Saturday 20 February 2016


Frederick Douglass Day
"My beard's bigger than yours"
I’ll be in the sky returning from lectures in California as the night of Saturday 20 February turns into morning, and memorial day for Maryland Abolitionist Frederick Douglass segues into the anniversary of the Communist Manifesto, published in East London on 21 February 1848.    

David Oyelowo as Prometheus
Douglass and Marx had much in common. They were both born in 1818. They were both large, hirsute, and charismatic. They both wrote prose of such potency that it changed minds the world over. And both titans of the Left were inspired by a real Titan, the Prometheus of the Aeschylean tragedy Prometheus Bound. He was the rebel god whom a vicious, autocratic Zeus had chained to the Caucasian mountains for bestowing on mere mortals the gods' exclusive prerogative--fire. 

Rock-shackled Prometheus was adopted as the mythical ancestor of all slaves during the Abolition debates immediately  after the Greek tragedy was first published in English in 1773. The chains that constrained Prometheus, painted, drawn, engraved and sung by Flaxman, Blake, Fuseli, Goethe and Shelley, became instant Romantic ‘code’ for the fetters of slavery. A collection of poems published in 1807 to mark the abolition of actual trading in slaves in British territories put a picture of Hercules liberating the shackled Titan on its cover.

The American Anti-Slavery Almanac for 1844 offers an unmistakable allusion to the myth through the black slave mother, prone on the ground but shielding her baby from the onslaught of the aggressive eagle.  Near the patriotic symbol of the Capitol building, the stars and stripes floating overhead, the American eagle is subversively co-opted as a vicious raptor.

In 1833, Douglass was rented to the vicious slave-breaker Covey to have his rebel spirit subdued once and for all. After a spate of severe floggings, Douglass fought back for two hours and won.  Little surprise that the story of Prometheus’ defiance against Zeus was one factor which shaped Douglass’ own account of that primal showdown in his epochal My Bondage and My Freedom (1855).

Soon Aeschylus’ Promethean fetters symbolised not just slavery but any form of oppression under capitalism. Marx represented the censorship of his newspaper Die rheinische Zeitung in 1843 as a scene from Aeschylus Bound: Marx is chained to his printing press, tortured by the eagle of Prussian censorship, and comforted by Ocean's daughters (the chorus in the tragedy) who have become fused with Rhine maidens.

You Have Nothing to Lose but Your Chains
Five years later, in London exile, Marx penned with Engels the rousing 23-page pamphlet destined, for better or worse, to change the world. But at least one of the manifesto's most famous sentences is a resounding allusion to that Greek tragedy: ‘The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win.’ 

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