With the rise of “anti-establishment”/”anti-politics” movements across Europe* (including UKIP in the UK and Grillo’s Five Star Movement in Italy), it’s probably a good idea to have a look at an earlier manifestation of this kind of populism: Pierre Poujade’s movement in 1950′s France. Note that as in the present case of Grillo, sections of the left were foolish enough to regard Poujardism as somehow progressive. These movements are, by their very nature, heterodox, incoherent and ideologically eclectic. But they are invariably economically protectionist, politically isolationist and racist to at least some degree. And whilst some workers may get involved, their core support is bourgeois and petty bourgeois. In Britain, the most prominent mainstream commentator to have come out in support of these movements is the Tory isolationist (often quoted with approval by the Stop The War Coalition) Simon Jenkins.
* The US Tea Party movement has many similarities, but is of course part of a mainstream bourgeois party.
The case-history of Poujadism
By Colin Foster
Among the most vigorous of populist movements in advanced capitalist countries since 1945 was the Poujadist movement, which flourished in France between 1954 and 1958. In January 1956, it won 53 seats, and 12% of the vote, in France’s parliamentary elections.
Pierre Poujade, the movement’s leader, is still alive and alert [he died on 27 August 2003 - JD] and hailed the hauliers’ fuel-tax movement this year as a vindication of his ideas. But Poujadism in its later years was fascist-coloured. Its best-known relict, Jean-Marie Le Pen, is today the leader of France’s fascist National Front. Since the hauliers’ and farmers’ fuel-tax movement was not fascist, that seems to rule out any relevance of Poujadist history to the fuel-tax movement, or to anything contemporary except fascism or near-fascism.
The story, however, is more complex. In its first years, until late 1955, the Poujadist movement ‘avoided any openly anti-worker or anti-communist attacks. It limited itself essentially to anti-capitalist demagogy’1. It was energetically supported by the Communist Party, and might never have succeeded in becoming a national movement without that CP support.
France has long had an exceptionally large class of small shopkeepers, self-employed craft workers, and small farmers. By 1956 it had nearly a million small shops – over twice the number in 1936 – and 61% of them had no hired labour. From 1954 the small shops went into decline. The end of rapid inflation and black markets, the rise of supermarkets, the beginnings of mass car ownership, and a tighter tax system all hit them.
Pierre Poujade ran a small stationery shop in the village of St-Cere, in Lot, south-west France. His father had been an architect and a member of the old fascist movement Action Franaise, but died when Pierre Poujade was eight, leaving the family to be brought up in poverty. Pierre Poujade became an apprentice typesetter, a vineyard worker, a tar-sprayer and a docker before finally buying his little shop. In the 1930s he had joined the youth group of the Doriot movement – set up by a Communist Party leader who defected to form a breakaway group, at first leftist and then fascist – but he fought in the Resistance. One of his themes, later, would be that the Resistance had liberated France in 1945; now his movement would liberate the French people.
In 1952 Poujade was elected to the St-Cere town council on the ticket of the RPF, the movement set up in 1947 by General De Gaulle as a vehicle to return him to power. But in May 1953 De Gaulle, deciding that the time had not yet come, effectively dissolved the RPF. That created a political gap which the Poujadists would fill. De Gaulle’s return to power, in the coup of May 1958, would finish them off as an effective movement.
In July 1953, another member of the St-Cere town council, Fregeac, a Communist, warned Poujade that tax inspectors were arriving in the village the next day. Poujade and Fregeac called an emergency meeting of shopkeepers at the town hall, and organised enough resistance to drive the tax-inspectors out of town.
Poujade decided to build a movement. This was long before the Internet or mobile phones. Poujade had contacts outside St-Cere from a previous job as a travelling salesman, and set out in his van to visit them. As the movement developed, he came to rely heavily on ‘an admirably well-chosen category of tradespeople: hauliers and truck-drivers’, to act as travelling missionaries for his movement2.
Poujade deliberately limited himself to demands for lighter taxes and claimed to speak for all ordinary people – irrespective of class or political identity – against a tiny handful of swindlers in big business and big government. even in posters for the 1956 election, by which time the Poujadist movement had become much more clearly right-wing, that was the main message.
‘If you are against being strangled by taxes, against the exploitation of man by man – arise! Against the monopolies, owing allegiance to no nation, who ruin you and reduce you to subjection. Against the electoral monopolies, who cheat with your votes. Against the gang of exploiters who live from your labour and your savings… Rebel! Like you, we want justice. Fiscal justice for the taxpayers; social justice for the workers’.
Small shopkeepers and small business owners responded. The movement was boosted by a series of acts of resistance to tax inspectors and bailiffs like St-Cere’s.
In this period ‘Poujade not only received but also accepted the support of the Communists’ because in many areas they were ‘the only people able to offer him cadres’3 and the best people to offer him press publicity. Often Communist Party members took leading local positions in Poujade’s movement, the UDCA (Union for the Defence of Traders and Craft Workers; it would later be renamed UFF, French Unity and Fraternity). In his speeches Poujade celebrated his first alliance with Fregeac as the model for how his movement could represent tradespeople across all political lines. The Communist Party saw a success for their strategy of ‘popular front’ or ‘anti-monopoly alliance’. On the occasion of Poujade’s first mass meeting in Paris, in July 1954, the Communist paper L’Humanite praised the town councillors of St-Cere for uniting across political lines to raise ‘the banner of the struggle against fiscal injustice’. ‘Today there are tens and tens of thousands, who do not question each others’ opinions but who unite regardless of other issues to act as those of St-Cere did. Quite naturally, the ‘movement of St-Cere’ has snowballed everywhere…’
The CP found its alliance with the UDCA useful in factional battle against the Socialist Party, which opposed the Poujadists; and hoped that by adroit ‘entry work’ it could make the Poujadist movement an annexe to its own. However, the CP soon found that the Poujadist nest was one where no working-class cuckoo could prosper. Its petty bourgeois class base was too strong a shaping factor.
The Communist Party finally came out against Poujade in October 1955. Soon they were denouncing him as ‘Poujadolf’.
Meanwhile Poujade built his movement with a hectic series of public meetings and a campaign of harassment of members of Parliament. When Pierre Mendes-France, prime minister from June 1954 to January 1956, tried to contribute to the fight against alcoholism by making a public point of choosing milk as a drink, Poujade went wild against him for insulting France’s wine and champagne. Poujade’s campaign against Mendes-France, who was Jewish, had anti-semitic overtones. Algeria’s war for independence from France started in November 1954, and as it escalated, keeping Algeria and the French empire in general became a bigger and bigger theme for the Poujadists. They squared it with their ‘non-political’ stance by claiming ‘a sort of equivalence between the humiliation of shopkeepers threatened with proletarianisation, and that of the nation, reduced to the rank of a fourth or fifth rate power’4.
In June 1955 Poujade sought higher ground by adding to his movement’s limited programme of tax reform the call for an estates-General, explicitly modelled on the representative body convened by the King in 1789 which started the French Revolution. Meetings in each district should compile the people’s demands and mandate their delegates to the estates-General, which would replace the rotten parliamentarians and ensure a ‘return to the basic principles of the Republic, to the people’. Nothing much came of the meetings, but the agitation was enough to gain the Poujadists their 53 seats in the January 1956 election.
It also helped Poujade keep his politics vague and catch-all. The programme was to be defined by the future estates-General, not by him. In this period, however, Poujadism became more fascistic in its attitude to the trade unions.
Up to late 1955, Poujade had claimed to be friendly to the trade unions. Now he proposed to replace them by a Workers’ Union tied to his movement. ‘For us it is a question of breaking down the political compartmentalisations of trade-unionism by means of the Union [his Union] and thus realising the unity of the workers on the national level… Our Unions are not a trade-union, their aim is to absorb all the trade unions into themselves… If the union headquarters can not fuse with us, well, we will bypass them… We will leave those who have not accepted our course to perish, because they will no longer represent anything’.5
The Poujadists made a point, in the same period, of actively supporting some workers’ strikes – organising shopkeepers’ strikes in solidarity, or giving material aid – but with the aim of tying workers in to a movement led by the petty bourgeoisie. For them, the petty bourgeoisie were the authentic leaders of the people. Positioned centrally at the ‘crossroads’ of all classes, they were also ‘the last possessors of a particle of liberty, and they will take advantage of it to extend it to all’. ‘Worker of France!’, they appealed, ‘now that this magnificent struggle is joined, of the small people against the predators, do not forget that our interest is yours’. Because, ‘what is your ideal? To have your own little business, your very own. The workshop, the small industry: that is how workers can get on’.6
The evolution of Poujadism, despite all the efforts of the Communist Party to annex it to the labour movement, shows that it is a snare for workers to think that supporting the sectional movements of small capital can bring us socialist advance by a short-cut. As the French Trotskyists commented, looking back in 1961: ‘One of the greatest faults of… the Communist Party’s policy towards the small tradespeople and peasants was to conduct themselves as… pseudo-defenders of the small business and the little landholding. It was necessary, in the best Marxist tradition, to explain to those social layers that under the capitalist regime they are odiously expropriated by big capital, the banks and the monopolies, that social progress does not permit the conservation of these outdated forms, and that workers’ power would assure them a transition without coercion towards socialism’7.
1. Les Bandes Armees du Pouvoir 1 (Ligue Communiste pamphlet), p.22
2. Stanley Hoffman, Le Mouvement Poujade, p.31
3. Hoffman, p.28.
4. Hoffman, p.99
5. Hoffman, p.101
6. Hoffman, p.231, p.256
7. Jean-Marie Brohm and others, Le gaullisme, et apres, p.197
It’s almost a pity that he will forever be remembered for one particular role:
No question, of course, of which party the well-meaning, but deluded and self-righteous middle class prat Tom Good would have been founder-member.
Above: Suzanne Moore
Below: the start of Woman’s Hour’s list of the 100 most powerful women in the UK today.
The Woman’s Hour list proves there is nothing soft about real power
Smug self-congratulation is not a male prerogative. This week we had the Baftas, the Fry/Ross/whoever love-in where successful people applaud themselves stupid. Such ceremonies are now where women’s frocks are then judged right or wrong by a woman who freely admits hating her own body, never mind anyone else: Liz Jones. Still, it’s only showbusiness.
I did not expect such abject smugness from Woman’s Hour, even though I had refused to go to their awards do as I thought their power list of the top 100 women was entirely pointless. Anything that celebrates women but does not include prosecco is usually as dull as dishwater. Listening to the programme, though, was worse than dull. It was dire.
Still, a power list of women, not people. Radical? Well Emma Goldman must be turning in her grave. The most powerful woman in Britain is the Queen. Number two is Theresa May and number three is a rich banker. Busting the stereotypes of power was clearly not the raison d’être of this list. But this really takes the biscuit – homemade, of course, by some Mumsnet guru with 18 children who runs a hedge fund in between trips to CERN.
I jest, but not much. Of course there were some noble names but they don’t need more bigging up. There are two types of women: those who make it and help other women and those who pull the ladder back up. But then power is a slippery concept. We have all read 50 Shades of Grey, after all. Hence the waffle about “soft power”, a term used by sociologist Joseph Nye. Soft power is coercive, collaborative, communicative – we girls are good at this sort of thing. Hard power – politics, war, finance – that’s tougher.
The list confirms that the best way to get power is to inherit it, like the Queen or Elisabeth Murdoch. Also try to be white, rich and go to private school. Or you can be like Theresa May – happy to sit in a cabinet with few women and sign off policies that penalise other less fortunate women.
None of this would be made better, some of the panellists said, by quotas; they were against them. Alexandra Shulman boasted of having a black girl working in her office. Amazing! The judges also considered Victoria Beckham more worthy than PJ Harvey. Caitlin Moran, who made 15-year-old girls think feminism could be cool and a bit of a laugh, did not feature either.
Powerful women, I guess, are exceptional. And behind every powerful woman are other women – cleaners, nannies. But they don’t count. Care is not power, apparently, and this list showed us again going backwards. No amount of sweet talk about networking from guest Julia Hobsbawm changes that. These are hard times for women: the proportion of women at the top of public life (media, politics, business) is stuck at 22%, and for younger women it is worse. Does networking turn into real power? Not from this evidence. With such an innately conservative and corporate list, “soft power” comes to resemble being someone’s lovely assistant.
Not represented at all were the brave women who spoke out about Jimmy Savile; those who campaign against domestic violence. No Doreen Lawrence. No Margaret Thatcher, whose ideology remains powerful. And few young women.
I don’t want to get too Foucauldian about this – well, I do – but power is a web, a culture, a discourse that always has to be challenged. To embody it in a dumb list is to reinforce the status quo absolutely. And women continue to do the media’s dirty work for them: self-compiling lists of experts so that women may appear on serious shows from time to time, as researchers seem unable to find women scientists or economists.
This power list is a sign of the times. Don’t be young, gifted and black. Try not to be working class, either. Networking cannot replace quotas. Or sexual politics. Too many of the women involved in this enterprise seem happy designing their own ceiling, brick by glass brick. They would like women to be magically more powerful, but have no way of explaining how this might happen Still, it’s Woman’s Hour: I wasn’t expecting the SCUM Manifesto read out by Mary Berry, though that would have been good. But I did expect a conversation on how power might be distributed.
Power is taken, not earned, as they kept insisting. This fiasco was a painful reminder of the weak position so many women are in. I am not polite, and I am not thankful for the small mercies of big businesswomen. Power is not given. We wrench it away. For where there is power, there is resistance. A list of resistance. Now that would be powerful.
The present issue of the neo-Con magazine Standpoint carries a fascinating interview with the late Eric Hobsbawm. It was conducted in 1985 by Miriam Gross, a personal friend (though not a political ally) of Hobsbawm’s, for the now-defunct publication Time and Tide. To the best of my knowledge, it’s not been republished before now. It contains some fascinating and highly questionable statements from Hobsbawm, such as his claim that the Nazi-Soviet pact “made no difference at all” (to what? Communist Party membership?) or that he “never believed in this workers’ paradise business” (about the USSR), and his claim that he “did criticise [the Hungarian invasion] in public” – something that there is no record of, as far as I’m aware. Finally, there’s his denial that he advocated Labour making a pact with the (then) SDP-Liberal Alliance: something that he quite clearly argued for in the Euro-Communist Journal Marxism Today at the time. I concluded, having read this interview, that Hobsbawm was a great historian, but a dishonest individual whose political accounting of himself and his own record is simply not to be trusted. Judge for yourself:
When did you first become a Communist, and why?
I became one in 1931 or so, when I was about 14. Being brought up in Central Europe — in Austria until 1931, and then in Berlin — made me a revolutionary. One had to do something fairly dramatic, so I became left-wing (partly because I was Jewish — if I hadn’t been, I might well have became a Nazi under those circumstances), and all the dramatic left-wing organisations in Austria and Germany were Marxist. I didn’t actually know much about Marx until one of my schoolmasters in Berlin said, “You’re a Communist, you don’t know anything, you’d better read this damned stuff,” and pointed me in the direction of the school library.
What about your parents — what sort of attitude did they have?
My mother died quite early, when I was 14 — I think she would have been a liberal of some kind, keen on things like European integration and H.G. Wells and stuff like that. I don’t remember my father having any particular politics — he had died not long before. My Viennese family would, if anything, have been liberals. I also had family in England, who were of course refugees from Russia or Poland by origin; they lived in modest circumstances and some had strong Labour Party sympathies. But I didn’t know them until I came to England permanently in 1933.
What about your schooling when you came to England — did it make any difference that you were already a fully-fledged Communist?
I went to Marylebone Grammar School, which unfortunately no longer exists. As for Communism, in Germany I had belonged to a curious little organisation for schoolchildren called the Sozialistischer Schülerbund, which was a dependency of the German Communist Party. There was nothing like that in London, although I used to go and sell anti-war pamphlets which I picked up at the Communist Party (CP) bookshop in King Street. As far as I could see, Britain was in every respect way behind Germany. The kind of conversations which were familiar to 15-year-old schoolboys in Berlin — about politics, about literature, about sex — didn’t take place in English schools. I was a bit bored and I spent a great deal of my time reading. Then I turned out to be rather good at history, and I got a scholarship to Cambridge, to King’s.
Were you very politically active as an undergraduate?
Yes, in CP politics and socialist clubs, not in the ordinary Cambridge Union politics. I was also active in undergraduate journalism, and eventually ended up editing Granta.
At that time, did you already want to become an academic — and were you particularly drawn to labour history?
I became an academic because I did well enough in my examinations to get a research grant, and by then I had decided that I didn’t have the temperament to be a journalist or a political organiser, which otherwise one would naturally be quite keen to be. I was interested in Third World history, as we would say today — imperialism, as we said in those days — and I had a travel grant to go and do research in French North Africa. But for a variety of reasons, because of the war and because I got married, I wasn’t able to go out there, and I turned to labour history instead.
What did you do in the war? Were you called up?
I was in the army, first in a Royal Engineers unit and then in the Education Corps, but I did nothing of any particular interest.
What was your attitude to the war during the period 1939 to 1941, after the Nazi-Soviet pact?
Oh, like most people I was absolutely loyal to the party line. Recent work has in fact shown that party policy in this period made virtually no difference at all, that if anything party membership increased.
But didn’t you feel any kind of conflict about being an English soldier?
Yes, I did. From the time the war started to hot up, one became rather unhappy about it. It was perfectly clear, for one thing, that the official party line was absolutely useless. Moreover, none of us really quite believed it, you see. We all believed that it was really an anti-fascist war — I mean it could hardly be denied, it was impossible to claim that both sides were equally at fault or equally bad. So far as I am aware none of the Communist parties, certainly not the British party, ever tried to act up to what was the official line, namely that it was an imperialist war, which would have involved a policy of revolutionary defeatism. That doesn’t mean that those of us who were devoted Communists at the time weren’t primarily loyal to the international cause.
Do you still regard yourself as a devoted Communist?
There is no equivalent movement today. In the 1930s and 1940s it was a single homogenous thing: if you were a Marxist you were de facto overwhelmingly likely to belong to a Communist party, and that Communist party was quite certain to be loyal to the Soviet Union, so the whole thing went together. But since 1956 it has been going in different directions. So the situation is no longer the same.
Were you shocked in 1956 when Khrushchev made his speech denouncing Stalin?
Yes, everybody was shocked. As far as I know most Communists in most countries lived for several months in the political equivalent of a nervous breakdown. Because the truth is, even if you were quite sceptical, as I was by that time, I think, about what was going on in the Soviet Union, the sheer amount that came out was something which I think very few people had realised, and it’s no use saying that it had all been available. I’m pretty certain that even a lot of people in the Soviet Union didn’t realise what had been going on. But I was shocked about a lot of other things too. In one way the shock in 1956 was twice as strong because, thanks to the Cold War and McCarthy and the dramatic anti-red atmosphere, a lot of people had for several years as it were put away serious queries about the Soviet Union and had been welded into loyalty towards the old cause simply because it was so clear that the baddies were on the other side, you see. And so it wasn’t until there was a tremendous crack on the Communist side that people were prepared to come out with doubts that they had had for a long time.
Didn’t you feel at any point that you might leave the party or that you had been committed to the wrong ideology?
No, not at all. Think of yourself, if you’d belonged to my age group. What other political choices would you have made during the Thirties and Forties? I don’t think anybody would have made any other choice. If you look back at my contemporaries, say, in Cambridge, if they had any kind of political consciousness the odds were that they were very left-wing. I think one of the things that has always made me suspect Harold Wilson is that he belonged to the same generation and was a Liberal until he kind of vaguely moved into the Labour Party.
But still, one can change one’s mind.
One can change one’s mind, yes, but on the other hand most of us fortunately were not in a position to have anything to reproach ourselves with. What we had done, what we did in our political activity in this country, was not something to be ashamed of. That we happened to be associated with people who had a lot to be ashamed of is another question. In fact we were people who, without any hope of getting any advantages at all, had devoted ourselves to a great cause.
Didn’t you feel, though, that the cause itself wasn’t working when put into practice?
Yes, that became increasingly clear. Actually, you see, I wasn’t particularly surprised since right from the beginning — I may have been too sophisticated a boy at the time — I never believed in this workers’ paradise business, and it seemed quite clear that it was tough luck for Communism that it had first come into power in an extremely backward and difficult country like Russia, in which things were bound to look rather different. If you had read Isaac Babel’s Red Cavalry or Ilf and Petrov, for instance, you realised that all the stuff about shining-eyed people on tractors was rather unreal. So it wasn’t a great surprise to find that in some respects these guys were inefficient and barbarian and did all sorts of wrong things. I think the disillusion came when one saw that (a) the other countries which had become socialist weren’t allowed to go their own way, and (b) that the prospect of the global replacement of capitalism seemed to recede. And after 1956 it became perfectly possible to be critical of things.
I remember once having a rather loud evening with Arthur Koestler who, like so many ex-reds, got very hung up on the Communist record. One reason I’m not an ex-red is that I don’t like the way so many ex-reds get hung up on it. And Koestler kept on attacking me — why didn’t you do this or that? Why didn’t you criticise the Hungarian invasion? Well, actually I did criticise it in public, you see. So it was perfectly possible to be a Communist and to criticise things you didn’t like.
What do you think it means to be a Marxist today?
I think Marx was right to see insuperable contradictions in capitalism. But the questions Marx raised about how capitalist society is going to be transformed are now much more open, given the transformations in social structure. Politically I share many beliefs not only with Marxists but with almost everybody who is on the Left. “Marxist” itself doesn’t mean the same thing as it did when I began. It has become a label for being either a revolutionary or a socialist or on the extreme Left. I think one should be against the rich and for the poor because the rich can look after themselves and the poor can’t. To this extent I believe the socially managed society which we call socialism is a society which must, as far as possible, be in the interests of ordinary people.
Yes, but ordinary people in this country, at any rate in the last two elections, rejected it. How are you going to achieve socialism if it is against the wishes of the majority of workers in this country?
It’s going to be very difficult until people are convinced, and it’s up to the Labour Party to put forward a case that persuades them. In 1983, Labour, which had been publicly committing suicide for years, virtually had no programme.
But surely it had a rather distinct programme?
We can disagree about that. But anyway, I don’t actually believe that people vote for programmes. They vote for perspectives, they vote for hopes or against fears. I don’t believe that most of the people who voted overwhelmingly for Labour in 1945 knew exactly what their programme was.
I agree, but don’t you think it was precisely because of fears that people didn’t vote for Labour in 1983 — vague fears about the kind of future which Militant Tendency or Arthur Scargill seemed to represent, fears about intolerance and repression?
Well, it’s a question of what at any given moment you fear most. Right now I particularly fear repression and intolerance and the revival of jingo demagogy and know — nothingism and intellectual barbarism from Thatcher and her followers. Those people are far more dangerous than anything that Militant can produce. Name any revolution which has ever been produced by Trotskyists.
There aren’t any. The point is that they attract a kind of permanent extreme element on the fringe which in certain circumstances is quite a good influence and in others quite the reverse.
But in Communist countries revolutions have led to repression anyway.
Then do you still believe — presumably you once did — in the proletarian revolution?
I certainly did, though since becoming a historian — and a historian who has studied Lenin — I have come to the conclusion that revolution is actually a thing you can’t make. It’s a happening rather than a planned operation, and any attempt to force the pace doesn’t quite work out.
But didn’t Marx more or less predict that capitalism would make the rich richer and the poor poorer, and that this would eventually lead to a spontaneous revolution? This hasn’t actually happened, and on the whole people are better off than they have ever been. Could it not be that a much better society will gradually emerge from capitalism?
That is a possibility. There’s no question that in material terms people are in most cases far better off than they were, say, a century ago. They’re better off because of the enormous increase in the powers of production. About relative inequality I’m by no means certain — there are ups and downs. At the moment the rich are getting notoriously richer; in the United States for instance all groups are losing ground compared to the top 20 per cent, and this is clearly also true in Britain.
But aren’t the poor in Marxist countries even worse off?
Not necessarily. It’s true that most East European states are distinctly worse off than most Western European states, but I would have thought that the Balkans are passing through an all-time golden age in their history. OK, if you compare Hungary and Austria, people in both countries are better off in material terms than they have ever been in their history, and the Austrians are considerably better off than the Hungarians. OK, if you look at certain other aspects, Hungarians today have a much more interesting cultural life.
Maybe, but isn’t a lot of that culture at odds with the prevailing socialist regime?
I’m not against that. On the contrary, you won’t get any culture if you assume that it is all essentially publicity releases for the regime. This applies everywhere, both under capitalism and under socialism. And if we are talking about civilised standards in general, the Soviet Union has in fact immeasurably improved. In the 1930s and ’40s, you could have said that if you wanted barbarism in the most literal sense, that is where you got it. If you look at the present, the regimes which kill and torture are not the Marxist regimes but some of the other ones.
Isn’t there barbarism on both sides?
No. If you actually look at the extent to which, say, the Polish regime has managed to control and solve the Solidarity thing, I doubt whether more than 30 people were actually killed during those two years. I’m the last person to justify this, because I thought Solidarity a great thing — I believe that one of the weaknesses of socialist regimes is precisely that they don’t allow scope for labour movement. But to talk about this in the same terms as about Chile or Argentina is simply not using words in a reasonable way.
It’s not saying much, but the fact is that people in a place like Poland can now criticise the regime, if necessary in public, and what they risk is not a hell of a lot more than what they would in a Western country.
I would have thought they risk a great deal more and Poland, anyway, is rather special. But let’s get back to English politics. Tell me about giving advice to Neil Kinnock and being his guru.
I’ve never advised Kinnock, never been his guru. I’ve only met him twice, once when I did an interview with him for Marxism Today and once when he took the chair at a Fabian Society meeting.
But what about your articles?
Look, it’s nice for a retired professor who writes about politics to find what he writes about being widely discussed, but some of my articles have also been widely criticised.
Do you mind criticism from the Left that you are advocating a broad front with the SDP-Liberal Alliance?
Sure I mind. Naturally I’m on the side of these guys, even though I don’t think their policies are particularly helpful.
But if you’re locked into an electoral arrangement with the Alliance in order to defeat Thatcherism, how will you get back to socialism? Surely David Owen’s views are nearer in certain respects to the Conservatives than they are to the Left of the Labour Party.
I’ve never appealed for a pact with the Alliance. The idea that I did has now been repeated so often in the press that it has come to have an independent existence, just like the stuff about being Kinnock’s guru. I simply said what is obviously true, that as long as the opposition to Thatcher is divided 50-50, it is that much harder to defeat her, and sooner or later we will have to come to terms with this. What interests me much more is how, in a broader sense, we can get back to socialism, which I believe is not by isolating the working class within a small sectional movement, but once again making it the centre of a broad progressive coalition. This does not necessarily have anything to do with whether you are for or against Owen — I’m personally rather against him. Historically speaking, a broad coalition is as likely to strengthen the Left as the Right. There are quite good reasons for believing that it would get socialism out of its isolated corner, as well as keeping it in contact with a lot of people who are not blue-collar workers but who are just as interested in having a different kind of society.
Do you see nothing that can be said in favour of Mrs Thatcher? Not even the fact that she is a woman?
Nothing. I’m actually a believer in sex equality, and consequently I’m prepared to judge a woman prime minister in exactly the same way that I would a man prime minister. The one marginal thing I could say for Mrs Thatcher is that she is so jingoistic and racialist, so much a kind of Kipling imperialist, that she has actually cut the ground from underneath the National Front and the real fascists.
Apart from that, she is waging the class war from above, not merely trying to divide the rich from the poor but trying to break up the solidarity of the working class, which used to be so enormous, and which you could still see during the miners’ strike. It’s the middle class for whom she is waging the class war. For them it’s a matter of fear and resentment against the working class. Aristocrats don’t mind one way or the other. It’s the goddam middle class which is scared of the workers and will try to kick them in the balls.
As a middle-class person, I don’t feel that to be true. Nor do I observe it around me.
Oh yes, who are all these ultra-right ideologists at the moment? They are middle-class boys, they are grammar school boys who have made it, like Norman Tebbit, who regard the fact that they have made it themselves as proof that everything is OK and that therefore guys who haven’t made it are not worth bothering about. You see, to this extent my generation was better. As far as I can see, guys like Roger Scruton have come up the same way as guys like myself — they went to grammar schools, got scholarships, and are quite smart.
One last question. What in your view would be an ideal future for Britain?
I would like in some ways a society which preserves what has been good in the past. Paradoxically I believe that the Left, socialists, are better at preserving this than the centre and the Right, because the one thing which destroys everything is the unrestricted development of capitalism. If you want to find what is traditionally good about Germany, for example, you are much more likely to find it in Jena than in Frankfurt. Being now a great deal older than I was when I started, I have, if you like, less apocalyptic and millennial hopes for the future. I should be happy in a country in which it was impossible to be rich or successful without being ashamed that people who are less well-off than you or stupider than you or didn’t have your chances were being dropped down the drain and forgotten.
But that’s very mild — it sounds like an SDP view of the future. Even Conservatives couldn’t actually disagree with it.
Then the question is: how do you set about achieving it effectively? I believe it is only likely to be achieved through parties and movements which build on the classical socialist and working-class tradition in this country.
Over at Dave‘s:
scotCH nationalism is shit. in all its forms. disgusting little wannabe hitlers the lot of them. Och aye the noo we are ohpressed!
opposition parties twice reject his £30 billion spending plans.
I notice that one of the organisers and spokespersons for the disruption of the IPO’s Proms performance was Sue Blackwell. I know Sue of old and, in fact, usually get on with her reasonably well. But in my view, her obsessive (I understand, Christian in origin) hatred of Israel and Zionism (ie Jewish nationalism) has led her on many occasions to slide over from legitimate (if misguided) hostility to Israel into antisemitism (by which I mean “political”, or “left” antisemitism, not personal hatred of Jews per se).
(Above) dear, oh dear: roll over (in your grave), Beethoven
Here’s a sort of “open letter” I wrote to Sue back in 2005, when she was trying to get ‘LabourStart’ boycotted on the grounds that Eric Lee is a left- Zionist. I was, of course, wrong about the prospects of the boycott campaign within what was then the AUT (now, having merged with NATFHE, the UCU); I think my argument then, against Sue’s fanatical, Christian, anti-”Zionism”, applies all the more now, in the light of her disruption of the IPO’s concert.
That LabourStart should become a target is of interest mainly because of what it tells us about the politics of the people behind this crazy campaign. It won’t succeed – any more than the AUT boycott campaign did, once it was exposed to the scrutiny of that union’s membership and a democratic vote of the rank and file. But it is worth noting that the campaign against LabourStart has gained a new momentum in the aftermath of the defeat of the AUT boycott campaign, as the embittered boycotters thrash about, blaming “well-funded” international conspiracies and biased media coverage for the fact that the membership of the AUT rejected them and overturned their boycott.
The assault on LabourStart has its background in a long-standing campaign originally launched by a South African “labour and social movement activist” Anna Weekes and subsequently taken up by the rival Labournet website, which published an Open Letter accusing Labourstart of “a shutdown of Palestinian worker news”. In fact, Labourstart has initiated and led many campaigns in support of Palestinian trade unionists by the Israelis. When the PGFTU (Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions) headquarters were attacked by the Israeli military a few years ago, LabourStart led the international solidarity campaign, commissioned a statement in English from the PGFTU and finally succeeded in rousing the Israeli unions to offer support.
More recently, LabourStart has been campaigning to end the Israeli army’s harassment of the director of the Democracy and Workers Rights Centre in Ramallah, Hassan Barghouthi. So the claim of the Labournet Open Letter , that Labourstart “systematically under-reports Palestinian labour news” is simply untrue. In fact, a perusal of LabourStart’s Palestinian labour news page, will show that the coverage of Palestinian labour news is quite extensive – and considerably greater than its coverage of the country where the most trade unionists are killed every year: Colombia.
The truth becomes clear when one reads the full text of the Open Letter – and, in particular- the “Background” document that accompanies it. The examples of news items about Palestine that the authors and supporters of the Open Letter berate LabourStart for not reporting are all stories about Israeli military attacks on, and harassment of, Palestinians. They are all very serious and disturbing articles. None of them is about the Palestinian or Israeli labour movement. In other words, the Open Letter people’s real complaint is that Labourstart is not a general anti-Israeli / pro Palestinian website, but focuses upon trade union and labour movement news.
This is made even more explicit in the final section of the “Background” document, which is devoted to promoting the notion that Israel is an “apartheid society”. This description of Israel is a favourite of those who seek the delegitimisation and destruction of Israel. The “new apartheid” accusation has been widely debated and is rejected as an inaccurate, simplistic and politically misleading description by many people who are far from uncritical supporters of Israel (including Susie Jacobs on the “Engage” website, Benjamin Pogrud, the South African anti-apartheid campaigner in a recent seminar paper, and the self-styled “Muslim refusenik” Irshad Manji in her book “The Trouble With Islam” – to name just three. Oh yes: I forgot the late Edward Said: “Israel is not South Africa”).
Some critics of the “new apartheid” analysis (including myself and Susie Jacobs) would concede that Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip is increasing the danger of its moving towards an apartheid-like relationship towards Palestinians in the occupied territories. But, even so, the fundamentals are different: boycotting Israel is not the same as boycotting apartheid. Solidarising with the people of South Africa against a particular regime, is not the same as demonising the whole Israeli Jewish nation and denying its right to even exit. A workable democratic settlement in Israel /Palestine must be based upon sympathy and respect for both Palestinian and Jewish national rights.
But the Open Letter people persist in their crude, simplistic equation between Israel /Zionism and apartheid, closing their “background” document with a little parable about an imaginary publication called ‘Labournews’… “which might have been launched in 1979. Dedicated to informing trade unionists on issues of globalisation, LabourNews reproduced press reports faxed from correspondents in the Philippines, Korea, Mexico, as well as Europe and North America. For some reason the glossy magazine barely mentioned the emerging workers movement in South Africa. But it did feature autobiographical material from the Editor, a world expert on trade union communication networks. And then one week when South Africa re-invaded Mozambique, sent dogs and tear gas to crush another strike, or tested a nuclear weapon in the South Atlantic, the Editor’s personal page ran an advert for the South African Defence Force Journal. How would you have reacted?”
In other words, because LabourStart does not endorse the Israel / Zionism = apartheid /racism position, then it (LabourStart) is a racist, anti-Palestinian project comparable to apartheid South Africa …talk about a self-fulfilling, circular argument!
At this point I should probably mention that the founder and co-ordinator of LabourStart is one Eric Lee, an Isreali Jew and left Zionist. Like most of us actively involved in the labour movement , Eric has his own strongly-held political views. As anyone who has ever played a central role in organising non-partisan, broad labour movement activity will know, the extent to which you place a self-denying ordinance upon your personal views in the interests of the project as a whole, is a tricky matter of judgement. On the one hand, you don’t want to compromise the project by identifying it with your own particular views; on the other hand, you don’t wish to deny your own views, or lay the project open to charges of deception by hiding your views.
Eric Lee dealt with this problem by having an online biography separate from, but linked to, the main LabourStart site, so that anyone interested in finding out about him could do so. This biography included the fact that he had a son who was serving in the Israeli Defence Forces – and it included a link to the IDF website (a standard internet protocol: see, for example the Communist Party of Great Britain / Weekly Worker website, which dutifully links to the websites of all organisations referred to in articles, regardless of whether the CPGB agrees with them or not).
It seems to have been this link to the IDF that enraged the Open Letter people. It also seems to have been what stirred Tony Greenstein into action, and –via him – Sue Blackwell.
Sometime around June 2005 (around the time of the AUT special conference overturned its “boycott Israel” policy) Sue Blackwell’s website announced that she “no longer links to” a number of mainly antisemitic and neo Nazi websites that her “Jewish friends” had tipped her off about. I could make a big deal about what those links were doing there, on Sue’s website, in the first place – but, no: let’s just give Sue credit for removing them.
Sue broke her links with the likes of David Irving (Whatreally happened.com), Marwen Media (Sue: “Pretty nasty stuff about Holocaust denial”) , “Exposing Israeli Apartheid”, (according to Sue, the same lot as Marwen Media), and the bizarre Gilad Altzmon, jazz saxophonist and supporter of Israel Shamir, holocaust denier and “third position” neo-fascist. Such is the state of the present-day “left” that the SWP’s promotion of, and apologetics for, Altzmon came as no surprise. The fact that Sue Blackwell removed his link from her website was welcome, and persuaded me to defend her against charges of anti-semitism (for instance on the “Harry’s Place” website).
However, when I read Sue Blackwell’s reasoning for breaking her link with LabourStart:
“I thought this was a bona-fide trade union website supporting workers’ struggles. However, it emerges that Eric Lee, who runs the site, is a supporter of the “Engage” anti-boycott site. Until a few years ago he actually ran Labourstart from Israel and even had a link to the IDF homepage!”…
…I had to reconsider my defence of her from those charges.
I have already dealt with the “IDF homepage” business.
The rest is the kind of self-righteous posturing that brings the “left” into disrepute: so, being “anti boycott” signifies that you are not a bona fides trades unionist; running a website from Israel – not a matter of the politics, you note, but from that space in the world, means that you are not a “proper” trade unionist.
Sue Blackwell vigorously objects to accusations of antisemitism. And in the past, I have defended her against such accusations. But, in the aftermath of her defeat within the AUT over the boycott of Israel, I have reluctantly been forced to admit that she is on an antisemitic kick, whether she knows it or not:
Item 1/ Sue’s reaction to the defeat of the “boycott” position within the AUT: instead of acknowledging that she and her supporters had simply LOST, like many of us have lost within unions, over the years, Sue fell back upon bizarre allegations of “a massive and well funded campaign against us and incredible pressure put upon members in the run up to this debate”. I’ll ask you straight, Sue: WHO, exactly, ran and financed this “massive campaign” against you? Tell me, please. As far as I am aware, it was the rank and file AUT members Camila Basi, Jon Pike and David Hirsh, who ran the campaign to overturn the AUT’s “boycott” policy. None of them are particularly rich. None of them were financed from “outside”. So what, exactly are you –Sue- trying to suggest? And you continue to protest that your campaign is not antisemitic?
They are rich Jews? Paid agents of Israel? If that is not what you are suggesting, then please explain what you mean by “a massive and well funded campaign against us”? You really do have to explain your bizarre outbursts since losing the vote. And also, why you felt able to defy your union’s national position and your own local association, and vote in favour of the boycott position at Birmingham Trades Council on 2nd June 2005, after the AUT special conference had overturned the “boycott” position: who did you think you were representing? An imaginary AUT membership who agree with you about the destruction of Israel but don’t need to be consulted because their “anti Zionist” views can be taken as read? Even though they voted against you at a Birmingham AUT Association meeting? Have you any understanding of rank and file trade union democracy, Sue?
Item 2/ How do you, Sue, explain the following.? On your website you have a link, under the titles (yours)“Deja vu?” / “plus ca change” (ie: clearly suggesting a direct link to what has happened in the AUT), to an article (by Jeffrey Blankfort) about an incident in New Orleans in 1993 (the quote is from your own website):
“ The occasion was the annual membership meeting of the American Library Association and answering the call to colors were hundreds of Jewish librarians who descended on New Orleans for a dual purpose: to overturn a resolution criticising Israeli censorship that had been approved at last year’s convention and to demonstrate to their fellow librarians that judging Israel was not only the business of the ALA, but also was not without career-threatening risks. And they succeeded, overwhelmingly. No, the colours they rallied to weren’t visible, but they didn’t have to be”.
That piece of thinly-veiled antisemitism (“the colours they rallied to weren’t visible…”) could come out of today’s “Counterpunch”, but that is no excuse, Sue. It’s racism, pure and simple: can’t you see that? And can’t you see that by heading your link that story “Deja vu” , you are confirming an anti-Jewish angle?
Sue Blackwell and I both sit on Birmingham Trades Council. We often support each other on that august body, against the stupid Stalinist and SWP pseudo-“left”. But on the question of Israel /Palestine we simply don’t agree. I am also aware that (unlike some other delegates to Birmingham Trades Council), Sue is not personally hostile to individual Jews – or any other ethnic group.
So my question to Sue is, why are you now trying to destroy LabourStart?
My guess is, because Tony Geenstein (a more sophisticated, and more malevolent operator) has put her up to it with his hysterical “anti Zionist” line that condemns any Jew who does not renounce Isreali and/or Zionism, as a “racist”.
The fact is, that neither Blackwell nor Greenstein understand what trade unionism is. They think it is (or should be) a vehicle for their “anti-imperialist” view of the world, whereas – since Lenin and Trotsky – socialists have understood that trade unionism is, of necessity, a movement that:
“In the course of many decades, the workers have built up within the bourgeois democracy, by utilising it, by fighting against it, their own strongholds of proletarian democracy: the trade unions, the political parties, the educational and sports clubs, the co-operatives, etc”. (Trotsky, “The Struggle against Fascism in Germany”).
It is, in other words, a movement that seeks to combat the effects of exploitation within capitalism, not do away with capitalism (or imperialism) itself. Thus Greenstein’s failure to comprehend the Iraqi federation of Trade Unions’ willingness to (quite rightly) negotiate with the Iraqi government – a failure of understanding that leads him to support the fascistic, anti-working class “resistance” in its campaign of murder against the IFTU.
Greenstein and Blackwell’s ignorance concerning the basics of elementary working class politics might be dismissed as silly but harmless ultra-leftism if it had not lead them to attempt to destroy an invaluable organ of trade union solidarity: LabourStart. The fact that their campaign seems to be based upon the fact that its founder, Eric Lee opposed the AUT boycott of Israeli academics, and once ran his website from Israel, makes this nasty little campaign all the more distasteful and scabby.
See also this piece about the antisemitic witch-hunt against LabourStart.
By Joe Flynn (Workers Liberty)
Above: an objectively pro-Gaddafi demonstration, called by ‘Stop The War’ and supported by ‘Counterfire’ and other middle class pacifists and tyrant-loving reactionaries, appeasers and free-lance nutters
I think the event was aimed at, and to some extent attracted, young people without fully formed politics. This would be fine were it not for the appalling version of ‘socialist’ politics on offer from these shysters. Meaningless platitudes and buzzwords (‘resistance’, ‘link the struggles’) were common, while discussion of socialism and the working class were almost entirely absent, especially from younger Counterfire members who display a terrifying lack of even the most basic Marxist education.
Chris Bambery, not yet a member of Counterfire but bringing fraternal greetings from the newly formed ISG, gave the most political speech in the opening session, speaking as if addressing an internal gathering of ex-SWP people. He began with a declaration that he wanted an end to ‘the sectarian party building and syndicalist politics that have harmed our movement’.
All well and good, if somewhat hypocritical, you might think- but it became clear that his criticism of the SWP’s syndicalism is that it is too political! Bambery laid out very openly his belief that a narrow focus on the labour movement should be rejected by socialists in favour of supporting anyone ‘resisting’ whoever they are, saying the SWP has been at its best when it did this, for example supporting national liberation struggles without asking about every dot and comma people’s politics in advance.
Given the pushing of Stop the War as a model of every sort of organising by more or less every Counterfire speaker throughout the day, it seems obvious where this orientation will lead them to- supporting the likes of Qaddafi and other tyrants around the world.
On international issues, Bambery can hardly have meant to criticise the SWP for not being ‘broad’ enough in its support for all manner of hideous people with whom real Marxists would have not a single dot or comma of sympathy. However it became clear that when it comes to their focus on the labour movement and the organised working class, he and Counterfire have difference not only with the SWP but with any sort of Marxism.
Bambery played down the importance of June 30th (proposed day of strike action against the cuts - JD); questioned how important workers’ struggles have been in the resistance to cuts in Europe since the crisis began, and made disparaging remarks about how most of the country’s shop stewards are old, tired and doing casework instead of fighting cuts and organising precarious workers and students.
Of course it is true that the labour movement is in a bad way. It is extremely dishonest for socialists to claim to be unsectarian and then to suggest to the young, politically naive people around them that there is some short cut to rebuilding and democratising the actually existing labour movement, as it is only through labour movement focused anti-cuts groups emerging and drawing in wider forces from other struggles that the working class stands a chance of defeating the government’s austerity programme.
The lionising of Stop the War that went on at the conference, combined with the focus on anti-cuts ‘resistance’ as the immediate focus for activists, suggests that Counterfire will attempt to build their front (Coalition of Resistance) and themselves. They will do so by miseducating young people in a bastardised ‘socialism’ and making alliances with hideous tyrants, Islamists and other bourgeois forces at every opportunity. Sound familiar?