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.
Registering for Aliya, Baghdad, 1950 Landing in Israel
Sami Ramadani is a periodic contributor to the Guardian, always billed as “a political refugee from Sadam Hussain’s regime.” In fact, that billing doesn’t really do him justice: during the Iraq war he was a supporter of the murderous, anti-working class Iraqi “resistance” and is a demagogue, much loved by the so-called ‘Stop The War Coalition’, who routinely blames the “West” and “Zionists” for all the ills of Iraq in particular, and the Middle East in general.
Shiraz has commented on his politics in the past.
In his latest Guardian piece, arguing that prior to the 2003 occupation, there was no “significant communal fighting between Iraq’s religions, sects, ethnicities or nationalities”, Ramadani mentions two incidents that would seem to contradict his thesis:
“[T]he only incident was the 1941 violent looting of Jewish neighbourhoods – still shrouded in mystery as to who planned it. The bombing of synagogues in Baghdad in 1950-51 turned out to be the work of Zionists to frighten Iraq’s Jews – one of the oldest Jewish communities in the world – into emigrating to Israel.”
I’ll leave aside the 1941 looting for now (though, whether by accident or design, it’s worth noting that Ramadani’s choice of words would lead the uniformed reader to assume that it, too, was probably the work of “Zionists”).
What I want to discuss here, is Ramadani’s bald statement that the 1950-51 bombings “turned out to be the work of Zionists”, as though that is an established, incontrovertible fact. Far from it: the matter is hotly disputed to this day, as a visit to Wikipedia will confirm. I want to make it clear that I am not ruling out the possibility that the bombings (or, perhaps, just some of them) were the work of Zionists, either operating on a free-lance basis or under orders from the Israeli leadership. But that thesis is far from being the established fact that Ramadani makes it out to be, as a glance at Wikipedia will confirm.
It is generally acknowledged that the two best accounts of the bombings, arguing diametrically opposed positions, are by Abbas Shiblack, in his 1989 book The Lure of Zion: The Case of the Iraqi Jews (later slightly revised and republished as The Iraq Jews: A History of Mss Exodus), who argues that Zionists were responsible, and Moshe Gat’s The Jewish Exodus from Iraq, 1948-1951 which presents the case for Arab nationalist responsibility. They also disagree on the question of how important the bombings were in causing the exodus of Jews from Iraq.
The two accounts were analysed and weighed up against each other in a review of Shiblack’s book by Rayyan Al-Shawat, writing in the Winter 2006 edition of Democratiya magazine:
The other significant study of this subject is Moshe Gat’s The Jewish Exodus from Iraq, 1948-1951, which was published in 1997. A shorter encapsulation
of Gat’s argument can be found in his 2000 Israel Affairs article ‘Between Terror and Emigration: The Case of Iraqi Jewry.’ Because of the diametrically opposed conclusions arrived at by the authors, it is useful to compare and contrast their accounts. In fact, Gat explicitly refuted many of Shiblak’s assertions as early as 1987, in his Immigrants and Minorities review of Shiblak’s The Lure of Zion. It is unclear why Shiblak has very conspicuously chosen to ignore Gat’s criticisms and his pointing out of errors in the initial version of the book. The republication of Shiblak’s book 19 years after its first printing afforded him the opportunity to enact revisions, but where modifications were made they are minor, and almost no corrections are to be found. This article will highlight the major differences…
Al-Shawat’s admirably objective and even-handed article concludes as follows:
It is likely that we will never know for sure who the perpetrators of the attacks were.
As for the final word on the effect of the bombs, it is distressing to note that neither
Shiblak nor Gat saw fit to conduct a survey among surviving Iraqi Jewish emigrants
in order to ascertain, in the emigrants’ own words, their reasons for leaving Iraq.
This would have been of inestimable value in determining whether or not the
bombings were in fact the main reason for the exodus. Without evidence, Iraqi
Jews are not necessarily more qualified than anyone else to opine as to the identity
of the terrorists responsible for the bombs. Yet who could be more qualified than Iraqi Jews to explain which factors impelled them to leave Iraq for Israel?!
There is much anecdotal evidence to support the contention that the bombings – whoever
perpetrated them – were the decisive factor behind Iraqi Jews’ emigration. Personal
testimonies to this effect abound. Yet, inexcusably, there has apparently been no
organised effort to collate such testimonies within the framework of a scientific
survey. Though Shiblak cannot prove that Zionist emissaries from Israel were responsible for the bombings, he succeeds in demonstrating that these bombings were a major factor in the flight of Iraqi Jewry. Had Shiblak included a scientifically conducted survey of explanations provided by Iraqi Jews as to why they left, results might have proved that the bombings were the overriding reason – and not simply a major factor behind the exodus.
That seems to me to be a fair and balanced conclusion – ie: we simply don’t know who was responsible. But for the likes of Ramdani that’s not good enough: the Zionists must be to blame for bombing the synagogues – just as they’re to blame for so much else…
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.
Above: Bambury talking nationalist shite
The following appeared in The Scotsman:
Book review: A People’s History of Scotland by Chris Bambury (Verso £12.99)
Reviewed by Roger Hutchinson
IF YOU think Scotland has always been left-wing, wake up to the complexities of the past.
A significant element of the Left will vote Yes in September because it believes that, without the hindrance of English Tory votes, a socialist republic will be established in an independent Scotland.
Chris Bambery’s book supports that view. He is a veteran of virtually every Trotskyist body in the UK, from the International Marxist Group to the Socialist Workers Party and now the small splinter International Socialist Group. The word “international” is something of a puzzle, as the Scottish International Socialist Group is nationalist. The “Scottish Workers’ Republic,” he writes, is “a dream we hold in our hearts and minds.”
Do not, then, approach this book expecting to read more of the pussy-footing academic social history which Scotland already has in abundance. Bambery sets out to prove that all of Scotland’s past has led us, with Marxist inevitability, to the day when the red flag will flutter over Holyrood.
A full people’s history must begin with our most distant ancestors. Bambery skips through the post-Ice Age settlers of 11,000 years ago but, the Neolithics not being strong on Gramsci, moves quickly on to the Middle Ages. Although we are promised “a corrective to the usual history of kings and queens, victorious battles and bloody defeats,” when it meets the agenda, as in the Scottish wars of independence, the civil war and the Jacobite risings, this book positively bubbles with kings and queens and gory battles.
Twenty-three pages into his book, Bambery recommends the Holywood movie Braveheart as giving “a good account of [William] Wallace’s life.” That statement should disillusion even the sympathetic reader. The day we defer to Mel Gibson’s version of our past is the day Scottish history dissolves into fantasy.
It is a shame, because there is much of interest here. There is a predictable account of the events leading up to the Treaty of Union in 1707, which was not of course a democratic decision as democracy didn’t exist then. But the plausible analysis that Scottish negotiators – who were representing a bankrupt country – drove a hard bargain through the treaty and that Scotland consequently benefited more from the Union than did England, merits not so much as a nod.
The Enlightenment and the Jacobite risings pose a problem to left-wing nationalists. Bambery flunks the first and passes the second. The Enlightenment flourished in Scotland immediately after the Union. It may have done so anyway – David Hume and Adam Smith would still have been born and educated in an independent Scotland. It is nonetheless difficult to ignore the possibility that the Lowland Enlightenment was kick-started by a fresh and invigorating free association with like minds from the rest of Britain.
No more, if he is writing a people’s history, can a responsible historian avoid the unsavoury connection between the Enlightenment and what Chris Bambery calls “the darkest chapter in Scottish history”, the Highland Clearances. The clearances were a straightforward response from Scottish landowners to Lowland Enlightenment theories of improvement and scorn for tribal responsibilities.
The bulk of this book deals with labour unrest since the 19th century. The growth of trade unionism and the discovery of a political voice in the industrial proletariat is powerful and stirring material. In telling the stories of the ordinary footsoldiers in the Radical War of 1820, of the cotton spinners’ strike of 1837 and of the miners’ struggles from 1840 to 1984, in describing the lives of such as Mary Brooksbank and James Connolly, Bambery offers a Scottish version of EP Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class.
It is almost a parallel history for, as Bambery says, there was solidarity between workers north and south of the Tweed. The oppressive forces facing cotton weavers in Glasgow were identical to those confronting their equivalents in Lancashire. Coalminers in Fife and Durham had shared conditions, shared aspirations and in some cases the same employers. None of them had much in common with the land wars of the Highland Gaels.
Bambery argues that the desire for separation was a natural reaction to Thatcherism. This isn’t an original thesis, but it carries some water. Scotland’s Tories might not have disappeared, but most of them no longer vote Conservative.
He acknowledges, however vaguely, that his thesis has a counterpoint. It is that in 1979 Margaret Thatcher became prime minister of a Scotland which had, just 20 years earlier, been a Conservative country.
In three consecutive general elections between 1951 and 1959 most of the north of England and Wales and much of London was vainly attempting to re-elect the Labour government which had. a few years earlier, delivered the welfare state and the NHS.
In the same three elections Scots, in unison with the Home Counties of England, gave more votes to the Tories than to any other party and ensured the premierships of Churchill, Eden and Macmillan – and the continuing presence of Margaret Thatcher as a young MP in the governing party.
Presumably because it throws a nasty curve ball at his theory of Scotland as an intrinsically left-wing society on a millennial march to a workers’ republic, Bambery summarises the Scottish politics of this decade as “incredible”. That is not good enough. Other historians accustomed to exploring and analysing such patterns might wonder, who cannot credit it, and why?
History falls neatly into nobody’s political agenda. Nor, most of the time, does the future.
H/t: Dale Street (who comments: “‘A People’s History of Scotland’ appears to be on a par with a book Bambury once wrote about Ireland, which was so badly written and edited that it was impossible to distinguish the factual inaccuracies from the typing mistakes.”)
By Harry Glass (at Workers Liberty)
On 4 June 1989 the Chinese Communist Party savagely repressed the Tiananmen Square democracy movement that had grown to threaten its rule over the previous three months. The student-based protest had occupied Tiananmen Square at the heart of Beijing.
The Tiananmen movement has been remembered in 2004 as an overwhelmingly student-based protest movement, well summed up by the iconic image of students defying the tanks of the Chinese army.
But, though students took the lead in establishing the encampment in the square, it was ultimately the intervention of the working class that was of lasting significance.
At the beginning of the protests in May 1989, students did not generally seek working class support, confining the workers’ headquarters to the far side of the square until the end of the month.
But as the students were pulled towards the internal machinations of the ruling party, backing the “reformist” faction within the bureaucracy, the workers struck out on the road to independence.
One of the first signs came on 15 May, when 70,000 steelworkers at the Capital steel plant struck in solidarity with the Beijing democracy movement.
In fact, 1989 marked the rebirth of the working class as a powerful force in Chinese politics.
The Beijing Workers Autonomous Federation began organising on 17 April, before coming out publicly on 18 May.
Workers’ federations spread across many major cities, and incorporated steel workers, builders, bus drivers, machinists, railway workers and office staff.
A small core of around 150 activists managed to register 20,000 workers in those five weeks, including workers in state-run factories such as Shougang (Capital Iron and Steel) and Yanshan Petrochemicals.
They denounced the Communist regime as “this twentieth century Bastille, the last stronghold of Stalinism”.
After the declaration of martial law and the bloody massacre, the student movement went into decline. But the workers’ movement gained in strength and expanded far beyond the confines of Tiananmen Square.
Workers’ Autonomous Federations were established in Changsha and Yueyang in Hunan province, in Shanghai, Chengdu, Hangzhou and Guangzhou in the south.
The number of strikes and the dip in production figures measure the extent of workers’ involvement. Whilst the regime claimed that workers remained aloof, the workers’ organisations suffered the fiercest attacks in the press, and workers faced the severest repression in the crackdown.
Internal documents from the state-run “union” ACFTU admit that the Tiananmen protests were about working class political independence.
And 1989 was not the end of workers’ organisation and struggle.
In 1991 Liu Jingsheng and others set up the Free Labour Union of China. It was suppressed in 1992 and its founding members are still imprisoned.
In 1991 the Ministry of State Security investigated 14 underground workers’ organisations, with between 20 and 300 members, two modelled explicitly on Solidarnosc.
In 1994 Li Wenming and Guo Baosheng were detained for trying to establish an independent union and publishing “Workers’ Forum”.
In the same year Liu Nianchun helped found the “League for the Protection of the Rights of Working People” for which he was sentenced to three years re-education-through-labour after two years of “home surveillance”.
In 1998 Hunan worker Zhang Shanguang applied to the local government for permission to register a laid-off workers’ organisation, the “Association for the Protection of the Rights of Laid-Off Workers”, and was sentenced to 10 years.
In 1999 Yue Tianxiang and Guo Xinmin established the “China Workers’ Monitor” in Gansu province, for which they were sentenced to 10 and two years.
In the same year in Henan province, Xue Jifeng was arrested for organising an independent union. The government put Xue into a psychiatric hospital.
The number of disputes skyrocketed between 1992 and 1999. Official statistics showed 14 times more labour disputes by 1999 compared with 1992, from simple contractual disagreements to work stoppages and strikes.
Collective disputes also increased rapidly, involving 250,000 workers in 1998. Besides unrest over wages, disputes involved unpaid pensions to laid-off employees, poor working conditions and the fraudulent sell-off of state enterprises.
A new wave of the independent labour movement began in 2002. Read the rest of this entry »
Shiraz Socialist is not in a position to express any opinion on the alleged involvement of Gerry Adams in the 1972 murder by the Provisional IRA of Jean McConville. Adams denies any involvement. Certainly, the timing of his arrest raises the possibility that it was politically motivated. However, this 2002 article by Sean Matgamna casts a useful light on Adams’ relationship with the Provos and the “physical-force” tradition within Irish republicanism:
I once knew a man who was shot by a Provisional IRA gang which included Adams
“Ireland occupies a position among the nations of the earth unique in… the possession of what is known as a ‘physical force party’ – a party, that is to say, whose members are united upon no one point, and agree upon no single principle, except upon the use of physical force as the sole means of settling the dispute between the people of this country and the governing power of Great Britain…
“[They] exalt into a principle that which the revolutionists of other countries have looked upon as a weapon… Socialists believe that the question of force is of very minor importance; the really important question is of the principles upon which is based the movement that may or may not need the use of force to realise its object…”
James Connolly, 22 July 1899
Seeing pictures of Gerry Adams grinning his Cheshire-cat-who-has-eaten-six-mice grin in triumph at SF/PIRA’s latest success reminded me that I once knew a man who was shot by a Provisional IRA gang which included Adams.
His name was John Magennis. Who was he? A British soldier? A member of the Royal Ulster Constabulary? A member of an Orange paramilitary group? One of the Northern Ireland workers shot by the Provisional IRA in the early 1990s for doing repair work on RUC stations?
No, John Magennis was a Republican. He belonged to the then mainstream Republican movement from which the Provisionals split away in December 1969. Those who remained were thereafter called the “Officials”. They seemed to be the left wing of the Republican movement. They talked about class and about socialism. But in fact their leaders were Stalinists.
The Provisionals were traditionalist Catholic right wing Republicans. They recoiled from the Officials for a number of reasons – their leftism, their Stalinism, their feebleness in responding to the communal fighting in Northern Ireland in August 1969, but, most of all, their turn to politics in general. The split was triggered by the decision of the IRA leaders that Sinn Fein would henceforth take any Dail seats which they might win in an election.
The split led to conflict between the two Republican groups over control of weapons and to a shooting war in which people on both sides died.
John Magennis, a member of the Official IRA, refused to surrender his gun to the gang of Provisional IRA men. They shot him, leaving him paralysed. He survived in that condition for some years and then died.
I met John Magennis only once or twice, about the time the IRA split was taking place. John Magennis was not yet an IRA member. He had come to Manchester to visit his uncle, John-John, a one-time Belfast Republican and later a prominent trade union militant on the Manchester docks, where he worked closely with a small group of Trotskyists, of whom I was one.
A big debate on Ireland had been going on in the IS group (now SWP), at that stage a democratic organisation in which such issues could be debated and of which we were members, since the deployment of British troops on the streets of Northern Ireland in August 1969, when serious sectarian fighting broke out in Derry and Belfast. Were we for or against British troops in Northern Ireland?
The discussion was very heated. Those of us who rejected the IS majority’s tacit support to the British state in Northern Ireland were denounced as bloodthirsty “fascists” at the September 1969 IS conference.
John Magennis came with one of his uncles to one of the debates in Manchester. He said he couldn’t see any acceptable alternative to “troops in”.
I remember something he said which later took on a special meaning. He expressed it in the jargon of Catholic nationalism, which idealises patriotic self-sacrifice “for Ireland”, the so-called “blood sacrifice”: “I don’t want to die for Ireland”.
Back in Belfast, he joined the “left-wing” Republicans. I heard he had been shot and paralysed, and later that he had died. It was many years before I saw him again – on TV on a home video, filmed in a nursing home, trying to learn to walk again – staggering painfully, spastically, a poor wreck of the vigorous young man he had been.
Guest post by Roger McCarthy
BBC Scotland has produced a programme on Helen Crawfurd which I highly recommend for as long as it is available on iplayer (2 PM on 29th April).
Born in Glasgow in 1877 Helen had a respectable Victorian lower middle class upbringing with staunchly Tory parents, initially dreamed of becoming a missionary and married at 21 a Presbyterian minister who was old enough to be her grandfather.
However (at least as she recalls it from her autobiography written around 1950) her Christianity always had a radical and socialist bent which led her into the women’s suffrage movement – and inspired by her husband’s preaching of the text where Jesus chases the moneychangers from the temple the Sunday before a big suffragette ‘raid’ she gravitated into its most radical direct action wing.
This led the respectable minister’s wife into multiple stints in prison for throwing rocks through the Liberal education minister’s window and that of an army recruiting office, for setting off a small bomb at the Botanic Gardens and ‘inflammatory language’ and went on hunger strike three times.
After the death of her husband and the outbreak of WW1 in 1914 she was appalled by the transformation of most of her radical suffragette comrades into white feather waving militarists and threw herself into Red Clydeside’s anti-war movement – joining the Glasgow women’s rent strike campaign in 1915, confronting her former idol Christabelle Pankhurst at a recruiting rally and becoming an increasingly prominent and militant member of the Scottish ILP, the Women’s International League and the Women’s Peace Crusade winning a reputation as one of Red Clydeside’s fieriest orators.
She also acted at some point (probably in the summer or latter part of 1915) as a courier between James Connolly and his old SLP comrades in Glasgow who around this time had taken over the printing of The Workers Republic and met Connolly himself and other Republicans in Dublin.
The October Revolution threw her further to the left as the Bolshevik publication of the imperialist secret treaties removed whatever lingering illusions she may still have had about liberal democracies and she was increasingly involved with the internationalist left-wing of the ILP arguing for joining the new Communist International.
And this led this 43-year old Scottish minister’s widow to make the difficult and dangerous pilgrimage to Russia itself in summer 1920, travelling via fishing boat, cargo ship and the Arctic port of Murmansk, meeting up with John Reed in Petrograd who gave her a tour of the revolutionary sights and finally in late August (her autobiography’s chronology is frustratingly vague) arriving in Moscow – a few days too late for the Second Congress of the Comintern itself.
Here her 1950 autobiography is probably less than fully frank as while she met Lenin (which seems to have been a standard feature of a Moscow tour at this point) and Alexandra Kollontai she has nothing to say about any meetings with Zinoviev or Radek or any of the other senior Comintern functionaries who were to become unpersons in the 1930s, but who were hardly likely to have ignored a prominent figure in the ILP who they needed to press for either its accession to the Comintern or the biggest possible split over the issue at its next conference.
She does however have a lot to say about John Reed who she met again in Moscow on his return from the Baku Congress in mid-September and accompanied him and Louise Bryant to the Bolshoi theatre, a night which 30 years later inspired one of the few lyrical passages in her autobiography:
The great Bolshoi Theatre was opened as the autumn days approached and John Reed got tickets for us to attend several performances of opera and ballet… One evening I was seated in a small box near to the great centre box … which had originally been the Czar’s . In the box on my left was an American millionaire named Vanderlip whom John Reed told me had been visiting to see if he could get a concession in Kamchatka for something or other. -
On that evening the Czar’s box was occupied by a delegation of peasants who had come from some of the distant villages for some conference. An old peasant was seated in the centre chair – the Czar’s chair – and around him were the middle aged and young peasant men and women with bright kerchiefs on their heads. I looked at the old peasant with his greying beard and saw the expression of wonder on his face as he gazed at the magnificence and beauty of the scene being enacted on the stage. Then I turned to watch the millionaire in the small box on my left and the words of Mary in the Magnificat came to my mind ‘He hath put down the mighty from their seat and hast exalted those of low degree. Thou hast filled the hungry with good things and the rich thou hast sent empty away’. The old Russian eagle had been removed from the shield on the front of the Czar’s box and the hammer and sickle had taken its place. The men and women who were out in the fields producing the food of Russia were honoured while the American millionaire who wanted to exploit the resources of Russia got a third rate seat. l was on top of the world.
From the United Mine Workers of America website:
The date April 20, 1914 will forever be a day of infamy for American workers. On that day, 19 innocent men, women and children were killed in the Ludlow Massacre. The coal miners in Colorado and other western states had been trying to join the UMWA for many years. They were bitterly opposed by the coal operators, led by the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company.
Upon striking, the miners and their families had been evicted from their company-owned houses and had set up a tent colony on public property. The massacre occurred in a carefully planned attack on the tent colony by Colorado militiamen, coal company guards, and thugs hired as private detectives and strike breakers. They shot and burned to death 18 striking miners and their families and one company man. Four women and 11 small children died holding each other under burning tents. Later investigations revealed that kerosine had intentionally been poured on the tents to set them ablaze. The miners had dug foxholes in the tents so the women and children could avoid the bullets that randomly were shot through the tent colony by company thugs. The women and children were found huddled together at the bottoms of their tents.
The Baldwin Felts Detective Agency had been brought in to suppress the Colorado miners. They brought with them an armored car mounted with a machine gun—the Death Special— that roamed the area spraying bullets. The day of the massacre, the miners were celebrating Greek Easter. At 10:00 AM the militia ringed the camp and began firing into the tents upon a signal from the commander, Lt. Karl E. Lindenfelter. Not one of the perpetrators of the slaughter were ever punished, but scores of miners and their leaders were arrested and black-balled from the coal industry.
A monument erected by the UMWA stands today in Ludlow, Colorado in remembrance of the brave and innocent souls who died for freedom and human dignity.
In December, 2008, the U.S. Department of the Interior designated the Ludlow site as a National Historic Landmark. “This is the culmination of years of work by UMWA members, retirees and staff, as well as many hundreds of ordinary citizens who have fought to preserve the memory of this brutal attack on workers and their families,” UMWA International President Cecil E. Roberts said.
“The tragic lessons from Ludlow still echo throughout our nation, and they must never be forgotten by Americans who truly care about workplace fairness and equality,” Roberts said. “With this designation, the story of what happened at Ludlow will remain part of our nation’s history. That is as it should be.”
JD adds: it is thought that up to 200 people were killed in the course of the Colorado miners’ strike. In response to the massacre the UMWA urged members to acquire arms and fight back, which they did, resulting in a guerrilla war that only ended after ten days when Washington sent in Federal troops to disarm both sides.
Historian Howard Zinn described the massacre as “the culminating act of perhaps the most violent struggle between corporate power and labouring men in American history.”
Eventually, the UMWA ran out of money and the strike was called off in December 1914. The union failed to obtain its central demand – recognition – but the strike did have a lasting effect on industrial relations nationally: the Commission on Industrial Relations under Frank Walsh, was established as a direct result, and provided support for bills establishing a national eight-hour day and a ban on child labour. So the strikers and their wives and children, gunned down and burned to death in their tents, did not die in vain. On this hundredth anniversary, we salute them.