This week marks 400 years since the death of William Shakespeare. Just as with his birthday, the exact date of death is a mystery. It is widely believed that he died on April 23rd 1616, but no official record exists. However his funeral took place two days later.
In an article first published in Solidarity (Feb 2012) Sean Matgamna examines the motives of those who seek to deny that “the Stratford man” really authored the works attributed to Shakespeare:
The controversy has more than a little interest for citizens of a socialist movement that has reduced itself to a sprawling archipelago of self-sealing, self-intoxicating, self-blinding sects.
The dispute about “Who wrote Shakespeare?” has raged for well over 100 years now and rages still.
Shakespeare wrote “Shakespeare”, you say? Very little is known about William Shakespeare of Stratford upon Avon. What little is known about “the Stratford man” deepens the mystery that must attach to “Shakespeare”, whoever he was. How could anybody be so universal, know so much about so many different sorts of human beings and human situations?
Those who believe that William Shakespeare of Stratford upon Avon did not write the works of “Shakespeare” are called the “anti-Stratfordians”.
How, they ask, could the small town petty-bourgeois, with at best a grammar-school education, have known courts and palaces and the secrets of the princely exercise of state power? How could he have known the things which the author of “Shakespeare” knew, and knew so amazingly well that plays he wrote about the politics of a different world can still talk to us — Richard III, or Hamlet, or Macbeth, or Coriolanus, for example — about the essentials of our own political world, 400 years later?
However you look at it, there is, as well as a dearth of hard fact about the man, an awe-inspiring mystery about the genius of Shakespeare. It is the same sort of mystery as you confront in Mozart, but far greater and with no obvious solution.
From early childhood Mozart produced a wonderful profusion of musical patterns, as if he were a medium for some force outside himself. But Shakespeare dealt with character, situations, history.
Where Mozart can, perhaps, be explained by the qualities of a unique but more or less self-sufficient musical-mathematical mind trained from infancy by his musician father, Shakespeare did not deal with patterns in his own mind, or only with patterns of sound, but with patterns in society, psychology and history. How did he know? How could he know? Where did he learn what he knew? What experiences shaped and instructed, honed and stocked that wonderful mind about the world and its inhabitants?
For now, the mystery of Shakespeare is irresoluble, and maybe it always will be. We simply do not know. And that not knowing is very unsatisfying.
Enter the anti-Stratfordians. Their game is to find the most likely “alternative Shakespeare” from among public figures who were Shakespeare’s contemporaries, men about whom, unlike “the Stratford man”, much is known, and who had a background that might explain Shakespeare’s knowledge of power, people, kings and cabals.
Was “Shakespeare” the Jacobean pioneering philosopher of science and one-time Lord Chancellor of England, Francis Bacon? Or Christopher Marlowe? Marlowe died more than 20 years before Shakespeare — but can you prove that he really died in a tavern brawl in Deptford? Maybe he, a sometime government spy involved in plots and political intrigue, went into hiding on the continent and there wrote “Shakespeare”?
Or was it, perhaps, the Earl of Oxford? Or of Southampton? There are other “alternative Shakespeares”, among them Queen Elizabeth I. Shakespeare outlived her by a dozen years. But if you know, with burning conviction that “Shakespeare” couldn’t have been Will Shakespeare, you won’t let petty details like that clutter up your theory. They are easy to explain away.
Sects have formed around favoured candidates — Marlovians, Oxfordians, Baconians. All of them try to prove the unprovable, sometimes by way of sifting through texts for secret encrypted messages from the “real Shakespeare”.
Rejecting chaste scientific restraint, and the unsatisfying, “I don’t know”, all of them have gone on from the paucity of information to passionate conviction, even to certainty taken to the point of obsession. But they have only subjective grounds of intuition, inclination, sympathy and antipathy on which to mount their conclusions. It is probably no accident that one of the founders of the first, Baconian, school of anti-Stratfordians was named… Delia Bacon.
The anti-Stratfordians, inevitably, depend on the suppression and arbitrary selection of evidence, and on an impatient dismissal of what science tells them or, to the point here, what it can’t tell them, and on special pleading for their own candidate. They fill the void in what we know and can hope to know with fantasies and projections, thrown up arbitrarily and subjectively.
And thus, over more than 100 years, the anti-Stratfordians have created a paranoid sub-culture of warring sects that parallels and overlaps with both religious and political sectarian formations, of which they are, I suppose, a hybrid specimen.
One of the beauties of the game is that anybody can play. All you need to “know” is that “Shakespeare” could not possibly have been the man fools have called “the Bard of Stratford-on-Avon”. After that. your opinion is as good as that of anyone else. Sigmund Freud was an anti-Stratfordian; so was the arch-Tory, Enoch Powell. Anybody can play!
One man, a once-prominent Tory, Duff Cooper, wrote a whole book about it — he was an Oxfordian — after it came to him in a flash of intuitive knowledge, one day in a World War I trench, that that yokel Shakespeare couldn’t possibly have written those plays. Class snobbery, rampant class conceit, seems to be a prime component of all the anti-Stratfordian schools — the gut conviction that “Shakespeare” couldn’t have been that pleb from the hick village in Warwickshire.
In his own time, Shakespeare was sneered at by some of his university-educated rivals — whose denunciation survives — as a mere grammar-school upstart crow trying to steal the plumage of his betters. The anti-Stratfordians are their still-snobby descendants.
Unlike kitsch-Trotskyist groups, which begin, or whose political ancestors began, as rational political formations, the anti-Stratfordians are not subject to the brutal but health-regenerating blows of experience. They start by discounting the only available “experience” — the evidence, such as it is — and take off from there.
Impervious to criticism, riding their intuitions, sympathies, antipathies, narcissisms, obsessions, as witches in Shakespeare’s time were said to ride their broomsticks, they can go on forever, for as long as Shakespeare is read and performed. And they probably will — “stretching out to the crack of doom”!
When I was a lad first getting into jazz I wanted a copy of Eddie Condon’s biography, ‘We Called It Music’, which I’d heard was an informative and entertaining read: but how to get my hands on a copy? The old memory’s not all it might be these days, so I cannot recall how I got the idea, but somehow I learned that a jazz trumpeter called John Chilton ran a bookshop in Bloomsbury, London and so I sent the shop a book token I’d been given, with a note asking if they had a second-hand copy. The book arrived a few days later, plus a friendly note from John and postal order for the change I was owed! That was my only direct dealing with John Chilton, who has died aged 83.
I did, however, get to hear John play on several occasions, starting with a Sunday lunchtime session at a rather grotty pub in Clerkenwell called the New Merlin’s Cave, and then at a number of rather more prestigious venues where his Feetwarmers were backing George Melly. In fact, the Feetwarmers became Melly’s backing group and John his de facto road manager and musical director from the mid-70’s until the early 2000’s.
But John had a parallel career as a jazz historian and writer. His seminal ‘Who’s Who Of Jazz’ was described by Phillip Larkin as “one of the essential jazz books” and his biographies of Coleman Hawkins, Louis Jordan, Sidney Bechet and (together with Max Jones) Louis Armstrong won many awards and remain indispensable works on their subjects.
He also happened to be, by all accounts, a very decent and generous human being – well, he did, after all, send me that postal order.
Revisiting his ‘Who’s Who Of Jazz’ for the first time in a while, I’ve just noticed this forward by one Johnny Simmen of Zurich., which I think stands as a good, brief, epitaph:
“Rex Stewart, Bill Coleman, and Buck Clayton were the first to mention the name of John Chilton to me. They all said that he was a fine trumpeter and led a good band. ‘That boy is amazing’, Rex told me, ‘and I mean it’, he said, emphaising the point. Later on, when Bill and Buck expressed similarly flattering opinions, I concluded that Chilton had to be a pretty exceptional musician. I finally managed to hear a few of his solos and realised at once that they had not exaggerated one bit.
“Some time later, I received a letter from England, turning the envelope I saw to my surprise that the sender’s name was John Chilton. Perhaps he wanted me to investigate the possibilities of an engagement in Switzerland? No, there was no mention of this, but John – he had received my address from Bill Coleman – that he was in the process of writing a dictionary of American jazz musicians, from the very beginning up to the inclusion of musicians born before 1920. He asked if I had any information on doubtful points.
“From the tenor of the letter, I could tell at once that John is as deeply involved in the history of jazz and the men who play ‘the real thing’ as he is in his playing and arranging. Having gradually got fed up with phoney ‘jazz journalists’ over the years, I was glad to find out that John Chilton is an entirely different proposition. He has the ability, perseverence, and enthusiasm to tackle and finish such a demanding work. It is my opinion that this is one of the truly valuable books on jazz musicians. It is the work of a musician whose knowledge of jazz and love and devotion to ‘the cause’ is unsurpassed.”
Below: John on trumpet with the Bruce Turner Jump Band in 1961 (the still picture shows trombonist Johnny Mumford):
NB: Telegraph obit, here
Nelle Harper Lee: April 28, 1926 – February 19, 2016
Socialist Worker (nothing to do with the British SWP):wrote this in 2010 to mark the fiftieth anniversary of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. The article first appeared in the US paper
AS NEW debates erupt about racism, provoked by the bigotry of the Tea Partiers and the rush to judgment about Shirley Sherrod, this summer marks the 50th anniversary of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, which is being celebrated around the country with festivals, re-enactments, book clubs and even “mocktails.”
While the celebrations are in part a commercial gimmick to sell more books, they’re also a testament to the lasting legacy of a novel that is among the most read (and most loved) books of 20th century American literature. Lee’s only novel [prior to the controversial publication in 2015 of Go Set A Watchman – JD] earned her a Pulitzer Prize, has sold over 30 million copies, is taught in 75 percent of U.S. high schools, and has been titled “our national novel” by Oprah.
According to the BBC, its appeal goes beyond borders, beating the Bible (although not Pride and Prejudice) to come in fifth in a British poll for World Book Day. Among British librarians, it was the number one book they would recommend.
Narrated by Jean Louise Finch, better known as Scout, an articulate 6-year-old, Mockingbird covers two years in Maycomb, Ala.–from 1933 to 1935. Dismissed by some as simply a children’s book, the novel is far more than a simple coming-of-age story in the old South. For Scout, her brother Jem and friend Dill (based on Lee’s childhood friend Truman Capote), growing up means being increasingly at war with the world of the Jim Crow South.
It’s as an anti-racist novel of the civil rights movement, with its deep commitment to social justice and full equality–this is what earned it such a wide appeal. While the limits of the novel’s politics have often, with good reason, been the focus of debate among scholars and critics, it’s because it stands against racism and for social justice that Mockingbird is listed second among “books that have made a difference” to one’s life, according to ABC News.
Set in the 1930s and published in 1960, the novel straddles both periods and can best be understood, as Patrick Chura argues in the article “Prolepsis and Anachronism: Emmett Till and the Historicity of To Kill a Mockingbird” in the Southern Literary Journal, “as an amalgam or cross-historical montage.”
Through her depiction of the fictional town of Maycomb during the 1930s, Harper Lee exposes the poverty and class inequalities that plague the town, while introducing the reader to the segregated world of the Jim Crow South. Published just five years after the Montgomery bus boycott and the brutal murder of Emmett Till, it’s clearly a novel inspired by the civil rights movement despite being set 30 years earlier.
While Lee has stated that no one trial provided the inspiration for the trial of Tom Robinson that dominates the second half of the novel, it’s clear that two cases in particular left their mark on the novel. In 1931, in Scottsboro, Ala., nine men ranging in ages from 12 to 19 were arrested and falsely accused of rape and assault. A lynch mob of hundreds gathered around the prison, forcing the National Guard to intervene.
Over the next decade, the “Scottsboro Boys,” as they became known, were national symbols of criminal injustice in the segregated South. An all-white jury convicted all nine men, with no due process and virtually no defense. Their case would later be taken up by the Communist Party, which helped bring it to national attention, mobilizing a campaign that put the Southern criminal justice system itself on trial.
In 1955, Emmett Till’s brutal murder became a lightning rod in the nascent civil rights movement as a symbol of the barbarism of Southern “justice.” Till, a 14-year-old boy from Chicago, was tortured and murdered while visiting Mississippi for the alleged “crime” of whistling at a white woman.
The trial of the two men responsible for his murder made front-page national news, as an all-white jury took just 67 minutes to exonerate Till’s murderers. The foreman noted, “It would have been a quicker decision…if we hadn’t stopped to drink a bottle of pop.”
Both cases galvanized a generation of activists and provided the political impetus for Harper Lee’s novel. In Mockingbird, Tom Robinson’s trial doesn’t spark a mass movement, but it nonetheless leaves an indelible print on the children’s changing consciousnesses, making it impossible for them to ever see their town–a microcosm of the South as whole–the same way again.
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
THE FIRST half of the novel chronicles the adventures of Scout as the town and its social relations are introduced. The oppressive weight of Southern society and the alienation it produces are most clearly expressed through the unforgettable character of Boo Radley, the juvenile rebel turned adult recluse, one of the novel’s “mockingbirds,” who is the object of the children’s fascination.
Maycomb is a segregated Southern town where racism is unquestioned, poverty is everywhere, and one’s last name determines one’s place in a narrow-minded society. Being a Haverford “is synonymous with being jackass”; being a Cunningham means you’re poor, but refuse to take charity (i.e. the “good” poor); and being a Ewell means you don’t bathe, don’t go to school and do as little as possible except for signing relief checks (i.e. the “bad” poor).
Johnathan Freedland’s always excellent Radio 4 programme The Long View, today compared the loathsome Donald Trump with three previous “outsider”/”celebrity” populists who, at various times, seemed to be potential contenders for the US presidency: William Randolph Hearst, Henry Ford and Charles Lindbergh. All were extreme reactionaries, anti-semites (though there is some evidence that Hearst belatedly changed his attitude towards Jews), and islationists. At various times, all three expressed admiration for Hitler.
In fact, only Lindbergh got anywhere near to being a serious political force, and in his brilliant book The Plot Against America Philip Roth creates a convincing alternative history in which Lindbergh won the Republican nomination in 1940 and went on to defeat Roosevelt in that year’s election.
Freedland reminded listeners that a recording of Lindbergh’s September 11 1941 Des Moines anti-war speech can still be heard. A terrifying forewarning of what Trump now parades before the American people and the real threat he poses to the whole world:
I know that the great Alan Rickman deserves to be remembered as the superb serious actor he was:
H/t Ruth Cashman
… but I can’t resist him as the pantomime villain, and as far as I’m concerned it’s no disrespect at all to remember him as a wonderful, OTT ham
Also, by all accounts, a good guy (an active member of the Labour Party and supporter of many worthy causes).
RIP Alan Rickman.
Guardian obit here
This time of year when we think of time passing.
Enter CHRONOS, with a scythe in his hand, and a great globe on his back, which he sets down at his entrance
Weary, weary of my weight,
Let me, let me drop my freight,
And leave the world behind.
I could not bear
The load of human-kind.
From Dryden’s The Secular Masque
Written for the seventeenth century rolling over to the eighteenth. It has the New Year resolution flavour about it at the end:-
All, all of a piece throughout;
Thy chase had a beast in view;
Thy wars brought nothing about;
Thy lovers were all untrue.
‘Tis well an old age is out,
And time to begin a new.
The Three Ages of Man by Titian in the National Gallery of Scotland
A poem which fits the weather as well as the time of year and one of my favourites by Thomas Hardy, who wrote beautifully about time passing and opportunities missed:-
They sing their dearest songs—
He, she, all of them—yea,
Treble and tenor and bass,
And one to play;
With the candles mooning each face. . . .
Ah, no; the years O!
How the sick leaves reel down in throngs!
And brightest things that are theirs. . . .
Ah, no; the years, the years;
Down their carved names the rain-drop ploughs.
Time, time, time
See what’s become of me
While I looked around for my possibilities
I was so hard to please
But look around Leaves are brown
And the sky is a hazy shade of winter..
Look around, leaves are brown,
There’s a patch of snow on the ground
(Simon & Garfunkel – they were young things when that came out)
Who knows where the time goes? Sandy Denny, who died far too young.
And from he who was born middle-aged:-
Chard Whitlow by ”T S Eliot”
As we get older we do not get any younger.
Seasons return, and today I am fifty-five,
And this time last year I was fifty-four,
And this time next year I shall be sixty-two.
And I cannot say I should like (to speak for myself)
To see my time over again— if you can call it time:
Fidgeting uneasily under a draughty stair,
Or counting sleepless nights in the crowded Tube.
From The Hobbit – one of the riddles
This thing all things devours:
Birds, beasts, trees, flowers;
Gnaws iron, bites steel;
Grinds hard stones to meal;
Slays king, ruins town,
And beats high mountain down.
And a picture from the 1976 Soviet edition of The Hobbit.
Have a good time while we mark time passing.
Christmas is the season for potted histories of the festival. Bolted on to the pagan solistice, celebrated for twelve feasting days in the middle ages, half stamped out by the Puritans under Cromwell, which caused pro Christmas riots. Christmas was fading from the scene under the Georges and then revived by the Victorians. Prince Albert brought the Germanic Christmas with him, the emphasis being on a family celebration. Charles Dickens turned it into the season of “hospitality, merriment, and open-heartedness” via A Christmas Carol and the country Christmas among snow in The Pickwick Papers. The commercialising civilisation of the Victorians invented crackers and Christmas cards and left us with the mish-mash of goodwill and purchasing, feasting and family we enjoy today.
The 12 days of Christmas have been extended to 30 or so of less concentrated celebrations with pantomimes, Nativity plays, concerts, work dos and Christmas jerseys. I took part in all of these this December and thoroughly enjoyed them.
The awful family Christmas, bleakly comical or merely bleak – the antithesis of Slade’s cheeriness in Merry Christmas Everybody – has become a tradition in its own right (a very recent example of the genre is Tom Wrigglesworth’s A Christmas Not Special).
It turns up in literature a good deal, Christmas being a time when characters get together and do their worst.
As well as exalting the ideal Christmas, Dickens could show an unhappy one at the Gargeries with the bully Mrs Gargery, and her victims, her husband Joe and her orphaned brother Pip.
We were to have a superb dinner, consisting of a leg of pickled pork and greens, and a pair of roast stuffed fowls. A handsome mince-pie had been made yesterday morning … and the pudding was already on the boil.
It is a ceremonious occasion. Guests come through the front door – locked for the rest of the year– and sit in the parlour – in wraps for the rest of the year.
Pip is kept very much in his place as an orphaned dependent, nagged and lectured by the rest. He is also sick with anxiety because he has stolen food for Magwitch the convict:-
Among this good company I should have felt myself, even if I hadn’t robbed the pantry, in a false position. Not because I was squeezed in at an acute angle of the tablecloth, with the table in my chest, and the Pumblechookian elbow in my eye, nor because I was not allowed to speak (I didn’t want to speak), nor because I was regaled with the scaly tips of the drumsticks of the fowls, and with those obscure corners of pork of which the pig, when living, had had the least reason to be vain…..
Joe, his ally, does his best:-
he always aided and comforted me when he could, in some way of his own, and he always did so at dinner-time by giving me gravy, if there were any. There being plenty of gravy to-day, Joe spooned into my plate, at this point, about half a pint.
Pip’s misery is interrupted by soldiers who visit the house when searching for Magwitch, and this chance of a hunt enlivens the company:-
As I watched them while they all stood clustering about the forge, enjoying themselves so much, I thought what terrible good sauce for a dinner my fugitive friend on the marshes was. They had not enjoyed themselves a quarter so much, before the entertainment was brightened with the excitement he furnished.
It is one of the most powerful scenes in the English novel, that Christmas dinner at the Dedaluses. Present:- Mr and Mrs Dedalus, Dante the aunt, young Stephen Dedalus, Uncle Charles and Mr Casey. Mr Dedalus carves, of course (always the man’s job).
the warm heavy smell of turkey and ham and celery rose from the plates and dishes and the great fire was banked high and red in the grate and the green ivy and red holly made you feel so happy and when dinner was ended the big plum pudding would be carried in, studded with peeled almonds and sprigs of holly, with bluish fire running around it and a little green flag flying from the top.
The green flag is for Irish nationalism. Tension starts rising between the devoted followers of Parnell and the devout Catholic Dante:-
Mrs Dedalus laid down her knife and fork, saying:
—For pity sake and for pity sake let us have no political discussion on this day of all days in the year.
(As the host carves, the hostess tries to keep the peace).
He heaped up the food on Stephen’s plate and served uncle Charles and Mr Casey to large pieces of turkey and splashes of sauce. Mrs Dedalus was eating little and Dante sat with her hands in her lap. She was red in the face. Mr Dedalus rooted with the carvers at the end of the dish and said:
—There’s a tasty bit here we call the pope’s nose. If any lady or gentleman…
He held a piece of fowl up on the prong of the carving fork. Nobody spoke.
It ends with Dante angrily leaving the table and the two Parnellites, Mr Casey and Mr Dedalus, weeping over the disgraced Parnell.
An atheist, Elizabeth Taylor had no time for Christmas at all, regarding it as something Christianity forced on the rest of society.
Richard, the young businessman, trapped with his wife and mother-in-law wishes despondently Christmas might be over. On Christmas Day he walks through the dull village “Lighted trees in the little houses, holly wreaths on front doors already looked old stuff. Christmas was petering out.”
He has a glum time while his wife has a childish enjoyment for Christmas including a stocking by her bed. Meanwhile their friends are depressed in London. Patrick waits in for his capricious boyfriend, “it should be possible.. to ignore the dismal Christmas scene outside, groups of people homing fast, back to Mother and Father, until they were all cooped up in their families, leaving the streets deserted. . . the deadly silence of the day.”
The boyfriend turns up, with a present of a tie that his uncle had given him, and he has his own memory of deadly family Christmases .. “It was a true sacrifice to this spirit his mother tried to foster when he, year after year, offered his cracker to his cousin. Taking one end, she would turn her head away and screw up her eyes, ready to give a little cry of alarm at the bang. Playing her part too he guessed. Wearily, but wearing his fixed, Christmas grin, he would read out the motto, put the paper hat on his head.”
1976 Ending Up by Kingsley Amis
It was adapted for television in 1989 and the Christmas scene starts at 31:00. (H/t JD)
The five main characters would in an allegory be called Malevolent; Boring; Affected; Put-upon; and Drunk. They live together in a cold cottage. Their accumulated years are strangling their bowels and hearts and brains. The grand-children and great-grand-children of Affected have turned up for a much begrudged duty visit. They sing carols and then:-
.. they had the presents. Those from the guests to the hosts were chiefly a disguised dole: tins or pots of more or less luxurious food, bottles of hard liquor, wide-spectrum gift tokens. Hosts showered guests with diversely unwearable articles of clothing: to Keith from Adela, a striped necktie useful for garrotting underbred rivals in his trade; to Tracey from George, a liberation-front lesbian’s plastic apron…
Christmas dinner was something of a success; it passed off, at any rate, without bloodshed.
Then there are parlour games which bring out the vicious hostility or bewildered stupidity of Malevolent and the rest. This grinding celebration is seen mostly from the point of view of the young relations who experience it as “boredom – a poor word, for the consuming, majestic sensation that engulfed him, comparable in intensity to a once-in-a-lifetime musical experience”. The young are full of repulsion and fear of the sight of “age, and then the only end of age.”
2001 Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections is structured around whether the mother Enid will manage to gather her grown up children to enact the rituals of Christmas. I haven’t got the book to hand, but here’s a summing up:-
The fetish she makes of Christmas has uncomfortably recognisable comedy and pathos. (Her seasonal round-robins – laboriously written out on hundreds of cards, doing their best to spin the family’s numerous disasters into sunny good news and looking forward to a “heavenly” family celebration – are a classic example of the transparent denial so common in these missives.) When she finally wheedles her reluctant brood into attending, the event is hobbled by the accelerating decline of her husband and the cross-currents of resentment and misunderstanding between the family members. Mistletoe and wine this is not.
Any other examples of the bleak Christmas in literature?
Is that you all organised then? Have a nice Christmas!
Above: Shachtman and Cannon, on the same side in 1934
2015 marked the seventy-fifth anniversary of the murder of Leon Trotsky by an agent of the Stalinist USSR’s secret police. Workers’ Liberty has published 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.
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.
A second edition of the book has just been published, and you can get a pdf of the whole of the second edition at:
Copies can be ordered here (note special offer until 19 December).
William McIlvanney 25 Nov 1936 – 5 Dec 2015: writer, thinker, poet of ‘Tartan noir.’
Laidlaw sat at his desk, feeling a bleakness that wasn’t unfamiliar to him. Intermittently, he found himself doing penance for being him. When the mood seeped into him, nothing mattered. He could think of no imaginable success, no way of life, no dream of wishes fulfilled that would satisfy.
Last night and this morning hadn’t helped. He had finally left Bob Lilley and the rest still on the surveillance in Dumfries. On the strength of solid information, they had followed the car from Glasgow. By a very devious route it has taken them to Dumfries. AS far as he knew, that was where it was still parked — in the waste lot beside the pub. Nothing has happened. Instead of catching them in the act of breaking in, three hours of picking your nose. He has left them to it and come back to the office, gloom sweet gloom.
It was strange how this recurring feeling had always been a part of him. Even when he was a child, it had been present in its own childish form. He remembered nights when the terror of darkness had driven him through to his parents’ room. He must have run for miles on that bed. It wouldn’t have surprised him if his mother had had to get the sheets re-soled. Then it had been bats and bears, wolves running round the wallpaper. The spiders were the worst, big, hairy swines, with more legs than a chorus-line.
Now the monsters were simultaneously less exotic and less avoidable. He was drinking too much — not for pleasure, just sipping it systematically, like low proof hemlock. His marriage was a maze nobody had ever mapped, an infinity of habit and hurt and betrayal down which he and Edna had wanered separately, meeting occasionally in the children. He was a policeman, a Detective Inspector, and more and more he wondered how that had happened. And he was nearly forty.
* Guardian appreciation here
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.