Robert Burns lived in the last third of the 18th century, a time of the most rapid change in Scottish history. The agrarian revolution was squeezing the peasantry, the class into which he had been born, out of existence. The industrial revolution was underway.
Enlightenment ideas were challenging the church and the political system. Burns’ life and his poetry were intertwined with this ferment of change. Some people call Burns an early socialist. But he would not have understood this description. To call him this is to try to read back developments after his time into his ideas.
He was a product of the Scottish part of the European Enlightenment and of the American and French revolutions with their ideas of liberty, equality and fraternity. He was for the common people and against the corrupt and corrupting power of the gentry, nobility and royalty.
He was not a nationalist either—at least not in the modern sense of seeking an independent Scottish state. That is another historical anachronism. He was one of those who reacted against a move among the Scottish upper classes to do away with a Scottish identity and mode of speech.
This championing of Scottish identity and language within the relatively new British state was what was left after his scandalous reputation as a supporter of the French Revolution was buried. It allowed him to be turned into an icon of a distinctive Scottish role in British imperialism. One of the main things that can put people off Burns is attending a “traditional” Burns supper.
Until very recently they have been all-male booze-ups with sentimental songs and sexist, sometimes racist, speeches. As Burns became adopted and politically sanitised by the Scottish Victorian upper classes, these suppers became a way of moulding Burns into the familiar tartan shortbread box icon. They were where you could indulge in cod Scottishness, tell dirty jokes and get plastered—all in the name of culture.This has begun to change in recent years. Few Burns suppers are now all male, and many celebrate Burns’s radical, revolutionary and republican aspects. Some Burns suppers now celebrate the dual heritages of Burns and Mohammed Iqbal, Pakistan’s national poet.
Burns knew poverty and the injustice of the class system, and wanted to make the world a better place. He supported the radical and republican movement in 1790s Britain, inspired by the American and French revolutions. But he was cowed into public silence by the ferocious terror unleashed by the British state on the radical movement, and the orgy of loyalism whipped up by the war on revolutionary France.
However, privately and anonymously he continued to write poetry for the movement. “A man’s a man for a’ that” was written two years after he promised his state employers: “Henceforth, I seal my lips.” He described it as the ideas of Tom Paine’s Rights of Man worked up into verse.
In the political atmosphere of the time, had he been identified as the author, the man who later became “Scotland’s national bard” could have been sacked, charged with sedition and deported to Botany Bay.
During his short creative life Burns gave us a treasure trove of songs, poems, satire and invective that still enriches the struggle against dogma, oppression and a society deformed by class.
Respect—the Unity Coalition are organising a Burns Night event in London on Saturday 29 January. For more details go to www.respectcoalition.org