The statue wars

Some people – and by that I mean some Tories – have whipped themselves up into a frenzy over the issue of statues.

The pages of newspapers like the Daily Mail and Daily Express are full of ‘rage’ about the statues of Edward Colston in Bristol, or Cecil Rhodes at Oriel College in Oxford. Colston’s statue was toppled and tossed into the water. Rhodes’ statue remains in place, due to the college’s reluctance to take it down. This week protests have taken place in east London demanding the removal of a statue of slave-ship owner Robert Geffrye, which stands outside a museum in Shoreditch.

The Tories and their media are behaving exactly in the same way as the far Right in the USA, which grew increasingly hysterical over the possibility that statues honouring the founders of the Ku Klux Klan, or the generals who led the slave-owners’ rebellion, might come down. The infamous ‘Unite the Right’ rally in Charlottesburg, Virginia in 2017 had as its pretext an attempt to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee, the most famous of the slave-owners’ generals. This was the protest that included chants of ‘The Jews will not replace us’ and the killing of anti-fascist protestor Heather Heyer.

The more sophisticated of the right-wing defenders of the statues argue that flawed though some of these individuals may have been, the statues represent a shared history and cannot come down. The left protestors, in their view, are historical vandals. But the same right-wingers who rush to defend the likes of Cecil Rhodes or Robert E. Lee were also the first to cheer post-Communist societies when they tore down statues of Lenin. They were also delighted when Iraqis tore down statues of Saddam Hussein following the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.

The point is not that all statues need to remain standing — it’s perfectly alright to get rid of Lenin or Saddam — but statues of the heroes of the British empire cannot be allowed to come down. It’s all a bit of a double standard.

Recently Guardian columnist Gary Younge in a provocative piece has called for all statues to come down. “Take down the slave traders, imperial conquerors, colonial murderers, warmongers and genocidal exploiters,” he wrote. “But while you’re at it, take down the freedom fighters, trade unionists, human rights champions and revolutionaries.”

Socialists should not agree. There are statues that need to come down because they honour people or causes that should not be honoured, full stop. These include statues of slave-owners and the generals who defended them. They also include statues of murderous tyrants like Stalin, which incredibly are still displayed in some places. Some day the barbaric Kim dynasty that rules North Korea will fall — and with it, down will come all the gigantic statues of the dictators, to the cheers of a liberated Korean nation.

But there are also statues that should go up, in remembrance of people —and causes — which we should honour. For example, Barcelona would be enriched were it to have a statue honouring the memory of Andreu Nin, leader of the POUM, who was abducted and murdered by Stalin’s secret police in that city in 1937. Tbilisi would benefit from a statue honouring the memory of Noe Zhordania, leader of the Georgian Social Democratic Party and president of the independent republic of 1918-1921. The Polish city of Zamość, where Rosa Luxemburg was born, removed a plaque honouring her memory a couple of years ago, triggering protests. That plaque should be removed — and replaced with a statue in her memory.

And in the United States, all those statues — and there so many — of slave-owners and Confederate generals could be replaced by statues in memory of the great leaders of the civil rights movement, including Socialists and Communists like A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin, militant trade union leaders like Mother Jones, Big Bill Haywood or Joe Hill, feminists, campaigners for gay rights, and so on.

Rightist critics will claim that this is all pandering to today’s fashion. But this is nonsense. Slave-owners are no longer honoured because the vast majority of people now understand what a horror and disgrace slavery was. Honouring such men as Geffrye, Rhodes and Colston will never be fashionable again.

Socialists look forward instead to living in the kind of country that chooses to honour people like Nin, Luxemburg, Zhordania, and the others.

And yes, Trotsky too. In the centre of St. Petersburg.

This article appears in today’s issue of Solidarity.