“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”. In her 1883 sonnet “The New Colossus”, Jewish-American poet and activist Emma Lazarus imagined the newly built Statue of Liberty speaking these words, symbolising hope for “tempest-tost” refugees seeking safety and a better life. Engraved on a bronze plaque, her poem adorns the pedestal upon which “Lady Liberty” stands to this day.
Mainstream discussion about Shakespeare usually depicts him and his enormous body of work as quaint and apolitical, devoid of any radical or subversive messages. But Shakespeare was living and writing during a time of violent transition and social upheaval, which is reflected in his plays. Since they were first published more than 400 years ago, every generation in every part of the world has reinterpreted Shakespeare’s plays, allowing the words to speak to them to explain their own world.
Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) was one of the major English Romantic poets—and arguably the greatest. The critic Harold Bloom described him as “a superb craftsman, a lyric poet without rival, and surely one of the most advanced sceptical intellects ever to write a poem”. But he was much more than that: he was also a passionate revolutionary.
Karl Marx understood the individual “as the ensemble of social relations”. Farrell “Pharoah” Sanders’ music reflects such a sentiment perfectly. It is the circumstances of social upheaval which allowed the innovative jazz saxophonist to play a revolutionary role in jazz like few others.
“Jack Charles is Up and Fighting” is the title of one of Uncle Jack Charles’ early shows for the Indigenous Theatre Group, Nindethana, and it sums up his life. An actor, musician, potter, activist, proud gay man, this Boon Wurrung, Dja Dja Wurrung, Woiwurrung, Palawa and Yorta Yorta elder was, as actor and director Rachel Maza put it, “a shining, vibrant celebration of life”.
In a political landscape in which rising costs of living and attacks on work conditions confront a union movement hamstrung by spineless leaders and bureaucracy, it’s easy to forget what it looks like to really fight. In Australia today, despite the best efforts of rank-and-file activists, mass working-class struggle is on the ebb. For a generation of young workers, this means that it is not a matter of forgetting what real, militant unionism looks like, so much as never having experienced it to begin with.