The piece below is from the D.i.Y.CULTURE#10 | The Anarchist Revolution – Then And Now edition.
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Richard Parry, Anarchist & Author of The Bonnot Gang
Humans began fashioning images of their idols several millennia ago; these became Gods, and then the Gods became Men. Augustus was not the first to be cast (literally, in bronze) as a God. This was borrowed from the Eqyptians.
But along with this ultimate depiction of hierarchical power fashioned in stone and bronze came iconoclasm. The smashing of idols has been a theme of all societies, from Egypt, through Arabia, into Byzantium, and thence across the whole of Christian Europe. And found in Asia and even remote Rapa Nui.
Supreme moments of English iconoclasm occurred during the Reformation and the 17th century Civil Wars. Look over many English cathedrals or parish churches and you find a notable absence of statuary in the empty niches. This is because, during the tumultuous period of popular rebellion the Parliamentarian army smashed the saints to bits. Of course we are not alone – in Revolutionary France in the 1790s a similar amount of smashing went on, this time of Kings.
The Enlightenment brought with it a whole new crop of liberal, bourgeois reformers who battled it out with the feudal aristocracy for control of many new “nations.” Statues of reactionary military heroes like Wellington or Nelson loomed large, but as capitalist ‘primitive accumulation’ reaped the benefits of slavery and Empire, so this enormous wealth yearned for a more benign legacy. And so began philanthropy, the mark of a gentleman keen to obscure the exploitation on which his fortune was based. As the British Empire expanded and reached its apogee, statues of military heroes and rich philanthropists became essential landmarks in British cities, that celebrated both the successful oppression of foreign native peoples, and – for those with eyes keen enough to see it – the successful oppression of the British working class. It is therefore fitting that some of these old statues are now toppling.
In Spain the reckoning with the past has seen the destruction of monuments to Franco. What artistic merit did they have? None. What possible reason to keep them? As part of Spain’s history? A monument to a monster responsible to the deaths of thousands? That is the kind of history that needs us to remember above all the struggle and the victims. Not the oppressors.
In this country we should have an inventory of all statues and set up local tribunals to decide on the fate of each. Imagine that every town and city had one, where local people and experts could come and argue the merits of each case – should the statue be toppled, or have an addition, or an explanatory plaque? Imagine how this would open up history to everyone, to make it live and breath in the present. And with that debate we can open up revolutionary and class perspectives. The very act of discussing the fate of these icons would be a displacement of the existing power structures, a reversal of perspective. Ideas can break bricks.
The Bonnot Gang were the most notorious French anarchists ever – folk-heroes, bank expropriators the inventors of the motorised getaway. It is the story of how the anarchist taste for illegality developed into illegalism. Get hold of a copy, it’s a page-turner!
Available from PM Press: https://pmpress.org.uk/product/the-bonnot-gang/