Sunday, April 7, 2013

When communists sell their newspapers

Fighting miners, hotel workers, Machinists sign up for ‘Militant’

“ This paper needs to get around more,” coal miner Connie Jewell said as he signed up for a subscription to the Militant at the April 1 United Mine Workers union demonstration of more than 6,000 in Charleston, W.Va.

The action was called to protest moves by Patriot Coal to cut thousands of miners off health and pension plans and tear up union contracts. (See article on front page.)

Jewell was one of 27 participants who bought Militant subscriptions at the action. In addition, 46 single copies were sold, showing the interest by coal miners and their supporters in a socialist newsweekly that tells the truth about and backs the struggles of working people.

Two books on revolutionary working-class politics were also sold on the buses going to the event, including The Cuban Five: Who They Are, Why They Were Framed, Why They Should Be Free, one of eight books offered at reduced prices with a subscription to the Militant. (See ad below.)

Militant distributors from Seattle had a similar experience when they brought solidarity to the picket lines of members of International Association of Machinists Local 79 on strike against the Belshaw Adamatic Bakery Group in Auburn, Wash., selling seven subscriptions in two visits. The plant manufactures donut equipment. (See article on page 5.)

“It’s important to have a paper like this to see what is happening all over to working people,” said Josephine Ulrich, a shop steward who has worked 25 years at the plant. “I want to show it around. This is what unionization and solidarity is all about.”

On March 30 Militant supporters sold the paper door to door in Seattle and Kent, Wash., reported Edwin Fruit. They talked with working people about the impact of the bosses’ productivity drive, the bank crisis in Cyprus, the cuts in postal service and other political developments of interest to workers.

“I very much liked the fact that the Militant talked about what was happening to us, but I also wanted to support the paper. I also found the international news to be very interesting,” said Brigitte Malenfant when asked why she had decided to renew her subscription.

Malenfant is one of 180 hotel workers who have been on strike since Oct. 28 against the Hôtel des Seigneurs in Saint-Hyacinthe, about 30 miles northeast of Montreal. They are fighting for wage parity with hotel workers in Montreal.

Join the ongoing international effort to increase the circulation of the Militant among working people. You can call the distributors in your region (see directory on page 6) or order a bundle at or (212) 244-4899.

A social movement in the Eastern coalfields?

W.Va.: Thousands protest Patriot’s attack on mine union, retirees
UMWA calls next action for April 16 in St. Louis

March in Charleston, W.Va., April 1 to protest slashing of medical benefits and pensions and tearing up of union contracts by Patriot Coal as part of company’s bankruptcy filing. 

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Some 6,000-7,000 coal miners, their families, and other workers poured into the Civic Center here April 1 in the largest mobilization of miners in many years. The action was the latest in a series of demonstrations organized by the United Mine Workers of America since August 2012 to fight Patriot Coal’s attempt to use bankruptcy to gut union contracts, pensions and health care.

“Corporate greed has taken over this country. This is a death sentence for retirees,” said Benny Parker, a member of the UMWA from Mannington, who retired in 2007 from Patriot’s Federal No. 2 Mine.

Many retired miners have black lung and other debilitating work injuries from decades in the mines and depend on what they thought were lifetime benefits set down in UMWA contracts since the 1940s.

More than 50 busloads of miners came from seven states. Hundreds drove up from southern West Virginia. The rally included both working and retired coal miners as well as union delegations, including from the United Steelworkers, United Auto Workers, Communications Workers of America, Ironworkers and the American Federation of Teachers.

Terry Steele, a retired miner from UMWA Local 1440, came to the rally from Matewan. He used to work at the Zeigler Old Ben Mine owned by Horizon. “In 2002 they filed for bankruptcy, just like Patriot’s doing. They got out of all their responsibilities,” he said.

In 2007 Peabody Energy spun off most of its union mines to form Patriot Coal Corp. A year later Patriot bought Magnum Coal Co., an Arch Coal spinoff. More than 90 percent of “Patriot” retirees today never actually worked for Patriot.

As part of its bankruptcy proceedings, Patriot Coal on March 14 asked a judge to sanction its plan to tear up union contracts and end benefits covering 10,000 retirees and their 13,000 dependents. Patriot’s bankruptcy takes place in the context of a recent contraction in domestic demand for coal, fueled in large part by falling natural gas prices.

There are no union mines left in Mingo County, W.Va., or Pike County, Ky., Steele said.

Both the number of coal miners and the proportion who are members of the UMWA has declined dramatically over recent decades. Only about one-quarter of working miners are members of the UMWA today, down from 43 percent in 1994. Today there are about 82,000 active miners in the U.S., down from some 89,000 in January of last year and from 175,000 30 years ago.

“The younger generation, a lot of us, were raised off the union,” said Jeff Samek, 29, a faceman at the Alpha Natural Resources Carmichaels Mine in Southwest Pennsylvania. “If Patriot does this every company will try it.”

Speakers at the rally included Democratic politicians from West Virginia, including Sen. Joe Manchin, Rep. Nick Rahall, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and Secretary of State Natalie Tennant.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller, in a videotaped message, promised to press for the Coalfield Accountability and Retired Employee Act, which would transfer money from the Abandoned Mine Lands fund, a government fund for restoration of mined land based on taxing coal production, to the UMWA 1974 Pension Plan.

The CARE Act is supposed to prop up the union’s pension plan — which faces insolvency as a result of declining unionization and funds lost through speculative investments — as well as cover retirees who lose benefits when coal bosses file for bankruptcy and reduce taxes on employer payments to benefit plans.

“What Patriot did was designed to fail so they could get rid of these liabilities,” Richard Trumka, AFL-CIO president, told the rally. “We won’t allow them to take the money and run. Anyone who pulls a paycheck, stand with us.”

Corey Bachman, 22, a member of Ironworkers Local 3 in Pittsburgh, said he and other workers have been on strike for eight months at Patriot Machining and Maintenance Services, which is not owned by Patriot Coal. “After we organized a union, they laid everybody off,” he said. “We have filed unfair labor practice charges.”

Steelworkers from Ravenswood came to the rally along with nurses from Bluefield, who recently formed a Nurses Union, and a van of UAW members from the Ford plant in Louisville, Ky.

“It’s going to affect all of us,” said Debbie Casey, a member of CWA Local 2204 from Castlewood, Va. She said the CWA, IBEW and UMWA brought five busloads to the rally.

“I support the UMWA in this,” said Larry Goodwin, 35, vice president of United Steelworkers Local 477 at a refractory plant in Buckhannon. He came with several others from the local. “We faced the same thing in my plant. We lost health care for retirees and current employees.”

“This is not just about the mine workers, UMWA President Cecil Roberts told participants. “This is a movement about the people.”

Following the speeches Roberts led the massive gathering out of the Civic Center, marching down the streets of Charleston to the headquarters of Patriot Coal. Chants of “U-M-W-A” and “We are union” broke out. Roberts and 15 other labor, civic and religious officials who had declared their intention to be arrested sat down in the street until cops took them away.

The next action will be in St. Louis on April 16 at 10 a.m. in front of Peabody Coal’s corporate headquarters.

Patriot Coal Protest in Charleston, W.Va.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Cuban Missile Crisis - 50 years on

When pro-war was the right side

Racist violence in the North: The 'Draft Riots' of 1863

By on April 4, 2013 

As the United States commemorates the 150th anniversary of the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863, a document which officially ended slavery in those states and regions that rebelled against the Union during the Civil War, one is also reminded of a not-so-noble 1863 event in New York City.

From the time of Lincoln's election in 1860, pro-slavery Democrats in New York City warned Irish citizens and immigrants to be prepared for the freeing of Southern enslaved Black people who might relocate to the North and compete with them for jobs.

In 1863, the federal draft law became stricter for men between the ages of 20 and 45. All those in that age group were entered into a lottery to serve military duty. However, if they paid $300 to the government they could evade enlistment. White workers compared their value, $300 to buy their draft exemption, to the $1,000 being paid for a Black slave. Free Black men were exempted from the draft because they weren't considered citizens.

Mainstream newspapers and sensationalist journalists attacked the federal government's draft law in order to incite the white working class. They criticized the government's intrusion into state and local affairs on behalf of the "n——r war." Because of the bad wartime economy, whites seemingly felt their political power and privileges would be threatened and reduced, and Blacks would be gaining power.

On July 13, 1863, and lasting five days, white mobs rioted in New York City, attacking Black men, women and children. Rioters targeted anything that might symbolize any political, economic or social progress and power for Black people. This violence became known as "the Civil War Draft Riots."

Black men were stomped, stoned, kicked and beaten to death. Some were burned to death, others lynched from lampposts and their genitals mutilated. Many who fled jumped into the river to escape. Black properties were destroyed. And fearing destruction of their property by rioters, landlords evicted Black tenants.

The rioters' brutal violence included burning down the four-story Colored Orphan Asylum, located on Fifth Avenue at 43rd Street, which housed more than 200 Black children. The children were forced to move into the almshouse (poorhouse) on Blackwell's Island, where the orphanage's founders had hoped to prevent children from having to go. The orphanage later temporarily relocated to 51st Street in Manhattan.

Cornerstone of white supremacy

For a decade prior to the riots, there had been tension brewing between white longshoremen and Black dockworkers. Irish workers in particular refused to work with Black longshoremen, and during the riots they attacked all Black porters, cartmen and laborers they saw. White dockworkers also destroyed dance halls, boarding houses and tenements that served Black people. On the waterfront, brutal beatings and deaths were cheered, with the promise of more "vengeance on every n——r in New York." The aim of white workers was to eradicate the presence of Black males in the city.

The all-white labor union, the Longshoreman's Association, insisted that "the colored people must and shall be driven to other parts of the industry," which gave white workers license to physically remove Blacks, not only from their worksites, but also from neighborhoods and recreation places. Convinced of their racial superiority, white workers violently asserted their power.

Hundreds of Black people were forced out of New York City. Some Black victims escaped by ferry to the borough of Brooklyn. Others fled to New Jersey and elsewhere. The Black orphanage attempted to rebuild at the same site, but was not permitted to. Four years later, it finally relocated to a newly built location on West 143rd Street in Harlem, which later became a predominantly Black neighborhood in the 20th century. In 1867, however, the area was sparsely populated and far from the city's center. Within two years after the riots, fewer than 10,000 Black people resided in the city, the lowest number since 1820.

To date, Blacks and whites remain divided by race, class, social status, aspirations, employment and education opportunities, and income and wealth disparities. Neither New York City nor the country itself has united to overcome or solve problems of racism. The country has failed to fully accept the freedom of its Black population. White supremacy remains the cornerstone of economic exploitation and capitalism. The U.S., a country whose foundation was built on racism, continues to be a country that loves to hate.

Source: "In the Shadow of Slavery: African Americans in New York City, 1626-1863," by Leslie M. Harris

Civil wars in U.S. and France


Another exceptional find featured by Jodi Dean on her incomparable blog:

American receptions of the Commune

(from Philip M. Katz, From Appomattox to Montmarte: Americans and the Paris Commune, Harvard UP, 1998).

'The Civil War, the Franco-Prussian War, and the Paris Commune each posed the question of republicanism in its starkest form: Shall "the people" be sovereign.' (89)

'But defining what "popular" (much less "republican") government proved elusive, as the bitter politics of Reconstruction showed. Reconstruction was a struggle to define what it meant to be a republic, and to decide who was fit to participate in such a polity.' (90)

Marx had followed the civil war in the US closely--his text on the Paris Commune is The Civil War in France.

(In the wake of the civil war, mistrust of popular government spread among Northerners: rejection of women's suffrage, acquiescence to Southern 'home rule,' ruins of 14th and 15th amendements, urban reforms limiting local autonomy, voting reforms limiting the franchise. The Commune became a way to 'focus and excuse the ideological shift away from popular government,' 92.)

For some, the Commune became an emblem of the failure of Reconstruction. The editor of the Nation, 'railed against the "Socialism in South Carolina" that came from allowing incompetent black men to govern and vote" (97). In his polemic againt reconstruction, the political incapacity in South Carolina was as bad as the Paris Commune. Attacks on the Communards were attacks on the political incapacity of the people. For Northerners, "neither Paris nor the South was ready for self-government" 100.

Related positions emphasized the parallel between Southern secessionists and the Commune, both rejecting centralized government. Some Southerners, not surprisingly, rejected the comparison and emphasized differences between themselves and the Commune, in particular, they (the South) were resisting revolution (the Union's attempt to control them) while the Communists were making a revolution. Other Southerners were happy to embrace the parallel, of "wholesome revolt against an oppressive centralized power" (107) -- the same position held by Northern Republican critics. Newspapers in Atlanta and Charleston expressed sympathy for the Communards. Still others associated the Parisian mob with the newly freed slaves.

(Weirdly, a former vice-president of the Confederacy, Alexander Stephens, who became a a member of Congress from Georgia after the war, identified himself as a Communist in 1880. For Stephens, to be a Communist meant to favor home rule, the sovereignty of the local government, 108-110. Stephens, of course, explicitly rejected the idea that communism entailed the abolition of private property.)

Never conventional: E. P. Thompson

EP Thompson: the unconventional historian

The Making of the English Working Class is 50 this year, yet it is still widely revered as a canonical work of social history
EP Thompson
EP Thompson ... intellectual figurehead. Photograph: John Hodder

Fifty years ago, an obscure historian working in the extra-mural department at the University of Leeds delivered a manuscript, overdue and over-length, to Victor Gollancz – a publishing house then specialising in socialist and internationalist non-fiction. No one could have foreseen the book's reception. EP Thompson's The Making of the English Working Class became a runaway commercial and critical success. The demand for this 800-page doorstop was nothing short of remarkable. In 1968, Pelican Books bought the rights to The Making and published a revised version as the 1,000th book on their list. In less than a decade, it had gone through a further five reprints. Fifty years on, it is still in print, widely revered as a canonical work of social history.
It was not Thompson's first book. A history of William Morris had appeared in 1955, and had been met with the indifference that is the fate of most academic monographs. After The Making came Whigs & Hunters, a book on the Black Acts – the notorious Georgian legislation that criminalised not only the killing of deer, but also any suspicious activity that might hint at the intention to kill deer. This was followed by a series of colourful essays on diverse themes, including time and industrial capitalism, food riots, and wife sales (yes, in the 18th century men really did take their wives to market and "sell" them). Time and again, Thompson proved himself capable of taking on new topics and revisiting old ones in new ways, creating a body of work that was original and hugely influential.
And yet Thompson was never a conventional historian. His many years at Leeds were spent not in the history department, but in adult education. His tenure at the newly created University of Warwick was brief: he resigned just six years after taking up the post, disgusted at the commercial turn it was taking. Ever the man of letters, his resignation was accompanied by a lengthy pamphlet outlining his intellectual objections. The rest of his life was devoted to a range of political causes. Thompson was an active member of the Communist party in the 40s and 50s, and founder of the Communist Party Historians Group in 1946. He was part of the mass exodus from the party in the 1950s following the Soviet invasion of Hungary, but remained closely allied with a range of leftwing movements. By the end of the 1970s, Thompson was playing a key role, as both tireless organiser and intellectual figurehead, in the nascent peace movement, a cause to which he remained devoted until his death in 1993. It was a life of activism no less than of scholarship.
But towering above it all remains The Making, with its preface so memorably declaring the book's intention "to rescue the poor stockinger, the Luddite cropper, the 'obsolete' hand-loom weaver, the 'Utopian' artisan, and even the deluded follower of Joanna Southcott, from the enormous condescension of posterity". The book's mythic status should not distract us from the raw originality of the work. In 1963, weavers and artisans were not the stuff of history books. Pioneering social historians had been studying working people since the early 20th century, but the focus remained squarely on the tangible, the measurable, the "significant" – wages, living conditions, unions, strikes, Chartists. Thompson touched on the trade unions and the real wage, of course, but most of his book was devoted to something that he referred to as "experience". Through a patient and extensive examination of local as well as national archives, Thompson had uncovered details about workshop customs and rituals, failed conspiracies, threatening letters, popular songs, and union club cards. He took what others had regarded as scraps from the archive and interrogated them for what they told us about the beliefs and aims of those who were not on the winning side. Here, then, was a book that rambled over aspects of human experience that had never before had their historian. And the timing of its appearance could scarcely have been more fortunate. The 1960s saw unprecedented upheaval and expansion in the university sector, with the creation of new universities filled with lecturers and students whose families had not traditionally had access to the privileged world of higher education. Little wonder, then, that so many felt a natural affinity with Thompson's outsiders and underdogs.
And there was something more. Running through The Making was a searing anger about economic exploitation and a robust commentary on his capitalist times. Thompson rejected the notion that capitalism was inherently superior to the alternative model of economic organisation it replaced. He refused to accept that artisans had become obsolete, or that their distress was a painful but necessary adjustment to the market economy. It was an argument that resonated widely in the 1960s, when Marxist intellectuals could still believe that a realistic alternative to capitalism existed, could still argue that "true" Marxism hadn't been tried properly.
Appearing in the heyday of Marxist scholarship, The Making's political framework lay at the heart of the book's success. Perhaps its greatest achievement, however, is how it has managed to weather Marxism's subsequent fall from academic grace. By the 1980s, Marxist history no longer held a significant place in academic history departments. It has been on the defensive ever since. Surveying the literary spat between Thompson and the Polish philosopher, Leszek Kołakowski – who, after years of living under Communism, had had the temerity to desert the Marxist banner – Tony Judt observed: "No one who reads it will ever take EP Thompson seriously again." And yet we do still take Thompson seriously. More than any of his books, The Making continues to delight and inspire new readers. Of course, Thompson's scholarship was partial and driven by his politics. But the originality, vigour and iconoclasm of his book make certain that it will endure.
• Emma Griffin's Liberty's Dawn: A People's History of the Industrial Revolution will be published by Yale later this month.

"Organization, solidarity, political will."

Badiou: the Paris Commune (from Polemics)

In his discussion of the Paris Commune in Polemics, Badiou considers the Paris Commune as an evental site, a new being in the world that has made itself (a new being that has made itself in the world).
From Marxism-Leninism-Maoism comes a reading of the Commune that poses the question of the relation of the party to the state. Badiou faults Marx's reading for its continued attachment to the state. Even as Marx (and later Engels) recognizes that the Commune smashes the bourgeois state, they nonetheless criticize it for failing to be statist enough. To me his critique can be rendered as a criticism of state fetishism: I know the Commune is not a state, nevertheless I believe it is a state. And, indeed, Badiou refers to the party as a 'mental schema.' Badiou's goal is to provide a different Commune, one that is not reduced to the fetishistism of the classical reading.
Fetishistic disavowal gives a particular form to the communist party (proletarian party, social democratic party). On the one hand, it understands itself as premised on the destruction of the state. To this extent, it remains outside it. It's position is exterior to the state, aimed toward it only to destroy it. On the other hand, "the party is also the organizer of a centralized, disciplined capacity that is entirely bent on taking state power." It asserts what it denies, giving itself form as that what it would replace. We could perhaps also say that the state persists as as an ego ideal of the party, the point from which it sees itself.
More specifically, then, in the classical (Marxist) reading, as Badiou tells it, the problem of the Commune is the relation between society and the state, that is, "the social nature of state power." On the one hand, the Commune smashes the machinery of the state. On the other, its failures were those of failing to become a state, failures of centralization, organization, decision. These failures, moreover, are linked (albeit ambiguously) to the inconsistency of the Commune's major parties. The Proudhonians and the Blanquists "ended up doing exactly the opposite of their manifest ideology." Marxism, then, emerges as the answer.
For Badiou, the party gives body to the ambiguity of the Marxist account of the commune:
It becomes the political site of a fundamental tension between the non-state, and even anti-state characters of the a politics of emancipation, and the statist character of the victory and duration of that politics. Moreover, this is the case irrespective of whether the victory is insurrectional or electoral: the mental schema is the same.
... The party-state is endowed with capacities designed to resolve problems the Commune left unresolved: a centralization of the police and of military defence; the complete destruction of bourgeois economic decisons; the rallying and submission of the peasants to workers' hegemony; the creation of a powerful international, etc.
So, the Commune is understood as a political form determined by the workers and one that exercises power. Yet, Badiou adds, if this is all it is, then it is political obsolete, determined now by a Stalinism that reduces political power to party.
It is worth noting, and I hope to further this idea later, that reduction may well be the wrong term. It could be, and I think that in many cases it is, what Badiou renders as 'reduction' is an expansion, an opening up and creation of the world, milieu, set of possibilities, vocabulary. The assumption, then, that 'party' is the name of a political reduction is what needs to be rejected in favor of an understanding of what new capacities and possibilities it opens up. 
With Mao, the understanding of politics as articulated to a state and dominated by the party remains the same, with the addition of the revolutionary enthusiasm of the masses.
Badiou, though, wants to put aside the classical version of the Paris Commune, the Marxist interepretations that came later, that inscribed the experience within the party-state linkage, a linkage that prescribes a particular failure and a particular explanation for that failure. Putting aside the classical version is crucial because it has installed in the left a conception of politics that locates political incapacity in the left (a failure of the movement) and not in the gap between the state and politics ('political invention'). One symptom (not Badiou's term) of the problem: the every-present theme of betrayal. As soon as 'the left' acquires power, they betray us.
But is betrayal reducible to the linkage of politics to the state? Or is it possible that breaking this link is itself a form of betrayal? Differently put, a certain idealism that assumes a pure politics, a politics without compromise, corruption, disappointment, without power and violence, this is the point from which the accusation of betrayal arises. It's no wonder, then, that Zizek has rightly criticized the pure politics of Badiou. "Betrayal" is a feeling. It's a subjective assessment, in the eye of the beholder. A left that constitutes itself so as to be forever and perpetually betrayed is one incapable of managing or acknowledging or finding a way to arrange the gap internal to the people or between the people and its own self-steering or governance.
Badiou reads the declaration of the Central Committee of the National Guard as a "declaration to break with the left." He notes other situations where the task was to break 'with all subjection to that fundamental emblem, the 'Left'" (Chinese revolutionaries 1965-1968; French Maoists 1966-1976).
And what is this for us? What is the incapacity with which we must break? It is surely not with a relation to the state--the left in the US has retreated from the state since 1968, retreating into issue and identity politics and letting liberals focus on the state. It is also surely not a relation to the party--the left in the US has never had a communist or socialist party within reach of state power. In fact, left politics in the US have had the form of fragmentation, specificity, decenteredness, multiplicity, and occasional alliance: this is that with which we must break.
What is the non-existent aspect of our situation? Organization, solidarity, political will. What we hear from all quarters is the impossibility of a unified left, the undesirability of a unified left, the inevitable failure and compromise and betrayal that we persistently level at ourselves. We revel in the fantasy of inaction and lack of power, refusing to acknowledge how this is already action and power, but action and power on behalf of an other (capital as supported by the liberal democratic state).
Describing the event of the Paris Commune in terms of its content, Badiou emphasizes the appearance of a working-being in the space of a governmental and political capacity.
And, for us? What sort of capacity has not appeared but must appear? A collective capacity, a capacity for solidarity -- Occupy gave us a glimps, Madison gave us a glimpse, Tahrir Square gave us more than a glimpse before it became recaptured in elections.
The Paris Commune destroyed "the order of subjective incapacity." Badiou concludes that a political rupture is a rupture with the left and, for us, a rupture with democracy. For us, here and now, 'left' means not parliamentary left (we have none) but the left of issues, identity, and sectarianism.

To study “Despair”

An Atheist on Tennyson’s Despair
Edward Aveling

Source: Modern Thought, January 1882, pp.7-10;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

All freethinkers owe a debt of gratitude to Alfred Tennyson. His latest poem is an invaluable aid to the cause that they hold dear. To study “Despair” will repay them not only from the literary side. They will derive from its study so much encouragement, so much new strength for their daily battle. The dramatic monologue named “Despair” is headed thus:- “A man and his wife, having lost faith in a God and hope of a life to come, and being utterly miserable in this, resolve to end themselves by drowning. The woman is drowned, but the man is rescued by a minister of the sect he has abandoned.” At first, as we read these words, we are tempted to imagine that Mr. Tennyson wholly misunderstands freethinkers, after the fashion of the many. And, indeed, there is no doubt that he does not fully understand the beauty and the joy of Atheism. The man and woman have lost faith in a God. They have lost, also, the terrible idea of an individual immortality, with all its inevitable confusions, contradictions, irreconcilabilities, unhappinesses. Thus far they represent Atheism, and may be taken as types. But when our poet represents them as utterly miserable in this life, we know, and we half suspect he knows, that here they cease to be types. This circumstance is chosen for dramatic effect, but is, of course, no consequence of the loss of religious belief. For the Atheist is not inclined to be miserable in this his only life. He loves it, joys in it, revels in it. He is not blind to its pains and sorrows. Bearing these cheerfully as he may, he concentrates his attention on the pleasures and sweetnesses of life, and on the task that ranks foremost amongst those pleasures – the task of lessening the aggregate of the world’s misery. The man and woman of “Despair” have in truth no little reason for sadness. Their eldest born has forged his father’s name. Another son is dead. The girl that might have been the solace of their saddened age had never looked upon the sun. In a line of surprising strength we are told she “had passed from the night to the night.” He is ruined, and the wife has a horror of bodily disease upon her. But sorrows even such as these should not – nay, actually do not – drive the Atheist to suicide. Rarely or never do we encounter instances of those who are without God taking their own lives. The suicides are amongst the possessors of a religious belief. In truth, they are often in consequence of such a belief.

Yet further evidence is furnished by the poem in favour of my view that the two central figures are not Atheists to the heart’s core. The man uses the name of God. Four times the cry, “Ah, God!” breaks from his lips. He that has wholly abandoned the older creeds is always very careful to use no phrase that in any sense, however remote, implies them. He studiously avoids to-day the use of the word “religion.” I am not ignorant of the fact that Thomas Paine, a hundred years ago, wrote: – “To do good is my religion;” but at this hour the conscientious Atheist should strive to employ none of those words and phrases that through long usage have acquired a stereotyped meaning, and have become, as Wendell Holmes puts it, “polarised.” Hence, even under strong emotion, when most likelihood exists of a reversion to the old habits of thought and expression of the earlier times of the individual or of the race, even then the man who has struggled out of ordinary beliefs should not use even interjectional phrases that would imply, however indirectly, recognition of deity.

And, again, in the lines that speak of

“a life without sun, without health, without hope, without any delight
In anything here upon earth,”

there is proof that these two unhappy ones have not grasped the fulness of the comfort of Atheism. Had their faith in man been stronger, their eyes had pierced the gloom surrounding their individual lives, and had seen the brightness of the face of man that is to be. “Without health,” alas! man may be. “Without hope “ man has no right to be. Because my little fragment of life is a failure, because my attempted contribution to the world-building is only some small modicum of dust, blown away by the breath of time and not a portion of enduring stone or marble, am I to despair of all? Nay, truly, let me rather behold the effective life-work of my stronger, better brothers, and, taking heart of grace, struggle on again. “Without any delight in anything here upon earth.” Each had still that other dear one left, and there is always for all, unless the mind fail, the delight of old memories. Was she not “always loyal and sweet?” And whilst loyalty and sweetness shine out in the one life most dear to us, who shall say that all delight is fled? “A world without sun.” I answer Mr Tennyson in the words of our Atheist poet, Algernon Swinburne, singing to Nature under the old name Apollo: –

“For thy kingdom is passed not away,
Nor thy power from the place thereof hurled;
Out of heaven they shall cast not the day –
They shall cast not out song from the world.
Is the sun yet cast out of heaven?
Is the song yet cast out of man?”

In one other passage, also, the speaker of the monologue shows himself as one who fails to grasp the rich significance of evolution. “Come from the brute, poor souls! – no souls, and to die with the brute.” Come from the brute assuredly, we hope. If “soul” retain its old meaning, and is the immortal something supposed to exist when the body has returned to the mineral kingdom in the form of salts and gases – “No souls!” we cry, with rejoicing. But “to die with the brute?” No – a thousand times, no! Man no more dies with the brute than he lives with the brute. As his life is far nobler, more manifold, more rich than that of the lower forms of animals, so his death is more full of pathos, of instruction, of hope. For even when face to face with that mystery of death, and beholding it through our tears, we comfort our hearts with the knowledge that the life thus ended is still at work. The gentle words, the kindly acts, the high thoughts of that life, are yet busy in the world through the lives they touched directly, and they will be busy this many a day, and all days through the unborn lives to be moulded in their turn by these. For each human thought or phrase or deed is as the proverbial stone dropped into the proverbial water. The ripples spread more widely, and ever more widely, and are doomed, perhaps, to strike upon the shores of continents yet to be. The brute form at best leaves its record in the rocks, or haply in some footprint deciphered by the eager eye of man oeons after it was made. But the human life leaves its record upon human life, and even when it is ended the impress of it is visible on the family or on the society, party, sect – perhaps on the history of the country, it may be of the world.

But as Atheists we must be for ever thankful to Alfred Tennyson in that he has stated some part, at least, of our creed clearly and strongly. The first four lines of stanza iv., and even part of the last two lines, will make plainer to some who misunderstand us what we think and hope:-

“See we were nursed in the dark night-fold of your fatalist creed,
And we turned to the growing dawn, we had hoped for a dawn indeed,
When the light of a Sun that was coming would scatter the ghosts of the Past,
And the cramping creeds that had madden'd the people would vanish at last.
And we broke away from the Christ, our human brother and friend,
For he spoke, or it seem'd that He spoke, of a Hell without help, without end.”

For “had hoped” in the second line read “do hope,” and you have the heart’s desire of the Atheist. Nay, we have passed beyond the stage of hoping for the dawn. The dawn, and something more than dawn, our very eyes have seen. Our hope is for the more and more perfect day. As Mr. Mallock has written, there must occur “the sort of break which takes place when a man awakes from a dream and finds all that he most prized vanished from him.” Man is awaking from a dream centuries long. He is even now finding that all that he most prized is vanishing from him. But that which thus vanishes is that which was most prized in a dream. In the brighter, workful, real day that is past its dawn even now, he will smile tenderly, pitifully, at the strange fancies that were his in the dim, slumberous night fast fading away before the coming of the better time.

From Christ, save as God and as preacher of hell, we do not break away. He is in very truth our human brother and friend. I think we love him with a love that cannot be understood by Christians. He is so very human to us even in what seem to us his blunders and bad teaching. No glory seems added to his remarkable character by naming him divine. Indeed, that would appear to take away at once all credit from him, and to destroy his chief excellence. It is a matter of no interest that omnipotence should have lived a good life. But consider the world of comfort and instruction to be drawn from the knowledge that a man of passions and infirmities like our own lived so pure a life! From his teaching, as from the teaching of all great men, we strive to draw that which is of practical value for our life to-day, and though we find much – very much – of that teaching so other-worldly as to be useless at this hour, yet for that which is of value we are very grateful. We do not break away from Christ. We draw close to him as our human brother, unmarred by any touch of the divine. We call him comforter, and in large sort our guide.

In stanza vii., moreover, and in its last line, we have a fine summing up of man’s resources when the gods have failed him: –

“Till you flung us back on ourselves and the human heart and the Age.”

These are the only rocks whereon man may find secure foothold. Too long has he had preached to him that doctrine of reliance on God that is in greater or less degree fatal to reliance on self. And that this latter is the more necessary is shown by the fact that in emergency it is upon self we have to rely, as no aid comes from without, or from the supernatural powers. Hence it is that to us the utterances of those who may have escaped some great peril that has engulfed others, their fellows, seem so very terrible. In the narratives by survivors from some great disaster of the sea, as that of the Clan Macduff, nothing is more common than to hear that those who are saved ascribe their better fortune to God. But in thus doing, these men and women, by implication, are ascribing the worse fortune of their companions to God. For it is inconceivable that those whose lives are lost are not as anxious for life as those that are saved. Without doubt they supplicated in as great an agony of earnestness as those that escaped. And yet the deity to whom the survivors ascribe their safety so willed it that these should perish!

We are willing to be “flung back on the human heart and the Age.” In man, and in man alone, do we find comfort. When all else fails us, we find in the history of man in the past, and in his growing strength to-day, hope for the future such as no other creed gives. To this age, and the spirit of it, we cling. We are unwilling to be drawn back once more to the thought of dead and gone times. That has had its day, and done its work right well. But we should have a stronger objection to casting aside the thought of this nineteenth century and embracing that of the first than to discarding railway travelling for any of the older methods of locomotion.

In stanza xix. is expressed, although in words hardly possible for our use, one consciousness of the Atheist: –

“Ah yet I have had some glimmer, at times, in my gloomiest woe,
Of a God behind all – after all – the great God for aught that I know.”

It does seem that, on the whole, in the process of evolution, evil is slowly eliminated, and good grows more predominant. There is “a tendency that maketh for righteousness.” The whole of this deeply interesting question has been of late dealt with by Herbert Spencer, and in the Nineteenth Century (October, 1881), James Sully has put, with admirable clearness, the optimistic view of Spencer, that would be, I take it, shared by all Atheists. But it must be clearly understood that, while we believe that we recognise this gradual elimination of the bad, and gradual strengthening of the good, we have no conception of a being who is in any sense the personification of this principle.

Very strongly, also, in words to whose intensity no comment of mine could add, does he place one aspect of our case before those who ask us to worship the God of Christianity. I quote stanzas xvii. and xviii.: –


“What! I should call on that Infinite Love that has served us so well?
Infinite wickedness, rather, that made everlasting Hell;
Made us – foreknew us, foredoom'd us, and does what he will with his own;
Better our dead brute mother who never has heard us groan? .


Hell? if the souls of men were immortal, as men have been told,
The lecher would cleave to his lusts, and the miser would yearn for his gold,
And so there were Hell for ever? But were there a God, as you say,
His love would have power over Hell till it utterly vanish'd away.”

Perhaps some cause for a tinge of regret is to be found in the lines where this present time is stigmatised as “the new dark ages .... of the popular press.” It might almost seem ungrateful for one thus to write who owes to that very press so much of his own fame, and so much of that which he values far more highly – the power of doing good by making music in many homes. But the words occur in a dramatic monologue, and in dramatic writing the author is merged in the character he portrays. Therefore, we may, without much exercise of charity, believe that the diatribes against the press, and that very “honest doubt” which he himself has told us is “the noblest kind of faith,” are of purpose placed in the mouth of one who names himself as madman, and who has very clearly not fought the good fight of enquiry right through to the restful issue that always awaits the victor in that conflict.

It would be ungracious, it would be unjust, to pass from the consideration of this notable poem without paying tribute to its remarkable power. Once grant the central idea of the blackness of despair that Alfred Tennyson seems to think may seize upon the Atheist mind – once grant this, and no words are too strong in praise of the vigour wherewith the sombre tone of the poem is maintained throughout. Especially one notices his power of producing great effects by very simple means. In the very first stanza, observe the second line as instance of that to which I refer:-

“Follow'd us too that night, and dogg'd us, and drew me to land?”

“That night!” The horror of it, and the shudder that runs through the words! And consider the tremendous story told by the use of the two pronouns. You dogged us. You brought to land me alone.

Or, in stanza ix., line 5, the force of the first word is another illustration: –

“There was a strong sea-current would sweep us out to the main.”

Or yet, again, the pathos of the lines: –

“Never a cry so desolate, not since the world began!
Never a kiss so sad – no, not since the coming of man!”

and of the phrase, “She is all alone in the sea.”

I repeat that to Alfred Tennyson we that are Atheists are in some measure indebted. He has possibly misunderstood us, and if he really thinks that our creed can lead only despairwards it is assured that we are not comprehended by him. But I am inclined to consider that he has here put into most musical language the conception of the man who is still a Theist, but who strives to picture the universe without God. The stage of negation is here portrayed; but that is only a transition stage leading to the positive aspect of Atheism. This aspect Tennyson has in no sense understood. Be his thought in this respect what it may, he has placed in the mouth of his semi-suicide, in language very memorable and musical, many of those terrific arguments against supernatural religion, answers to which have never yet been forthcoming. Those who read these arguments in this his latest poem, despite that which I must venture to call the misrepresentation by which Atheists are portrayed as loathing life and light, will begin to understand something of the reasons why so many men and women of pure conduct, high thinking, and keen intellectual life, have rejected all beliefs founded upon the supernatural, and find a peace that very literally passes the understanding of many in that creed that deals only with this earth, and with the great brotherhood of man.