Culture and Life
by Rob Gowland
Anniversaries and poets — Nazim Hikmet
This year is the centenary of the great Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet. UNESCO has made his centenary an international event. But Nazim Hikmet was not just a poet, he was a "Communist" poet. In Turkey, a country where the Communist Party is banned, celebrating one of its most famous sons has posed a small problem for the government. Their solution was to celebrate him, but to "depoliticise" him in the process. The authorities tried to present Nazim Hikmet as "a poet of love", who apparently had no political or ideological position. The poet had lived in exile for some years in the Soviet Union, so the Turkish Government also came up with the line that Hikmet had actually been secretly opposed to the Soviet government and that Stalin had ordered his execution! Unfortunately for reaction, these lies backfired. They provoked debate on TV and in the newspapers, giving the Communists unusual opportunities to tell people what the Soviet system had been and what socialism was really about. The furore helped to publicise the commemorative events organised by the Nazim Culture House (the Cultural Branch of the Communist Party of Turkey) in Ankara and Istanbul, with the result that tens of thousands turned up. The Communist Party of Turkey (the TKP) said of Nazim Hikmet: "He was a Communist, a member of TKP, a great poet, an honest patriot, a lovely friend of all the people around the world and a responsible citizen of the Soviet Union where he had to live for many years. ... Nazim is a poet of the working people, the poor and the oppressed all around the world." In a message of greetings from the Communist Party of Greece (KKE) to the TKP, the KKE called on Communists and other progressives to defend Nazim's work and to reinforce the struggle against the ban on the TKP. "Let's act for new Nazim Hikmets, Yannis Ritsos, Pablo Nerudas or Luis Aragons!" said the KKE. To which one can only say "Hear, hear!" This year is also the 150th anniversary of the birth of Irish socialist Jim Connell, the man who wrote the socialist anthem The Red Flag. The actual anniversary was in March, but better late than never, as some other laggard once said. Connell was born in 1852, the same year that a group of Irish revolutionary exiles in Paris formed the Fenian Brotherhood, a semi-secret society dedicated to gaining Ireland's freedom. The Fenians were in close touch with Marx's First International and with Engels, then living in Manchester, in particular. In 1867, the Fenians organised an uprising against the English Government, but their plans were betrayed and the leaders arrested. Jim Connell would join the Fenians in 1870, when he was 18. The first half of the 19th century was a time of great agrarian discontent in Ireland that continued well into the second half. In the first half, exorbitant rents meant the peasants grew wheat for sale while living on potatoes themselves. Evictions for unpaid rent were numerous and commonplace. Between 1845 and 1850, an outbreak of potato blight meant a million and a half people in Ireland died of starvation and hunger-related illness in the midst of plenty. As Marxist historian A L Morton puts it, they "did not die of famine but were killed by rent and profit". In 1879, another Irish rural organisation was formed, the Land League. Specifically founded to defend the economic interests of the peasants, the Land League sought to fight evictions by means of the boycott. Its members pledged not to bid for or otherwise try to acquire or use any of their neighbours' farms that were being sold up for unpaid rents. When he joined the Fenians, Jim Connell was working on the docks in Dublin. As a consequence of his early unionising attempts he was blacklisted from all the Irish docks, so he went to London where he worked as a navvy. He formed the first branch of the Land League in England. Although he was a committed socialist, his socialism tended to be rather unscientific. He was strongly influenced by the Russian Nihilists and the European Anarchists. He wrote The Red Flag at the time of the great London dock strike of 1889 led by the pioneer socialists Tom Mann and John Burns. That strike, and the successful one the year before by the gas workers, led to a massive upsurge in the growth of industrial unionism. Within a year, 200,000 unskilled workers had been organised. Engels was ecstatic at the move away from craft unions to militant industrial unions. He wrote in 1892: "That immense haunt of human misery (the East End of London) is no longer the stagnant pool it was six years ago. "It has shaken off its torpid despair, it has returned to life, and has become the home of what is called the 'New Unionism', that is to say, of the organisation of the great mass of 'unskilled' workers." And The Red Flag was the New Unionism's anthem.