by zola whitby rowlatt (she/her)
photograph by sophia archontis (she/her)
Robert Burns is Scotland’s national poet and his writing is still celebrated and studied across the globe centuries after his death. However, before celebrating Burn’s work over a dram or 3, it would be beneficial to examine the true political nature of the ‘Ploughman’s Poet’.
It’s broadly believed that he disliked working for the government, a position now known as HM Customs and Excise, and that the role stifled his political views. Yet newly uncovered letters from colleagues (John Mitchell, his boss, and Robert Graham) bring crucial information to light, suggesting that despite his role in the Civil Service, his progressive socialist views were an ‘open secret’. If anything, rather than being co-opted into the state apparatus, Burns’ job provided him with the means to develop an increasing fervour for political change.
His last 4 years of life (1792-1796) saw the publication of some of his most important, politically charged work. The same period of time saw dramatic parliamentary reform that, for the first time, directly involved Scottish citizens in politics. Radical views resulted in harsh judicial punishment. Hence the open secret: Burns was ‘hiding his politics in plain sight’. The notable Burns expert Professor Gerard Carruthers of the University of Glasgow said ‘this is the paradox of his life in this period: government service and a potentially sceptical attitude towards government’. He couldn’t openly raise his political voice, but in publishing his work he kept the river of reform flowing.
The Scottish National Party has sanitised Burns’ political stance to use him as a puppet in the advancement of their party, pushing the narrative that he would be pro-independence. In doing so he becomes reduced to a rhetorical resource. In A Man’s a Man For A’ That, he writes how the honest man ‘is king o’ men’ and argues against the belief that wealth equates to superiority. His use of the word ‘independent’ did not refer to national independence, rather to independence of thought. His politics stretched beyond issues of nationality.
Shouldn’t a broadly centrist party like the SNP be more honest about Burns’ radical roots? Or is it our job to incite honesty and keep Burns’ true spirit alive?
Another example of such filtration can be found in the recent film ‘Judas and the Black Messiah’. The film follows the activist Fred Hampton who was killed in his sleep by the FBI aged 21. It commemorates Hampton for his leadership of the Black Panther Party, but this was not the sole reason for his death.
From a young age Hampton was deeply involved in the fight for black rights, however an accurate representation of his life would include his anti-capitalist politics. He was a revolutionary, jailed for 2 years for stealing $71 worth of ice cream to give to little kids in the street. His party upheld Marxist-Leninist politics; ‘Nothing is more important than stopping fascism, because fascism will stop us all’. Hampton’s death was fueled by his role with the BPP but this came hand in hand with his radical politics. He saw socialism as the route to ending racial discrimination. This is not reflected in the film.
But that’s not all… Neoliberal senator Cory Booker cited Hampton on Twitter: ‘We’ve got to face the fact that some people say you fight fire best with fire, but we say you put fire out best with water. We say you don’t fight racism with racism. We’re gonna fight racism with solidarity.’. But Hampton didn’t finish there, the full quote ends ‘we say we’re not going to fight capitalism with black capitalism, but we’re going to fight it with socialism’. Booker has previously been described as ‘a Democrat that’s fiscally conservative yet socially progressive’. He dresses up his conservative views in red and used Hampton’s legacy as a means to achieve his own goals. Goals that Hampton would refute.
Upon closer inspection it becomes clear that hegemonic powers such as political parties and the film industry pick and choose the aspects of legacies they want to propagate. Burns and Hampton lived nearly 200 years apart, on different sides of the globe, and are just two examples of the myriad Greats who have fallen into this web of censorship. Today, blaring, appropriated information comes at us at a staggering pace through the media, and it’s our job to put in the research and find out the full story. Don’t allow yourself to be spoon fed only a fragment of the truth.