The French revolution

In May '68, Paul Johnson, the then editor of the New Statesman, extolled Parisian student power in a

A spectre is haunting Europe - the spectre of student power. As in 1848, each outbreak in each European capital contains the seeds of another elsewhere, as students gain courage from the success and audacity of their foreign brethren, and learn from their mistakes. With each outbreak, the students raise their objectives and widen their horizons. Anyone who is fascinated by political processes and public philosophies should make every effort to go to Paris now. For what is happening there is of great importance not only to France but to the world. To be there is a political education, to watch the birth-pangs of a new approach to the organisation of human societies. This is such a rare event in history that we are fortunate to be alive to witness it.

The French movement is seen to be far more sophisticated than its equivalent elsewhere; more deeply grounded in philosophical principles and more adult in its grasp of the strategy and tactics of political action. In the overflowing lecture halls and corridors of the Faculty of Letters, every conceivable topic is examined: forms of revolutionary action, birth control, the nature of the state, Vietnam, the role of parents, the nature of the university. Workers come there to argue and listen, and so do old men and housewives and foreigners and Deputies and writers and journalists. The debating groups spill out into nearby streets and crowd the vast Odéon Theatre. De Gaulle has called it a "dog's breakfast". Perhaps it is, in a sense: France has brought up its Gaullist vomit and now feels better.

But the disparate debate is underpinned by a powerful thread of logic, which has transformed the French movement from a student revolt into a political event. The university is the matrix of society, the institution which produces its elites, assumptions and objectives; therefore student reforms are organically linked to the transformation of the adult world. Student agitation is meaningless unless it can join forces with the workers, the fall-guys in any consumer society.

A wild theory?

The students cannot produce all the answers, but they are asking questions which have never been posed before in the context of a political offensive, and with a stridency which makes it impossible for their elders to brush them aside. It is not enough, they say, to debate the questions and formulate the answers, then allow them slowly to percolate: debate and formulation are inseparable from action in the street. A wild theory? Yes: but it works! The students fought all night on the barricades on 10 May; the next day the government, the arrogant and authoritarian Gaullist state, capitulated.

At this point the student movement passed into the mainstream of politics, indeed history. Beneath the thin veneer of Gaullist "stability and prosperity", practically every large group in France has a grievance, long cherished through years of futile negotiations. Any state must make enemies; the art is to avoid a conflict with all of them simultaneously.

Any state must sometimes use force and sometimes appeasement. The art is to avoid doing both together, and thus losing respect and popularity. The Gaullist government has contrived to make every mistake in the book. And in its distress, the regime is looking for succour to what, in political terms, is its natural enemy: the Communist Party bureaucracy.

In terms of the new realities, however, the CP and the Gaullists are natural allies. Both have a good deal to lose by radical change. Both look to Moscow, in their different ways: to maintain the continuity of Gaullist foreign policy is almost as important to Moscow as to de Gaulle himself. Both are entombed mummies, which a breath of ideological fresh air could reduce to powder.

Thus we have the extraordinary antics of the CP and the CGT [General Confederation of Labour] over the past fortnight. First they dismissed the students as unimportant. Then when bodies of young workers joined them on the barricades, they jumped on the bandwagon in order to put on the brakes, but found themselves careering down the slope. Their men stopped the workers from joining hands with the students in taking over factories. But they could not halt the takeovers themselves.

At every stage their orders and appeals have been for calmness, discipline, etc. As such they have been praised for their moderation and sense of responsibility by the Figaro, organ of the French bourgeoisie, and given eager publicity by the Gaullist TV/radio network. What a fate for any CP which hopes for a long-term future! And, worst of all, they are confirming, in theory and in practice, everything that the students have always said about them. The Fifth Republic will never be the same again; nor, I think, will Moscow communism. It now has powerful enemies on the left, in the heart of Europe. Once again, the French have given birth to a revolutionary new spirit, which will ultimately enrich the lives of all of us. I would like to think, without much hope, that Britain had a contribution to make.

This article first appeared in the 12 May 2008 issue of the New Statesman, 1968 The year that changed everything

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As bad as stealing bacon – why did the Victorians treat acid attacks so leniently?

In an era of executions and transportation, 19th century courts were surprisingly laissez-faire about acid attacks. 

"We are rather anxious to see the punishment of death rescinded in all cases except that of Murder," stated the Glasgow publication, The Loyal Reformers’ Gazette, in 1831. But it did not share this opinion when it came to Hugh Kennedy.

Previously of “irreproachable character", Kennedy fell out with a fellow servant and decided to take his revenge by pouring acid on the man while he was asleep. “He awoke in agony, one of his eyes being literally burned out,” The Gazette reported.

Lamenting the rise in acid attacks, the otherwise progressive journal recommended “the severest punishment” for Kennedy:

“We would have their arms cut off by the shoulders, and, in that state, send them to roam as outcasts from society without the power of throwing vitriol again."

More than 180 years later, there are echoes of this sentiment in the home secretary’s response to a spate of acid attacks in London. “I quite understand when victims say they feel the perpetrators themselves should have a life sentence,” Amber Rudd told Sky News. She warned attackers would feel “the full force of the law”.

Acid attacks leave the victims permanently disfigured, and often blinded. Surprisingly, though, the kind of hardline punishment advocated by The Gazette was actually highly unusual, according to Dr Katherine Watson, a lecturer in the history of medicine at Oxford Brookes University. Hugh Kennedy was in fact the only person hung for an acid attack.

“If you look at the cases that made it to court, you see there is a huge amount of sympathy for the perpetrators,” she says.

"You want your victim to suffer but you don’t want them to die”

Acid attacks emerged with the industrial revolution in Britain. From the late 1700s, acid was needed to bleach cotton and prevent metals from rusting, and as a result became widely available.

At first, acid was a weapon of insurrection. “Vitriol throwing (that is, the throwing of corrosive substances like sulphuric acid) was a big problem in 1820s Glasgow trade disputes,” says Shane Ewen, an urban historian at Leeds Beckett University. Other cases involved revenge attacks on landlords and employers.

Faced with this anarchic threat, the authorities struck back. Scotland introduced a strict law against acid attacks in the 1820s, while the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act s.29 placed provided for a maximum sentence of life in England and Wales.

In reality, though, acid attackers could expect to receive far more lenient sentences. Why?

“They had sad stories,” says Watson, a leading historian of acid attacks. “Although they had done something terrible, the journalists and juries could empathise with them.”

Acid attacks were seen as expressions of revenge, even glorified as crimes of passion. As Watson puts it: “The point is you want your victim to suffer but you don’t want them to die.”

Although today, around the world, acid attacks are associated with violence against women, both genders used acid as a weapon in 19th century and early 20th century Britain. Acid crept into popular culture. Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1924 Sherlock Holmes story, The Adventure of the Illustrious Client, featured a mistress throwing vitriol in her former lover’s face. In Brighton Rock, Graham Greene’s 1938 novel, the gangster Pinkie attacks his female nemesis Ida Arnold with his vial of acid, before falling to his death.

Lucy Williams, the author of Wayward Women: Female Offending in Victorian England, agrees that Victorians took a lenient attitude to acid attacks. “Historically speaking sentences for acid attacks were quite low,” she says. “Serious terms of imprisonment would only usually be given if the injury caused permanent blindness, death, or was life-threatening.

“If this was not the case, a defendant might spend just a few months in prison - sometimes even less.”

Courts would weigh up factors including the gender of the attacker and victim, and the strength of the substance.

But there was another factor, far removed from compassion “Many of the sentences that we would now consider extremely lenient were a product of a judicial system that valued property over people,” says Williams. It was quite common for violent offences to receive just a few weeks or months in prison.

One case Williams has researched is that of the 28 year old Sarah Newman, who threw sulphuric acid at Cornelius Mahoney, and was tried for the “intent to burn and disfigure him” at the Old Bailey in 1883. The attacker and victim had been living together, and had three children together, but Mahoney had abandoned Newman to marry another woman.

Although Mahoney lost the sight in his right eye, his attacker received just 12 months imprisonment with hard labour.

Two other cases, uncovered by Ancestry.co.uk, illustrate the Victorian attitude to people and property. Mary Morrison, a servant in her 40s, threw acid in the face of her estranged husband after he didn’t give her a weekly allowance. The attack disfigured and blinded him.

In 1883, Morrison was jailed for five years, but released after two and a half. The same year, Dorcas Snell, also in her 40s, received a very similar sentence – for stealing a piece of bacon.

"People just had more options"

If Victorian attitudes become clearer with research, why acid attacks receded in the 20th century remains something of a mystery.

“My theory is people just had more options,” says Watson. With manufacturing on the wane, it became a little harder to get hold of corrosive fluid. But more importantly, the underlying motivation for acid attacks was disappearing. “Women can just walk away from relationships, they can get divorced, get a job. And maybe men don’t feel the same shame if women leave.”

Acid attacks did not disappear completely, though. Yardie gangs – mainly comprised of Jamaican immigrants – used acid as a weapon in the 1960s. Other gangs may have used it too, against victims who would rather suffer in silence than reveal themselves to the police.

Meanwhile, in 1967, the first acid attacks in Bangladesh and India were recorded. This would be the start of a disturbing, misogynistic trend of attacks across Asia. “Acid attacks, like other forms of violence against women, are not random or natural phenomena,” Professor Yakin Ertürk, the UN’s special rapporteur on violence against women, wrote in 2011. “Rather, they are social phenomena deeply embedded in a gender order that has historically privileged patriarchal control over women and justified the use of violence to ‘keep women in their places’.”

The re-emergence of acid attacks in Britain has been interpreted by some as another example of multiculturalism gone wrong. “The acid attacks of London’s Muslim no-go zones”, declared the right-wing, US-based Front Page magazine.

In fact, descriptions of the recent attackers include white men, and black and minority ethnic groups are disproportionately among the victims. A protest by delivery drivers against acid attacks was led by Asian men. 

Jaf Shah, from the Acid Survivors Trust International, suspects the current spate of attacks in fact originates from gang-related warfare that has in turn inspired copycat attacks. “In the UK because of the number of men attacked, it goes against the global pattern,” he says. “It’s complicated by multiple motivations behind these attacks.” Unlike other weapons in the UK, acid is easy to obtain and carry, while acid attacks are prosecuted under the non-specific category of grievous bodily harm. 

Among the recent victims is a British Muslim businessman from Luton, who says he was attacked by a bald white man, two teenage boys in east London, a delivery man, also in east London, who had his moped stolen at the same time, and a man in Leicester whose girlfriend – in a move Hugh Kennedy would recognise – poured acid on him while he slept.

Shah believes the current anxiety about acid attacks stems from the fact the general public is being attacked, rather than simply other members of gangs. Perhaps, also, it relates to the fact that, thanks to advances in our understanding of trauma since the Victorian period, 21st century lawmakers are less interested in the theft of a moped than the lifetime of scars left on the driver who was attacked.

With Rudd promising a crackdown, the penalties for acid throwing are only likely to get harsher. “Many survivors feel the sentencing is too lenient,” Shah says. Still, the rise and fall and rise again of acid throwing in the UK suggests the best way to eradicate the crime may lie outside the courts.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

This article first appeared in the 12 May 2008 issue of the New Statesman, 1968 The year that changed everything