Workers Hammer No. 240

Winter 2017-2018


The poppy glorifies imperialist barbarism

Chauvinist backlash targets James McClean

Every November, one prominent footballer refuses to participate in the jingoist carnival of poppy wearing: West Bromwich Albion player and Republic of Ireland international James McClean. As Keith Duggan wrote in the Irish Times (11 November 2017) following the West Brom v Huddersfield Town match on 4 November:

“Here he comes again: storming through the dank Saturdays of another November in which he is cast as a figure of hatred across England’s football theatres for his personal decision not to wear a Remembrance Day poppy. Here he is railing against the BBC, Voice of Blighty, for highlighting a heavy tackle he made but ignoring the bottles and coins then flung at him from a contingent of last Saturday’s Huddersfield crowd enraged by his presence.”

Since he began playing professional football in England in 2011, McClean has made a courageous stand by refusing to wear a “Remembrance Poppy” commemorating bloody British imperialism on his club shirt. In response he has received abuse from the terraces, vilification from the media and even death threats. In his time at Sunderland, McClean received so much chauvinist abuse from the home fans that he chose to take a pay cut and transfer to Championship side Wigan Athletic in 2013.

McClean grew up on the Catholic Creggan housing estate in Derry, Northern Ireland. He is all too aware of the brutality meted out by British imperialism to the oppressed Irish Catholics. In a 2014 letter to the chairman of Wigan, McClean explained his refusal to wear a poppy. He referenced Derry’s Bloody Sunday, when the British Army massacred 14 Irish civilians in 1972:

“When you come from Creggan like myself or the Bogside, Brandywell or the majority of places in Derry, every person still lives in the shadow of one of the darkest days in Ireland’s history — even if like me you were born nearly 20 years after the event. It is just a part of who we are, ingrained into us from birth.”

His letter stressed that to wear a poppy “would be seen as an act of disrespect to those people; to my people”.

Opposition to the poppy has also been expressed by a group of Glasgow Celtic fans who in 2010 unfurled a banner at their ground which declared: “Your deeds would shame all the devils in Hell. Ireland, Iraq, Afghanistan. No bloodstained poppy on our Hoops.”

While we salute McClean’s refusal to wear a poppy, the reasons for his protest are restricted to British imperialism’s crimes in Ireland. Thus he stated in a 2015 West Brom matchday programme, “If the poppy was simply about World War One and Two victims alone, I’d wear it without a problem.” In fact, the poppy commemorates murderous British imperialism, not its victims. As Robert Fisk noted in the Independent (3 November 2016), it is “the very last symbol that ‘our’ dead remain more precious than the millions of human beings we have killed, in the Middle East for example, for whom we wear no token of remembrance. Lord Blair of Kut al-Amara will be wearing his poppy this week — but not for those he liquidated in his grotesque invasion of Iraq.”

As proletarian internationalists, we uphold the revolutionary opposition of our Marxist forbears to their “own” imperialist ruling class in both World Wars. Likewise we oppose British imperialism in Ireland and in all of its other blood-soaked adventures around the world. British troops and bases out of Northern Ireland! Britain out of the Near East and Afghanistan!

The pageantry around Remembrance Sunday and the poppy is intended to glorify murderous British imperialism and to whip up support for, and drum up new recruits for, the ruling class’s ongoing wars. This purpose was captured by Brian Hanley in the Irish Times (9 November 2013): “What one historian has called ‘poppyganda’ is part of a renewed militarisation of British public life. As a group of British veterans of the Iraq war complained two years ago, the build-up to Armistice Day now amounts to ‘a month-long drum roll of support for current wars’.”

British imperialism: enemy of workers and oppressed

The Royal British Legion’s Poppy Appeal was originally named after Field Marshal Douglas Haig. “Butcher” Haig personified the capitalist ruling class’s commitment to fight to the last drop of working-class blood to maintain the Empire. He was the architect of the 1916 Battle of the Somme: four months of carnage in which the Allies suffered 88,000 casualties for every mile of territory gained. The perversity of Haig’s strategy of attrition was acerbically captured in the 1989 comedy Blackadder Goes Forth. Upon hearing his men are to be sent “over the top” to attack the German trenches, Captain Blackadder quips: “‘Are we all going to get killed?’ Yes. Clearly, Field Marshal Haig is about to make yet another gargantuan effort to move his drinks cabinet six inches closer to Berlin.”

The Battle of the Somme resulted in over a million people killed or wounded on both sides. The bloodlust of the imperialist rulers not sated, Haig did it all over again the next year at Passchendaele, where there were another 700,000 Allied and German casualties.

World War I was a conflict between the imperialist powers over how to redivide the world. It was the result of neither a series of mishaps nor the personal psychoses of certain members of the ruling elite, but was a product of the workings of the capitalist system in the epoch of imperialism. As Russian revolutionary VI Lenin explained:

“Imperialism is capitalism at that stage of development at which the dominance of monopolies and finance capital is established; in which the export of capital has acquired pronounced importance; in which the division of the world among the international trusts has begun, in which the division of all territories of the globe among the biggest capitalist powers has been completed.”

Imperialism, the highest stage of capitalism (1916)

The imperialist system that emerged in the last decades of the 19th century was marked by the bloody subjugation of the peoples of Asia and Africa as the great powers divided up the world. Once that was accomplished, the colonial world could only be repartitioned by military means and WWI was the inevitable outcome. The unprecedented slaughter in the war demonstrated definitively the barbarism inherent in capitalism, which needed to be swept away by a series of socialist revolutions.

Most national sections of the Social-Democratic Second International, including the Labour Party, supported their “own” capitalist rulers in the war. In contrast, Lenin upheld the Marxist position of class struggle against the capitalist exploiters under the slogan “turn the imperialist war into a civil war”. Opposition to the imperialist war and their own ruling class was a key factor enabling Lenin’s Bolsheviks to lead the war-weary working class to power in the 1917 October Revolution in Russia.

It is common today for liberal supporters of the EU to accuse right-wing leave supporters of hypocrisy for wearing the poppy, under the false premise that it is the EU that has prevented another continental war. For example, an article in the Independent (9 November 2017), “If you voted to leave the EU, don’t bother wearing a poppy”, asserted: “The EU was founded after the world wars with the aim of keeping peace in Europe”. In fact the EU was founded as an economic adjunct to the US-dominated NATO military alliance, which was aimed against the Soviet Union.

Especially since capitalist counterrevolution destroyed the Soviet Union in 1991-92, the EU has functioned as a trade bloc enabling the European imperialists to better compete against their American and Japanese rivals. It has also allowed Germany to play the hegemonic role in Europe it previously sought to achieve through military means. Germany, Britain and France in particular have used the EU to reduce the countries of southern and eastern Europe to vast reservoirs of cheap labour, while also ratcheting up the exploitation of the working class at home. Recognising that Brexit would deal a blow to the EU bankers and bosses cartel, we advocated a leave vote in the referendum. Down with the EU! Britain out now!

Putting an end to imperialist barbarism requires socialist revolutions, in Britain and internationally, through which the working class becomes the ruling class. The necessary instrument to lead the working class to power is a Leninist vanguard party. The Spartacist League, section of the International Communist League, fights to build such a party in Britain as a section of a reforged Fourth International, world party of socialist revolution. For a Socialist United States of Europe!