Celebrating our history

Opinion

I learned to fly as an RAF cadet in Rhodesia [now Zimbabwe] during the war and vividly remember the way in which Britain obliterated the history of the people of the country that it then occupied and controlled.

Zimbabwe was named after one of the most impressive architectural remains that I have ever seen, with beautiful buildings that made it obvious that highly talented builders had worked there many years ago, when the country was known as Matabeleland – well before Cecil Rhodes invaded it in the 1890s, stole the land and gave it to his white friends.

But we were assured that no African could possibly have designed and built these buildings and that they must have been erected by the Egyptian slave traders who used to swoop down from the north to capture and carry off their human cargo.

Now, Zimbabwe is free and, like every former colony, one of the first tasks that it has to undertake is to rediscover its own history and start teaching it to its own children, so that they can grow up proud of their heritage and civilization.

The British labor movement suffers from the same problem, in that, at school, children are still given the names and dates of kings and queens. They can see the many statues of British statesmen and generals on horseback, most of whom were bitterly opposed to democracy and, in many cases, were sent abroad to conquer and hold down our old empire.

There are many blue plaques on the walls of old houses telling us that “Lord this-and-that” or “General so-and-so” lived here or worked here, but how many reminders do we see of the struggles of working people, who lived and worked to improve wages and working conditions?

For, like the Black Rhodesians in the old days, our own working-class history has been neglected or ignored, almost as if we were a colony of the medieval lords and landowners – as indeed we were. More and more people are beginning to realize how important it is to rediscover that history and learn from it.

That is why May Day is so important and why people flood in to attend the Durham miners’ gala and the annual celebration of the sacrifice and courage of the Tolpuddle Martyrs who pioneered modern trade unionism.

We also have the commemoration of the famous Burston strike school each September and, since 1976, the rally at Burford, where Cromwell ordered the execution of three Leveller soldiers who, on principle, refused to fight in Ireland and, in doing so, offer leadership to all those ever since who have argued for a British withdrawal so that the Irish can determine their own future.

There are other annual events organized around the country and a growing number of memorial lectures are held to remind ourselves of the work of those in the labor and socialist movement who have gone before and whose work we need to study with care.

E.P. Thompson’s famous Making of the English Working Class, with its comprehensive index, records events in many towns that ought to be remembered.

It would a good idea if local trades councils were to institute a series of red plaques, which could be placed at special places where some strike occurred or some important demonstration was organized for peace or human rights or against racism.

Folk music is – and must be – used for the same purpose, and there is nothing more exciting than to see an audience discovering, for the first time, something of the work of others, here or worldwide, who fought for liberation for the common people against tyranny or oppression.

One of the finest examples of this is to be found in the work of Roy Bailey, a retired professor, with whom I work on a show called “Writings on the Wall,” reading radical statements over the last 700 years, while he sings about them with his guitar to remind people of the fantastic heritage that we have.

History is never just the story of the past, to be put behind us as we “modernize,” abandoning our beliefs in pursuit of some “third way” as if it was a magic potion that could cure us of all our ills without making the effort.

History is the story of how we got where we are, the mistakes that we made and the achievements that we can be proud of. It should allow us to learn better from our own experience and own mistakes as we plan our course of action for the future.

Our history helps us to realize that we are not the first people to have articulated the aspirations that we have, to dream the dreams that we dream or have to face the opposition that we now face. The reassuring knowledge of all the generations that have gone before ends the idea that we are voices in the wilderness.

The Black community has long been demanding that Black studies should be on the school curriculum. The labor movement should be making the same demand for our history too.

Tony Benn, known as the elder statesman of the British left, was a Labour Party member of Parliament for 50 years. This is abridged from an article in the British newspaper Morning Star.