Sat Feb 24, 2024
February 24, 2024

Their Symbols and Ours

The impressive wave of protests unleashed by the murder of George Floyd in the United States not only crossed the borders of that country – impacting on a new world reality – but it offers particularly exciting episodes, typical of hot periods of history.

By Daniel Sugasti

One of those moments occurred on 7 June when an ink-covered statue rolled through the streets of an English city, pushed by thousands of protesters until dumped into river Avon.

The statue was none other than that of Edward Colston, “illustrious son of Bristol.” Colston [1636-1721] amassed a vast fortune by trafficking kidnapped human beings from Africa and then enslaving them in the Caribbean and other parts of America.

An estimated 84,000 captives or more were taken by ship. The horrendous conditions of the crossing cost the life of between 10% and 20% of “the load” [1]. The successful businessman became deputy director of the Royal African Company (RAC), which at that time monopolised the slave trade. The director was none other than the brother of King Charles II, later King James II. The power he accumulated through his business led him to become a member of the British Parliament in the 17th century. Such entrepreneurship is associated with Bristol’s “prosperity” built on African flesh and blood. The local bourgeoisie, demonstrating a deep class consciousness and a commitment (no less profound) to their class, could not stop eternalising him, giving his name to roads, buildings and schools as well as monuments scattered throughout the city.

Social activists have long fueled a campaign to remove the monument. Well, history grants revenge. To the horror of the English authorities – who saw the scene as an atrocity, a “criminal act”, a damnable “vandalism” – those protesting in Bristol won a victory that undoubtedly raised the morale of millions of fighters all over the planet.

The Bristol protesters stamped George Floyd’s image on many posters. The symbol of racism and colonialism in the city is Colston. Result of the attack: the statue of the slaver was thrown in the river … a small great victory.

Colston memory was celebrated during Queen Victoria’s reign by building his statue in 1895. At that time Britain was the foremost imperialist nation, but the USA and Germany made powerful challenges to its domination of the world. It is as if Britain’s rulers were saying “we are slave owners but more powerful than the world Colston. We own a world where the sun never sets.” The 1840s chartist leader Ernest Jones, added to such boastfulness, “And where the blood never dried”. Colston’s statue symbolically celebrated British imperialist power using an icon of slavery.

Protests throughout Europe

Protests against statues of racist, colonialist, genocidal characters, tyrants of all kinds erupted throughout Europe. In London they demolished the statue of Scottish slaver Robert Milligan. Churchill’s statue felt the outburst of popular fury: on the pedestal of his statue in the British capital, the protesters wrote correctly that “he was a racist”, he was also a murderer of colonial people.

This triggered an alarm. The government protected the monument with a metal box and ordered permanent police protection. On Saturday, 14 June, a far-right demonstration joined the London police, to “defend” the memory of the British “hero”.

In Belgium, dozens of Leopold II statues, who reigned between 1865 and 1909, are being targeted by thousands of protesters. At the base of his equestrian monument in Brussels, graffiti says: “This man killed fifteen million people.” In Antwerp, his statue was burnt down.

During the colonial division of Africa, the current Democratic Republic of the Congo had the distinction of being the personal property of the Belgian monarch. He enriched himself through exploiting ivory. But by 1890, the high demand for rubber raised colonial exploitation to barbaric levels. Endowed with a private army, he forced the Congolese to meet ever-higher rubber quotas. His cruelty generated exodus and drowned rebellion and workers in blood. Those who did not meet the goals dictated by Leopold II and his associates could be killed or, among other atrocities, have their hands amputated. Adam Hochschild, American historian, estimates that half the population disappeared between 1880 and 1920.

In the UK and Belgium, the authorities removed some statues from public spaces for display in museums. A measure that was obviously taken to avoid repeating scenes like the one in Bristol.

On the other side of the Atlantic, the murder of George Floyd not only sparked massive protests but also fueled the debate on historical memory in the United States. In the last two weeks, statues of Confederate leaders or generals and those of Christopher Columbus were attacked amid protests, in cities such as New York, Boston, or Richmond, precisely the capital of the former slave south. The statue of former Confederate President Jefferson Davies concentrated the anger of the anti-racist movement that is shaking the United States. The Richmond Governor was quick to decide the removal of the monument commemorating Confederate General Robert E. Lee. But a judge postponed the measure, appealing to jurisprudence that considers it “perpetually sacred.”

The force of the movement caused Donald Trump to express, on a tweet, “he will not even consider” changing place names or removing statues. However, the Republican-led Senate Armed Forces Committee urged the Pentagon to rename military bases named after Confederate leaders. This element of the political crisis among top officers of the US government became clearer when the US Navy announced the order to “prohibit the use of the Confederate flag in all public spaces and work areas of the facilities of the Navy, as well as on ships, planes, and submarines.”

Latin America is no stranger to the impact of the rebellion taking place in the US and other parts of the world. There is controversy about the monuments that honour dictators and genocidal figures. To cite an example, in São Paulo there are highways named after generals of the last military dictatorship. Not to mention the countless monuments or roads that exalt the “glories” of the commanders of the genocide committed against the Paraguayan people during the War of the Triple Alliance [1864-1870], such as the Duke of Caxias, patron of the Brazilian Army. But it is the statues of the controversial Bandeirantes that have sparked a particularly heated debate. Not without reason. The Bandeirantes were the armed vanguard of colonial penetration into the Brazilian inland during the 16th and 17th centuries. As the USP lecturer Rodrigo Ricupero explains, the territorial conquests attributed to those now considered “national heroes” are inseparable from the capture and enslavement of tens of thousands of indigenous people, from the destruction of the “quilombos” (freed areas of runaway slaves who resisted the European coloniser and enslaver): “they were simply the most visible face of the fundamental violence that marked that society […] they were fundamental pieces for the formation and reproduction of the slave society […]”. The Bandeirantes, Ricupero says, were the other side of the same coin of the sugar mill lords, the mine owners, the big merchants, and the Portuguese State in colonised Brazil.

Erase history?

Boris Johnson, British Prime Minister, defended the permanence of monuments of racist and colonial figures, arguing that “we must attack the substance of the problem, not the symbols.” [3]

Many university historians and journalists from bourgeois media positioned themselves in the same direction: statues must be kept because, according to them, you cannot “erase history”. History is history, with its “good” and “bad” sides, they say. If anything, the debate on the historical role of this or that individual or period could be deepened, but never “violating” the symbols of the past.

Thus, under the cloak of defending the “historical or urban heritage”, or an appeal to “study” and “contextualise” history, they hide a rejection –  now open, now veiled – and a fear (justified) by the explosive content of the huge Pandora’s box opened by Floyd’s murder. The problem for these politicians and professors is that this debate is taking place … in the streets.

Some reflections on the above question.

  • It is not a question of “erasing” or denying history, but of what historiographical account is claimed. This will depend on the class perspective you have. Monuments are revindication of something or someone. The decision of what or who deserve to be eternalised is always eminently political. In concrete terms, the definition of who passes to posterity or is relegated to anonymity has always been the power of the ruling classes of any society.
  • Consequently, the action of repudiating or demolishing this or that monument – which claims what the ruling classes want to be claimed – is also a political action, but in the opposite direction. It is a rejection of a past or the present type of thought and action. Therefore, if we know that statues and monuments are symbols, what should be asked is: symbols of what? Because there is no abstract “historical heritage”. That is always dictated by the ups and downs of the class struggle. If we accept that there is no neutral historical interpretation in class society – as the positivists and their postmodern variants claim – the exploited and oppressed masses – who make their own history – have every right to reject this or that monument or symbolism that their exploiters imposed on them. In this case, the attacks on the monuments of racist, colonialist, and, therefore, genocidal historical figures, are completely justified.
  • If the class struggle is expressed, among many other forms, in an ideological struggle, there are no reasons to abdicate from the dispute over symbolism and historical memory. The symbolic struggle plays an important role in the general struggle. Imperialism made the most of the crowd scenes, knocking down some statues symbolising the decades of Stalinist tyranny, during well-known Eastern Europe struggles between 1989-1991. Contrary to what imperialist propaganda maintains, the masses did not express their fury against “socialism” but against Stalinism, a regime that represented the denial of Marxism. A regime so opposed to the postulates of the Russian Revolution of October 1917, that it came to spearhead the restoration of capitalism in the former Workers’ States. Thus, these monuments were considered by the masses of the extinct USSR as symbols of oppression of the well-known “prison of the peoples.” But, in the symbolic struggle, imperialism used these scenes as “evidence” that we had reached the “end of history” and that capitalism had shown itself “superior”. 30 years after those events, the opposite can be said to have occurred. Not only has capitalism failed to demonstrate its “superiority” – it is unable to cope with a pandemic – it may well be going through its worst crisis since the 1930s. The exploited masses of all continents, fed up with hardship and discrimination, are now in various ways pointing their anger against the evils of capitalism. One of them is to destroy the image of their
  • Is bringing down the statues of racist, genocidal, tyrant exponents, the “deep” solution against racism and colonialism? Obviously not. But they are legitimate expressions of rejection and boredom against a system that exploits and oppresses us for centuries. They even, in a sense, express an advance in consciousness. If the attack on police stations and police patrollers in the US demonstrated a first wave of fury against the institutions that murdered George Floyd and many other martyrs of the black working class, the rejection of statues of slave traders and representatives of colonialism suggests that sectors of the class identify that racial violence has deeper roots.
  • This means that the questioning of these symbols is inseparable from the just anti-racist, anti-fascist and, to a certain extent, anti-capitalist movement, which shakes the United States and impacts many other countries.
  • You have to study history in order to understand the “substance” of things, of course. But there are people who are unacceptable. In Germany, no one would think of erecting a monument to Hitler, “adorning” a square with a swastika or naming a school after Himmler. Why should the British working class accept having to see the statue of a kidnapper and merchant of people like Colston? Why are Belgians with any democratic notion – mainly the African community – forced to accept the monuments of Leopold II, a tyrant who exterminated between 10 and 15 million Congolese? Why should African Americans tolerate the statues of southern generals and the Confederate flags, the property sector that dragged the nation into a civil war to defend black slavery? Why should black or indigenous Brazilians get used to the statues that celebrate the “exploits” of the “reckless” Bandeirantes?
  • Protesters went to Oxford University about two weeks ago demanding the removal of the statue of Cecil Rhodes, a racist colonist who created a diamond mining empire in South Africa and is considered one of the founders of apartheid. Rhodes was the founder of the De Beers company, which currently controls 60% of the world’s rough diamond market, but was once 90%. In 1895 he went on to say that “he would annex planets if he could. It saddens me to see them so clearly and at the same time so far away.”

Capitalism, with its institutions and its spokesmen, presents as “vandals” those who now reject the policy of erecting sanctuaries for barbarism. For them, the true violence does not lie in racism, colonialism, or the genocide of entire peoples, but in the action of demolishing statues of their heroes.

The fight against racism, colonialism and all the historical and present atrocities committed by capitalism cannot be limited – nor is it limited – to demolishing statues. It is no less true that, in a new, socialist society with workers’ democracy, no tribute to any genocidal people will remain standing.

In this sense, we must understand the phenomenon of popular questioning – violent or not – to the symbols of crimes (and criminals) immortalised by the propertied classes as one more expression of a progressive process that is much broader and more profound and is in full development inside and outside the United States.

The shocking scenes of Edward Colston being “strangled” and then pushed into the river should serve as encouragement to go beyond the symbolic, to continue on the streets until defeating the bourgeois governments, the genocidal rulers of the 21st century.


[1] The Atlantic crossing could last between six and eight weeks. The slaves, crammed into their own excrement, died from murder, torture, disease, or suicide.

[2]  < >.

[3] < 1920561>.

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