Return to Recent Articles menu

Pulling Down Statues or Leaving Them Be

Gearóid Ó Loingsigh

09 June 2020

In the context of the international protests following the murder of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis a statue of a slave trader, Edward Colston, was removed from its pedestal and dumped into the harbour by protestors in the British city of Bristol, a key city in the slave trade. The video went viral immediately and was warmly welcomed by many and decried by others. It raises the question of what to do with statues of people like Colston, whether to remove them, transfer them to a museum, pull them down like they did in Bristol and what any of those actions actually mean. The issue did arise in the USA a number of years ago in the context of other protests following killings.

The first question we should consider is what is a statue? It is similar to a street name, it commemorates a person, it says this person is worthy of recognition, emulation, praise, remembrance and it reflects the dominant narrative and ideology. It reflects the power relations in a given society and although some statues are ignored by locals, unaware of who the offending party is, this was never the case when the statue was erected or the street named. No one in the USA could be unaware of who Robert E. Lee or Vice-President Calhoun was and what they represented, though what they represented is still a subject of dispute in some quarters, which in itself says something about the power relations at play.

Ireland's defeated revolution, for example, left most of the street names intact. Dublin City is full of streets named after British Lord Lieutenants, Viceroys etc, D'olier, Aungier, Amiens, Westmoreland etc. The main thoroughfare was renamed O'Connell St. after the reactionary 19th Century Irish Catholic leader Daniel O'Connell, whilst most of the leaders of the 1916 Rising had slums named after them, one exception being Pearse who had the street he was born in named after him. This reflects how the victorious side in the civil war saw themselves as the political descendents of a reformist colonial middle class turning its back on a revolutionary past and although memorials have been raised to labour or republican revolutionaries they have largely been the work of oppositionist non-State organisations. Nelson's Pillar which dominated the city centre was eventually destroyed in 1966 not by the State but by revolutionary republican militants. Had it not been for their illegal efforts there is no doubt Nelson would still look out over Dublin City. The cultural assimilation of that defeat and what it meant in real terms, regardless of the populist rhetoric of right wing parties like Fianna Fáil, means few if any Irish people pay much attention to the street names nor indeed the statues that are left over.

Such is the state of subservience and lack of consciousness that when Dublin City Council realised that Nassau Street identified by street signage in the Irish language as Sráid Thobar Phádraig (St Patrick's Well Street) due to the legend that the saint had a well there, they resolved the contradiction by changing the Irish language name of the street to Sráid Nassau, and though there is some dispute about the exact origin of each name, there is no escaping the fact that the Royalist name won out. Similar things have happened with other street names. The Irish State has not only let the colonial statues and street names be retained but it has also kowtowed to their imperialist masters across the Irish Sea, the former a cultural expression of the latter political subservience.

Vásquez Montalban joked that there was no need to change the names of streets named after Fascist generals in Spain, all that was needed was to place the word traitor before them e.g. Traitor Quiepo de Llano etc., It was a bit tongue in cheek, but raises the point about remembering what happened and how to deal with it. Is it better to demolish a statue or to rename it? e.g. People Trafficker Colston. It is obviously easier with streets to rename them, even following Vásquez Montalban's suggestion, than with statues. Statues by their nature are imposing, it is what they are meant to do and simply renaming them, wouldn't generally cut it. An explanation set in stone about the nature of the person, perhaps. It is hard to imagine Dublin's Phoenix Park without the huge imposing Wellington Monument, though with time people would get used to it. However, it is a debate that never happened and which most of the current Irish population is indifferent to. The situation is not any better in Britain or the USA, not even amongst those asking for statues to be pulled down.

Most of the British population has, apparently, a positive view of the British Empire(1) and so it should surprise no one that statues of Rhodes, Colston and others abound, along with statues of war criminals such as Churchill and Bomber Harris, who firebombed the city of Dresden, which was not a military target, murdering thousands of refugees fleeing there from other cities to what was thought to be a safe haven. Emphasising the depths of gratitude for his efforts from the spiritual leadership of the British establishment Harris' statue is to be found outside a church. These statues are not removed as the ruling class ideology is still generally accepted by the wider British public. The Cenotaph is one such other example, where every year politicians of all shades gather to rewrite the history of the mass murder of the working class in two world wars and countless other military efforts by Britain in hanging on to its Empire and murdering millions of Africans and Asians in the process. Though it is an expression of a significant revolt, how far Britain has to go is not to be measured by the spontaneous destruction of this slave trader's statue in Bristol, but by the fact that the Cenotaph will not be touched any time soon, by anyone.

Rhodes and his ilk represent a large section of British bourgeois society and it is harder to convince the authorities to remove him. Pulling him down is by far the easier and more satisfying path, it would be controversial of course because as stated he unfortunately represents a very real part of the British bourgeoisie's material inheritance, symbolising in no uncertain terms the advance of British capitalism across the globe and all that went with it. It was much easier for people in Ghana to argue for the removal of Gandhi, a man whose reputation covers up his overt racism and disdain for black people.(2) He is not part of Ghana's history, he has no role in its development as a society and removing him is of little consequence to the powers that be. And so he was removed.(3)

After the 2015 massacre in a church in Charleston, South Carolina, it was remarked that the town has a street named after Calhoun. How did this come to be? Whilst it is true that the South lost the American Civil War, it did not lose the entire argument. Slavery as a mode of production, the real issue for the North in the war, was abolished, though in practice forms of slave labour continued for many years and more importantly for the US

bourgeoisie the westward expansion of the US would not include the introduction of slavery to the new lands as a mode of production. Arguments about black rights, inferiority etc., were not lost. Most Northerners did not want rights for the black population and did not consider them to be their equals. Even Lincoln is on record as saying as much and arguing against equality. Allowing the South to erect monuments to their leaders and name streets after them was not of concern to the North and helped reinforce the subjugation of black people, now largely converted in to a reserve army of labour, in the entire country. Though, it should be said, that most of the monuments were erected in the 20th Century and quite a few in the 1960s which said more about pushing back against struggles by the black community for their freedom than anything else.

So then, in the context of the Black Lives Matter protests, demands were made to remove some statues, notably of Robert E. Lee. Lee is a figure of hate, the man represented hate and he is particularly easy to despise, but he is an easy figure to object to, as are many statues of southern generals and leaders. There are elements of racist nostalgia about them for the hard right but they no longer fully speak to US society. The racism they represent is entrenched but slavery is not. The question is, why tear down Robert E. Lee and not George Washington? Washington had slaves. Perhaps Washington gets a pass from white and black liberals due to his role in throwing off the yoke of British Imperialism. But more importantly Washington is part of the national creation myth and still speaks to the mass of the US population and their vision of themselves, which is why his ownership of slaves is overlooked, or at least is not as closely inspected. But there is little chance that George Washington's name will be removed from anything, anytime soon.

There are more recent figures in US history who do speak to the modern society that it is and are not as historically important as Washington but who where essential representatives of US imperialist power. The Dulles family and also Ronald Reagan have both had airports named after them in Washington. Dulles was the Secretary of State at the time of the coup in Guatemala and his brother Allen Dulles was the head of the CIA. Both were linked to the United Fruits company on whose behalf the coup was carried out and President Ronald Reagan's dirty war in Central America in the 1980s caused countless deaths from which the region still has not recovered.(4) Thoroughly despicable people, yet no one calls for the renaming of airports or anything else, not because these people do not deserve such opprobrium, they do, but it is because they represent the USA, that version of it, which both liberals and republicans cling to.

Under Obama, nothing much happened on any front. Cops were still cops and statues stood where they had for some time. He threw his tuppence ha'penny into the ring, overthrew Gaddaffi and watched while open air slave markets were reintroduced to northern Africa. His identitarian cheerleaders such as the writer Ta-Naheisi Coates and the billionaire Oprah Winfrey said little about it. Coates is a talented writer and commentator from a neoliberal identitarian position. He is the author of Eight Years in Power, a book which saw Obama's two terms as a period in which black people held power in the US. He was thoroughly trounced by other commentators such as the black academic Cornel West who described him rightly as the neoliberal face of the black freedom struggle.(5)

If you want to criticise slavery, colonialism and imperialism, then you must oppose capitalism, which explains why many white and black liberals were always a little too polite about statues. They knew that once you get mad enough to start pulling them down you might get around to the crux of the matter; that the issue wasn't so much the statue but rather the economic system keeping it on it's plinth.

Historically, the capitalist system is based on slavery, colonialism, imperialism and racism! It is not just an aberration but rather something which is functional to the system as it divides us. So if you tear down a statue of Colston or Robert E. Lee then you should work your way round to Reagan, Thatcher, Churchill, the Cenotaph, and in the case of Ireland, Daniel O'Connell, and the system that these memorials represent. This is why the row about Confederate statues in the US died down, Coates and Winfrey and their ilk know where this leads. Politely petitioning City Hall to remove a statue is one thing, liberal guilt assuaging is easily co opted by Liberalism, pulling it down on the other hand is expressing yourself, it is positive, it says we don't accept the system, not just slavery or racism but capitalism.

When you pull down a statue you have to replace it, at least in terms of what it represents. In Bristol there is already a petition to put a statue of Paul Stephenson an anti- racist worker who campaigned against discrimination in the transport company in Bristol in the 1960s and whose actions partly led to the Race Relations Act, a worthy replacement for Colston. But in general terms the removal or replacement of such symbols will come about when there is real change.

The presence of such symbols indicates how little many things have changed, their violent destruction indicates not just that some are willing to destroy them, but they feel their actions represent the moment, this is far more significant than pleading with the authorities to kindly remove them. If arrests are made in Bristol it is likely they could make a political rather than a legal defence and maybe even convince a jury, a far greater victory than convincing a politician to remove or transfer it to a museum.

There is a current in many protest movements and particularly across campuses in the US, but spreading elsewhere, which frames protest in terms of personal offence. What that offence is, is not always clear and less still what they would like done other than to appeal to the perpetrators of that offence to change their ways. Bristol was not an appeal, it was a direct concrete action, a manifestation of an accumulation of anger and a collective delivery of justice. Dumping Coulson unceremoniously in the tide does not change the State but it helps focus minds on who and what the enemy is and what needs to be done. Sweeping this symbolic enemy aside by this method has helped reveal the repulsive system which maintained it and most importantly it replaced appeals to the State to act, with self organised independent action.

This is about the capitalist system. Removing statues but leaving that system in place is pointless. Pulling them down as part of a struggle against that same system and making real arguments around it is very positive. Building a new society means we look at how the current one came to be; colonialism, enslavement, enclosures, brutal working conditions for the working class, what Engels termed 'social murder',(6) decade after decade of war, torture, the degradation of humanity and the degradation of the environment we live in, to name but a few aspects.

The murder of George Floyd has touched a nerve, not just in the USA, but around the world. The reaction to it in Bristol has produced this act of rage but it must go beyond that. Statues and memorials to the slave traders, but also to the Reagans, the Dulles, and all the tributes to the leading lights of this blood soaked system, are symbolic targets for direct action but the essential target is capitalism itself. That means revolutionary change, the overthrow of the profit system, the seizure of the means of production and the application of all human productive power to the task of satisfying human need, not the accumulation and concealment of huge profits. That way modern slavery, exploitation, need and hunger can be ended and a new society that will be its own shining memorial can be erected.


1 The Independent (19/01/2016) British People are proud of colonialism and the British Empire, poll finds

2 For an analysis of the reality of Gandhi see Arundhati Roy's The Scholar and the Saint, an introduction in Ambedkar, B. R. ( 2014) Annihilation of Caste: The Annotated Critical Edition. London & New York: Verso

3 The Guardian (14/11/2018) Statue of 'racist' Gandhi removed from University of Ghana

4 For an overview of US interventions in Latin America and around the world, see Blum, W. (2003) Killing Hope U.S. Military and CIA Interventions Since World War II. London: Zed Books.

5 The Guardian (17/12/2017) Ta-Nehisi Coates is the neoliberal face of the black freedom struggle

6 Engels, F. (1845) The Condition of the Working Class in England

Return to top of page