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Except for the Miracles

Liberation as the Fine Art of Losing

No matter how courageous and spirited the fight, victory almost always went to the side with the greater power to inflict damage. Sometimes David kills Goliath, and people never forget. But there were a lot of little guys Goliath had already mashed into the ground. Nobody sang songs about those fights, because they knew that was the likely outcome. No, that was the inevitable outcome, except for the miracles.
—Orson Scott Card, Ender’s Shadow

Being on hunger strike was torture enough. But suffering comes in levels, and Dolours Price was about to experience the next level.

They came on a cold morning in the winter of 1973. As Patrick Radden Keefe recounts in the recent book Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland, doctors and nurses of the London prison strapped Price to a chair that was bolted to the floor and secured her to it with bedsheets. Hands wrenched her mouth open and forced a wooden bit between her jaws, preventing her from biting down. At the center of the bit was a hole just large enough to jam a rubber hose through. A puree of eggs, orange juice, and a vitamin blend coursed through the tube as she gasped for air, fighting to free herself. Before they could remove the tube and bit, she vomited up the food—a victory, feeble as it may have seemed, for the hunger strike her captors had decided to break by force. So they came in the very next morning and did it again. And the next morning. And the next. For one hundred and sixty odd days, they came. It was a grueling battle of wills between the Belfast-born Irish republican and the authorities who served as the enforcing arm of British rule.

How many such stories are there in the annals of empire? Two decades earlier and thousands of miles south, like-minded British enforcers in Kenya were inventing the counterinsurgency strategy that was later used to ensnare and torture recalcitrant republicans like Price. Josiah Mwangi “JM” Kariuki was one of many forerunners of the resisters in Northern Ireland.

We face a global threat that goes beyond the borders of any one country or colony: the unprecedented ecological and political crisis of accelerating climate change.

In August of 1954, Kariuki had just been transferred to a new concentration camp. Here, he and his comrades were ordered to kneel in lines of five, put their hands on their head, and repeat phrases by an officer who was less than fluent in the captives’ native language of Kikuyu. The room had filled with nearly as many captors as captives, each of them savagely beating any captive who did not repeat the phrases, or who did so without sufficient energy and gusto. The militaristic drills were a novel aspect of that day’s torture, but the violence was not—in these camps, random and indiscriminate beating and flogging were commonplace. Other forms of grisly violence were as well: untold numbers of Kenyan men and women alike were raped with bottles and the barrels of rifles; men were castrated with pliers.

Kariuki and Price were insurgents, members of groups waging armed revolutionary struggle against the empire. JM Kariuki had taken the oath of the Mau Mau, a largely Kikuyu organization aiming to end white settler domination of Kenya. Dolours Price had distinguished herself as a member of “The Unknowns,” an elite military unit of the Provisional Irish Republican Army, waging an armed struggle against loyalists in Northern Ireland and the British army alike.

Their battles were, from the start, impossibly lopsided. At its height, between the first and second World War, the British empire was the largest empire in human history. It controlled territory amounting to about a quarter of the planet’s surface area and claimed colonial dominion over the same proportion of its population. It is unsurprising, then, that the phrase: “We Englishmen will rule this country forever” was among the phrases that Kariuki and his fellow detainees were coerced into chanting on pain of torture.

They would not rule forever, of course. The empire was waning by the time Kariuki ended up in prison. India had already won independence in 1947; Kenya finally broke free in 1963. The British empire faced serious losses, and their antagonists won partial but meaningful concessions through the 1950s and 1960s.

Yet the Mau Mau rebellion and the battles of the IRA are stories of suppression, of inevitable political failure, of falling far short. Though Kariuki and Price survived their ordeals, they did not claim success. Price married prominent actor Stephen Rea and raised two children with him. She continued a contentious but loving relationship with her sister, comrade-in-arms, and fellow prisoner Marian. For his part, Kariuki jumped into electoral politics headfirst, enjoying a short but prominent career as a socialist parliamentarian in the newly independent Kenyan democracy that he and his comrades had paid dearly to maneuver the British into conceding.

It was their revolutionary dreams that were killed. Price and Kariuki came to believe they had won immeasurably less than what they had suffered so dearly for. Kenya had gained formal independence, but Kariuki was outspoken against the regime that followed. Not one to accept merely symbolic victory for a cause he had paid for in blood, Kariuki developed a risky habit of publicly criticizing the newly established Kenyatta regime. He was assassinated in 1975.

Price lived to see the longer timeline. She died in 2013, at sixty-one. But she never returned to the Provisional IRA or even to radical politics in a committed fashion. She was unimpressed with Sinn Féin, the formal political party associated with the IRA. She also never ate normally again, struggling with persistent anorexia caused by the trauma from her hunger strike and subsequent torture. Her death was linked to the use of sedatives and anti-depression medication she was prescribed after a prolonged bout with PTSD and substance addictions atop her anorexia. “For what Sinn Féin has achieved today,” she once said provocatively in an interview on Irish radio, “I would not have missed a good breakfast.”

There are good reasons to study their political failures. The age of formal colonial rule is largely over, but powerful nations and multinational corporations—both through military might, financial leverage, and through putatively neutral institutions like the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, and World Trade Organizations—continue to dominate global politics much as before. Just as Ghana’s first president Kwame Nkrumah warned during the wave of African and Asian independence movements, neocolonialism is another stage in imperialism. And today we are aware of a kind of global threat that goes beyond the borders of any one country or colony: the unprecedented ecological and political crisis of accelerating climate change.

There’s no way around it. Confronting the extreme inequality around the globe, and the grotesque imbalance of power, while knowing that time is running short because of climate change, requires staring directly into the face of what Price and Kariuki felt: agonizing, crushing defeat. If we fight this fight—as we should, as we must—we will come up short. Our best shot is not in denying this—but in accepting it—and fighting anyway.

There’s another reason to study the failures of Kariuki and Price, though. When they pushed for revolutionary change, they were met by cunning counterrevolutionary forces. As it happened, the central character in the suppression of the Mau Mau rebellion played a crucial role decades later in the Northern Ireland troubles. Kariuki and Price both ran up against the workings of the same man. His name was Frank Kitson.

Know the Enemy

If a government is to be successful therefore, it must base its campaign on a determination to destroy the subversive movement utterly, and it must make this campaign clear to its people.
—Frank Kitson, Low Intensity Operations: Subversion, Insurgency and Peacekeeping

Dolours Price and many of her fellow Provo comrades had hoped for more than just to force the British army to retreat—itself a lofty ambition. The Provisional IRA’s official list of demands included the abolition of all “repressive laws,” freedom for all political prisoners, and full support for civil rights. But these officially stated goals were measured ones compared to their true aspirations, political scientist Niall Ó Dochartaigh suggests, and were more indicative of their intent to negotiate than of their actual hopes. These demands, after all, say nothing about the reunification of Ireland, nor the group’s commitment to self-determination for the Irish. Fulfilling these loftier goals would require destruction of borders, a literal reshaping of the map, and for an empire to cede its nearly millennium-long claim to power and authority over Ireland.

Similarly, JM Kariuki and the Mau Mau wanted more than the elimination of colonial rule. They rallied around the slogan ithaka na wiathi. Though often translated as “land and freedom,” historian Fred Hobson notes that one could also translate this phrase as “freedom through land.” This accords with a notion of freedom that he attributes to the Mau Mau: that a “sufficiency of material resources” is a necessary component for genuine self-mastery and the elimination of relationships of dependence that compromise one’s moral agency and autonomy.

Meeting this demanding conception of freedom would require more than eliminating the formal trappings of colonial rule. Ithaka na wiathi interpreted this way would require redistribution of resources, putting the economic and political interests of European and African elites alike in serious jeopardy. It’s no wonder that, just as in Ireland, much of the violence directed at these Kenyan radicals was overseen or doled out by loyalists from their own region.

It was the job of an extremely well-equipped, well-resourced British military to make sure that insurgents against imperial power were always overmatched. But it was the counterinsurgency methods of Frank Kitson that magnified that power by enlisting local loyalists. In Say Nothing, Keefe follows the winding trails of steel and blood that link the defense of empire in 1950s Kenya to its counterpart in 1970s North Ireland and shows the role Kitson played in both.

The son of an admiral in the British navy, Kitson enlisted in the British army in 1945, too late to see action in the Second World War. If he worried about being stuck in the life of a “gentleman officer,” he needn’t have: he was dispatched to Kenya to put down the Mau Mau rebellion in 1953. There, he immediately engrossed himself in what he called “the game”: the complex intelligence war between insurgents and the “counter-gang” that Kitson sensed was the key to victory over clandestine insurgencies the world over.

In Mau Mau and Kenya: An Analysis of a Peasant Revolt, historian Wunyabari Maloba explains what Kitson was protecting: a colony that served as a playground for a small group of white settlers to run their own fiefdoms. They lived a “comfortable, secure” life atop an authoritarian system of racial apartheid, propped up by plentiful coerced labor. As is typical of racial capitalism, the security and freedom of white settlers was premised upon precariousness for the indigenous populations (in this case, the “natives” were Black Africans).

As is typical of racial capitalism, the security and freedom of white settlers was premised upon precariousness for the indigenous populations.

As Maloba explains, the power imbalance depended on ownership of land: early legislation like the Land Ordinance Act of 1915 empowered the unelected colonial administrator to appropriate land from Africans at will and give it to settlers for a lease of 999 years “for any purpose and on any terms he may think fit.” Africans were herded onto “reserves” which could be—and, of course, were—reduced at will. Black Kenyans, living under constant threat of eviction, had little choice but to labor for scant wages on European farms to provide for themselves and their families—and the system regularly used forced labor. Maloba reports that pay itself was racially stratified in colonial Kenya: the very highest paid Black African workers made less than half of what the lowest paid “Asian” (typically of Indian descent) worker was paid, and the majority of European workers made more than the top 1 percent of “Asian” workers. This exposed Black Africans and Africans of Asian descent disproportionately to the brunt of the effects of inflation that followed the second World War relative to their white counterparts.

The economic and social problems were particularly dire in Kikuyuland, near the capital of Nairobi, where the population density and food scarcity had led to tension between the landed elite and the landless. Out of these pressures came the Mau Mau rebellion. A secretive guerrilla outfit began making war on the British empire. In 1952, after a round of murders of settlers and African loyalists, the colonial administration declared an emergency. By the following year, Kitson was on the scene.

The British authorities arrested suspected leaders en masse and waged a war of attrition focused on the entire Kikuyu population. Villages of primarily women and children had property confiscated, and residents were forced into open-air camps structured by daily, punitive, communal labor (a war crime under the 1949 Geneva Convention). Kitson and his men focused on building an intelligence network and companies of ex-insurgents to fight the Mau Mau. Those fighters identified as current Mau Mau operatives by Kitson and his comrades’ carefully cultivated informants were sent to a more specific class of detention centers, like the one JM Kariuki was imprisoned in.

All told, an estimated 1.5 million people—a number representing nearly the entire Kikuyu population—was confined to one form of concentration camp or other in the brutal repression, according to historian Caroline Elkins. This number, as is often the case with accounts of British imperial atrocities, involves some conjecture. Days before Kenya won independence, the British government moved four packing crates of documents to a secure intelligence facility, punctuating its retreat from imperial domination of Kenya as it had in the rest of the world. Then came the carefully orchestrated removal or destruction of potentially damning historical documents. For his role in the Kenya campaign, Kitson was awarded a Military Cross for valor.

Kitson’s expertise was put in the following years to the service of empire all across the world: fighting Communist guerillas in Malaya (now Malaysia) and a desert rebellion against the oil rich Sultanate of Muscat and Oman (now Oman and the United Arab Emirates). Later, he used the considerable academic resources of Oxford University to develop the insights he gleaned from fighting the Mau Mau and others for his book Low Intensity Operations, which became a seminal text of military counterinsurgency theory. By 1970, Kitson was “perhaps the preeminent warrior-intellectual of the British Army,” according to Keefe. He put his theories of counterinsurgency to the test again beginning that year, when he was promoted to brigadier and deployed to Northern Ireland.

By Ballot or Gun, Our Day Will Come

Brigadier Kitson’s new campaign had a long backstory. The kingdom of England first claimed dominion over Ireland in the twelfth century. Long after this, English rulers preferred to project power from abroad, leaving only a small English population in the region. But in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Tudor rulers conquered Ireland, established a standing army, confiscated huge swaths of land as collective punishment for rebellions, and divided large tracts of Ireland’s territory into plantations controlled by English settlers.

Elements within the British armed forces and intelligence services actively worked to accelerate rather than contain the violence in Northern Ireland.

In the centuries that followed, that domination was maintained by way of genocidal tactics. These have been implicated in some of the many famines that the Irish are famous for surviving. The famines sometimes resulted from economic mismanagement and sometimes from the “scorched earth” military tactics of indiscriminate murder and destruction of food supplies (veterans of some of these very campaigns would go on to use these tactics to dispossess indigenous peoples of land in America). This violence was integral to English power. Kitson himself notes in Low Intensity Operations that when England adopted a standing army in the seventeenth century, its two stated reasons were “Defense of the Protestant Religion” and “Suppression of the Irish.”

Irish politicians and activists began agitating for “home rule” in the late nineteenth century, and in the early twentieth, Irish republicans used the aftermath of the first World War to fight a war of independence, a conflict led by the Irish Republican Army. The result was the partitioning of Ireland under British law into Northern Ireland—including much of the “Plantation of Ulster” region, where English settling of Ireland had begun—and “Southern Ireland,” which became the Republic of Ireland.

Open conflict broke out between loyalists and republicans in 1969, just over fifty years after the “Easter Rising” that had launched the war of independence. A student group attempted to march from Belfast to Derry in a strategy explicitly modeled after the famous Selma-Montgomery march in the United States just four years earlier. The nonviolent demonstration on behalf of Northern Ireland’s embattled Catholic minority was met with extreme violence wielded by the Royal Ulster Constabulary. A teenage Dolours Price and her sister Marian were among the savagely beaten protesters. Violence between loyalists and republicans flared over the months and years that followed.

Though the official narrative positioned British armed forces as an impartial referee breaking up fights, subsequent investigations make clear that elements within the British armed forces and intelligence services actively worked to accelerate rather than contain the violence in Northern Ireland. The British military viewed loyalist terror gangs as a “sideshow—if not an unofficial state auxiliary,” Keefe writes in Say Nothing.

From this conflict rose the Provisional IRA, which Dolours and Marian joined in early 1971. It’s hard not to see the logic of “counter-gangs” at work in this phase of the Troubles—the logic developed by Frank Kitson, now widely acknowledged as the architect of the British strategy. And the kind of tactics Kitson had developed in Kenya were brought to bear on the Provos with devastating effect: one British “handler” of informants estimated that the British army had successfully turned as many as one in four IRA members. Whether this number is widely inflated for “psy-op” purposes or not, it is clear that the British army had at least a few well positioned informants. Such an informant was responsible for Price’s capture.

To this day, Sinn Féin is still agitating for a referendum on Irish reunification. Whatever other concessions the empire granted, these were the last things that elites on either side of the colonial border were set to allow. The balance of power, along with a strongly authoritarian counterinsurgency strategy equipped with all the experiential benefits of empire, made a decisive difference that bravery and sacrifice could not overcome.

Victory in Defeat

Because of the contradiction in the early stages of the revolutionary process between the task being sharply posed and the absence of any preconditions to resolve it, individual battles of the revolution end in formal defeat. But revolution is the only form of “war”—and this is another peculiar law of history—in which the ultimate victory can be prepared only by a series of “defeats.”
—Rosa Luxemburg, “Order Prevails in Berlin

You can lose all the battles—but only when you surrender do you lose your soul.
—Dolours Price, I, Dolours

“In Mississippi we need a Mau Mau. In Alabama we need a Mau Mau. In Georgia we need a Mau Mau. Right here in Harlem, in New York City, we need a Mau Mau,” Malcolm X thundered to a Harlem audience in 1964.

Mickie Mwanzia Koster recounts Malcolm’s speech in her essay on his internationalism for the Journal of African American History. She credits him with helping to promote transnational political consciousness among Kenyans and Americans alike. He had just returned from a trip to the newly independent country, meeting fellow radicals like Pio Gama Pinto and luminary figures in Kenyan politics like Jomo Kenyatta and Tom Mboya, and had spoken in defense of human rights in front of its parliament. It was a time full of promise and hope in Kenya’s history and in Black history more generally—during a massive wave of successful African anti-colonial struggles in the 1960s and before the high-profile assassinations of politicians like Kariuki and Mboya, major capital flight from the African continent, and the turn of many of its states to authoritarian rule.

Still, Malcolm was right to look for inspiration in those early struggles against almost hopeless odds. Finding inspiration in the stories of people like Kariuki and Price is necessary, and something important would be lost if we ignored rebellions that were crushed.

But it matters which lessons we learn. In Rosa Luxemburg’s last written words before she was tortured and killed, she insisted on the importance of understanding defeat. “The question of why each defeat occurred must be answered,” she wrote. “Was it a case of raging, uncontrollable revolutionary energy colliding with an insufficiently ripe situation,” she wonders, “or was it a case of weak and indecisive action?” Nostalgia for fallen heroes and heroic campaigns cannot displace analysis, and mimicry is only warranted should we desire the fate that befell them.

Finding inspiration in the stories of people like Kariuki and Price is necessary, and something important would be lost if we ignored rebellions that were crushed.

The deciding aspect of politics over these next crucial years will turn on battles against overwhelmingly powerful foes who will try to prevent radical redistribution of resources. In doing so, they will seek to ensure that the world’s most vulnerable people suffer the most from wars, pandemics, and climate change. There will likely be not one, but many Frank Kitsons, who study the methods of dividing insurgents against the complacent, the hopeless, and the misguided.

In the United States, a slight partisan shift in government is a slim reed on which to pin hopes for a turn away from ruthless imperialism. President Joe Biden is, in some senses, a preferable opponent for the forces of global justice than Trump was. But in other ways, he is worse. Like many politicians, he is indebted to a powerful corporate class that is part and parcel of our heavily intertwined political problems: from incarceration and policing to inequality and tax policy. He knows it, and has acknowledged as much, promising these kingmakers at a ritzy fundraiser that “nothing would fundamentally change” if he were elected president. Our battle is to prove him wrong, but fundamental change is a long game, and we are at a point in U.S. political history where even a set of policy proposals such as the Green New Deal, or universal health care, or an end to police killings of Black citizens, are seen as radical dreams of the left.

JM Kariuki and Dolours Price paid an enormous price for struggles against long odds. Given the enormity of their challenge, it is hard to see how things could have ended any other way than it did: in, at best, partial victories. But this fact does not condemn them; it vindicates them. Where would we be without sacrifices like theirs? The same place our descendants will be without ours.