Joe Hill: executed November 19, 1915

November 19, 2015 at 2:32 pm (history, Human rights, posted by JD, socialism, solidarity, song, unions, United States, workers)

Executed by firing squad 100 years ago today. It seems that his last words were not “Don’t mourn, organize”, but “Fire!” – which makes all the more of a hero.

From the CIO/AFL website:

Joe Hill (1879-1915)

Joe Hill

Joe Hill (1879-1915)

A songwriter, itinerant laborer, and union organizer, Joe Hill became famous around the world after a Utah court convicted him of murder. Even before the international campaign to have his conviction reversed, however, Joe Hill was well known in hobo jungles, on picket lines and at workers’ rallies as the author of popular labor songs and as an Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) agitator. Thanks in large part to his songs and to his stirring, well-publicized call to his fellow workers on the eve of his execution—”Don’t waste time mourning, organize!”—Hill became, and he has remained, the best-known IWW martyr and labor folk hero.

Born Joel Hägglund on Oct. 7, 1879, the future “troubadour of discontent” grew up the fourth of six surviving children in a devoutly religious Lutheran family in Gävle, Sweden, where his father, Olaf, worked as a railroad conductor. Both his parents enjoyed music and often led the family in song. As a young man, Hill composed songs about members of his family, attended concerts at the workers’ association hall in Gävle and played piano in a local café.

In 1887, Hill’s father died from an occupational injury and the children were forced to quit school to support themselves. The 9-year-old Hill worked in a rope factory and later as a fireman on a steam-powered crane. Stricken with skin and joint tuberculosis in 1900, Hill moved to Stockholm in search of a cure and worked odd jobs while receiving radiation treatment and enduring a series of disfiguring operations on his face and neck. Two years later, Hill’s mother, Margareta Katarina Hägglund, died after also undergoing a series of operations to cure a persistent back ailment. With her death, the six surviving Hägglund children sold the family home and ventured out on their own. Four of them settled elsewhere in Sweden, but the future Joe Hill and his younger brother, Paul, booked passage to the United States in 1902.

Little is known of Hill’s doings or whereabouts for the next 12 years. He reportedly worked at various odd jobs in New York before striking out for Chicago, where he worked in a machine shop, got fired and was blacklisted for trying to organize a union. The record finds him in Cleveland in 1905, in San Francisco during the April 1906 Great Earthquake and in San Pedro, Calif., in 1910. There he joined the IWW, served for several years as the secretary for the San Pedro local and wrote many of his most famous songs, including “The Preacher and the Slave” and “Casey Jones—A Union Scab.” His songs, appearing in the IWW’s “Little Red Song Book,” addressed the experience of vitually every major IWW group, from immigrant factory workers to homeless migratory workers to railway shopcraft workers.

In 1911, he was in Tijuana, Mexico, part of an army of several hundred wandering hoboes and radicals who sought to overthrow the Mexican dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz, seize Baja California, emancipate the working class and declare industrial freedom. (The invasion lasted six months before internal dissension and a large detachment of better-trained Mexican troops drove the last 100 rebels back across the border.) In 1912, Hill apparently was active in a “Free Speech” coalition of Wobblies, socialists, single taxers, suffragists and AFL members in San Diego that protested a police decision to close the downtown area to street meetings. He also put in an appearance at a railroad construction crew strike in British Columbia, writing several songs before returning to San Pedro, where he lent musical support to a strike of Italian dockworkers.

The San Pedro dockworkers’ strike led to Hill’s first recorded encounter with the police, who arrested him in June 1913 and held him for 30 days on a charge of vagrancy because, he said later, he was “a little too active to suit the chief of the burg” during the strike. On Jan. 10, 1914, Hill knocked on the door of a Salt Lake City doctor at 11:30 p.m. asking to be treated for a gunshot wound he said was inflicted by an angry husband who had accused Hill of insulting his wife. Earlier that evening, in another part of town, a grocer and his son had been killed. One of the assailants was wounded in the chest by the younger victim before he died. Hill’s injury therefore tied him to the incident. The uncertain testimony of two eyewitnesses and the lack of any corroboration of Hill’s alibi convinced a local jury of Hill’s guilt, even though neither witness was able to identify Hill conclusively and the gun used in the murders was never recovered.

The campaign to exonerate Hill began two months before the trial and continued up to and even beyond his execution by firing squad on Nov. 19, 1915. His supporters included the socially prominent daughter of a former Mormon church president, labor radicals, activists and sympathizers including AFL President Samuel Gompers, the Swedish minister to the United States and even President Woodrow Wilson. The Utah Supreme Court, however, refused to overturn the verdict and the Utah Board of Pardons refused to commute Hill’s sentence. The board declared its willingness to hear testimony from the woman’s husband in a closed session, but Hill refused to identify his alleged assailant, insisting that to do so would harm the reputation of the lady.

Hill became more famous in death than he had been in life. To Bill Haywood, the former president of the Western Federation of Miners and the best-known leader of the IWW, Hill wrote: “Goodbye Bill: I die like a true rebel. Don’t waste any time mourning, organize! It is a hundred miles from here to Wyoming. Could you arrange to have my body hauled to the state line to be buried? I don’t want to be found dead in Utah.” Apparently he did die like a rebel. A member of the firing squad at his execution claimed that the command to “Fire!” had come from Hill himself.

After a brief service in Salt Lake City, Hill’s body was sent to Chicago, where thousands of mourners heard Hill’s “Rebel Girl” sung for the first time, listened to hours of speeches and then walked behind his casket to Graceland Cemetery, where the body was cremated and the ashes mailed to IWW locals in every state but Utah as well as to supporters in every inhabited continent on the globe. According to one of Hill’s Wobbly-songwriter colleagues, Ralph Chaplin (who wrote the words to “Solidarity Forever,” among other songs), all the envelopes were opened on May 1, 1916, and their contents scattered to the winds, in accordance with Hill’s last wishes, expressed in a poem written on the eve of his death:

My Will is easy to decide
For there is nothing to divide.
My kin don’t need to fuss and moan.
“Moss does not cling to rolling stone.”

My body?—Oh!—If I could choose
I would to ashes it reduce
And let the merry breezes blow
My dust to where some flowers grow.

Perhaps some fading flower then
Would come to life and bloom again.
This is my Last and Final Will—
Good Luck to All of you,

Joe Hill

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Cripps: egalitarian hero or reformist sell-out?

November 9, 2015 at 2:33 pm (capitalism, economics, From the archives, Guardian, history, labour party, posted by JD, reformism, SWP)

Stafford Cripps 1947.jpg

Paul Mason, in today’s Graun:

“(Cripps’s 1948 economic programme) is a programme to make Corbynomics look positively Thatcherite by comparison. A rough modern equivalent would involve today’s government spending £61bn on food subsidies alone. Yet Cripps and his generation were cutting with the grain of history.”

But Tony Cliff wrote:

From Socialist Worker Review, No. 88, June 1986.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

In the 1930s Stafford Cripps became the most prominent spokesman for the far left of the Labour Party. His rhetoric was well to the left of Tony Benn’s in the 1980s. Yet in the 1945–51 Labour government he became ‘Mr Austerity’, congratulated by the Tories for his budgets. Tony Cliff looks at the career of Stafford Cripps.

HALF a century ago the left of the Labour Party was organised in the Socialist League. Its main leader was Stafford Cripps. His story is quite revealing of the weaknesses of the Labour left, not only in the 1930s, but also today.

Cripps was born into a very rich family and was educated at Winchester then at Oxford. His father was a Tory MP for some two decades, and then received a peerage to become Baron Parmoor. Stafford was not indifferent to his father’s political activities. One biographer writes: ‘Stafford took up the furtherance of his father’s cause as the Conservative candidate with all the ardour of a young man of drive and initiative.’

In 1913 he was called to the Bar, and a short time later was appointed Justice of the Peace. In 1927 he became King’s Counsel.

‘In the years from 1919 to 1926 Stafford Cripps had one other interest outside the law and the village of his adoption. He had become engaged in the affairs of the Church, and particularly in the affairs of the World Council of Churches.’

In 1924 when Ramsay MacDonald formed his first Labour government he hunted for talent outside the Labour Party, and got four Tories and Liberals to join his government: Lord Parmoor, Lord Haldane, Lord Chelmsford and H.P. Macmillan (later to become Lord Macmillan). ‘Macmillan, with the consent of the Conservative Party leaders, accepted the office from MacDonald on a non-political basis as a matter of public duty.’ In the 1929–31 Labour government Lord Parmoor served once again – as President of the Council and Labour’s leader in the House of Lords. (Stafford’s uncle, Sidney Webb, who became Lord Passfield, served as Secretary of State for the Colonies.)

As the 1929 general election approached Herbert Morrison tried to attract Stafford Cripps to the Labour Party. Morrison wrote to Stafford Cripps:

‘I am personally very anxious to have you in the Party. Please let me know if and when you would like to join the ranks of the Party and I shall be very happy to make the necessary arrangements.’

In May 1929 Cripps became a member of the Labour Party. Early in 1930 he became candidate for the West Woolwich division, and for the rest of that year he gave much time to that constituency. In October 1930 the Solicitor-General, Sir James Melville, resigned in ill health, and Ramsay MacDonald offered the position to Stafford Cripps. He at once accepted, though without a seat in Parliament. On the death of the Labour MP for East Bristol, Cripps was adopted as the Labour candidate and in January 1931 was duly elected.

In government Cripps did not evince any leftist tendencies. Quite the contrary. When he spoke on the 1927 Trades Disputes Act, imposed by the Tories after the defeat of the general strike, Cripps called not for its repeal, but only its amendment. Read the rest of this entry »

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20 years since Israel’s innocence was lost

November 4, 2015 at 12:54 am (good people, history, israel, Middle East, murder, palestine, posted by JD)

File photo: US President Bill Clinton (C) standing between PLO leader Yasser Arafat (R) and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzahk Rabin (L) as they shake hands for the first time, at the White House in Washington DCBill Clinton standing between PLO leader Yasser Arafat and Rabin as they shake hands at the White House Photo: Getty Images

I had just been to a club for the first time. I drank vodka and I drank beer. I stayed at a friend’s flat near Baker Street that night and we walked back there together in the dark. The streets were wet from a downpour we had missed while inside. It always rains in London.

We arrived back to his place where his mother told us Rabin had been shot. I knew of him vaguely as an Israeli politician, the President or the Prime Minister of Israel, I wasn’t sure.

In death he influenced me more than in life he ever could have. In one way or another modern Israel is dominated by the man who was shot in Tel Aviv while I was enjoying my first tastes of alcohol in London. Every negotiation since, every war since has been devoid of any hope, any real belief that the result will be anything other than more of what lay before. Everything stands in contrast to the hopes of the generation that elected Rabin their Prime Minister.

While the current crop of leaders fall over themselves to pretend that the man who disagreed with them on just about every level was actually their friend I wonder what happened to the traits of leadership embodied by Yitzhak Rabin. People too easily ignore the fact that he was the most hated Prime Minister in the short history of the country. His course towards peace was one that far more people than just Yigal Amir sought to disrupt. People came to his house to hurl insults at him and his family, tens of thousands of people took to the streets to express their hatred of him for sitting down at the peace table with Yassir Arafat and countenancing the creation of a state of Palestine.

And he ignored them all. For me this old, chain smoking, man embodied the term courage. He was elected to lead the country and lead the country he did. It may have been an unpopular policy but when you are elected to office you take the responsibilities on your shoulders to do what you feel is best for the country, not what is popular. The people can then decide at the next election.

This kind of leadership is sorely lacking right now. The people can’t decide because there is no clear policy, too much obfuscation and not enough people willing to stand up and be clear about what a vote for them means. For me Rabin’s legacy is that which he died for, the willingness to stand at helm of the ship and set sail in a clear direction.

Now, in 2015, no one knows where we are, we don’t even know if we’re going through an Intifada or not and we don’t know how we’re going to get out of it if we’re in it.

Great acts of leadership throughout the ages have always been turbulent. Be it John F Kennedy insisting on integration in Alabama or Winston Churchill telling the British people he has “nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat” or Ben Gurion declaring statehood with the knowledge that a war would follow for which Israel was ill equipped to fight. Leadership requires people to take responsibility on their shoulders for making decisions that will affect the lives of their citizens intimately. Rabin was such a leader.

He was killed for being such a leader.

Rabin’s legacy will always be a tragic legacy. But the tragedy is not that he was killed before the peace fell upon us, nor even for the fact that he fell at the hands of a fellow Jew. The real tragedy is that he is fast being revered as the only man who possibly could have brought peace to Israel. If that is true then it is a sad reflection of the state of Israel’s leadership today. If it is false then it is a lie not worthy of the man who guided the state through so many of the tests that defined the nation of Israel.

20 years have gone by since he died, more than enough time for those who took on the mantle of leadership of the party he once headed to get their act together. The man who sold Israel on the hope of peace was murdered and now his successors lack the courage to tell Israelis the truth about the lessons learned the night Israel’s innocence died.

To tell them that there will be no end to extremism or to terrorism but that it can be an occasional heartache or a constant war. It can involve the suffering of millions or it can involve the suffering of hundreds. There’ll be no signature on a piece of paper that will end the terror, no ceremony on the White House lawn and no handshake that will make everything okay.

It will be a long struggle for peace but a struggle that we must embark on nonetheless. The alternative is more of the same nothing we have now.

It is a tragedy of the Middle East that the fate of millions lies not with elected governments but with a very few people willing to give their lives to kill others. The man who killed Rabin was willing to give up his life not just to kill his Prime Minister but to kill the hopes of so many. Now another Israeli Prime Minister is weighing up whether to remove the residency rights of 80,000 people because of the actions of several dozen. A war was started in Gaza last year because three boys were kidnapped and murdered by a couple of terrorists.

Israelis and Palestinians live their lives in the shadow of these people.

Rabin was a leader who wasn’t prepared to hand over his elected mandate to the few prepared for violence. Now it is the terrorists who control the agenda and an Israeli government flailing around trying to keep up.

It’s been 20 years since a great man of the Israeli left was shot dead in the street. He preferred to risk being shot dead if it meant doing what he thought was best for the country. There hasn’t been another leader like him since, there hasn’t been a braver one since. So long after the event I don’t mourn for Rabin, I mourn for the Israel that might have been had he been allowed to live just a little longer and the Israel we became without his guiding hand.

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A State Jew? – David A. Bell on Léon Blum: Prime Minister, Socialist, Zionist by Pierre Birnbaum

November 3, 2015 at 4:05 pm (socialism, secularism, anti-semitism, Democrats, Andrew Coates, history, France, republicanism, internationalism, humanism, zionism, reblogged)

By Andrew Coates (at Tendance Coatesy),_1932,_2.jpg

Blum: a Generous Humanist Socialist, not a “State Jew”.

A State Jew. David A. Bell. Review of Léon Blum: Prime Minister, Socialist, Zionist by Pierre Birnbaum, translated by Arthur Goldhammer.

London Review of Books.

Thanks Jim D.

Bell begins  his review with this, which should give some pause for reflection,

The newspaper Action française habitually referred to Léon Blum, France’s Socialist leader, as the ‘warlike Hebrew’ and the ‘circumcised Narbonnais’ (he represented a constituency in Narbonne). On 13 February 1936, Blum was being driven away from the National Assembly when he encountered a group of ultra-right-wing militants who had gathered at the intersection of the rue de l’Université and the boulevard Saint-Germain for the funeral procession of Jacques Bainville, one of the founders of Action française, a reactionary political movement as well as a newspaper. Glimpsing Blum through the car windows, the militants began shouting: ‘Kill Blum!’, ‘Shoot Blum!’ They forced his car to stop and began rocking it back and forth. Blum’s friend Germaine Monnet, sitting with him in the back, tried to shield him with her body. Her husband, Georges, who had been driving, ran to look for police. But one of the militants managed to tear a fender off the car, used it to smash the rear window, and then beat Blum repeatedly over the head. Only the arrival of two policemen saved his life. They dragged him to a nearby building, where the concierge gave him first aid. The next day pictures of Blum, his head heavily bandaged, appeared in newspapers around the world.

We halt there.

To internationalist socialists Blum is above all known not for his Jewish identity – despite the book – but for his socialist humanist republicanism.

Blum defended French democratic republicanism, from the Dreyfus affair onwards. He was profoundly affected by the “synthesis” of socialism, including the Marxist view of class struggle, with democratic republicanism, that marked the life and work of one of our greatest martyrs, Jean Jaurès, assassinated in 1914 by a sympathiser of the far-right,  for his opposition to the outbreak of the Great War. Blum did not, however, play a part in the anti-War left.

That is the context in which we would take the shouts of “kill Blum”.  Political, not ethnic.

Blum was a leading figure amongst the minority of the French Socialists, the SFIO (Section Française de l’Internationale Ouvrière), who opposed what became in the 1920s the French Communist Party, the PCF. He was one of those who opposed affiliating the party to the Third International at the Congrès de Tours (SFIO).

Speech at the Socialist Party Congress at Tours, 27 December 1920 (best known under its French title, Pour La Veille Maison).

This is the crucial objection from the ‘reformist’ (but at this point, still Marxist) democratic socialists to the Third International – the Leninist one.

You are right to declare that the whole party press, central or local, should be in the hands of pure communists and pure communist doctrine. You are certainly right to submit the works published by the Party to a kind of censorship. All that is logical. You want an entirely homogeneous party, a party in which there is no longer free thought, no longer different tendencies: you are therefore right to act as you have done. This results – I am going to prove it to you – from your revolutionary conception itself. But you will understand that envisioning that situation, considering it, making the comparison of what will be tomorrow with what was yesterday, we all had the same reaction of fright, of recoil, and that we said: is that the Party that we have known? No! The party that we knew was the appeal to all workers, while the one they want to found is the creation of little disciplined vanguards, homogeneous, subjected to a strict structure of command – their numbers scarcely matter, you will find that in the theses – but all kept under control, and ready for prompt and decisive action. Well, in that respect as in the others, we remain of the Party as it was yesterday, and we do not accept the new party that they want to make.

To show how radical Blum was at this point, this is how he defended the dictatorship of the proletariat,

Dictatorship exercised by the Party, yes, but by a Party organized like ours, and not like yours. Dictatorship exercised by a Party based on the popular will and popular liberty, on the will of the masses, in sum, an impersonal dictatorship of the proletariat. But not a dictatorship exercised by a centralized party, where all authority rises from one level to the next and ends up by being concentrated in the hands of a secret Committee. … Just as the dictatorship should be impersonal, it should be, we hold, temporary, provisional. … But if, on the contrary, one sees the conquest of power as a goal, if one imagines (in opposition to the whole Marxist conception of history) that it is the only method for preparing that transformation, that neither capitalist evolution nor our own work of propaganda could have any effect, if as a result too wide a gap and an almost infinite period of time must be inserted between taking power as the precondition, and revolutionary transformation as the goal, then we cease to be in agreement.

Bear this in mind: these words are memorised almost by heart by many on the left.

The minority, for which Blum spoke, opposed to the Third International, retained the name, French Section of the Workers’ International, was significant: it referred to a claim to continue the traditions of the Second International, of Marxist, if moderate and reformist,  inspiration.

Blum offered social reform on this foundation. He led, during the Front Populaire (1936 -38)  a government (as President du conseil) of socialists and radical-socialists, backed by communists from the ‘outside’ and a vast movement of factory occupations and protests,  to implement some of them, on paid holidays, bargaining rights limiting the working week. He had great limitations – one that cannot be ignored is that his government did not give women the right to vote – and his role in not effectively helping the Spanish Republic remains a matter of controversy to this day. Indeed the absence of feminism – as well as a rigorous anti-colonialism (the FP “dissolved” the North African, l’Étoile nord-africaine of Messali Hadj –  in the Front Populaire, is something which should cause a great deal of critical investigation.

The review in the LRB is about a book, and this is what he has to say specifically about it:

Birnbaum, a well-known historian and sociologist of French Jewry, has written a short biography that focuses on Blum’s identity as a Jew, as the series requires. It cannot substitute for the more substantial studies by Joel Colton, Ilan Greilsammer and Serge Berstein, but it’s lively, witty and draws effectively on Blum’s massive and eloquent correspondence. Arthur Goldhammer has, as usual, produced a lucid, engaging English text. Birnbaum seems to have written the book in some haste: he repeats facts and quotations, and makes a few historical slips – France was not a ‘largely peasant nation’ in 1936; Hitler did not annex the Sudetenland in the summer of 1938, before the Munich Agreement. The chapters proceed thematically, highlighting Blum the writer, Blum the socialist, Blum the lawyer, Blum the Zionist and so forth, which produces occasional confusion as Birnbaum leaps backwards and forwards in time. But overall, the book offers a knowledgeable and attractive portrait. If there is a serious criticism to be levelled at it, it doesn’t concern the portrait itself, so much as the way Birnbaum draws on it to make a broader argument about French Jewish identity.

But there are issues of much wider importance in that broader argument.

Bell makes two points about his legacy as described in Birnbaum’s book,

As Birnbaum himself repeatedly notes, despite his ‘quintessential’ Frenchness, Blum always expressed pride in his Jewish heritage, often in the highly racialised language of the day. ‘My Semite blood,’ he wrote as a young man, ‘has been preserved in its pure state. Honour me by acknowledging that it flows unmixed in my veins and that I am the untainted descendant of an unpolluted race.’ While he could speak disparagingly of Jewish ritual, he recognised and respected a Jewish ethical tradition. In 1899, in the midst of the Dreyfus Affair, he insisted that ‘the Jew’s religion is justice. His Messiah is nothing other than a symbol of Eternal Justice.’ He went on to identify ‘the spirit of socialism’ with ‘the ancient spirit of the race’ and to comment: ‘It was not a lapse on the part of Providence that Marx and Lassalle were Jews.’ Blum, in short, thought the Jews could change the French Republic for the better by drawing on their own traditions to push it towards socialism.

This attempt to bring up Blum’s references to his Jewish background, even in terms more democratic than Disraeli’s novels, voiced above all by the character Sidonia, owes more to pre-1930s racial romanticism to racialism.

Does this prove Bell’s point that, “The republican model allows strikingly little space for what immigrant communities can contribute to a nation. Visitors to France can see at a glance just how much immigrants have brought to its music, literature, sport and even cuisine. But the republican model treats difference primarily as a threat to be exorcised in the name of an unbending, anachronistic ideal of civic equality. Even in the heyday of the Third Republic, many committed republicans recognised that different ethnic and religious groups could strengthen the republic.”

Yes it does: secularism is freedom for difference, not the imposition of homogeneity.

Blum could be rightly proud of his cultural heritage,as indeed in a ‘globalised’ world of migration many other people from different backgrounds should be, and are, within the democratic framework of secular equality.

There is little doubt that the spirit of nit-picking secularism can be as unable to deal with these backgrounds, as say, state multiculturalism, which treats ‘diversity’ as if this were a value in itself. If the first tends to be hyper-sensitive to, say, reactionary  Islamic dress codes, the second abandons the issue entirely.

But there are far deeper problems than superficial insistence on  Laïcité

The first is ‘Sovereigntist’ efforts to claim secularist universalism for French particularism. This is the rule amongst the supporters of the far-right Front National, historians and writers like Éric Zemmour bemoaning France’s ‘decline’ , though we should underline, not the novelist Houellebecq, who expresses disdain for things, not hate). There are those who call for all Muslims to be expelled from Europe, those  to those milder nationalists of right and left who commemorate “le pays et les morts” (and not anybody else – a return to the culturalist (not to say, racial)  themes of Action française to Maurice Barrès and to Charles Maurras. This is indeed “communalism”.

It is the major threat to French republicanism.

There is also the issue of anti-Semitism in France, woven into another kind of ‘communitarianism’. Alain Soral, his close friend the comedian Dieudonné, popular amongst young people from the banlieue and the more refined inheritors of the Marrausian tradition, the partisans of the  Indigènes de la République, (including those associated in the English speaking world) rant at thephilosémitisme d’Etat” in France.

It takes all the effort of refined ‘discursive analysis’ from academics to ignore that at its heart this is a current  which indulges in Jew baiting. The mind-set of these people was classically described by Sartre, “« Si le juif n’existait pas, l’antisémite l’inventerait.» (Réflexions sur la question juive 1946). They indeed spent an enormous amount of time ‘inventing’ the presence of Jews in politics, and giving them influence ‘behind the scenes’.

In words which might have been designed to pander to the world-view of the  Indigènes, Bell cites Léon Blum: Prime Minister, Socialist, Zionist,

Blum ‘the first of a new type of state Jew interested in giving greater weight to democratic sentiment within the framework of a socialist project.’ One wonders, though, what Birnbaum might say about a French Muslim politician today justifying an ideological position by reference to Muslim tradition and ethics (or sharia law). Would he have quite so favourable an  opinion? Or might he see the move as a ‘communitarian’ threat to ‘the unifying logic of the nation’ and to ‘French exceptionalism’? It is well past time to recognise that a nation can have many different unifying logics, and that a political model forged under the Third Republic fits the France of the Fifth Republic very badly.

Blum celebrated his Jewish heritage. It is hardly a secret. Nor is his post-war Zionism, or support for Israel, a stand shared in the immediate aftermath of the conflict by the USSR.

But did he become a  man of the  ‘state’ because he was a ‘Jew’, and does this aspect of his person matter politically – that is in terms of the state?

For us Léon Blum is only one of the sources of a generous humanist secularism, but a significant one. That he did not tackle issues like feminism, anti-colonialism, and a host of other issues, goes without saying. But it would be a great shame if his legacy was reduced to being a “State Jew”.

And it could equally be said that republican secularism has many strands, that it is being transformed by the views of secularists from North Africa, the threat of the Islamist genociders of Deash, the mounting oppression in Erdogan’s Turkey, backed by his Islamist AK party, and – no doubt – Israel’s evident failings. Every one of these cases shows that religious law is not any part of a “tradition” that socialists – believers in equality – would recognise.

The logic at work here binds us to our French sisters and brothers, binds internationalists across the globe, in the way that the Je Suis Charlie moment briefly melded our hearts and minds together.

That is perhaps the real ‘end’ of all exceptionalisms.

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Stalin’s Englishmen: the lessons for today’s left

October 23, 2015 at 12:31 pm (academe, anti-fascism, history, intellectuals, left, Marxism, posted by JD, stalinism, USSR)

“Why the interest? It’s a psychological detective story. Why should clever men at the very heart of the Establishment, who enjoyed its trappings, seek to betray it? Why did they devote their lives to a known totalitarian regime, abandoning friends and family, ending their lives in lonely exile in Moscow? How did they get away with it given their drunkenness, drug-taking and sexual promiscuity? Are there other spies still to be uncovered?  (Andrew Lownie, International Business Times)

The release of over 400 previously unrevealed MI5 and Foreign Office files provides some fascinating insights into the psychological and personal motivations of Burgess, Philby, Maclean and the rest of the Cambridge spy ring and their associates, as well as the sometimes hilarious incompetence of the British security services. However, the underlying political motivation of these upper class Stalinists who’d started out as genuine anti-fascist idealists in the 1930s, has been evident to astute observers for many years, and carries important lessons for serious socialists to this day. Sean Matgamna describes the political background in this 2004 article:

From left: Donald Maclean, Guy Burgess, Kim Philby.

In The Climate of Treason Andrew Boyle recounts a conversation which took place amongst a group of young communists in the summer of 1933, in Cambridge. Some of them would become the famous traitors who would be exposed in the 1950s, 60s and 70s, after having served the USSR as double agents within the British secret services for decades.

Kim Philby had just come back from Germany, and he reported to his friends on what he had seen. There, at the beginning of the year, Hitler had been allowed to come to power peacefully. The powerful German Communist Party (KPD) could rely on four million votes; it had hundreds of thousands of militants; it had its own armed militia, and the strength to physically crush the fascist groups in most of the working-class districts of Berlin — and yet it had put up no resistance at all to the Hitlerites. It had allowed itself to be smashed, without a struggle.

In the years when the Nazi party was burgeoning, the KPD had refused to unite with the Socialists (who had eight million votes) to stop them; and now that the capitalists had brought the Nazis to power, the KPD slunk into its grave, without even token resistance.

It is one of the great pivotal events in the history of the labour movement, and in the history of the 20th century. The Second World War, Stalin’s conquest of Eastern Europe the decline and decay of the revolutionary working class movement — all of these things grew out of Hitler’s victory over the German working class movement. Unexpected, and enormous in its consequences, the collapse of the KPD was almost inexplicable.

In fact, the KPD acted as it did on Stalin’s direct orders. Stalin had decided that it was in the USSR’s interests to let Hitler come to power because Hitler would try to revise the Treaty of Versailles and “keep them busy in the West while we get on with building up socialism here”, as he put it to the German Communist leader Heinz Neumann (who he would later have shot).

In Cambridge in that summer of 1933 the young men who listened to Philby’s report tried to make sense of the German events. The Communist International was still denying that any catastrophe had occurred at all, denying that the KPD had been destroyed. It was still playing with idiotic slogans like: “After Hitler, our turn next.” Those who wanted to stay in the Comintern had to accept this way of looking at it. But was the International correct?

More daring than the others, one of the Cambridge group suggested that, maybe mistakes had been made. Maybe they should have fought. Maybe Stalin’s critics — Trotsky, for example — had been right. Maybe, after all, Stalin did not quite know what he was doing.

“No!”, said Philby, very heated. He denied that the KPD had made mistakes, or that Stalin had got things wrong: further, he denied that, where the affairs of the labour movement were concerned, Stalin could be wrong. As the infallible Pope cannot err where “matters of faith and morals” are concerned, so Stalin could not err where the affairs of the left were concerned. He denied that there was any left other than Stalin. “W…why,” the future KGB general stuttered, “W…what-ever Stalin does — that is the left.”

It is a statement which sums up an entire epoch in the history of the left. What Stalin did, that is, what the Stalinists in power did — that was the left! The official accounts of what they did; the rationalisations and fantasies which disguised what they did; the learned “Marxist” commentaries on the “reasons” for what they did; the deep “theoretical” arguments which were concocted to explain why “socialism” in the USSR was so very far from the traditional hopes and goals of the revolutionary left; the codification of Stalinist practice, written over and into the basic texts of socialist learning, turning them into incoherent Stalinist palimpsests — that was now “the left” and “Marxism”. The left was restyled out of all recognition.

A movement rooted historically in the French Revolution, whose drive for democracy and equality it carried forward against the shallow, empty, and false bourgeois versions of these ideas, now championed a tyrannical state ruled by a narrow intolerant elite.

A movement dedicated to collective ownership and therefore needing democracy because collective ownership is, by definition, not possible unless ownership is exercised collectively, and thus — there is no alternative — democratically, nevertheless championed the idea of ownership by an undemocratic state, itself “owned” by a narrow elite, and confused it with collective ownership. Read the rest of this entry »

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Remembering Denis Healey – the good, the bad and the utterly hilarious

October 4, 2015 at 10:07 pm (history, labour party, posted by JD, reformism, RIP)

A generous tribute to the old bruiser from a long-standing opponent, Jon Lansman (first published at Jon’s blog, Labour Futures):

Denis_HealeyDenis Healey was a great figure for twenty-five years of Labour history, a politician with “a hinterland”, very well-read and deeply interested in art and music, and, though Jeremy Corbyn may not have approved, was a master of the brilliant put-down. Geoffrey Howe was forever diminished by that greatest of personal attacks – his attacks summed up as being “like being savaged by a dead sheep“.  He will be remembered fondly even by many of us for whom he was a bête noire in our youth in the 1970s.

As Chancellor under Wilson and Callaghan he was undoubtedly the Chancellor who sealed the end of the Keynesian approach that had been adopted by both Labour and Tory governments in the post-war period until then, and has only been reintroduced as Labour’s by Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell. He led the battle in cabinet for the cuts in public expenditure which were the price of IMF support for Sterling.

However, with hindsight, he was chancellor in the most difficult of times with rampant inflation that was largely a consequence of the Barber boom (named after the Tory Chancellor between 1970 and 1974) and the oil price shock, and he was unfairly blamed for the winter of discontent following Callaghan’s insistence in 1978 on a disastrously low 5% pay norm when inflation was still 10%. He did, after all, favour a system of price controls far more extensive than anything being proposed by Corbyn and McDonnell and his incomes policy, agreed through full cooperation with the TUC and trade union leadership, was clearly designed to benefit the low paid.

In the years of New Labour, he may quite reasonably have been regarded as on the left of the party.

As it happens, I have a grievance against Denis Healey. On 20 September 1981, in the latter stages of Labour’s deputy leadership election campaign (the first that involved party and union members not just MPs) in which Denis Healey had been challenged by Tony Benn, Healey accused me personally on live television of “orchestrating the heckling and booing” which he had faced on the previous day at a Labour demonstration in Birmingham and at a similar event in Cardiff that July.

I was, at 24, the secretary of Benn’s campaign committee but had not been present at either demonstration. I never received an apology from Denis Healey though I did from London Weekend Television which accepted that I had been libelled. By that evening, ITN’s News at 10 ran what Tony Benn recorded in his diary as “a devastating denunciation of Healey” and showed Healey merely saying that “if I made a mistake it was unwise“. But in spite of that, as is so often the case in these situations, the Mail and Express and sundry other right-wing newspapers continued to carry nasty stories about me for several days. And even now when the incident is referred to, which happens from time to time, the accusation is normally reported without any reference to the fact that the TV company settled out of court to avoid a libel action.

Still I bear Denis no grudge. Though he won the election by a whisker of 0.5%, he so nearly failed to do so. That he suffered such an embarrassment on the eve of the Annual TUC congress was very damaging to his position. The TGWU, though it’s executive had already decided to nominate the “spoiler” candidate, John Silkin, decided the following day to give its second round vote to Tony Benn. Walt Greendale, then chair of the union executive and one of the outstanding lay union activists of the period, told me at the time that he thought it would probably not have reached that decision if it hadn’t been for Healey’s foolishness.

I hold no grudge against Denis. When he came to campaign for Tony Benn in the Chesterfield by-election in 1984, I spent a large part of the day with him and, though there was still no apology, he was witty, charming and impeccably polite. He campaigned hard all day, topping it off with the wonderfully memorable speech at one of the packed public meetings which characterised that campaign which culminated in the words “Healey without Benn would be like Torvill without Dean” at which precise point the Chesterfield Labour banner behind him came crashing down. It brought the house down with laughter, and we all retired afterwards to a pub where Denis entertained everyone, playing the piano and singing songs alongside Tony. It was one of the funniest evenings I have ever spent. He is sorely missed.

(Update:- Major Denis Winston Healey speaking at the Labour Party Conference in 1945)


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Time to remember George Lansbury

September 9, 2015 at 10:59 pm (history, labour party, posted by JD, reformism, socialism)

Photo 7 Council 1938, WRI George Lansbury head crop.jpg

Now seems an appropriate time to remember George Lansbury, who led the Labour Party from 1932 (shortly after the defection of MacDonald and Snowden) until 1935 (when his pacifism was rejected by the Labour Party Conference). Below we reproduce Jon Cruddas’s speech at the 2011 unveiling of a plaque in honour of Lansbury, in Bow. The speech was originally posted at Labour Uncut and it should go without saying that we at Shiraz don’t necessarily share Cruddas’s assessment:

Thank you very much. It is great to be with you all this afternoon. We are here to celebrate the life of one of the true heroes of the Labour party: George Lansbury. A man who was – to quote the great historian AJP Taylor – “the most lovable figure in British politics”.

We as a party are really only beginning to understand the true significance of the man and of his leadership of the party; a process of rehabilitation is underway yet is far from complete.

I think of Lansbury as arguably the greatest ever Labour leader. Not in an empirical sense in terms of elections won – he never faced the electorate in a general election as our leader.

Raymond Postgate wrote after George had resigned – and two weeks later an election was called – that “now they had lost their only popular leader, it was enough to wreck the labour men’s hopes of a victory”.

Irrespective of this, to have a third Labour government in 1945, or Wilson’s and Callaghan’s governments of the 60s and 70s – or Blair and Brown’s of more recent years – you had to have a party for them to inherit and subsequently lead; indeed from which to govern.

This is part of Lansbury’s legacy – to quote George Thomas

“He not only saved the soul of the party, he saved the party. We could have sunk into oblivion and the Liberals could have been reborn”.

When I think of George Lansbury I am consistently reminded of the fundamental paradox of the Labour party; the source of great hope whilst consistently being a provider of such profound and indeed bitter disappointments for us all. Its relationship between romance and rationalism.

Consider the events leading to George’s resignation. Half of Baldwin’s 500 seats were vulnerable. There was a possibility of a newly confident Labour Party gaining a majority and prime minister Lansbury. Contrast that with the party of 1932 – totally and utterly beaten – 50 odd seats left. Broken. In that short space of time he had overseen a profound transformation.

Yet what about military support for the Abyssinians through the League of Nations: on this to quote Postgate: “its leader was beginning to answer no; its members yes”. George offers to resign: at the 1934 Stockport conference, at the TUC in 1935 in Margate, Before the party conference in Brighton and finally at the conference itself.

At the conference Lansbury rises to speak to choruses of “for he’s a jolly good fellow” throughout the hall. He starts by saying: “I agree with my friends who think it is quite intolerable that you should have a man speaking as leader who disagrees fundamentally on an issue of this kind”. He then makes the most powerful statement possible about his Christian socialist convictions. Read the rest of this entry »

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Matgamna on the two Trotskyisms

September 5, 2015 at 5:11 pm (AWL, history, James P. Cannon, Marxism, posted by JD, Shachtman, stalinism, trotskyism, USSR, war)

August was the seventy-fifth anniversary of the murder of Leon Trotsky by an agent of the Stalinist USSR’s secret police (remembered by his grandson, here). Workers’ Liberty is publishing a second volume of documents from the movement which kept alive and developed the revolutionary socialist politics Trotsky fought for. Just before Trotsky’s death, the American Trotskyist organisation split after a dispute triggered by Stalin’s invasion of Poland. The majority was led by James P Cannon, the minority by Max Shachtman. Shachtman’s “heterodox” side, would later repudiate Trotksy’s analysis of Russia as a “degenerated workers’ state”; but that was not their view at the time of the split. Cannon’s “orthodox” side continued to hold onto the degenerated workers’ state position and from that would flow many political errors. This extract from the introduction to The Two Trotskyisms Confront Stalinism by Sean Matgamna, puts the record of the two sides into perspective:


Above: Shachtman and Cannon, on the same side in 1934

The honest critic of the Trotskyist movement — of both the Cannon and Shachtman segments of it, which are intertwined in their history and in their politics — must remind himself and the reader that those criticised must be seen in the framework of the movement as a whole. Even those who were most mistaken most of the time were more than the sum of their mistakes, and some of them a great deal more.

The US Trotskyists, Shachtmanites and Cannonites alike, mobilised 50,000 people in New York in 1939 to stop fascists marching into Jewish neighbourhoods of that city. When some idea of the extent of the Holocaust became public, the Orthodox responded vigorously (and the Heterodox would have concurred): “Anger against Hitler and sympathy for the Jewish people are not enough. Every worker must do what he can to aid and protect the Jews from those who hunt them down. The Allied ruling classes, while making capital of Hitler’s treatment of the Jews for their war propaganda, discuss and deliberation on this question endlessly. The workers in the Allied countries must raise the demand: Give immediate refuge to the Jews… Quotas, immigration laws, visa — these must be cast aside. Open the doors of refuge to those who otherwise face extermination” (Statement of the Fourth International, The Militant, 3 April 1943).

We, the Orthodox — the writer was one of them — identified with the exploited and oppressed and sided with them and with the labour movements of which we ourselves were part; with people struggling for national independence; with the black victims of zoological racism. We took sides always with the exploited and oppressed.

To those we reached we brought the basic Marxist account of class society in history and of the capitalist society in which we live. We criticised, condemned, and organised against Stalinism. Even at the least adequate, the Orthodox Trotskyists generally put forward proposals that in sum meant a radical transformation of Stalinist society, a revolution against Stalinism. Always and everywhere the Orthodox Trotskyists fought chauvinism. When some got lost politically, as they sometimes did and do, it was usually because of a too blandly negative zeal for things that “in themselves” were good, such as anti-capitalism and anti-imperialism. We mobilised political and practical support for movements of colonial revolt.

French Trotskyists, living in a world gone crazy with chauvinism of every kind, set out to win over and organise German soldiers occupying France. They produced a newspaper aimed at German worker-soldiers: some twenty French Trotskyists and German soldier sympathisers lost their lives when the Nazis suppressed it. The Orthodox Trotskyists even kept some elements of feminism alive in a world in which it was long eclipsed: Michel Pablo, in a French jail for helping the Algerians in their war of independence, applied himself to studying and writing about “the woman question”. Large numbers of people shared the view of the Trotskyists on specific questions and worked with them or in parallel to them. The Trotskyists alone presented and argued for a whole world outlook that challenged the outlook of the capitalist and Stalinist ruling classes. We embodied the great truths of Marxism in a world where they had been bricked up alive by Stalinism. We kept fundamental texts of anti-Stalinist Marxism in circulation.

Read the accounts of the day to day mistreatment of black people in the USA in the mid 20th century – Jim Crow in the South, where blacks had been slaves, segregation in the North, all-pervasive humiliations, exclusions, beatings, burnings, mob lynchings, the systematic ill-treatment of children as of grown-up black people. Work through even a little of that terrible story and you run the risk of despairing of the human race. The Trotskyists, challenging Jim Crow, championing and defending the victims of injustice, showed what they were. To have been less would have been despicable. That does not subtract from the merits of those who did what was right and necessary, when most people did not

James P Cannon and Max Shachtman, the main representatives of the two currents of Trotskyism, were, in my judgement, heroes, both of them. Cannon, when almost all of his generation of Communist International leaders had gone down to Stalinism or over to the bourgeoisie, remained what he was in his youth, a fighter for working-class emancipation.

I make no excuses for the traits and deeds of Cannon which are shown in a bad light in this volume. It is necessary to make and keep an honest history of our own movement if we are to learn from it. After Trotsky’s death Cannon found himself, and fought to remain, the central leader of the Trotskyist movement, a job which, as the Heterodox said, he was badly equipped politically to do. He did the best he could, in a world that had turned murderously hostile to the politics he worked for and the goals he fought to achieve. More than once he must have reminded himself of the old lines, “The times are out of joint/O cursed spite that ever I was born to set it right”. James P Cannon remained faithful to the working class and to revolutionary socialism. Such a book as his History of American Trotskyism cannot be taken as full or authoritative history, but it has value as what Gramsci called a “living book”: “not a systematic treatment, but a ‘living’ book, in which political ideology and political science are fused in the dramatic form of a ‘myth’.”

Socialists today can learn much from both Shachtman and Cannon. In his last decade (he died in 1972), Max Shachtman followed the US trade unions into conventional politics and dirty Democratic Party politicking. He took up a relationship to US capitalism paralleling that of the Cannonites to Stalinism of different sorts and at different times. Politically that was suicidal. Those who, again and again, took similar attitudes to one Stalinism or another have no right to sneer and denounce. Shachtman got lost politically at the end of the 1950s; the Cannonites got lost politically, in relation to Stalinism, twenty years earlier! When Trotsky in 1939-40, living under tremendous personal strain, reached a crossroads in his political life and fumbled and stumbled politically, Max Shachtman, who had tremendous and lasting regard for Trotsky and a strong loyalty to what he stood for, had the integrity and spirit to fight him and those who — Cannon and his comrades in the first place — were starting on a course that would warp and distort and in serious part destroy their politics in the decade ahead and long after.

The Prometheus myth has been popular amongst socialists, supplying names for organisations and newspapers. As punishment for stealing fire from the gods and giving it to humankind, the Titan Prometheus is chained forever to a rock in the Caucasian mountains and vultures eternally rip at his liver. Shachtman picked up the proletarian fire Trotsky had for a moment fumbled with and carried it forward. Generations of mockery, obloquy, misrepresentation, and odium where it was not deserved, have been his punishment for having been right against Trotsky and Cannon.

This book is intended as a contribution to the work of those who strive to refurbish and renew the movement that in their own way both James P Cannon and Max Shachtman tried to serve, and served.


You can order a copy of the book here

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The British Labour Movement today: forward to a New Party?

August 13, 2015 at 7:15 am (class, history, labour party, left, reformism, unions, workers)

Above: former T&G leader Bevin and Prime Minister Atlee in the 1945 Labour government

By John Rowe

Introduction: In the wake of the General election disaster we need an honest and clear-sighted assessment of the left’s response to austerity. At present the loudest voices of the anti-austerity movement persist in agitating for the Labour left and the unions to abandon the Party for some, as yet ill-defined alternative – a New Party (NP). These notes are a contribution to this debate. In them I argue our starting point needs to be the organising a truly social democratic tendency within the Labour Party. In putting forward this case I start by looking at the arguments of the NP left.

The NP view of New Labour

The NP left is not a distinct grouping. Rather it is a loose tendency defined primarily by a negative; the call to break from Labour. Inside this tent we find two very different visions. Some understand the new party as the beginning of a mass revolutionary party, a view held by socialist groups within it. Others, mainly trade unionists, view it more as a refounding of Old Labour. Within each sub-set there are myriad different perspectives.

The premise on which NP advocates call for a break with Labour is common to all and founded on a seemingly powerful point: New Labour’s record and policies made possible, according to the NP advocates, by its ability to function largely independently of the unions.  Such an analysis is not just factually wrong; it enables its proponents to reduce all the political problems confronting the working class to a simple matter of representation (i.e. the Labour Party), rather than this being just one element in the systemic crisis of labourism encompassing ideology, the unions, and the method by which ‘the movement’ has sought to advance working class interests. Nor are they willing to confront the root cause of this malaise which is located in the changing working class composition.

Rather than starting with New Labour’s record a more pertinent question is what forces enabled New Labour (NL) to dominate? To answer this we need to consider how the Labour Movement functioned and why it is unable to continue in the same way today. In fact any analysis of Labour’s record needs to start not with the Labour Party but with the unions

The decline of union power

Within a decade NL had replaced social democracy as the Party leadership, enabling it to evolve in two complementary ways: while its policies embraced neo-liberalism organisationally the Party machine came to dominate and determine internal Party life. At first sight one of the most astonishing successes of NL was the eclipse of social democracy, replacing its polices with pusillanimous pronouncements about mitigating the worst excesses of Neo-liberalism and trading in its traditions and ideology with a repackaged social liberalism. Read the rest of this entry »

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Stalinism is the absolute negation of Marxism

August 11, 2015 at 7:42 am (democracy, Guardian, history, Human rights, labour party, Marxism, posted by JD, stalinism, trotskyism)

My old comrade John Cunningham makes an important point (one that needs to be hammered home more often) in a letter published in today’s Guardian:

Above: Serge, anti-Stalinist Marxist

Jonathan Jones (Labour centrists like me aren’t cynics: we’re the left’s only true ethical wing, 8 August) regurgitates, yet again, the tired old myth that Marxism and Stalinism are somehow basically the same. That the one emerged from the other. This is nonsense (as nonsensical as the idea that there is such as creature as a “Corbynite”). The democratic left, the far left, the anti-Stalinist left (call it what you will) in the UK and elsewhere has a solid and honourable record of anti-Stalinism, actually much better and more consistent than either Labour centrists or the right (Labour or Tory). The left’s analysis and critique of Stalinism, through the writings of Isaac Deutscher, Trotsky, Victor Serge, the Critique group in Glasgow, the now defunct journal Labour Focus on Eastern Europe and numerous contributors to the New Left Review (to name just a few of the many voices involved) has been thorough, detailed, nuanced and totally damning.

The centre left and right, by contrast, have had little to offer other than moral outrage, which they were all too ready to drop when circumstances suited them. The left in western Europe has nothing to apologise for in its attitude to Stalinism. As for “the chains of a brutal history”, the left was the first to expose the crimes of Stalin and has fought long and hard to destroy those chains. Stalinism is not a continuation of Marxism, on the contrary it is the absolute negation of it.
John Cunningham
Adlington, Lancashire

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