Monday 28 February 2011

The (original) February Revolution

I wrote this piece a few weeks ago as a guest spot for On This Deity.  

I never thought that the mechanics of how revolutions unfold would have been so topical ...

Thursday 24 February 2011

Bury the historical hatchet ?

Looks like Kronstadt is being re-fought (online of course) at Socialist Unity and Ian Bone's site.

Bloody hell it's depressing. No - the anarchists are not the enemies of the labour movement. In  terms of actual damage done I'd have to say that New Labour is far better cast in that role - but I'm not even going to go there - we know who the real enemies are - the ConDems and the Far Right. Everything else is infantile sectarian nonsense.

Are some anarchists - especially the 'life-stylists' - irritating  and disruptive pricks ? You bet - but I don't have any more time either for the android party-hacks often found in the 'Trot' ranks either. So let's just accept that all traditions have their own crosses  of embarrassment to carry.

When it comes down to the politics - I have to say that I find much more in common with the anarchists than I do with supposed 'left' Labour councillors who whinge that they have to make cuts -  or with some of their apologists.  Of course there are differences - the whole SP/NSSN thing was evidence of that -  and there are still very clear distances between us on the question of attitudes to trade union structures and the tactics of elections.

But here's a heretical thought: The Left in general often has an unhealthy preoccupation with its own past worthy of the most bigoted Ulsterman. We Trots are accused of being obsessed with dead Russians but I'd have to say that anarchists are often every bit as  pre-occupied with Makhno and Durrati. Now by training I'm a historian and see the need to understand the past more than most -  but isn't it time to move on ?  Actually it's now 145 years since the First International split - 90 years since Kronstadt - 70 years since Trotsky was murdered - and come to that it's now over 20 years since the Soviet Union fell apart. 

So how about a bit of 'truth and reconcilliaton' ? We are living in a post-just-about-everything world these days and yet the political labels we wear  are often references to the defining moments of previous generations.  I have to say that if we left some of the adopted baggage of our various traditions at the door we much actually find that the landscape on the Left  was in fact quite different from the one that many of us assume.  And dare I say it - we might even find that unity - without trying to hide our differences - is strength. 

Now I'll duck for cover - incoming accusations of naivity and revisionism from both sides ...

Tuesday 22 February 2011

The embarrassment and dangers of strange bedfellows

Those of us of a certain age will remember the WRP of the 1980's with a mixture of horror and humour:

In many respects it was a nightmarish  parody of a wannabe revolutionary organisation - complete with their  'Marxist College of Education' where its  full-timers could learn the use of small arms and short-wave radios - and the monstrous leader Gerry Healy with his coterie of celeb hangers-on and harem of young female members subjected to a revolutionary 'droit de signeur' - in fact a leadership cult much  like the corrupt gurus of a sixties.

But most of all it brings back memories of the party's  slavish admiration of Gaddafi's regime  and his 'green book'  pseudo-theory of third way Arab radical nationalism. 

To quote a WRP congress resolution of 1980: "the Workers Revolutionary Party salutes the courageous and tireless struggle of Colonel Gaddafi whose Green Book has guided the struggle to introduce workers' control of factories, government offices and the diplomatic service, and in exposing the reactionary maneuvers of Sadat, Beigin and Carter... We stand ready to mobilize the British workers in defense of the Libyan Jamahiriya and explain the teachings of the Green Book as part of the anti-imperialist struggle."

Not surprising at the time the WRP's extraordinary feat of producing a daily colour newspaper - The Newsline - was attributed to funding by Gaddafi. More sinisterly there were also rumours of Newsline photographers sending Libyan security services pictures of dissidents on demonstrations in London.

Partly for this reason, and partly because of the details about the party regime revealed at the time of their very acrimonious and very public split in 1985 the WRP became something of a laughing stock on the  Left.  

But there were all too real dangers too: Healy was a monster and it was simply  good luck that he was only in the position of leading a small political sect - he would have been equally qualified to  head up some horrible regime in a deformed workers' state.

But most importantly the story of the WRP show the  propensity of some so-called Marxists to grasp onto the most unlikely and dangerous sources of inspiration. Theirs' wasn't the first instance of this - and it won't be the last -  Castro, Ho Chi Minh, Saddam  have all fulfilled this role - as has guerillaism,  'third-worldism',  various nationalisms and most recently radical' Islam.. all in the name of anti-imperialism.

Ultimately I can only think that this phenomenon is born of desperation in dark times of political downturn and defeat - and a lack of confidence that the working class has the ability to re-assert itself politically.  But whatever comes out of the current events in Libya is testament to that ability. 

Friday 18 February 2011

The fetishisation of commodities

Marx was very struck by his visit  to the Great Exhibition of 1851 - the show meant to be a celebration of the progressive and civilising  effects  of Victorian capitalism on the world. But his  views on capitalism sometimes surprise first time readers - the humanist liberal in him  morns the degradation of the human spirit resulting from  the reduction of all relations to the cash nexus and the alienation of people from their own labour.  But the historian in him doesn't flinch from acknowledging, in relative terms, the progressive role of capitalism in developing society. 

Of course in his day capitalism was  quite young and was still playing the role of dragging society out of the last vestiges of the middle ages. But nowadays  capitalism is sickly and creaking. And if Marx visited an industry trade show at the Birmingham NEC - as I did this week - I don't think there would be anything ambivalent about his reaction - there  certainly wasn't about mine:

Forget about faith in a bold progressive future and civilising forces - what I saw amongst the stands, the seminars and most of all the 'netwoking areas' was a display of sad little men and their tedious  little worlds. I say sad  - but actually false joviality is more accurate, and I say little - but bloated and red-faced would be more appropriate; they are however invariably  men.  And so much waste -  if not of talent then certainly of energy -  in getting over-excited about the progress in whatever esoteric  gadgetry they are responsible for . But most of all in the snatches of overheard conversations - endless conspiring and gossiping about the labyrinthine internal politics and jealousies of their companies -  like a strange cross of plotting  Renaissance courtiers and bitching adolescent schoolgirls.

And somehow I seem to have found myself stranded in this world ...

Tuesday 15 February 2011

'Break the law not the poor' ?

I've commented before on my amazement at the sometimes bizarre common ground between the SWP and so-called Labour Lefts - and the resulting easy ride that the SWP gets as a result: Look at the column inches (if there is such a thing in cyberspace) devoted to feigned outrage at the NSSN's launch of an anti-cuts campaign at the initiative of the Socialist Party. I'm not re-opening that debate  -but just  compare it to the relative non-controversy of the recent anti-cuts meeting of the  SWP (sorry) Right To Work Camapign (sorry) People's Convention.

The main point of contention there seems to have been the attitude we should take  to Labour councils who make cuts.  It appears that the SWP  are  saying that we must work with Labour councillors who argue that some cuts may be necessary - and that they are better made by people who will try to minimise the damage than  by Tories. 

This is no more than  a re-hash of the 'dented shield' argument put up by some 'Left' councils in the 80's. It was a crock of shit then and it's a cock of shit now - a moral fig-leaf for capitulation  - just as it was when Liverpool and Lambeth councils were left to fight on their own.

In fact history is repeating itself as farce - first time round these Labour Lefts at least started off by talking up a fight - but this time their equivalents have jumped right into defeatism from the off. Ironically changes in the law since the 1980's actually mean that councillors who pass deficit /needs budgets actually do not  risk the same personal penalties that the Poplar councillors did in the 30's of the Liverpool '47 did in the 80's.

So why this bizarre defence of the indefensible by the SWP ?  

I'm not stupid or sectarian enough to  believe that it's because they aren't actually serious about fighting the cuts. I  can only think there are  fundamental political political reasons behind it: They seem to have the   impression that the Labour Party is being /will  be radicalised  again after the post-election  increase in membership. Or maybe they really think that the resources of the Left are so weak - or so finite - that they must make desperate bed-fellows.

In typically python-esque Left fashion accusations of the "Third Period-ism' have been thrown at the SP and of "Popular Frontism' at the SWP.  I'm not going to go there - personal experience of working together locally in TUSC reminded me that there is more that unites us than divides us. So I won't dig up any unhelpful and over-dramatic obscure historical analogies. But how about a simple common sense formula ? - That the anti-cuts movement should be working with any group or party (that isn't fascist or racist)  so long as it refuses  to implement austerity cuts.

Monday 14 February 2011

One man and his shed .

News from the domestic front:

After a particularly pointless tantrum I had to have my garage door replaced. Not quite sure how I managed it but in throwing it open with an angry flourish I managed to fuck up the 'up and over' doorsbeyond redemption so I've replaced it with the old-fashioned kind - which is much more in keeping with my workshop which was built long before 'garages' were considered a household necessity.

Apart from the outlay for the new doors I also had the floor levelled - and this spurred me to have a thorough clear out. It took me most of the day on Saturday. And then - because I now have a proper workshop that is comfortable,  clean and tidy - I spent a far bit of Sunday buggering about with my bike.

In most aspects of my life I don't consider myself  a hoarder by nature in fact - unless it comes to books and CDs  - I actually get a perverse kick out of throwing things out. Or so I thought. But apart from the inevitable generations of kid's discarded toys - the garage seemed to have collected a ridiculous number of bike parts. 

I made a point of throwing away all the broken bits of bikes that I don't own any more - including some I haven't owned for over ten years. Even so I seem to have an alarming quantity of parts for my current Sportsters - including five exhausts, four seats, three  sets of bars, three carbs and air cleaners, and two trays of miscellaneous spares.

I blame the addictive power of ebay...

Wednesday 9 February 2011

The future is plural

Contrary to Cameron's Munich (slightly unfortunate choice of venue) speech - I'd have to suggest that multiculturalism is actually easier in practice  than it looks on paper.

Sometimes it's difficult to take on board that the Tory-boy lives in the same city as I do:  Any time spent  in  an inner city would reveal that multiculturalism is simply the default setting for ordinary people going about the daily business of making lives for themselves and their families. Sometimes there are tensions, often there are misunderstandings, but on street level it works because it has to. 

Just on my own street Polish shops sit cheek by jowl with Kurdish shops. My daughters' anglo-french-jewish-hungarian heritage is probably the least exotic and most ethnically homogeneous of their circle of friends.  Nobody I know even  notices or cares.

So what is the alternative Cameron proposes - monoculturalism ? 

He hankers after a state-defined set of national values taught in schools and  measured by a citizenship test. Examples of country's with such imposed artificial constructs  being the USA and France -  both far less integrated societies in practice than the UK  and with ethnically defined ghettos in their cities the  like of which simply don't exist over here.

Or maybe he just wants to sentimentalise some  non-diverse national heartland - like the parts of this country that are still demographically homogenous. I grew up in one of these  - the London suburbs of  thirty years ago. 'British' values - specifically the values of the affluent working class and the lower middle class  - ruled the roost without challenge - mowed lawns, washed cars, pubs and Sunday roasts.  It was fucking tedious and depressing...fortunately it is dying a natural death.

Monday 7 February 2011

Scandinavian Crime Wave

I started with Stig Larson - but I seem to have developed a bit of an obsession with Scandinavian crime fiction.  Ive watched all three of the TV versions of Wallander - my favourite being  Rolf Lassgård   - and now I'm starting on the books.  

At the moment though I'm reading the Martin Beck series from Marxist husband-and-wife duo Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö. Brilliant noir crime writing and  definitely a cut above Stig Larson and the latest Scandi-crime blockbuster following in his wake -  Jo Nesbø.

At the same time  on TV I'm really enjoying the Danish series 'The Killing' on BBC4.

As far as TV goes it's not just the Scandinavians either - the French series Spiral was excellent too.  In fact with the exception of British produced on-location in Rome TV series  Zen -  which felt like a particularly lightweight   coffee-advert -  it seems that crime with a foreign accent is just that much better than  our homegrown English Tourist Board sponsored efforts - Morse, Lewis or god-forbid Midsummer-fucking-Murders.

Friday 4 February 2011

History Is Ours ...

I have a poster at home - very similar in style to the one on the left - that I have kept for almost thirty years. I borought it from the Chile Solidariy Campaign when I was an 18year-old member of the YCL (!?!) off to university to read history.

It bears one of my favourite quotes  - from Salvadore Allende in 1973: 'History Is Ours For  It Is Made By The People'. 

For any socialist  there is nothing more inspiring than seeing this history actually unfolding in front of your own eyes. Just as we are at the moment watching the extraordinary scenes from Egypt. 

The quote reminds us - or at least it should do - that history is not made by the mastabatory analysis of radical intellectuals from the safety of meeting rooms far behind the frontline - or in online forums either.

So I'm only going to add three brief  thoughts to what is being said about the situation in Egypt:

1.Those on the left who have been cozying up to reactionary Islamo-mentalists  will have some answering to do - although if they haven't already learnt from the experience of  Iran in 1979 I doubt they will now.

2. The organised working class still remain  the only section of society capable of securing a progressive democratic socialist regime in the region - or any region - not the amorphous 'nation' and certainly not a radical faction of the army.

3. Trotsky's theory of  Permanent Revolution -  far from being past its sell-by date still provides the best framework for understanding what is going on.

But most of  - and my final thought:

4. The revolution will carry on without asking my opinion.

Wednesday 2 February 2011

Crime down your way

There's a joke that goes around my neck of the woods that the police round here don't bother taking down those yellow crime scene 'can you help boards' - they just change the wording around. By any standards it is not a good area for crime - especially street crime. 

The recent stabbing of four teenagers - one of them killed - was only a couple of blocks away from my front door. (Incidentally what was originally portrayed as an example of gang-culture now looks to have been  the tragic result of a generation of 'care in the community' policies involving  an outpatient of a local mental health facility). But knife crime here  does seem to an epidemic  and the regular killing of  local kids - usually working class and often black - doesn't even make it beyond the local news.

And that does make me pause for a moment- as a teenager I seem to have found myself in inter-school (pre post-code wars) altercations about once a month. I took a few black eyes and split lips - but there was never for any moment the thought that anyone could die from these incidents. As a parent now  inevitably I feel for my kids growing up with the stakes so much higher. And I'm relieved that I have girls not boys who have to grow up having to  navigate  their way around gang politics.

But generally I don't give it too much thought. And neither I suspect do most other  people here - it is simply a fact of life -  and life goes on. So  I imagine that the police's recent publishing of the UK crime maps, despite painting a pretty damning picture of the area will not have caused much of a ripple locally - or in other areas like mine. 

But I do imagine it is of great interest to those middle classes who discuss house prices at dinner parties, estate agents who use the information as a sales tool, the police themselves trying to manipulate clear-up rates - and of course to politicians trying to play upon fear.   Fear of the unknown - the dark forces that lie only just up the road, and from which they are told they  need to differentiate and protect themselves. 

That's a dangerous phenomenon and one that Micheal Moore explores so effectively in Bowling For Columbine. In the US it's a fear that leads to gun-obsession and white-bread middle class families arming themselves out of fear of invasion from inner-city 'others'. It's different here in the UK  - turning up the heat on fear  is just another step in building up a willingness to extend police powers - like stop and search. And so we become just that little bit more willing to incrementally sacrifice our civil liberties in the name of safety.