Blog Round Up!: March-April 2019

Tom Shillam

Round Up March/April 2019

Britain, Protest, Colonialism

As the beleaguered British government lurches from one constitutional fracas to another, it seems apt again to begin with Brexit. Despite the appearance of torment – in a recurring theme for this month’s round up – the political actors involved are perhaps behaving more rationally, for better or worse, than imagined. Aaron Ackerley notes the disturbing proximity of leading ‘Brexiteers’ to ostensibly independent think tanks and brings to light a deeper history of hapless British politicians forming influential pressure groups behind the scenes.

The British government has overlooked a recent petition to revoke Article 50 and remain in the EU, which garnered over 6 million votes. But are petitions as contemporary and ineffective as we might think? As the 200th anniversary of the Peterloo Massacre approaches, Richard Huzzey and Henry Miller contend that petitioning acts ‘as a tool for building a broader campaign and an enduring instrument for popular politics beyond and outside elections’. Ruth Mather explores the contributions of female reformers to early 19th-century protest, emphasising their ingenuity in negotiating with a ‘tyrannical government’ which was claiming to ‘offer paternal protection to its citizens’ while actually behaving violently towards them.

Shirin Hirsch sets this violence within a broader imperial context, reminding us of how black revolutionary Robert Wedderburn drew comparisons between atrocities abroad and the oppression of the working class at home. Similarly, on the anniversary of another colonial atrocity – the Amritsar Massacre of 13 April 1919 – Oliver Godsmark remarks on how political actors today continue to treat such violence as an aberration rather than a means through which to initiate difficult conversations about Britain’s past.

Anti-Colonialism, Decolonisation, Memory

A number of writers have considered how scholars of different backgrounds and disciplines can help begin these conversations. Eva Schalbroeck – perhaps offering a model for historians of other regions – explores how students of Belgium and the Congo can write revisionist and challenging histories which help establish ‘more culturally diverse post-colonial relationships’. Meg Foster highlighted the problems that can result from the uncritical portrayal of the histories of indigenous societies. In her review of an exhibition of Oceanic art held at the Royal Academy of Arts in London last year, Foster argues that such exhibitions often index indigenous artworks as objects of intrigue, distracting us from reckoning with their continued affective importance for the producers.

Speaking of the imperial mind and its affinity for ‘exotic objects’, Tom Harper of the University of Surrey studies how China has been variously depicted in the Western world as ‘a uniform mass with little or no individuality and prone to extreme cruelty’ and more recently as a neo-colonial power comparable to ‘the Great Powers of the Past’. Today, China is using its growing geopolitical clout to try and reshape these depictions.

Mark Fathi Massoud and Hussein Omar both offer hope in the face of authoritarian retrenchment. Omar shows how uprisings which occurred across North Africa and the Middle East 100 years ago comprised not isolated protests but an early ‘Arab Spring’ in which local actors exchanged ‘slogans, ideas, ideals and personnel’ in resisting European imperial intrigue. His emphasis on how history might have turned out differently had alternative ideas entered the ascendancy is replicated by Massoud, who demonstrates that a democratic conception of Sharia – which comprises ‘a broad set of values and ethical principles’ rather than the rigid code of law implied by Islamophobes – predominated among many politicians and intellectuals in early postcolonial Sudan.

Reason and Resistance

For those more interested in modes of political control in authoritarian states, in December Elena Goukassian penned a fascinating piece in Lapham’s Quarterly about the associations between time and power. She argues that the standardisation of time zones from the mid-19th century onwards has provided a means for authoritarians across the world to assert control over populations and manoeuvre towards important geopolitical allies.

As she suggests, as political power consolidated within the state, actors on the periphery resisted. Quan Nguyen offers some context for the recent attacks of prominent politicians on schoolchildren protesting about climate change, reminding us that the ‘understanding that emotions must be tamed for the sake of rational discourse…stands in a long tradition of Western philosophy’. Victoria Brooks goes into much greater detail about this Cartesian tradition, emphasising its gendered character, and calling for new philosophies which do not ‘value ideas over bodily sensations’.

Of course, developing new philosophies of life in an increasingly authoritarian and xenophobic global political climate demands intercontinental networking. On this note, it is worth rounding off this blog with the movements and arguments of two very different but equally determined internationalist activists in the mid-20th century. Samuel Zipp argues that Wendell Willkie – a little known Republican nominee for President in 1940 who later travelled across Africa and the Middle East observing the spread of nationalist movements – engineered an egalitarian and anti-imperialist vision of international order which is worth re-examining today. Carolien Stolte looks into an anti-imperialist actor with greater affective and symbolic reach among decolonising African and Asian peoples – African-American singer and activist Paul Robeson. Despite the US State Department preventing him travelling over a period of 8 years through the 1950s, by 1958 Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru was calling for ‘a widespread celebration or Robeson’s sixtieth birthday’. This was thanks to the ingenuity of countless Global South activists and internationalists many of whom were inspired by Robeson’s music. Their refusal to be bowed by censorious states and a global atmosphere of growing political cynicism perhaps offers hope today.

Tom Shillam is PhD student at the University of York who holds a Departmental Scholarship from the Department of History. His research considers how mid-20th century South Asian intellectuals synthesised anti-authoritarian ideas of their own with those of writers elsewhere to propose a different decolonising politics to the dominant developmentalist dogmas of the time. Catch him on Twitter @tomshillam.

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Re-visiting Musine Kokalari: a lost story of defiance in the face of political oppression

Agata Fijalkowski

 This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

My current project about imagery and the law was sparked by a photograph of Musine Kokalari, an Albanian writer and political dissident. Kokalari was imprisoned and suffered the humiliation of a public show trial under a despotic regime which murdered her brothers and kept her under surveillance and in exile most of her life. Her brave story can now be told after secret police files were released that revealed details about a shocking miscarriage of justice which deprived the world of a great writer.

Kokalari was Albania’s first female writer of note from the pre-communist period. She was born in 1917 in Adana, Turkey, where from an early age the young Musine showed a passion for literature and national folklore. The Kokalari family were at the centre of literary and political activity in the area.

They returned to their native Gjirokastra in southern Albania in 1920, and  in 1938 Kokalari left to embark on her university studies in literature at La Sapienza University, Rome. She kept a diary, My University Life, which was eventually published in 2016. In 1941, she published her first book, called As My Grandma Says,  about the daily struggles of a Gjirokastran woman living in a deeply patriarchal society and which can be seen as an early feminist text.

The writer and political dissident

It was during her studies in Rome that Kokalari joined anti-fascist and anti-communist movements. She continued her political activities upon her return to Albania in 1942 where she co-founded the Albanian Social Democratic Party. Her brother’s bookshop

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Musine Kokalari. Linda Kokalari/Musine Kokalari Institute, Author provided

became a hub of intellectual activity. As a result the family was kept under close surveillance by the communist authorities (represented by the National Liberation Movement/National Liberation Front). Two of her brothers, Vesim and Muntaz, were executed by the state for their political activities. Kokalari herself was detained and arrested several times in 1945 after openly expressing her views against totalitarianism.

She was then involved in the Democratic Coalition, a political movement that supported the postponement of elections, and called for multi-party elections. The writer hoped that representatives from the United Kingdom and the United States would monitor the elections. But all 37 members of the coalition were arrested and deemed traitors of the Albanian nation. Neither the US nor the UK intervened.

Hair torn from her head

In 1946, following these arrests, Kokalari stood before the military court in the Albanian capital, Tirana. She was threatened, intimidated and coerced. Archival memos refer to her hair being torn out of her head by bystanders. Her trial was transmitted live via loud speakers to the crowds outside. Her stoic stance is illustrated in a photograph taken by the Albanian Telegraphic Agency. In defiance she wore a mourning veil in memory of her executed brothers. Her powerful image made the front page of the broadsheets in Albania two days running.

This trial was the second in a run of six trials organised by the authorities in that period

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Kokalari with her brother Vesim. Linda Kokalari/Musine Kokalari Institute., Author provided

that effectively eliminated “enemies of the state”. It was dubbed the “political dissidents trial” and it sent a message about the direction that the regime was taking towards free speech. It did not deter Kokalari, who used the trial to stand up for her rights. Witness accounts speak of her declaring: “I do not need to be a communist to love my country”. Despite her bravery, she would have endured severe, prolonged torture during her detention and trial. The court refused to let her speak for any length of time.

Kokalari was sentenced to 20 years imprisonment, of which she served 16. She spent a further period of exile in northern Albania, where she worked as a manual labourer. She joked that she was a “mortar specialist”, as her work involved heavy, arduous construction. On her days off she would visit the library and sit in a public place reading a book under the watchful eye of the secret police. Despite the fact that she was forbidden to write, she secretly completed a manuscript about the founding of the Social Democratic Movement. Kokalari died in 1983 – two years before the decline of the dictatorship – after being refused treatment for cancer by the Albanian government.

The fragile rule of law

The near full isolation imposed on her by the communist authorities denied Albanian society and the wider world her powerful voice and writings. Kokalari’s writing tapped into local custom and language, using local dialects in a lucid way, as she wrote about the challenges facing her generation of women. Her broader outlook about her country’s future as a democracy is far from outdated. At its core, the protection of free speech as a key to participating in, and contributing to civil society should serve to remind us how democracies are always works in progress. Her trial and the trials of her contemporaries show how fragile the rule of law can be.

In April 2015 the Albanian parliament passed a law permitting individuals to access their secret police or Sigurimi files. In 2017 the Kokalari family was presented with the file that the Sigurimi kept on her. Within it they found the powerful and defiant photograph of the writer standing alone in front a crowd of people as she was put on trial for her beliefs (fig.1). Kokalari is evidence of a political dissident voice in a country with little experience with democracy and which existed in near isolation for most of the 20th century. It continues to struggle with its authoritarian past.

It is a timely moment to reflect on the contribution that this remarkable woman made to Albania’s cultural and political life. Her life story is a poignant tale of achievement and ambition, of hope in the face of repression and also inspiration – for Albanians and non-Albanians alike.

Dr Agata Fijalkowski is a Senior Lecturer in Lancaster University’s Law School, where she is currently working on a monograph on ‘visual law’, which considers photographs of trials from the period 1944-1957 in Albania, Germany and Poland and the way that these photographs ‘speak legally’. The powerful image of the Albanian writer and political dissident Musine Kokalari discussed in this article resulted in an exhibition at the National Science and Media Museum in Bradford that also included a short, ‘arty’ film An Unsung Hero: Musine Kokalari (2017). More broadly, she is interested in transitional criminal justice, law and the visual and war crimes. In July 2019 she will be joining Leeds Beckett University as Reader in Law. Find her on Twitter at @AgataFijalkow

‘Losers’, ‘usurpers’, and their linguistic and historical translation

Lani Seelinger

The Normalization regime in Czechoslovakia — as Václav Havel aptly illustrated in his widely read work, “The Power of the Powerless” — rested on a carefully constructed social contract. As long as Havel’s greengrocer was willing to put a sign amongst his goods displaying the “Workers of the world, unite!” slogan, he could reap all the materialistic benefits that the regime provided. The words on the sign, however, didn’t express the greengrocer’s deeply held belief; instead, they were a signal that he was willing to comply with what the regime asked.

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Václav Havel

But what about when people didn’t comply? The government could deploy certain punishments against the so-called “unreliable” individuals — demotions, blacklisting, the refusal of exit permits, even imprisonment — but one of its most important and effective methods of attack was through the propaganda machine. In the government-controlled media, like the Rudé Právo (Red Justice) newspaper, the regime could denounce the offenders in vicious terms, though their words weren’t intended merely to convey meaning. Again, they served an additional purpose — but this time, they acted as a warning.

In 1977, 242 people signed Charter 77, a document criticizing the regime for its failure to uphold the human rights requirements of documents like the 1960 Constitution of Czechoslovakia and the 1975 Helsinki Accords. The precipitating event for the Charter was the arrest of the members of the Plastic People of the Universe, a psychadelic rock band whose messaging didn’t align with the regime. The so-called “Chartists” then banded together to express their support for the band, because they saw the arrest as being in direct conflict with the regime’s commitments to human rights on paper. The regime reacted in numerous ways, but one of the most important of these was its attacks on the signatories in the press. On January 12, 1977, an article came out in Rudé Právo called “Zkroskotanci a samozvanci,” which translates to something like “Losers and Usurpers” or “Traitors and Renegades,” in which the government denounced the dissidents who had signed Charter 77.

The article begins with a description of the regime’s enemies: “imperialism,” “ the bourgeoisie,” and the “rule of capitalism,” which together have been “looking for new

Screen Shot 2019-02-19 at 12.47.09 PM
Via socialismrealised.eu

forms and methods to mount anti-communist attacks, to disrupt the unity of the socialist countries.” This, the article claims, is what the good citizens of Czechoslovakia have to fear — and then it introduces Charter 77 as “the newest defamatory article,” which “a group of people from the failed Czechoslovak reactionary bourgeoisie and the failed organizers of the 1968 counterrevolution passed on to certain western agencies at the order of the anti-communist and zionist headquarters.”

Already, this description relies on a number of recognizable enemy forces purported to be at work in the article’s publishing. In the language of the communist regimes, the bourgeoisie was always the enemy of socialism and the people working to build it, and here too the concept repeatedly turns up. The article also refers to the Prague Spring as “the 1968 counterrevolution” — the period of liberalization that resulted in the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in an effort to “protect socialism” — and a “failure”, meant as both a derisive statement as well as a warning to anyone who might try something similar. In the Cold War context, which the article also acknowledges, the West was the main antagonist, connected to all of the enemies mentioned above. By pointing to “western agencies” as the force that spread the charter, the article set up the charter’s authors as connected to Czechoslovakia’s enemies, rather than Czechoslovakia itself.

In essence, this article’s introduction illustrates the characteristics of an antagonist — the “bourgeois world” — and then describes how exactly Charter 77 is working on behalf of that antagonist against the equality, progress, and peace that the socialist system offers. The harsh denunciation of the Charter and its authors, though, only makes up a relatively small section of the article. After calling the Charter an “anti-state, anti-socialist, anti-people, and demagogic lampoon,” and describing its authors as members of the bourgeois, cosmopolitan class attempting to break up the socialist government, it quickly moves on to describing socialism as a system that is more than prepared to deal with such attempts.

“Everything against socialism is good for it,” the article reads, referring to a document calling for reform published in the lead up to the Prague Spring as an example of the sort of “bourgeois print” that the regime had readily handled in the past, despite the best efforts of numerous western media outlets, which it names in particular as the BBC, The Guardian, Le Monde, and others. These and other attempts to “dirty and malign” the system never succeeded, however, as the system was always prepared for such flimsy attack jobs, as the article’s writers maintain: “Socialism nevertheless didn’t even recoil from atomic extortion, much less from hack writers of reactionary pamphlets done to seed fear.”

In conclusion, the article moves into a full-on celebration of socialism’s successes, emphasizing the unity of the socialist countries and their progress beyond the “imperialistic circles.” Charter 77, it says, is just part of the “stream of lies” that the “reactionary propaganda has unleashed into the world about us.” The socialist system and the people within it constitute, the article concludes,

a good, honest path that will steadily guide us to the communist goals. Everyone who works honestly and contributes to the common good will find for himself life security. No mendacious defamatory article can negate history’s truth.

Throughout the article, the authors rely on terms important not so much for their meaning in the dictionary, but for their broader meaning in the national and Eastern bloc-wide discourse. We’ve already discussed the terms used to mark the enemy — reactionary, bourgeois, imperialist, Western — but on the positive side, “Life security” is a good example — in the Czechoslovak case, this meant exactly what Havel’s greengrocer was after — a job, a second house in the countryside, access to passable schools for his children. Readers may not have believed everything that the article claimed, but they would have understood the threat lurking between the lines — this, readers, is the treatment that you can expect if you join the dissident movement.

To audiences today, on the other hand, “Losers and Usurpers” reads rather as a parody, extolling the virtues of a system that would fall less than two decades after the writing of this article and denouncing the people who would emerge, in the eyes of most, as heroes. The terms that held such meaning coming from the Czechoslovak communist leaders have lost that meaning today, deprived of the discourse surrounding them. This phenomenon, however, of government propaganda and at times even normal propaganda relying on fixed discursive elements that mean more than what it says in the dictionary, is far from relegated to the past. “Losers and Usurpers,” then, serves not only as a glimpse into the past, but also as a reminder that it’s always important to approach media, especially when it comes from someone with an agenda, with a critical and discerning eye.

Lani Seelinger is a PhD student at the University of Helsinki and a remote member of the  Department of Education at the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes, Prague. She is also the co-creator and curator of Socialism Realised, an online learning environment aimed at forging a deeper understanding of the lives of the people in communist regimes, and a comparison of these experiences to the present. You can find Socialism Realised on Twitter at @SocialismR.