that exactly is what Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, leaders of the extreme left-wing of the German Social-democrat Party, did when they, and some other party members, decided to make their move in the wake of the Soviet Russian Revolution. They called themselves “The Spartakist League”.

Surely choosing a name is not bound to be so decisive as to mark the fate of a group. But in this particular case, it pervades the constant sensation that Fate had quite a lot to do with the Spartakists and their pitiful end. Somewhat, it was announced in the very name: a glorious revolt, an overwhelming counter-stroke, an ignominious defeat, a horrible death.

When the Spartakists set sail in 1916 they thought their moment coming: something great was happening there in Russia and, amidst the atrocities of war, winds of change were gathering momentum in Germany too. So they took their own road to the left, trying to ride on the increasing malcontent of the population, the scarcities of wartime economy, the suffering of broken families, all the grief and suffering of a long and ever more and more unpopular war which, in their opinion, was mostly taking place at the expenses of the working class.

They relentlessly worked against war until this was over. But that was not the end of the story. For them, it was just the beginning. The Russians had been capable of starting a Revolution, and making it succeed, in the middle of a not particularly successful war; so the most learned German workers must be able to achieved the same goal and beyond now that the war was finally over. Or so they said…

Their leaders, in fact, were saying quite a different thing. They were saying” we must wait”. They were saying not all working class was in favour of revolution; they knew some order was utterly needed, and wanted, after four seemingly never-ending years of cruel fighting and hardships. They wanted to help in the recovering, then use their new strength to gain power. They even must had sensed something, because, judiciously, they changed names to the more standardised (and probably safer, as it showed later) German Communist Party. Leibnekcht and Luxemburg were able politicians of the revolutionary kind,strong-minded and idealistic, yes, but with enough hindsight as to see where their country was moving and how that would affect their party if they were not to follow. But they were not listened to.

As it was, they even didn’t start the revolts. They were willing, that’s for sure, but with a worn down country and the need for some balance after such a long conflict, patience prevailed at the beginning. Anyway, as in Russia before, leftist forces formed a Soviet Congress and opposed Government. The spark for final confrontation was triggered by the pretension of the revolutionaries that the Army would be dismissed as a whole and then replaced with troops selected exclusively by the Soviet. Not being possible to be an acting Government and at the same time putting up with this kind of demands, Chancellor Ebert refused.
In this precise moment, first week 1919, the Spartakists decided that it was about time to give support to the revolution, probably in the idea that it was the best way to control it, and most probably without any direct support from neither Leibnekcht nor Luxemburg. So, united, the German left sent the so-called “Popular Navy Division”(involved in the rebellion which had led to the end of the war) to seize control of the Government Building. So they did, but the energetic response of Ebert, who called in the loyal Potsdam garrison, frustrated their intentions and they got back to their quarters.

Thus, on January 10, 1919, started the final act of this drama, when the Army and the non regular, extreme right-wing troops called “Freikorps” initiated the retaliation. Then ensued what is now known as the “Bloody Week”: the revolt was suppressed with extreme alacrity and appalling violence, specially against the Spartakists who were seen as instigators if not as the master mind behind the curtains, and, above all, were obviously the more coherent, best leaded revolutionary force. A Heaven sent opportunity to erase a major political enemy.

Leibnekcht and Luxemburg were both murdered, as were lots of anonymous citizens whose crime, as it was, had been trying to achieve a better world, or at least what they believed to be a better world after all the suffering that WWI brought to Europe. Closing the circle of irony, and the jokes of Fate, what happened to their bodies was never disclosed. Just as it happened to Spartacus.