I was going to put a question-mark at the end of that headline, but on reflection decided not to. I think we can be unequivocal about this.
When I was a callow young Trotskyist and James P. Cannon fan, older, more experienced comrades told me that Cannon’s organisation, the American SWP (no relation to the Brit group of the same name) had gone off the rails very badly in the 1950’s, when Cannon began to take a back seat and handed the reins over to lesser figures like Joseph Hansen. Evidence of this petty bourgeois degeneration, I was told, was a ludicrous faction fight over the question of women’s cosmetics that threatened to tear the SWP apart. In the end, good ol’ James P. came out of semi-retirement to bang heads together and tell Hansen and the comrades to get a grip and stop arguing about such irrelevant nonsense. Anyway, that’s how I remember being told about it.
As you can imagine, I never (until now) took the trouble to investigate the matter in any detail, but if you’re interested, quite a good account is given here, and you can even read some of the contemporaneous internal documents here, if you scroll down to No. A-23, October 1954. On the other hand, like myself when I was first told about the Great Cosmetics Faction Fight (GCFF), you may feel that life’s too short…
The point being, that I’ve always carried round in the back of my mind a vague recollection of the GCFF as a prime example of petty bourgeois leftist irrelevance, and probably the most ridiculous and laughable left-group factional dispute of all time.
The recent row within the International Socialist Network, resulting in the resignations of some of its most prominent members, makes the SWP’s GCFF look quite down to earth and sensible. If you ever wanted an example of why serious, socialist-inclined working class people all too often regard the far left as a bunch of irrelevant, posturing tossers, this is it. Don’t ask me what it’s all about, or what “race play” is. Comrade Coatesy gives some helpful background here and here. More detail for the serious connoisseur (aka “more discerning customer” wink, wink, reaching under the counter) here and here.
I’ll simply add, for now, that this preposterous business does appear to be genuine (rather than, as some might reasonably suspect, an exercise in sitautionist performance art and/or anti-left political satire) and is also one of those rather pleasing situations in which no-one in their right mind cares who wins: both sides are unspeakably awful self-righteous jerks. Actually, the ISN majority strike me as, if anything, even worse than Seymour, Miéville and their friend “Magpie” – if that’s possible. Still, it’s hard not to endulge in just a little schadenfreude at the discomfiture of Richard “Partially Contingent” Seymour, a character who’s made a minor career out of sub-Althussarian pretentiousness and “anathematising” others on the left for their real or imagined transgressions against “intersectionality“, and now falls victim to it himself.
Those who live by intersectionality, die by intersectionality.
Or, as Seymour himself put it in his seminal postgraduate thesis Patriarchy and the capitalist state:
“My suggestion is that as an analytic, patriarchy must be treated as one type of the more general phenomena of gender projects which in certain conjunctures form gender formations. What is a gender formation? I am drawing a direct analogy with Omi and Winant’s conception of racial formations, which comprises “the sociohistorical process by which racial categories are created, inhabited, transformed, and destroyed … historically situated projects in which human bodies and social structures are represented and organized.” This is connected “to the evolution of hegemony, the way in which society is organized and ruled,” in the sense that racial projects are linked up with wider repertoires of hegemonic practices, either enabling or disrupting the formation of broad ruling or resistant alliances. A gender formation would thus be a ’sociohistorical process’ in which gender categories are ‘created, inhabited, transformed, and destroyed’ through the interplay and struggle of rival gender projects. From my perspective, this has the advantage of grasping the relational, partially contingent and partially representational nature of gendered forms of power, and providing a means by which patriarchy can indeed be grasped in relation to historical materialism.”
From Robbie Helston Lea-Trengrouse’s Facebook pages…
Well done Ian Merricks: any further suggestions (within the limits of reasonable taste) welcome:
Kenny: slimming down his affiliation
The GMB’s decision to cut its affiliation to Labour from 420,000 members to 50,000 (and thus its funding for the party from £1.2 million to £150,000) is a genuine mystery – especially as Paul Kenny and the rest of the GMB leadership are presently (and very uncharacteristically) incommunicado.
Is this a “clever” negotiating ploy, sending a message to Miliband: press ahead with your proposals (ie union members to “opt in” rather than “out” of Labour Party affiliation) and this is what you’ll get?
On the other hand, all that Kenny’s done is implement Miliband’s proposals before they’ve even been properly discussed and voted on. Not very good tactics, I’d say – especially as there’s been no GMB campaign against Miliband’s plans and no consultation with GMB members. The figure of 50,000 seems to be based on an entirely speculative estimate that this is the number of members who would choose to “opt in.”
By the way, don’t bother looking on Kenny acolyte Nooman’s blog for any explanation. All “Gizza’job” Nooman has done today is reproduce the GMB Central Executive Council’s statement sans comment or explanation.
Meanwhile, over at UNITE, the United Left group (which has a majority on the union’s Executive Council) has passed a near-unanimous resolution calling on the EC to defend the Labour/Trade Union link and resist any proposals that undermine the principle of collective affiliation to Labour. Though Len McCluskey isn’t named in the resolution, in effect it’s calling upon him to reverse his publicly-expressed support for Miliband’s proposals.
“Thin and tense, his head with its pointed features crouching between his shoulders as though emerging from its burrow into a dangerous world, his eyes as cold and watchful as those of a pike in the reeds. Around this thin, heron-like figure a whole comic tradition of disaster then descended” – George Melly on Jim Godbolt
Above: Godbolt (2nd right) with old jazz cronies including Coleridge Goode (far left)
I know that as a general rule obituaries are not supposed to be amusing, but I have to admit to having chuckled at the Telegraph‘s send-off for Jim Godbolt, the jazz writer, jazz historian and one-time agent/manager for some leading British jazz bands. Godbolt was a legendary curmudgeon who, one suspects, rather played up to his reputation – at least in his later years. The piece notes that one of Godbolt’s ventures was, for a while, writing obituaries for the Telegraph: I wonder if it’s possible that he wrote, and then ‘banked,’ this one himself..?
Jim Godbolt, who has died aged 90, devoted 70 years to jazz as a band manager, booking agent, journalist and historian.
Though he played no instrument and periodically found himself forced to take work in other fields, he was always ready to serve the music he loved in any capacity and for little money. But an ungracious manner, beginning with the way he snapped “Jim Godbolt” down the telephone, did not win him friends, although there were times when he could inspire a certain astonished affection.
Every time he was ignored, slighted or sworn at, the offence was carefully remembered, to be grimly repeated in his memoir, ‘All This and 10%’. There were the regular misspellings of his name — as Goodolt, Godlio, Godolt, Goabit or Goldblatt — and the occasion on which he was told that he was not paranoid, as paranoia would have meant him imagining that people were trying to avoid him. It was not his imagination.
George Melly left a striking description of Godbolt: “Thin and tense, his head with its pointed features crouching between his shoulders as though emerging from its burrow into a dangerous world, his eyes as cold and watchful as those of a pike in the reeds. Around this thin, heron-like figure a whole comic tradition of disaster then descended.”
Godbolt was under no illusions about his charms. When the libel lawyer nervously reading ‘All This’ wanted to eliminate a reference to a Len Bloggs, “a snarling anti-social inverted snob with a chip on his shoulder” , Godbolt pointed out that it was a portrait of himself.
James Godbolt was born in Wandsworth, south London, on October 5 1922. He went to Central School, Sidcup, where he failed to distinguish himself, then became an office boy with the stockbrokers Evans Gordon and Sandeman Clark. At 18 he left to earn £5 a week as a timekeeper on a building site and joined the No 1 Rhythm Club at Sidcup, Kent, before being called up by the Royal Navy to serve in armed trawlers in the Atlantic and Indian Oceans.
On leave in Cape Town, his appetite for jazz was further whetted when he bought 150 records from a hardware shop at one shilling each. He returned home to become manager of George Webb’s Dixielanders, which aspired to the authentic New Orleans style.
When the band collapsed with the withdrawal of the key members Humphrey Lyttelton and Wally Fawkes, Godbolt became a salesman for a signwriting firm, then an agricultural worker. Next he edited Jazz Illustrated, notable for its misprints before it folded after eight issues.
Although jazz at that time was rent by a bitter civil war between “trad” and modernist players, Godbolt steered clear of faction. He became a booker for the modernist Johnny Dankworth Seven and the traditionalist Graeme Bell Australian Jazz Band; protected the American guitarist Lonnie Johnson from fans on one provincial tour, and on another tried to keep the trombonist Dickie Wells sober. He also took on the management of the chaotic, hard-drinking Mick Mulligan band, worked for Lyttelton, toured Sweden with Bruce Turner’s Jump Band and ran a jazz club above the Six Bells at Chelsea. An enthusiastic cricketer, he was a member of The Ravers, which claimed to be the world’s only jazzmen’s cricket XI.
When pop music took centre stage in the 1960s, Godbolt was making his mark as agent/manager of The Swinging Blue Jeans during the period of their hit Hippy Hippy Shake. He managed to conceal his lack of enthusiasm for the new music when interviewed by Melody Maker, but when he went on to work for a large booking organisation his heart was not in it.
Taking a flat five floors up in a building without a lift near Hampstead Heath, he started out as a freelance journalist to earn the slimmest pickings. Eventually he was forced to work as a cleaner at the Savoy hotel and as an electricity meter reader, which left him with an aversion to dogs.
When his memoir was published in 1976, it sold only 400 copies. But two subsequent editions fared better, and Godbolt the author found himself in demand to review books and appear on radio programmes. Ever his own worst enemy, however, he was indignant to discover that those interviewed on Woman’s Hour were not paid; indeed, he was so indignant that he ended up being neither interviewed nor paid.
Another offer was writing obituaries for The Daily Telegraph. He became a frequent contributor, and could produce facts that could never be found elsewhere. Some members of the obituaries desk, however, were exasperated at being asked to sort out his prose and put up with his surly replies to queries. One of his more unusual submissions was two versions of the band leader Cab Calloway; one in standard English, the other in hepcat’s argot. Eventually an argument about the editing of his obituary of his brother, who kept a pub, led to the appointment of a more obliging wordsmith.
Goldbolt also wrote a two-volume History of Jazz in Britain (1984 and 1986), which addressed not only musicians but also critics, promoters, discographers and fans . When a second edition was published in 2005 it was accompanied by a four-disc set of 100 numbers culled from his personal collection. Godbolt’s last work, Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Farrago (2007), drew on his recollections of editing the magazine Jazz at Ronnie Scott’s, which he had produced at the saxophonist’s club in Gerrard Street for 26 years.
Jim Godbolt knew that he possessed an unrivalled knowledge of British jazz. Those who knew him, however, will remember him as a character who could have stepped from the pages of Dickens.
He was unmarried.
Jim Godbolt, born October 5 1922, died January 10 2013
“Blonds make the best victims” – A. Hitchcock
First things first: last night’s BBC 2/HBO film The Girl was absolutely superb – by far the best new work to be seen on Brit TV over the Christmas season. If you missed it, make sure you catch up via iplayer or whatever, asap.
Briefly, this was the story of Alfred Hitchcock’s choice of the previously unknown Tippi Hedren to star in The Birds (his follow-up to Psycho) and his obsession with her, culminating in a campaign of bullying and intimidation when she rejected his blundering advances. Finally, Hitchcock sabotaged her career by refusing to either release her from her contract or to use her in any more films, apart from the rather unpleasant Marnie.
His behaviour, these days, would be considered completely unacceptable and probably place him beyond the pale in the eyes of polite society.*
Once again we are confronted with the old conundrum: to what extent is it possible to separate a great artist from the more unpleasant aspects of his (and, it would seem, it is usually “his” rather than “her”) personality? As an admirer of Philip Larkin I have difficulty coming to terms with evidence of his misogyny and racism, just as admirers of Eliot and Pound have (or should have) difficulty with the fascist sympathies of those two, and Picasso enthusiasts ought to be at least concerned by his Stalin-worship (which lasted into the 1950s). As for unacceptable sexual practices, the superb sculptor and designer Eric Gill probably leads the field, though I’ve no doubt there have been plenty of other major artists with similarly hideous sexual proclivities. Benjamin Britten‘s interest in adolsescent boys has long been the subject of speculation, though in fairness it should be stated that there has never been any evidence that he engaged in paedophilia.
Anyway, The Girl, based as it was upon Tippi Hedren’s own accounts (in interviews) of what happened, pulled no punches and made no effort to excuse or explain-away Hitchcock’s behaviour. But, thanks to a masterful performance by Toby Jones, we feel pity as well as disgust. Hitchcock was, by his own description, a fat, ugly walrus of a man who had only ever had sex with his wife (for whom the term “long suffering” scarcely suffices) and, now in his sixties, was impotent anyway. According to Jones’ portrayal, he appears to have felt that Hedren simply owed him a tumble for having made her a star.
The question that The Girl poses but doesn’t answer, is to what extent Hitchcock’s sexual obessions contributed to the dark, ambiguous power of his best work.
As well as Jones’ extraordinary portrayal, Sienna Miller gives a strong (in every sense of the word) performance as Tippi Hedren and Imelda Staunton deserves a mention for her profoundly sad Alma Hitchcock.
“Again, nothing infuriates the current crop of evangelical atheists more than the suggestion that militant unbelief has many of the attributes of religion. Yet, in asserting that the rejection of theism could produce a better world, they are denying the clear evidence of history, which shows the pursuit of uniformity in word-view to to be itself the cause of conflict. Whether held by the religious or by enemies of religion, the idea that universal conversion to (or from) any belief system could vastly improve the human ot is an act of faith. Illustrationg Nietzsche’s observations about the tonic properties of false beliefs, these atheists are seeking existential consolation just as much as religious observers” – John Gray in the New Statesman, 30/11/12)
Here at Shiraz, we’ve previously had occasion to identify him as probably the most profoundly reactionary writer in respectable, mainstream journalism today. Gray can be difficult to follow precisely because his writing is vague, evasive and often illogical. In the New Statesman article from which the quote at the top of this piece is taken, for instance, it is difficult to discern even what he understands by the word “toleration” (as opposed, for instance, to “indifference”) and why he seems to think that irrational beliefs are a positively good thing. His repeated approving references to Nietzsche do, however, provide a telling clue.
Like Nietzsche, Gray despises humanity in general, and enlightenment humanism in particular. I’m not sure whether Gray would share his hero’s dismissal of democracy (“liberal” / “bourgeois” or otherwise) in favour of the artistocratic ideal of the Übermensch. Gray certainly seems attracted to Nietzsche’s emphasis (present from the first in in Die Geburt der Tragödie) on the unconscious, voluntaristsic ‘Dionysian’ side of human nature, as opposed to the rational ‘Apollonian’ side. Also, like Nietzsche, Gray is in fact an atheist, but seems to regard this as being entirely unconnected to any rational belief system, and simply a personal judgement that the ignorant masses cannot be expected to understand.
Gray’s contempt for humanism (and humanity) was well expressed in an earlier piece he wrote for the New Statesman:
“The idea that humankind has a special place in the scheme of things persists among secular thinkers. They tell us that human beings emerged by chance and insist that ‘humanity’ can inject purpose into the world. But, in a strictly naturalistic philosophy, the human species has no purpose. There are only human beings, with their conflicting impulses and goals. Using science, human beings are transforming the planet. But ‘humanity’ cannot use its growing knowledge to improve the world, for humanity does not exist.” – John Gray, ‘Humanity doesn’t exist’, New Statesman (10/02/11)
I’m not arguing, by the way that Gray’s views shouldn”t be published, or are unworthy of debate. I would question, however, what such an enemy of the Enlightement is doing as lead book reviewer in a publication whose strap-line is “Enlightened Thinking for a change.”
By the way, Nietzsche’s thinking contains an essential contradiction (explained by Antony Flew, thus): “Of course, Nietzsche goes on to use his views about the essentially ‘falsifying’ nature of language, and therefore of rational thought, to give theoretical backing to his favourite belief in the superior veracity of action and ‘will’. But here the central paradox in Nietzsche’s theory of knowledge emerges: he cannot himself, in all consistency, take that theory too seriously.”
Or as a letter to the New Statesman in response to Gray’s article, put it: “It is amusing to read yet again a rational man, John Gray on this occasion (‘Giant Leaps for mankind’, 30 November), arguing rationally for how very irrational we all are.”
Ophelia (“Butterflies and Wheels’) Benson on Gray, here
Gore Vidal, essayist, novelist, political commentator, contrarian and patrician socialite, has died.
Above: portrait taken in 1978 of Gore Vidal for the Los Angeles Times.
Here’s what his one-time friend and admirer Christopher Hitchens wrote in Vanity Fair in February 2010 (later included in Hitchens’ last book, Arguably). As will become apparent, Hitchens had long since fallen out with Vidal, mainly over the latter’s increasingly deranged and conspiracy-driven view of the world after 9/11. It is far from being a fully-rounded picture but – frankly – by 2010 Vidal thoroughly deserved such a demolition job. Enjoy:
More than a decade ago, I sat on a panel in New York to review the life and work of Oscar Wilde. My fellow panelist was that heroic old queen Quentin Crisp, perhaps the only man ever to have made a success of the part of Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest. Inevitably there arose the question: Is there an Oscar Wilde for our own day? The moderator proposed Gore Vidal, and, really, once that name had been mentioned, there didn’t seem to be any obvious rival.
Like Wilde, Gore Vidal combined tough-mindedness with subversive wit (The Importance of Being Earnest is actually a very mordant satire on Victorian England) and had the rare gift of being amusing about serious things as well as serious about amusing ones. Like Wilde, he was able to combine radical political opinions with a lifestyle that was anything but solemn. And also like Wilde, he was almost never “off”: his private talk was as entertaining and shocking as his more prepared public appearances. Admirers of both men, and of their polymorphous perversity, could happily debate whether either of them was better at fiction or in the essay form.
I was fortunate enough to know Gore a bit in those days. The price of knowing him was exposure to some of his less adorable traits, which included his pachydermatous memory for the least slight or grudge and a very, very minor tendency to bring up the Jewish question in contexts where it didn’t quite belong. One was made aware, too, that he suspected Franklin Roosevelt of playing a dark hand in bringing on Pearl Harbor and still nurtured an admiration in his breast for the dashing Charles Lindbergh, leader of the American isolationist right in the 1930s. But these tics and eccentricities, which I did criticize in print, seemed more or less under control, and meanwhile he kept on saying things one wished one had said oneself. Of a certain mushy spiritual writer named Idries Shah: “These books are a great deal harder to read than they were to write.” Of a paragraph by Herman Wouk: “This is not at all bad, except as prose.” He once said to me of the late Teddy Kennedy, who was then in his low period of red-faced, engorged, and abandoned boyo-hood, that he exhibited “all the charm of three hundred pounds of condemned veal.” Who but Gore could begin a discussion by saying that the three most dispiriting words in the English language were “Joyce Carol Oates”? In an interview, he told me that his life’s work was “making sentences.” It would have been more acute to say that he made a career out of pronouncing them.
However, if it’s true even to any degree that we were all changed by September 11, 2001, it’s probably truer of Vidal that it made him more the way he already was, and accentuated a crackpot strain that gradually asserted itself as dominant. If you look at his writings from that time, thrown together in a couple of cheap paperbacks entitled Dreaming War and Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace, you will find the more crass notions of Michael Moore or Oliver Stone being expressed in language that falls some distance short of the Wildean ideal. “Meanwhile, Media was assigned its familiar task of inciting public opinion against Osama bin Laden, still not the proven mastermind.” To that “sentence,” abysmal as it is in so many ways, Vidal put his name in November 2002. A small anthology of half-argued and half-written shock pieces either insinuated or asserted that the administration had known in advance of the attacks on New York and Washington and was seeking a pretext to build a long-desired pipeline across Afghanistan. (Not much sign of that, incidentally, not that the luckless Afghans mightn’t welcome it.) For academic authority in this Grassy Knoll enterprise, Vidal relied heavily on the man he thought had produced “the best, most balanced report” on 9/11, a certain Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed, of the Institute for Policy Research & Development, whose book The War on Freedom had been brought to us by what Vidal called “a small but reputable homeland publisher.” Mr. Ahmed on inspection proved to be a risible individual wedded to half-baked conspiracy-mongering, his “Institute” a one-room sideshow in the English seaside town of Brighton, and his publisher an outfit called “Media Monitors Network” in association with “Tree of Life,” whose now-deceased Web site used to offer advice on the ever awkward question of self-publishing. And to think that there was once a time when Gore Vidal could summon Lincoln to the pages of a novel or dispute points of strategy with Henry Cabot Lodge …
It became more and more difficult to speak to Vidal after this (and less fun too), but then I noticed something about his last volume of memoirs, Point to Point Navigation, which brought his life story up to 2006. Though it contained a good ration of abuse directed at Bush and Cheney, it didn’t make even a gesture to the wild-eyed and croaking stuff that Mr. Ahmed had been purveying. This meant one of two things: either Vidal didn’t believe it any longer or he wasn’t prepared to put such sorry, silly, sinister stuff in a volume published by Doubleday, read by his literary and intellectual peers, and dedicated to the late Barbara Epstein. The second interpretation, while slightly contemptible, would be better than nothing and certainly a good deal better than the first.
But I have now just finished reading a long interview conducted by Johann Hari of the London Independent (Hari being a fairly consecrated admirer of his) in which Vidal decides to go slumming again and to indulge the lowest in himself and in his followers. He openly says that the Bush administration was “probably” in on the 9/11 attacks, a criminal complicity that would “certainly fit them to a T”; that Timothy McVeigh was “a noble boy,” no more murderous than Generals Patton and Eisenhower; and that “Roosevelt saw to it that we got that war” by inciting the Japanese to attack Pearl Harbor. Coming a bit more up-to-date, Vidal says that the whole American experiment can now be described as “a failure”; the country will soon take its place “somewhere between Brazil and Argentina, where it belongs”; President Obama will be buried in the wreckage—broken by “the madhouse”—after the United States has been humiliated in Afghanistan and the Chinese emerge supreme. We shall then be “the Yellow Man’s burden,” and Beijing will “have us running the coolie cars, or whatever it is they have in the way of transport.” Asian subjects never seem to bring out the finest in Vidal: he used to say it was Japan that was dominating the world economy, and that in the face of that other peril “there is now only one way out. The time has come for the United States to make common cause with the Soviet Union.” That was in 1986—not perhaps the ideal year to have proposed an embrace of Moscow, and certainly not as good a year as 1942, when Franklin Roosevelt did join forces with the U.S.S.R., against Japan and Nazi Germany, in a war that Vidal never ceases to say was (a) America’s fault and (b) not worth fighting.
Rounding off his interview, an obviously shocked Mr. Hari tried for a change of pace and asked Vidal if he felt like saying anything about his recently deceased rivals, John Updike, William F. Buckley Jr., and Norman Mailer. He didn’t manage to complete his question before being interrupted. “Updike was nothing. Buckley was nothing with a flair for publicity. Mailer was a flawed publicist, too, but at least there were signs every now and then of a working brain.” One sadly notices, as with the foregoing barking and effusions, the utter want of any grace or generosity, as well as the entire absence of any wit or profundity. Sarcastic, tired flippancy has stolen the place of the first, and lugubrious resentment has deposed the second. Oh, just in closing, then, since Vidal was in London, did he have a word to say about England? “This isn’t a country, it’s an American aircraft carrier.” Good grief.
If Vidal ever reads this, I suppose I know what he will say. Asked about our differences a short while ago at a public meeting in New York, he replied, “You know, he identified himself for many years as the heir to me. And unfortunately for him, I didn’t die. I just kept going on and on and on.” (One report of the event said that this not-so-rapier-like reply had the audience in “stitches”: Vidal in his decline has fans like David Letterman’s, who laugh in all the wrong places lest they suspect themselves of not having a good time.) But his first sentence precisely inverts the truth. Many years ago he wrote to me unprompted—I have the correspondence—and freely offered to nominate me as his living successor, dauphin, or, as the Italians put it, delfino. He very kindly inscribed a number of his own books to me in this way, and I asked him for permission to use his original letter on the jacket of one of mine. I stopped making use of the endorsement after 9/11, as he well knows. I have no wish to commit literary patricide, or to assassinate Vidal’s character—a character which appears, in any case, to have committed suicide.
I don’t in the least mind his clumsy and nasty attempt to re-write his history with me, but I find I do object to the crank-revisionist and denialist history he is now peddling about everything else, as well as to the awful, spiteful, miserable way—“going on and on and on,” indeed—in which he has finished up by doing it. Oscar Wilde was never mean-spirited, and never became an Ancient Mariner, either.
[NB: for a more charitable view, here’s the New York Times obit – JD]
The following appears in the present issue of Solidarity & Workers Liberty. Until a few years ago I would have had difficulty believing the truth of what the writer claims (or at least suspected him of wild exaggeration), but sadly it rings all too true these days. And not just about the SWP, but also other degenerate, hysterical and petit bourgeois sections of the “left” including certain blogs:
Recently, someone I know through my student AWL comrades told me about a claim a prominent student SWP member had made about me. This SWPer had told her that I changed my name to Sacha Ismail in order to sound more Muslim: the implication being that I was seeking to cover up or mitigate the AWL’s supposedly “Islamophobic” – in fact secularist, anti-racist – politics. My original name, believe it or not, was John Smith.
(Just to be clear, Sacha Ismail is my real name. My father is Bangladeshi and my full name is Alexander Salim Ismail. Sacha is short for Alexander.)
In itself, this is just ludicrous and bit bizarre – not worth mentioning in print, let alone writing an article about. I am writing about it by way of introduction to a more general point, because it seems almost emblematic of the surreal torrent of lies which gets poured out against the AWL by some others on the left – particular the SWP, and particularly in the weird world of student politics.
Unfortunately, most of these lies are more significant than me changing my name. There are so many that it’s hard to know where to start. The AWL supports the presence of Israeli troops in the Occupied Territories; we support an Israeli attack on Iran; we think Islam is worse than other religions… I have even been told, on Facebook, that we drag Muslim people into bars in order to throw them out (yes, you read that right – that was from the same person who said my name is John Smith). The claims made by a small number of “left-wingers” run on and on, becoming more and more hysterical and implausible. God knows what gets said behind our backs, when we can’t respond.
Let’s take one example which is clear and instructive.
At the National Campaign and Fees and Cuts conference, there was a motion proposed by members of various left groups to oppose war and sanctions on Iran. It said nothing about the character of the Iranian regime or solidarity with its victims. We proposed a four line amendment stating our solidarity with the struggles of students, workers, women and national minorities in Iran (see here), which passed. Because of this, the SWP, Counterfire and others who had originally proposed the motion voted against it! That was bad enough. But it was not all.
SWP student leader Mark Bergfeld got up and told the conference AWL students had proposed the amendment because the AWL supports war on Iran! This was despite the fact that our amendment didn’t remove a single word from the original motion. And despite the fact that in his speech for the amendment our comrade Bob Sutton began with our opposition to war and sanctions and repeated it several times.
It so happened that the back page of our paper that week also included a headline: “No to war and sanctions” – pretty clear evidence of our position, you would think.
The point is that members of the SWP, rather than debating their real diffrences with opponents on the left, particularly the AWL, regularly slander them. In the case of the Iran debate, they probably felt under particular pressure to do so, because their position – opposing any solidarity with Iranian students, workers etc as pro-imperialist – is really pretty embarrassing. Easier to claim the AWL is pro-war than to defend that.
If SWPers made arguments along the lines of: “We think the AWL’s opposition to war on Iran is unreliable. Despite stating they oppose an attack, they published an article saying Israel had good reason to strike Iran’s nuclear program. Is that a record we can trust? In any case, this is why we believe their stance on solidarity, despite its good intentions, weakens the thrust of the anti-war position we are trying to put forward…” – that would be wrong (in our view, of course), but at least a respect-worthy attempt to actually debate us. Why don’t they do that? I think partly because many of them are not very confident in their own arguments, and partly because slandering opponents is increasingly part of their political DNA.
My student comrades also experienced this kind of nonsense in the election for University of London Union Vice President (see here). AWL member Daniel Lemberger Cooper, who won the election, was accused of all kinds of ridiculous things by campaigners for his opponent, SWP member Ross Speer, including being a racist and a sexist. (The large number of black, anti-racist and feminist activists who backed him across London, and particularly at his university Royal Holloway, obviously disagreed.)
I’m not sure why this kind of dishonesty and sectarianism is worse in the student movement than the labour movement. But I suspect it may be to do with the fact that people stay in the student movement for relatively brief periods of time. In the labour movement, where people often work together, in the same workplaces, industries and unions, for many years, there is a built-in tendency against this sort of behaviour. If SWPers in the NUT or Unison, for instance, regularly called us racist, they would much more quickly discredit themselves in the eyes of union activists. In the student movement too, though, the SWP’s behaviour alienates a lot of people: which is one of the reasons that most independent left activists, including many who disagree with us about issues like Palestine, backed Daniel Cooper in the ULU election.
And on the other hand, there is lying and dishonesty on the left in the labour movement as well. In all cases, the willingness of the SWP and others on the left to tell lies about their opponents poisons the political atmosphere. Cut it out, comrades! Let’s debate our differences openly and honestly instead.
-Sacha Ismail, South London
Above: Atzmon, saxist and racist
From ‘Harry’s Place’:
Joseph W, August 5th 2011, 1:00 pm
Gilad Atzmon is a jazz musician, who promotes pretty much every single antisemitic theory of the neo Nazi Right, including Holocaust denial.
You can read some of his nastiest quotes here.
Me (commenting at ‘Shiraz‘):
Some of us have been warning the left (and especially the “anti-Zionist” left) about Atzmon for years, with only limited success. The SWP no longer actively champions him, but (as far as I’m aware) have yet to account for their years of promoting him as both a performer and a “respectable” commentator on the Middle East, Zionism and related matters. The ‘Morning Star’ (notably their otherwise excellent jazz writer Chris Searle) continues to carry articles praising not just his music but his politics. People associated with the PSC and the BDS campaign recently organised a number of meetings at university campuses at which Atzmon was billed as a speaker (I’m not clear on whether the PCS itself endorsed these meetings; I know that some of the speakers billed to appear alongside Atzmon eventually pulled out). The ‘Guardian’ has repeatedly referred to Atzmon’s politics in such semi-approving terms as “provocative” , “anti-Zionist”, “outspoken”, etc.
I am concerned to learn that the anti-Semite, Gilad Atzmon, is writing a book on Jews for the Zero Books, as part of an otherwise entirely credible series of books by respected left figures such as Richard Seymour, Nina Power, Laurie Penny, and Owen Hatherley.
One can only can imagine what its content will be. Those who have been following Atzmon’s attempts to associate himself with the left will be in no doubt that Atzmon is a Jew-hater, and Zero books should urgently reconsider
‘Harry’s Place’, ‘Shiraz Socialist’ and ‘Socialist Unity’ don’t have much in common, and are often in dispute with each other. But, it seems, we can all recognise the poison of antisemitism when we encounter it, and want to do something about it.
Write to Zero Books to demand that they refuse to publish Atzmon’s filth.
Zero books seems to be owned by John Hunt Publishers Ltd, a Christian publishers, whose address is: 46(a) West Street, Alresford, Hampshire SO24 9AU and/or Laurel House
Station Approach, Alresford, Hampshire, SO24 9JH; email: firstname.lastname@example.org
We should also demand that Zero Books’ trendy new ‘leftie’ signings Nina Power, Laurie Penny , Owen Hatherley and our old friend Lenny “Seymour” Tombstone (email@example.com), make representations.
Do it now!
The City of Hull has just begun ‘Larkin 25’, a 25-week-long event, marking the 25th anniversary of the poet’s death on 2nd December 1985. BBC Radio 4’s ‘Front Row’ hosted by Mark Lawson, plugged the event, but spent at least half its time promoting the charges that Larkin was:
a/ a misogynist;
b/ a racist;
c/ a Nazi sympathiser.
No-one on the programme challenged these claims and even the suggestion (from one of the organisers of the Hull event) that we should separate the man from his work, came over as tacit acceptance that the allegations are true.
Alan Plater, a staunch defender of Larkin’s memory, did not feature in ‘Front Row’, but could have provided some balance. Plater wrote (in the Graun in 2002) about an incident in the 1970’s:
“I was on a selection panel with Larkin and a man from the Arts Council, given the task of selecting a poet-in-residence for a college in Hull. One of the applicants was black. After the interviews the man from the Arts Council said: ‘What did we think of our coloured cousin?’ To which Larkin and I replied, in synch: ‘We give him the job.’ Which we did, to the splendid Archie Markham.”
In his role as self-appointed counsel for the defence, Plater has written elsewhere (the forward to Larkin’s Jazz, Continuum, 2001):
“This collection goes a long way towards reclaiming Philip from the demonologists (Chandler used to call them ‘primping second-guessers’) who fell on the Selected Letters and the (Andrew Motion) biography with evangelical zeal and pronounced him unfit for human consumption on the basis of racism, sexism and various other disorders lumped together under any other business on that day’s agenda.
“Well, here is our designated demon on the racist issue, writing in 1969:
“‘It is an irony almost too enormous to be noticed that the thorough penetration of Anglo-Saxon civilisation by Afro-American culture by means of popular music is a direct, though long-term, result of the abominable slave trade.’
“And on the sexist issue, at the end of a review of books about Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday in 1973, he writes:
“‘Different in their styles, similar in their quality, these two women gave the world more than it could ever have repaid, even if it had tried.’
“Here are two huge, compassionate truths wrapped up in a sentence apiece, each informed by decency and anger, and enough to start a revolution any day of the week.”
For what it’s worth, I personally believe that the charge of sexism/misogyny carries some weight (Plater’s dismissal of it – “How can anyone be a womaniser and a misogynist?” – is pretty weak); the charge of racism comes with enough (albeit conflicting) evidence to be at least worthy of consideration; the charge of Nazi sympathies is simply an outrageous slur disgracefully repeated by Mark Lawson, whose only evidence seems to be that Larkin kept a mechanical model of Hitler once owned by his father (who was a Nazi sympathiser).
If I don’t go all the way with Plater, I am certainly with him in giving Larkin’s love of jazz a lot of weight in the case for the defence. As Plater notes, “It is no coincidence that repressive regimes the world over, taking their cue from Hitler, have always hated jazz, the music that doesn’t play by the rules, or as Philip describes it: ‘that incredible argot that in the first half of the 20th century spoke to all nations and all intelligences equally’.”
And Larkin’s love of one jazz musician in particular is significant: the black New Orleans clarinetist and soprano sax master Sidney Bechet, for whom Larkin’s enthusiasm knew no bounds:
“There are not many perfect things in jazz, but Bechet playing the blues could be one of them“, he wrote in the Guardian in 1960.
As a young jazz record collector in Oxford in 1941, he wrote to a friend about a Bechet record: “I rushed out on Monday and bought ‘Nobody Knows the Way I Feel This Morning’. Fucking, cunting, bloody good! Bechet is a great artist. As soon as he starts playing you automatically stop thinking about anything else and listen. Power and glory!”
And, of course, in his 1964 collection ‘The Whitsun Weddings’, Larkin included this:
For Sidney Bechet
That note you hold, narrowing and rising, shakes
Like New Orleans reflected on the water,
And in all ears appropriate falsehood wakes,
Building for some a legendary Quarter
Of balconies, flower-baskets and quadrilles,
Everyone making love and going shares–
Oh, play that thing! Mute glorious Storyvilles
Others may license, grouping around their chairs
Sporting-house girls like circus tigers (priced
Far above rubies) to pretend their fads,
While scholars manqués nod around unnoticed
Wrapped up in personnels like old plaids.
On me your voice falls as they say love should,
Like an enormous yes. My Crescent City
Is where your speech alone is understood,
And greeted as the natural noise of good,
Scattering long-haired grief and scored pity.
Here’s the record Larkin enthused over so colourfully in 1941:
…and here’s Larkin’s favourite jazz record of all (the band, led by Alan Elsdon, at his Westminster Abbey memorial service recreated it): Bechet’s ‘Blue Horizon’:
I don’t believe that anyone who loved that piece of music (and the man who created it) so much, and called it “the natural noise of good”, can have been all bad.