Monthly Archives: July 2013



Those unfamiliar with the basic story of the Dreyfus affair could do worse than begin with this short book review by Gareth Jenkins published in Socialist Review back in 2010. A Jewish officer in the French Army, Captain Alfred Dreyfus, was accused in 1894 of spying for Germany, convicted by a military tribunal of treason and sentenced to life imprisonment on Devil’s Island in French Guiana. In 1896, an internal French Army investigation revealed that the original trial had been flawed and named the true spy as a Major Esterhazy. Yet Dreyfus was not released, and the author of the investigation was forced to leave France. In January 1898, the novelist Emile Zola published J’accuse, a brilliant deconstruction of the case against Dreyfus. But the army held firm. Zola was prosecuted and found guilty of libel just one month later. To avoid imprisonment, he fled to England. At an 1899 retrial, Dreyfus was again convicted. He received a Presidential Pardon but this deliberately left open the question of his guilt or innocence. Only in 1906 did a further military tribunal finally clear his name.

The most basic facts about the Dreyfus affair are the weakness of the prosecution case and the extraordinary way in which the French army and politicians conspired to maintain Dreyfus’ guilt. One prominent anti-Dreyfusard, Maurice Barrès wrote, “That Dreyfus is guilty, I deduce not from the facts themselves, but from his race.” For the Right, his guilt was a point of principle: that a Jew could never be believed; and that by contrast a gentile officer of the French Army must always be telling the truth.

For another leading anti-Dreyfusard Charles Maurras what mattered was not whether Dreyfus was guilty, but the interests of the nation which always had to come first: “the specific interests of the condemned man cannot be weighed against those of the French Army.” Maurras was adamant, the army was being witch-hunted in the press. His friends, his party, the causes he supported all were more important to Maurras than a proper investigation. Indeed a fair investigation was the opposite of what he wanted; for its outcome would almost certainly have been to reveal Esterhazy and others for the rogues they were.

Those maintaining Dreyfus’ guilt did so through repeated set-backs, holding desperately to the fiction that there had been a fair investigation. For twelve whole years they maintained this lie, becoming ever less convincing the longer they argued it. The counter-argument was compelling: the proceedings were in secret, no-one was allowed to read the documents that had been put to it or to know what was said. In the last resort there was nothing more to the anti-Dreyfusard case than this: “we are people of authority, we would have no reason to get a decision wrong, you must trust us to have got it right.” It took twelve years to win the argument that it is not enough to take justice “on trust”. A fair investigation must be done and must be seen to be done.

It is hard to grasp at this distance what a wretched, unending business Dreyfus must have been for all concerned. Relationships split over it; at times the key participants must have been disgusted with their own impotence to bring it to any sort of conclusion. And all the while it was working to readjust the political landscape; bringing low those associated with deceit, replacing them with new people who had met the challenge.

After the 1906 election, Zola’s publisher Georges Clemenceau became Prime Minister of France. The French Socialists, led by another Dreyfusard, Jean Jaurès, increased their representation in Parliament from 9 to 54 seats. The attitude – of putting a cause before the truth – had caused and would continue to cause the Right immense harm. A generation of politicians staked decades of hard-won authority on establishing that Dreyfus was guilty. Afterwards, they were humbled, appeared liars, and were disgraced. For twelve years, they undermined their own supporters, tarnished their own cause.

Yet while the Dreyfus affair is usually held up as a simple victory of the French left in its capacity as principled seekers of truth; a more honest reflection would be that the issue split the French left in two. Among the Socialists, there were two substantial blocks of opinion. The “impossiblists” led by Jules Guesde took a seemingly principled position of revolutionary intransigence. At every occasion, Guesde warned of the present danger posed by the reformist route to socialism. Seeing the campaign between Dreyfusards and anti-Dreyfusards only as a split within bourgeois liberal opinion, he concentrated his fire on those among the socialist camp who wanted to use their party’s increasing popularity to form a left’ government. Socialists can’t be neutral however when principles are tested on this scale. Merely parroting empty slogans about the need for revolution when an actual battle was underway was a vacuous and dishonest approach to a real conflict. In the language of one recent source it was “deliberate obfuscation”. Guesde’s “neutrality” was the first sign of the extraordinary passivity of even the supposed revolutionaries among French and German socialism; the first betrayal in a long series that would end with a failure to oppose the carnage of 1914.

As for the “possibilists”, although Jean Jaurès rightly campaigned for Dreyfus’ innocence; his supporters would not push the politics of Dreyfus’ truth to its logical conclusion, but constantly sought to use it as a bargaining chip, hoping to accommodate the politicians of the French Right. This included in 1899 sanctioning a supposedly “Dreyfusard” ministry in which socialist ministers (chiefly Alexandre Millerand, the Minister of Labour) would be a small minority. The Minister of War in this government (i.e. the man charged with pardoning Dreyfus) was one General Gallifet, who three decades earlier had been a chief butcher of the Paris Commune. As Chris Harman has written, the compromise which was supposed to clear Dreyfus fell short of doing even that:

“By the time the government was formed, it was clear not only that Dreyfus was innocent, but also that leading army officers were guilty of lying to keep him in prison and of victimising those who spoke out in his favour. The rationale of Millerand joining the government was to ensure that those in the military who had conspired against Dreyfus were brought to justice, while his name was completely cleared. Instead the government simply pardoned Dreyfus (implying that he might have been guilty but was being let off) and by trying to draw a line under the whole affair let the military conspirators go. In other words, Jaurés’s socialist was prepared to drop the demand of full justice for Dreyfus if that was the price of staying in the government. It was not until four years later that further revelations forced a different government finally to admit the truth about the whole Dreyfus business.”

What the Left should have done is straightforward: tolerate no compromises with those who had lied on an epic scale; campaign for the most thorough investigation until the full truth was revealed; and use the history of deceit relentlessly to expose the Right.

I don’t often use this website advice to give advice to the Right, in history or the present, but they were too human and Dreyfus was (as far as they were concerned; they were a self-pitying bunch) their tragedy too. They had but one route to salvation: stop lying, tell the truth quickly, and admit everything.

That “centre faction” …


(With thanks to Slim Brundage)

How many years, old man! Lewisham, Genoa, years ago, that little room where we argued so fiercely all one evening; the congresses, that flawed, so flawed Respect campaign, the hotels in little towns. Their common memories came back in such a crowd that not one became dominant; all were present, but silently and unobtrusively, recreating a friendship which had never known words. The Chief sighed. Kondratiev, at the other end of the receiver, could hear the deep fatigue in his voice…

“Well, Vania, what’s the situation now, down there? Speak plainly, you know me.”

“The situation”, Kondratiev began, “The situation…”

The Chief seemed not to have heard this beginning. “You know, veterans like you, members of the old Party, must tell me the truth … the whole truth. Otherwise who will I get it from. I need it. Everything is lies and lies and lies! From top to bottom, they all lie. It’s diabolical … nauseating … I live on the summit of an edifice of lies, do you know that? Party Notes lies of course. it is the sum total of the stupidities of the full-timers at the base, the intrigues at the Centre, the imaginings, the servility … I feel like asking people why, even if they say nothing, their eyes lie. Do you know what I mean?”

Was he finding excuses for himself? He let his voice trail off

Kondratiev was pulled into speaking by the unwanted silence. Should he risk it? He raised an unemphatic, “Isn’t it  little your own fault?”

“I’d like to see you in my place – yes that’s something I’d like to see. The Party is a swamp – the farther you go, the more the ground gives, you sink in just when you least expect to … ”

“Like the end of the 70s?”

“Yes … On the surface … But without the Party, without Cliff.”

The Chief paused and Kondratiev thought he could hear the sound of the receiver being placed – on a table? – glasses being lifted from a face, hands rubbing a tired brow.

“I need you to vote the right way on Sunday.”

Kondratiev did not answer. He thought, “That is cruel.”

“We are worth that”, the Chief resumed.

Kondratiev hesitated before answering, for he had thought a great deal on the subject.

“I think”, said Kondratiev, “that you personally have been wrong to associate yourself so personally, twice, with the hearing of a complaint. You must have a sense, don’t you, of the harm the last year has done us? Why can’t we do things better this time?”

“But our plans for Sunday are so carefully crafted”, the Chief countered, “There will be no expulsions this time.”

“Suspensions and a dismissal, do you think the opposition will fall for that?”

The Chief sighed and said nothing.

“I have been so moderate. In December, I attended meeting offering to sponsor the Opposition. I have spoken to Comrade G- offering the Opposition a compromise.”

“And yet with every intervention, you make things worse. It was you who told the first conference ‘This is War'”.

“No I did not.”

“It was you who asked the second conference to treat the opposition with ‘the contempt they deserve’.”

“But I have only been holding back the tide.”

“With every step you take, the thugs and the bullies tighten their control over the organisation.”

The strain the Chief’s voice was audible, “There are three factions in the party, and mine is the Centre, the only moderates.”

“If you offered them peace, do you think anyone in the Opposition would believe a word you say?”

Konradtiev flinched as words exploded from the Chief: “Everyone lies and lies and lies!”

“There is so much servility everywhere, a lack of oxygen”, the Chief continued, “How are we supposed to build the party without oxygen?”

“I could always accuse them of wanting to join Counterfire…”

Here they began, within them and between them, a secret dialogue, which they both followed by divination, distinctly. “Why don’t you leave?”, Kondratiev suggested. “A two, three year sabbatical? It would do you so much good.”

“I never wanted this role”, the Chief countered. “But I am the only one left of the Old Guard. I’m still needed. ”

They spoke none of these words; they heard them, uttered them, only in a double tete-a-tete.

“I pity you, you are the most captive of us all.”

“I don’t want to be pitied. I forbid you to pity me. I have chosen my path and I will live by it.”

Learning to live with your inner posh person


When I joined the SWP one of the things which intrigued me was how few of the leading members seemed happy under their own skins. Tony Cliff and Chris Harman were painfully shy; Chris Bambery would tell anyone who’d listen how little he liked most of the people in the party. Lindsey German and John Rees had the true politicans’ skills at working a room (you enter; you approach the people you know, one by one, whispering malice about whoever you are smearing). The only time I ever remember Lindsey actually smiling was in the afternoons at the centre, with a chocolate biscuit in hand. Sugar deprivation may play its part too in the legendary grumpiness of our Professor. Certainly, his former PhD students describe keeping an unopened pack of polo mints on permanent standby. This was not for halitosis, but simply to dispel the Professor’s frequent sugar lows.

Now, as most readers will be aware, there are many stories about the Professor ranging from the best recollection of the person who used to have to collect Ruskin’s supply of Socialist Worker from his room in Oxford (“he was a bumptious little toad”), to various allegations that he is the poshest socialist in the history of Western Marxism – a title I am sometimes said to contest with him. It is a smear of course, his family were Aristocracy, mine mere Gentry. But even to raise the uncomfortable subject of how many current or ex-members of the SWP CC went to public school is to ask: can people from ruling class backgrounds ever do anything useful in the workers’ movement?

There is a model of course, but an equivocal one. The founder of Britain’s first Socialist party, the Democratic Federation (later Social Democratic Federation, or SDF) was HM Hyndman, an old Etonian, cricketer, explorer, barrister and Oxford graduate, who had made his way into Marxism via an interview with the ageing Tory grandee Lord Disraeli, who was disappointingly uninterested in a Tory-Radical pact (attempting to dissuade Hyndman: “private property … and vested interests … have a great many to speak up for them still”).

Here is Caroline Benn, the biographer of Keir Hardie (the first Labour MP, i.e. Hyndman’s rival) on the personality of Britain’s first Marxist leader: “Hyndman’s approach to audiences was to speak in the tall silk hat and frock coat of the upper-class gentleman he was, thanking his working-class audience for supporting him and his kind, and belittling them for their gullibility in accepting the yoke of capitalism. Even Hyndman’s most loyal supporters always had a ‘chill sinking of heart’ at his stockbroker appearance and continual harping on his upper-class origins…”

Hyndman was an intensely divisive figure; meeting Marx in 1880, when the far more talented German revolutionary was 24 years his senior, Hyndman insisted on lecturing the older man. Later, he published a largely-plagiarised manifesto England for All, in which Marx went unnamed. The manifesto also contains long passages praising the Colonial system as the special heritage of the British workers.

During an election campaign in 1885 he accepted a donation that came ultimately from a Tory agent (causing the SDF to be tarred for years with an association with “Tory Gold”). And in the same year, the most talented and best figures from the SDF (William Morris, Eleanor Marx) split from the Federation in rejection of Hyndman, setting the tone for the fissiparous 130 year history of British Marxism.

When I read Hyndman’s memoirs, even now, they make my head shake:

“My father, John Beckles Hyndman, was an Eton and Trinity Cambridge man, at which college, being then possessed of a very large income, he was a Fellow-Commoner…

“My mother, Caroline Seyliard Mayers, was a good mathematician, a good classical scholar, and generally a woman of great ability and accomplishments, numbering the well-known Mary Somerville among her intimate friends. In those days really well-educated women were rarer than they are to-day…”

“My forbears, whose name was Hyndeman, which means the headman of the hynde or hundred, lived in the North Country for many generations. They landed there as freebooters and homicides, and remained as farmers and raiders. When they got too thick upon the ground some of these Hyndemans of the Border thought it was high time to follow the example of their ancestors, and taking ship after the manner of their ancient progenitors they proceeded to remove from active life people in an adjacent island, whose farms and freeholds formed thereafter a convenient property for themselves…”

(Sorry, HM, but whoever Socialism was for; it wasn’t people like you…)

On becoming a socialist, William Morris had resigned on his Directorships and sat on his top hat, never to wear one again. Hyndman retained his, and it features in almost ever published story about him, including in the memoirs of Tom Mann, pioneering strike leader, syndicalist, and later founding father of British Communism.

Tom Mann was of course in every respect a greater person than Hyndman, a better reflection of the sort of left that every breathing socialist would like us to be.

Much of my way into the left was through reading its history and in my teens and early 20s I could think of no worse figure in its story than Hyndman. Yet the older I have become, I have grown to feel paradoxically a little fonder of him.

At the age of 35 I became a barrister. The primary qualification for the job remains education, and when I retrained I found myself surrounded by the sorts of former acquaintances that I had spent nearly twenty years avoiding. “Look, it’s Deh-vid!”, I heard, the first time I entered a Crown Court robing room. And my heart sank.

But there was a compensation; strangers’ assumptions about me changed too. It is easier being a socialist and a barrister – no-one is surprised to discover that you went to this or that school – no-one feels that you are deceiving them.

Of all the many former public school boys who I have met in the SWP, only one would talk openly about it ( He was the happiest of all us. When he spoke from a public platform, he spoke freely, and he made more socialists than anyone I know.

What was Hyndman supposed to do? He could have pretended to be a worker. He might have retrained as a teacher (leading socialists in this profession currently include at least one son of a Court of Appeal judge). But it wouldn’t have washed. It would have felt like he was “slumming it”, pretending to be something he was not.

The thing about Hyndman is that he never pretended to be anyone different from what he was. He never acquired a mock-cockney accent. Rather than being embarrassed about Guardian revelations that he went to public school (I’m thinking of a one-time leader of the SWP and Globalise Resistance, see the comments here: he would have cheered out loud at being labelled posh and asked: “so what?”

I can’t help but feel that some of the grumpiness emanating from the Vauxhall bunker these past six months would be dispelled if the other Poshadists and Toffskyists presently in the leadership of my party would only out themselves, rethink their student clothing, and admit their privileged selves…

Come on comrades: it’s warm out here.

You might even learn how to smile.

Socialism from Below


Many thanks to the good folks of the Association of Musical Marxists for bringing out this book in time for Marxism. It will be on sale – definitely – at the AMM stall, in Marxism, albeit on the Saturday only. I hope it will also be on sale at Bookmarks throughout the event, and, if you can’t see it on display there, it couldn’t hurt, could it, to ask?

It’s a pity having to do this but before anyone pretends to you that I think factional intrigue is far more important than building working class resistance to austerity, this has been my day so far. In court all morning; speaking to Tithi Bhattacharya’s MA students from the US this afternoon on the Battle of Cable Street and how to fight fascism; and this evening, a meeting for a Unite branch on what to do about the small hell which is the Tribunal’s employment law changes. It really is this simple. You can be passionate about democracy in the movement *and* fighting the cuts. In fact, if you aren’t passionate about the former, the truth is, you’re probably not going to be doing the latter very well either (if at all).

A last thought. When Mark Thomas told the NC on Sunday; “the faction have given up on Socialism from Below”, I don’t know think he was expecting this quick an answer… We haven’t.

First published here

Thinking aloud about democratic centralism


After new members have joined the SWP, they are informed in due course that the party embodies democratic centralism, a simple and attractive formula along the following lines. “When an important decision needs to be taken about how the party relates to changing events in the outside world, we practise the maximum internal democracy. We discuss the question exhaustively with the maximum openness, and then, having taken our decision, we expect all members to argue for it, including those who disagreed with it. Only if we work together can we maximise our impact.”

When those same new members ask what that means in practice, they may get something like the list set out in Pat Stack’s recent post on the RS blog: “a three month pre-conference discussion period, with factions tolerated; a Central Committee (CC) elected by a slate system, majority votes taken at an annual conference end the matter, regardless of how close the votes were; no permanent factions; and the party’s strategy settled for nine months of the year, unless changed by the CC”. (

It used to be the case that the new recruits would also learn that this system of democratic centralism had 1) marked the SWP since its outset, having been acquired by Tony Cliff (like Moses receiving the tablets on Mount Sinai) from Lenin and the Bolsheviks, who 2) had always practise the slate system, etc, and whose victory in the 1917 revolution proved the success in practice of this method.

It is one small boon of the recent faction fight that nobody, not even the most devoted follower of the leadership, could still pretend either that the old, libertarian IS accepted these limits, or that they have anything to do with “Bolshevism”.

It is the case that there is an enormous gulf between the abstract vision of democratic centralism and its supposed concrete expression, and Pat should be applauded for having explained very clearly how historically Cliff adopted, and the party accepted, the present model. I won’t repeat the good points he makes.

Here, I just wanted to ask rather, what is the authentic component of democracy which democratic centralism is intended to embody?

You see when other people (maybe even, potential members of the SWP) think about democracy, they may give the world all sorts of meanings. It could just mean “elections” (i.e. the principle that representatives are elected, whether to Parliament or the CC). Of course, the classic Marxist critique of elections under capitalism is that they are too occasional, there is not generally a power of recall (see Marx on the Paris Commune), and that there are insufficient countervailing mechanisms, in all circumstances short of a revolution, to overcome the ruling-class’s domination of the means of production (ownership and control of newspapers, etc).

But I think that in a revolutionary party, everyone, even the most fanatical supporter of a leadership faction, would accept that democracy means a little more than just the leadership stands for election once a year. After all, in the abstract concept of democratic centralism, the very justification for centralism is that it follows an intense period of debate. “Democracy” in other words, has to mean something about who takes part in that discussion, and how carefully it is handled.

Democracy could mean the principle that majorities rule, and that minority who dissent from majorities have to be broken. (The Dave Hayes conception) But this hardly does justice to abstract vision of democratic centralism to which I have just alluded. A vote, after inadequate discussion, would be a vote which would be functionally inadequate. Not identifying with the process (25 minute speeches for one side, 6 minutes for the other…), people wouldn’t accept the outcome. And if they didn’t actively support the outcome – if they hadn’t been persuaded during the course of the debate – you simply wouldn’t get the intended combined activity towards a single goal, which democratic centralism is supposed to unleash.

Other questions occur to me.

How compatible is abstract democratic centralism with delegate democracy? On its most positive expression it seems to involve active participation not merely in the debate but in the final vote. How much damage then is done to democratic centralism by a party culture in which elections are used to send inactive members of the organisation to a conference (everyone knowing that many of them will never attend), in order to “block” an “anti-leadership” vote, over those who have been active in the organisation but would vote the “wrong way”? Doesn’t their deliberate exclusion from the final vote do some damage to the concept of a majority using democracy to bind the minority into joint activity?

How far can/should the election of delegates devolve responsibility for a decision if only the delegates are given a certain piece of information? (I’m thinking particularly of the January special conference, where the atmosphere in the hall, for those attended, was in every way different from the 30 second report back that many non-attendees were given: “a complaint was made by some people, I can’t tell you who they were or what the complaint was, only that, fortunately, conference voted to vindicate the person who had been subject to the complaint.”

Can you have democracy where a group of decision makers (the CC) is to a significant extent able to control who becomes a delegate?

And if you can have democracy in deciding a question of political perspective; can you have democracy as to a question of fact?

If you look back to the simple model of democratic centralism with which I opened, I described it as “When an important decision needs to be taken about how the party relates to changing events in the outside world”.

By a “question of fact” I mean votes about something like the following:

1 whether cheese is pink

2 whether the sun goes round the earth or vice versa

3 whether an internal disputes process was fair or not

None of these would satisfy the “intervention” criterion of democratic centralism. None of them would be votes about changing events in the outside world.

But, even more crudely still, they fail a further essential requirement of democratic centralism. They are votes about whether something happened or not, they are not votes that respond to Lenin’s question: “and what is to be done about it?”

You can’t “test ideas in practice” about the colour of cheese or the direction of movement between the earth or the sun.

Democratic centralism works in certain circumstances, eg assuming the Tories are weak, and the unions strong, should we be campaigning for a general strike to being them down?

It’s not appropriate for questions which are perfectly factual.

The reasons it doesn’t work are as follows:

1) Question of fact have a different verification mechanism (not activism by your membership), one which you don’t control. If it was a party line that dinosaurs hadn’t existed or that Lenin was born in 4004 BC, we wouldn’t control the dinosaur fossils, Lenin’s mausoleum, etc.

2) Parties which try to control questions of fact are demanding for themselves a degree of control over their members’ conscience (i.e. an insistence that they actively say things which might make themselves look ridiculous) which no other comparable organisation demands. They look totalitarian. And in an epoch in which the most important knockdown argument against socialism remains “Lenin led to Stalinism” (ie that Marxism has been tested in practice and produced cruel and indefensible systems of political rule), being seen to imitate the democratic culture of high Stalinism is an effective way of losing a party friends and influence.

3) A very specific reason, related to our recent crisis: if the effect of your “democratic centralism about a question of fact” is to make it look like the SWP stands for the very precise antithesis of what it claims to stand for (i.e. in support of men who rape, in solidarity with employers who victimise workers…) then it is absolutely inevitable that a number of people are going to say, in practice, like Shanice McBean has also done recently. “Sorry, I prefer the old SWP that opposed oppression and I won’t defend the indefensible” (

Let me end with an unkind question:

Q: What was the last political organisation to insist that questions of fact were appropriate for democratic centralism?

A: The Catholic Church in threatening Galileo…

That worked well for the Church, didn’t it?

“Lives running” reviewed


Race aware
Lives Running by David Renton
Zero books ISBN 978-1-78099-235-8
reviewed by John Hobson

After a year in which sport had been hugely prominent, most obviously through the London Olympics, Lives Running is an unusual book which provides a deeply personal narrative of the author’s experience sof running both competitively and recreationally.

The descriptions of early expectations of – and indeed realised – success in middle distance running at school bring the reader into a private world where the joys of acheivement and pain of injury impact heavily in a context where great emphasis is placed on sporting prowess, through peer and family culture.

The author however interjects interesting facts and analysis of a sport for which he remains clearly passionate, most significantly of the oft-forgotten rivalry in middle-distance running between Steve Ovett and Sebastian Coe that developed in the late 1970s and which reached its peak at the 1980 Moscow Olympics.

Fascinating detail is provided about these two individuals’ backgrounds and experiences and which in particular furthers a degree of insight into Coe’s trajectory from ungracious loser to Ovett in the 800m Olympic final, to Tory MP and then ultimately to crowned glory as the Chair of the London Organising Committee of the Olympics and Paralympic Games (LOCOG) and beyond.

As the currently shallow discussions about the “legacy” of the London Olympics proceed, it is refreshing to read an account of sport by someone who was active in the important critique and attendant activism surrounding the Games.

The contributions of such individuals, as people passionate about sport but also about real accessibility and participation will be essential as the memories of London 2012 fade, the corporate Olympic juggernaut moves on and cuts in public funding for leisure services translate.

In essence however Lives; Running is a memoir of one individual’s relationship to sport and the power of the same to ultimately provide straight forward entertainment, far from the madding crowd or otherwise.

This article was first published in the June 2013 edition of Socialist Lawyer magazine. The magazine is sent to all members of the Haldane Society of Socialist Lawyers. Details of how to subscribe can be found here.

Egypt: in place of an analysis


The relationship between revolution and counter-revolution remains finely balanced. SCAF’s capacity to make meaningful decisions will be tightly constrained. Dozens if not hundreds of workplaces have ousted senior managers who were appointed under the Mubarak regime. Let alone the protests involving tens of millions of people, there are more strikes taking place weekly in Egypt right now than there are yearly in Britain. The army’s instincts are as neo-liberal as the Brotherhood’s – unlike the Brotherhood, its senior personnel still own important chunks of the economy as their own private wealth. But they face a turbulent people who will not accept privatisation, the loss of state subsidies of food, etc and have fought – and won.

On the other hand, the army has acquired in the last few weeks a degree of popular legitimacy which it had lost. Part of the mobilisations has been by felul – they are the group who have most to gain from the coup. Even just in London you could see the reappearance of the Gucci crusaders, the Armani mafia, and I don’t doubt for a second that the same dynamics can be traced in the differing responses of different areas of Cairo to the news of the coup.

In the next round of protests, the revolutionary left (ie the youth groups, Rebel, RS, etc) will be unable and unwilling to repeat the trick that it pulled off in 2011-2 – of using younger MB cadres as an ally to weaken the dictatorship.

I don’t think comrades here talking blithely of a “second revolution” grasp the risk that what we have just seen is in fact the start of the counter-revolution. Under 5 decades of military rule in Egypt, there was never a public, visible left in that country. Such lefts as there were, suffered, jail and torture on a mass scale. The army’s instincts have not changed one bit.

This may help to explain the tetchiness with which the best comrades in Egypt are responding to advice from activists here: they grasp far better than we do what is at stake for them personally.

We owe them our love and solidarity, they, right now, are the ones who carry our dreams.

Do socialists still have an alternative concept of rights?


An obvious starting point is Karl Marx’s position on human rights. We can begin with his response in 1844 to Bruno Bauer’s pamphlet The Jewish Question, in which Bauer opposed Jewish demands for political liberation on the grounds that no one in Germany was emancipated and that Jews should fight not for their liberation but for universal liberation. This sparked some caustic remarks from Marx on the limited notion of liberation espoused by Bauer. Political emancipation, Marx observed, took the form of negative liberties: the right not to be imprisoned, the right not to be prohibited from having a profession, etc. Marx wrote: “Liberty … is the right to do everything that harms no one else … [T]he right of man to liberty is based not on the association of man with man, but on the separation of man from man. It is the right of this separation, the right of the restricted individual, withdrawn into himself. The practical application of man’s right to liberty is man’s right to private property.”

Over the next forty years, Marx and Engels were to sharpen this critique of rights and develop a richer sense of how an alternative society might work. But they never wavered from this original scepticism to demands for a universal “freedom”. Faced with the proposal that there should be a right to work, Marx’s instinctive answer was to demand what his son in law Paul Lafargue nicely formulated as “the right to be lazy”, i.e. rather than just demanding that all should be able to work, Marx and his allies wanted everyone to be free from having to work.

Perhaps the best developed example of Marx’s critique of rights was his 1875 Critique of the Gotha Programme, addressed to the nascent SPD. All universal rights, Marx argued, by their nature, result in unequal treatment: “Right, by its very nature, can consist only in the application of an equal standard; but unequal individuals (and they would not be different individuals if they were not unequal) are measurable only by an equal standard insofar as they are brought under an equal point of view, are taken from one definite side only — for instance, in the present case, are regarded only as workers and nothing more is seen in them, everything else being ignored. Further, one worker is married, another is not; one has more children than another, and so on and so forth. Thus, with an equal performance of labour, and hence an equal in the social consumption fund, one will in fact receive more than another, one will be richer than another, and so on. To avoid all these defects, right, instead of being equal, would have to be unequal” (emphasis added).

Now as it happens, contemporary law knows, on occasion, laws of unequal treatment to achieve an equal outcome which operate in a shadow of the same spirit as this passage from Marx’s Critique. One example is the employer’s duty under section 20 of Equality Act 2010 to make reasonable adjustments for a disabled worker. If an employer employs two workers, one of whom is disabled and uses a wheelchair and one of whom does not, and the doors to enter the workplace are beside a short flight of stairs, an equal balance between disabled worker and employer can only be achieved by the employer buying a ramp to the door. The same treatment of both workers would result in the employer discriminating against the disabled worker. An equal outcome depends on unequal treatment. Even contemporary law, at its present limited stage of development, obliges the employer to buy the ramp, although it allows the hegemony of the employer back in the by making the purchase necessary only if it would be “reasonable” to require it. But what for contemporary law is a heavily-qualified anomaly is in Marx’s hands, the principle under which an entire legal system would be constructed:

“In a higher phase of communist society”, he wrote, “after the enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labour, and therewith also the antithesis between mental and physical labour, has vanished; after labour has become not only a means of life but life’s prime want; after the productive forces have also increased with the all-around development of the individual, and all the springs of co-operative wealth flow more abundantly — only then then can the narrow horizon of bourgeois right be crossed in its entirety and society inscribe on its banners: From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!”

This is one of those concentrated passages of careful thought that repays careful re-reading. First of all, it is clear from it that Marx, despite, his rights scepticism, understood the (virtuous) desire for justice that lies behind most rights discourse (whether the rights themselves are virtuous or otherwise). He was not hostile to justice but passionate about going much further in the same direction.

Second, in referring to “phases” of communist society Marx is describing socialism not as a one and for all process (before the insurrection nothing, afterwards everything), but as a series of steps towards an ideal. Like the novelist who writes and rewrites the same book, or like Marx himself in his decades long struggle to complete Capital, we should not assume that the first draft will be the final version.

Third, long before a just system of “rights” could possibly be practical, all sorts of conditions will have to be encountered and passed: the breaking down of the division of the day between work and non-work (i.e. art, leisure, sport…), the spread of co-operative forms of production, and the extraordinary increase in human productive capability that we could have if only the whole world had universal access to the very latest technology on the same terms (i.e. in contemporary terms, Marx is envisaging a world in which all of Africa and all of Asia had access to the same levels of agriculture and industry as the most developed regions of the West; Marx is asking what law there might be during, and beyond, transitions of this scale).

In these circumstances, the revolutionary fragment buried even in laws such as the present-day Equality Act law could be developed and generalised, i.e. there would be “rights”, but unlike the rights enshrined in the ECHR, etc, the equality principle would be equality of outcome rather than equality of opportunity. Everyone should give what they can; everyone must have what they need.

Drawing on Marx, a useful approach to the problem of right in the crisis of the present day, could be to disregard temporarily the search for further and better lists of rights in order to focus on their revolutionary kernel: i.e. the right to a just outcome. Part of establishing a fair outcome depends on a system of expropriation.

There are models, even just under contemporary law, of how this could work. In the emerging field of environmental law, there is a developing concept of environmental “responsibility”. For example, Section 24 of the South African constitution provides a right of all people to have access:

“a. to an environment that is not harmful to their health or well-being; and

b. to have the environment protected, for the benefit of present and future generations, through reasonable legislative and other measures that ­

i. prevent pollution and ecological degradation;

ii. promote conservation; and

iii. secure ecologically sustainable development and use of natural resources while promoting justifiable economic and social development.”

A moment’s thought will show that the idea of a right to prevent ecological degradation is a right that is only capable of enforcement if there are others, i.e. people holding property, who have caused or risk causing that degradation.

Polly Higgins’ Eradicating Ecocide uses interchangeable terms of environmental “responsibility” and “stewardship” and portrays the key task of the moment as being to shift the focus from commodity to responsibility.

Now we are used to hearing “responsibility” as a weasel-word to justify (for example) right-wing arguments that welfare benefits should not be universal, but should be made conditional, e.g. on a person taking up low-paid part-time work, which will contribute to a general lowering of the average wage.

But there are other notions of “responsibility” which point in more interesting directions. When family members ask a court to determine where a child should live, the starting question is whether the applicant has “parental responsibility”. The idea is very simply that a child, as a human being, cannot be subject to the ordinary principles of private property, i.e. they cannot be owned. Accordingly rather than asking first “who has the right to care for the child?”, the court’s first question is “who has the duty of care?” (Contrary to the demands of campaigns such as “Fathers for Justice”, the answer will not necessarily be “the father”, it may not even be either of the parents). Section 3 of the Children Act 1989 defines parental responsibility as “all the rights, duties, powers, responsibilities which by law a parent of a child has…”

When a local authority’s social workers have reached an interim view that a child is suffering or likely to suffer significant harm living with their parents (section 31 Children Act), they initiate care proceedings, i.e. proceedings which the authority intends to result in the child being adopted or placed with temporary foster-carers or family members, etc. The initial step in these proceedings is for the local authority to ask the Court if it may share parental responsibility with the parents.

Children Act proceedings are not by any means “model” instances of the law at its best. In “private” Children Act proceedings (i.e. disputes between parents) there are many examples of the law getting it wrong, whether by disregarding the views of victims of domestic violence, or by reaching the right decisions in the event but doing so hopelessly slowly. In “public” Children Act proceedings (i.e. care proceedings), courts are torn between competing instincts including the knowledge that children in care are often bitterly unhappy (it will be recalled how often care homes recur in the Jimmy Savile scandal as locations for the sexual abuse of children), and the consciousness also that some families are actually so unsafe that there is no alternative but to remove the child. But the positive feature of this litigation is the absence of a “parents’ rights” discourse. A parent who says merely that their child is their child, therefore it is their right that the child should live with them, will not get far; the court will expect from a much more serious focus on the true best interests of the child. If only we could learn to treat the ownership of property with the same scepticism with which we already treat the purported ownership of children.

To describe how a full-developed legal concept of environmental responsibility might work: a person who believes that a polluter risks causing ecological degradation on a piece of land, might petition a court complaining that the polluter has lost the right to environmental responsibility for that piece of land. A court would investigate. It might find that the applicant’s case was made out, in which case, they could listen to proposals that the responsibility for that piece of land should be given to another. They might find that the applicant’s case was hopelessly weak. They might instead find that the land should remain with its present owner, but only on an interim basis, subject to the present owner demonstrating that their custodianship was rapidly improving and they were taking all steps to prevent pollution, etc.

There is no reason of principle why there should not equally be an overriding duty of “social responsibility”, i.e. in order for someone to exercise any right as an owner of property, or for any contract to be enforced, the owner should be capable of being challenged by anyone – a worker, consumer, anyone – on the grounds that their stewardship of the property was deficient, and should be given to another. Where an employer did not pay the minimum wage or their workplace was unsafe, the ordinary principle should apply that their workplace should be passed to another.

The rule that is proposed is simple and intuitive. Questions of whether a workplace is properly run could easily be determined by juries, to whom we already leave inquests and sometimes very complex questions of criminal law.

Of course, there is no political will in Parliament for anything like this model of social responsibility because the large majority of political forces are signed up to a vision of untrammeled corporate power, with all the disasters that has caused, in terms of recession, bankers’ bail out, and collective austerity. We are not going to see the expropriation of capital without social upheaval.

But in working out the next step for rights discourse, socialists should go further than the majority of rights activists. We have a concept of right in which the highest categories are human need, and agency to answer human need. The next step is a right of expropriation where property ownership limits human potential.

The simplest rebuttal of the present proposal – for an overarching concept of social and/or ecological responsibility which would be capable of taking priority over all other property rights and any contractual agreements – is that class society has been existence for around 10,000 years without having anything like such a practice. For around a third of that time we have had an idea (i.e. contract law) that property is disbursed in agreements, the terms of which are binding on the contracting parties. No commercial agreement could be attractive if its effect was constantly uncertain. But this is exactly the spirit in which socialists should respond to big questions about what the law should be in future. Socialists should demand what is absolutely incompatible with the conditions of capital and the state: the right not to be exploited.

We ask of course in a modest fashion, pointing out in this way the absurdly-limited conditions under which capitalism allows billions of people worldwide to live.

This article was first published in the June 2013 edition of Socialist Lawyer magazine. The same issue also contains articles by Michael Mansfield, Anna Morris, Wendy Pettifer and many others. The magazine is sent to all members of the Haldane Society of Socialist Lawyers. Membership rates start at £20 per year.

Mo Farah and the fight against racism


Going into the London Olympics, Mo Farah was far from favourite for either of the events in which he was running. As for his first final, the 10,000 metres: Wilson Kiprop and Moses Masai of Kenya had both run the distance in 27 minutes earlier that summer, while the 2004 and 2008 Olympic champion Kenenisa Bekele and his younger brother Tariku (both running for Ethiopia) both had times of under 27:05. Farah’s best time for the year was a mediocre 29 minutes and 21 seconds. Andy Bull of the Guardian tipped Bekele for a third gold: “From the mountain top he occupies, Farah is a figure somewhere in the foothills, a man only just beginning to prove himself capable of competing at the highest level.” In the 5,000 metres, Farah had run a decent 12:56.98, but at just one race in July 2012, the Diamond League in Paris, ten Kenyan or Ethiopan runners had finished faster than this time.

As a black British athlete Farah was forced to carry further burdens. Weeks before the Games, an anonymous article in the Daily Mail complained that there were 61 “plastic Brits” in the Olympic squad. The article gave examples of nationality-swappers such as a formerly Ukrainian wrestler Olga Butkevych who had been granted a UK passport only in 2012 at the age of 26. The figure of 61 plastic Brits was gathered by counting every UK Olympic competitor to have been born (like Farah) outside Britain. Its journalists illustrated the piece with a photograph not of (white) Olga Butkevych nor of (white) Bradley Wiggins (born in Belgium to an English mother) but of Yamile Aldama, a black triple jumper who had been born in Cuba.

Mo Farah’s first event was the 10,000 metres. At the start, Kenenisa Bekele made his way straight to the front, with Farah in second. Yet far from stretching the pack, Bekele in fact slowed the race, going through 400 metres in just 65 seconds. The pace then slowed further, so that when Zersenay Tadese of Eritrea hit the front, after six laps, his average time was just 76 seconds, or about 13 second per lap outside world record pace. Tadese, the world record holder for the half-marathon, might have been expected to hit the front hard and sustain a fast pace, yet having briefly opened a gap, Tadese raced hard for just one lap (in 61 seconds; after which Farah was down in twefth and seemed to be losing touch with the leaders) before allowing the race to settle again into a pace of 64-65 second per lap, allowing “sprinters” such as Farah and his training partner Galen Rupp to narrow the gap on the leaders.

Three countries had teams of athletes in contention: Kenya (with two runners; Kiprop having pulled out after losing his shoe mid-race), Ethopia (three still in contention) and Eritrea (three). Victory would have required only a first runner in the team to set a fast enough pace, and a second (or third) to stick with them. Athletes hate running like a team; nobody wants to be the “bunny” who sets a hard pace, knowing they will not sustain it and will have to drop out, and someone else will benefit from their pacing. But the refusal to run collectively – this shared cowardice – cumulatively gifted the race towards athletes known for their fast finishes.

Mo Farah’s race winning time was slow: outside the top 20 races run all year; half a minute down on the best Kenyan times for 2012, 45 seconds outside his personal best, and 75 seconds outside the world record. Yet one part of the race, above all, was impressive: Farah’s last lap was run in just 53 seconds, a shattering 9 seconds faster than any other lap he ran all race.

The final of the men’s 5000 metres followed the script of the 10000 metres, with a series of athletes coming to the front briefly before slowing immediately on reaching the head of the race. Farah was one of barely a handful of runners “doubling up” by running in two events (Rupp was another; while Abadalataai Iguider of Morocco combined the 5000 metres with the 1500 metres in which he came third). Unlike the others, it was his third tough race in a week. To a far greater extent than in the 10000 metres, Farah had to fight to impose himself on the race. Into the last lap, he was leading from only 2-3 metres from a group of runners including Bernard Lagat of America a former Olympic silver medallist over 1500 metres, and Iguider, each of whom could have been expected to have a faster kick.

Farah’s winning time was again very slow: 64 seconds outside the world record, well outside the top 20 times run in the year. At 13 minutes 41 seconds, Farah was more than 15 seconds slower than the slowest time that any of the runners had run in qualifying for the final. Once again Farah’s victory was down to his sprint. As in the 10,000 metres, he ran the last lap in 53 seconds. By way of comparison, at the same Games, David Rudisha of Kenya ran laps of 50 and 51 seconds in the 800 metres final, and in doing so shattered the world record. Farah was only two seconds slower over his last lap having run six times as far.

Beyond Biggles

“Racism”, Dave Widgery of Rock Against Racism (RAR) once wrote, “is as British as Biggles and Baked Beans. You grow up anti-black, with the golliwogs in the jam, the Black and White Minstrel Show on TV and CSE dumb history at schools. Racism is about Jubilee mugs and Rule Britannia and how we won the War…” Widgery continued by referring to the visible racists of the National Front, then active on Britain’s streets, before turning his fire on what we would today consider the “institutional racism” of the police, courts and immigration system: “Outwardly respectable but inside fired with the same mentality and the same fears, the bigger danger is the racist magistrates with the cold sneering authority, the immigration men who mock an Asian mother as she gives birth to a dead child on their office floor, policemen for whom answering back is a crime and every black kid is a challenge.”

Yet anti-racism too is a British tradition, and it has taken many forms, sporting as well as (like RAR) musical. Many football fans will be familiar with the story of how John Barnes, on signing for Liverpool in 1987, become only the club’s second black player, and received racism initially from both away and home fans before winning over the Anfield crowd by his brilliance on the pitch. It is a story encompassed in a famous photograph of Barnes back-heeling away a banana which had been thrown onto the field. Most football clubs in Britain have something like their own “John Barnes” story, and most sports have their “John Barnes” moments. National sporting teams play a part in this story; with anti-racists using their multiracial character as a rebuke to the racism of the politicians. In 2009, BNP leader Nick Griffin told a radio 1 journalist that English footballers Rio Ferdinand and Theo Walcott were not ethnically British; a racist sound-bite that the Labour-supporting Mirror newspaper quoted back at him during the 2010 election.

The iconic image of the Games was the sight of Farah swapping his “Mobot” celebration with 100 metre champion Usain Bolt’s “lightning Bolt”. Former Children’s Laureate Michael Rosen tweeted, “Nick Griffin just choked on his dinner when Mo Farah won. Been rushed to hospital. An Asian doctor is treating him.” “Mo Farah’s famous victories in the 10,000m and 5,000m seemed like a validation of British society’s inclusivity and openness”, Oliver Holt wrote in the Mirror, “They felt like a victory for tolerance and acceptance, a thumb in the eye to the BNP and bigots ­ everywhere.”  Even papers usually associated with the Conservative Party were briefly willing to promote a similar message that Farah’s victory proved the viability of an England increasingly people by migrants. In the Daily Mail, Yasmin Alibhai Brown quoted Farah’s answer, after his victory in the 10,000 metres, when he was asked if he’d rather be representing Somalia, “Not at all, mate. This is my country.” “Mo Farah has sent a message of hope to all migrants” said the Evening Standard.

In the 1980s popular views on racism moved to the left (even while society, in other ways, was moving to the right). More recently however, there has been a sustained increase in racism, encouraged by politicians from each of the main parties but finding an unwelcome resonance in popular attitudes. It began with New Labour’s relabeling of refugees as “bogus asylum seekers”, continued with press attacks on Muslims during the hot days of the War in Terror and the easy ride given by the same papers to the anti-immigrant “think tank” Migration Watch, took in David Cameron’s courting of UKIP and EDL supporters by denouncing multiculturalism, and has continued right up to David Starkey’s verbal assault on the London rioters (one of whom was Farah’s brother) as “whites who have become black”.

The old racism of the 1970s looked ridiculous in the bright glare of the Mo-moment; and even the “new racisms” were temporarily silent in response to the victory of this Muslim former child refugee.

After twenty years of defeats, the Mo Farah moment articulated anti-racism in a visual, digital form, immediately, without requiring any of the “cultural translation” through the newspaper form in which the left specialises, but which in an age of social media leave most people cold. The challenge is to convert enthusiasm into the sinews of permanent campaigning against the racism that continues to affect so many lives: against ethnic profiling by police officers, against deportation, against racial bias in sentencing.

“Only connect”: we need an anti-racist idiom that joins up the sports fan with the protester against deaths in custody; the blogger with the athlete; the radical artist with the hundreds of thousands who grasp that racism is a poison and are open to the activist’s question, “so what do we do about it?”

For a moment, Mo reminded millions of all of us of the essential sameness of our lives, and of the brutality of the racism which treats the same experience so differently. His victory was a step in advance of the great strides that are still to come.

The above is an extract from my chapter in London 2012 How Was It For Us, published last week by Lawrence & Wishart. Contributors include Mark Steel, Zoe Williams, Billy Bragg, Suzanne Moore, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, Gareth Edwards, and others. Available pre-publication, £2 off, just £12.99, post-free signed by Mark Steel from here