The act of taking the knee is a powerful symbol for an American. But for the British working class its an act of submission.
The U.S. is a vehemently patriotic country and for many that patriotism can often cross over into nationalism, driven more by racial and ethnic superiority than a love of country patriotism then becomes the flag bigotry hides behind. The U.S.A. flirts with a nationalist, ideology based on the premise that the individual’s loyalty and devotion to the nation-state surpass other individual or group interests. America first is not just a mantra its a way of life.
President Donald Trump has been described as a nationalist and has embraced the term himself. Several current and former officials within his administration, including former White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon have been described as representing a “nationalist wing” within the federal government.
Both the flag and national anthem are symbolically held in the highest regards to the U.S. citizen. There is a commonly held belief that national anthems have a unique power over people. They are examples of unisonance, which is a situation where people, wholly unknown to one another, utter the same verses to the same melody. This unisonance effectively and efficiently allows “each” person to sing the music of the “whole” nation with “all” other citizens. National anthems are now a single – but powerful – part of the paraphernalia of national packaging, alongside flags, currency, or postage stamps, the iconography that many of us inherit and which we come to regard as both normal and normative. Yet although the words of these songs are often banal and their tunes mediocre, simultaneously singing an imagined sound seems to bring people together.
Thus national anthems constitute a serious business, and that is why they are played and sung at the most solemn moments dedicated to performing a nation’s spirit, as singing and listening to them generates raised feelings of pride and patriotism.
In the U.S. School starts with the Pledge of Allegiance, the pledge has remained a mainstay of U.S. public education since 1892 with very little opposition other than religious objections by religious organisations such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses who believed that venerating the flag violated God’s prohibition against bowing to graven images. The national anthem is played at every major sporting event and everyone that can is expected to stand in honour of ‘flag and country’.
Kneeling in defiance
Taking a knee began as a protest was first seen at the National Football League (NFL) when San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick sat and later knelt during the national anthem, before his team’s preseason games of 2016. On the first of September 2016, Colin Kaepernick used the occasion to highlight police brutality against black Americans by taking a knee during the national anthem.
Since August 2016, again other American athletes have protested against police brutality and racism by kneeling on one knee during the U.S. national anthem. Since 2017, many players have also begun protesting against President Donald Trump’s criticisms of those involved in the protest, and some against Trump’s policies since taking office. Observers have described the protests as politically motivated or patriotic and have praised the players’ social awareness, while others have criticised the attention given to social issues during sporting events, and called the protests unpatriotic or disrespectful. The act itself has become widely referred to as taking a knee or taking the knee.
Taking the knee in America is to say I cannot respect my flag and my country while it allows systemic racism to prevail. Taking the knee rather than standing for the American national anthem is a legitimate American protest.
This is why Starmer and Rayner are wrong to appropriate symbols such as this which in the UK means allegiance to the social order – the exact opposite of what they mean in U.S. culture.
Here in the UK the working class have been fighting for a thousand years to get off our knees. We won’t be getting back on them in a hurry.
The Communist Manifesto opens with the declaration that, “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.”
History of oppression
Marx recognised that oppression, far from being a natural and thus a permanent feature of human society, is a historical invention. True, the oppression of certain groups of people in society existed before capitalism. For example, Marx’s collaborator Engels traced the origins of women’s oppression to the formation of the family with the rise of class society.
Despite the many changes to the family over the centuries, it persists to this day because it plays a crucial role in the continuation of the system, by bearing the brunt of the cost for caring for present and past generations of workers and the rearing of the next – all at our own expense. So, despite the fact that the majority of women in this country who can work do work, their role in the family means they still accept lower wages and fewer career opportunities.
Other forms of oppression have arisen with the emergence of capitalism. So racism was created to justify the slave trade and imperialism and is perpetuated by the need to keep workers divided.
The working class have always seen bending the knee as a symbol of submission.
kneeling before one’s betters only come about after the Norman invasion to accept the superior social status of Britain’s new overlords – such hierarchies were far less rigid in Anglo-Saxon culture. The North paid dearly for their refusal to bend the knee. William the Conqueror carried out what is historically known as ‘The Harrying of the North‘ this was a number of campaigns waged by William the Conqueror in the winter of 1069–70 to subjugate northern England by laying waste to the northern shires using scorched earth tactics, especially in the city of York, before relieving the English aristocracy of their positions, and installing Norman aristocrats throughout the region.
Contemporary chronicles vividly record the savagery of the campaign, the huge scale of the destruction and the widespread famine caused by looting, burning and slaughtering. Some present-day scholars have labelled the campaigns a genocide. Records from the Domesday Book show that 75% of the population died or never returned.
No matter the circumstance or which corner of the UK. The working class have always resisted bending the knee.
We the people have had many names, Folk, Serfs, Peasants, the masses and today the working class. We have also had our heroes. Heroes that have resisted the heel of the establishment. Boudica, Caractacus, Hereward the Wake, William Wallace, Owain Glyndŵr, Wat Tyler and the reverend John Ball, Cromwell, James Connolly and many more. Some of these names have been adopted by the establishment, diminished in their original form as rebels, to be used in propaganda of the establishment but the reality is these are some of the people that resisted the chains of servitude real and psychological.
The struggle for all the working class no matter race creed or colour as been to break free from servitude and the iron heel of the establishment, for all the working class our oppressors have been the same people. The few, the few that have made people of colour slaves these same people who have made slaves of all people here in the U.K and the world over. These are the people that hold the keys to power and wealth, the people that stand sentinel over the tears of the establishment that make up the Pyramid of Capitalist System.
Capitalist society concentrates the wealth, ownership and power into the hands of a small group that sit atop the pyramid structure of power.
They are kept atop this pyramid by various mechanisms of coercion, some peaceful ( religion/debt ) and others forceful ( military/police/security services ).
This pyramid exists in order to siphon upwards the profits made by those who exist upon the base of the pyramid structure.
Due to the sheer volume of numbers, those at the bottom of the pyramid could easily sweep away the small group at the top.
With this in mind the pinnacle creates various substrata beneath it to act as a shield and barrier between it and those at the bottom. These various sections that exist between the bottom and the top are given rewards for their servility. Often great wealth, patronage and status. These gifts are enough to give those privilege but never power great enough to dislodge the pinnacle.
In order to prevent the great mass at the base of this pyramid from shaking the entire foundation methods are used to keep the masses from finding common unity wherein they could challenge the construct that keeps them enslaved.
Thus they sow the seeds of discord and divide by race, gender, nationality and religion.
But while Marx understood that some forms of oppression existed before capitalism, he also grasped the way the nature of oppression under capitalism was different to what had gone before.
Under feudalism or slavery the mass of the population were either slaves, the property of masters, or serfs tied to particular pieces of land and bound to a lord. Such societies were rigidly hierarchical and were based on the idea that everyone had their “rightful place”. Notions of freedom for those other than the rulers in society were rare and subordination in society was widely accepted.
Serfdom was the status of many peasants under feudalism, specifically relating to manorialism and similar systems. It was a condition of debt bondage and indentured servitude, which developed during the Late Antiquity and Early Middle Ages in Europe and lasted in some countries until the mid-19th century.
As with slaves, serfs could be bought, sold, or traded, with some limitations: they generally could be sold only together with land (with the exception of the kholops in Russia and villeins in gross in England who could be traded like regular slaves), could be abused with no rights over their own bodies, could not leave the land they were bound to and could marry only with their lord’s permission.
Serfs who occupied a plot of land were required to work for the lord of the manor who owned that land. In return, they were entitled to protection, justice, and the right to cultivate certain fields within the manor to maintain their own subsistence. Serfs were often required not only to work on the lord’s fields but also in his mines and forests and to labor to maintain roads. The manor formed the basic unit of feudal society, the lord of the manor and the villeins, and to a certain extent, the serfs were bound legally by taxation in the case of the former, and economically and socially in the latter.
The working class have resisted bending the knee throughout history. The working class have a history of not only recognising inequality but they have continued a constant rebellion against tyranny and oppression. We have not gone meekly into the night.
This constant class war has been a war of struggle, the many want equality for all. The few need to maintain their position of power.
Over 700 years ago John Ball preached that “things would not go well with England until everything was held in common”. He argued: “Are we not all descended from the same parents, Adam and Eve? So what can they show us, what reasons give, why they should be more the masters than ourselves?” It is in Ball’s words that we find the early concept of the equality of all men and women, “as opposed to the rigid class divisions, privileges and injustice of feudalism; equality as justified by scripture and expressed as fraternity, that was to continue as a basic ideal of the English radical tradition.”
John Ball also complained about laws that were passed telling people what to wear and what to eat. He especially objected to a law that forbade peasants from sending their children to school or to go into the Church to become priests. He also objected to “the law, which also stopped the children of serfs going into the towns to become apprentices… this was done in order to maintain the supply of agricultural labour.”
Ball argued that the feudal system was immoral: “Why are those whom we call lords, masters over us? How have they deserved it? By what right do they keep us enslaved? We are all descended from our first parents, Adam and Eve; how then can they say that they are better than us… At the beginning, we were all created equal. If God willed that there should be serfs, he would have said so at the beginning of the world. We are formed in Christ’s likeness, and they treat us like animals… They are dressed in velvet and furs, while we wear only cloth. They have wine, and spices and good bread, while we have rye bread and water. They have fine houses and manors, and we have to brave the wind and rain as we toil in the fields. It is by the sweat of our brows that they maintain their high state. We are called serfs, and we are beaten if we do not perform our task.”
When new societies emerge so too do new ideas. The bourgeois revolutions that overthrew feudalism and paved the way for capitalism did so under the banner of “liberty, equality and fraternity”, as the French Revolution put it. This was a huge step forward for humanity compared to previous societies.
The fact is the fight for equality as been the fight of the abolition of both slavery and racism. It is a shared history of oppression carried out by the few on the many.
Nothing should or could ever undermine the fight for liberty, equality, dignity and the recognition of the history of struggle the BAME community has suffered in the face of racism and bigotry by the minority.
Racism should be confronted head and every right-thinking British person should stand in solidarity but asking the working class to adopt an Americanism and ‘bend the knee’ does not take into account our united struggle. That united struggle is a class war that has seen a thousand years of the many pulling ourselves up of the ground in servitude of the few and once we did we then raise the fist of resistance in defiance.
The raised fist, or the clenched fist, is a symbol of solidarity and support. It is also used as a salute to express unity, strength, defiance, or resistance.
The raised fist has been a symbol of resistance and unity for the Left for over a hundred years.
According to Assyrian Origins, a book on Assyrian art edited by former Metropolitan Museum of Art curator Prudence O. Harper, artworks depicting the clenched fist date back to ancient times and were associated with procreation, prayer, and “the manifestation of sheer physical strength.”
The Fist was first captured on canvas thanks to a surly French artist named Honoré Daumier, (1808-1879). The clue to its originality lies in its title. It is the concept of Daumier as the complete man and artist of his time which lends distinction to the image.
Daumier’s genius was expressing the ideology of the French middle and lower classes in their revolutions and counter-revolutions from 1830 to the Paris Commune.
His painting ‘The Uprising’ shows the triumphant working class Daumier imagined the man as a symbol of the Revolutions of 1848, a series of anti-royal protests that roiled Europe. Art historians have called the painting “a symbol of pent-up human indignation.” By 1917, socialist was using the Fist as a symbol of resistance, hope and unity. Read more.
But arguably its most famous use in recent history is by Olympians John Carlos and Tommie Smith during their awards ceremony at the 1968 games in Mexico City. Carlos and Smith’s “black power salute” got them suspended from the U.S. team and turned them into galvanizing figures.
In recent times the fist symbol as been used by socialist such as Bernie Saunders and Jeremy Corbyn
Working class unity
Fred Hampton one of my political heroes really understood not only the class struggle but had the sense and courage to overcome the extreme prejudice and racism of his time. He was able to understand this was a class war and without unity, we cannot win. in his words:
“We got to face some facts. That the masses are poor, that the masses belong to what you call the lower class, and when I talk about the masses, I’m talking about the white masses, I’m talking about the black masses, and the brown masses, and the yellow masses, too. We’ve got to face the fact that some people say you fight fire best with fire, but we say you put fire out best with water. We say you don’t fight racism with racism. We’re gonna fight racism with solidarity. We say you don’t fight capitalism with no black capitalism; you fight capitalism with socialism.
We ain’t gonna fight no reactionary pigs who run up and down the street being reactionary; we’re gonna organize and dedicate ourselves to revolutionary political power and teach ourselves the specific needs of resisting the power structure, arm ourselves, and we’re gonna fight reactionary pigs with INTERNATIONAL PROLETARIAN REVOLUTION. That’s what it has to be. The people have to have the power: it belongs to the people.” Fred Hampton
The working class is facing the biggest attacks in decades. Unity across our class will be crucial if we are to see a fightback capable of victories. In this situation, revolutionaries must seek to lead in the struggle not simply as the best class fighters but, as Lenin put it, as the “tribunes of the oppressed”. Class unity can at once be the key to defeating the ruling class but also to overcoming the most divisive aspects of oppression that so many of us face today.