The politics of public monuments 

At the centre of the recent fascist demonstration in Charlottesville was the attempt to defend a monument to pro-slavery Confederate General Robert E. Lee .

Socialist Worker

The politics of public monuments 
The Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville. 

James Grannell writes:

Some liberals, probably with good intentions, have said they deplore racism and slavery but defend this and other Confederate statues on the grounds of maintaining an objective historical record.

In reality neither the erection nor the demolition of public monuments has ever been politically neutral or about ‘pure’ history. It always been part of political and social struggle.

Ireland itself provides an excellent examples of this. Most readers will be aware of the destruction of Nelson’s Pillar in Dublin in 1966. Fewer, perhaps, will be aware of the removal of the plethora of other public monuments that commemorated our British and Imperial past. 


A cavalry statue of George I which stood in the Mansion House garden was removed in 1937 1937; a similar statue of George II  in Stephen’s Green was blown up in the same year; a statue of William of Orange on College Green was removed in 1929 and melted down in 1946; a large statue of Queen Victoria was removed from the front of Leinster House in 1947 and now stands in Sydney – and the list goes on. 

Throughout the twentieth century Dublin was cleansed of many of the most obvious monuments to its British past – statues were removed or destroyed, and towns train stations and streets were renamed. 

Post revolutionary Ireland set about monumentalising its own heroes and the ideals that it stood for. The idea of continuity between Gaelic Ireland and the new state were demonstrated with the instillation of the Cú Chulainn statue in the GPO in 1935 and the Cildren of Lir statue in the Garden of Remembrance in 1966. 

 In the meantime the names of national heroes could be read on the maps of almost every town in Ireland as the political mood demanded new monuments to new heros. 


Monumental history serves another purpose – it encourages us to look up to great men (most monuments are of men) of the past who delivered some advancement or other to our nation. They perpetuate the myth that history is a catalogue of the works of great men. They  spread the idea that progress is the work of remarkable individuals, rather than  of normal people,. 

This  serves to disempower the masses – those the Earl of Clarendon described as ‘dirty people of no name’. However, these people are the true movers of history. 

The cotton barons may have owned the mills, but the people built and operated them. 

In the same way it will be the ordinary people who will build a better society.Maybe we need less monuments to great individuals and more to the collective struggles of working people, like the water charges protestors. 

The act of removing monuments is part of the revolution, of people’s anger at the current state of things. It is no wonder that in the USA where African Americans are still oppressed so violently that a movement has emerged calling for the removal of monuments to men who supported slavery. It’s not just about nineteenth century slavery, its about police brutality and racism today. 

In the end however, it’s not enough to  remove metal and stones. 

What we must strive for is the removal of those monuments to corruption and greed that are made of flesh and bone and populate the parliaments and financial institutions of every nation. 




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