Remembering London, Orwell, and the victims of 7/7

July 7, 2014 at 2:41 pm (anti-fascism, crime, history, islamism, James Bloodworth, literature, London, murder, Orwell, posted by JD, poverty, reblogged)

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Keeping Your Head Above Water In London

James Bloodworth’s rather moving valediction to the capital, written in 2011, on the sixth anniversary of 7/7. James’s personal circumstances have changed quite considerably (he now has a job back in London) since he wrote this and we first posted it here at Shiraz.

Dedicated to those who lost their lives to religious fascism on this day six (now nine) years ago

Yesterday I moved from London to a place called Burnham-on-sea, a banal coastal town in the South West of England where they still sell Donald  McGill-style postcards in the summertime. I moved because my family live here; and with family comes a degree of financial security. I still intend to spend much of my time in London, but I cannot afford to live there any longer. Not that is, until I find gainful, paid employment. Getting a job is notoriously difficult for the unemployed at present. A man I recently sat next to at a recruitment fair told me and others he had applied for 10,000 jobs in the past two years. He was almost certainly exaggerating – overdoing one’s own misfortune seems to be a particularly British characteristic – or perhaps disastrous at writing job applications, but nonetheless, the fact that many present were prepared to believe him speaks volumes about the state of the job market.

As it happened, I was able to land a job with my previous employer, Royal Mail. Getting the job proved to be the easy part. More difficult was getting sufficient hours to pay the rent as well as buy enough to eat. Being a Postman today is a very different job to what it used to be. Almost all new contracts are temporary and based on 25-30 hour weeks; and the amount of junk a postman is required to carry around on his back in the form of advertising is rising exponentially year-on-year. That was my impression at least. Unable to eke out anything other than an extremely meagre existence in London on £200 a week, I left the position after only two weeks in the job.

The part of London life that is perhaps the biggest burden is the cost of rent. Being shown around dingy, mould-infested bedsits only to be told you must pay £100 a week for the pleasure of living there is soul destroying; especially when it comes with the prospect of giving half your weekly pay to someone whose “portfolio” ensures they will never have to sleep in mould infested dwellings, nor break their back for £200 a week. With very little chance of ever owning a house, those with inadequate living quarters must instead navigate the rental free-market, where at the end of every tenancy getting your deposit back can be like trying to extract teeth from a bad tempered dog. Life in London can be hugely enjoyable, but it can also leave you feeling a little like Gordon Comstock, the character in George Orwell’s novel Keep the Aspidistra Flying, his living conditions grim, his job boring, and his impecuniousness a frequent source of humiliation. The difference in my case is that I am not actively trying to sink to the lowest levels of society.

London famously attracts its fair share of those  attempting to “make it” in one sense or another. As someone who has recently completed a course in journalism at City University, I am fairly sure I fit into this category of person myself. Although fully aware that moving to London would not open some golden path into the journalistic profession, I did view it as the correct place to be, which it undeniably is, most of all perhaps because of the opportunities to meet people you only get in the capital.

One thing you soon start to notice in London is the extraordinary extent to which everything is about “connections”, not least in journalism. The major newspaper titles no longer advertise positions, instead preferring to find employees who are in the loop, so to speak. Most graduates instead pursue internship placements, working anything up to a year for free on a major title, performing menial tasks such as tea-making in the almost millenarian hope that one day they may get the chance to contribute something worthwhile to the paper.

Professional journalism has always been something of a middle and upper class pursuit of course. The term “BBC accent” was coined during the 20th century to describe a recognisable Home Counties diction the corporation now likes to pretend most of its employees do not in fact possess. What certainly has changed is that most of those successfully entering the profession today have postgraduate qualifications and lengthy internships under their belts, affordable only to the relatively affluent; and unlike a Home Counties accent, something which cannot be faked. The resulting journalism that
invades my own cramped bedroom every night via the television could perhaps most aptly be described as the political establishment talking to itself.

If you can handle all of this and come out of it with your sanity you may be rewarded with a job, or you may not be. What will almost certainly be the case is there will be less in the boss’s pot with which to pay you, the worker, whether in the newspaper business or elsewhere. In hard times employee’s wages inevitably take the hit before chief executive final salary pension schemes; and if that means newsrooms becoming increasingly stuffed with wealthy individuals who can partake in journalism as a leisure activity, then so be it.

The days always seemed to go by at a faster pace in London. What I mean to say is that the time actually feels like it is moving faster. I think because so much of each day is spent under the ground scuttling along, I would say at great speed, but often at a crawl, on an overcrowded tube train. The conditions often bring out the worst in people, myself included. Just the other day I got into a quarrel with a man over some trivial thing (he bumped into me as I was walking round a corner), resulting in a situation that could quite easily have resulted in a physical confrontation, foolish on my part though that would have been.

It was of course in Keep the Aspidistra Flying that Gordon Comstock declared his own personal war on affluence. Riding on the Docklands Light Railway first thing in the morning having practically embalmed my liver the night before, sat next to the businessmen with calculators working out their cash flows on the way to Canary Wharf, I have gotten, I like to think, a small insight into Gordon Comstock’s disdain for the capitalist vulgarities he sees around him, oscillating between self-admiration and self-loathing.

Six years ago today a group of deranged fanatics declared not a war on affluence, but a war on London. Without dragging up tired clichés about “never forgetting” (although you shouldn’t) and lionising the “spirit of the blitz”, remembering that 52 innocent people were murdered for a fascistic ideology puts my own London-induced neuroticism into perspective. Despite his (to me anyway) disagreeable political views, Samuel Johnson was right to say that “by seeing London, [he had] seen as much of life as the world can show”, and it was this that so disgusted the murderers of 7/7 – the sheer diversity of life in the capital, whether represented by “those slags dancing around” (as some other would-be murderers called them), or the insufficiently pious Muslims who practiced at their local Mosques.

Returning to Orwell, Gordon Comstock always had to share his room with aspidistras which continued to thrive despite his mistreatment of them. Despite what happened on that day in July 2005, London continues to thrive, and is a place I will return to live soon, I hope.

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Brave Afghans shame (some on) the Western “left”

June 16, 2014 at 6:50 pm (Afghanistan, anti-fascism, Civil liberties, democracy, elections, ex-SWP, Guardian, Human rights, islamism, Jim D, liberation, reactionay "anti-imperialism", relativism, SWP)

The picture below should shame anyone and everyone in Britain (and the rest of the West) who doesn’t bother to vote …

Image: Men show their fingers after the ink-stained part of their fingers were cut off by the Taliban after they took part in the presidential election Men show their fingers after the ink-stained part of their fingers were cut off by the Taliban after they took part in the presidential election, in Herat province June 14, 2014.

…but even more, it should shame those on the so-called “left” who have ever expressed (publicly or privately) any degree of sympathy for the rural fascists of the Taliban. You know who you are (and so do we), you scum.

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D-Day: part of the anti-fascist struggle

June 6, 2014 at 7:01 pm (anti-fascism, Champagne Charlie, Europe, France, hell, history, imperialism, liberation, solidarity, war)

Ernest Mandel once proposed that World War Two should be seen as, simultaneously, an inter-imperialist dispute and an anti-fascist struggle. The two elements are difficult to disentangle, even in retrospect, but both should be recognised and, insofar as we can, distinguished between. D-Day was, I’d contend, indubitably part of the anti-fascist struggle. The young workers who fought and died then, and the dwindling band of elderly survivors, deserve our profound respect and gratitude.

Max Hastings (yes, I know he’s a Tory, but he’s also a damned good military historian), wrote in his superb book on WW2, All Hell Let Loose (Harper Press 2011):

Meticulous planning and immense armaments promised Overlord‘s success, but the hazards of weather and the skill of the German army fed apprehension in many British and American breasts. The consequences of failure must be appalling: civilian morale would plummet on both sides of the Atlantic; senior commanders would have to be sacked and replaced; the presige of the Western Allies, so long derided by Stalin for feebleness, would be grievously injured, likewise the authority of Roosevelt and Churchill. Even after three year’s attrition in the east, the German army remained a formidable fighting force. It was vital that Eisenhower should confront von Rundstedt’s sixty divisions in the west with superior combat power. Yet the invaders were supported by such a vast logistical and support ‘tail’ that, even when they reached their maximum strength in 1945, they would deploy only sixty American and twenty British and Canadian combat divisions. Air power, together with massive armoured and artillery strength, was called upon to compensate for inadequate infantry numbers.

[...]

For the young men who made the assault on 6 June 1944, however, such grand truths meant nothing: they recognised only the mortal peril each one must face, to breach Hitler’s Atlantic Wall. The invasion began with drops by one British and two  American airborne divisions on the night of5 June. The landings were chaotic but achieved their objectives, confusing the Germans and securing the flanks of the assault zone; paratroopers engaged enemy forces wherever they encountered them with an energy worthy of such elite formations.

Sgt. Mickey McCallum never forgot his first firefight, a few hours after landing. A German machine-gunner mortally wounded the man next to him, Private Bill Atlee. McCullum asked Attlee ‘if he was hit bad’. The soldier replied, ‘I’m dying Sergeant Mickey, but we’re going to win this damn war, aren’t we? You damn well A we are.’ McCallum did not know where Atlee hailed from, but thought his choice of words suggested an east coast man. He was passionately moved that this soldier, in his last moments, thought of the cause rather than himself. In the hours and days that followed, many other such young men displayed similar spirit and were obliged to make a matching sacrifice. At dawn on 6 June, six infantry divisions with supporting armour struck the beaches of Normandy across a thirty-mile front; one Canadian and two British formations landed on the left, three American divisions on the right.

Operation Overlord was the greatest combined operation in history. Some 5,300 ships carried 150,000 men and 1,500 tanks, scheduled to land in the first wave, supported by 12,000 aircraft. On the French coast that morning, a drama unfolded in three dimensions such as the world would never behold again, British and Canadian troops poured ashore at Sword, Juno and Gold beaches, exploiting innovative armoured technology to overwhelm the defences, many of them manned by Osttruppen of Hitler’s empire. ‘I was the first tank coming ashore and the Germans started opening up with machine-gun bullets,’ said Canadian Sgt. Leo Gariepy. ‘But when we came to a halt on the beach, it was only then that they realized we were a tank when we pulled down our canvas skirt, the flotation gear. Then they saw we were Shermans.’ Private Jim Cartwright of the South Lancashires said, ‘As soon as I hit the beach I wanted to get away from the water. I think I went across the beach like a hare.’

The Americans seized Utah, the elbow of the Cherbourg peninsula, with only a small loss. ‘You know, it sounds kind of dumb, but it was just like an exercise,’ said a private soldier wonderingly. ‘We waded ashore like kids in a crocodile and up the beach. A couple of shells came over but nowhere near us. I think I even felt somehow disappointed, a little let down.’ Further east at Omaha beach, however, Americans suffered the heaviest casualties of the day — more than eight hundred killed. The German defending unit , while no elite, was composed of better troops than those manning most of the Channel front, and kept up vigorous fire against the invaders. ‘No one was moving forward,’ wrote AP correspondent Don Whitehead. ‘Wounded men, drenched by cold water, lay in the gravel … “Oh God, lemme aboard the boat,” whimpered a youth in semi-delirium. Near him a shivering boy dug with bare fingers into the sand. Shells were bursting on all sides of us, some so close that they threw black water and dirt over us in showers.’

A private soldier wrote: ‘ There were men crying with fear, men defecating themselves. I lay there with some others, too petrified to move. No one was doing anything except lay there. It was like mass paralysis. I couldn’t see an officer. At one point something hit me on the arm. I thought I’d taken a bullet. It was somebody’s hand, taken clean off by something. It was too much.’ For half the morning, the Omaha assault hung on the edge of failure; only after several hours of apparent stalemate on the sands did small groups of determined men, Rangers notable among them, work their way up the bluffs above the sea, gradually overwhelming the defenders.

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Victory to the Afghan people!

April 5, 2014 at 10:53 am (Afghanistan, anti-fascism, democracy, elections, posted by JD)

Terry Glavin (at Faccebook) writes:

The polls have been open only for a few hours now but the verdict is in, barring some practically unimaginable eventuality: Afghanistan has won the election. The Afghan people are triumphant. Congratulations are owed to the resilient, courageous, long-suffering people of Afghanistan. Hambestagi!

‎روزنامه هشت صبح‎'s photo.
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…and below:

This image seems to be picking up speed all over Afghanistan. A message to the Taliban and to all the enemies of a sovereign and democratic Afghan republic. The universal gesture of defiance:

This image seems to be picking up speed all over Afghanistan. A message to the Taliban and to all the enemies of a sovereign and democratic Afghan republic. The universal gesture of defiance:
.
…and, finally (for now) this:
.
Photo: ‎این ملت دیگر اسیر نمی شود. چشم دشمنان کور!‎
 

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Noor Inayat Khan

March 25, 2014 at 2:22 pm (anti-fascism, good people, history, india, posted by JD, war)

Honouring an anti-fascist hero and woman of incredible courage:

Noorunissa Inayat Khan, 1st class.

Noor Inayat Khan: 1st class.

The Royal Mail has issued a postage stamp of Noorunissa (‘Noor’) Inayat Khan, World War II heroine, who fought fascism and died in the Dachau concentration camp.

The stamp — part of a set of ten in the ‘Remarkable Lives’ series — honours Noor on her centenary year. Others in the series include Alec Guinness and Dylan Thomas,

“I am delighted that Royal Mail has commemorated Noor with a stamp,” said Shrabani Basu, author of Spy Princess, the Life of Noor Inayat Khan, and Chair of the Noor Inayat Khan Memorial Trust: “it will ensure that her sacrifice will not be forgotten.”

Noor Inayat Khan was born in Moscow in January 1914 to an Indian father, Hazrat Inayat Khan and an American mother, Ora Ray Baker. The couple met in the Ramkrishna Mission ashram in America. Hazrat Inayat Khan was a Sufi preacher and musician who travelled the world promoting Sufism.

Noor was brought up in Paris and the family moved to London when France fell in 1940. Noor joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force and was later recruited to the Special Operations Executive, a secret organisation set up by Churchill for espionage purposes.

She was the first female radio operator to be flown undercover to Paris, where she worked for three months under the code name Madeleine. However, she was betrayed, arrested and finally executed in the Dachau concentration camp in Germany.

Though she was interrogated under torture, she revealed nothing — not even her real name. Her last word as she was shot was “Liberte!” She was 30.

(Adapted from an article by Parvathi Menon in The Hindu, March 24, 2014)

H/t: Alan Johnson and Iam Farruk, via Facebook.

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Peter Lorre – a real star

March 24, 2014 at 9:32 pm (anti-fascism, cinema, comedy, culture, film, Germany, Jim D, United States, wild man)

Sorry folks: I missed the 50th anniversary of Peter Lorre’s death (23rd March, 1964).

I feel a particular closeness to this great character-actor, because he was one of the film stars that my dad (like many people of his generation) did impersonations of (the others, in my Dad’s case, being Sydney Greenstreet, Humphrey Bogart, Edward G. Robinson, James Cagney and Walter Brennan):

Here’s Lorre in a typical role

Here’s his best ‘serious’ performance in Germany before he fled fascism for the US and ended up in Hollywood::

…and my personal favourite:

Finally: the ultimate accolade:

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At last! A voice from the Ukrainain left

March 7, 2014 at 9:03 pm (anti-fascism, democracy, Europe, Human rights, internationalism, posted by JD, solidarity, stalinism)

Author:   Volodymyr Ischenko

Ukrainian leftist Volodymyr Ishchenko has written a blast against Russia’s military intervention in his country and against the new government there.


I hate! On war in Ukraine

http://www.criticatac.ro/lefteast/i-hate-on-war-in-ukraine/

Writing from a critical position is not something to be widely appreciated in turmoil times. For some hysterical idiots I’ve succumbed to the fascists, for others–betrayed the Fatherland. Time is now precious and to be used efficiently. This is why I respond to all in a single post.

I hate the Euroidiots who started all this because of their little ticks and cultural chauvinism.

I hate the bastard who clung to power despite dozens of deaths and who now wants to return to the country on foreign tanks.

I hate the former opposition, who became today’s authorities, and who found nothing better than to “save the Ukrainian language” [by restricting Russian], populate the government with fascists, and promise unpopular social measures.

I hate Crimean authorities, who are so afraid for their places that they would happily serve as the doormat of an occupying administration.

I hate the tyrant in the Kremlin, who needs a little victorious war to strengthen the rouble and his own, almost unlimited power.

I hate all these “deeply concerned” EU and US bureaucrats, which introduce sanctions only when the government is all but toppled and give aid under conditions resembling daylight robbery.

I hate Ukrainian and Russian fascists, who cannot get used to the reality of a multicultural and multilingual country, and are ready to destroy it.

I hate those “liberals,” who were ready to cover for and never distanced themselves from the the fascists present on the Maidan to give a chance for truly all-Ukrainian democratic movement rather than pushing the country to a Civil War.

I hate myself and other leftists for spending most of our time in mutual recriminations rather than the building of a powerful political organization. Divided, we could influence little the Maidan or the anti-Maidan. Part of the blame lies with us.

But I am for the world peace. I send these flowers from Wallonia. Snowdrops against the background of green leaves from last year. I hope this is not the last time we see them. I just returned to my divided country and pray that all it will all end with a Second Crimean rather than Third World War. Because this war won’t grow into a world revolution (the chances for that are much less than 100 years ago) but in a nuclear holocaust.

Russian comrades, go to the central squares of your cities so that you could stop the intervention into Ukraine.

Ukrainian comrades, let’s think what we could do. It’s clear that signing up in the Right Sector [which has issued a call for mobilization] is not an option.

Ischenko also wrote in the Guardian on 28 February 2014: click here to read his article.

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The Dieudonnic Plague

January 31, 2014 at 2:07 pm (anti-fascism, anti-semitism, comedy, culture, fascism, France, Free Speech, Galloway, Rosie B, wankers)

David Rich has a very good, and very depressing article on Dieudonne and his kind:-

“Making common cause” between Holocaust deniers, neo-fascists, the pro-Palestinian left, and the revolutionary Islamists of Iran is precisely what Dieudonné has spent the past decade trying to achieve. Originally from the political left, he has moved via anti-Israel rhetoric and the fascist Front National (FN) to the establishment of his own Parti Anti Sioniste (PAS, or Anti-Zionist Party). Alongside him in the PAS is essayist and filmmaker Alain Soral, who underwent a similar journey from the Marxist left to the FN before finding a political home with Dieudonné.

There are not many political movements that can embrace the neo-fascist right, the anti-capitalist left, and Iranian revolutionary Islamism. Dieudonné is close to FN leaders—Jean Marie Le Pen is godfather to one of his children—while also attracting fans who consider themselves to be left-wing radicals. He was a guest in Tehran of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and received Iranian funding for a film project. Historically, movements that successfully pulled off this kind of balancing act have tended to rely on anti-Semitism as their glue, expressed through the lingua franca of conspiracist anti-Zionism, and PAS is no different.

Strikingly, for a party that calls itself anti-Zionist, PAS’s political program makes no direct mention of Israel or Palestine. This is parochial, patriotic anti-Zionism, in which Zionism is portrayed primarily as a subversive, corrupting presence in French society.

Radio 4’s The Report had the journalist Helen Grady interviewing Dieudonne’s friends and followers.  Sometimes they said “Zionist” where they obviously meant “Jewish” and sometimes they said, “I’m not antisemitic but Jews run everything”.  Also, Dieudonne gave them the thrill of saying, or just hinting at, the forbidden. – not just “you don’t say that” but “you can’t say that” because it’s illegal in a state with laws against Holocaust denial. This was interpreted as special treatment for Jews while other minorities are fair game.

I was sorry the reporter didn’t ask them to explain who these Zionists are and what are these utterances that are so dammed by the laws – not that I agree with Holocaust denial laws or anti free speech and expression laws in general. In fact I would like to know how much these laws exacerbate the sense of resentment that is one of the emotional bases of Fascism. Certainly breaking them, or hinting that you were, gave the audience a lovely outsider frisson.

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Anti-Zionist and Anti-Establishment

Some of these gagged folk came from immigrant communities – their parents from North Africa say – and they had good words to say of the Front National – at least they’re honest when the rest are hypocrites.

It was your worst gibbering blog thread taking flesh, with hideous whiffs of the 1930s, in all their bizarre irrationality.

Rich concludes with a warning for those who think It Can’t Happen Here:-

. .it would be complacent to assume that Dieudonné’s anti-establishment appeal, expressed through angry, transgressive satire and political stunts, could not find a British audience. The personal followings of Nigel Farage MEP and George Galloway MP demonstrate the appetite in the UK for charismatic, populist anti-politics. .. A Francophone comic with a taste for the surreal is likely to have trouble finding a mass audience in Britain; but his populist anti-politics, carrying a coded anti-Semitism and transmitted via social media, may have better luck in finding an audience..

The anti-establishment comedian who thinks all political institutions are a waste of time is Russell Brand, but to do him justice, he is nothing like as malevolent as Dieudonne, and I can’t see him doing Holocaust jokes or chumming up with David Irving.  I can’t see him getting in bed with UKIP either, which is the closest thing here to the Front National.  I don’t keep up with popular culture, and there may be obvious candidates for the Dieudonne role that I’ve missed.

Respect was a party that pulled in some of the political groups that are attracted to Dieudonne:- the pro-Palestinian Left and Islamists, and no doubt Holocaust deniers would pop up in such a crowd. Gilad Atzmon would be the obvious entertainer, but he’s not a man of any great charisma or the popular touch. However, it’s hard to think of the neo-Fascist right finding a home there, and Respect is now mostly a fantasy in Galloway’s head.

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Pete Seeger’s break with Stalinism

January 28, 2014 at 8:28 am (anti-fascism, civil rights, culture, good people, history, Jim D, music, protest, song, stalinism)

The death, reported today, of Pete Seeger, reminded me that he publicly broke with Stalinism back in 2007 (some say he’d privately broken with it some years previously).

I wrote the following at the time, in a deliberately provocative style intended to infuriate folkies. Nevertheless, I hope it’s suitably respectful towards a brave and principled man:

Pete Seeger changes his tune: finger removed from ear

I’ve never particularly liked folk music, with its whining three-chord “tunes”, its anachronistic and lachrymose lyrics and the sheer musical incompetence of most of its performers – including the famous ones like Bob Dylan.

Having said that, I have to admit that most of the folkies I’ve met over the years have been thoroughly decent people, often stalwarts of left-wing campaigns, strike-support activity and international solidarity. But for some unexplained reason, these admirable people almost invariably turn out to be Stalinists of one variety or another: what is it about the music or the “scene” that brings this about? Delightful, sandle-wearing,  hirsute do-gooders turn out to be apologists for some of the most monstrous regimes and genocidal crimes in human history!

Pete “If I Had a Hammer” Seeger always struck me as the spritual progenitor of the finger-in-the-ear school of folkie Stalinism (the finger being in the ear to prevent the truth about Uncle Joe’s crimes ever being heard): he was (and is) a very good and brave human being, so far as I can judge. Certainly, he had the courage to defy the House Committee on Un-American Activities, rather than betray his friends and comrades, and spent a year in jail as a result. On a less serious note, I’ve also always harboured a sneaking admiration for his legendary attempt to take an axe to Bob Dylan’s microphone cable at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. But still, this admirable figure remained an unremitting, unreconstructed Stalinist [*]…

…Until now. According to Nicholoas Wapshott in the New Statesman, the 88 year-old Seeger says he has “‘been thinking what Woody (Guthrie - JD) might have written had he been around” to see the end of the Soviet Union. In a letter responding to (a) complaint that he had repeatedly sung about the Nazi Holocaust but failed to acknowledge the millions killed in Stalin’s death camps, he (Seeger) wrote: “I think you’re right – I should have asked to see the gulags when I was in (the) USSR”.

So now Pete has written a new song, ‘The Big Joe Blues’, which goes: “I’m singing about old Joe, cruel Joe./He ruled with an iron hand./He put an end to the dreams/Of so manyin every land./He had a chance to make/A brand new start for the human race./Instead he set it back/Right in the same nasty place./I got the Big Joe Blues./(Keepyour mouth shut or you will die fast.)/I got the Big Joe Blues./(Do this job, no questions asked.)/I got the Big Joe Blues”.

According to Wapshott, Pete now acknowledges that, “if by some freak of history communism (I think he really means Stalinism – JD) had caught up with this country, I would have been one of the first people thrown in jail”. So the finger’s well and truly out of the ear. At long last.

Above: despite my prejudice against folk music, I think this is great! Pete with Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee in the mid-60s

* Addendum: BTL comments (below) would seem to confirm that my statement that PS remained “an unremitting, unreconstructed Stalinist” (until 2007) was incorrect. It would also seem to be the case (sadly) that the story of the axing of Dylan’s electric cable at Newport in 1965 is  apocryphal.

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US revolutionary cartoons revisited

January 17, 2014 at 9:34 pm (anti-fascism, Art and design, AWL, civil rights, class, From the archives, history, Marxism, posted by JD, Shachtman, trotskyism, United States, workers)

Between the 1930s and 1950s the revolutionary socialist (ie Trotskyist and, later, Shachtmanite) press in the USA made use of the wit and skill of talented cartoonists such as ‘Carlo’ (Jesse Cohen). In an Era of Wars and Revolutions, a new collection of their work, gives a snapshot history of the times: the rise of the mass industrial union movement in the USA, the great strike wave of 1945-6, the fight against ‘Jim Crow’ racism, World War Two, the imposition of Stalinism on Eastern Europe, and more.

Sean Matgamna (editor of In an Era of Wars and Revolutions) writes:

That “one picture can be worth a thousand words” is true, but only up to a point. A photograph or a painting cannot properly nail down, explain or explore ideas. A complicated piece of writing has no visual equivalent.

Yet a well-done cartoon is a powerful political weapon. A few bold strokes by an artist can convey an idea more vividly and fix it more firmly in the viewer’s mind than would an editorial or an article.

A cartoon is drawn to convey an idea, a point of view, an interpretation of what it depicts, and its meaning. Cartoons by their nature simplify, caricature, exaggerate, lampoon, and play with archetypal images.

A cartoon is highly subjective, yet it draws on commonly recognised symbols. The image, idea, interpretation fuse in the drawing. Drawn to convey an idea of people, things, institutions, classes, states, and of their inter-relationships, a cartoon distills the artist’s conception of what is essential in those people, events, entities, institutions, relationships.

The cartoonist is licensed to distort everyday reality so as to bring out a view, a “seeing”, analysis, critique, historical perspective of it. Its ciphers, emblems, archetypes vary to allow for the artist’s individual slant (like, in this collection, Carlo’s characteristic rendition of the top hat-fat archetypical bourgeois laughing at the gullibility or helplessness of workers).

All of a cartoon, all its details and references, are consciously or subconsciously chosen to convey a point of view, a nailed-down perception, a historical perspective. In old socialist cartoons the worker is always bigger and stronger than his enemies. He needs only to be awakened to an awareness of his strength.

It is almost always a “he”. The socialists who drew these cartoons were, themselves and their organisations, militant for women’s rights, but little of that is in their work.

One of the difficulties with old socialist cartoons for a modern viewer is that the stereotype-capitalist wears a top hat and is stout or very fat. In some early 20th century British labour movement cartoons he is named, simply, “Fat”. Fat now, in our health-conscious days, is seen as a characteristic of lumpenised workers and other “lower orders” people.

Much contemporary comedy is a hate-ridden depiction of the poor, the disadvantaged, the excluded, the badly educated, by physical type – fat and slobby. Where most of the old racial and national caricatures have been shamed and chased into the underbrush, no longer tolerable to decent people of average good will, the old social-Darwinian racism against the poor is rampant still, unashamed and not often denounced.

Even so, the old symbols, the fat capitalist and the big powerful worker, are still intelligible. They depict truths of our times as well as of their own. These cartoons still live.

They portray US politics, governments, the class struggle, the labour movement, America’s “Jim Crow” racism, Stalinism at its zenith, Roosevelt’s New Deal, Harry Truman’s “Fair Deal”, Senator Joe McCarthy, McCarthyism. They present clean and stark class-struggle socialist politics, counterposed to both capitalism and Stalinism.

A few are from the 1920s, but mainly they cover the quarter century after the victory of Hitler in Germany in 1933. and the definitive consolidation of Stalinism in the USSR.

Across the decades, they still carry the emotional hostility to the master class and solidarity with their victims that they were drawn to convey; the socialists’  abhorrence of the Stalinist atrocities that discredited and disgraced the name of socialism (they themselves were often among the targets); the desire, hope and drive for a re-made world — a socialist world. They blaze with anger and hatred against the horrors of America’s all-contaminating Jim Crow racism.

These cartoons were of their time, and what their time and earlier times led socialists to expect of the future. They were often mistaken. Government repression during World War Two was less fierce than the severe persecution of socialists and militant trade unionists in World War One and afterwards, led them to expect.

In the later 1940s, like most observers, they saw World War Three looming. In fact, the world settled into a prolonged “balance of terror” after Russia developed an atom bomb in 1949 and the USA and Russia fought a proxy war on Korean soil which ended in stalemate. The economic collapse which the experience of the 1930s led them to expect did not come (though in fact the long capitalist upswing took off only with the Korean war boom of 1950-3). Plutocratic democracy in the USA, during the war and after it, proved far less frail than the Marxists feared it would.

Over many years I have collected photocopies of these cartoons, buried as they were in files of old publications for six, seven or eight decades. I think others will be moved by them too.

What Peadar Kearney wrote fifty years after their time of the Fenians, the left-wing Irish Republicans of the 1860s and 70s, speaks to the socialists of the era covered by this book as well:

“Some fell by the wayside

Some died ‘mid the stranger,

And wise men have told us

That their cause was a failure;

But they stood by old Ireland

And never feared danger.

Glory O, glory O,

To the bold Fenian men!”

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