Ben Glover

Freedom is a road seldom travelled by the multitude.

Deeds Not Words – Remembering Women’s Suffrage

‘We deny the right of any portion of the species to decide for another what is and what is not their “proper sphere.” The proper sphere for all human beings is the largest and highest which they are able to attain to.’

–   Harriet Taylor Mill

 

The notion of female enfranchisement, and more latterly gender equality, is a relatively new concept in political and cultural discourse. For millennia a woman’s role and place in society has, more often than not, been defined by her relationship to men – as a wife, mother or daughter, but never as an equal, that is independent or free. Even great female historic figures, such as Elizabeth I (The Virgin Queen) or Cleopatra, are significantly defined through their relationships, or lack thereof, with men. Through religious dogma and cultural norms, the role of women in society has not developed for much of our history, it is certainly true that women have mostly fulfilled the role of domestic slave; destined from birth to undertake a position in society that was always subservient to man. From Genesis 3:16 assertion that ‘Unto the woman He said, “I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception. In sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee”’ to considerably more modern forms of discrimination (witness the current conversations concerning the limits of women in politics, music and comedy), the insistence that this is a man’s world is undoubtedly true.

However, it was during the age of revolutions (the French, American and Industrial) that the seeds of possibly one of the most significant cultural advancements were planted. The publication, in 1792, of Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman began the slow process of debate and dispute that challenged a contemporary society that cherished tradition and innate cultural conservatism over equality and reason. The arguments that Wollstonecraft outlines, that men are not naturally superior to women and lack of education is the only difference between the genders, were easily dismissed by a patriarchal society. But as the new century developed the arguments grew in volume: Jane Austen and the Brontë family started to describe polite society from an often unheard female perspective; women began to enter the industrial workforce; and institutional education reform was also introduced. Throughout the massive upheaval of the nineteenth century the fight for political representation was constantly being waged, the horrendous inequality between rich and poor was only heightened by the newly established industries and forms of commerce. The clamour for parliamentary representation from many sections of society became deafening.

The first significant attempt at forming a national organisation to lobby for the enfranchisement of women was started in 1867. Lydia Becker, founder of National Society for Women’s Suffrage, developed many of Mary Wollstonecraft’s assertions on education and gender equality and won a surprising victory for women’s suffrage in the Isle of Man, by securing the right to vote for women in the 1881 election to the House of Keys. However, this small victory had little impact on the plight of women’s suffrage on the mainland of Britain. Despite the support of many radical Liberal MPs, such as John Stuart Mill, the momentum of the suffrage movement was beginning to stall. The lack of any progression in the suffrage cause forced a split, in 1903, in the ranks of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) – a small minority, including Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst, believed that the constitutional approach to claiming the vote for women, undertaken by NUWSS, was too passive and ultimately ineffective. The formation of Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) was a bold and militant step in claiming victory for female enfranchisement. By 1913, WSPU had come to dominate polite conversation and newspaper headlines in the stifling orthodoxy of Edwardian Britain.

The upbringing of Hannah Mitchell was a fairly typical existence for a woman in the Victorian era. Born in 1872, Mitchell was denied a formal education by her parents and expected to assist her mother in supporting the male members of her family – disillusioned with the prospect of eternal domestic slavery and marital servitude, she ran away from home at the age of fourteen to Bolton in search of employment. After witnessing her mother driven to furious outbursts of anger and despair by the monotonous drudgery of housework, Mitchell quickly became radicalised by first socialism and then the Suffrage Movement. However, unlike many of her WSPU colleagues, including the Pankhursts and Margaret Haig Mackworth who were born into relatively comfortable economic surroundings, Mitchell knew only too well the struggles and indignity of being poor and female. In her autobiography, The Hard Way Up, Mitchell honestly details many aspects of an average woman’s life that led her to believe that militant suffrage was the most efficient way to secure the vote. From the ‘sheer barbarism’ of child birth to the subjugation of marriage, she became vehemently resentful of the inequality of the sexes, and embittered at the freedom and opportunities afforded to men. She noted:

Perhaps if I had really understood myself, as I did later, I should not have married. I soon realised that married life, as men understand it, calls for a degree of self-abnegation on the part of women which is impossible for me. I needed solitude, time for study and the opportunity for a wider life.

It was not just the traditional role of women that drew so many to the militancy of the WSPU. Working conditions and employment opportunities for women in the pre-war Britain were limited at best and non-existent at worst. Annie Kenney, one of the most indefatigable members of the WSPU, had started work at a local cotton mill at the age of ten years-old to help her parents (and eleven siblings) survive the crushing economic reality of so many of Britain’s working poor. For many working class women there were limited employment opportunities available in the mills, mines and in domestic service, but little chance of any progression from general hard labourer. However, for the women of the established lower middle classes the options were fewer; teacher, Poor Law Guardian, wife and mother. The glass ceiling was so restrictive, in terms of employment, that it would have been more accurately described as a glass cage. The suffocatingly limited employment opportunities combined with the lower wages for women, for instance Kenney would have been paid up to fifty percent less than a man who did a similar job, meant that many women felt the constitutional approach of the NUWSS, although valid, would not produce the required results. Sadly the correspondents of a man in Twickenham to his local newspaper typified the indignation felt by many people towards the Suffrage Movement:

It is a pity that women, especially married women, cannot find sufficient domestic duties to keep them from such acts as these, and helping to lower the opinion of the British woman in the eyes of other nations.

Dr Martin Luther King once pronounced ‘a riot is the language of the unheard’, and whilst the Suffragettes never rioted, the actions undertaken by the WSPU were these women shouting to be understood. Political and civic institutions were failing women – employers exploited them, husbands could beat them and a society ignored them – yet it was only men that had proper recourse against the vagaries of a conservative society. Emmeline Pankhurst identified that women suffered in society because their experiences and opinions were never understood in Parliament (a Parliament run by men, voted for by men and which produced laws designed for men). If the lawmakers do not understand the issues faced by a section of people, how can they produce a law to help them? It was clear, to the WSPU at least, to attain an equitable Britain, for both sexes, that women must be free to vote. Emmeline Pankhurst noted that

It is perfectly evident to any logical mind that when you have got the vote, by the proper use of the vote in sufficient numbers, by combination, you can get out of any legislature whatever you want, or, if you cannot get it, you can send them about their business and choose other people who will be more attentive to your demands.

However, Parliament was reluctant to change. It was through both ideological stubbornness and political pragmatism, that the Women’s Franchise Bill and the Conciliation Bills did not pass the reading stages. Even though many Liberals in the government supported the idea of women’s suffrage they still voted against these Bills because they believed that it would gift the Conservative Party one million more votes – considering that the Liberal Party lost the popular vote in the December 1910 general election by over one hundred thousand votes, they still controlling majority in  Parliament (thanks to our wonderful first-past-the-post voting system) – it was a risk that the Prime Minister HH Asquith was unwilling to take. This failure of Parliament was the final insult to the Suffragettes and, as the prospect of a global conflict darkened the horizon, the WSPU stepped up their campaign.

The images of Emily Wilding Davison being struck by the horse of King George V, Anmer at the Epsom Derby, whilst she attempted to grab the bridle in 1913, is still as shocking and poignant today as it has ever been. This desperate act of rebellion is in itself worthy of commemoration, the ultimate sacrifice given for what today we take as a mundane democratic right. However, there were many more women, in 1913, which yielded their rights, health and freedoms in order to secure a better, more equitable, future. Many Suffragettes, including Kenney, Pankhurst and Haig Mackworth, were imprisoned in 1913, as the WSPU undertook a campaign of window smashing, arson, pillar box burning, bombing public buildings and more general acts of civil disobedience. Under the green, white and purple banner that proclaimed ‘Deeds Not Words’, the Home Office, Kew Gardens, David Lloyd George’s house in Walton-on-the-Hill and the Tower of London all became legitimate targets for the Suffragettes’ anger. The justification for this increase in militancy was made by Emmeline’s daughter, Christabel Pankhurst, while in Paris avoiding prosecution in Britain, she opined ‘[t]he fact that the miners are going to get legislation because they have made themselves a nuisance is a direct incitement to women to endeavour to obtain a similar privilege’.

It is noticeable that none of these attacks against property, firstly public but latterly private, were intended to physically harm any person, instead they were a clear message to Parliament that voting rights for women was a non-negotiable demand. The obvious consequence of these defiant acts was the incarceration of many leading members of the WSPU in some of the worst jails in Britain. The suffragette leadership, including the Pankhursts, knew the publicity value of women being imprisoned for their campaign was significant; to highlight this even further, and to protest at the truly appalling conditions that inmates were subjected to, many suffragettes began a hunger strike. Though technically not illegal, the government realised the public relations disaster if it allowed any one of the suffragettes to die in prison while on hunger strike – so it initiated a policy of force feeding to ensure that the prisoners were healthy enough to serve their sentences. However, the forcible feeding of women in prison became the perfect metaphor for the suffrage movement; women, keep against their will, subjugated by men and who had no control over their own destiny, not even death.

 

4 TThe Liberal Government’s response to this escalation in hunger striking was the introduction of the Prisoners (Temporary Discharge for Ill Health) Act 1913 or more commonly known as the Cat and Mouse Act. It was believed that by letting the suffragettes (the mice) to go on hunger strike and then releasing them on license when they became weak and malnourished, only to re-arrest them once their condition had improved, was preferable to the negative publicity that surrounded the forcible feeding procedure. Also the government thought that there could be a secondary benefit in keeping the suffragettes as weak and frail as possible as the women would less likely to be undertaking any nefarious activities while on license. However, what was designed as a discreet method to deal with the suffragette problem became genuinely counter-productive, as it undermined the government’s moral authority and developed into the embodiment of the movement’s struggle in the public’s consciousness. But as the time passed, it was the untimely death of Emily Davison at Tattenham Corner that will always symbolise the sacrifices made for the suffragette movement and democracy in Britain as a whole. In life she was a nuisance, but in death she became a martyr.

So, why is it so important to commemorate this hundredth anniversary? Is it just to pay tribute to the sacrifices made by Emily Davison and her colleagues in making our society more equitable and democratic? There, of course, should be a significant element of remembrance in this commemoration, but it also gives us a chance to put in perspective the challenges that still face us. The women fighting for the vote a hundred years ago, weren’t fighting for an abstract notion of civic involvement or democratic idealism – they saw the vote as an instrument to improve the lives of all women in Britain; who, for too long, had been ignored and abused by a deeply conservative and patriarchal society. Many issues that blighted the lives of women in Edwardian and Victorian Britain are still in existence today; the glass ceiling and limited employment opportunities, the projection of a stereotypical role of women in society, pay inequality and the representation of women in our civic institutions. Although there has been significant improvement in many of these areas, there is compelling evidence that suggests that we still have a long road to travel to reach a truly equitable society. Currently women earn on average fifteen percent less than their male counterparts. In Parliament women make up less than a quarter of all MPs. The justice system is only now beginning to realise that attacks against women, including rape, are not brought upon themselves. There is a complete lack of female representation in the boardroom of Britain’s companies, one survey suggesting less than one fifth of all boardroom members is a woman. The victories of the suffrage movement were hard won, but there are many battles ahead if we are going to ensure a fair society for everyone, regardless of gender, race or economic heritage.

Port in a Storm: A History of One City’s Radicalism

Newport has always had a compelling allure for me. Growing up in the steel town of Ebbw Vale, it was hard to avoid the fact that Newport was the de facto capital of the South East Wales’ Valleys. The town, as it was then, teemed with life and opportunities that were sadly lacking in a semi-post-industrial, post-Miner’s Strike Ebbw Vale. Newport thrived on individuality, free-thinking and a self confidence that was utterly remarkable in my experience – if Newport was a character in John Hughes’ The Breakfast Club, it would almost certainly be Judd Nelson’s edgy and rebellious John Bender, as opposed to Cardiff’s corporate and socially conservative Emilio Estevez. Far from the description of the city in Adam Walton’s radio documentary of The Legendary TJ’s owner John Sicolo, as a ‘cultural desert’, Newport has a vibrancy that can be both compelling and life affirming. Also, there is a radical political legacy in Newport that has shaped not only Wales, but has impacted upon Britain and possibly the world, which is not just confined to tales of Chartism and John Frost (even though these are hugely important and vital in the retelling of Newport’s political past). It is because of this unique cocktail of culture, vibrancy and heritage that I made Newport my home.

My first introduction to political radicalism in Newport came, like most people, in the history lessons of state education – seemingly endless passages of text describing with intricate detail the events of November 4th 1839 and what became known as the Newport Rising. The ideals of Chartism and Newport’s pivotal role were hardly discussed; instead we focused on the suffocatingly narrow narrative of the GSCE curriculum of events and dates. By adhering to a strictly linear approach to the teaching of history, no-one understood the significance and uniqueness of Newport in the shaping our present society. Through the struggles of Chartism, the Suffragette and Trade Union movements, Newport continually produced individuals and institutions that challenged the norms and conventions of society. However, is it possible that these individuals that have shaped the world around us, such as John Frost and Margaret Haig Mackworth, could have come from another town or another city and it was just happenstance that Newport became their base? Or was it the conditions, culture and geography unique to Newport that allowed them to develop into the historical figures they have undoubtedly become?

Before the beginning of the nineteenth century and the birth of the Industrial Revolution, Newport was a small town that had little impact on the events of the State, and was only notable for the Welsh King Gwynllyw and the petty squabbles between the Morgan and Herbert families. Then as the mineral wealth of South East Wales was discovered and exploited, Newport began to develop into the city we know today. The birth of any major conurbation is often a fraught affair, and Newport was no different; workers arrived in the town from all four corners of the British Isles with hopes of a better life, only to be presented with a level of squalor and degradation that would be familiar to anyone who had a merest understanding of Dante’s Inferno. According to Colonel James Considine in 1840, Newport was a ‘vile town… in which the lower classes are of the very worst description.’

For decades the factory owners, landlords and shopkeepers exploited the working class across South Wales, from unsafe working conditions to the truck system, employees had few luxuries and even fewer rights – the utopian model of Robert Owen’s New Lanark, a town planned with allowances for social and economic welfare for its workers, must have seemed a distant dream for the South Wales’ miners and ironworkers. Given these appalling living conditions, the people of Newport and the surrounding valleys began to demand greater representation in the structures of government, better working practices and a restructuring of the Poor Law (1834). Chartism, and the subsequent publication of the People’s Charter in 1838, was a unifying movement that gained momentum throughout the newly industrialised towns and cities of Britain – the extending of the democratic franchise to all men over the age of twenty-one and the demand for the opening up of Parliament to the working and middle classes must have seemed an intoxicating notion to a society that had been stifled by patronage, elitism and de facto feudalism.

Then at the Westgate Hotel in Newport this clarion call of Chartism reached its zenith as ironworkers, miners, artisans, skilled and unskilled labourers, led by a former mayor of Newport, John Frost, attempted to liberate fellow Chartists and potentially begin a guerrilla war that they hoped would spread across the nation. This became the largest insurrection against authority in mainland Britain since the Civil War, with potentially seven thousand men taking up arms – though a number between one and five thousand is more realistic. The result of the Newport Rising was far from inevitable; with the Prime Minister Lord Melbourne commenting that rebellion could have succeeded and the result would have been disastrous for the comfortable status quo enjoyed by Britain’s ruling elite. Instead the Newport Rising failed, but it is interesting that, because of the unique conditions in Newport at the time, it was the only area in Britain, with the possible exception of the West Riding of Yorkshire, that a Chartist rebellion could have been conceived. Why Newport?

For centuries Newport, not Cardiff, was the main social, political, cultural and economic centre of the South East Wales Valleys. These valleys’ roads, canals, rivers and railways acted as the blackened arteries for Newport’s beating heart of commerce – in the space of forty years, from 1800 to 1840, the population of these areas boomed. As David JV Jones notes in his insightful work The Last Rising: The Newport Chartist Insurrection of 1839 when describing the results of a government inquiry, led by Seymour Tremenheere, into the Chartist movement, he comments:

 

They discovered a geography, an economy, and a society which had few parallels and fewer precedents. ‘The localities in which the vast populations of the hills are congregated are remote and peculiar,’ Tremenheere reflected a few years later. ‘From the central chain of moorland, separating the counties of Monmouth, Brecon and Glamorgan, numerous valleys run off at right angles towards [Newport].’ These valleys … produced a substantial share of Britain’s wealth.

 

This network of transportation links, primarily designed for the flow of coal, tin and iron, allowed also for a free movement of ideas, radical thought and a revolutionary spirit. With Newport acting as the terminus of these trade and philosophical arteries it was inevitable that the largest town in the area would also become the focal point for any uprising.

The Newport Rising, like the French Revolution that preceded it and the October Revolution that followed, were born out of distress and oppression – the roots of these events lay deep in the unimaginably horrific working and living conditions that people constantly endured. Though this experience was hardly unique to Newport, these conditions certainly contributed towards the air of desperation; the cotton mills in Manchester, the iron and steelworks in Sheffield and the mines of the East Midlands could equally claim their working conditions were just as appalling. Illness, deprivation and death haunted these newly formed industrial towns. Diseases, such as cholera and typhus, claimed numerous lives and serious injury or death at work were just occupational hazards. Each man that participated in the Newport Rising had their own reasons for rebelling against the ruling classes, but it is an accurate assumption that these working and living conditions were the basis for most Chartists’ grievances – for few men would attempt to protest against the government, where most knew that their lives could be lost, without a significant reason to do so.

When searching for the reason why the Chartist rebellion could only have started in Newport, it is important to review how the Welsh language, the Nonconformist tradition and a history of radical political institutions created an extraordinary environment in which blueprints for revolution were allowed to be conceived. Most social commentators after the showdown at the Westgate Hotel repeated the mantra, as David JV Jones confirms, that the Chartist movement ‘had been planned in the chapels, and a great deal was made of the radical sympathies of some Nonconformists, especially of the Unitarians… and Primitive Methodists’. Since the Welsh Methodist Revival in the eighteenth century, there became a clear and distinct separation of English and Welsh religious practices; the church was viewed as Anglican and the spokesperson of the owners and capitalism, whilst the chapel was Nonconformist and spoke to the working classes. This division between the two sides of society was further exacerbated by the use of the English and Welsh language, in which Welsh, rarely spoken by the management of the mines and the ironworks, became the language of radicalism and sedition. Furthermore, it is also necessary to understand the upheaval that many workers undertook to relocate to these recently industrialised towns – in these newly constructed communities it takes time, maybe generations, to manufacture traditions, conventions and intuitive conservatism; the structures of society are malleable and radical ideas can easily become the norm. The Nonconformist Chapels offered a continuity and comfort for many working class men and their families, but it also became a place that it was possible to converse freely.

This ability to talk and openly associate using the Welsh language significantly contributed to the potential for a rebellion, since it reduced the need for more clandestine forms of communication. A fact which was not lost on the educational reformers sent to Wales after the Newport Rising, who identified both the Welsh language and Nonconformity as major contributors towards a general rebellious spirit associated with the Welsh nation. The fear in London was that the Welsh were becoming as ungovernable as the Irish. Incidents such as the Merthyr Insurrection of 1831, the Rebecca Riots and the activities of the Scotch Cattle (a miners’ organisation that primarily committed acts of terrorism against perceived unfair working practices) fuelled wild speculation across Britain that the working class of South Wales were just outlaws intent on causing the destruction of the means of production and it was through Nonconformity, the Welsh language and geography that this was allowed to prosper. Consequently, the educational system in the region and the Welsh language were attacked by the Government and ruling elite; both were viewed as un-Anglican and therefore deviant. The attempts to eradicate the Welsh language, through strict educational reform, were a direct result of the Newport Rising and the other working class movements in South Wales of the second quarter of the nineteenth century. All the Government inquiries into this civil unrest wilfully ignored the actual reasons for the direction action by the Chartists; instead they spent more effort in discrediting and stereotyping them as simple thugs who, because of their Celtic temperament, needed coercion to be forced to work rather than understanding what they really wanted was an equitable society.

It is this fight for a more democratic society, which has typified much of the political radicalism of Newport, the role of individual activism has been at the centre of this struggle. Chartism in South Wales needed the leadership of individuals such as John Frost, Zephaniah Williams and William Jones to help inspire the massed ranks of confused and angry men. Furthermore, Newport has produced other prominent radicals who have taken a lead role in their confrontations against the established orthodoxy, such as Margaret Haig Mackworth and John Batchelor. Indeed, the tale of Margaret Haig Mackworth (née Thomas), and her role in the Suffragette movement, is a fascinating one.

Born into privilege during the latter part of the nineteenth century, Mackworth was radicalised from a young age. Her father was David Alfred Thomas, a social reformer and Liberal Member of Parliament for Merthyr Tydfil, holding the seat for over twenty years. Her mother, Sybil Margaret Haig, cousin of the infamous Field Marshall Douglas Haig, was a noted campaigner for female suffrage and a prominent member of the moderate National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies.

Throughout her childhood Margaret witnessed her parents constantly battling for the rights and ethical freedoms of the working class and disenfranchised. Having witnessed her mother’s moderate approach to female suffrage was having little impact upon the political machinations of Westminster, Mackworth decide to join the more militant organisation Women’s Social and Political Union, whose motto ‘Deeds, Not Words’ hinted at a more aggressive campaigning approach, in 1908. She quickly became the Union’s Newport Branch Secretary and during the subsequent six year period she campaigned tirelessly for the cause of female suffrage. She notably destroyed a post box on the Risca Road in an attempt to sabotage the contents by posting explosive substances, for which she served a prison sentence only to be released after undertaking a hunger strike. She also took direct action during the 1910 General Election attacking the car of Prime Minister Herbert Asquith in St Andrews. Mackworth also spoke at many meetings across Newport (probably a more dangerous pastime than handling explosives) espousing the importance of her movement in which she would regularly get personally abused and assaulted.

After surviving World War I and the torpedoing of the RMS Lusitania, on which she was returning from America; Mackworth became one of the most prominent proponents of feminism in Britain. She undertook many campaigns related to universal suffrage, including an unsuccessful fight to take her father’s seat in the House of Lords, along with her battle for the extension of the female voting franchise. Not satisfied with gaining just a partial victory in the Representation of the People Act 1918, allowing women over thirty the vote, Mackworth continued to shape the language of political discourse with the founding of the Six Point Group. This was campaigning organisation that attempted, through extensive legislation, to improve the lives of women and children throughout society by creating equality in many spheres of public office and life. Furthermore, Mackworth established, and later edited, a political and literary magazine entitled Tide and Time – initially it was devised as a feminist publication to support the work of the Six Point Group, but later it evolved into a more traditional left wing journal. A brilliant campaigner, writer, and political force, Margaret Haig Mackworth (Viscountess Rhondda as she later became known) was one of the most remarkable products of Newport’s radical past that it seems an immense shame that the only monument to her legacy in Newport is a battered old post box on the Risca Road.

Another testament to Newport’s distinctive political heritage can be witnessed in the occasions when the city becomes the focal point for national news. As indicated by the struggles of the Chartist campaign, Newport has often been associated with the traditions of the working class and the Trade Union movement. There have been some notable incidents such as the Newport Dock Strike of 1910 and the commandeering of the gondola on the Newport Transporter Bridge during the Miners’ Strike, in which miners marched on Newport from the surrounding valleys, echoing the Chartists’ efforts in 1839. This adherence to the socialist principles of borderless comradeship also saw many people from Newport join the International Brigade to fight Franco’s fascists in the Spanish Civil War and the housing of many of the parentless refugee children, from the conflict, in return. This heritage of social conscience is not just confined to the political activism and campaigns that are associated with Newport; it also permeates through every aspect of the city’s literature, music and arts. It is a theme that connects the writings of WH Davies, the music of Dub War, Jon Langford and the Manic Street Preachers (though not initially from Newport, they have been heavily influenced by the city).

Newport is a city that is rightly proud to wear its history on its sleeve. It has witnessed many conflicts and suffered some of the worst living conditions mankind has ever endured in peacetime, but it has never forgotten the struggles of previous generations that fought for the rights and freedoms that we all currently enjoy. The people of Newport have influenced and shaped world events; from the affect that possibly the first ever worker led insurrection had on Karl Marx to the impact Viscountess Rhondda had upon the international feminism movement – Newport has continually challenged the orthodoxy in a country that cherishes tradition, intuitive conservatism and convention over the rights of the individual. It may be a city that has charms that are not immediately forthcoming, but it is a city that has a vibrancy and independence unlike any other I have visited.

Rachel Carson: The Vanguard of the Natural World

‘Then a strange blight crept over the area and everything began to change. Some evil spell had settled on the community: mysterious maladies swept the flocks of chickens; the cattle and sheep sickened and died. Everywhere was a shadow of death.’

Since the first efforts of prehistoric humans in Levant to domesticate both plants and animals approximately twelve thousand years ago, man’s relationship with his environment has been complex. Through numerous agrarian revolutions, man has shaped and influenced the natural world beyond imagination and frequently with little regard for the consequences of his actions. Often viewed as benign cultivation, these first steps in environmental exploitation set a path for man’s exponential growth to become the dominant species on our planet. However, the complexity of our existence within a larger ecosystem began to be perceived during the birth of the industrial revolution. Suddenly man was able to structure his environment according to his needs and whims: through sheer brute force man could change the course of a river, strip forests naked and choke the very air that he breathed. Mankind blithely assumed that somehow the world was so large that his poisons would simply disappear in its immensity. As time progressed and industry spread, the connections that linked our species to the natural world became ever more strained and distant, reaching a zenith of arrogance and ignorance with the detonation of the first atomic weapons. Man believed he was master of all that he surveyed.

The consequences of our actions upon our planet are undeniable. From the shameful monuments to our consumerism, such as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, to the oppressively sterile grasslands of South America, where once ancient rainforests stood testament to nature’s great diversity – humans have continually poisoned, suffocated and butchered the natural world for the sake of progress, caring little for the impact of their wanton vandalism. For Rachel Carson, author of the genre defining Silent Spring, man’s indifference and hubris towards his own ecosystems could only reach one inevitable conclusion – the extermination of man’s existence.

There are very few books that can claim to alter the discourse of a nation, let alone entirely change the framework, including societal attitudes, in which an issue is considered. Conceivably, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which assisted defining the public’s attitudes towards slavery before the onset of the American Civil War, is one such case. Also Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’ short thesis The Communist Manifesto is a definite candidate for this exclusive category. It is amongst these culturally defining publications that Carson’s Silent Spring is unquestionably placed, since very few other works have so deeply impacted upon our understanding and perception of the world in which we exist. Like all great works of literature, the premise of Carson’s work is simple: we, as a species, live in an interconnected environment where the indiscriminate use of synthetic chemicals to destroy insects, that invade crops, recreational areas and private residencies, could potentially have the inadvertent effect of killing our natural world, including us. Obviously, this concept of the inter-connectivity of life had been discussed and theorised for the previous century, but the unique aspect of Carson’s Silent Spring was that it exposed both the chemical industrial complex and various government agencies to criticisms of negligence and complicity in the destruct of vast swathes of natural habitat. For the American public of the early 1960s this was revolutionary.

Rachel Carson

Rachel Carson

The basic thesis of Carson’s work was that mankind must fundamentally re-evaluate his relationship with the natural world. Technological progression over the previous century, and more specifically over the period of the two World Wars, had meant that man’s capacity to affect his environment had dramatically altered. Rachel Carson describes in uncompromising detail how man, using tactics and engineering designed for warfare, was able to chemically plough vast tracts of land in order to produce a higher crop yield or eradicate an unwanted pest for aesthetic reasons. One such cited example was that of governmental attempts to control the sagebrush plant, an aromatic shrub, on the bitter upland plains of the Rocky Mountains. The environmental agencies’ logic was simple: by chemically spraying millions of acres of uncultivated grasslands to exterminate the sagebrush; the rancher, the farmer and the cattleman could graze greater numbers of cattle and sheep to satisfy the public’s insatiable demand. However, there seemed to have been little consideration whether the climate or the soil itself could support the types of grass that are conducive to rearing livestock. Eager to use man’s latest, bright new toy – the government agencies, chemical industries and cattlemen successfully sterilised millions upon millions of acres of natural habitat that supported a diverse range of wildlife. Gone are the willows that were poisoned along with the sagebrush; gone are the moose, deer and antelope that relied on these crucial plants for sustenance; gone are the beavers that depended upon the willow to construct their dams and, long with it, the naturally formed lakes that supported many species of fish, insect and bird. A finely balanced ecosystem that had developed over millennia, destroyed in a chemical experiment that was sponsored by man’s greed and naivety. Mankind now truly had ‘dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping animal that creepeth upon the earth.’

The theory of inter-connectivity permeates throughout all of Rachel Carson’s work; she describes a species at war with all other life, though it is fought through ignorance rather than malice. By using synthetic chemical compounds, such as DDT, dieldrin and aldrin, man attempts to control a variety of insects to preserve crops and natural areas. However, this careless approach of blanket spraying has many unintended consequences to the environment; firstly the indiscriminate use of insecticides destroys and contaminates the base of food pyramid, all insects are affected not just those targeted. Secondly, the animals that rely upon insects as a food source die of starvation or poisoning – since the accumulative effect of eating significant amounts of insecticides impacts upon the brain and vital organs of all animals that consume the tainted insects. This tragic domino effect gradually labours itself through the complete food chain, from smallest grub to the largest predator; all are afflicted by man’s desire to control his environment. Ironically, it is the insects that potentially benefit the most from the use of insecticides, since they are quick to re-establish their population through Darwin’s theory of natural selection. Though many insects die every time DDT is applied, there are some that are genetically resistant to this poison and, due to the destruction of its predators, can breed without interference. This often leads to a population boom of insects every two years after the chemical application. Therefore, to treat these resistant insects, mankind develops more potent synthetic chemical compounds, as we undertake a scorched earth policy against this most ancient of foes. The result is a world devoid of life and variety; the inevitable consequence of man’s folly.

There are many profound aspects that contribute to the enduring legacy of Silent Spring. But the concepts that both government and private industry do not always act towards a greater good, resulted in the reaction following the book’s publication that was both immediate and ferocious. For the first time since the Great Depression, an author directly challenged the assumptions that formed the pillars of American society – Linda Lear, Rachel Carson’s biographer, notes that ‘She had toppled America’s blind faith in science and, more damaging still, she initiated public debate over the direction of technological progress.’ Part of this public discussion was the chemical industry’s visceral attack on both Carson’s work and personal life. All Carson’s conclusions concerning the impact of chemicals upon wildlife and humans were discredited. Her gender and sexuality became legitimate targets for ridicule, after all Carson was an unmarried spinster with no children, the industry argued. However it was the contempt that Carson faced from the twin defendants was unprecedented: a former Secretary of Agriculture, Ezra Taft Benson, claimed ‘she is probably a communist’ and queried her right to have any interest in genetics. Further to these personal reproaches, the chemical industry’s lobby groups spent in excess of a quarter of a million dollars, approximately two million dollars today, specifically to argue against Carson’s research. These lobby groups claimed that Carson had deliberately falsified results, exaggerated test data and drawn selective conclusions. Nevertheless, Silent Spring had set in motion an ecological juggernaut that was not going to be derailed by the poisonous pronouncements of any vested interest groups.

Soon after publication, a metamorphosis began in American society. Public opinion started to shift away from the traditional perspective that man’s impact on the environment was benign, towards a more pragmatic approach. Society was beginning to comprehend that the use of synthetic chemicals in agriculture and nuclear fallout from atomic weapons testing had the potential to destroy our environment, including man. As a direct consequence of Silent Spring, many grassroots movements formed in many states across America. These ecological organisations began to challenge their local government, environment agencies and chemical companies to provide evidence that the products that they were using to tackle nuisance insects were safe and targeted. Rachel Carson would also have an impact upon the highest echelons of the federal government in the United States. After reading Silent Spring, John F Kennedy was sufficiently moved to order his President’s Science Advisory Committee to investigate all of Carson’s assertions into the misuse of pesticides by the chemical industry. The direct result was a banning of DDT but, possibly more importantly for the larger ecological movement, a complete vindication of Carson’s research and conclusions. Silent Spring helped redefine the terms in which the environment is discussed within the mainstream of political and societal discourse. Even to the present day, it still inspires people to constantly question our impact upon this small blue marble that is our home.

Potentially the most significant factor that lets Rachel Carson’s magnum opus resonant through the generations is that it was specifically written for general consumption, and it is because of Carson’s skill as an author that Silent Spring still endures as a high watermark in the non-fiction genre. In lesser hands the topics discussed could easily have been ignored; another dry academic paper concerning man’s impact upon his planet that becomes almost indecipherable to all but the select élite. Carson certainly was not the first author to warn of the hazards of pesticides or attempted to alert the public to the dangers of highly toxic chemicals. However, it is because of the beauty of the prose and the eloquence of the arguments, Silent Spring reached an unprecedented audience – within the first six months of its release over half a million people had purchased a copy and many more had read its serialisation in The New Yorker magazine that initially commissioned the piece. There are very few authors that can match Rachel Carson’s finesse when describing the natural and physical world; Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath both contain elements that would not appear out of place in Carson’s literary style. Even the chapter titles threw away the rigours of scientific orthodoxy in favour of a more populist tone: ‘Needless Havoc’ and ‘Rivers of Death’ leave the reader in little doubt over Carson’s opinions. It is with the accessibility of a novel that Silent Spring was able to achieve such popularity – anyone who has attempted to discover the forbidden truths of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species can attest to the fact that academic candour does not necessarily equate to an enjoyable experience. It is this mixture, of the scientific and the literary, that combined to establish Silent Spring as the masterpiece that re-imagined the fundamental relationship between man and his environment.

The legacy of Silent Spring is beyond dispute. It has been widely credited as the birth of the environmental movement; both Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth owe their existence to the wider public consciousness created by the polemic Rachel Carson. American Presidents and Vice Presidents have mentioned that Carson’s work has profoundly altered their attitudes towards the natural world and, consequently, many of the policies of their administrations.

However, the story of Silent Spring is not a story of success. Man has always attempted to challenge and alter his environment – from the birth of the first agrarian society; man has sought to mould the world to his advantage. Worryingly, man has still to learn the lesson that all life, from the smallest single celled amoeba to the largest blue whale, exist in a finely balanced and symbiotic relationship. After fifty years since its release, it is possible, with the benefit of hindsight, to review Carson’s analysis concerning whether our impact on the natural world is undertaken maliciously or ignorantly. The answer is simple: it is certainly malicious; it is just perpetuated under a veneer of uncertainty and feigned innocence. We allow libertarian think tanks and political lobby groups to cloud the discussion with inexactitudes and falsehoods concerning our impact on the most precious of our resources. Continually they undermine the scientific consensus with spurious arguments, which are often to the profit of their powerful benefactors – time and again, legislation is delayed, disrupted, watered down and doomed to failure because of the coordination of interest groups who profit handsomely from the malaise.

As the honorary figurehead of the environmental movement, Rachel Carson is still targeted by these free market libertarians who believe that government intervention in the environment is negatively impacting on their ability to create wealth and prosperity. Nearly fifty years after her death (Carson was suffering from terminal breast cancer while writing Silent Spring), the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a libertarian think tank, launched a concerted campaign to discredit her legacy –  the main accusations focus on the banning of DDT as having caused millions of deaths due to malaria. The continual assertion of these claims is intended to deliberately misrepresent Carson’s position on the use of chemical pesticides and distort her arguments concerning the spread of malaria. Her thesis was simple: indiscriminate spraying of pesticides is counterproductive and a more nuanced approach is required, where targeted use of DDT, along with other control methods, would produce better results to manage insect populations. Furthermore, it was because the insects were becoming genetically resistant to DDT that many governments ordered its withdrawal, not as many have claimed through pressure from environmentalists. It is pragmatism that dictates Carson’s Silent Spring, not the romanticism of James Lovelock’s Gaia Theory – ‘Sometimes we have no choice but to disturb these relationships, but we should do so thoughtfully, with full awareness that what we do may have consequences remote in time and place.’ If these warnings are not heeded, any future research into the natural world will be a post mortem rather than an observational study.

Jimmy Carter: True and Dare

There is a perpetual dance. A dance that is as choreographed and engineered as any ballet that you have witnessed. However, this dance does not possess the beguiling beauty of Swan Lake or the wondrous charms of Giselle; instead it is the well rehearsed, yet utterly impotent, dance of modern political discourse. Under the guise of seeking the truth we, as a disenfranchised electorate, watch a series of banal politicians pandering to the whims of the general public. These politicians continually endeavour to capture the imagination of a bored populous by disclosing empty rhetoric and vague half-truths in the attempt to curry our favour once every election cycle; engaging the public just long enough to keep their jobs for another term in office. The popular misconception is that these politicians are the gatekeepers to an undeniable truth that if fully revealed would extinguish their precious careers, whilst enlightening an entire nation. However, we are consoled by the thought that there are many others in our society, such as the Fourth Estate that will continually engage and scrutinize the political caste on our behalf; this delegation of responsibility allows us the freedom not to be constantly conscious of current political discourse. Yet the malaise that engulfs us endures.

The Fourth Estate has always been a powerful force in British politics; the concept that the free press will serve as a watchman against the hubris of the political cabal is as comforting as it is essential for democracy to thrive. Witness the checks and balances offered by the Washington Post during the Watergate scandal that ultimately led to the downfall of the Nixon Administration or the exposition of MP’s expenses by the Daily Telegraph and Heather Brooke. Political journalists can, and often do, offer a vital service to the public who rely upon their investigative abilities.

However, for every Heather Brooke or Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, there are many more political journalists that believe the only way to expose the truth from a politician is by claiming it from their cold, dead hands after besting them in an interview. The rules of these dances are unspoken; the politician is unable to tell the whole truth, so will attempt to avoid disclosing too much information for fear of straying ‘off message’, instead they deal in platitudes and generalisation. In understanding this internal dilemma, the interviewer will feign anger and aggression, constantly appearing to be dismayed at the politician’s lack of integrity and honesty. If the politicians in this dance of discourse are the Prima Ballerinas, then the journalists are unquestionably the Premier Danseur Nobles, with the public watching on in the stalls; marvelling at its effortless posturing and captivated by its utter futility.

The final act of this dance of the politicians reveals a disturbing and uncomfortable scenario: the reason why our elected figures do not (and possibly cannot) burden us with the pure, unadulterated truth is because we castigate the politicians who do. Unlike Peter Finch’s Howard Beale, in the poignant Network, we are not shouting out of the windows ‘I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!”‘ Instead we acquiesce and accept the malaise. The distressing truth is we, as a society, are responsible for the politicians we acquire – we choose politicians who massage our collective egos, who proclaim the tired adages of openness, equality and community; only to observe their continual efforts to pursue of special interest and personal reward. If the history of democracy teaches us anything it is that politicians who challenge our collective cognitive dissonance are severely punished. Jimmy Carter’s infamous ‘Crisis of Confidence’ speech bears testimony to this cruel irony.

The America of the 1970s was a wounded beast; it was nation still suffering from the collective traumas of the Vietnam War, Watergate and the assassinations of Martin Luther King jnr, and of John and Robert Kennedy. The faith of the American people, in the institutions of government, was shaken to its very foundations. The electorate demanded a President to purify Washington of the stench of these scandals and would welcome any candidate who promised a return to the politics of a more innocent day when special interest groups did not govern the country. Enter a peanut farmer from America’s Deep South; a man so unrecognised that the media bequeathed him the insulting moniker of ‘Jimmy Who?’ during his successful presidential campaign in 1976. From the very beginning of his political career as a State Senator for Georgia, Jimmy Carter was never an obvious choice to be President of the United States, but his quiet and humble demeanour belied a self confidence and arrogance that has rarely been witnessed in Washington DC, the spiritual heart of paranoia and avarice. During the first few months of his presidency, Carter was determined to re-establish faith in the federal government, both actual and metaphysical, by confirming to the public that he was everything his predecessors had not been. He was not the paranoid crook Richard Nixon had been nor was he a warmonger like Lyndon B. Johnson; instead he focused on placing God and human rights at the centre of his decision-making process.

It soon became evident that despite his powerful position, the House of Representatives and the Senate were both overwhelmingly under Democratic control; Carter was struggling to have any significant impact upon the political landscape. A combination of global crises, his lack of any tangible experience and his naïve arrogance, meant that his presidency began to lose direction. Events began to dominate his time as president, instead of instigating policies and driving the political debate forward, it seemed that Jimmy Carter had been demoted to the level of manager and not the Leader of the Free World that his electorate had hoped for. It was becoming conspicuously apparent that Jimmy Carter had little aptitude for the role of Prima Ballerina.

By the summer of 1979 the Carter administration realised that the general public was losing confidence in their president; there was spiralling inflation, fuel prices were escalating and petrol stations were running dry. However, Jimmy Carter perceived a much greater issue that was affecting the United States, a crisis of confidence, not just concerning himself but in the nature of American democracy as well. On July 15 1979, the President gave potentially one of the boldest speeches of any politician in living memory, in which he identifies the issues that have beset the nation and attempts to outline a solution that he hopes may rekindle the lost fire of brash American confidence. Knowing that the nation had not recovering from government lies, cover-ups and political scandal over the previous decade, Carter attempted to hide nothing in his brutally honest description of the malaise that struck at the very heart and soul of the national will. In his uniquely, staccatissimo Southern drawl, Jimmy Carter addressed a curious and concerned nation –

‘We can see this crisis in the growing doubt about the meaning of our own lives and in the loss of a unity of purpose for our nation. The erosion of our confidence in the future is threatening to destroy the social and political fabric of America.

[…] In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities, and our faith in God, too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns. But we’ve discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning.’

The themes of Jimmy Carter’s ‘Crisis of Confidence’ speech were obvious, a collective political apathy and a crippling energy crisis, but there was also an underlying anxiety from the President which was palpable. Perhaps Carter’s great strength, his single-minded honesty, was also his greatest frailty. In troubling times, presidents, prime ministers and monarchs have always appeared publicly resolute, attempting never to reveal their personal doubts and insecurities, rather always stubbornly adhering to their policies regardless of apparent consequences. For instance, Franklin D. Roosevelt never publicly allowed a moment’s doubt that his federal stimulus would lead the United States through their darkest hours; the fear was that uncertainty could derail his fragile economic experiment. However, Jimmy Carter’s approach has a level of vulnerability and perplexity that is rarely witnessed in a role that manifestly demands foresight and absolute conviction. A testament to this perspective is how he openly offers a critique of his presidency, using third party testimonies to highlight his potential shortcomings, before asking rhetorical questions, in which the only conclusions that can be drawn magnify his deficiencies. Then, in a truly unorthodox departure from the theories of modern political discourse, Jimmy Carter warns that the current malaise affecting the American people is not a problem that can be solved with government legislation or executive action. Instead Carter admonishes the American people; stating that ‘…there is a growing disrespect for government and for churches and for schools, the news media, and other institutions. This is not a message of happiness or reassurance, but it is the truth and it is a warning.’

However, it would be misleading to present this speech as an entirely revolutionary departure from the normal conventions of political dialogue, akin to Dudley Moore’s portrayal of an honest advertising executive on the verge of a nervous breakdown in Crazy People. There are many instances when Jimmy Carter returns to the stereotypical rhetoric expected by the public; there are platitudes concerning ‘…the decency and the strength and the wisdom of the American people’, and the outlining of a common enemy to which the public can gather around Old Glory and regain their spiritual purpose. There are numerous examples of this. Yet, even with consideration to these truisms, the essence of the speech is startling, being more comparable to a sermon than a political articulation. The themes of confession, redemption and sacrifice are not just alluded to, but are explicitly expressed. Jimmy Carter was attempting to guide the American people into the spiritual process that he had endured, like Moses leading the Children of Israel out of the desert; Carter hoped to escort his people to a promised land and the opportunity of redemption. Whether it was political expediency or the pursuit of a higher moral calling that led Carter to pronounce a recalibration of what it was to be an American, the fact remains that this speech is a high water mark for honesty in Western political discourse.

Jimmy Carter is possibly the greatest testament to the duplicity of the public in their political choices. According to Hendrik Hertzberg, author of the ‘Crisis of Confidence’ speech, ‘Carter was exactly what the American people say they want [in a politician] – above politics, determined to do the right thing regardless of political consequences, a simple person who does not lie, a modest man, not somebody with a lot of imperial pretences. That’s what people say they want and that’s what they got with Jimmy Carter.’ However, in the Darwinian world of politics, survival is determined by public opinion and Jimmy Carter became a byword for presidential failure, a one term president who lacked the skills required for global leadership. Instead the electorate fittingly chose an actor, who talked in simple terms of a better future. A President who would not challenge the public to think too deeply on complex issues; where perspective and truth became highly subjective, and honesty just a thin veneer. The American people got the leader that they really wanted, not just a leader that they said they wanted.

This apparent dichotomy arises from our collective insecurities; we find it reassuring when politicians massage our egos with meretricious phrases which they cravenly use as a cudgel to project whatever provincial concerns they, or their political party, may wish to advance. Monolithic utterances, such as ‘the Founders intend…’, ‘our children deserve…’ and ‘we are all in this together…’ are meaningless – designed specifically to resonate with a disengaged populous. In this era of post-truth politics some politicians, with their Newspeak sleight-of-tongue, can rewrite history and reincarnate themselves as a person of integrity. Now we are merely just consumers making political brand choices, as opposed to Aristotle’s proposition that ‘man is by nature a political animal’ in which the electorate is constantly engaged and challenging the conventions of society. This disconnection, between reality and the public chimera, allows politicians to re-brand themselves, and their policies, with all the advantages of hindsight and neologisms. However, the issue is far deeper than a veneer of marketing, our apathy and compliance in this dance, has allowed an Orwellian industry to be created – witness the Mitt Romney campaign’s view on the purpose of political advertising quoted in the New York Times:

‘First of all, ads are propaganda by definition. We are in the persuasion business, the propaganda business… Ads are agitprop… Ads are about hyperbole, they are about editing. It’s ludicrous for them to say that an ad is taking something out of context… All ads do that. They are manipulative pieces of persuasive art.’

Jimmy Carter might not have been the first President to challenge his electorate by asking them to re-evaluate their own expectation and beliefs with brutal honesty, but he may be the last for a few generations. We get the politicians we deserve – enjoy the dance.

Two Thousand Words on Two Thousand Words by Ludvik Vaculik

Once in a generation there is a rebellion that resonates across the globe. Whether it is a cultural or social revolution, every new generation grows tired of the hypocrisies and conventions of their elders; they desire to express themselves, to discover new freedoms and cast off the shackles of intuitive conservatism. Simply, most rebellions are born out of a generational urge to reshape the world in their likeness, with their values and characteristics. 1968 bore witness to one such generation attempting to find their voice and redefine the world on their terms. Given a craving not to let history repeat, either as tragedy or as farce, this post-war generation independently initiated a series of protests across the globe. From Prague to Washington, the message was ultimately the same – ‘we want to be free’.

The post-war generation was the first to be born with the scars of unadulterated knowledge of the human condition; never before had a generation witnessed, so completely, both the brilliance and utter depravity of mankind. Television and standardised education allowed this generation to have a common perspective of world events through shared experiences. This generation knew it was possible to send a man into space and to fly faster than the speed of sound; however they also knew that man was capable of the industrial annihilation of millions of other human beings. It was against this backdrop of youth rebellion, that the world witnessed a protest at the 1968 Summer Olympic Games that perfectly encapsulated the despair of a nation and the zeitgeist of the generation. With a simple, yet choreographed, bow of her head during two medal ceremonies, the Czechoslovakian gymnast, Vera Caslavska spoke of her own, and her country’s loss of hope.

The disparity between Caslavska’s impassive protests and the visceral revolutions that engulfed the globe could not have been greater. The French student riots of the summer of ’68 tore at the heart of a country; a nation so divided by recent radical change that it attempted cultural and social stagnation under the supervision of Charles de Gaulle. These events mirrored a larger student movement across the Western world: protests in London, Rio de Janeiro, Stockholm, Mexico City, West Berlin and Madrid highlighted a growing consciousness amongst students that they could potentially change universities, attitudes, and maybe even governments. In America the causes, and the manifestations, of the protests were as disparate as the country itself, from opposition to the Vietnam War to the escalation of the civil rights movement; the United States was anything but united. However, it would be disingenuous to suggest that these movements were solely established in 1968, they were not; they were the result of many decades, centuries even, of struggle and subjugation that found a confidence and maturity in each other, combined with specific flashpoints that compelled people to act, such as the fateful assassinations of Martin Luther King jnr. and Robert Kennedy. While the world was ready to rebel, Vera Caslavska stood stoically still and mourned an invasion that had her name upon it.

Potentially the most ambitious of all of the global movements in 1968 was the Prague Spring

Potentially the most ambitious of all of the global movements in 1968 was the Prague Spring: an attempt in Czechoslovakia to liberalize a stagnant economy, by introducing reforms based on an individual’s right to freedom of speech. Many progressives hoped these reforms would comprehensively restructure the entire nation and defy a Superpower. By the beginning of 1968, the Czechoslovakian economy, which had been robust during the post war period, had deep rooted structural deficiencies, and since the early 1960s had been in a severe recession. The underlying issue of a centrally planned industrialisation policy, designed and dictated by the Kremlin, fitted poorly in a developed nation such as Czechoslovakia. Further to this economic turmoil, the country was still under the control of the one of few remaining Stalinist dictators in the Eastern Bloc, Antonin Novotny. During his fifteen years as first secretary of the Party, supreme commander of the army and president of the country, Novotny amassed significant personal powers and attempted to control many, if not all, aspects of public life. However, by 1967, his dictatorial style began to agitate many of the establishment’s elite, including senior members of the Communist Party, not only in Prague but also in Moscow, to the extent that the some intellectuals, through the state-sanctioned Czechoslovak Writers’ Union, felt sufficiently emboldened to criticize the regime’s control of cultural life. As the dawn of a new year broke, the Czechoslovakian Communist Party resolved to reinvigorate a tired regime and a stagnant nation by introducing a new program of openness, with a new government administered by Alexander Dubcek.

To the Czechoslovakian people, this warm gust of optimism hailed the birth of a new spring; the long, dark days of an economic and cultural winter were diminishing, to be replaced by the bearable lightness of being. The green shoots of the Prague Spring were growing. Alexander Dubcek, like Imre Nagy before him and Mikhail Gorbachev after, truly believed in the promises of socialism; he articulated his idea of a fully democratised communist party that had popular legitimacy, which could efficiently fulfil the needs of the nation. It soon became evident to Dubcek than progress would be slow. Through bureaucratic resistance, many new policies were being delayed by ministries still loyal to Novotny and his apparatchiks. Many months passed before Dubcek began to implement his policies of openness, including banning media censorship, and the purging of Novotny’s allies. The breaking of the levies of public discourse brought forward many unintended consequences for the Party. In what Dubcek had hoped would be a rational conversation concerning future prosperity, (within the defined parameters of communism) the discussion evolved into a visceral outpouring of hatred for the Party, the USSR and the concept of communism. Amongst this unshackled, deafening clamour emerged Ludvik Vaculik, a progressive writer and journalist, who understood the precarious nature of the Prague Spring and attempted to secure a lasting resolution by publishing his manifesto known as The Two Thousand Words.

To the Czechoslovakian people, this warm gust of optimism hailed the birth of a new spring; the long, dark days of an economic and cultural winter were diminishing, to be replaced by the bearable lightness of being

From the very beginning of his manifesto, Vaculik is bold; the title itself speaks of the popular support needed to accomplish a revolution – “Two Thousand Words that belongs to Workers, Farmers, Officials, Scientists, Artists and Everybody.” However assuming the title is, the premise of Vaculik’s proposal was simple: a framework for a nation built on consensus through enfranchisement and individual rights. The boldness of Vaculik’s words do not arise from inflammatory statements that criticize and chastise authority figures in equal measures, but come from a pragmatic assertion that everybody is partly responsible for the malaise in Czechoslovakian public life, even though the communists, and Vaculik was a member, share more of the blame than most. The new found freedoms enjoyed by Vaculik, thanks to Dubcek’s reforms, clashed against the political structures of countries in the Eastern Bloc, which relied upon patronage and cronyism to exist, not the principles of Karl Marx and Leon Trotsky on which they were founded. Ludvik Vaculik could not afford such high ideals.

Whilst writing The Two Thousand Words, Vaculik chose not to describe a manifest destiny in which he promises to lead his people to a Czechoslovakian Camelot; instead his choice of discourse is grounded in the realism and precariousness of his nation’s stark situation. Furthermore Vaculik does not have any romantic preconceptions concerning the reforms already gained; he acknowledges that it was pragmatism that won these freedoms, not high-minded ideals. Vaculik honestly states that, “We shouldn’t fool ourselves that it is the power of truth which now makes such ideas victorious, their victory is due to the weakness of the old leaders, evidently already debilitated by twenty years of unchallenged rule.” It was ironic that he could not pronounce for a future utopia like Marx, with bold and grandiose statements claiming that there was a world to be won, since it was the corruption of the communist state, perverted from Marx’s original vision, which could ultimately silence his dissent. These precious freedoms, already won, were constantly under threat from numerous agents, both on a national and international level. At home Vaculik warns that opponents are already beginning to rally against any further change, and will not give themselves a moments rest until the Stalinist state is returned. He was correct to fear many organisations within Czechoslovakia; there were many people who had obligations to the conservative elements of the Communist Party and to the “old forces” which were being called upon to slow the rate of change, if not completely reverse it. Furthermore there was a significant concern that the USSR, which Vaculik politely described as “foreign forces”, were considering action against the new regime; already student protests in Poland had demonstrated the reach of these reforms, with many protesters carrying pictures of Alexander Dubcek and demanding similar concessions from their government. It was due to this dual threat that Vaculik realised that his treaties must be rooted in the expediency of realpolitiks.

After describing, with concise detail, the corruption of the state and the individual by those seeking power for personal enrichment, Vaculik then attempts to outline how he envisions the immediate future; a process of democratisation for the people of Czechoslovakia. He believes that through legitimate popular support a new ruling Central Committee could ensure the continuation of the reforms. In keeping with the pragmatic essence of his work, Vaculik identifies that the primary route for reform should be the existing frameworks of power, including using the internal structure, at all levels, of the Communist Party. The advantage of such an approach would be twofold: firstly, the continuity of the Communist Party, which has twenty years of experience at delivering services in Czechoslovakia, would be invaluable; and secondly, Vaculik feared that any further pronouncements concerning reforms would leave Brezhnev little option other than to intervene. Unusually for a radical manifesto, Vaculik cautions against people making rash decisions and demanding the unattainable from the central political departments, rather he suggests an approach of patience by allowing the new reforms time to prove their utility. However, he believes that more scrutiny is required at the regional level to democratise a corrupt system of patronage and bribery that has allowed a minority to prosper, whilst disenfranchising and demoralising the majority. To combat this dishonesty, Vaculik continues to argue that, vigilance of the masses is the most efficient reforming weapon. By challenging officials, freeing local newspapers, setting up delegations to ensure all official business is conducted openly and fairly, the people of Czechoslovakia would once again feel that a socialist state was administered by the people, for the people.

It was ironic that he could not pronounce for a future utopia like Marx, with bold and grandiose statements claiming that there was a world to be won, since it was the corruption of the communist state, perverted from Marx’s original vision, which could ultimately silence his dissent.

On initial review The Two Thousand Words may seem an unremarkable testimony to our eyes, an attestation better suited to a local action group rather than a document to inspire a nation. However, Ludvik Vaculik and the other seventy prominent signatories, including Vera Caslavska, placed their livelihoods and lives in danger by submitting it into public discourse. After its publication, on the 27th June 1968, it became clear that Alexander Dubcek was losing control of the reform process he had initiated, with many progressives in the lower ranks of the Communist Party supporting the manifesto. The reforms, and the subsequent public reaction to the reforms, worried many nations in the Warsaw Pact; they feared a domino effect of liberalization across the Eastern Bloc by the “forces that are hostile to socialism”. As support grew within Czechoslovakia, Vaculik’s insight concerning “foreign forces intervening in our development” was proved to be unerringly accurate, when on the night of the 20th August 1968, an invasion force of approximately 400,000 Soviet troops invaded Czechoslovakia and arrested many high ranking Communist Party officials. The consequence of the Soviet invasion for the progressive reforms in Czechoslovakia was immediate and predictable, with the reintroduction of a heavily censored state-controlled media, it became obvious that Vaculik was correct once again when he noted, “the spring is over and will never come back.”

It was with this epitaph for her nation that Vera Caslavska bowed her head in protest and reflected on the lost innocence of her generation.