An initial attempt at a socialist and humanitarian response to the Paris massacres

November 15, 2015 at 6:29 pm (capitalism, democracy, Europe, fascism, France, Human rights, humanism, internationalism, iraq, islamism, Jim D, Marxism, Middle East, modernism, Racism, reactionay "anti-imperialism", solidarity, terror, turkey, war, workers)

What follows is a statement drawn up by myself. It is based in part upon the AWL’s statement in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. I have not discussed it or “cleared” it with anyone. Critical comments are welcome -JD:

To massacre ordinary workers enjoying a drink, a meal, a concert or a sporting event after work, is a crime against humanity, full stop.

What cause could the Islamist killers have been serving when they massacred 130 or more people in Paris? Not “anti-imperialism” in any rational sense — whatever some people on sections of the left have argued in the past — but only rage against the modem, secular world and the (limited but real) freedom and equality it represents. Only on the basis of an utterly dehumanised, backward looking world-view could they have planned and carried out such a massacre. Such people are enemies for the working class and the labour movement at least as much as the capitalist ruling class – In fact, more so.

Modern capitalism includes profiteering, exploitation, and imperialism, but it also includes the elements of civilisation, sexual and racial equality, technology and culture that make it possible for us to build socialism out of it.

Lenin, the great Marxist advocate of revolutionary struggle against imperialism, long ago drew a dividing line between that socialist struggle and reactionary movements such as (in his day) “pan-Islamism” [in our day, Islamism]: “Imperialism is as much our mortal enemy as is capitalism. That is so. No Marxist will forget, however, that capitalism is progressive compared with feudalism, and that imperialism is progressive compared with pre-monopoly capitalism. Hence, it is not every struggle against imperialism that we should support. We will not support a struggle of the reactionary classes against imperialism.”

We, the socialists, cannot bring back the dead, heal the wounded, or even (unless we’re present) comfort the bereaved. What we can do is analyse the conditions that gave rise to the atrocity; see how they can be changed; and keep clear critical understanding of the way that governments will respond. This must not be mistaken for any kind of attempt to excuse or minimise this barbarity or to use simplistic “blowback” arguments to suggest that it is simply a reaction to the crimes of “the west” or “imperialism.”

Immediately, the Paris massacre is not only a human disaster for the victims, their friends and families, but also a political disaster for all Muslims, refugees and ethnic minorities in Europe. The backlash against this Islamic-fundamentalist atrocity will inevitably provoke anti-refugee feeling and legislation, attacks on civil liberties and hostility towards all people perceived as “Muslims” in Europe: that, quite likely, was at least one of the intentions of the killers. The neo-fascists of Marine LePen’s Front National seem likely to make electoral gains as a result of this outrage.

The present chaos in the Middle East has given rise to the Islamic fascists of ISIS, and their inhuman, nihilist-cum-religious fundamentalist ideology.

Throughout the Middle East, the rational use of the region’s huge oil wealth, to enable a good life for all rather than to bloat some and taunt others, is the socialist precondition for undercutting the Islamic reactionaries.

In Afghanistan, an economically-underdeveloped, mostly rural society was thrust into turmoil in the late 1970s. The PDP, a military-based party linked to the USSR, tried to modernise, with measures such as land reform and some equality for women, but from above, bureaucratically. Islamists became the ideologues of a landlord-led mass revolt.

In December 1979, seeing the PDP regime about to collapse, the USSR invaded. It spent eight years trying to subdue the peoples of Afghanistan with napalm and helicopter gunships. It was the USSR’s Vietnam.

The USSR’s war had the same sort of regressive effect on society in Afghanistan as the USA’s attempt to bomb Cambodia “back into the Stone Age”, as part of its war against the Vietnamese Stalinists, had on that country. In Cambodia the result was the mass-murdering Khmer Rouge, which tried to empty the cities and abolish money; in Afghanistan, it has been the Islamic-fundamentalist regime of the Taliban. In Iraq the West’s bungled attempts to clear out first Saddam’s fascistic regime and then various Islamist reactionaries, and introduce bourgeois democracy from above, have been instrumental in creating ISIS.

Western governments will now make a show of retaliation and retribution. They will not and cannot mend the conditions that gave rise to this atrocity, conditions which they themselves (together with their Arab ruling class allies) helped to shape. Ordinary working people who live in war-torn states and regions will, as ever, be the victims.

Civil rights will come under attack and the efforts of the European Union to establish a relatively humane response to the refugee crisis will be set back and, quite possibly, destroyed.

These blows at civil rights will do far more to hamper the labour movement, the only force which can remake the world so as to end such atrocities, than to stop the killers.

Public opinion will lurch towards xenophobia. Basic democratic truths must be recalled: not all Middle Eastern people are Muslims, most Muslims are not Islamic fundamentalists, most of those who are Islamic-fundamentalist in their religious views do not support Islamic fundamentalist militarism. To seek collective punishment against Muslims or Arabs, or anyone else, is wrong and inhuman.

The first, and still the most-suffering, victims of Islamic fundamentalist militarism are the people, mostly Muslim, of the countries and regions where the lslamists are powerful.

The only way to defeat the Islamists is by the action of the working class and the labour movement in such countries, aided by our solidarity.

Refugees seeking asylum in Europe do not in any way share blame for this massacre. In fact, many of them are refugees because they are fleeing Islamic-fundamentalist governments and forces like ISIS. To increase the squeeze on already-wretched refugees would be macabre and perverse “revenge”.

We must remake the world. We must remake it on the basis of the solidarity, democracy and spirit of equality which are as much part of human nature as the rage, hatred and despair which must have motivated the Paris mass-murderers.

We must create social structures which nurture solidarity, democracy and equality, in place of those which drive towards exploitation, cut-throat competition and acquisitiveness and a spirit of everything-for-profit.

The organised working class, the labour movement, embodies the core and the active force of the drive for solidarity, democracy and spirit of equality within present-day society. It embodies it more or less consistently, to a greater or lesser extent, depending on how far we have been able to mobilise ourselves, assert ourselves, broaden our ranks, and emancipate ourselves from the capitalist society around us.

Our job, as socialists, is to maximise the self-mobilisation, self-assertion, broadening and self-emancipation of the organised working class.

We must support the heroic Kurdish forces who are fighting and defeating ISIS on the ground in Syria and Iraq, opposed by the Turkish government. We must demand that our government – and all western governments – support the Kurds with weapons and, if requested, military backup: but we will oppose all moves by the governments of the big powers to make spectacular retaliation or to restrict civil rights or target minorities or refugees.

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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 (Andrew Coates, anti-semitism, Democrats, France, history, humanism, internationalism, reblogged, republicanism, secularism, socialism, zionism)

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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The sheer humanity of Oliver Sacks

August 31, 2015 at 10:52 am (good people, humanism, Jim D, literature, mental health, philosophy, science)

In this 2007 photo provided by the BBC, Neurologist Oliver Sacks poses at a piano while holding a model of a brain at the Chemistry Auditorium, University College London in London.  Photograph: Adam Scourfield/BBC/AP Photo/AP

The neurologist and author Oliver Sachs died yesterday aged 82. I read his most famous book, The Man Who Mistook his Wife For A Hat, a few years ago, but beyond that know little about him. According to the obit in today’s Guardian, he was criticised for writing “fairy-tales” in that his case histories lack the meticulous detail that contemporary science expects of practitioners. He was also accused of breaching patient confidentiality, although as far as I am aware, he took care to protect patients’ identities and certainly never used their real names in his writing.

What I do know about him is the sheer humanity he demonstrated in everything I’ve read by him, not least the very moving essay he wrote in the New York Times on learning of his terminal illness in February of this year:

It is up to me now to choose how to live out the months that remain to me. I have to live in the richest, deepest, most productive way I can. In this I am encouraged by the words of one of my favorite philosophers, David Hume, who, upon learning that he was mortally ill at age 65, wrote a short autobiography in a single day in April of 1776. He titled it “My Own Life.”

I urge you to read the whole thing, here.

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RIP Nicholas Winton

July 1, 2015 at 11:21 pm (anti-fascism, Anti-Racism, good people, history, humanism, posted by JD)


Nicholas Winton with one of the children he rescued during the second world war.

Gene (of Harry’s Place) writes:

I hope the life and achievements of Nicholas Winton, who died at the age of 106, are getting full recognition in the British media.

Winton was belatedly recognized for his role in helping to rescue and find families for at least 669 Jewish children from Nazi-controlled Czechoslovakia in the months before the outbreak of World War II.

“I called myself Honorary Secretary of the Children’s Section of the British Committee for Refugees from Czechoslovakia,” Mr. Winton told The Washington Post in 1989. “The other people,” he added, referring to government bureaucrats and others confronted with his doggedness, “they just called me a bloody nuisance.”

…He wrote letters to government leaders around the world, including in the United States. Nearly all of them turned down his requests for assistance. “If America had only agreed to take them, too,” he said, “I could have saved at least 2,000 more.”

Sweden agreed to take in some of the young refugees, as did Britain — provided that Mr. Winton could identify families willing to care for the children until they were 17 years old. The government also required that he secure the staggering sum of 50 pounds per child for their eventual return home.

Many of the children would lose their parents in the Nazi death camps and had no home to return to after the war.

While holding down his job at the stock exchange and with help from assistants, including his mother, Mr. Winton gathered or forged travel documents for the children, raised the necessary funds and recruited host families through newspaper advertisements and other means.

I was especially touched to learn that one of the children he rescued was Karel Reisz, who grew up to direct two of my very favorite movies: Who’ll Stop the Rain and Sweet Dreams.

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George Grosz: artist, satirist and “cultural Bolshevik”

May 22, 2015 at 7:18 pm (anti-fascism, Art and design, capitalist crisis, culture, Germany, history, humanism, Jim D, modernism, satire, sex workers, war)

Between now and June 20th you have the opportunity to see ‘The Big No’, an exhibition of work of one by the greatest left-wing satirical artists of the 20th century: George Grosz. It’s at the London Print Studio (W10) and admission is free of charge.

Grosz was a founder of the Berlin Dadaist movement who created hundreds of drawings that savagely depicted the corruption, injustice and decadence of the Weimar republic. Along with Helmut Herzfeld (who became John Heartfield) he introduced photomontage to the mainstream. Many of his his drawings are composed like photomontages.

The drawings use superb fine-pen draftsmanship while the paintings are composed of bold brush-stokes, to convey shocking images of extremes of wealth and poverty, sexual exploitation and the broken survivors of WWI.

The Big No (named after Grosz’s autobiography A Little Yes and a Big No) features two portfolios of his drawings: Ecce Homo (Behold The Man), published in 1923 and Hintergrund (Background) from 1928. Ecce Homo was the subject of a four year legal case, with  Grosz and his publisher accused of both pornography and bringing the German military into disrepute. They were acquitted, but in 1933 the Nazis had all the plates destroyed and the drawings publicly burned. We are able to see the work now because in 1959, after Grosz’s death, his widow and sons licenced a facsimile edition of the portfolio.

The Nazis denounced Grosz as a “cultural Bolshevik” and his work (together with that of fellow modernists, Jews and leftists like Kandinsky, Kokoschka, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Otto Dix) featured in the notorious 1937 “degenerate art” exhibition organised by the Nazis. By then Grosz had fled with his family to the US, where he remained for the rest of his life and where his son Marty became a well-known jazz guitarist.

Grosz wrote, ‘In 1916 I was discharged from military service. The Berlin to which I returned was a cold and grey city. What I saw made me loathe most of my fellow men; everything I could say has been recorded in my drawings. The busy cafés and wine-cellars merely accentuated the gloom of the dark, unheated residential districts. I drew drunkards; puking men; men with clenched fists cursing at the moon; men playing cards on the coffins of the women they had murdered. I drew a man, face filled with fright, washing blood from his hands… I was each one of the characters I drew, the champagne-swilling glutton favoured by fate no less than the poor beggar standing with outstretched hands in the rain. I was split in two, just like society at large…’

This exhibition is simply unmissable. I don’t know whether or not it’s going to appear anywhere outside London, so even if you don’t live in capital, I’d recommend a special visit. And how appropriate that it’s appearing in one of the less affluent parts of London, at studio whose stated mission is to “empower people and communities through practical engagement with the visual and graphic arts.”

GROSZ - On the threshold 

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Remembering Dennis Potter

May 17, 2015 at 11:39 am (drama, From the archives, good people, humanism, posted by JD, television, truth)

Dennis Potter

The playwright and TV script-writer Dennis Potter would have been 80 today. As it is, he died aged 59, on 7th June 1994. Less than three months earlier, he’d given this extraordinary interview to Melvyn Bragg on Channel 4.

By then Potter was diagnosed with inoperable, terminal cancer and spent the interview swigging from a hip flask of morphine (possibly laced with whisky). He called his cancer ‘Rupert’, as in Murdoch: “I’d shoot the bugger if I could”.

I still cherish a 2007 pamphlet published by the Guardian, which contains a slightly edited and tidied-up transcription of the interview.

The pamphlet starts with a wonderful Foreword by the Graun‘s veteran TV critic Nancy Banks-Smith (who once worked with Potter on the old Daily Herald). It’s no surprise that Potter was an agnostic who tended to the atheistic end of the agnostic scale; nor that he was a (utopian, I’d say) socialist.

Those of us who saw the interview when it went out on Channel 4 on April 5 1994 will never forget it. For those of you who didn’t, here’s a taste (and you can watch part of it here):

“I grieve for my family and friends who know me closest, obviously, and that they’re going through it in a sense more than I am. But I discover also what you always know to be true, but you never know it till you know it, if you follow (sorry, I’ve got…my voice is echoing in my head for some reason).

“We all, we’re the one animal that knows that we’re going to die, and yet we carry on paying our mortgages, doing our jobs, moving about, behaving as though there’s an eternity in a sense. And we forget or tend to forget that life can only be defined in the present tense; it is is, and it is now only. I mean, as much as we would like to call back yesterday and indeed yearn to, and ache to sometimes, we can’t. It’s in us, but we can’t actually; it’s not not there in front of us. However predictable tomorrow is, and unfortunately for most people, most of the time, it’s too predictable, they’re locked into whatever situation they’re locked into…Even so, no matter how predictable it is, there’s the element of the unpredictable, of you don’t know. The only thing you know for sure is the present tense, and that nowness becomes so vivid that, almost in a perverse sort of way, I’m almost serene. You know, I can celebrate life.

“Below my window in Ross, when I’m working in Ross,  for example, there at this season, the blossom is out in full now, there in the west early. It’s a plum tree, it looks like apple blossom but it’s white, and looking at it, instead of saying ‘Oh that’s nice blossom’…last week looking at it through the window when I’m writing, I see it as the whitest, frothiest, blossomest blossom that there ever could be, and I can see it. Things are both more trivial than they ever were, and more important than they ever were, and the difference between the trivial and the important doesn’t seem to matter. But the nowness of everything is absolutely wondrous, and if people could see that, you know. There’s no way of telling you: you have to experience it, but the glory of it, if you like, the comfort of it, the reassurance…not that I’m interested in reassuring people – bugger that. The fact is, if you see the present tense, boy do you see it!  And boy can you celebrate it”.

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Ananta Bijoy Das: yet another secular Bangladeshi blogger murdered by Islamists.

May 13, 2015 at 7:39 pm (Andrew Coates, Bangladesh, blogging, fascism, Free Speech, good people, humanism, islamism, murder, religion, secularism, terror)

Re-blogged from Tendance Coatesy (very slightly edited):

Ananta Bijoy Das, Beloved by Humanity, Hacked to Death by Islamists.

Loved by all Progressive Humanity: hacked to Death by Islamists.

Ananta Bijoy Das: Yet another Bangladeshi blogger hacked to death.

(CNN)Attacks on bloggers critical of Islam have taken on a disturbing regularity in Bangladesh, with yet another writer hacked to death Tuesday.

Ananta Bijoy Das, 32, was killed Tuesday morning as he left his home on his way to work at a bank, police in the northeastern Bangladeshi city of Sylhet said.

Four masked men attacked him, hacking him to death with cleavers and machetes, said Sylhet Metropolitan Police Commissioner Kamrul Ahsan.

The men then ran away. Because of the time of the morning when the attack happened, there were few witnesses. But police say they are following up on interviewing the few people who saw the incident.

“It’s one after another after another,” said Imran Sarker, who heads the Blogger and Online Activists Network in Bangladesh. “It’s the same scenario again and again. It’s very troubling.”

Public killings

Das’ death was at least the third this year of someone who was killed for online posts critical of Islam. In each case, the attacks were carried out publicly on city streets.

In March, Washiqur Rahman, 27, was hacked to death by two men with knives and meat cleavers just outside his house as he headed to work at a travel agency in the capital, Dhaka.

The three victims are hardly the only ones who have paid a steep price for their views.

In the last two years, several bloggers have died, either murdered or under mysterious circumstances.

Championing science

Das was an atheist who contributed to Mukto Mona (“Free Thinkers”), the blog that Roy founded.

Mukto Mona contains sections titled “Science” and “Rationalism,” and most of the articles hold science up to religion as a litmus test, which it invariably fails.

While Das was critical of fundamentalism and the attacks on secular thinkers, he was mostly concerned with championing science, a fellow blogger said.

He was the editor of a local science magazine, Jukti (“Reason”), and wrote several books, including one work on Charles Darwin.

In 2006, the blog awarded Das its Rationalist Award for his “deep and courageous interest in spreading secular & humanist ideals and messages in a place which is not only remote, but doesn’t have even a handful of rationalists.”

“He was a voice of social resistance; he was an activist,” said Sarker. “And now, he too has been silenced.”

Taking to the streets

Soon after Das’ death, his Facebook wall was flooded with messages of shock and condolence. And hundreds of protesters took to the streets in Sylhet demanding that the government bring his killers to justice.

“We’ve heard from Ananta’s friends that some people threatened to kill him as he was critical of religion,” Das’ brother-in-law Somor Bijoy Shee Shekhor said.

No one has claimed responsibility for the attack.

“We are ashamed, brother Bijoy,” someone posted on Das’ Facebook page.

“Is a human life worth so little? Do we not have the right to live without fear?” wrote another.

The beloved comrade will be remembered by all humanity.

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Pierre Rousett on the Charlie Hebdo killings, Islamism and related matters

March 17, 2015 at 12:43 am (anti-fascism, France, humanism, intellectuals, internationalism, islamism, Marxism, Pabs, posted by JD, reactionay "anti-imperialism", trotskyism)

The author is a leading member of the United Secretariat of the Fourth International, an organisation that has not always been clear-cut in its analysis of Islamism, so this article is of great significance. It first appeared in International Viewpoint:

After the attacks on Charlie Hebdo and the Hyper Cacher Jewish supermarket: thinking through the new and rethinking the old

By Pierre Rousset

We should start with a worrying observation.

Heads of state understood the importance of the events of January. Representatives of “democracies” and dictatorships alike, they came to Paris and locked arms together to show solidarity “at the highest levels”. A spectacular gesture if ever there was one!

On the other hand, a significant segment of the radical Left thought it was just business as usual. To be sure, some organizations published declarations of solidarity (and deserve genuine thanks for this) as well as articles grappling with the significance of the events. But many others felt it was enough to score debating points, correct as they may have been (against cross-party national unity, for example); or had as their first concern the need to distance themselves from the victims (declaring “Je ne suis pas Charlie” [“I am not Charlie”] in flagrant disregard for the message intended by those saying “Je suis Charlie” [“I am Charlie”]); or, far worse, felt the urgent task was to assassinate morally those who had just been assassinated physically.

Soon after the events, I co-wrote an article with François Sabado in which we specifically sought to understand what was so unique about the event and its implications in relation to our tasks. [1] No doubt, much more needs to be said on that score, but I’d like the text that follows (and which deals in large measure with the state of radical-Left opinion) to be read in conjunction with the previous one to avoid pointless repetition.

The unique character of the event

I’ll be referring in particular to an interview with Gilbert Achcar, with which I agree on many points of analysis, but which also contains a number of surprising blind spots. The first of these has to do with the unique character of the event. Gilbert seeks to trivialize the whole affair. “The reaction [to the attacks] has been what anybody would expect. […] These were quite similar reactions from appalled and frightened societies [the USA after 911 and France now] — and, of course, the crimes were appalling indeed. In both cases, the ruling class took advantage of the shock […] There is nothing much original about all this. Instead, what is rather original is the way the discussion evolved later on.” [2]

Gilbert is quite right to point out [elsewhere in the same interview] that it is extremely exaggerated to place the Charlie Hebdo attack and the September 2001 destruction of the World Trade Center Twin Towers on the same footing. And yet millions of people spontaneously took to the streets following the French events, unlike what happened following previous no less atrocious attacks, such as the murder of children in front of a Jewish school in Toulouse.

Read the rest of this entry »

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Terry Pratchett: ‘Shaking Hands With Death’

March 12, 2015 at 6:41 pm (BBC, Disability, funny, good people, humanism, literature, posted by JD, RIP)

Below: an extract from Terry Pratchett’s Richard Dimbleby lecture, Shaking Hands With Death, February 2010:

When I was a young boy, playing on the floor of my grandmother’s front room, I glanced up at the television and saw Death, talking to a knight. I didn’t know much about death at that point. It was the thing that happened to ­budgerigars and hamsters. But it was Death, with a scythe and an amiable manner. I didn’t know it at the time, of course, but I had just watched a clip from Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, wherein the knight engages in protracted dialogue, and of course the ­famous chess game, with the Grim Reaper who, it seemed to me, did not seem so terribly grim.

The image has remained with me ever since and Death as a character ­appeared in the first of my Discworld novels. He has evolved in the series to be one of its most popular characters; implacable, because that is his job, he appears to have some sneaking regard and compassion for a race of creatures which are to him as ephemeral as mayflies, but which nevertheless spend their brief lives making rules for the universe and counting the stars.

I have no clear recollection of the death of my grandparents, but my ­paternal grandfather died in the ambulance on the way to hospital after just having cooked and eaten his own dinner at the age of 96. He had felt very odd, got a neighbour to ring for the doctor and stepped tidily into the ambulance and out of the world. A good death if ever there was one. Except that, ­according to my father, he did ­complain to the ambulance men that he hadn’t had time to finish his pudding. I am not at all sure about the truth of this, because my father had a finely tuned sense of humour that he was good enough to bequeath to me, presumably to make up for the weak bladder, short stature and male pattern baldness which regrettably came with the package.

My father’s own death was more protracted. He had a year’s warning. It was pancreatic cancer. Technology kept him alive, at home and in a state of reasonable comfort and cheerfulness, for that year, during which we had those conversations that you have with a dying parent. Perhaps it is when you truly get to know them, when you ­realise that it is now you marching ­towards the sound of the guns and you are ready to listen to the advice and reminiscences that life was too crowded for up to that point. He ­unloaded all the anecdotes that I had heard before, about his time in India during the war, and came up with a few more that I had never heard. Then, at one point, he suddenly looked up and said, “I can feel the sun of India on my face”, and his face did light up rather magically, brighter and happier than I had seen it at any time in the previous year, and if there had been any justice or even narrative sensibility in the ­universe, he would have died there and then, shading his eyes from the sun of Karachi.

He did not. Read the rest of this entry »

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RIP Konstandions Erik Sculfield: anti-fascist hero

March 4, 2015 at 7:52 pm (anti-fascism, good people, humanism, internationalism, Jim D, kurdistan, Middle East, RIP, solidarity, war)


.The ex-Royal Marine, named as Konstandinos Erik Scurfield, who was killed fighting for the Peshmerga in northern Iraq.

Make no mistake: ex-Royal Marine, Konstandinos Erik Scurfield, who was killed on Monday, fighting with the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Syria, was an anti-fascist hero.

His comrade, ex-US soldier Jordan Matson, also a YPG volunteer, wrote on Facebook:

“Kosta as we call him was from the United Kingdom and was born a Greek citizen. He served in both the Greek army and as a British Royal Marine commando up until he came here. He served with me in Jezza and Shengal.

“Kosta volunteered for every attack and guard duty opportunity. He wanted nothing more than to bring the fight to the enemy.

“I’m going to carry on your legacy  brother, I will; never forget you. I love you man.

“Save ne a place up there big guy.”

Scurfield had been fighting in an area southwest of the town of Tal Hamis, which Kurdish forces seized from the ISIS/Daesh fascists last week, when (it is thought) the vehicle in which he was travelling was hit by mortar fire.

The death of this hero reminds us of how shamefully the Kurdish forces have been neglected by the West and that, despite their courage and superior fighting skills, they are often simply out-gunned by the well-equipped forces of ISIS/Daesh.

In memory of Kosta, we must demand of our government: Arm The Kurds!

Konstandions Erik Sculfield (kneeling); Credit: Facebook/Jordan Matson

Konstandions Erik Sculfield (kneeling); Credit: Facebook/Jordan Matson

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