Far Left Book Competition

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(As a fellow contributor to Evan’s collection – my chapter is on anti-fascism in Britain post 1997 – I thought I should share details of this competition. Send answers to him, not me: by my reckoning, I would get just 4 out of 10…)

Reposted from Hatful of History

As regular readers of [that] blog are probably aware, our edited collection Against the Grain: The British Far Left from 1956 will be published by Manchester University Press next month. To publicise the book, I [ie Evan who runs HoH] am running a competition through this blog (and hopefully cross-posted with a few others) to win a copy of the book (to be posted anywhere in the world). Below are ten questions on the history of the British far left (ranging from 1949 to 1987), which all have answers that can be found on the internet. Please email your answers to hatfulofhistory@gmail.com. I will hold the competition open until 11:59PM on Monday 6th October (Adelaide time or +9.30 GMT). All of those who get 10 out of 10 for the answers will have their name put in a hat and one winner will be drawn on Tuesday 7 October. The answers and the winner will be posted on this blog once the winner is notified via email. The outcome of this draw will be considered final and no negotiations over answers will be entered into. Sorry, but contributors to the collection cannot enter the competition.

So here are the questions:

  1. What electoral district did Harry Pollitt contest for the Communist Party in a 1949 by-election?
  2. Stuart Hall and Ralph Samuel were both on the editors of which new left journal?
  3. Gerry Healy’s The Club was transformed into the Socialist Labour League in which year?
  4. What was the name of the anti-Vietnam War organisation that the CPGB initially supported, in rivalry with the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign?
  5. The first issue of the modern version of Black Dwarf appeared in 1968 (the ‘We Shall Fight, We Shall Win’ edition). What was its volume and issue number?
  6. In 1972, Peter Doyle, as a member of the Militant Tendency, acquired which position on the Labour Party’s National Executive Committee?
  7. What was the name of the SWP’s black activist newspaper?
  8. Which factional journal first appeared as a ‘Communist Theoretical Journal’ in the winter of 1981/82?
  9. In July 1985, Anti-Fascist Action was established by Red Action, Searchlight, the Newham Monitoring Project and several other groups in which London building?
  10. Who was the first Conservative MP to be interviewed in Marxism Today?

Once again, please email your answers by Monday 6th October to hatfulofhistory@gmail.com.

If you aren’t lucky enough to win a copy of the book, you can purchase a copy (for a slightly discounted price) here.

Always start on Red

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A review of Merilyn Moos, Beaten but not Defeated (Chronos Books, £17.99)

Siegi Moos (1904-1988) lived through extraordinary events, A teenage observer of the Bavarian Soviet, then at the end of the 1920s a Berlin Communist, he was a prominent figure in some of the least well-known organisations of the KPD milieu (the Red Front Alliance for Struggle or RFB, the Berlin Proletarian Freethinkers, the Red Sport movement,and agit-prop theatre). On exile to Britain from 1934, he was temporarily one of the leaders of the KPD exile organisation in London, before for 30 years after 1938 voluntarily exiling himself from the political left.

His daughter, Merilyn Moos, has written a generous and candid biography of Siegi, which does not hesitate to address episodes about which her parents never spoke. One of the most significant is her mother Lotte’s decision in 1934, a year after having married Siegi, to fall for a second activist Brian Goold Verschoyles, and then in 1936 to leave for the USSR with him. Brian was some kind of Soviet spy, while Lotte was critical of leaders of the Soviet Union, and Brian’s punishment for the treachery of a relationship with a “Trotskyist” was to be sent to Spain. When she continued to correspond with him there about the fate of the POUM, Brian was captured by his Soviet handlers and killed. Although Lotte and Siegi were reconciled, right up until her own death seventy years later, Lotte kept mementoes of Brian close to her.

For many readers, the most striking parts of the book will be those in which Merilyn Moos locates Siegi within the German revolution, which most of us know through only the books published by Broué and Harman. Siegi was in the Berlin leadership of the Freethinkers, a group campaigning for divorce and abortion rights, which had shifted towards the KPD after a long period as one of the SPD’s many workers’ clubs. By around 1930 he was the editor and chief theorist of a Berlin magazine, Arbeiterbühne und Film, which was the publication of an organisation of several hundred agit-prop theatre groups, including 30 in Berlin alone. He wrote lyrics for the Red Sport movement, several of which were set to music by the composer Stefan Wolpe, including a musical All out for the Red Start, performed to about 4,000 people in Berlin in February 1932.

Siegi is at times a slightly distant presence. Moos argues that because of his background in Bavarian circles he took anti-fascism more seriously than others of his comrades, and did not share the language of the Third Period or the KPD’s attacks on the SPD as “Social Fascists”. Beyond this, she struggle to get beyond the silence of her parents (neither of whom talked about their youth, and both of whom were dead before this book was finished) to the ups and downs that Siegi must have experienced within a Communist Party that a week before its dissolution in 1933 was the third largest party in Parliament with 17% of the vote. In particular, I would have liked to have seen more about the RFB – the KPD-allied but in large part-independent movement of anti-fascists within which Siegi and the freethinkers and agit group groups moved.

Siege’s journey is much better documented during exile. The domestic catastrophe of 1934 was interwoven with a series of political defeats, including emigration, having to learn a new language, marginalisation within the KPD London group, and a period of internment as a suspected enemy alien. These setbacks provide the book’s title, while Siege’s redemption is established in the series of steps he took from the late 1960s onwards to re-establish a practical relationship with the ideas of his youth: buying Labour Worker, reading pamphlets produced by the Solidarity group, writing about the betrayal of the German revolution of 1919, supporting his daughter against an attempted witch-hunt within her own union NATFHE, joining the Hackney Writers’ Workshop run by Ken Worpole, and publishing poems of the struggle.

The book ends with an account of Siege’s death in Homerton Hospital, wiggling his toes to the beat as his daughter sang him the Internationale, and with Lotte at Siege’s memorial service reading – aptly – from William Morris’ Dream of John Ball:

“I pondered all these things, and how men fight and lose the battle, and the thing that they fought for comes about in spite of their defeat, and when it comes turns out not to be what they meant, and other men have to fight for what they meant under another name…”

In place of a review (II)

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To recap: during 2013, the Socialist Workers Party had three conferences. Their real business was to do decide how the party should respond to complaints of rape and sexual harassment that had been made against Martin Smith, until recently the National Secretary of the SWP.

During that year, the SWP leadership faced a central difficulty that it had no decent explanation of what Smith had done, or why a group of present and previous co-workers with Smith, had exculpated him of the rape complaint, when on everything that the members of the SWP were told about his conduct, it seemed overwhelmingly clear that his behaviour was – at the very best – far below anything you would expect in a member, or still less a leader, of a socialist party.

In order to deal with the difficulty of a lack of explanation, Alex Callinicos, the main propagandist of the leadership of the SWP, tried with all his power to change the subject – insisting in a series of articles within the SWP’s magazine Socialist Review, that the SWP’s leadership’s critics were motivated by a secret and perhaps unconscious vice of “movementism”.

The SWP would be saved, he insisted, not by addressing the problem of its leader’s vile sexual conduct, but by him writing about capitalism. In an article entitled ‘Is Leninism Finished?’, he made this strategy explicit:

“What does continuing a tradition mean? There are plenty of sects, Stalinist as well as Trotskyist, who think this involves the mindless repetition of a few sacred formulas. But genuinely carrying on a tradition requires its continuous creative renewal. Marxism is about the unity of theory and practice so this process of renewal has both intellectual and political dimensions.”

He concluded: “The theoretical development of Marxism requires above all deepening and updating Marx’s critique of political economy.”

The book he was writing a year ago has now been published,

It has modest strengths – these can be found elsewhere on the web.

It has deeper weaknesses – first, for anyone versed in the events of the past 2 years, it is impossible to read the book without being conscious of its purpose to keep on keeping on changing the subject away from the leadership’s complicity and cover up of sexual violence. Those of us who were there will read the book, as Brecht once suggested we should read the ruins of Thebes’s seven gates, conscious of the bodies which lie buried beneath its every page.

Second, the argument is developed not through a reading of world historical events, still less through a statement of or analysis of Marx’s theory, but at a continuous third hand, along the lines of “Zizek suggest that Marx argued X, but Harvey interprets these same passages as meaning Y instead”.

This is not to reunite theory and practice, rather it is to express in a hyper-theoretical form the world of Plato’s cave, inhabited now by a whole tribe of day-blinded scholars, among whom Callinicos proceeds to allocate praise or blame, reserving for a few friends the highest praise of being “scholarly”.

Third – and simplifying for brevity – the book is based around an “Althusserian” approach to Marx, i.e. an idea that the purpose of criticism is to iron all the contradictions within Marx’s argument, to show that it is a seamless and perfect totality.

When Callinicos writes, for example, about Marx’s theory of crisis, he does repeatedly from the perspective of establishing that Marx had such a theory, that it was consistent, that the seeming contrasts between its expression at different stages of its development can be solved by understanding the logic and successive development of Marx’s argument.

In this approach – whether in its original, Althusserian expression, or in Callinicos’ updating – there is barely any interest at all in the economy as it is inhabited by people. In marked contrast to a previous generation of SWP’s economists, such as Chris Harman, for whom the final ascent from abstraction to reality was precious; there is no meaningful attempt to join the facts of the last 6 years’ crisis to the theory which is being expounded.

The point of theory is not to explain the world, but to explain someone else’s explanation of it.

That method may call itself Marxist. But if so, it was the method of exactly half of Marx – it was not the method of the Manifesto, the Eighteenth Brumaire, or The Civil War in France. It is a method without class, without agency, and without the breathing fire of struggle.

Walter Benjamin once wrote: “There has never been a document of culture, which is not simultaneously one of barbarism.” Few books illustrate the point better than this one.

The Picture of Jacob Rees-Mogg

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In Wilde’s Dorian Gray, the protagonist sells his soul for the promise of eternal beauty. His outward looks are preserved, through a life of selfishness and egotism, only the painting of the protagonist as a youth reveals his true nature. The painting “held the secret of his life, and told his story”. Gray hides it behind a large screen; only to view and review it repeatedly in secret afterwards. “The most magical of mirrors”. It is placed in a locked-up schoolroom, hidden beneath a purple satin coverlet, behind a locked door to which Gray keeps the only key.

One modern equivalent of the purple coverlet is a withdrawal of permission and insistence on copyright. This was the fate of the photograph of David Cameron among his Bullingdon Club friends which was once a staple of the Mirror and the Guardian. In 2007, the photographers Gillman and Soame, who make a living from selling to middle-class parents the images of their Oxford-educated progeny, announced that they would no longer authorise the reproduction of the image, and since then (outside some dark corners of the internet), the image has hardly been seen.

The painting of Jacob Rees-Mogg, Conservative MP for North East Somerset, is almost as hard to track down. Previously on display at the National Portrait Gallery, there is no longer any record of it on the Gallery’s website (although the Gallery retains four images of his Times-editing father); even the artist Paul Brason has taken down its original page on his website.

Few 18 year olds have the money or the fortune to be painted by an artist. Nor was this the evening or weekend commission of a struggling painter earning a few pounds on the side. When he painted Rees-Mogg, Brason himself was fast approaching middle age and others of his pictures had already been displayed in the National Portrait Gallery. Ten years later, he was elected President of the Society of Portrait Painters, a position he still holds. Brason has painted business leaders, intellectuals, and even Prince Philip. Why should anyone have found a need to waste an artist of this quality on the painting of a schoolboy?

In his 40s, Rees-Mogg is seen as a curiosity: the man who once canvassed for the Tories in Fife with his nanny. He is a Euro-scpetic, an admirer of Farage, and recently a speaker at the AGM of the Traditional Britain Group, a meeting place of former and not-so-former fascists with Tories nostalgic for a landed, rural capitalism. He takes so seriously the Conservative vision that Thatcherism still speaks for the people, that he has exiled himself far from urban life to Gournay Court, a red sandstone 57-bed stately home in Somerset, large enough to have once been a hospital, into which no members of the Great British public could ever enter save as servants or tradespeople, and for which he and his wife paid the bargain price of just £2.9 million four years ago.

To hear Rees-Mogg speak is to be reminded of a world prior to the emergence of the working class a political actor, where (as in 1901, for example) there were 1.5 million domestic servants: three times more than the number of miners, five times more than the number of rail workers, and fifteen times more than worked on the docks. In much of that world, deference to the rich was a mere matter of survival, and the Rees-Mogg ancestors and their class could happily believe the myths they told one another about their own moral and genetic superiority – there being few enough people in any sort of position to point out their absurdity.

Rees-Mogg is often interviewed about the painting, and he always speaks of it as if – like Dorian Gray’s – it contains some permanent essence of his true personality. But it is not a flattering image. The most basic convention of private portraiture is that the sitter is allowed to bring to the image possessions which manifest their status in the world. To take an elevated example, when Sir Thomas More was painted by Hans Holbein the Younger, he was painted in a livery collar showing the Tudor rose of the King; the point being that More was Henry VII’s Chancellor, in the whole of England only the King was more important than him. In general, Brason has followed the convention, painting military figures in their uniforms, Thatcher with her ministers, university administrators within the colleges where they taught, etc.

Eton is like the army; it dishes out countless visual awards (coloured waistcoats, raised collars, bow ties…) to pupils who can establish anything more than mediocrity, Rees-Mogg is painted without any of these accomplishments. Either he never earned any of them, or the artist has chosen to paint him in the dress of the most junior boy.

More importantly, Rees-Mogg is painted without any visual prop at all (a musical instrument, a football, a pen…), nothing to suggest that in five years of the school he had acquired any personality at all. There is no sign of his father’s position (a Tory journalist who had had visions of becoming an MP), nor even of the props the child Rees-Mogg had already acquired as a reactionary in waiting (a suitcase, the FT). He is painted alone, without friends or any context at all – save for a dark and empty background and a closed window through which he does not look.

Without anything other than a school uniform (and this is a leaving photo: the uniform is one he was about to give up), Rees-Mogg looks insecure and unhappy. He has, or will have nothing – no possessions, no friends, nothing – to take into the world.

If this is his essence captured, then it is in fact a lonely and a rather depressing one: an image of dependence without reward.

At the start of this year, a scandal temporarily filled the papers: it transpired that our MPs, the people who had so shamed themselves with the expenses scandal, had spent a further £250,000 of public money on portraits of several of their number. Rees-Mogg (although he had not been painted on that particular occasion, he is notorious for this painting from his youth) was the only politician who would be quoted on the affair. In passing, he revealed the fate of his old picture:  which had been housed in the school’s art collection. His answer depicts the same awkwardness, isolation and abasement with which his 18 year old sense once viewed the world: “It is flattering to know that I shall be in the Eton collection for as long as the school survives.”

Turning back time

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Friends ask why I have written less this year than I managed a year ago. Some of the explanation is that I have given more time to running that any stage in my life since I gave up proper, competitive running 24 years ago. For the first three years after I began running again, I found myself scarcely able to run two full weeks in a row without injuring myself. I suffered recurring achilles and calf injuries, and my body felt tired and broken. Then, as I have explained before, I began broke this cycle around 9 months ago, with the result that I have found myself running further and faster than at any time since my teens. Most days I run in the morning before work; on a good day I manage a full hour.

In July this year, I ran my adult PBs for 400 metres (66 seconds), 1500 metres (5:18.4), and 5k (19:53). In the last two weeks, I’ve tried at longer distances, including a 10k in 42:30 and on Sunday a half marathon in 1 hr 39. On the plus side, my times this year at 400, 800 and 1500 put me in the top 200 runners of my age in Britain. Less pleasingly, there appear to have been only 60 runners of my age who are known have run 1500 metres slower than I have, 50 at 800 metres, and 40 at 400 metres…

Sunday’s race was the Richmond half marathon, run in an autumn sunshine, my feet trying to fix on a Thames towpath disturbed by yesterday’s rain. I feel that my body held together, maintaining a more or less constant speed. Only one mile was difficult, the last one, through which I ran desperately willing the finishing line to come closer. Whoever had designed the course had paid little thought to the mile markers which were a disturbingly-wide spread of distances apart, sometimes a kilometre, sometimes a mile and a half. (Either that or I was running some miles in under 5 minutes and some in over 10). And so when I came to the last mile marker I could not be sure that it was nearly the end, nor was it easy to readjust when I realised that indeed it wasn’t. Still, my time at the finish was a pleasing two minutes faster than my previous pb for the distance – run 10 years ago.

The past as armour; the past as inspiration

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A review of Neil Davidson, Holding Fast to an Image of the Past (Haymarket, £15.99)

This is the first of two books to be published by Haymarket bringing together a number of Neil Davidson’s longer articles. The second volume will contain pieces on nations, states and revolution, this first volume collects everything else: a note on Marx and Engels on the Highland clearances, a political reckoning with Deutscher’s Trotsky, careful engagements with Eric Hobsbawm, Walter Benjmain and Benedict Anderson, a study of the uses of Antonio Gramsci in Scotland. Davidson has even included (I should acknowledge) a friendly review of an book I once published on the Anti-Nazi League. The richest essays are three intellectual biographies of Scottish radicals – Adam Smith, Tom Nairn and Alasdair Macintyre.

Adam Smith was frequently cited in the recent referendum; not least by Alex Salmond, who used Smith’s Scottishness as a way of deflecting criticism from the Yes campaign’s economic programme. How dare they tell the people of Adam Smith’s country, he would ask rhetorically, that they do not know how to run an economy? Here, not for the first time, Smith was being cited rather than read. With his chapter on Smith, Davidson has no grander purpose than to remind Marxists that this intellectual mascot of the neo-liberal right was in fact a rather more interesting and sympathetic figure than today’s Smithians. Smith held that the labor necessary to produce a commodity was also the objective measure of its value; and his commitment to this theory has put him at odds with the mainstream of market economics for at least the last century. His vision was of a market of an artisanal society of owner-managed enterprises, located in the communities where owners resided, sharing in the community’s values and with a personal stake in the future. He was championed by Robert Burns, and taken up by an early generation of socialist economists beginning with William Spence.

Tom Nairn’s name played less of a part in the referendum, although a Scotsman piece described him weeks before the vote as one of Scotland’s greatest thinkers. Nairn is best known for a series of articles in New Left Review, at first dismissing nationalism as an archaic nonsense, before seeking to combine Marxism with sympathy for Scottish nationalism, before shifting again to placing nations above class or its theories. Davidson has little time for contemporary Nairnism, which he dismisses as a vision “for the endless subdivision of the world into competing nation-states”. But as so often it is the journey which interests more than the destination. Davidson coms through lesser known Nairn pieces: for example, an article in NLR in 1974,  in which Nairn (in historical mood) asked why it was that Scotland had played no part in the nationalist movements of the late nineteenth century, a question he answered on the basis of the terms of the Act of Union, which had preserved for Scotland a role as an exploiter state. Davidson analyses, with care but with less warmth Nairn’s subsquent adoption of programmatic nationalism, a trend which he analyses as a product of declining faith in working-class rebellion from about 1975 onwards.

Finally, the chapter on Alasdair Macintyre is an extended and substantially rewritten version of the biography of the philosopher which appears at the start of Davidson and Paul Blackledge’s book on Macintyre’s Engagement with Marxism. Among the many insights developed in the piece, Davidson shifts Macintyre’s contribution a few years earlier from the essays which were at the heart of his and Blackledge’s book – relocating Macintyre’s greatness from the period of his collaboration with Tony Cliff and Mike Kidron (congenial though that must be to socialists raised in the IS or SWP) to the pieces belonging to the period of Macintyre’s time in the New Left and his membership of and break with Gerry Healy’s SLL.

Davidson makes the case in particular for Macintyre’s essay ‘Breaking the Chains of Reason’, and for three insights to be found in it. First, Macintyre’s defence of Marxism against the criticism that it was historicist – assuming, in circular fashion, the outcome of history and then guiding action towards goals that were already assumed to be correct. Nonsense, Macintyre argued, Marx’s theories were always contingent, and assumed nothing, the world he imagined was one poised rather between (activist inspired) revolution or reform and catastrophe. Second, the piece contains a defence of the method of treating groups of people (classes) as historical agents rather than reducing all actions to the motives of individuals. Third, Davidson notes, Macintyre developed a theory of moral agency which neither prioritised means nor ends, but so both as bound together. This made it a more compelling way of thinking than the theorists of the Labour right with which than he was engaging, but also Macintyre’s fellow activists in the New Left, for the majority of whom a methodological anti-Communism could be founded on an intense belief in morality from which a sense of history had too often been lost.

Having recently reread some of Peter Sedgwick’s papers, it is striking how quickly so many of the former Communists reverted (in private as in public) to a language of morality which had lost a Marxist grounding. And at a time when the left (for our own reasons) is still relearning a praxis of integrity, it is pleasant to be reminded of its best grounding.