Over at the privileged cloisters of Oxford University there’s a bit of bother over the statue of Cecil Rhodes. On one side are those who want it removed as an icon of racism and oppression, and on the other there are those who are horrified at the suggestion, arguing that its removal will suppress serious and impartial debate on the rights and wrongs of imperialism.
It’s not a new scrap. Last year there were calls for Rhodes’ statue to be removed from Cape Town University in South Africa, and soon afterwards war veterans in Zimbabwe threatened to remove his remains in solidarity with the students.
In both cases these Southern African states blocked moves to remove Rhodes from visible presence.
The idea that we need statues and graves to discuss imperialism is bizarre. Equally bizarre is the added argument from Oxford that those opposed to the statue are trying to “whitewash” history.
Behind this hullabaloo lies a real class argument.
With the age of capitalism and colonial conquest came a new age of statues. But he who paid the sculptor called the shots, which meant that those men and women who tried to shape a different sort of world had a really tough time getting themselves immortalised.
Tom Paine, the great English revolutionary, got a statue in his hometown of Thetford in 1964, 155 years after his death. Cromwell, to whom so much is owed by today’s homespun capitalists, but who unwittingly unleashed radical ideas that are still with us today, had a tougher time. Only in 1899 was he memorialised in stone, 240 years after his death.
Emmeline Pankhurst got her statue only two years after her death in 1928. Hated by the establishment before the First World War, she made amends by supporting the war and mobilising women to support the slaughter.
Cecil Rhodes is interesting because around the same time as Cromwell was cast in stone Cecil was arranging a war. Not content with controlling Kimberley’s diamond pipes with Pass Laws favoured by later apartheid regimes; slaughtering thousands of men and women while searching for gold in what is now Zimbabwe; and attempting to unseat the Boer government of the Transvaal Republic and grab their gold for British imperialism, he urged Britain to send in troops, using the so called lack of voting rights of white migrant miners in the Transvaal as a pretext.
The result was the Boer War which, though won, was an utter disaster for British militarism, the beginning of the end of British colonial power. Cecil Rhodes was never forgiven by the establishment. He died in 1902, but not before bequeathing a tidy sum to Oxford University which, like him, still seemed to be stuck in the 19th century.
Statues are monuments to the success of an age, to the success of a body of ideas that defines the age. Zimbabwe’s ruling class, like the ANC government in South Africa, have no problem with monuments to Rhodes and what he represented; they pulled up the ladder behind them long ago. They can cover themselves by pleading open historical debate, but they’ll always have one eye on friends in high places.
Oxford University points to the generosity of Rhodes in sponsoring scholarships. Yet Oxford still sustains the privilege and hierarchy that produced the racists of Rhodes’ ilk. Like David Cameron, George Osborne and Boris Johnson, Rhodes was a member of the Bullingdon Club, notorious for its arrogance and contempt for the lower orders.
Revolutionaries don’t care too much about statues and monuments. Like the Bolshevik Lunacharsky, we can disagree with those who want to destroy them as part of some sort of cleansing process in the creation of a new society. Progress doesn’t work like that.
The real problem lies in the people and institutions who erect the statues, preserve them, and defend their ideas. Students at Oxford are right to challenge Rhodes’ heritage and the way it locks in to current thinking. But without a challenge to the privilege, hierarchy, and reproduction of class society that Oxford represents, any victory they enjoy will quickly evaporate.
•As we went to press Oriel College, Oxford, announced that Rhodes will be staying put.