The playwright and TV script-writer Dennis Potter would have been 80 today. As it is, he died aged 59, on 7th June 1994. Less than three months earlier, he’d given this extraordinary interview to Melvyn Bragg on Channel 4.
By then Potter was diagnosed with inoperable, terminal cancer and spent the interview swigging from a hip flask of morphine (possibly laced with whisky). He called his cancer ‘Rupert’, as in Murdoch: “I’d shoot the bugger if I could”.
I still cherish a 2007 pamphlet published by the Guardian, which contains a slightly edited and tidied-up transcription of the interview.
The pamphlet starts with a wonderful Foreword by the Graun‘s veteran TV critic Nancy Banks-Smith (who once worked with Potter on the old Daily Herald). It’s no surprise that Potter was an agnostic who tended to the atheistic end of the agnostic scale; nor that he was a (utopian, I’d say) socialist.
Those of us who saw the interview when it went out on Channel 4 on April 5 1994 will never forget it. For those of you who didn’t, here’s a taste (and you can watch part of it here):
“I grieve for my family and friends who know me closest, obviously, and that they’re going through it in a sense more than I am. But I discover also what you always know to be true, but you never know it till you know it, if you follow (sorry, I’ve got…my voice is echoing in my head for some reason).
“We all, we’re the one animal that knows that we’re going to die, and yet we carry on paying our mortgages, doing our jobs, moving about, behaving as though there’s an eternity in a sense. And we forget or tend to forget that life can only be defined in the present tense; it is is, and it is now only. I mean, as much as we would like to call back yesterday and indeed yearn to, and ache to sometimes, we can’t. It’s in us, but we can’t actually; it’s not not there in front of us. However predictable tomorrow is, and unfortunately for most people, most of the time, it’s too predictable, they’re locked into whatever situation they’re locked into…Even so, no matter how predictable it is, there’s the element of the unpredictable, of you don’t know. The only thing you know for sure is the present tense, and that nowness becomes so vivid that, almost in a perverse sort of way, I’m almost serene. You know, I can celebrate life.
“Below my window in Ross, when I’m working in Ross, for example, there at this season, the blossom is out in full now, there in the west early. It’s a plum tree, it looks like apple blossom but it’s white, and looking at it, instead of saying ‘Oh that’s nice blossom’…last week looking at it through the window when I’m writing, I see it as the whitest, frothiest, blossomest blossom that there ever could be, and I can see it. Things are both more trivial than they ever were, and more important than they ever were, and the difference between the trivial and the important doesn’t seem to matter. But the nowness of everything is absolutely wondrous, and if people could see that, you know. There’s no way of telling you: you have to experience it, but the glory of it, if you like, the comfort of it, the reassurance…not that I’m interested in reassuring people – bugger that. The fact is, if you see the present tense, boy do you see it! And boy can you celebrate it”.
The announcement today of the death of Günter Grass brings to mind the late Prof Norm‘s wise words following the Israeli government’s decision to declare Grass persona non grata in the light of the poem published below. This row erupted in 2012 – six years after Grass confessed to having been drafted into the Waffen SS as a teenager.
What Must Be Said
by Günter Grass
But why have I kept silent till now?
Because I thought my own origins,
Tarnished by a stain that can never be removed,
meant I could not expect Israel, a land
to which I am, and always will be, attached,
to accept this open declaration of the truth.
Why only now, grown old,
and with what ink remains, do I say:
Israel’s atomic power endangers
an already fragile world peace?
Because what must be said
may be too late tomorrow;
and because – burdened enough as Germans –
we may be providing material for a crime
that is foreseeable, so that our complicity
wil not be expunged by any
of the usual excuses.
And granted: I’ve broken my silence
because I’m sick of the West’s hypocrisy;
and I hope too that many may be freed
from their silence, may demand
that those responsible for the open danger we face renounce the use of force,
may insist that the governments of
both Iran and Israel allow an international authority
free and open inspection of
the nuclear potential and capability of both.
Yesterday Eamonn McDonagh posted about the Israeli government’s decision to declare Günter Grass persona non grata. With the aid of a couple of counterfactual analogies, he argued that Israel was ‘entirely justified’ in excluding Grass from its territory for representing the country as a danger to world peace. As Eamonn also wrote:
There’s no reason for the victims of genocide and their descendants to feel themselves obliged to allow Grass or anyone with a similar history or views to enter their country to lecture them on their immorality and how they continue to pose, just like when he was a young man, a special danger to the world.
Also yesterday, Nick Cohen put up a post of contrary tendency. ‘The only legitimate reason for banning a writer or speaker’, Nick wrote, ‘is if his words will be a direct incitement to crime.’ It was, he added, an insulting assumption on the part of the Israeli government that its citizens ‘cannot listen to arguments they do not like and respond to them with better arguments’. This was a logic of censorship and cultural boycott:
To the Israeli government’s mind, Grass is wicked and therefore cannot be heard.
I have intimated here that the feature of Grass’s poem that was most repugnant was not the world peace stuff but his suggestion that Israel might be contemplating an attack on Iran which could wipe out the Iranian people – so making the Jewish state, on the basis of nothing but his own fancy, an agent of nuclear annihilation. In any case, in what follows I shall argue – though not in this order – that the Israeli government should not have banned Günter Grass as persona non grata; but that Eamonn is right (subject to one reservation) and Nick is wrong on the fundamental principles at stake.
Let’s begin with the opinion of someone else altogether – Salman Rushdie, who said on Twitter:
OK to dislike, even be disgusted by #GünterGrass poem, but to ban him is infantile pique. The answer to words must always be other words.
This sounds good, and of course it’s only a tweet, which doesn’t allow room for contextualization and qualification; but it isn’t true. Generally it is a good principle to meet words with words, and governments certainly shouldn’t prohibit people’s views (unless they incite violence) simply on account of disliking them. But there are other ways that people may legitimately choose to deal with opinions they find odious: for example, they may decline to keep company with those who propagate such opinions, decline to host them in their homes, decline to publish their writings when they have this power of decision, and so forth. Not every exclusion of someone from a space – whether physical, literary or virtual – amounts to censorship.
A government should not ban opinions which don’t constitute incitement; but, to the best of my knowledge, the Israeli government has not done this with respect to Günter Grass’s views. It has not done it on its own territory, where presumably anyone is free to articulate those views, publicize them, support them, criticize them, or whatever; and it has not done it anywhere else for obvious reasons, since it does not have that authority. It has simply declared that Grass is no longer welcome in Israel – and this is a matter that Israel may, with perfect legitimacy, decide. When Eamonn says, therefore, that Israel has no obligation to admit Grass, he is right: as a country it has a definite right to decide on who is and who isn’t welcome to visit. This is not the same thing, however, as saying that Israel is entirely justified in excluding Grass. It has a right to exclude him, but there may be reasons why it should not do so nonetheless (reasons I will come to shortly). It’s the same as saying that someone has the right not to let another into her house, but that she was wrong on the specific occasion to insist on her right, because (say) the putative visitor was cold, wet and exhausted and needed shelter for a short spell to get out of the raging storm.
On the other hand, Nick’s ‘only legitimate reason for banning a writer or speaker’ – namely, direct incitement to crime – applies to the opinions that should be expressible within a government’s territorial jurisdiction, but not necessarily to the admissibility of persons. It strikes me as not at all unreasonable for national communities to decide that there are individuals whose ideological track record renders them unwanted as guests. At the same time, contrary to what Nick suggests, by the exclusion of Grass the Israeli government is not preventing its citizens from listening to arguments they do not like or suppressing Grass’s views. Neither is his exclusion from the country comparable to the logic of cultural boycotts. The latter target whole categories of people independently of anything they have done or of what they have said or may think, simply on the grounds of their national identity.
Why, then, do I say that the Israeli government is wrong to have declared Grass persona non grata? I say this because it has made it a matter of authoritative political decision who is welcome as a guest in Israel, when (or at any rate so I assume) it does not actually know whether there would be a national consensus to this effect. If it had security and intelligence reasons for the exclusion that it could not disclose, this would be a relevant consideration. But I cannot believe Israeli intelligence would back the view that a visit from Günter Grass could pose a serious threat to Israeli society or public order. In free and democratic polities, who may be invited into the country as a guest is generally left to private individuals and organizations. The interests of Israel would have been better served by leaving it so in the present case. If some group of Israelis should be stupid enough to think the opinions expressed in Grass’s latest ‘work’ are worth hearing out of his own mouth, then bevakasha, let them host him and enjoy the privilege of hearing him malign their country, just like numberless Jew-haters the world over, as exterminationist and genocidal. The political health and reputation of Israel will likely suffer less from indulging this stupidity than from putting in place a ban which may be entirely pointless anyway.
The Berlin Wall, erected in 1961 by the East German state, was a symbol of the totalitarian Stalinist systems. The wall was a monstrosity and we are glad it was torn down by Berliners on the night of 9 November 1989. The collapse of Stalinism was a victory for freedom. Despite a wave of capitalist triumphalism that followed, the workers of the former Stalinist states are now able to meet, discuss and form their own organisations. Here, an editorial in Workers’ Liberty magazine of July 1990 examines the reasons behind Stalinism’s collapse in Eastern Europe.
For over 60 years the typical totalitarian Stalinist society — in the USSR, in the USSR’s East European satellites, in Mao’s China, or in Vietnam — has presented itself to the world as a durable, congealed, frozen system, made of a hitherto unknown substance.
Now the Stalinist societies look like so many ice floes in a rapidly warming sea — melting, dissolving, thawing, sinking and blending into the world capitalist environment around them.
To many calling themselves Marxists or even Trotskyists, Stalinism seemed for decades to be “the wave of the future”. They thought they saw the future and — less explicably — they thought it worked.
The world was mysteriously out of kilter. Somehow parts of it had slipped into the condition of being “post-capitalist”, and, strangely, they were among the relatively backward parts, those which to any halfway literate Marxist were least ripe for it. Now Stalin’s terror turns out to have been, not the birth pangs of a new civilisation, but a bloodletting to fertilise the soil for capitalism.
Nobody foresaw the way that East European Stalinism would collapse. But the decay that led to that collapse was, or should have been, visible long ago.
According to every criterion from productivity and technological dynamism through military might to social development, the world was still incontestably dominated by international capitalism, and by a capitalism which has for decades experienced consistent, though not uninterrupted, growth.
By contrast, the Stalinist states, almost all of which had begun a long way down the world scale of development, have for decades now lurched through successive unavailing efforts to shake off creeping stagnation.
The Stalinist systems have become sicker and sicker. The bureaucracies tried to run their economies by command, and in practice a vast area of the economic life of their societies was rendered subterranean, even more anarchic than a regular, legal, recognised market-capitalist system.
The ruling class of the model Stalinist state, the USSR, emerged out of the workers’ state set up by the October 1917 revolution by way of a struggle to suppress and control the working class and to eliminate the weak Russian bourgeoisie that had come back to life in the 1920s. It made itself master of society in a series of murderous if muffled class struggles. Its state aspired to control everything to a degree and for purposes alien to the Marxism whose authority it invoked. And it did that in a backward country.
In the days of Stalin’s forced collectivisation and crash industrialisation, the whole of society could be turned upside down by a central government intent on crude quantitative goals and using an immense machinery of terror as its instrument of control, motivation, and organisation.
When the terror slackened off — and that is what Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin essentially meant: he told the members of his bureaucratic class that life would be easier from then on — much of the dynamism of the system slackened off too.
To survive, the bureaucracy had to maintain its political monopoly. It could not have democracy because it was in a sharp antagonism with most of the people, and in the first place with the working class.
So there was a “compromise formation”, neither a self-regulating market system nor properly planned, dominated by a huge clogging bureaucratic state which could take crude decisions and make them good, but do little else. State repression was now conservative, not what it was in the “heroic” days either in intensity or in social function.
The USSR slowed down and began to stagnate. And then the rulers of the USSR seemed to suffer a collapse of the will to continue. They collapsed as spectacularly as the old German empire collapsed on 11 November 1918.
Initiatives from the rulers in the Kremlin, acting like 18th century enlightened despots, triggered the collapse of the Russian empire in Eastern Europe. But it was a collapse in preparation for at least quarter of a century.
The Stalinists had tried nearly 30 years before to make their rule more rational, flexible and productive by giving more scope to market mechanisms. Now, it seems, the dominant faction in the USSR’s bureaucracy has bit the bullet: they want full-scale restoration of market capitalism. Some of the bureaucrats hope to become capitalists themselves. But with its central prop — its political monopoly — gone, the bureaucracy is falling apart.
The fundamental determinant of what happened in Eastern Europe in the second half of 1989 was that the Kremlin signalled to its satraps that it would not back them by force: then the people took to the streets, and no-one could stop them.
It is an immense triumph for the world bourgeoisie — public self-disavowal by the rulers of the Stalinist system, and their decision to embrace market capitalism and open up their states to asset-stripping.
We deny that the Stalinist system had anything to do with socialism or working-class power. Neither a workers’ state, nor the Stalinist states in underdeveloped countries, could ever hope to win in economic competition with capitalism expanding as it has done in recent decades The socialist answer was the spreading of the workers’ revolution to the advanced countries; the Stalinists had no answer.
The Stalinist system was never “post capitalist”. It paralleled capitalism as an underdeveloped alter ego. Socialists have no reason to be surprised or dismayed about Stalinism losing its competition with capitalism.
The bourgeoisie has triumphed over the Stalinists, but it has not triumphed over socialism. And genuine socialism receives the possibility of rebirth as a mass movement from the events in Eastern Europe.
It should not need saying, but it does: people can be as angry as they like at the Israeli government, but to attack a synagogue, threaten children at a Jewish school, or throw a brick through the window of a Jewish grocery store is vile and contemptible racism. It cannot be excused by reference to Israeli military behaviour. The two are and should be kept utterly distinct.
Some may counter that that is impossible, given the strong attachment of most Jews to Israel. But this is less complicated than it looks. Yes, Jews feel bound up with Israel, they believe in its right to survive and thrive. But that does not mean they should be held responsible for its policy, on which some may disagree and over which they have no control.
Nor should they be required to declare their distance from Israel as a condition for admission into polite society. We opposed such a question being put to all Muslims after 9/11 and, though the cases are not equivalent, the same logic applies here. This is a test for those who take a strong stance in support of the Palestinians, but in truth it is a test for all of us.
The Guardian has recently carried a number of pieces denouncing antisemitism, including the editorial quoted from above, a powerful piece by Jon Henley on the rise in antisemitic attacks in Europe, a polemic entitled ‘Please don’t tell me what I should think about Israel’ by self-described “liberal American Jew” Hadley Freeman, and a confused but well-intentioned ramble by Owen Jones, who makes some good points but still seems to think that (often) “the charge of antisemitism is concocted” to silence critics of Israeli policy. Still, whatever its weaknesses, Jones’ s piece is further evidence of the Guardian taking antisemitism seriously.
Why the Guardian‘s recent concern with antisemitism comes as something of a surprise is because the paper itself has, in the past, been accused of downplaying the dangers of antisemitism, and even of promoting it, due to its often extremely simplistic Middle Eastern coverage, its promotion of ‘one-state’ (sic) propaganda and crude ‘anti-Zionism,’ due in large part to the the influence of the paper’s Stalinist associate editor Seumas Milne and its middle east editor Ian Black. The criticisms have not only come from the right. At the time of the last Gaza war (2009), Sean Matgamna of the Alliance for Workers Liberty wrote the following open letter to editor Alan Rusbridger. It’s worth republishing now because the underlying political problems it identifies are still commonplace on the liberal-left, including – as Owen Jones’s piece arguably demonstrates – the Guardian itself:
Dear Alan Rusbridger,
The Guardian is the “house organ” of most of the non-Muslim people who took part in the two big demonstrations during the Gaza war. A vigorous campaign by the Guardian against anti-semitism on the “left” might do much good.
On Saturday 7 February, the Guardian carried an editorial, “Language and History”, denouncing anti-semitism and specifically the “anti-Zionist” anti-semitism that is now commonplace, remarking on the growth of anti-semitic incidents in Britain (now on average, one per day, and increasing).
Unfortunately, the editorial seriously misdefined the realities of what it discussed, and pussyfooted around the issue.
“Some extremists on the right and possibly [sic] the left might claim [that] the government is in the pocket of a ‘Jewish lobby’. There is no ‘Jewish lobby’ in the conspiratorial sense that the slur implies, and to assert that there is can only be the result of the kind of racism that has scarred Europe from tsarist Russia to the fascists and Stalinists of the 1930s through to the jihadists now. To present all Jewish people as coterminous with Israel and its supporters is a mistake with potentially terrible consequences. It aligns ethnicity with a political perspective, and it is simply racist”.
Indeed. The editorial records the Government’s statement that “unlike other forms of racism, antisemitism is being accepted within parts of society instead of being condemned.”
And the left? “Some within its ranks now risk sloppily allowing their horror of Israeli actions to blind them to antisemitism…. Last month, a rally in defence of the people of Gaza that included verbal attacks on the so-called ‘Nazi tendencies’ of Israel was followed by actual attacks on Jewish targets in north London”.
The editorial adds that such things as “kill Arabs” graffiti in Gaza are “chilling”. And? “The style in which that is condemned must not create the climate that allows scrawling ‘kill Jews’ on synagogues in Manchester”. The style….
The problem with all this is that it is so shot through with understatement that it seriously misrepresents the state of things. The demonstrations on Gaza “included verbal attacks on the so-called ‘Nazi tendencies’ of Israel”? Included? As we reported (www.workersliberty.org/gazademos) the demonstrations were entirely dominated by placards equating the Star of David and the Nazi swastika, Israel with South Africa, Gaza with the Nazi mass murder of Jews, or chants about a “Palestine” stretching “from the river to the sea”.
All the platform speakers, in their varying notes, tones annd degrees, proclaimed the same sort of politics. The one-time British diplomat Craig Murray explicitly called for the abolition of Israel and the rolling-back of Middle East history to before 1948. An SWP organiser on the megaphone at one of the marches was shouting that Israeli Jews should “go back to New York”.
The Guardian says that the left “possibly” subscribes to notions of an all-controlling “Jewish lobby”. Possibly? Moshe Machover came pretty close to saying it outright in the recent exchanges in this paper – and he is one of the most sophisticated of the “absolute anti-Zionists”.
Mr Rusbridger, the root and core of modern anti-Semitism is the denial of Israel’s right to exist and defend itself. That inexorably leads on to a radical political hostility to most Jews alive.
Of course Jews and Israel are not co-terminous. They could hardly be! It is a fact that all but a few Jews — revolutionary socialists, Neturei Karta, etc. — feel connected with Israel, however critically, and however much they abhor such things as the onslaught on Gaza. How could a people with their history not have such attitudes?
The “demand” that the self-proclaimed left has made on British Jews — very aggressively on university campuses, for example – has been that they repudiate Israel, that they not be Zionists, that they accept that Israel is “racist” in essence and has no right to exist.
The denial of Israel’s right to exist, predominant on the self-proclaimed left, is the precondition for the bizarre alliance of so much of the left with political Islam (to give it its proper name, Islamic clerical fascism). It is what allows the self-proclaimed left, political Islam, and Islamic communalists to merge and meld almost indistinguishably on occasions like the Gaza demonstrations.
Inevitably that radical political hostility to most Jews alive taps into the great half-buried septic reservoirs of old anti-semitism — into old racist, religious, and nondescript crank anti-semitism.
The Guardian Editorial writes of Nazi and Stalinist anti-Semitism in the 1930s. The worst Stalinist anti-semitism – from which come such things as the Stalinist-typical lunacy of equating Zionism and Nazism – erupted in the late 1940s and early 50s. The poisonous account of modern Jewish and Zionist history in the 20th century, which is dominant on the “left”, originates there, in Stalinism.
These old ideas of High Stalinist “anti-Zionism”/ anti-Semitism are rampant in the pro-Palestinian movement because they have conquered so much of the Trotskyism-rooted “left”. Young people who, to their credit, want to do something about such things as Gaza, come under the sway of the “smash Israel”, supposedly “pro-Palestinian” campaigns. The are taught ro reject a “Two State” settlement.
For the Guardian editorial to say that the difficulty lies in “the style” in which specific Israeli actions are criticised and condemned is simply preposterous! Whatever the “style” — and it varies from the seemingly reasonable to froth-at-the-mouth, open anti-semitism — the proposal to put an end to Israel leads inexorably to the things which the Guardian condemns, and to far worse.
The Guardian Editorial talks of the anti-semitism of the “jihadists”. The point is that the politics dominant in the Gaza demonstrations were entirely in line with the jihadists and their anti-semitism.
The Guardian has influence within the broad left. It is a pity you do not use that influence to tell the left the unpalatable truth about the state it’s in, that you don’t hold the mirror up, force people who should know better to see what they have let themselves become.
Below: different faces of contemporary antisemitism:
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.
The death this morning of Tony Benn is sad news, and all of us here mourn the passing of an honourable (if sometimes misguided) man who sincerely believed he stood for socialist principles.
In the late 1970s and throughout the ’80s Benn was an invaluable asset to the working class and the serious left. Paradoxically , it was later in his career, when he left parliament to “concentrate on politics” (in fact becoming a “national treasure”) that his politics went badly off the rails and he fell in with filthy, reactionary “anti imperialist” shysters like Galloway, German and Rees. Workers Liberty wrote this open letter to him in October 2005. Note that despite their gloves-off criticism of his utterly foolish softness on Saddam and Aziz, the authors acknowledge and pay respect to his role “as a fighter after 1979 against the Labour establishment”:
Dear Tony Benn
You have put your name to a petition on behalf of Saddam Hussein’s deputy Tariq Aziz. You have by now probably seen the newspaper reports that Tariq Aziz will give evidence against his old boss at Saddam Hussein’s trial — evidence that, among other things, Saddam Hussein gave orders for mass murder.
Tariq Aziz had to be there, that is, complicit in Saddam Hussein’s crimes against the peoples of Iraq, in order to be able to testify to such things. We will see what happens at the trial. But no-one has to wait for the trial to know who and what Tariq Aziz is. Yet you put your name to Galloway’s petition.
You, Tony Benn, unlike your co-signatories such as George Galloway have in the last 25 years been a man of the serious, class struggle left. Not infrequently we have disagreed with you on important questions.
But, comrade Benn, you are seriously out of place amidst the other signatories on Galloway’s petition on behalf of his friend Tariq Aziz. We say that not forgetting that on the eve of the US-British attack on Iraq you went to Baghdad and interviews Saddam Hussein in such a soft and accommodating way that the result, broadcast on British TV, was a “party political broadcast” for Saddam Hussein. Read the rest of this entry »
Above: excerpt from John Akomfrah’s film ‘The Stuart Hall Project’
The death yesterday of Stuart Hall, aged 82, robs the British left of a major intellect, an energetic organiser and a warm, charismatic human being. I should declare an interest: in the early 1970’s Stuart was one of my tutors at Birmingham University (where he was director of the Centre for Contemporary Studies) and, together with Dorothy Thompson in the History department, was instrumental in ensuring that I wasn’t chucked out and eventually obtained a degree (albeit an ‘Ordinary’). So I owe him a great deal: I only wish I’d got to know him better and found out, for instance, that we shared a love of jazz (although, I learned from Desert Island Discs, his favourite musician was Miles Davis, so even that might have generated some disagreement).
So I hope it’s clear that I liked and respected Stuart Hall a great deal, and if the articles reproduced below, in his memory, are quite sharply critical of aspects of his politics (particularly his rejection of the centrality of the working class to the struggle for socialism), that’s because serious, honest people can (or, at least, ought to be able to) disagree and still hold one another in high regard.
Paving the way for New Labour
By Matt Cooper (2013)
Cinema documentary has undergone a renaissance in recent years, with fine examples exploring subjects as diverse as sushi in Jiro Dreams of Sushi (2011) and death squads in 1960s Indonesia in The Act of Killing (2012).
Nonetheless, a film about the semi-Marxist cultural theorist Stuart Hall is unexpected. Hall was born in Jamaica in 1932, went to Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar in 1952 and was the founding editor of New Left Review (NLR) in 1960. This was a journal which explicitly adopted a “third way” approach between Soviet Communism and social democracy, but was ambivalent about the working class and its revolutionary potential.
After resigning as editor of NLR in 1962, Hall became a leading radical academic joining the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at Birmingham University in 1964 and becoming its director from 1968 to 1979. Cultural studies grew out of the New Left interest in the culture of the working class, which had largely been ignored by academia, and was part of a rise in a form of academic radicalism that mixed some real insights in an overly abstract and obtuse theoretical carapace and, like the New Left, often had little relationship with real struggles.
The last phase of Hall’s career commenced after 1979, when, despite his earlier rejection of both Stalinism and social democracy, he was one of the key theorists of bringing the two together. Through the pages of Marxism Today (the journal of the right wing of the Communist Party), and his own books, Hall argued that Labour needed to form a new progressive alliance in tune with “new times” where the organised working class was a diminishing force.
The problem with Akomfrah’s film is that it fails to address the development of Hall’s thought. It is strongest on his part in the formation of the New Left, and here hints at the weakness of this approach. While Hall’s co-thinkers were well established in Oxford and London, he reports that he was perplexed by an early encounter with the northern working class in Halifax. Like much else in the film, which is straitjacketed by its choice to use only the words from radio and TV appearances by Hall, this is left undeveloped.
Similarly, the film moves briefly over Hall’s work in the 1970s and fails to communicate what was specific about Hall’s understanding of culture — particularly his work on the moral panic over mugging in Policing the Crisis (1978).
Worst of all, the film entirely misses out Hall’s analysis of Thatcherism in the 1980s and his increasingly pessimistic response about how the left should respond to it.
Strangely, the film includes a clip of the 1984-1985 miners’ strike, but there is no reference to any words from Hall to accompany it. Hall, while clearly sympathetic to the strike, thought it the doomed expression of class struggle that could no longer win. Without any clear sense of transforming society, Hall looked only to create a new more progressive ideology removed from such outdated class struggle. Unwittingly, he was preparing the ground for New Labour (which was more enthusiastically supported by many of his Marxism Today collaborators).
Without much grasp of Hall’s place in the movement away from class politics from the 1960s to the 1980s, The Stuart Hall Project ends up with a fragmented kaleidoscope of images without any clear narrative.
It neither does justice to Hall’s ideas nor shows any critical understanding of them.
“Post Fordism”: collapsing into the present
By Martin Thomas (1989)
Capitalism has changed and is changing. Vast new areas in the Third World have industrialised. The introduction of small, cheap, flexible computers is revolutionising finance, administration, retailing, manufacturing. The majority of the workforce in many capitalist countries is now “white-collar” – but white-collar work is becoming more industrial.
Dozens of other shifts and changes are underway. Which of them are basic? How are they connected? What implications do they have for socialists?
Into this debate has marched the Communist Party’s magazine “Marxism Today”, bearing a banner with a strange device – “post-Fordism”. “At the heart of New Times”, they write, “is the shift from the old mass-production Fordist economy to a new, more flexible, post” Fordist order based on computers, information technology and robotics” (Marxism Today, October 1988). These New Times call for a new politics: in place of the old class struggle, diverse alliances.
There are several issues here. Do the political conclusions really follow from the economic analysis? Is the economic analysis sound? Where does the economic analysis come from? What do the terms “Fordism” and “post-Fordism” mean? Read the rest of this entry »
Between the 1930s and 1950s the revolutionary socialist (ie Trotskyist and, later, Shachtmanite) press in the USA made use of the wit and skill of talented cartoonists such as ‘Carlo’ (Jesse Cohen). In an Era of Wars and Revolutions, a new collection of their work, gives a snapshot history of the times: the rise of the mass industrial union movement in the USA, the great strike wave of 1945-6, the fight against ‘Jim Crow’ racism, World War Two, the imposition of Stalinism on Eastern Europe, and more.
Sean Matgamna (editor of In an Era of Wars and Revolutions) writes:
That “one picture can be worth a thousand words” is true, but only up to a point. A photograph or a painting cannot properly nail down, explain or explore ideas. A complicated piece of writing has no visual equivalent.
Yet a well-done cartoon is a powerful political weapon. A few bold strokes by an artist can convey an idea more vividly and fix it more firmly in the viewer’s mind than would an editorial or an article.
A cartoon is drawn to convey an idea, a point of view, an interpretation of what it depicts, and its meaning. Cartoons by their nature simplify, caricature, exaggerate, lampoon, and play with archetypal images.
A cartoon is highly subjective, yet it draws on commonly recognised symbols. The image, idea, interpretation fuse in the drawing. Drawn to convey an idea of people, things, institutions, classes, states, and of their inter-relationships, a cartoon distills the artist’s conception of what is essential in those people, events, entities, institutions, relationships.
The cartoonist is licensed to distort everyday reality so as to bring out a view, a “seeing”, analysis, critique, historical perspective of it. Its ciphers, emblems, archetypes vary to allow for the artist’s individual slant (like, in this collection, Carlo’s characteristic rendition of the top hat-fat archetypical bourgeois laughing at the gullibility or helplessness of workers).
All of a cartoon, all its details and references, are consciously or subconsciously chosen to convey a point of view, a nailed-down perception, a historical perspective. In old socialist cartoons the worker is always bigger and stronger than his enemies. He needs only to be awakened to an awareness of his strength.
It is almost always a “he”. The socialists who drew these cartoons were, themselves and their organisations, militant for women’s rights, but little of that is in their work.
One of the difficulties with old socialist cartoons for a modern viewer is that the stereotype-capitalist wears a top hat and is stout or very fat. In some early 20th century British labour movement cartoons he is named, simply, “Fat”. Fat now, in our health-conscious days, is seen as a characteristic of lumpenised workers and other “lower orders” people.
Much contemporary comedy is a hate-ridden depiction of the poor, the disadvantaged, the excluded, the badly educated, by physical type – fat and slobby. Where most of the old racial and national caricatures have been shamed and chased into the underbrush, no longer tolerable to decent people of average good will, the old social-Darwinian racism against the poor is rampant still, unashamed and not often denounced.
Even so, the old symbols, the fat capitalist and the big powerful worker, are still intelligible. They depict truths of our times as well as of their own. These cartoons still live.
They portray US politics, governments, the class struggle, the labour movement, America’s “Jim Crow” racism, Stalinism at its zenith, Roosevelt’s New Deal, Harry Truman’s “Fair Deal”, Senator Joe McCarthy, McCarthyism. They present clean and stark class-struggle socialist politics, counterposed to both capitalism and Stalinism.
A few are from the 1920s, but mainly they cover the quarter century after the victory of Hitler in Germany in 1933. and the definitive consolidation of Stalinism in the USSR.
Across the decades, they still carry the emotional hostility to the master class and solidarity with their victims that they were drawn to convey; the socialists’ abhorrence of the Stalinist atrocities that discredited and disgraced the name of socialism (they themselves were often among the targets); the desire, hope and drive for a re-made world — a socialist world. They blaze with anger and hatred against the horrors of America’s all-contaminating Jim Crow racism.
These cartoons were of their time, and what their time and earlier times led socialists to expect of the future. They were often mistaken. Government repression during World War Two was less fierce than the severe persecution of socialists and militant trade unionists in World War One and afterwards, led them to expect.
In the later 1940s, like most observers, they saw World War Three looming. In fact, the world settled into a prolonged “balance of terror” after Russia developed an atom bomb in 1949 and the USA and Russia fought a proxy war on Korean soil which ended in stalemate. The economic collapse which the experience of the 1930s led them to expect did not come (though in fact the long capitalist upswing took off only with the Korean war boom of 1950-3). Plutocratic democracy in the USA, during the war and after it, proved far less frail than the Marxists feared it would.
Over many years I have collected photocopies of these cartoons, buried as they were in files of old publications for six, seven or eight decades. I think others will be moved by them too.
What Peadar Kearney wrote fifty years after their time of the Fenians, the left-wing Irish Republicans of the 1860s and 70s, speaks to the socialists of the era covered by this book as well:
“Some fell by the wayside
Some died ‘mid the stranger,
And wise men have told us
That their cause was a failure;
But they stood by old Ireland
And never feared danger.
Glory O, glory O,
To the bold Fenian men!”
My friend and comrade Sean Matgamna has lately been the target of an ignorant and/or malicious campaign of largely synthetic outrage and accusations of “racism” (described and analysed here) from sections of the “left” who don’t like his militant secularism and anti-clericalism. The following short piece (from 2002) explains some of the background to Sean’s stance:
The Communist Party with Catholic Irish immigrants then, and the Left with Muslims now
There are striking parallels between the conventional Left’s attitude to Islam now and the way the Communist Party used to relate to Irish Catholic immigrants in Britain. I had some experience of that.
For a while, over forty years ago, I was involved in the work of the Communist Party among Irish people of devout Catholic background in Britain, people from the nearest thing to a theocracy in Europe, where clerics ruled within the glove-puppet institutions of a bourgeois democracy.
Hundreds of thousands of us came to Britain from small towns, backward rural areas, from communities of small commodity-producers that were very different from conditions we encountered in Britain. We spoke English and were racially indistinguishable from the natives, but we brought with us the idea of history as the struggle of the oppressed against oppression and exploitation, derived from what we had learned from teachers, priests, parents and songs, and from reading about Ireland’s centuries-long struggle against England.
Such ideas had very broad implications. It needed only a small shift – no more than a refocusing of those ideas on the society we were now in, and which at first we saw with the eyes of strangers not inclined to be approving – for us to see British society for the class-exploitative system it is, to see our place in it, and to reach the socialist political conclusions that followed from that.
Vast numbers of Irish migrants became part of the labour movement. Quite a few of us became socialists of varying hues, a small number revolutionary socialists. Catholicism was the reason why large numbers of Irish immigrants, whose mindset I have sketched above, did not become communists.
The CPGB ran an Irish front organisation, the Connolly Association. Instead of advocating socialism and secularism and working to organise as communists those being shaken loose from the dogmatic certainties we had learned in a society ruled by Catholic “fundamentalists”, the Connolly Association disguised themselves as simple Irish nationalists. They purveyed ideas not seriously different from those of the ruling party in Dublin, Fianna Fail, except for occasional words in favour of Russian foreign policy.
The real history of 20th century Ireland, and the part played by the Catholic Church and the Catholic “Orange Order”, the Ancient Order of Hibernians, in creating the conditions that led to Partition, were suppressed by these supposed Marxists. Instead, they told a tale in which only the Orange bigots and the British were villains. The concerns and outlook of narrow Catholic nationalism were given a pseudo-anti-imperialist twist. All that mattered was to be “against British imperialism”.
The CPGB thus, for its own manipulative ends, related to the broad mass of Irish Catholic immigrants – who, in the pubs of places like South Manchester, bought the Connolly Association paper Irish Democrat, in large numbers – by accommodating to the Catholic nationalist bigotries we had learned from priests and teachers at home and battening on them.
We had, those of us who took it seriously, a cultural and religious arrogance that would have startled those who did not see us as we saw ourselves – something that, I guess, is also true of many Muslims now. The CPGB did not challenge it. (If this suggests something purely personal to me, I suggest that the reader takes a look at James P Cannon’s review of the novel Moon Gaffney in Notebook of an Agitator.)
For the CPGB this approach made a gruesome sense entirely absent from the SWP’s antics with Islam, because Moscow approved of Dublin’s “non-aligned” foreign policy, which refused NATO military bases in Ireland. Russian foreign policy, and the wish to exploit Irish nationalism against the UK – that was the CPGB leader’s first and main concern.
In this way the Connolly Association and the CPGB cut across the line of development of secularising Irish immigrants: large numbers became lapsed Catholics, but without clearing the debris of religion from their heads. It expelled from its ranks those who wanted to make the Connolly Association socialist and secularist. Instead of helping us move on from middle-class nationalism and the Catholic-chauvinist middle-class interpretation of Irish history, it worked to lock us back into those ideas by telling us in “Marxist” terms that they were the best “anti-imperialism”. What mattered, fundamentally, to the CP leaders was who we were against – Russia’s antagonist, Britain.
(from the Workers Liberty website)