RIP Jimmy Perry, creator and co-writer (with the late David Croft) of Dad’s Army.
In honour of Jimmy Perry’s greatest creation, we reproduce here the late Alan Coren’s brilliant Times review:
Dad’s Army, BBC1, by Alan Coren
They belong to the oldest regiment in the world, the men of Dad’s Army. The Sidewinder may replace the siege-engine and the Armalite the longbow, but the nature and composition of the King’s Own 17th/21st Incompetents change not at all. I watched them all troop on again last night, out of step, ragged, potty, insubordinate, inept, and who are Arthur Lowe and Clive Dunn and John Le Mesurier, I said to myself, but Bardolph and Nym and Ancient Pistol? Or, come to that, Schweik and Yossarian and Stan Laurel and Miles Gloriosus; and, though memory, not to say erudition, escapes me, I will just bet that the literatures of Sanscrit, old High Gothic and Xhosa are packed to their various margins with stories of soldiers who right-wheeled into the wall, fell over their side-arms, and shot the regimental ferret in error.
I suppose the monumental madness of war can be made tolerable only by this kind of miniaturisation; there is a wider lunacy beyond the script in the fact that Clive Dunn might well, in theory at least, have been the only thing standing between us and Dachau, and the alternative to allowing that thought to send the shrapnel shrieking round the brain is to watch him fire his Lewis gun into the ceiling of the church hall while we all fall about gasping on hilarity instead of on gas.
So much for today’s Sobering Thought. What must now be said is that these particular khaki fools do no discredit to the great tradition; the timing of their disasters is impeccable, the individuation of their character has been splendidly fleshed out so that each identity is total, and their personal conflicts are soundly based in those differences. The essential quality of mock-heroic is always sustained by the parody of Brit-in-arms (there was a superb moment last night when Arthur Lowe restrained his enfeebled warriors with a terse: “Steady! We’re not savages”), and behind the daftness there lies a certain valuable poignancy which is not altogether explained by nostalgia. I suppose what I mean is that they would have died, too, if the greater folly had demanded it.
On October 23, a large group of unarmed students gathered outside the Budapest radio station and demanded that their 17-point programme of democratic demands be broadcast. After the police opened fire the government dominated by Erno Gero, a Kremlin stooge, called on the Soviet leadership to send in troops.
On October 24, Russian tanks and artillery fired on demonstrators in Budapest killing and wounding hundreds of men, women and children. It was this which sparked the armed resistance.
This response was published in November 1956 by the the British “orthodox” Trotskyists. The fact that in all likelihood it was written by the proven political gangster, thug and rapist Gerry Healy does not detract from its value, or from the essential truths it contains (in the face of persisting Stalinist lies about the uprising being “fascist”). The “orthodox” Trotskyist view of the world is reflected in the article’s repeated and excessive insistence upon denouncing “world imperialism and its agents” and warning against “capitalist elements” supposedly “in the ranks” of the Hungarian revolutionaries – indeed, even urging Hungarian Communist Party members (the majority of whom supported the revolution) to “stay in the Communist Party and fight it out.”
STALIN IS DEAD BUT STALINISM LIVES
That is the message spelt out in letters of blood by the Hungarian people.
The labour movement of the world is rightly shocked at the brutality and ruthlessness of the Soviet armed forces. But this fact must not permit us to be taken off guard for one moment by world imperialism and its agents. Stalinist rule has always been associated with persecution and murder, both inside and outside the Soviet Union. Eden and Eisenhower have never protested when revolutionary opponents of the regime have been smashed. They helped to whitewash and justify the Moscow trials through the book and film Mission to Moscow written by American ex-ambassador Joseph E. Davies. Both the British and American governments refused asylum to the great revolutionary Leon Trotsky when he was being hounded from one country to another by Stalin’s GPU.
If these gentlemen shed tears for Hungary today it is not for the workers and peasants who have borne the brunt of the fight against Stalinism but for their fascist and landlord friends.
What happened in Hungary, as we shall see, was a revolution for national independence and democratic rights. Connected with this was a series of demands passed by the trade unions.
1. Workers’ councils in every factory to establish workers’ management and radically transform the system of state central planning and directing.
2. Wages to be raised immediately by 10 to 15 per cent and a ceiling (about £106 a month) fixed for the highest salaries.
3. To abolish production norms except in factories where the workers or workers’ councils wish to keep them.
4. The 4 per cent bachelor and childless family tax to be abolished; the lowest retirement pensions to be increased; child allowances to be raised with special reference to the needs of large families.
5. Speed up house-building with the state, co-operatives and other organisations launching a powerful social movement to mass produce houses.
6. Negotiate with the governments of the Soviet Union and other countries in order to establish economic relations that will ensure mutual advantages by adhering to the principle of equality.
(Daily Worker, October 27).
The backbone of this movement was the demand for the withdrawal of all Soviet troops from Hungary.
The imperialists were against this type of revolution. On the same day, October 27, the New York Times -mouthpiece of American big business-declared: ‘The view prevailing among United States officials, it appeared, was that “evolution” towards freedom in Eastern Europe would be better for all concerned than “revolution”, though nobody was saying this publicly.’ The New York Times again returned to this theme the next day, October 28, when it declared that the problem of western imperialism is ‘how to encourage the nationalist and libertarian spirit in the satellites without flaming it into a large scale revolt.’ As if not to be outdone by the New York Times the London Daily Worker, echoing Moscow, declared on October 25: ‘Only false friends resort to the gun. . . .’ Five days previously (October 22), John Foster Dulles speaking in Washington defended the legality of the presence of Soviet troops in Poland under the Warsaw agreement.
‘From the standpoint of international law and violation of treaties,’ he said, ‘I do not think you can claim that it would be a violation of a treaty.’ Mr. Dulles was fully aware at the time he made that statement that a revolution was under way in Hungary and Hungary was also a party to the Warsaw agreement.
Hot on the heels of Mr. Dulles came R. Palme Dutt of the British Communist Party.
‘The Soviet armed forces,’ he wrote, ‘were legally in Hungary by agreement under the Warsaw Pact.’ (Daily Worker,’November 10.) In a cable from Washington by its correspondent Philip Deane, the London Observer, November 11, 1956, reports that: ‘High Administration sources say that the United States has tried to let the Russians know, without being provocative, that Berlin and Austria will be defended by American forces. Hungary, meanwhile, has been officially and finally abandoned to its fate.’ And Basil Davidson, one of the last journalists to leave Hungary, reports that of the American financed propaganda station Free Europe Radio one revolutionary said: ‘I wish I could shut its ugly mouth. It lied to us just as the Russians lied to us.’ Neither the Soviet bureaucrats nor the imperialists and their representatives Palme Dutt and Foster Dulles care two hoots about the working people of Hungary. They were both, for different reasons, opposed to the revolution, and in each case supported their own particular agents and not the movement of the Hungarian people as a whole.
HOW THE REVOLUTION BEGAN
On October 23, a large group of unarmed students gathered outside the Budapest radio station and demanded that their 17-point programme of democratic demands be broadcast. After the police opened fire the government dominated by Erno Gero, a notorious Kremlin hack, promptly called for Soviet troops.
On Wednesday, October 24, Russian tanks and artillery fired on demonstrators in Budapest killing and wounding hundreds of men, women and children. It was these actions which sparked off the revolutionary armed resistance. During the next day, October 25, armed rebellion broke out. Workers on Csepel island in the Danube took up weapons against the security forces. Radio Budapest announced this as a rebellion of the working people: Absolutely no mention was made at that time that this was the work of armed gangs and the counter revolution. Read the rest of this entry »
A villanelle about the Aberfan disaster, in which 144 people, including 116 school children, died when a coal mining waste tip collapsed.
There was a lot of anger at the National Coal Board for its neglect of safety, and at the inquest, one father insisted: “I want it recorded — ‘Buried alive by the National Coal Board’. That is what I want to see on the record. That is the feeling of those present. Those are the words we want to go on the certificate.”
21 October 1966
By Janine Booth
The miner insisted the coroner record
The Pantglas School building a homicide scene
They were buried alive by the National Coal Board
His heart was in bits though his shoulders were broad
Though mining was dirty, were consciences clean?
The miner insisted the coroner record
The muck, slush and water had tumbled and poured
The slurry ran black through the valley of green
They were buried alive by the National Coal Board
We all feel this way, the father implored
The mums and the dads of the hundred-sixteen
The miner insisted the coroner record
The standard of care that it did not afford
A tip in a place it should never have been
They were buried alive by the National Coal Board
Aberfan wanted some justice restored
Though justice had perished at 09:13
The miner insisted the coroner record
It was buried alive by the National Coal Board
As the 60th anniversary of the heroic anti-Stalinist uprising in Hungary approaches, Chris Birch – one of the few surviving eye-witnesses – replies to a request for further information in a letter to the Morning Star:
Chris Gould asks (M Star October 11) for an analysis of the 1956 Hungarian uprising and its effects. I was working in Budapest before, during and after the fighting and met Matyas Rakoski, the general secretary of the Hungarian Working People’s Party and the man largely responsible for the crimes and policy mistakes that led to the uprising in October 1956.
It started with a student demonstration at the Petofi memorial, demanding to be allowed to travel to Western countries. It had been banned, then the ban was lifted and I went to look.
During the afternoon the demonstration grew to immense proportions, and the party’s first secretary went on the radio to denounce the demonstrators, many of whom were communists, as “counter-revolutionaries.”
He said that the policies of the party and the government were correct and would not be changed. I was in Parliament Square listening to the broadcast, and the good humour of the crowd visibly turned to anger. A fortnight later I found myself trying to bandage Soviet soldiers.
Soon after my comrade Charlie Coutts and I returned to London, we had a meeting with Communist Party of Great Britian (CPGB) general secretary Johnny Gollan, and presented him with a 19-page document simply headed “HUNGARY: Charlie Coutts and Chris Birch.”
It covered our views on party democracy in Hungary, Hungarian and Soviet party relations, democracy and corruption. Gollan passed it on to the Soviet ambassador in London and he sent it on to the central committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and to the Soviet foreign office in Moscow. It was eventually published in a Soviet journal.
John Callaghan in his “Cold War, Crisis and Conflict: The CPGB 1951-68” gives a brief account of what was happening in Hungary in 1956 and a fuller account of their effects on the British party. I hope the above may help Mr Gould.
Hungarian Tragedy – Peter Fryer An account of events in Hungary 1956 by Peter Fryer, then a columnist for the Daily Worker, the official paper of the Communist Party of Great Britain.
Other recommended reading
The Hungarian revolution: 1956 – Anonymous account of the events of the near revolution of 1956, containing interesting information from interviews with participants.
United Nations report on the Hungarian uprising 1956 – UN special committee report on the 1956 Hungarian uprising. Examines the revolutionary workers councils established by Hungarian workers, and analyses the dangers they posed to both the Soviet bureaucracy and capitalism.
Hungary ’56 – Nick Heath – History of the Hungarian uprising of 1956, published as a special supplement of Anarchist Worker on the 20th anniversary in 1976.
Above: Ghosts of Cable Street (music by The Men They Couldn’t Hang)
Ruah Carlyle looks at the 4 October 1936 Battle of Cable Street, where anti-fascists stopped the police clearing a route for Oswald Mosley’s fascist march in East London.
In 1936 Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists turned its attention to East London, and there built the only truly mass base fascism ever built in Britain.
The East End branches of the BUF became, by spring 1936, the centre of BUF activity. Why? What was it about East London that focused BUF attention? The Jews of the East End provided the fascists with a unique target. East End Jews were concentrated in small areas: in 1929, 43 per cent of the national Jewish population were concentrated in Stepney alone.
East London had been an immigrant gateway for centuries. In the 17th century, French Protestants, Huguenots, sought refuge there from Catholic persecution. The mid 19th century saw a big influx of Irish immigrants. After 1881, when systematic pogroms set Russian and Polish Jews to begin their exodus to the west, large numbers of them settled in the East End, first in Whitechapel then fanning out towards Stepney and Mile End.
Anti-Jewish agitation, loud or muted, active or latent, had existed in the East End since the time of the first large Jewish settlements.
It was against this background that, in September 1936, Mosley announced that the BUF would march through the East End on 4 October. It was to be the biggest show of fascist strength ever, in this their strongest area. It could have developed into a pogrom.
On 4 October, the thousands strong Blackshirt march was to begin in Royal Mint Street, pass along through Gardiners Corner (now the top of Whitechapel Road) and on to four separate street meetings in Shoreditch, Limehouse, Bow and Bethnal Green. It never even got going! The march was stopped dead. As many as a quarter of a million people, East Londoners and outsiders, jammed Gardiners Corner. Only an army would have cleared the way for the Blackshirted thugs. An army of police tried and failed.
Tram drivers abandoned their vehicles in the middle of the road. The Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Sir Phillip Game, had drafted in a third of the London police force, 6,000 policemen, the whole of the mounted division, and had a primitive helicopter, a gyroscope, flying overhead.
Despite these forces, which made numerous charges at the anti-fascist crowd, breaking many heads, no throughway for the fascists could be cut.
The Police Commissioner then proposed a diversion through the dock area around Wapping, and along Cable Street. There a virtual war was fought between the police and the defenders of the anti-fascist barricades. British, Irish and some Somali dockers fought the police. The anti-fascist barricade was constructed of furniture, paving stones and a lorry.
Pretending to retreat, the anti-fascists lured the police forwards, and took up positions behind secondary barricades while from the upstairs tenements on either side of the street other anti-fascists threw bricks, stones, bottles, marbles for horses’ hooves, and boiling water down on the bewildered police.
While the outnumbered and powerless fascist heroes waited in vain for a path to be cleared for them, the police faced chaos. Rare in British street battles, stray policemen were taken prisoner by the barricaders. For those moments the rule of the British state in East London was suspended.
At about 5 p.m., after a three hour battle, the Commissioner said to Sir Oswald Mosley that he would not longer be held responsible for the safety of the fascists. Speaking as one knight to another, he said: “If you go ahead sir, it will be a shambles!” The beaten police cancelled the fascist march, and sent them off to the Embankment. They did not pass!
Cable Street coincided with the siege of Madrid during the Spanish Civil War. The anti-fascists, overwhelmingly working-class, painted the slogan “No Pasaran” (“They Shall Not Pass”) all over East London, linking Mosley’s march with Franco’s rebellion in Spain. They took the workers of Madrid as their model and inspiration.
A Stalinist myth surrounds the Communist Party’s role in the Battle of Cable Street. The CP had a grand anti-fascist reputation, but an increasingly spurious one.
Up to 1934, the CP had been in the throes of the Stalinist policy known as the “Third Period”, when, so they said, revolutions were just about to happen everywhere. This was nonsense, and in Germany led the CP to play into Hitler’s hands, but it had meant that the British CP was willing to throw itself physically into fighting fascism, perceived as the last-ditch defenders of a dying capitalism.
By 1936, this view had changed dramatically. Stalin was pursuing a policy of creating a “democratic anti-fascist front” of the USSR with the capitalist powers France and Britain against the German Nazis; the British CP, like CPs everywhere, was now advocating a Popular Front. This meant allying with non-working-class organisations opposed to German fascism, and in Britain by the late 1930s this would include “progressive Tories”.
The British CP was trying to gain respectability, aping mainstream politicians in the hope of allying with them. As a result, the CP did not always oppose Mosley militantly, because they feared that continued militancy would make it impossible to ally with “respectable” politicians.
By 1936, they were shying away from physical confrontations. Abandoning class politics, they more and more attempted to compete with the fascists as British nationalists, and even as protectors of religious freedom against “compulsory idolatry” in Germany. They were loudest in demanding blanket police bans on the fascists, and counterposed campaigning for bans to organising on the streets. That was their initial approach to what became the Battle of Cable Street.
The CP only threw their considerable weight behind the East End anti-fascist mobilisation when it was clear three days before that they had lost control of their own local members and sympathisers, who would follow the Independent Labour Party’s call on workers to block the route of the fascist march.
At first they told workers not to oppose the fascists in the East End, and instructed CP members to go to the Embankment and then Trafalgar Square instead.
Joe Jacobs, a local CP branch secretary who later broke with the party, was instructed by his superiors four days before the fascist march not to get involved and instead to build for a demonstration, miles away in Trafalgar Square, in support of the Spanish Republic against the Spanish fascists.
His instructions were clear: “Keep order, no excuse for the Government to say we, like the BUF, are hooligans. If Mosley decides to march, let him. Our biggest trouble tonight will be to keep order and discipline.”
In his posthumously published autobiography, Jacobs explains the reason for the eventual change of line very clearly: “The pressure from the people of Stepney, who went ahead with their own efforts to oppose Mosley, left no doubt in our minds that the CP would be finished in Stepney if this was allowed to go through as planned by our London leaders.”
The Labour Party and the trade union movement were against the fascists, but they also opposed direct action — physical force — to stop their activities. Like the Liberals, they instructed people to rely on the police to prevent disorder.
But unlike the establishment the labour movement feared destruction at the hands of the Nazis, not just discomfort. Even those who opposed direct action helped arouse the working class. The Labour Party and TUC research department published many pamphlets and leaflets which compared the BUF to Italian and German Fascism. In this climate, the militant “actionist” opponents of fascism gained support for physical opposition, even from normally non-militant Labour Party and trade union members.
The Independent Labour Party, not the CP, was the most consistently confrontational anti-fascist force in the East End and beyond.
The ILP had been one of the early constituent organisations of the Labour Party. It had split from the Labour Party in 1932, moving to the left. By 1936, the ILP, though it was still a hybrid political formation, in which bits of reformism, pacifism, and revolutionary socialism were confusingly mixed, was much nearer to being a communist party in the old sense of the word than the official “Communist Party” was. Some of its members were Trotskyists.
The ILP broke up fascist meetings by way of massing opposition, heckling and fighting. They barred fascist processions, organised petitions, and defended Jewish areas — particularly in the East End — from attack.
The Jewish Board of Deputies vehemently opposed the fascists, but it told the East End Jews to rely on the police. On no account should they oppose the fascists physically; that, the Jewish leadership insisted, would only add fuel to the fires of anti-semitism.
To many young Jews, political or not — and large numbers of Jews were members of the Communist Party, the Independent Labour Party, the Labour Party, and of Jewish left-wing groups like Hashomer Hatzair and the Workman’s Circles — the proper response to fascists marching through Jewish areas was simple: don’t let them!
The Jewish community had its own ex-servicemen’s anti-fascist militia, the Blue and White Shirts. British Jews, branching out from their orthodox background, were often attracted to revolutionary politics, many joining the CP. There were also many smaller, local anti-fascist bodies.
Cable Street entered working-class legend. It is rightly remembered as something the working class and its allies won against the combined might of the state and the fascists.
The Battle of Cable Street led directly to the Public Order Act. Rushed through the House of Commons, it became law on 1 January 1937. The Public Order Act is often and falsely seen by reformists as a significant hindrance to the fascists, and by some as the thing that finally killed off Mosleyism.
That is an illusion. The Act banned political uniforms, gave the police added powers to ban marches at will, and strengthened laws against racist abuse. Though it was an annoyance to the fascists, the Act did not cripple them and did not ”finish them off” as some too legalistic interpretations of its effect seem to suggest.
Even after the defeat at Cable Street, the BUF achieved and sustained a mass base of support in East London which, if repeated elsewhere, would have given them major political weight and at least the possibility of power. Not until the Second World War was the BUF really finished off, when fascism abroad became the universal enemy, and the BUF was increasingly viewed publicly as merely a satellite of the Nazis.
The POA was a broad blanket measure, designed more to help the police control left-wing opposition movements, for example the hunger marchers, than to suppress the BUF. For decades after Mosleyism had vanished down the great sewer of history, the POA was being used against the labour movement.
The POA did nothing to stop anti-Jewish harassment (despite a few prosecutions). It did not even stop the large-scale violence. On 3 October 1937 there was great violence when the Mosleyites, no longer Blackshirted, tried to march through Bermondsey, South London. Despite appeals by Doctor Salter, the much respected local Labour MP, to let the fascists pass and “protect their free speech”, local people erected barricades and there was serious fighting, not far from the scale of Cable Street.
The Public Order Act did not quell the BUF any more than the banning of nazi uniforms at one point quelled Hitler. If it appears so in retrospect, that is only because the BUF went into decline soon afterwards. The POA played at best a secondary and conditional role in that decline.
The fundamental determining factors in the BUF’s eventual failure were that economic conditions and the political relations built on them did not favour a radical counter-revolution in Britain.
Yet it was not “objective conditions” that stopped the police forcing a way for the British Hitlerites into Jewish East London: it was a quarter of a million workers massing on the streets to tell them that they would not pass, and making good the pledge by erecting barricades and fighting th BUF-shepherding police. A year after Cable Street, it was the working-class and the socialist movement which again put up barricades in Bermondsey to stop the fascists marching.
The great lesson for today is that the determination of the labour movement and Jewish community limited the effects of BUF terror and opened the prospects of defeating the BUF, irrespective of what the establishment did, including the labour movement establishment.
Assemble12 noon @ Altab Ali Park, Whitechapel Road, London E1. March to a rally @ St George’s Gardens, Cable Street. Speakers before and after the march include: Max Levitas (Cable Street veteran), Jeremy Corbyn MP, Rushanara Ali MP, Frances O’Grady (General Secretary, TUC), Unmesh Desai (GLA member, City and East London)
A man of peace? Not exactly. But still…
The first demonstration I ever attended was at the end of 1967. On one school day, the principal went through all parts of the school, announcing: “The last two classes are canceled, everybody is going to demonstrate at the French Embassy!”. We broke into a great cheer and went through the school gates. En route to the embassy we encountered the pupils from other schools, all joining in the great organized spontaneous demonstration. Someone started chanting “De Gaulle / Has a big nose!” (it rhymes in Hebrew) and everybody joined in.
In the Israel of late 1967 it was very fashionable to hate France, and in particular to hate French President Charles de Gaulle. As we read in newspapers and heard from our teachers, France had betrayed Israel and violated the alliance with us at the crucial moment and imposed an arms embargo on Israel. (Israel won the war anyway, but that’s another issue.) And to add insult to injury, we were told that de Gaulle had said anti-Semitic things, though we did not know exactly what. Therefore, we were very happy to demonstrate at the French Embassy instead of studying. Some of us also wanted to throw stones and break the embassy windows, but the police prevented that.
As it happened, a few weeks later I was browsing at a dusty back shelf in my favorite lending library. There a book with an intriguing title: “A Bridge Over The Mediterranean”. On the front page appeared a large photo of the Israeli Minister Shimon Peres shaking hands with French President Charles de Gaulle, both smiling broadly, over the background of the Eiffel Tower and the Paris skyline. I read the first chapter in which Shimon Peres spoke at very great length about the strategic alliance between Israel and France. As described in the book, it was a strong and enduring alliance, serving the best interests of both countries. (As far as I can remember, the one thing Peres did not mention was the French aid in building the Dimona Nuclear Pile…).
Actually, it was not such an old book. It had been published just three years earlier, in 1964, but it seems somebody at the library decided to exile it to the back shelf. It was then, at the age of 12, that I was first introduced to Simon Peres “the man of great visions and designs” (not always the same visions and designs…).
In 1976, during a brief leave from the army, I participated with several dozen youths at a Tel Aviv protest against the new settler movement, “Gush Emunim” (Block of the Faithful), whose members were determined to establish themselves at the heart of the Biblically-hallowed “Judea and Samaria”. After the demonstration, we sat in a cramped office and listened to the news on a tiny, black and white TV set. “Again, Gush Emunim activists managed to evade the military checkpoints, reach the old railway station in Sebastia and barricade themselves in.” said the announcer “Evicting them is expected to result in violent clashes with soldiers”.
“What is this nonsense about their evading the checkpoints?” cried one of the organizers. “Defense Minister Shimon Peres is the settlers’ best friend. What more do you want to know? It’s a con game, pure and simple”. In that small office, we all felt a very visceral hatred of Shimon Peres.
The next morning, in the bus on the way back to base, I read of “compromise agreement” reached late at night with the blessing of Defense Minister Peres. The Gush Emunim settlers were allowed to remain “temporarily” at a nearby military base. Later, temporary became permanent, the settlers stayed and the it was soldiers who eventually left, and the military base became the settlement of Kedumim.
Shimon Peres definitely had a major share in this outcome.
May 1981 – a crowded meeting at the Tzavta Hall in Tel Aviv, to celebrate the election of Francois Mitterrand as President of France. The keynote speaker was Shimon Peres – Leader of the Israeli Labor Party, Leader of the Parliamentary opposition and Vice President of the Socialist International. “Europe is becoming a Socialist Continent!” cried Peres. “This is the wave of the future, and we in Israel should become part of it!” It was the first time I heard Shimon Peres praising Socialism, and it did not last long. (In truth, Mitterrand himself, as well as the other members of the Socialist International, have not shown a real commitment to the principles of Socialism…)
September 1982: the First Lebanon War had been raging for three months, culminating with the terrible massacre in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. A wave of demonstrations and protests throughout the country, I have spent the previous night at the Abu Kabir Detention Center in south Tel Aviv. A crucial meeting between major activists of the “Committee Against the Lebanon War” on one hand and the leadership of “Peace Now” on the other.
– “Peace Now wants to have on Saturday night a very big rally, a huge one, on the Kings of Israel Square. It should really be a mass event, bigger than anything anyone of us ever did before. But you of the Committee got first to the police, you have the permit for using the square on that night. If you don’t pass it on to us, Peace Now will not be able to do it. And you, too, know that if you mobilize only your own supporters, the rally would be much smaller.” – “OK, we are ready to give you the license.” – “But there is a problem. The Labor Party is ready to join, to change their position. They are going to stop supporting the war in Lebanon start speaking out against the war. Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin are willing – they very much want – to mount the podium and speak very sharply against Begin and Sharon. But I hate to say this, Peres and Rabin are not willing to share the podium with anyone from the Extreme Left. ”
All eyes in the room turned to the radical poet Yitzhak Laor, who was going to be the keynote speaker for the Committee Against The War. After a moment of silence he muttered a pungent oath and said: “The hell with it! No one will be able to say that I spoiled a big rally against the war crimes. Let Rabin and Peres have the podium to themselves and welcome!”. So was born the memorable “Demonstration of the Four Hundred Thousand”, the biggest public event in Israel’s history until then.
Some two or three years later – again a small demonstration of several dozens, and again sitting afterwards to see the TV evening news at a dusty office (color TV this time). In this demonstration, as in many protests and events held at the time, we chanted “Talk peace / With the PLO / Now, now, now!”/ . We distributed to the indifferent Tel Avivian passers by leaflets about the meetings which activists of the Council for Israeli-Palestinian Peace held with PLO officials, and about the positive messages which they got from the Palestinians.
On that evening TV interviewed Shimon Peres, Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir’s cabinet. Peres rejected out of hand the option of negotiating with the PLO – “It is a terrorist organization, they are opposed to peace, they have nothing positive to contribute – absolutely nothing.” Conversely, he greatly praised King Hussein of Jordan – “The King is a serious, reliable partner. The real option for peace is the Jordanian Option!”
“What an idiot!” said one of the people sitting next to me. “He wants to give the Territories to Jordan. And then the Palestinians will say that the agreement does not bind them, and will continue fighting Israel. What a clever deal – pay the full prize and get nothing in return! How can such a stupid person get so high?”
As we learned later, at that time Peres had held a secret meeting with King Hussein in London and reached a draft agreement, but Prime Minister Shamir vetoed it and the initiative failed. We did not share Peres’ outrage and protest at “The loss of a historic opportunity”.
April 1990 – the government coalition crisis which came to be known in Israeli history as “The Dirty Trick”. With the outbreak of the First Intifada the Jordanian Option was definitely off the agenda. The Americans suggested that Israel negotiate with a Palestinian delegation not officially representing the PLO but including representatives from East Jerusalem. Prime Minister Shamir rejected the proposal out of hand and accused Foreign Minister Peres of discreetly encouraging the Americans. Peres and the other Laborites resigned and brought down the Shamir Government in a parliamentary vote of confidence.
Thereupon, Shimon Peres announced that he had managed to form a new government headed by himself, and that it would be presented to the Knesset on the morning of April 12. But on that morning, as we waited, the hours passed and there was no sign of the new cabinet. There were increasing rumors the ultra-Orthodox have abandoned Peres at the last minute and deprived him of the expected parliamentary majority. This turned out to be true. By noon, Peres appeared on the screen, tense and pale, and announced “a delay in presenting the new cabinet”. “Damn!” said one of my friends. “This means that we remain stuck with Shamir, and he will continue to block everything. God damn the ultra-Orthodox to Hell! ”
1994 – After the Nobel Peace Prize Committee announced the award of Yitzhak Rabin, Yasser Arafat and Shimon Peres for their part in the Oslo Agreements, Yedioth Ahronoth published a nasty commentary. The writer attacked Peres harshly, accusing him of being “a publicity stunt man” who had “pushed through the signing of the horrible Oslo Accord” for the sole purpose of getting the Nobel Prize.
So I immediately sat down and wrote a Letter to the Editor. I don’t have the exact text (at that time, such things were not yet preserved on the computer), but I remember quite clearly that I expressed unreserved support for Foreign Minister Shimon Peres. I wrote that he was a statesman of the first order, of whom any country could be proud. I wrote in that letter (as I wrote and said very often, at the time) that Shimon Peres deserved praise and the Nobel Prize for understanding that Israel must end the occupation and achieve peace with the Palestinians – not only for the sake of the Palestinians but also for its own future.
I praised Peres for understanding that in order to talk to the Palestinians one needs to talk with those that the Palestinians themselves regard as their representative – namely, the Palestine Liberation Organization and its Head, Yasser Arafat. I also wrote that Peres deserved to be praised for having managed to overcome his bitter rivalry with Yitzhak Rabin, work closely with Rabin and convince the Prime Minister to shake hands with Yasser Arafat.
For all these reasons, I concluded, Shimon Peres fully and rightly deserved the Nobel Peace Prize – more so than many others who got it before him. “Yediot Ahronot” shortened my letter, but the essential parts did get published on the next day.
November 1995 – The bitter night of the Rabin Assassination. A very successful peace rally on the square, the big crowds who came to express confidence in the Peace Process that began in Oslo, Rabin and Peres on the podium singing the Peace Song. The rally over, hundreds of young people dancing merrily to the tune of Brazilian Samba music from the loudspeakers. Suddenly the honking of a long column of police cars, wild rumors of a terrorist attack, the news that Prime Minister Rabin was hit by an assassin’s bullets, hundreds of people running all the way to the gate of the Ichilov hospital, Cabinet Spokesperson Eitan Haber appearing and reading out the communiquי: “The Government of Israel announces with shock …”.
Returning to the square. Sitting in mourning circles around the lighted candles. The radio reported that the cabinet convened in the middle of the night for an emergency session and elected Shimon Peres as Prime Minister Pro Tem, pending Knesset approval. Several youths walk to the wall of the nearby Tel Aviv Town Hall and spray paint a huge graffiti: “You will never walk alone, Shimon Peres!”.
Already that night, we started talking about what Peres should do. Immediately dissolve the Knesset and call new elections, so as to win a large majority? Act firmly and strongly against the settlers, now that their public standing is at a low ebb?
Alas, Shimon Peres did not follow any of our “advices”. Instead, he soon got entangled in a completely unnecessary, bloody military operation in Lebanon – “Operation Grapes of Wrath”. In April 1995, after 106 Lebanese civilians were killed by a stray Israeli artillery shell at the village of Qana, I was at a protest outside the home of Prime Minister Shimon Peres in Ramat Aviv. It was a militant demonstration, with very sharp slogans chanted against The Prime Minister, including such terms as “murderer”, “assassin” and “war criminal”. We collided with the police cordon which barred our way, and came very close to spending the night in custody. Yet, during the dispersal I told my fellow demonstrators: “There is no choice. Despite everything, in the elections we will have to vote for him.” – “What? For this bastard?” – “What else? Do you want Netanyahu as Prime Minister?”.
At that moment, the expression “Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu” still seemed a kind of science fiction, a remote and highly unlikely eventuality. But a bare month and a half later, it became a reality that accompanies the state of Israel up to the present. On elections night we sat awake, with the predictions showing a victory for Netanyahu – a victory by a narrow but clear margin. Hour after hour we sat in front of the screen, hoping against hope for a change – until with the morning light, predictions became certainty and Shimon Peres lost irrevocably his last chance at holding Israel’s helm of state.
I could continue this article on and on and specify more moments in the life of Shimon Peres – lights and shadows, contrary landmarks, times when we were very angry with him for agreeing to serve Netanyahu and represent him on the international arena and other times when Peres tries at least to some degree to face up to the leader of the Likud and take all sorts of initiatives to promote peace. There was the failed attempt to be elected as the (purely titular) President of Israel and a second attempt which succeeded. And the last years, when he was very popular with the general Israeli public and increasingly pushed aside the vision of peace and of The New Middle East and chose to focus on a new, non-political dream and vision – i.e. the intensive promotion of nanotechnology and of the enormous blessings nanotechnology could give to mankind.
Still, now that Shimon Peres’ long career definitely ended in a huge state funeral in the presence of Heads of State and assorted VIP’s from all over the world, I’d rather finish my personal review with that decisive moment of failure in the 1996 elections.
Was Shimon Peres a Man of Peace? Many of my political friends are skeptical about that, to say the least. It is not difficult to gather damning evidence and point to black spots all along Peres’ career.
As for me – I would have been very happy indeed if it were possible to turn the wheel backwards, go back to May 1996 and give Shimon Peres the extra thirty thousand votes which would have made him a Prime Minister for an extra four years and reduced Netanyahu to a forgotten footnote in Israel’s history.
The Shimon Peres of 1996 was completely committed, politically and personally, to the Oslo Accords. There is good reason to believe that, with a solid mandate for four more years, Peres would have embarked with his typical energy and determination on the Permanent Status negotiations with the Palestinians. That he would have seriously tried to reach an agreement by the May 1999 deadline agreed upon. And that with an agreement reached, he would have worked very hard to implement it on the ground.
Would he have succeeded? Would we now be living in a completely different situation, in a real New Middle East? Or would Peres have wasted this chance, too, and ended in a dismal failure? We will never know.
In reality it is impossible to go back in time and change history. Hopefully, we will still succeed to change the future.
Shimon Peres, the former prime minister of Israel, has died at the age of 93 after suffering a stroke. A titan of Israeli political life, Peres remained an active player in his country and the region until his death, working hard to promote closer ties between Israelis and Palestinians.
He will be remembered above all else for his role in negotiating the 1993 Oslo Peace Accords and for winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994 along with then-Israeli Prime Minster Yitzak Rabin and Yasser Arafat, who was at the time chairman of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO). A peace treaty with Jordan also followed, which established mutual recognition between that country and Israel.
Peres always believed that the Israelis needed to be a proactive partner in the peace process. As he put it in 2013: “We can and should bring an end to the conflict – and we have to be the initiators. Playing hard-to-get may be a romantic proposition, but it’s not a good political plan.”
His dedication to the peace process was established even before Oslo. In the late 1980s, Peres was involved in a secret agreement with Jordan’s King Hussein. Signed in April 1987, the so-called London Agreement outlined a framework for a solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict that would focus on education and the development of the two countries’ respective economies. Unfortunately the Israeli prime minister at the time, Yitzak Shamir, disagreed, and refused to approve the agreement.
Peres was involved in the peace process again by the early 1990s, while serving as foreign minister under Rabin. But before Oslo even took place there were internal battles about who to negotiate with – the PLO in Israel-Palestine, which was supposedly composed of moderates, or the PLO based in Tunis and led by Arafat. Ultimately, it was Arafat who came to the negotiating table.
To make this happen, both Peres and Rabin had to change their mind about dealing with the PLO abroad. Peres felt that it was futile to keep Arafat in exile in Tunisia since it made co-operation between the two sides more difficult.
Though the secret accords have been highly controversial ever since they were struck, they nevertheless included several noteworthy steps. The first was mutual recognition: for the first time, the PLO would recognise the state of Israel, and vice versa.
The accords also created an interim government for the Palestinians, the Palestinian National Authority, which would take over responsibilities in education, social welfare, health care, direct taxation and tourism. Within nine months, elections were to be held.
The accords allowed for Arafat to return to Gaza after years in exile; Israel was also supposed to withdraw from Gaza and Jericho within four months. In return, the PLO would also remove chapters in its charter referring to the destruction of Israel, which would be given guarantees that its people had the right to live in peace and security.
The stalled process
Proponents of Oslo at the time claimed that the accords helped encourage a peaceful approach to the conflict, and constituted the first step to getting the peace process started in earnest. But as is all too evident today, and despite Peres’s lifelong optimism, the peace the accords planned for was never achieved.
Oslo failed to address the key issues of the conflict: the status of Jerusalem, right of return for the 1948 Palestinian refugees, the status of the Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza, and the borders of the Palestinian territory. There was also no promise of an independent Palestinian state. It was assumed that these issues would be negotiated at the end of the five-year transition period the accords provided for. For many critics, the Oslo was just a litany of empty promises.
Part of the problem was that the accords were not actually a peace treaty, but only a first step to peace and a framework for facilitating negotiations for a final treaty intended to be negotiated in 1998.
When the accords were signed in September 1993, the criticism was sharp and immediate. Palestinian scholar Edward Said decried them as a “Palestinian surrender”, and claimed that the plan would throw the Palestinian leadership into complete disarray.
There was also anger on the Israeli side. Peres’s fellow negotiator Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated by a right-wing Israeli extremist in November 1995, an event which in turn led to the election of the right-wing Likud Party in 1996. Led by Benjamin Netanyahu, who today serves as Israel’s prime minister again, the new government was openly antagonistic towards Oslo.
So why did Oslo fail? As ever, it depends which voices on which side you listen to.
Many Israelis blame Palestinian violence for wrecking the peace process. After the Camp David Accords collapsed in July 2000, the Second Intifada broke out and ran until 2005. The militant Islamist group Hamas won legislative elections in 2006, further deepening a rift among Palestinians and making the Palestinian Authority more irrelevant than ever.
In contrast, many Palestinians claim that it was the Israelis who have reneged on their side of the deal. Highly contentious is the issue of Israeli settlements in the occupied territories: in 1993, there were 115,700 Israeli settlers living there, whereas today there are more than 350,000 in the West Bank and another 300,000 living within East Jerusalem’s pre-1967 borders. No settlement freezes have taken place, and this constant encroachment has made the two-state solution more difficult.
A 2013 poll examining the effects of Oslo on public opinion 20 years later found both sides have been dissatisfied. Palestinians maintained that the Israelis were the big winners, with 49% claiming that the accords damaged their interests. On the Israeli side, 68% of Israelis felt that the main beneficiaries were the Palestinians, and 64% felt that they themselves had been harmed by the accords.
And yet a 2015 poll revealed that while 90% of Palestinians don’t think Israel has abided by the Oslo Agreement, 68% still want to support the agreement. So for all that the Oslo framework is resented criticised, any new peace process for peace in the region will almost certainly have to stick to it in some form.
Although the two sides are far apart, Peres died an optimist, still hopeful that the day would come when the Israeli Defence Forces’s soldiers would serve purely for peace. As he famously put it: “Impossibility is only a product of our prejudice.”
Natasha Ezrow does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond the academic appointment above.
A demonstration against The Satanic Verses, in Bradford, 1989. Photograph: Sipa Press/Rex Features
Peter Tatchell can usually be relied on for common sense, decency and a an instinct for fair play, especially when it comes to those difficult personal-meets-political questions that seem to crop up so often these days.
So when Tatchell came on the BBC Radio 4 TodayProgramme, saying that Keith Vaz has “not broken any laws” and should not resign from his position as chairman of the Commons Home Affairs Committee in the light of the Sunday Mirror‘s revelations, my initial reaction was to agree.
Tatchell said he could see no public interest in publishing the story:
“As far as I can see he has not broken any laws, or caused anyone any harm and there’s no allegation of hypocrisy; buying sex in this country is lawful,” Tatchell told Radio 4’s Today Programme on Monday.
“Keith Vaz has a strong record of supporting gay rights. He has never gone tub-thumping in terms of supporting family values so what is the public interest in publishing this story … Whatever you think about Keith Vaz behaviour and some people might take the view that it was irresponsible and wrong, I don’t think it’s a resigning matter. I don’t think there is a serious conflict of interest there” [The Home Affairs Select Committee is currently overseeing an inquiry into prostitution laws. An interim report published in July recommended significant changes to existing laws so that soliciting and brothel-keeping are decriminalised].
Tatchell also suggested that Vaz may have been entrapped by the paper and argued it appeared to be a “classic tabloid sting … “It’s a throwback to the sensationalist tabloid style of the 1980s. It’s not something you’d expect to see in 2016”.
All of which is true and needed saying: well done Peter!
So why am I not inclined to take up cudgels in defence of Vaz?
It isn’t just because ever since entering the Commons in 1987 (the first Asian MP since 1929, alongside pioneer black MPs Paul Boateng, Diane Abbott and Bernie Grant), he’s been a rank opportunist and unprincipled careerist of almost breathtaking shamelessness (well described here); his personal dishonesty and contempt for free expression, secularism and enlightenment values was exposed once and for all within two years of entering parliament:
Vaz said, in that phone conversation, that what had happened was ‘appalling, absolutely appalling,’ and promised his ‘full support’. A few weeks later he was one of the main speakers at a demonstration against The Satanic Verses attended by over three thousand Muslims, and described that event as ‘one of the great days in the history of Islam and Great Britain.’
Vaz is a Catholic of Goan origin. But even so, I’m sure he’s familiar with the Buddhist concept of Karma (an attractive idea, even for an atheist like myself): it means, roughly, “what goes around comes around.”
19th and 20th century socialism is a house of many rooms, cellars, attics, alcoves, and hidden chambers (not to speak of private chapels and “priest-holes”).
There are in it the utopian socialists of our pre-history reformists and revolutionists, parliamentarians and insurrectionists, “direct action” anarchists and union-building syndicalists, council communists and kibbutz-building utopian Zionists.
And then fascists sometimes proclaimed themselves socialists (national-socialists). So did many Third World political formations, often more fascist than socialist, such as the “Ba’th Arab Socialist Parties” of Iraq and Syria.
And Stalinism. The political reflections and tools in the labour movements of the Russian Stalinist ruling class proclaimed themselves “communists” and “socialists”, and for much of the 20th century were accepted as the main force of communism and socialism, in bourgeois propaganda as well as their own.
The great names of real socialism are numerous, and are far from being at one with each other: Gracchus Babeuf, Charles Fourier, Robert Owen, Etienne Cabet, Karl Marx, Frederick Engels, Auguste Blanqui, Mikhail Bakunin, Ferdinand Lassalle, Louis Michel, Wilhelm Liebknecht and his son Karl, August Bebel, George Plekhanov, Vera Zasulich, Jules Guesde, Jean Jaures, Victor Griffuelhes, Paul Lafargue, Laura Lafargue, Eleanor Marx, Pavel Axelrod, Peter Kropotkin, James Connolly, Daniel De Leon, Jim Larkin, Eugene Debs, Christian Rakovsky, Henry Hyndman, Ernest Belfort Bax, William Morris, Keir Hardie, Klara Zetkin, Sylvia Pankhurst, Karl Kautsky, Rosa Luxemburg, Vladimir Lenin, Vladimir Shliapnikov, Leon Trotsky, Chen Duxiu, Antonio Gramsci, Leon Sedov, James P Cannon, Leon Lesoil, Pantelis Pouliopoulos, Abram Leon, Ta Thu Thau, Henk Sneevliet, Max Shachtman…
The Communist International picked up and subsumed many of the threads of earlier socialism, and wove them into a more or less coherent strategy of working-class struggle for power — the direct action of the French and American syndicalists, the political “syndicalism” of the De Leonites, the revolutionary parliamentarianism of Liebknecht, the sometimes acute criticism by communist-anarchists of the parliamentarians of the pre-1914 Socialist International, the concern with national liberation of such as James Connolly, and all that was healthy in previous socialist activity and theorising.
They denounced bourgeois democracy and parliamentarism in the name of the fuller democracy of workers’ councils — their criticism of bourgeois democracy would later, like so much else, be annexed and put to its own pernicious uses by totalitarian Stalinism.
The Russian working class, in their unprecedented creativity — for instance, in creating soviets (workers’ councils) — and the Bolsheviks who led them to victory had in life found solutions to many of the problems that had perplexed earlier socialist thinkers.
What had all the different strands of socialism in common? What, with their different methods, tempos, and perspectives, did they seek to achieve?
All of them — the socialist reformists such as Keir Hardie, too — sought to abolish capitalism and the exploitation and wage-slavery on which it rested, and to replace it with a non-exploitative, rational, humane society.
Their ideas of what would replace capitalism differed greatly, for instance between anarchists and Marxists, but all the socialists sought to replace private ownership of the means of production and exchange with collective social ownership by the workers and working farmers.
All of them — in one way or another, with one qualification or another — looked to the working class, the slave-class of the capitalist era, to achieve this great social revolution.
The Israeli Olympians murdered at the 1972 Summer Games in Munich. (Danny Ayalon Youtube Channel)
After forty-four years the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has held an official memorial for the eleven Israeli athletes killed at the 1972 Games in Munich.
In the early hours of 5 September, Palestinian terroists from the Black September group clambered over security fences at the Olympic Village, made their way to the Israelis’ quarters and took a group of them hostage.
The terrorists, who murdered two of the Israeli athletes, demanded the release of more than 200 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails. It ended with a botched rescue attempt by German police in which all nine of the remaining hostages, and a policeman, were killed.
Ankie Spitzer, widow of Andre, one of the victims, says she has asked for a minute of silence ever since the 1976 Games.
The request was turned down, and she says she was told it was “because then there were 21 Arab delegations and if they [the IOC] would do a memorial all these delegations would boycott, and they would go home”. There have been other “excuses” since.
Now, after years of campaigning, Ankie Spitzer and the other victims’ relatives have the consolation of a memorial ceremony in the athletes’ village in Rio, where a memorial stone was be unveiled.
The Olympic historian, Jules Boykoff, author of the recently-released Power Games: A Political History of the Olympics, says part of the explanation for the delay was “a guiding fiction that the IOC has long clung to – that politics and sports don’t mix”.
Below, Eric Lee in an article first published in 2012, recalls the response of the American SWP (not connected with the British organisation of the same name):
This may be news to some, but what is today commonplace was once quite rare. I’m referring to anti-Semitism on the far Left — and am reminded of what some of us saw as a turning point back in 1972.
For a quarter of a century following the defeat of Nazi Germany, anti-Semites everywhere were laying low — especially in the West. The Soviet leadership was growing increasingly anti-Jewish and anti-Israel, and anti-Semitism was rife in the Arab world, but in countries like the USA, it was quite rare for Jew-hatred to be expressed openly. And certainly not on the Left.
So while there were various degrees of criticism of Israel — especially of Israel’s brand-new occupation of the West Bank, Gaza, Sinai and the Golan Heights — these took place at a time when anti-Semitism remained taboo.
That’s why the Munich massacre of that year — and particularly the reaction of America’s largest far Left group to it — was such a shock.
The Socialist Workers Party (SWP) was then still riding on a wave of support following its successful leadership of a large part of the anti-war movement during the Vietnam years — a war that was still raging. Its youth section, the Young Socialist Alliance, was strong on many college campuses. And it was still at that time pretty much an orthodox Trotskyist organization, though was later to drift.
When 11 Israeli athletes were killed following the attack by Black September terrorists, most political activists either grieved or denounced the terrorists. Some would have criticized the botched German government attempt to rescue them.
But not the SWP.
In its weekly newspaper The Militant, the SWP ran an article on the “real victims of the Munich massacre”. And the real victims, in their eyes, were not the 11 innocent Israelis, but … the Palestinians.
An editorial in “The Militant” following the Munich massacre labelled the world outcry as a “hypocritical roar of indignation” whose purpose really was “to make the criminal look like the victim” and said the massacre itself was merely a mistake in tactics.
Those of us who were in the Socialist Party, at that time still under the ideological leadership of Max Shachtman, were shocked at the SWP’s stance.
Our youth section, the Young Peoples Socialist League (YPSL) produced a flyer for distribution at SWP and YSA events where we bluntly accused our former comrades of having crossed the line from criticism of Israel to hatred of the Jewish state — and of Jews.
The SWP was shocked at the allegation and responded by publishing a series of articles in “The Militant” defending their record in the fight against anti-Semitism, going back to the Second World War.
Looking back at that today, it strikes me what an innocent time that was.
Today, if a group on the Left is accused of anti-Semitism it rarely goes to the lengths that the SWP of 1972 went to defend themselves.
Accusations of Jew-hatred are today greeted with a shrug.
What was so shocking 40 years ago — that a socialist organisation would identify somehow with a brutal terrorist attack on innocent people if those people happen to be Jewish — is commonplace now.
In the decades that followed the Munich massacre, the SWP drifted away from Trotskyism and lost nearly all of its members, leaving only a tiny organisation left, bereft of all influence.