The radical Robert Burns
Publisher: International Socialism
Date Written: 09/01/2018
Year Published: 2018
Resource Type: Article
Cx Number: CX22478
For many people the only association they have with the work of Robert Burns is singing Auld Lang Syne at New Year celebrations or at annual Burns Supper events. The real Burns, the radical, revolutionary Burns, is rarely even hinted at in these events. Instead what we have is a sentimentalised, romanticised portrayal of Burns as what Henry Mackenzie called "that heav'n taught ploughman". MacKenzie was a lawyer, novelist and editor of The Lounger magazine in which he reviewed Burns's work. Burns admired some of Mackenzie's work; indeed one of his favourite novels was his Man of Feeling (1771). Mackenzie, however, was scornful of Burns's use of vernacular Scots "which greatly damps the pleasure of the reader".
Nowadays it is difficult for any serious commentator who has studied Burns's work to deny his radicalism. Nevertheless some critics still claim that his politics are confused and ambiguous. Moreover, the ruling class, monarchists and unionists still like to claim him as "their own". For example, during Scotland's independence referendum in 2014 the issue of how Burns would have voted was debated in the press and wider media. Unionists, of course, claimed that Burns would have supported the British state by voting against independence. This short article will comment on this issue as well as briefly discussing two common criticisms of Burns in relation to his attitudes to slavery and to women. However, the main thrust of this article will be to look at the most important influences on Burns and how they shaped his radicalism.
Many of Burns's earliest poems, songs and letters reveal his radical views and his empathy for the poor and vulnerable in society. He was without doubt a champion of the oppressed and an enemy of the ruling class and of aristocratic power and privilege. Burns's magnificent poem Address of Beelzebub (1785) is a dramatic monologue aptly described by Gerard Carruthers as "one of Burns' most savagely satirical poems". The poem castigates the Highland landlords for their treatment of tenant farmers who were desperately trying to escape from the poverty of the Highland estates by emigrating to Canada. It clearly has a strong contemporary resonance given the worldwide refugee and migrant crisis exacerbated by the election of Donald Trump and Theresa May. In this poem Burns is writing in support of the right of migrants to emigrate for economic advancement and in search of liberty and freedom.