100 years of recorded jazz: the contested legacy of the ODJB

February 25, 2017 at 7:41 pm (black culture, history, jazz, Jim D, music, United States)

It was fortunate for both jazz and the phonograph industry that the emergence of both co-incided: the improvisational music that is jazz was caught in its early days by the phonograph, and jazz repaid the industry a million times over in sales of music that owed its existence to early jazz.

It is generally accepted that the first jazz records were laid down in New York on February 26 , 1917. The band was the Original Dixieland Jazz (or “Jass”) Band from New Orleans, and the records were Livery Stable Blues and Dixie Jass Band One-Step, which were released as the two sides of a 78 rpm record on April 17, 1917 which became a top-seller (and maybe an early million-seller). So far, so good. But at this point, race enters the story and makes matters difficult.

Because the Original Dixieland Jazz Band (or ODJB, as they are known in jazz history) were, indeed, from New Orleans – the recognised birthplace of jazz — but were white and achieved their success in New York. Jazz is, in its origins at least, primarily Afro-American, so surely the fact that the first jazz records were made by five white guys is a practical demonstration of racism, even in the foremost art-form developed by Afro Americans?

Well, maybe: but even disregarding the (unsubstantiated) legend that the black/creole trumpeter Freddie Keppard turned down a recording deal (on the grounds that rivals would steal his stuff) in 1916, before the ODJB recorded, there is no evidence that the Victor Talking Machine Company was motivated by racism when it recorded the ODJB, rather than a black band, for the first time. Where racism does come into the story is the reason the ODJB was such a sensation in New York in the first place. After all, James Reese Europe’s (black) orchestrated ragtime group and Bill Johnson’s Original Creole Band (featuring Keppard), which by all accounts was playing very similar music to the ODJB’s, had both already played New York but not achieved the success that came the way of the ODJB. Gunther Schuller, in his book Early Jazz, offers various explanations before concluding: “Finally, the color lines were undoubtedly still drawn so clearly as to make similar success for a comparable Negro group impossible.”

The spurious race issue has been further exacerbated by preposterous rants over the years from the ODJB leader and trumpet/cornetist Nick La Rocca, claiming that he and the ODJB had “invented” jazz and that black musicians had stolen from them: La Rocca’s racism (or, maybe, to be charitable, bitterness from a Sicilian who was himself the victim of prejudice), has antagonised jazz lovers ever since, and contributed to a general consensus in which the ODJB are down-graded as little more than a novelty act who struck lucky (mainly by dint of being white) and happened to make the first (supposed) jazz records.

Philip Larkin, not often cited as an anti-racist, wrote this about La Rocca’s claims (as repeated uncritically in The Story Of The Original Dixieland Jazz Band, by H.O.Brunn): “Mr Brunn’s thesis that the ODJB ‘invented’ jazz out of a kind of instrumental ragtime is put forward mainly by the staggering trick of completely omitting all reference to contemporary Negro New Orleansperformers such as Bolden, Oliver, Bunk Johnson or Keppard. No reader of this book would suspect that the Negroes had anything to do with jazz at all. Can this be the official Southern view?”

So was the ODJB actually any good, and are its records (still widely available on LP and CD) worth listening to? I have to admit that I can only listen to the ODJB as an exercise in musical archaeology – something that I wouldn’t say about King Oliver’s Creole Band, Jelly Roll Morton’s Red Hot Peppers, Armstrong’s Hot Fives and Sevens, or, indeed, the white New Orleans Rhythm Kings who started recording in 1923 – all these early bands sound fresh and exciting in a way that the novelty-effects and stiff rhythm of the ODJB simply does not (though the Victor records they made in the course of a brief 1936 re-union are a considerable improvement).

And yet … the ODJB was made up of good musicians. Clarinettist Larry Shields was a fine and surprisingly sensitive player, who influenced Benny Goodman and was respected by black and creole contemporaries, while drummer Tony Sparbaro (later Spargo) was a top-rank percussionist who could hold his own alongside the best black drummers of the day (he was also the only member of the original ODJB lineup to say active in jazz after the demise of the group in 1924: he was still playing and recording in the late 50’s). Even the much-scorned La Rocca can lay claim to having influenced the great Bix Beiderbeck; as Richard M. Sudhalter (in his monumental account of white jazz, Lost Chords) writes: “Visiting Bix in 1931, his old friend Dick Turner found him bitter and disillusioned, complaining that life had passed him by, that there was no one on whom he could depend – and that hot music held no further charms for him. ‘Hell,’ he told Turner, ‘there are only two musicians I’d go across the road to hear now, that’s Louis and La Rocca’.”

And talking of the great Armstrong, it’s worth remembering that his early record collection included discs by Caruso, Al Jolson … and the ODJB, whose Tiger Rag made a lasting impression on the young man and was part of his repertoire throughout his career. Louis even went so far as to state (in his first real autobiography Satchmo): “Between you and me it’s still the best” (ie the ODJB version of the tune).

Probably the fairest assessment of the ODJB comes from Gunther Schuller, in Early Jazz: “Still, in a balanced assessment of the ODJB, its best recordings, like Sensation Rag, Clarinet Marmalade, Dixie Jazz Band One Step and Livery Stable Blues, were an infuriating mixture of bad and good, of tasteless vulgarity and good musical intuitions. But beyond the music the ODJB left behind, it held, for better or worse, a crucial place in the formative period of jazz. It fulfilled the role in a manner that was not altogether unworthy.”


Surviving ODJB members Spargo and Edwards on a TV show in Sept 1960

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Hungarian Right destroying and remaking history

February 20, 2017 at 1:31 pm (anti-fascism, history, Hungary, intellectuals, literature, Marxism, philosophy)

 Image result for picture Budapest statue of Georg Lukács

On 25 January the Metropolitan Council of Budapest decided (by 19 votes to 3) to remove the statue of the Marxist philosopher Georg Lukács from the 13th District and replace it with a statue of King Stephen, the founder of the Hungarian nation. The proposal was put by a member of the neo-fascist Jobbik Party, Marcell Tokody. Last year, despite opposition, Lukács’s house which has served as an open archive since his death in 1971 was closed by the authorities. The fate of the documents in the archive, many of which have yet to be translated in languages other than their original Hungarian or German, is unclear.

In the history of 20th century Marxism Lukács is a central figure. He is certainly not without his critics but some of his writings, particularly History and Class Consciousness, are seminal works of Marxism and have stood the test of time. We should not standby and allow the barbarians of the Hungarian right, and their odious leader Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, to destroy his legacy.

Please sign the petition:

www.petition24.com/protest_against_closing_down_the_lukacs_archive

John Cunningham

(the author of these few words lived in Hungary from 1991 to 2000 and is currently working on  a full length study of Lukács and his legacy)

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Review: ‘Denial’ in the age of post-factual politics

February 10, 2017 at 7:09 pm (anti-semitism, apologists and collaborators, cinema, conspiracy theories, fascism, film, history, law, posted by JD, relativism, Trump, truth)

Ann Field reviews Denial, now on general release:

Denial is a dramatisation of the libel case brought by Holocaust denier and Hitler apologist David Irving against the American academic Deborah Lipstadt (author of Denying the Holocaust, in which Irving featured prominently) and Penguin Books (which published her book).

The film has received mixed reviews. Some critics have described it as “hammy”, “stuffy and repetitive”, and “a standard issue legal drama”. The character of Lipstadt has also been criticised as “so predictable” and “an impassioned mouthpiece with no internal life.” And given the well-known result of the real-life trial — in 2000 a High Court judge found that Irving had knowingly distorted history and ruled in favour of Lipstadt and Penguin Books — the eventual outcome of the trial is not a source of tension in the film.

But the film is well worth seeing. Irving is such a truly repulsive character, and the contrast between him and Lipstadt so absolute, that the audience can only enjoy the wait for Irving’s eventual defeat in court, and then relish the moment of his demise Irving does not look at people. He leers and scowls at them. When he speaks, his face twists into a grimace. He is full of his own bloated self-importance, but fawning and sycophantic towards the judge in court.

During the film Lipstadt and her legal team watch clips of Irving addressing neo-Nazi rallies, making racist “jokes”, and denying the genocide of the Holocaust. The cheap and grainy quality of the clips helps emphasise the tawdry and seedy nature of the character they show. Irving also excels in a poisonous anti-semitism-by-innuendo. “Who pays you to write your books?” asks Irvine when he “ambushes” Lipstadt in a lecture at the start of the film.

According to his libel claim, Lipstadt is “part of a world conspiracy to destroy his reputation.” And in one of the court scenes he refers to “those who funded her (Lipstadt) and guided her hand.” But, for all his bravado, Irving is also a pathetic figure. As Lipstadt’s barrister points out, Irving wants to be seen as a great writer and historian and hankers after respect — “England is a club and he wants to be a member of it.” That makes Irving’s defeat all the more complete and all the more enjoyable when it arrives.

He loses the trial, he is exposed as a charlatan rather than a historian, and when he tries to shake the hand of Lipstadt’s barrister — as if the trial had been a public school sixth form debate — the latter abruptly turns his back on him. Lipstadt, on the other hand, is built up into a champion of the oppressed. Her name, Deborah, she explains, means leader and defender of her people. She is a woman and a Jew, which is one reason why Irving is so intent on pursuing her. And she has no interest in negotiating, compromising or reaching an out-of-court settlement with Irving.

She also spells out the importance of the case in which she is the central figure: if Irving wins, then Holocaust denial receives a judicial stamp of approval as a legitimate opinion. There is no face-to-face confrontation between Lipstadt and Irving in the film. But there is a succession of dramatic confrontations between Lipstadt and her legal team.

Lipstadt wants to give evidence at the trial. Lipstadt wants Holocaust survivors to give evidence at the trial. Lipstadt promises a Holocaust survivor that the voices of those who did not survive will be heard at the trial. But her legal team will have none of this.

Almost to the point of caricature, they are hardheaded legal professionals who base their strategy solely on what is most likely to achieve victory in court. When Lipstadt objects that if she does not testify in court people will call her a coward and that she would have to live with that for the rest of her life, her barrister responds: “That’s the price to pay for winning.”

Not that her barrister is portrayed unsympathetically: he seems to live off red wine (preferably drunk out of a plastic beaker rather than a glass), sandwiches and cigarettes. There is the same element of caricature about the High Court judge: apparently unaware of the invention of the computer, he writes his judgements with a fountain pen while drinking freshly made tea. And, without the assistance of a butler, he would surely never manage to put his wig on straight.

Although Denial was completed before Trump’s election victory, the film’s scriptwriter, David Hare, has emphasised that the film also has a more contemporary element: it takes a dig at Trump’s brand of post-factual politics: “[In this internet age] it is necessary to remind people that there are facts, there is scientific evidence and there is such a thing as proof. That was true with this court case and it’s important to say it now. [Trump’s politics] is a non-evidence-based approach to politics, what you might call Trumpery. It’s terribly dangerous.”

Cinema-goers whose idea of a good film is a five-hour-long adaptation of a novel by Proust, directed by Wim Wenders, and full of lengthy shots of dreary Swedish coastlines punctuated by endless internal monologues should steer well clear of Denial. But for those who like a film where the good guys win and the bad guys lose, Denial is a must-see.

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When Martin McGuinness met the Queen

January 22, 2017 at 4:38 pm (history, Ireland, Monarchy, posted by JD, republicanism, strange situations)

Image result for picture Martin McGuinness met the Queen

By Sean Matgamna (first published in 2012)

In a hugely symbolic moment on 27 June, during a royal visit to Northern Ireland to mark her jubilee, the former commander of the IRA shook hands with the Queen.

The man who commanded the force responsible for, amongst other things, the death of the Queen’s cousin Lord Mountbatten, exchanged a handshake with the woman whose armed forces murdered 14 innocent civil rights marchers in his hometown of Derry. This was, all proportions guarded, a real life instance of David Low’s famous cartoon “Rendezvous” in which Hitler (“the bloody assassin of the workers”) greets Stalin as “the scum of the earth”.

The response of the press, in Britain, Ireland and internationally, was very positive.

The Guardian thought “it underlined how far we have come since the Troubles”. The Mirror contained an unusually calm and rational article from Tony Parsons who described it as “the end of something — the decades of hatred, loathing and bloodshed” as well as “the beginning of something, too — when the raw wounds of the past can perhaps begin to heal”.

The Belfast Telegraph, traditionally a Unionist paper, hailed the handshake as “bridging a gulf that spanned centuries”. The southern Irish press was unreservedly impressed. The New York Times called it “a remarkable sign of reconciliation for both figures”.

The working-class socialist response to this would seem to be fairly straightforward. McGuinness claims still to be a republican in both important senses of the word. As a “capital R” Republican he appeared to make peace with the highest symbol of British rule while her state and government continue to “occupy” the northern part of Ireland and deny his people self-determination.

Even more objectionable is his apparent suspension of “lower case” republicanism — the rejection of rule by hereditary, unelected privilege. Contempt for such an institution should be taken for granted by even the mildest democrat.

Didn’t McGuinness, by shaking the Queen’s hand, acknowledge both her right to rule and her government’s sway in Ireland?

A glance at the fiercest critics of this historic handshake is a reminder that things are more complicated.

Before the meeting the Daily Mail advised the Queen to burn her gloves after carrying out her “distasteful duty”. The Sun’s front page headline declared “We don’t blame you for wearing gloves M’am”. The Times cartoonist provided an image of the Queen putting on four pairs of gloves before shaking the bloodstained hand of McGuinness.

The idea that there might be plenty of blood on the monarch’s hands too didn’t occur to any of them.

The Daily Mail was the one paper that didn’t deem the occasion to be worth a front page story. Inside, though, they brought us arch-militarist Max Hastings under the headline “I’m sorry, even in the name of peace, it was wrong to shake his blood-soaked hand”.

Hunting for evidence that McGuinness, the deputy prime minister and latter-day conciliator, remained “a fanatic”, Hastings alighted on his principled decision not to take his full ministerial salary (£71,000).

For me, that is evidence that Sinn Fein retains some connection with its mainly working-class base. For Hastings, it shows “certitude about his own moral compass” and this, he claims, is “the foremost requirement of a fanatic”.

On what appears to be the opposite side of the spectrum, McGuinness and Sinn Fein have been attacked by harder line Irish Republicans for yet another betrayal. Protests were held by dissident republicans, and senior SF councillor Alison Morris resigned in opposition to the event.

It’s important to register clearly what the critics are opposed to. On the republican side it isn’t seriously claimed that McGuinness or his party have become soft on the monarchy. For certain McGuinness and Sinn Fein have rapidly acclimatised to being part of the establishment and clearly enjoy being normal bourgeois politicians. What took place on 27 June was, however, more than just a further shift down that road.

The justification given by Sinn Fein had nothing to do with either the Queen or British rule. McGuinness described his move as “in a very pointed, deliberate and symbolic way offering the hand of friendship to unionists through the person of Queen Elizabeth for which many unionists have a deep affinity”. There is no reason not to take that rationale at face value. He went on to claim that this sort of symbolism had the potential to define “a new relationship between Britain and Ireland and between the Irish people themselves”.

That view can be criticised as naive. It can be attacked as a top-down way of managing the communal differences without challenging the fundamental causes. In common with most elements of the “peace process” it seems to reinforce rather than undercut cultural division. It’s a different matter, however, to criticise it for “going too far” towards the unionists. The least bad fault with modern-day SF is that they are insufficiently intransigent nationalists. Yet that is the criticism most commonly levelled at them from the left.

And it’s hard not to take some pleasure from the visible discomfort this event has caused to the British right. The fact that their Queen has felt it necessary to shake the hand of the former IRA commander has opened a very old sore for reactionaries.

The most reliable of these, Peter Hitchens, summed up the problem in the Mail on Sunday. After a few predictable and gratuitous personal swipes at McGuinness he compressed all his familiar anxieties into this short sentence: “If anyone doubted that the Good Friday Agreement was a humiliating surrender by a once-great country to a criminal gang, they can’t doubt it now.”

The sort of Tories whom Hitchens and Hastings write for spent their formative years insisting that those who took up arms to fight British rule anywhere in the world were no more than criminals. They said it too of Mandela and the ANC. Time and again they have seen these claims crumble to dust as the era of direct imperialist rule has given way to triumphant independence movements. And it hurts deeply.

Hitchens’ adult life has been blighted by one episode after another of “humiliating surrender” by his “once-great country” to movements fighting to free their countries from colonial or racist rule (or “criminal gangs” as he prefers to put it).

But the Irish people have not yet won a united independent state. The British have not surrendered and nor would it matter much if they did. The key to Irish territorial unity is, and has for decades been, democratic unity between its people. What Martin McGuinness did on 27 June offended the sensibilities of democrats and socialists because of our contempt for the institution of monarchy. However, his motive at least was progressive.

It was also republican in the sense defined by the founder of modern Irish republicanism Wolfe Tone — “to replace the name Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter with the common name Irishman”. We should be bold enough to point that out.

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The pro-Nazi origins of “America First”

January 21, 2017 at 12:11 pm (anti-semitism, apologists and collaborators, conspiracy theories, fascism, history, populism, posted by JD, Racism, reactionay "anti-imperialism", Trump, United States)


Above: Lindbergh’s Des Moines speech

  • “The American carnage stops right here, right now. From this day forward a new vision will govern our land. From this day forward it’s going to be only America first! America first!”  – Donald Trump

In his characteristically poisonous inaugural address, Trump once again used the sinister slogan “America First,” the name of the isolationist, defeatist, anti-Semitic national organization that urged the United States to appease Adolf Hitler.

The America First Committee began in spring 1940 at Yale University, where Douglas Stuart Jr., the son of a vice president of Quaker Oats, began organizing his fellow students. He, together with future US president Gerald Ford and Potter Stewart, a future Supreme Court justice, drafted a petition stating, “We demand that Congress refrain from war, even if England is on the verge of defeat.”

Their proposed solution to the international crisis was a negotiated peace with Hitler. Other Yale students — including Sargent Shriver, who served in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, and Kingman Brewster, the chairman of the Yale Daily News, future president of Yale and ambassador to the UK– joined the isolationist crusade.

Robert Wood, the chairman of Sears Roebuck became the group’s chairman. The organization soon included Col. Robert McCormick of the Chicago Tribune; Minnesota meatpacker Jay Hormel; Sterling Morton, the president of Morton Salt Company; U.S. Rep. Bruce Barton of New York; and Lessing Rosenwald, the former chairman of Sears.

Soon the organization had several hundred chapters and almost a million members, two-thirds of whom lived in the Midwest. The celebrity aviator Charles Lindbergh joined America First in April 1941, serving as the committee’s principal spokesman and star of its rallies.

Seeking to present itself as a mainstream organization, America First struggled with the problem of the anti-Semitism of some of its leaders and many of its members. It had to remove from its executive committee not only the notoriously anti-Semitic Henry Ford but also Avery Brundage, the former chairman of the U.S. Olympic Committee who had prevented two Jewish runners from the American track team in Berlin in 1936 from running in the finals of the 4×100 relay.

Still, the problem of anti-Semitism remained; a Kansas chapter leader pronounced President Franklin Roosevelt and Eleanor Roosevelt “Jewish” and Winston Churchill a “half-Jew.”

After Pearl Harbor, the America First Committee closed its doors, but not before Lindbergh made his infamous speech at an America First rally in Des Moines, Iowa, in September 1941. After charging that President Roosevelt had manufactured “incidents” to propel the country into war, Lindbergh proceeded to reveal his true thoughts.

“The British and the Jewish races,” he declared, “for reasons which are not American, wish to involve us in the war.” The nation’s enemy was an internal one, the Jews. “Their greatest danger to this country lies in their large ownership and influence in our motion pictures, our press, our radio, and our government,” he contended. Booing began to drown out the cheers, forcing him again and again to stop, wait out the catcalls, and start his sentences over.

“Lindbergh ought to be shipped back to Germany to live with his own people!” shouted a Texas state representative before the House of Representatives in Austin passed a resolution informing the aviator that he was not welcome in the Lone Star State. Across the country, newspapers, columnists, politicians and religious leaders lashed out at Lindbergh.

“The voice is the voice of Lindbergh, but the words are the words of Hitler,” wrote the San Francisco Chronicle. “I am absolutely certain that Lindbergh is pro-Nazi,” wrote New York Herald Tribune columnist Dorothy Thompson.

Trump is a supremely ignorant man, but he surely knows the filthy origins of the slogan he’s used time and again: we have been warned.

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The shame of the Morning Star … and its predecessor

December 14, 2016 at 10:26 am (apologists and collaborators, Beyond parody, CPB, history, Human rights, Jim D, murder, reactionay "anti-imperialism", stalinism)

August 1939:

Image result for picture Daily Worker Stalin Hitler pact

December 2016:

Inline image

Barbara Speed at the i:

Other voices piped up, claiming that these reports from terrified Syrians, and the warning by UN Secretary Ban Ki-Moon of possible “atrocities” taking place in Aleppo, and the Red Cross’s statement about a “deepening humanitarian catastrophe”, were mere propaganda. Footage circulated of Syrians celebrating in Aleppo at the impending government victory. Then there was the Morning Star, a socialist daily tabloid. Its front page declared the near-“liberation” of Aleppo this morning, while other publications raised the possibility that “massacres” were being committed there. (Social media was quick to pick up on the fact that when the Berlin wall fell, the paper ran with “GDR unveils reforms package” as its front page splash.)

Read more at: https://inews.co.uk/opinion/comment/aleppo-morning-star-no-excuse/

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‘Is criticising Israel anti-Semitic?’ Greenstein attacks a straw man

December 2, 2016 at 8:39 pm (anti-semitism, apologists and collaborators, conspiracy theories, history, israel, Middle East, palestine, zionism)

Palestinian protestors burn a makeshift Israeli flag, bearing Nazi swastikas on each side of the Star of David, during a demonstration against Israel's continuing assault on Gaza in the refugee camp of Ain el-Hilweh near the southern Lebanese port city of Sidon on December 30, 2008. Arab capitals have been the scene for daily protests since December 27 against the continuing Israeli onslaught in the Gaza Strip that has killed more than 360 Palesitnians. Israel today readied troops on the Gaza border and warned its assault on Hamas could last for weeks, as jets pummelled Islamist targets for a fourth day amid a diplomatic push for a truce. AFP PHOTO/MAHMOUD ZAYAT (Photo credit should read MAHMOUD ZAYAT/AFP/Getty Images)

Greenstein: “the state of Israel was Hitler’s final victory”

By Zac

Tony Greenstein, who is suspended from Labour for alleged anti-Semitism, was the only speaker at a meeting entitled ‘Is criticising Israel anti-Semitic?’, hosted by Bristol Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC). The room was packed, with around 200 attendees, many of those were Momentum members. The PSC’s choice of speaker, presentation of the event, and recent organised hostility towards towards committed Palestine solidarity activists advocating a two state programme forewarned me of a one-sided and hostile discussion.

Greenstein started by claiming that anti-Semitism is insignificant in the UK today both on the left and more widely, and counselled us to remember that it is just a claim used to attack left-wingers and defend Israel. He gave a history of Zionism as simply and intrinsically colonial, a disease that does not come in better and worse varieties. Zionism, he repeatedly stressed, is anti-Semitic, due in part to support for it by some anti-Semites, in part to statements by some historical right-wing Zionists. Throughout the talk he failed to distinguish between the worst historical examples of Zionist thought and contemporary support for the existence of a state of Israel. Many of his claims were based on a selective reading of history: to Greenstein, “the state of Israel was Hitler’s final victory” and Zionism supported Nazi Germany, while in turn Nazi Germany was decisive in the establishment of Israel.

Clearly, criticism of Israel is not in itself anti-Semitic. We should criticize Israel’s actions and stand in solidarity with Palestinians for many reasons, and furthermore there has been some weaponisation of anti-Semitism by the right. And yet, the issue of anti-Semitism on the left when criticizing Israel, irrespective of the intentions of those doing the criticism, is still significant.

Some criticism evokes anti-Semitic tropes and some analysis and proposed solutions to the conflict have anti-Semitic historical origins or conclusions. A key historical anti-Semitic trope is that of all-powerful, shadowy Jews controlling society, and unfounded Zionist conspiracy theories play on this. The prevalence of these could be seen throughout discussion from what Greenstein and many in the audience said, but crucially what many conspicuously didn’t say, deliberately leaving us all to imagine the worst whilst making it difficult to challenge their vague implications. The idea of Israel as a uniquely illegitimate state has historical anti-Semitic origins and is also ultimately detrimental to Palestinian solidarity. Greenstein later responded that Israel is a uniquely evil and illegitimate state. As he demonstrated throughout the discussion, the equation of Israel with Nazi Germany is far too common in the left, and can be anti-Semitic. It looked like many people were listening and genuinely receptive to hearing this different and more nuanced perspective, although ultimately most disagreed.

Many people left during the meeting as they felt it got too heated, which surprised me. Unfortunately, the tense atmosphere somewhat discouraged people from being critical of Greenstein’s points – some people felt too nervous to speak, only three challenged him. It is partly for want of a more prevalent culture of polemic and debate on the left that people found the meeting difficult, but heckling, booing and dismissing as Zionists the minority in the room who dissented from the only speaker’s perspective was harmful. This too happened partly because of the lack of a culture of healthily dealing with disagreements through debate.

There was heckling in response to the argument for a good two states programme as the most viable resolution of the conflict in the short- to medium-term, and that the main victims of the conflict’s prolongation being the Palestinian people. Whilst people highlighted the lack of an appetite for such a programme by many in the Knesset they failed to explain how this made a one state programme more viable. The majority of both Israelis and Palestinians support a two-state solution, overwhelmingly so on the left of both nations. There is little desire in Israel for a one state programme as people in the room would have advocated; most Israeli politicians that reject a two-state programme instead support expanded settlements and annexation of Palestinian territory, not a programme that would improve the situation of Palestinians let alone dismantle the Israeli nation state. The Palestine Liberation Organisation also supports two states.

Whilst a good two states settlement will be difficult, a one state programme in the short-to-medium-term could almost certainly only be achieved by force. Since Israel should not and will not in reality be forced into this, to advocate a one-state solution and oppose a two-state solution is to advocate no realistic solution and to oppose the only possible, but difficult, solution. Such incomplete arguments, simplistic apartheid analogies and failure to distinguish between ethnicity and religion throughout the meeting are a few of the things that highlighted the importance of more debate on this issue.

My general sense from the room was that most people were close to Greenstein’s perspective, although perhaps not so extreme. Similar perspectives certainly constitute the “common sense” assumptions of much of Momentum and the Palestine Solidarity movement in Bristol, but overwhelmingly people had simply not previously come across more nuanced perspectives; perspectives which are very critical of Israel and stand in solidarity with Palestinians whilst also being critical of left anti-Semitism and defending Israel’s right to exist. The Palestine Solidarity movement, Momentum, the Labour Party and the left need to have more debates and discussions on these issues, but with more balance and less heckling, and hopefully this will lead to less oversimplifications being used to caricature and dismiss serious attempts to tackle left anti-Semitism.

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Isaiah Dreads and the Left’s fatal flaw

November 29, 2016 at 5:04 pm (class, culture, history, left, music, solidarity, workers)

Related image
Above: what sort of accent would he have had?

Guest post by Robin Carmody:

In October 1984, early in the season that ended with Bradford and Heysel, there was a major fire at Norwich City football ground. You’ve almost certainly never heard of it, because it didn’t happen during a match and so nobody was killed. But it very easily could have done; football grounds had been allowed to decay, partially out of a Tory belief that the conditions in which working class people had to live didn’t matter, so badly that Bradford, like Hillsborough, could have happened to multiple other sets of fans at multiple other times. It is, in fact, a wonder that they didn’t.

But imagine if that fire had actually killed as many Norwich fans as Bradford or Liverpool fans were killed in the disasters that did happen. How would the Left’s response have differed? Could it – would it – have responded with as much empathy and fellow feeling for the dead and the bereaved? Might elements of it, even, have felt that those who died were en masse class traitors, unworthy of equal levels of support?

The unfortunate situation that continues to prevail on much of the English Left is that when many Leftists say that they support working class people who do not speak RP, and the right of those accents to be heard and not discriminated against and perceived as a badge of stupidity, they only mean working class people in areas, and the accents of those areas, which were largely made by the industrial revolution and have experienced heavy non-white settlement since 1945. When it comes to working-class people in areas, and especially the accents of those areas, which were largely unaffected by the industrial revolution and have not had such levels of immigration (other than, in a much more concentrated period the reaction to which has now had disastrous political consequences, from Eastern Europe), they are often capable of the most obscene levels of prejudice, discrimination and the treatment of entire forms of working class speech as badges of stupidity.

It hurts much more to hear this sort of thing from the left in the same way that, even after Maxwell had withered away the paper’s soul and got rid of everyone from Pilger to Waterhouse, it hurt much more to see the Daily Mirror run covertly racist and anti-Semitic lies about the Beastie Boys in 1987, or to equate modern Germans with Nazis in 1996, than if it had been The Sun; you simply expect better, and expect more, from those who portray themselves as against prejudice and discrimination. Portrayal of people with, say, Scouse accents as thick – a partial factor in the Hillsborough disaster (and over-compensated for by the constant tabloid references to “Jamie” Bulger, a name never used by his family, as if they could only counterbalance the years of dehumanisation with an equally insulting faux-chumminess) – comes pretty much entirely from people who do not deny their prejudice, but flaunt it, boast about it, wallow in it. You don’t expect anything else from them. Portrayal of people with West Country or East Anglian accents as thick, on the other hand, comes disproportionately from people who make a great point of how immune they are from prejudice, how even-handed and equal their treatment of others is (eg leftie comedians on Radio 4). But in this field they completely abandon those rules and are, quite often, guilty of some of the most obscene, incontinent and just plain unpleasant abuse and mockery of other people I have ever come across. It is, by those criteria, far more actively disappointing.

And what makes it worse is that the prophecy is self-fulfilling. While accents with left cred, such as that of Liverpool, have strengthened and enhanced, those without are in the process of withering and dying. Worse, leftists from regions such as south-west England have, in many cases, internalised such rhetoric and believe it applies accurately to themselves; in my direct personal experience, they frequently do not speak up against negative stereotyping of their regions and actively join in with it themselves. Read the rest of this entry »

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Fidel Castro’s legacy: Cuba as a class society

November 26, 2016 at 9:34 am (Cuba, history, Marxism, national liberation, posted by JD, revolution, stalinism, workers)

 Castro leads his victorious troops
Castro leads his victorious troops (photo: History Archive/Rex/Shutterstock)

Pablo Velasco and Sacha Ismail examine Castro’s legacy in an article written in early 2012, largely informed by  Cuba Since The revolution of 1959: A Critical Assessment, by Sam Farber.


The 1959 revolution that brought Fidel Castro and his 26 July Movement to power was a bourgeois revolution which smashed Fulgencio Batista’s dictatorship, but replaced it with their own Bonapartist regime.

Half driven by US hostility and half by choice, this government opted to become a Stalinist state in 1961, adopting the model of the USSR and similar states.

Farber calls this a “bureaucratic system of state collectivism”, in which society’s economic surplus “is not extracted in the form of profits from individual enterprise, nor is it realised through the market. Instead, it is obtained as a surplus product of the nation as a whole. The surplus is appropriated directly, through the state’s control of the economy”. Cuban workers and peasants received their means of subsistence in the form of largely non-monetary rations — low cost or free food, housing, education, health and other welfare facilities. However the surplus product pumped out of the direct producers is controlled and allocated by the ruling bureaucracy — “without any institutional constraints by unions or any other independent popular organisations”.

Cuba’s achievements and failures “resemble those of the Soviet Union, China and Vietnam before these countries took the capitalist road”. Part of this was Cuba’s receipt of “massive Soviet aid from the early sixties to the end of the eighties… even the most conservative estimates would place it well above Cuba’s calculated losses from US economic aggression during that period”. Between 1960 and 1990, Cuba received about 65 billion dollars of Soviet aid on very favourable terms.

The “systematic repressive nature of the Soviet-type regimes made it politically difficult to build enduring oppositions within those societies”. In Cuba there was “certainly no lack of physical brutality… particularly during the first twenty years of their rule. There were thousands of executions, and there was large-scale imprisonment, throughout the revolutionary period, of tens of thousands of people under typically very poor living conditions and physical mistreatment.”

Who rules Cuba?

The state bureaucracy that developed out of the revolution is still in power.

The state owns the means of production and the bureaucracy “owns” and controls the state. The “one-party state” is in fact a no-party state, since the bureaucracy rules directly through the myriad of state and state-sponsored “mass” organisations.

The bureaucracy has privileged access to consumer goods through special stores, separate hospitals, recreational villas, and trips abroad. The armed forces and security services have their own medical facilities. Since the two-tier economy of hard currency and pesos was legally established in 1993, more conventional inequality has been unleashed.

The political ideal of the Cuban elite has been summed up by current head of state Raúl Castro as “monolithic unity” (2009). Although there is enforced mass participation in Cuba’s polity, there is a complete absence of democratic control. Cuba has had a variety of ruling institutions, but none function democratically. The Communist Party was formed in 1965 and has only had six congresses in over 50 years. The Popular Power assemblies were not established until 1976 and allow only vetted candidates to stand on their biography, with those “elected” able only to rubber stamp decisions taken elsewhere by the bureaucrats.

Cuba does not have the kind of impersonal rule of law and citizens’ rights against the arbitrariness and capriciousness of the state which exist in some bourgeois societies. This is evident in the crimes of “social dangerousness”, and “antisocial behaviour”, and the use of imprisonment, electric shock treatment and psychiatric institutions for opponents. Fidel Castro has admitted that there have been 15-20,000 political prisoners in Cuba and Cuba currently has 531 prisoners per 100,000 people, the fifth highest rate worldwide.

What about the workers?

The idea that Cuba is ruled by its workers is laughable. In 1959, the Cuban working class “was not socialist in any meaningful sense of the term, nor did it lend its own distinctive character to the Cuban revolution”. Fidel Castro himself has admitted as much on numerous occasions.

The working class was certainly not passive during Batista’s dictatorship. Despite the shackles of the state and business-gangster trade unionism, sugar workers, rail workers and bank workers fought militant reformist struggles around pay and conditions. The 26 July Movement had its own trade unionists who did organise successful strikes on a number of occasions after the rebel leadership landed in Cuba in 1956. But the general strike they called in April 1958 was a failure and workers’ action only an adjunct to the main, guerrilla warfare strategy for taking power. Read the rest of this entry »

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AWL resolution on antisemitism and the left

November 18, 2016 at 10:41 pm (anti-semitism, AWL, history, israel, labour party, left, Marxism, Middle East, posted by JD, Racism, trotskyism, zionism)


Above: debate on antisemitism between Cathy Nugent of the AWL and Richard Angell of Progress

The following resolution was adopted at the recent conference of the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty:

Antisemitism exists on the left.

This is not merely a question of the bigotries, chauvinisms, and prejudices which exist in society generally expressing themselves within the left, but essentially as aberrations within an otherwise progressive worldview. Rather, a number of ideas, positions, and analyses which have an antisemitic logic have become incorporated over a number of years into the “common sense” which predominates in some sections of the far left.

Contemporary left antisemitism combines older tropes of Jewish power (the politics August Bebel denounced in the 1890s as “the socialism of fools”) with a Stalinist-inspired “anti-Zionism”.

Some traditional antisemitic tropes and themes have become incorporated into certain ways of viewing Zionism and Israel.

Anti-Zionism and hostility to Israeli policies are not necessarily antisemitic. But most contemporary antisemitism expresses itself in the form of anti-Zionism and anti-Israelism, rather than as ‘traditional’ antisemitic racism.

Contemporary left antisemitism historically deracinates Zionism, blowing it out of all proportion. Zionism was a nationalist-separatist, and often romantic-utopian, movement that emerged in response to a real oppression and was given a mass character by the attempted genocide experienced by Europe’s Jews at the hands of the Nazis. It was always politically variegated. The revolutionary socialist tradition with which Workers’ Liberty identifies was always anti-Zionist, but it was an anti-Zionism conditioned, and in some ways tempered, by an understanding of the material roots of that nationalist impulse. It was an anti-Zionism which found it good to have Zionist units in the Red Army, a Histadrut presence at international communist congresses, and steps by the Bolshevik workers’ state to create an autonomous Jewish “homeland” within the territory of the USSR, and which saw the Zionists who then mostly described themselves as left-wing as indeed a mistaken tendency within the left, rather than as a phalanx of the imperialist enemy.

The Stalinist propaganda campaigns of the 1950s onwards, in which “Zionism” was interchangeable with “imperialism”, “racism”, and even “fascism”, cast long shadows in sections of the contemporary far left, including some groups which consider themselves anti-Stalinist.

Those shadows lead to Jews with an instinctive though maybe critical identification with Israel being demonised as “Zionists” (with the word having the same connotations as “racists” or “fascists”); to complaints of antisemitism (short of gross neo-Nazi-type acts) being automatically dismissed as contrived gambits to deflect criticism of Israel; and to Israel being seen as an illegitimate ultra-imperialist state, which must be wiped off the map and whose population, therefore, in the immediate term, it is right to boycott and despise.

[For more on the historical background and context, see: http://www.workersliberty.org/node/26603]

While recognising left antisemitism as a real political phenomenon, we also recognise that allegations of antisemitism may sometimes be exaggerated, instrumentalised, or even fabricated for factional ends. This is true of any allegation of any bigotry or prejudice. That does not mean that the bigotry or prejudice is not real, or that the default response to any such allegation should be to question the motives of the plaintiff.

Moreover, there may be a distinctly antisemitic component in play when allegations of antisemitic speech or conduct are challenged as having been raised in bad faith and for an ulterior political motive. This was particularly visible in the controversies triggered by Livingstone and Walker.

Did the right wing ‘weaponise’ antisemitism in the Livingstone and Walker controversies? In one sense, no (in that some of them had a long record of raising the issue of antisemitism). In one sense, yes (in that they had an open goal and would have been fools not to have taken the opportunity). But such considerations have nothing in common with the way in which supporters of Walker (and Livingstone) raised the allegation of ‘weaponisation’, i.e. as a means to delegitimise all criticism of Walker (and, in some cases, of Livingstone as well).

We are for allegations of antisemitism, as with allegations of sexism, racism, etc., being investigated thoroughly, in a way that is sympathetic to the plaintiff and which affords all parties due process.

Our response is based on political education, debate, and discussion. We cannot challenge a prevailing common sense, and replace it with a better one, by means of bans and expulsions. That discussion must be conducted in an atmosphere of free speech, where activists in the movement are able to speak freely on sensitive issues such as Israel/Palestine, and those raising concerns around antisemitism are not accused of being Zionist provocateurs.

In the Labour Party, we argue for the implementation of the recommendations of the Chakrabarti Report.

Some of the recommendations contained in the Chakrabati Report are vague, and the political rationale which underpins them is not always clear. A lot of the recommendations focus heavily on procedural matters. It would be surprising if the Report did not suffer from such limitations.

But the Report does begin to raise the political issues which we want to see discussed and provides a certain official ‘stamp of approval’ to opening up such discussions. In both the Labour Party and trade unions (especially Unite and the UCU, even though the latter is not an LP affiliate) we should therefore encourage the use of the Report as a starting point for promoting discussion about antisemitism and arguing for a new political common sense about antisemitism based on the following ideas:

A historical understanding of the roots of nationalist ideas within Jewish communities, and the impact of the history of the 20th century in shaping Jewish people’s consciousness.

Zionism should neither be placed beyond criticism nor demonised.

As we challenge the confusion on the left and in the broader labour movement about Zionism and Israel, and the antisemitic content of some critiques of Zionism and Israel, we will advance our own politics on the Israel/Palestine conflict, i.e.

Solidarity with the Palestinians against Israeli occupation; a two-state settlement in Israel/ Palestine; workers’ unity across the borders; solidarity not boycotts.


Amendment not voted on (i.e. it goes forward for further discussion)

Contemporary left anti-Semitism involves a process of signification that defines the Other somatically – i.e. it marks out a group of people in relation to Israeli Jewishness and/or Zionist Jewishness – and assigns this categorised group of bodies with negative characteristics and as giving rise to negative consequences. This Jewish Other is conflated with a particular and singular understanding of Israel and Zionism and a notion therein that the Jewish collective has uniquely world domineering and despotic power. Unlike traditional and historical anti-Semitism, contemporary left anti-Semitism considers it possible and necessary for individual Jews to break away from the negative characteristics and consequences of Israeli Jews and Zionist Jews by denouncing any affiliation to them and to Israel and Zionism.

With racism in general, both real and imagined physical and/or cultural characteristics have historically been, and continue to be, signified as an innate mark of nature and ‘race’. Similar to all other manifestations of racism, with contemporary left anti-Semitism it is not difference per se that matters but the identification of this difference as significant. In this sense, whether consciously or not, those engaged in contemporary left anti-Semitic discourse and practices are engaged in racist discourse and practices. The demand (often in disguise) that the Israeli Jewish nation-state must be undone because it is uniquely despotic (comparable only to fascist Germany and/or apartheid South Africa) – a judgement and a demand not made of any other nation-state – is racist. It is racist because real and imagined cultural characteristics have been and are signified as an innate mark of the nature of Israel and Zionism (and of the cultural ‘race’ of Jews associated with Israel and Zionism), which are deemed especially deplorable and negative in characteristics and consequences.

Much academic theorising about ‘race’, racism and capitalism since the 1960s in Britain and North America sources racism solely to colonialism, rather than also recognising racism’s co-constructed relationship with the rise of nationalism and the nation-state, and some of its pre-capitalist origins. The consequences of this colonial model of racism are: one, limited to no recognition of racism beyond what “white people” have done and do to “black people”; two, intellectually crediting the controversial notion that Zionism is an instance of racism (as “bad, white and rich Jews” oppress “good, poor and brown Arabs and Muslims”); and three, downplaying anti-Semitism.

And add at end:

The two states settlement on pre-1967 borders is the only consistently democratic and realistic resolution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The overwhelming majority of both the activist and academic Left have adopted various forms of one state / one shared space solutions on the basis that the ultimate question is one of Palestinian redress and justice and/or “facts on the ground” have made a meaningful two states settlement impossible. For many in this majority camp, their politics is well-meaning and borne from despair. We need to patiently and sharply reason and debate against the varied proposals for one state / one shared space – exposing and condemning the implicit logic to undo the Israeli Jewish nation-state – while nuancing our argument as not altogether diametrically opposed: since we are for two states so that one day we might see one shared cooperative space between Jewish and Arab workers democratically emerge.

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