Tag Archives: reviewed

What would Hal say?

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swp excuses

Not HAL but Hal Draper, whose journal New Politics continues with vigour. Kent Worcester reviews my book Socialism from Below in the current issue, pointing out some of the absurdities of the position that the leaders of my former party now find themselves in as they deal with a scandal all of their own making.

Scan attached (with thanks to RM and AW). You can click on the image to enlarge it.

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When ignorance is bliss

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“Sometimes the classical tidiness of the book form is less important than its relevance to current political debate on the left. This is certainly the case with Dave Renton’s book which is essentially a collection of articles posted on his blog during 2013. What unifies the varied collection of reflections is a passionate effort to re-examine the IS (International Socialist – forerunner of the Socialist Workers Party, SWP) tradition and to detach the best of it from current SWP practice. He rescues the legacy of some of the original thinkers from this tradition such as Cliff, Harman, Hallas, Sedgewick, Widgery and others. Renton himself has recently resigned from the SWP along with the several hundred other ‘Decembrists’ and is part of the newly founded Revolutionary Socialism for the 21st Century group. The launch statement of the latter shows that those who have left, in what is the third major split from the SWP in as many years, intend to remain committed to building a revolutionary socialist current engaged in practical political intervention and open to discussions of revolutionary regroupment…”

Many thanks to Dave Kellaway and all the good folks at Socialist Resistance for publishing his kind review of my recent book Socialism from Below, which as he rightly says is a collection of pieces published on this blog in the second stage of the recent SWP faction fight (ie between last year’s March special conference and June).

To Dave Kellaway’s credit, when he engages with what I’ve written about the International Socialist tradition, he doesn’t try to restage the battle between 1968-era IS and 1968-era IMG, but judges the IS group by what it did: “Whether because of, or in spite of, such theories [as state capitalism or the permanent arms economy] the fact is that the IS/SWP related to the working class more effectively that the old International Marxist Group.  It was less intellectual and developed a press with a real impact – the brochures on Incomes Policy in the 1970s sold tens of thousands and helped the SWP build a base among the shop stewards movement. Similarly such theories did not stop it doing good work in building the Anti-Nazi League or the Stop the War coalitions…”

Those who are interested in the history of either group may enjoy an event which SR has organised this Saturday (1 February): a day school on the The New Left and the 1960s, with speakers including Penelope Duggan, Ernie Tate, Jane Shallice, Ian Birchall, Alan Thornett and me.

‘No Sense of Freedom’ (Women’s Voice, 1982)

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‘No Sense of Freedom’, review of Sweet Freedom by Anna Coote and Beatrix Campbell

In 1971, women’s liberation was a whisper and it was a joke.  That year International Socialists (the organisation which is now the Socialist Workers Party) debated on the position of women for the first time – the women who presented the motion were jeered and many of the women who supported it were later isolated.  Responses of other socialist and labour movement organisations were no better.

Unsure, feminists scoured the works of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky to dredge up proof that the great masters really believed that women were oppressed.  And between the quotes and undeniable fact that a large percentage of workers were women, the jokes began to fall flat and some of the issues were taken seriously.  Typing and tea-making were done less willingly, and women began to speak at meetings.

Our misery turned to anger and our isolation to solidarity.  We grasped at the threads of confidence and we began to find a voice.  The Women’s Liberation Movement, directly and indirectly, went on to change the lives of most women and to put new and often revolutionary questions on the political agenda.

Eleven years after those tumbling beginnings, in Sweet Freedom, Anna Coote and Beatrix Campbell attempt ‘an account of feminist politics to show how far the objectives of the Women’s Liberation Movement have been resolved and met resistance.’

For all of us who owe the quality of our lives to the new awareness of the issues raised by the women’s movement, it is a sad, superficial and confusing book.  There is no sense of the spirit of the movement, the rumblings of new life, the sanity of discovered self respect. There is no understanding of why and how women are oppressed.  There is no feel for the lives of most women, their day to day struggles, the battles they still face – often as mothers, as girlfriends, as wives.

There is little mention of the new culture of women’s writings, films, new lifestyles, commitment to their own growth and development, concern with their own health and physical needs.  The chapter on culture deals almost exclusively with the involvement and presentation of women in the mass media.  Pregnancy, child-birth, relationships, the structure of emotions, guilt and the devaluing of all that is ‘female’ are ignored.
The early movement is often presented as a clique of friends, not as the breath-taking gust of fresh air that it was.  Then after a series of disconnected chapters – the bulk of them on work, legislation and the trade unions, we pick up the Women’s Liberation 1982-style presented by Coote and Campbell as warring factions of separatist lesbians.

Is it really news that part time work is stigmatised because mainly women do it or that men are seen as breadwinners?  That the Equal Pay Act and the Sex Discrimination Act achieved very little? That Tory strategy is to dismantle the welfare state making women the major casualties and the nurses of the casualties? It has all been said many times before.

All through the book you want to ask why?  Why does this happen to women, why is it possible?  And the authors present a series of confusing non-answers: men, the cuts, the shortage of women in powerful positions, the lack of positive discrimination.  While they sometimes condemn men, they simultaneously accept ‘male’ definitions of what is political.

Women’s Liberation made the personal political.  It showed that politics was not simply about men in the ‘outside world’; it showed that politics was right there in the kitchen, the bedroom and the labour ward.  It showed that women could be active, showing people that what they did was already important and what they might go on to was their right.  It began to demonstrate that the germs of hope for a very different society lay within the warmth and feelings that women had nurtured, once they were able to harness that warmth and not let it be used against most people in the maintenance of a ruthless, oppressive and miserable system.

Women’s Liberation is not and never has been about bringing women up to the level of men, but that essentially is what Coote and Campbell believe it to be.  Men will have to hand over their power, they say.  Get into the male pond and swim.  We don’t want ‘male’ power and we challenge the ‘male’ pond.  It is the ‘male’ view of the world that has held all women and most men in chains ten feet under.

Feminist politics is about changing the world and, maybe, eleven years after the jokes and the jeers, socialist organisations are beginning to see it that way.  It’s a pity that Coote and Campbell have failed to make it any easier for them.

Sheila Duncan

Women’s Voice 63, 1982

Lives; running – A Hack Review

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By Gareth Edwards
David Renton’s book lives; running, released in the summer of last year, received little coverage in the Party’s publications. We should have paid closer attention. While a book about running may seem an unlikely allegory for factionalising, lives; running is quite clearly, to use a lamentable term, a prefiguration. As the immortal David Frost once opined on Through The Keyhole, “Look closely, comrades. The clues are there.” Carefully read, the book reveals how plans to establish permanent factions have been festering away far longer than anyone expected. For those of us who have lived through the last year, watching as the “opposition” embarked upon its wilful destruction of our party, reading lives; running is like discovering the road-map to ruination. You will wish you had read it much earlier.

Although the book claims to be about running, it is patently obvious that David Renton has written a book about David Renton. Claiming that it is, in part, an autobiography – a personal account of his own running experiences – is simply excuse-mongering, a convenient cover for his own egotism. One need not be surprised; this is the same exercise in self-justification that oozes from his blog (which even has the same name as the book!). Online Renton presents his writing as an attempt to “re-think” our politics when in actual fact it is nothing more than a capitulation to feminism. And, while we’re on the subject – what is his obsession with the semi-colon? It lies somewhere between the steely determination of the full stop and the half-hearted gradualism of the comma; truly the centrist of the punctuation world.
Of course Renton’s drift from Leninism has been a long term development: more of a long-distance race than a sprint, if you will. As he makes clear in the book, not only has he been running since the 1980s, he has actually liked it. To secretly enjoy watching a bit of football is one thing. It is quite another for a “comrade” who claims to be a revolutionary to openly state that he happily participated in competitive sport. There is not a word of regret or remorse on this question. Blatantly the cold winds of reformism have been blowing through Renton’s life for a good long while.
At various points in the book he ponders on the rivalry between middle-distance runners Steve Ovett and Sebastian Coe. Renton would have us believe that, during their clashes in the 1970s and 1980s, the two athletes came to represent something more than simply a couple of blokes running around a track. Ovett was the worker; Coe the Tory. To suggest that Ovett and Coe were some sort of proxy for the class war is, of course, a ridiculous assertion. What Renton struggles to comprehend is that no matter how many races Ovett won it had no bearing on the real world. Already at this early stage Renton was seeking someone to win victories on behalf of the working class, rather than seeing the class itself as the agent of social change.
Indeed, it is noticeable how the organised working class plays very little role in Renton’s book – in particular, public sector workers who run are conspicuous by their absence. With a major part of lives; running set in the 1980s Renton is forced to reference the miners’ strike.  It is illustrative of his general pessimism that the one time he makes mention of the working class is during a defeat, rather than choosing an example of successful industrial action. In part, one suspects that the absence of optimism in lives: running is the result of a flawed understanding about the relationship between party and class on the part of the author.
To use our own analogy: think of the class as a running race. Some workers are at the back of the pack, others nearer to the front. The Party is represented by the runner at the very front – constantly pushing the pace on, finding new gears, re-doubling their efforts to stay in the lead. Round and round we go, more and more laps of the track completed, until eventually we win. In Renton’s view, running is most fun when people are bunched together, a mass of arms and legs and rightward shifting reformist ideas.
In another attack on the concept of the revolutionary party, Renton returns to the cases of Ovett and Coe, exploring the role of their parents in fostering and nurturing their talents. Here I think Renton is, quite simply, wrong. Time and again he teases out how mothers and fathers can impact negatively on runners, without ever accentuating the great value and wisdom they can impart as teachers. It is as though he neglects completely any sort of paternal guidance. As you progress through the book you begin to wonder if he will ever end his criticisms of athletics from the past thirty years. Renton clearly believes that the 1970s were some sort of golden, democratic age for running and at times one expects him to reveal that Peter Sedgewick, Dave Widgery and Duncan Hallas were the founding members of the Socialist Democratic Jogging Society.
Towards the end of the book Renton finally comes clean. He talks of how he once gave up on running, and how it lured him back with its promises of fulfilment, activity and expression. But it has come at a price. When he now runs he tires quicker, finds he is more susceptible to injury, has to run at a slower pace than before. No doubt to a casual observer these references will seem innocent enough. But who in the Party could miss their real meaning? David no longer takes the same joy in revolutionary activity that he once did, moaning that long-standing comrades have caused him injury. His conclusion is to run (i.e. do politics) at a different pace (i.e. a reformist pace). Renton would do well to remember that in the marathon of socialism, the bottles of distilled Leninism on the pasting tables of struggle, laid out at the side of the road of revolution, give us the strength to reach the finish line.

Originally published at: http://inside-left.blogspot.co.uk/2013/10/lives-running-hack-review.html

“Lives running” reviewed

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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.

Reflecting on the burn

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Running: “from trouble”, “to assist”, “in fear”, “for fun”, “in a crowd”, “alone”, “to win”, “for the hell of it!”. Running is a time-honoured, universal activity. In the global marketplace, running is also a valuable commodity. The large number of “running activities” or “uses” of running have provided the incentive for companies to create a growing industry of apparel: shoes, tracksuits, sweatbands, pedometers. A burgeoning advertising industry has helped generate and extend the exchange values of such products. Usain Bolt runs fast, wears Puma shoes and requires massive appearance fees to showcase his speed and footwear. Bolt is a fast-moving human commodity.

Lives; Running offers an insider’s view of the multi-layered world of running. This compact 124-page compilation is clearly designed for an audience located somewhere between the highly formalised and conventionally controlled world of academia and the “pulped up” “just in time” world of infotainment. Lives; Running’s style of writing is pitched to readers looking for thoughtful, well-informed prose about changes in globally extended common culture.

Seventeen short chapters are built on three major themes: a long-term personal narrative about the experiences of running, the role of sport in the patrilineal side of Renton’s family and a mini-case study of the class-based politics of two elite runners from very different backgrounds. These three themes, involving very different forms of description and analysis, are crisscrossed throughout the text, providing multiple angles of scrutiny of running as a socio-cultural practice. While it is not a linear narrative in the conventional sense, the book tracks sequentially across the decades of Renton’s life of running and thus provides a solid position from which to explore the other themes.

Renton declares at the very start of his narrative: “[R]unning was part of my life, I ran whenever I could”. His engagement moves from the private to the social and recreational, to the competitive and combative and finally into the zone of the health-focused and the therapeutic. Looking outwards from this personal sphere, Renton fills his account with stories about his grandfather and father. In the detail of his father’s story is embedded a meta-analysis about the changing role of sport in identity development and the wider world of politics and social change.

Renton’s father was an average runner but quickly discovered he was a talented rower. Rowing was, and remains, an iconic team activity. To be successful, the team must be one in mind and body. During his father’s formative years, Great Britain was being shaped by Keynesian-inspired politics. The cooperative, team-based nature of rowing was in tune with those influences. On the other hand, Lives; Running also offers a parallel and emergent storyline about running as a personal and individualised physical pursuit. This narrative is set in the time of neoliberal transformation.

Renton was born in 1972. That was the year of the Munich Olympic Games, in which the US runner Frank Shorter won the marathon and reputedly sparked a national, then international, running boom. If we take this as fact, it means Renton’s entire life has occurred within the time of the global growth and transformation of running that has occurred in tandem with the rise and rise of neoliberal politics.

It is here that the book offers valuable insights into the fusion of his physical enjoyment of running with the growth in marketing, televising sport and the valorisation of the hyper-individualised pursuit of “winning”. As a seven-year-old, he watched the British athletes Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett competing in the Moscow Olympics. Through the eyes of a child he viewed two epic contests: the final of 800 metres with Ovett first and Coe second, and then the 1500 metres with Coe first and Ovett third. With the mind of a socially critical adult, he analyses the role the media played in affirming dominant class politics, with Coe as a middle class hero and Ovett as an aloof outsider. Looking back on these events, Renton is able to see clearly what he had been seduced to normalise and accept in his youth.

In a highly ambiguous section, Renton recalls an image of Coe crossing the line as the winner of the 1500 metres in a pose akin to a crucifixion: “… his head pulled backwards … face pulled up … mouth widens in a grimace … I saw no pleasure in it then and find none today.” This account is a pivotal part of the text. Here we are offered a probing insight into one of the major contradictions built into sport in neoliberal times. Elite athletes are sometimes pushed and push themselves into the dark zone of extreme pain and deep distress. Many forces combine to produce this outcome, where even a gold medal winner becomes a puppet of extremism, in training, performance, advertising, marketing, sports administration and politics.

After one final probe into the trials and tribulations of both Coe and Ovett, the book switches register. The final chapters attempt to rescue the idea of running as a mysterious, magnetic, physical activity that has the capacity to draw Renton back, as an adult entering middle age, into a life of small-scale competition, training in all types of weather, struggling through the pain of physical discomfort and injury and living in hope that his sons will be runners. Beyond the dramas, traumas and controversies of high level athletics, “running” endures as a stripped down “free” activity.

While Renton’s story begins with the arrival of mass participation following the 1972 Olympics, it is silent about the fact that this early stage of the global running boom was basically about and for males. The growth of female mass participation occurred later. There are obvious landmarks of the entry of women’s events into the Olympic program. The sprints appeared in 1928, but it was not until the ’60s and ’70s that middle distance events began. The first time women ran the marathon at the Olympics was in 1984. However, it was Oprah Winfrey’s completion of the Marine Corps Marathon in 1994 that possibly provided the greatest stimulus to far greater participation rates in the type of road running that Renton describes towards the end of the book. His silence about this sudden growth in interest and involvement in running by women, from across the social and cultural spectrum, is a significant oversight.

As a former marathon “addict” myself ,I thoroughly enjoyed this book. The prose drew me into the seductions, trials, tribulations and triumphs of competition. I feel the book successfully fuses personal biography with longer term, generational change and with the forces of larger politics.

Lindsay Fitzclarence, Socialist Alternative

Lives; Running reviewed

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(Hazel Potter, in London Socialist Historians Group Newsletter, Autumn 2012)

In a summer where Sebastian Coe’s face has rarely been more than a few minutes from a TV screen, David Renton’s Lives; Running  is a timely reminder that the media’s love affair with the LOCOG Chairman has been a long one. Renton takes us back to the golden era of British middle distance running, interspersing childhood memories and reflections on the Coe v Ovett rivalry with a memoir of his own running career, while exploring the relationships in and around both.

Anyone who is old enough to remember the Moscow Olympics will recall the build-up to the games, not just the US (and potential UK) boycott but the media hype around Britain’s two middle distance runners: Seb Coe and Steve Ovett. Renton tracks this, exploring not only the press depiction of “toff v monster” to characterise Coe and Ovett respectively, but also the differences between the athletes in terms of style, emotion and attitude. Coe’s all-encompassing need to win, driven by his ultra-competitive father, versus the more magnanimous Ovett, for whom running is an important part of life, but not its whole, is a theme largely ignored at the time. In 1980 the press was far keener to demonise Ovett as arrogant and even unpatriotic, whereas Coe was always – and remains –the golden boy, meaning fans of the older athlete were often at odds with family and friends. Renton is one such fan but this is only one of a string of differences, social and political, that will emerge between the author and his peers and parents during the course of the book.

Coe’s upbringing – and in particular his father – helped to shape him as an athlete and the resultant craving to compete and win will undoubtedly have played a role in the development of his Thatcherite politics. His constant need to compete with Ovett and to take credit for his teammate’s performances portray a fear of failure but also a lack of compassion and understanding of the realities outside of the track. One quote from Coe reads: “I always had the feeling that when the gap began to disappear … the rivalry would become greater, and with it his need to prove himself,” and you wonder whether it was, in fact, Coe who needed to prove something not Ovett.

‘Lives; Running” is about more than Coe and Ovett though; while the themes of competition and relationships continue throughout the book it is Renton’s own development within and outside of sport that we learn about. Juxtaposed with this are portrayals of his father at an comparable age, viewed via diary extracts and memories, an Oxford Rowing Blue struggling to reconcile conflicting desires for flesh and faith. Ultimately, neither father nor son will continue competitively in his chosen sport beyond his academic years but both will eventually learn to participate at a recreational level.

Competitive sport is a bond, albeit it a fragile one, between parent and child: something that both can understand, even if it is from a different perspective. In time, sport as a bond begins to extend through to the next generation too, together with a new perception of the pride and pleasure it can bring – but it is not hard to imagine the short leap that is required to become a competitive, Peter Coe-like, parent either.

The highs and lows of winning and defeat are explored throughout “Lives; Running”, for the schoolboy, the recreational runner and the elite athletes but even this is not a simple analysis: how to compare the grimace of Coe against the clenched fist of Ovett? Or the schoolboy’s joy at destroying a field against a middle-aged runner overtaking contemporaries in a half marathon? Does it hurt more to lose the Boat Race or an Olympic Final? And would that pain be worse for, say, Coe whose father’s love was seemingly conditional on success than for Ovett, who would merely be angry at himself for defeat?

The conflicting emotions that the author has with running take years to reconcile and, even then, when the pain of defeat is no longer a concern, injuries will still hurt. The sudden, indiscriminate attack on an athlete of an injury is shown to affect both the elite, including Renton’s hero Ovett, and school runners and it is not just the discomfort that is suffered but the fact that running has been taken away. We learn about attempts at prevention but, in reality, this is often nothing more than a delay until the inevitable. Given that, the perspective that Ovett maintained will surely have helped: if running is part of life then an injury can be demoralising, if it is all that an athlete has then it will be utterly devastating.

The camaraderie – or lack of it – between Ovett and Coe is no secret but Renton shows that sport has the ability not only to provide credibility amongst peers but also to forge long-term friendships through his memoir. We find the author running in his thirties with friends he made in his teens and while other interests, such as music and politics, were key in the relationships, the role of sport is critical. But just as it helps develop friendships, running – and rowing for his father – “a life of movement” as Renton puts it offers an escape too: from school, parents, work, family and perhaps reality itself. The lone athlete will spend hours on his own, doing something he loves and, for that time, the world as he knows it does not exist.

Perhaps the whole of these sometimes conflicting attributes is that, as the author – and his father – conclude, the “life of movement…is a life fulfilled,” with the flip that “A sedentary life is a life voluntarily diminished.” And in a year when Coe’s LOCOG has drummed “inspire a generation” into the nation ad infinitum maybe this message, and the fact that a sport like running costs the participant virtually nothing in monetary terms, is one which should be heard just as much?