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Class struggle, Ned Kelly and the Jerilderie Letter

category ireland / britain | crime prison and punishment | other libertarian press author Friday November 30, 2007 18:05author by Trevor Bark - North Eastern Federation of Autonomous Class War Report this post to the editors

The political science of resistance

This is a review of an important historical document, The Jerilderie Letter. It is not often that documents written from the white heat of the class war see the light of day, and this one was supressed by the police for approx 100 years. This is a political examination looking at unmediated anarchistic resistance.

This is a review of an important historical document, The Jerilderie Letter. It is not often that documents written from the white heat of the class war see the light of day, and this one was supressed by the police for approx 100 years. This is a political examination looking at unmediated anarchistic resistance.

"The Jerilderie Letter"

Faber and Faber, 2001. £6

It is not often that hidden documents of the class war see the light of day, but the Jerilderie Letter (1878) ranks among the all time greats. This document was unknown to the world in its original form until December 2000 when an anonymous source donated it to the State Library of Victoria. Ned Kelly gave this document to a bank accountant to have published in Melbourne, but instead it was given to the police who suppressed it until 1930 when it was published abridged in the Melbourne Herald.

The document was transcribed from the original in the library by Alex McDermott who also wrote the introduction. This review has taken the opportunity of developing the arguments made in the introduction by Alex McDermott, and further stating the politics of the class war as recognised by Ned Kelly and direct action anarcho-socialists everywhere. For the 'secret formula' of class formation and mobilisation is contained within...

This is a tirade against the law and injustice written by Ned Kelly and transcribed by Joe Byrne at the time (1878) Joe performed the task of making legible and readable a tract prepared not by a journalist, academic or other ghost writer but by a class warrior in days before mass literacy and education. Tracts written in the white heat of battle are few and far between but this is one of them.

"I Want to say a few words about why I'm an outlaw"

The reasons why Ned Kelly became an outlaw are the result of class relations at the time, that is the economic way of life and the resulting enforcement of the capitalist rule of law. Kelly clearly is portraying himself and his family as victims and demands that the rich give to Widows, orphans and poor relief charity if they want to stay alive - "I am a widows son outlawed and my orders must be obeyed". This is a slightly more militant demand than charitys make today, but some anarchists from their holy mountain may still proclaim that this is 'not true anarchism'. As usual these middle class 'refuseniks' - who refuse to 'get their hands dirty with the stink of the proletariat' (as George Orwell said) miss the class dynamic which motivates people to act in their own interests. And not the interests that anarchists think should motivate people...

Ned Kelly belongs to the "Bandit" classification, in other words he is a 'social criminal' who is implicitly different to those who commit crime without selecting targets or worrying about the harm caused to working class people
"who are not or not only regarded as simple criminals by public opinion... the point about social bandits is that they are peasant outlaws whom the lord and state regard as criminals, but who remain within peasant society, and are considered by their people as heroes, as champions, avengers, fighters for justice, perhaps even leaders of liberation, and in any case men to be admired, helped and supported"
E. Hobsbawm, "Bandits", Abacus,2001.
McDermott is strangely silent on this for an historian must of known of Hobsbawms famous research, but there are different types of historian. Those who merely publish bland academic and safe work to further their own career, and those who publish things that matter. In this instance McDermott has published something that matters but has subverted the meaning and politics of the original to make it 'safe and acceptable'.

The Economics and Class background of Bushrangers

After the original expropriation of land from the indiginous population the period between 1860 and 1880 witnessed an intense class struggle for control of land between large pastoralist landowners, and small farmers and rural labourers. It was because the pastoralists were more powerful that they were winning and this fueled the flames of class discontent. Pat O'Malley says that there was no
"single class enemy of the rural poor... banks and loan companies, as holders of mortgages, became hated and feared, especially during depression periods. In Australia, the police were hated as tools of the pastoralists and traitors to their own class... The essence of social banditry is the symbiotic relationship between the bandit and a rural underclass. The bandit preys on the enemies of the underclass and may air its grievances, in return for which he receives tactical and material support from its members... In a condition of virulent class conflict, these 'alliances' are appropriately interpreted and defined by the respective class ideologies, regardless of unknowable 'real' motives... the banks and the rich pastoralists homesteads were lucrative targets for bandits and were objects hated by the poor. The bandits thus performed a symbolic, ideological role regardless of intention, and support for them should be seen as part of the repertoire of conflict strategies available to the dominated classes". (1981)

"What rendered the bushrangers into Social Bandits was the existence of a conflict which invested their action with a specific social meaning, from which stemmed the peculiar relationship of mutual support between bandit and sectors of his local community" (1979).
Kelly's class experience made him (and many others) do certain things against the law, for the Kelly families own interests. Anarchists will also baulk at the concept of Kelly 'issuing orders that must be obeyed'. This language though is part and parcel of the rhetoric of resistance aimed at the oppressing classes in all areas of the world. McDermott says that the language Kelly uses
"tells the story of a violent man living a violent life, yet articulates a highly acute sense of honour and integrity. The letter is punctuated by an urgent need for revenge, articulated through its visceral images, wordplay and metaphors. Its language seethes with menace, 'By the light that shines pegged to an ant-bed,' Kelly declares of those who help the police, 'with their bellies opened their fat taken out and rendered and poured down their throat boiling hot will be cool to what pleasure i will give some of them'".
This is the hightened sense of a man in full possession of his faculties fighting the class war, who knew the danger people like him face from informers. Indeed the class war today echoes these sentiments as do the youth struggling in places like Sunderland, Glasgow, Bristol & Salford today. It's no accident that the police have been looked down on by class warriors throughout the ages in all parts of the world. Police are always seen as parasitic on the workers as they protect the rich, hence names like 'pig' and the 'beast', metaphors like 'hogwash' (police cover ups), and sayings like 'there's lies, damned lies and police evidence'...

"Ideas are only worthy of the name If they are dangerous"

McDermott ends with saying that the Jerilderie letter "is the apocalyptic chant of Edward Kelly", but its far more than that. It's the demand for justice that oppressed groups and individuals have used through time around the world. These feelings all to often do not receive the publicity they should and many things work to conceal these outbreaks of verbal class war. Here's one example from the period of Slavery in America, the 'deep south'.

Mary the white governess recounted the reaction of Aggy, a normally taciturn and deferential black cook to the beating the Master had given her daughter. The daughter had been accussed, apparently unjustly, of some minor theft and then beaten while Aggy looked on powerless to intervene. After the Master left Aggy turned to Mary who she considered her friend and said
"Thar's a day a-comin! Thar's a day a-comin!... I hear the rumblin ob de chariots! I see de flashin ob de guns! White folks blood is a runnin on the ground like a ribber, an de dead's heaped up dat high!... Oh Lor! Hasten de day when de blows, an de bruises, and de aches and de pains, shall come to de white folks, an de buzzards shall eat dem as dey's dead in de streets. Oh Lor! Gib me de pleasure ob livin' till dat day, when I shall see white folks shot down like de wolves when dey come hungry out o'de woods"
We can imagine what might have happened to Aggy if she had delivered this speech directly to the Master. Apparently her trust in Marys friendship and sympathy was such that a statement of her rage could be ventured with comparative safety. Alternatively perhaps she could no longer choke back her anger. Aggys previously hidden thoughts are at complete odds with her public performance of quiet obedience. What is particularly striking is that this is anything but an inchoate scream of rage; it is a finely drawn and highly visual image of an apocalypse, a day of revenge and triumph - judgement day, a world turned upside down using the cultural raw materials of the white mans religion.

Can we conceive of such an elaborate vision rising spontaneously to her lips without the beliefs and practices of slave Christianity having prepared the way carefully? Our glimpse of Aggy's hidden transcript if pursued further would lead us directly to the offstage culture of the slave quarters and slave religion, and make any niave interpretation of Aggy's public displays of deference impossible. The hidden transcript Aggy revealed in the comparative safety of friendship is occasionally openly declared in the face of power. When, suddenly, subservience evaporates and is replaced by open defiance we encounter one of those rare and dangerous moments in power relations.

Kelly again is backed by millions when he wrote
"there never was such a thing as justice in the English laws but any amount of injustice to be had... [why should we] put up with the brutal and cowardly conduct of a parcel of big ugly fat-necked wombat headed big bellied magpie legged narrow lipped splaw-footed sons of Irish bailiffs or English Landlords which is better known as Officers of Justice or Victorian Police"
Kelly also uses the history of Irish oppression and imperialism with a natural rebelliousness, that many familiar with the lives and resistance of Irish people will identify with.

Say What You Mean - and Mean What You Say

The Jerilderie letter then, is a document of the class war, a living history of class struggle and we are very happy to promote it. Kelly's style like that of Class War is the warrior's fiery temperament; highly personal, dramatic, oratorical, and charged with competitive hostility - "we mean it man" as the Sex Pistols were to say... because our lives are one unrelenting experience of class oppression, or wage slavery to give it another name. We are firey and antagonistic, and turn our anger at our oppression outwards to the class enemy who are the real cause of our problems, rather than inwards towards ourselves ('oh i'm not good enough') or towards others from our class - 'they're taking our jobs'.

"Only the warriors sword can reap the crop so bravely sown"

It is of no surprise that the Australian Class War website carries a 'working class heroes' section with Ned Kelly in it, for Kelly has long been perceived as the Australian Robin Hood by the masses. There are those who believe that if we are reasonable enough then social change can be acheived without getting your hands dirty in conflict. They forget that there is conflict going on everyday, and social crime is the 'hidden revolution' by those who choose to fight back rather than keep their head down. For people rationalise their class positions in many ways and not all choose to fight back by any means necessary. Not all have regular lifestyles and employment, but we're sure that if work (when you can get it) made you rich then the poor would be prevented from it as it would be kept for our 'betters' to do. That these words were supressed by enemies of the working class for so long says volumes, and we are very happy to promote Ned Kelly's memory.

These are the words of the dead and the living, and we want revenge.

Books and Articles used

Pat O'Malley "The Suppression of Social Banditry: Train Robbers in the U.S. Border states and Bushrangers in Australia, 1865-1905", Crime and Social Justice, Winter 1981, No. 16.

Pat O'Malley "Class Conflict, Land and Social Banditry: Bushranging in Nineteenth Century Australia", Social Problems, Vol. 26, No. 3, February 1979.

E. Hobsbawm, "Bandits", Abacus, 2001.

James C. Scott, "Domination and the Arts of Resistance", Yale University Press, 1990.

author by Bill Denheld - date Sun Dec 02, 2007 16:00author address author phone 613 9725 8910Report this post to the editors

Regarding Class struggle, Ned Kelly and the Jerilderie Letter
by Trevor Bark -

Being an armature historian and author of 'on the ground research' into the Kelly gang, I read with interest your article about our Ned and his Jerilderie letter.

The letter was withheld from public view for 50 years. From 1968 the 56 page original document was offered to the State Library of Victoria by a Mr Harrison acting on behalf of a descendant of the Bank accountant Edwin Living'. Mr Harrison then contacted Kelly Historian Ian Jones to see if he he could help place the document for posterity. It was not until November 2000 that the SLof Victoria accepted the letter as a donation.

With the acceptance to the SLoV collection the document is now known as the Jerilderie Letter.

My Kelly research website came about because I could see Ned Kelly being portrayed into the 21 century as the bush ranger criminal thug murderer unless someone else took a stance to see him take his true deserved place in Australian history. Portrayed even today as an outlaw, Ned Kelly will be seen as an Australia's ironicon.

Research with fellow historian Maikel Annalee of Sydney, links Ned Kelly to the Federation of Australia through family connections who supported his stance. Ned Kelly may have wanted a republic for North East Victoria but unwittingly played a part in the Federation of Australia for a fairer parliament for the people 1893. What Ned was not able to achieve was taken up by close friends and others, but his true place in Australian has been expunged because history is written by the winners.

Trevor Bark,Congratulations on a very good article.

With thanks,
Bill Denheld

Bill Denheld
Bill Denheld

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