Reclaiming Robert Burns

The legacy of the romantic poet Robert Burns has been contested since his death in 1796. BRENT KENNEDY explains why the socialist movement has the greatest claim to celebrate him.

On Burns Night, January 25, we will celebrate the life of a man who opposed bigotry, racism and slavery, a revolutionary democrat, a republican opponent of the Hannoverian monarchy, a patriot to the common people, and an internationalist who supported the American and French revolutions against British imperialism. This, when an utterly corrupt parliament of rotten boroughs elected only by the richest two per cent of the population used oppression to prevent democracy, with Burke, the father of the Tory party, calling the people the “swinish multitude”.

Others – narrow-minded, provincial conservatives – will ignore or deny all that and use Burns Night as an excuse for a piss-up, ‘justified’ by myths and clichés about drunkenness and debauchery invented by alcoholic dissipaters themselves and repeated for two centuries (Burns died not of sex and alcohol, but of brucellosis and rheumatic heart disorder from years of hard labour). Some were spread by injured bigots of the Kirk or envious poets and academics, but most were deliberately manufactured after his death by the secret police, writers (Heron) and publishers (MacKenzie) covertly paid for their black propaganda by the Tory Home Secretary Henry Dundas. It was the deliberate character assassination of a voice of the people.

The ruling class, particularly in Scotland, has always had a problematical relationship with Burns. Initially they patronisingly feted him. Later, before and after his death, they feared and loathed him. Some undoubtedly, if begrudgingly, appreciated his romantic poetry. After all, no other person has ever come close to making such an iconic contribution to Scottish culture as he, and the mass recognition of this since his death made it impossible for them to deny the fact. The snag was, not only was he not of their class but a peasant and later a low-paid public sector worker, but also he was a revolutionary who wanted to overthrow them. Tricky.

If the Tory dictatorship of William Pitt hadn’t hounded him to his death in 1796 they would have slowly worked him to death in a penal colony in Australia or hanged him for sedition. But after 40,000 attended his funeral in Dumfries they had to change tack to avoid more dangerous unpopularity. They kidnapped him. In this case not his body but his legacy.

Burns was a child labourer, the son of a poor cotter, who was taught during the summer months, but he had self-confidence and an independent spirit and couldn’t stand to see working people being servile (‘A Dream’). The aristocrats belittled him as the ‘heaven-taught ploughman’ because they couldn’t come to terms with the fact that one of the poorest and lowest stood intellectually above all the expensively-educated young ladies and gentlemen of Edinburgh. These “parcel of rogues in a nation”, who had already betrayed the Scottish people in 1707 and 1745 (when even Gaelic and tartan were outlawed), had abandoned the lowlands Scottish dialect and wanted Burns to do the same, to turn him into the bard of Scotland-in-Empire. In The Cannongate Burns Andrew Noble observes, “Had Burns adhered to the social etiquette of Edinburgh’s genteel society, he probably would have written no poetry worth reading after 1787”.

His burning desire for social justice and equality against class exploitation are made explicit in many of his poems (Man Was Made to Mourn, for example), implicit in others (To A Mouse). Persecuted by the sex-police of the Kirk and stifled by the narrow-minded Presbyterian Taliban, he scathingly ridiculed their hypocrisy in ‘Holy Willie’s Prayer’, ‘The Kirk’s Alarm’, and ‘The Holy Fair’.

But Burns reached his highpoint in support of the French revolution, not just in fiery words, but in deeds – sending them four cannon as the British bourgeoisie started its anti-Jacobin war (‘Napoleonic’) in support of the reactionary aristocratic regimes of Europe. With widespread starvation and troops sent against food riots in Dumfries, he helped form a branch of the underground ‘Friends of the People’ and teamed up with the working-class London Corresponding Society and the United Irishmen – his poems particularly inspiring many Ulster Protestants to rise up for Irish independence. Andrew Noble writes: “The real war fought by Pitt and Dundas was not against France per se. Their battle was an ideological war against the domestic pro-democracy movement in Britain and in Scotland in particular, where they feared a mass rebellion or outright revolution”.

In December 1792 Pitt declared martial law and unleashed a wave of repression. That same day Burns was the first to be investigated for his support for the revolution (singing the revolutionary anthem ‘Ca ira’ in a Dumfries theatre). Yet the next day Burns answered with ‘On The Year 1793’. When Paine’s The Rights of Man sold 15,000 copies, the publisher was arrested. A declaration of loyalty and blacklisting were introduced, trade unions made illegal and opponents deported. Reformers and democrats were portrayed as terrorists and traitors.

Conservative ‘Burnsians’ foster the myth that Burns then became a Hannoverian loyalist or a coward, abandoning radical writings. In fact, this is when he established safe routes to publishers in Edinburgh and London to anonymously publish his clearest revolutionary anti-war propaganda poems. These and others were suppressed or denied by the literary establishment for 200 years until Patrick Scott Hogg published Robert Burns: The Lost Poems in 1997. Just months before his death in 1796 Burns confirmed, “If I must write, let it be sedition”. When he received the letter from his employers, the Commissioners of Excise, forbidding his political views, he immediately scribbled “the creed of poverty” on the envelope in defiance.

Burns knew he was being spied on. As a cover, he joined the Dumfries Volunteers and wrote a few token loyal poems, later to be picked up by his enemies. Yet despite the terror, Burns couldn’t ignore provocation nor resist ridiculing the ‘Loyal Natives’, a bunch of subservient thugs also in the Volunteers. Following one of their grovelling toasts in a pub one night he caused uproar with his own sarcastic: “May our success in the present war be equal to the justice of our cause!” On another occasion: “May the last king be hung in the guts of the last priest!”

Burns had a heart of gold, but he was no softy. His most explicit call to revolution and a classless, peaceful society, ‘Why Should We Vainly Waste Our Prime?’ (drafted by an English radical and crafted by Burns), is determined and uncompromising.

By 1796 the Tory terror was extensive. The purge of Whigs from the judiciary marked the end of the reform movement in Scotland, even of the Enlightenment, and the triumph of reaction. In this bleak time of defeat ‘A Man’s a Man for a’ That’, with its challenging independence and defiant optimism, must have given hope to the despairing radicals. The radical reform movement had included the middle classes and some capitalists, after the war it was down to the new working class.

With Burns’ early death removing the danger of ridiculing ripostes, accusations, distortions and prejudices gushed out from all directions, including the dishonest Walter Scott, the hired spy Heron, who wrote a shameful ‘biography’, and the literary snob Jeffrey who hated and ‘tamed’ the poet by introducing the ritualised Burns Suppers. Yet they could only get away with their falsifications with the aid of ‘radicals’ like Dr Currie, the literary executor, who censored or destroyed Burns’ writings to “avoid all political allusions”. At least a quarter of his letters were burned, his later notes for poems ‘lost’. Even the Tory De Quincy was disgusted by the Liverpool radical ‘friends’ who “look down on Burns as one whose spirit was rebellious overmuch against the institutions of man, and Jacobinal in a sense which ‘men of property’ and master manufacturers will never brook, albeit democrats by profession”.

Sir Walter Scott, who invented a Disneyland medieval Scottishness for the visit of George IV in 1822, to desperately preserve the illusion of paternalism and deference in a rapidly changing society, seized on ‘The Cotter’s Saturday Night’ to spread a reactionary myth of idyllic rural stability based on God-fearing, subservient peasants happy with their lot. Burns was sentimentalised and turned into a socially conservative unionist! In reality, the lowland clearances were driving the cotters to become rural or urban wage-slaves, with the post-war depression driving social unrest in 1819.

The zenith of the conservatives’ capture of Burns came in 1844 with an orchestrated cross-class, unionist celebration in his native Alloway, to which 50,000 turned up. Reaching a new level of kitsch, it eulogised a now barely-existing peasantry as against the proletariat, with ploughmen paraded in blue bonnets and lowland shepherds in (highland) plaid! But the people saw through it. The Chartist paper, The Northern Star, warned “do not feast on your poet’s grave, having starved him into it”. And even the Punch magazine suggested the genuineness of official Scotland’s affection for the “dead ploughman” could be measured “by her tenderness towards the living weaver”.

In the end, the bourgeois, complete with state, media and Kirk, failed to convince the working class. They instinctively saw the real Robert Burns because he was one of them. They recognised themselves in him – his suffering, weaknesses and resilience.

By now Burns was given due credit for freeing the Scottish people from religious conservatism and subservience, with even the Presbyterian Hugh Miller acknowledging that “Robert Burns was the man who first taught the Scottish people to stand erect”. In truth, this was an inevitable result of changed material conditions following the industrial revolution and urbanisation; and the social and political experience gained through the trade unions and the Chartist movement which raised class consciousness and confidence. But Burns – ahead of his time – had made these ideas conscious to many, a known point of reference in a period of transformation. ‘A Man’s a Man’ would always resonate widely.

In the 1859 worldwide centenary of his birth, different classes held their own celebrations. In Carlisle, for example, a call was made for “an entertainment to which Burns himself could have come when at his poorest estate”, and “a meeting was got up and conducted by working men”. The liberal bourgeoisie also now adopted Burns, trying to reform him into its own image to serve its own interests. He was sanitised and romanticised.

During the Boer war and world war one he was conscripted into the imperialist army as a militarist and jingoist! New verses were written to distort the meaning of his anti-war poems. ‘Scots Wha hae wi Wallace Bled’ was now proof of a Scottish warrior-race tradition. In fact it was neither militarist nor even anti-English (not about Bannockburn) but anti-establishment. He invokes the positive tradition of popular resistance against oppression to oppose Pitt’s unjust war against the French people (as Wordsworth, Coleridge and Blake had in England). Burns’ ‘unpatriotic’ attitude to the corrupt ruling class’s wars for profit, and the possibility of a lasting peace based on the common interests of ordinary people, couldn’t be clearer in ‘The Tree of Liberty’, ‘Lines on Ambition’, ‘Ode for General Washington’s Birthday’. Or these lines from ‘A Winter Night’: “See stern Oppression’s iron grip; Or mad Ambition’s gory hand; Sending – like bloodhounds from the slip; Woe, Want and Murder o’er a land”.

And who finally liberated Burns? On his one hundred and fiftieth anniversary in 1909 various classes and parties laid claim to him, but as William Stewart, editor of the Clarion and Labour Leader, said at the Independent Labour Party celebration, “no movement in the world has more right to claim Robert Burns or to hold a celebration than the socialist movement”.