By Eric Lee
Sixty years ago, the Socialist Party ran its last presidential campaign in the United States.
In its heyday, the party could capture upwards of a million votes, achieving this result in 1912, 1920 and again in 1932. The best result was the first one, when Eugene V. Debs led the party to six percent of the national vote. But less than a quarter century after Norman Thomas won nearly 900,000 votes at the height of the Great Depression, the total number of votes the Socialist could muster nationwide was a mere 2,044. Its final Presidential candidate, the successor to the legendary Debs and Thomas, was the little-known Darlington Hoopes.
By then, even the last stalwarts in the party accepted that it was no longer feasible to wage presidential campaigns. Within a year of the Socialists reaching their electoral nadir, the party was strengthened by the decision of Max Shachtman’s Independent Socialist League to join their ranks. The Shachtmanites rejected the traditional independent electoral strategy and called instead for the Socialists to join the ranks of the Democrats.
It took Shachtman and his comrades a decade to achieve their goal under the charismatic leadership of Michael Harrington. While the Socialists were grappling with issues of electoral strategy, a young man joined their youth organisation in Chicago, the Young People’s Socialist League (YPSL).
His name was Bernie Sanders.
Like many other YPSLs (pronounced “Yipsels”), the young Brooklyner was active in the peace movement through the Student Peace Union and the civil rights movement through the Congress of Racial Equality. Before joining the YPSL, Sanders was introduced to politics by his older brother, Larry, who would take him to political meetings. Larry was active in the Young Democrats. It was in the YPSL that Bernie would learn about democratic socialism.
Half a century later, he continues to define himself as a democratic socialist. He advocates a program of reform that most socialists would be very comfortable with, including breaking up the big banks, investing hundreds of billions of dollars in rebuilding the country’s infrastructure and creating employment, health care as a right for all citizens, free tuition at all public universities, campaign finance reform, strengthening union rights, and much more.
His campaign for the presidency launched earlier this year has galvanized the American political system and given new hope for a rebirth of a democratic socialist movement in the country.
What has changed that allows a democratic socialist to emerge, seemingly out of nowhere, to become a serious contender for the presidency sixty years after the unfortunate Darlington Hoopes won only 2,044 votes? And what are his chances to win the Democratic nomination and the presidency in November?
I think that three things have happened to allow a professed socialist to run a credible campaign for the presidency in 2016.
First of all, the economic crisis that hit America (and the world) from 2008, triggered – as it did in many countries – a rise in critical thinking about capitalism. We have seen big gains for parties and leaders once considered “far left” in several European countries, and while this cannot express itself in America in the creation of a new mass party of the left like Syriza, it can and does express itself in social movements like Occupy, in the trade unions and in the liberal wing of the Democratic Party.
But an economic crisis alone cannot create the basis for the rise of a socialist left in a country like America. There have been a number of economic crises, with periods of mass unemployment, in the years since 1932, but none of these resulted in the rise of an overtly socialist candidate or movement.
The second factor that allows for the rise of Sanders is the passage of time since the end of the Cold War. One cannot overstate the importance of Stalinism in undermining and weakening the American left over many decades. Whether it was McCarthy-era red-baiting and persecution (which affected everyone on the left, not just the Stalinists) or the idiotic, counter-productive tactics of the Stalinists themselves, it was nearly impossible to say the word “socialism” aloud in America so long as the Soviet Union existed.
But with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, a generation of Americans has grown up with no personal memory of that period, people for whom the word “socialist” is not necessarily a deal-breaker. There are people voting for Bernie Sanders today who were born in 1998, nearly a decade after the Wall came down. All voters under the age of 40 came of age politically only after Communism’s historic defeat.
None of this applies to Sanders, of course. The 74-year-old is a veteran of the YPSL from a time when socialists really were on the margins of American life, and when “socialism” really was a dirty word. But his supporters largely come from an entirely different generation, who’ve grown up in a different world.
The third thing that has happened is that Bernie Sanders, who his entire political life has been an independent, an opponent of the two-party system, has chosen to run as a Democrat. Some people on the small organised left in America would have preferred it otherwise. They would have liked to support a campaign like Ralph Nader’s, free of the taint of what Socialists use to call the “sewer” of the Democratic Party.
Nader himself followed in the tradition of a large number of well-intentioned but long-forgotten attempts to forge left-wing third parties in America. These included the peace campaigner Dr Benjamin Spock (People’s Party) who received fewer than 80,000 votes, or ecologist Barry Commoner (Citizen’s Party) who received 234,000 votes. Sanders was personally sympathetic to Nader, Spock and Commoner, campaigning for the latter two. But he learned an important lesson: to win a Presidential election in America, you need to run as a Democrat.
The extraordinary success of his campaign so far – regardless of what happens next – shows that he was right. His campaign is a vindication of everything Max Shachtman, Michael Harrington and their comrades fought for on the American left from the mid-1950s until now.
But does Sanders really have a chance?
I write these words two weeks before the Iowa caucus vote on February 1, the first electoral test of the Sanders candidacy. At the moment, all the polls show Iowa to be a tie between Sanders and Clinton. In the following vote, on February 9 in New Hampshire, polls show Sanders winning. If America wakes up on February 10 to learn that Bernie Sanders has won both Iowa and New Hampshire, it will represent a political earthquake.
Sixty years after the disappearance of the Socialists from the main stage of American politics, they have made a triumphant return. A former YPSL member from Chicago, still talking about the same democratic socialism he learned in the party of Debs and Thomas, may be on his way to becoming the forty-fifth president of the United States.
2015 marked an important milestone in the history of physics: just over one hundred years ago, in November 1915, Albert Einstein wrote down the famous field equations of General Relativity. General Relativity is the theory that explains all gravitational phenomena we know (falling apples, orbiting planets, escaping galaxies…) and it survived one century of continuous tests of its validity. After 100 years it should be considered by now a classic textbook theory, but General Relativity remains young in spirit: its central idea, the fact that space and time are dynamical and influenced by the presence of matter, is still mind-boggling and difficult to accept as a well-tested fact of life.
Less well known, these days, is the fact that Einstein was a man of strongly-held political and philosophical views. What follows is an article by Carl Darton, first published in the US ‘Shachtmanite’ publication Labor Action in 1950:
Albert Einstein as Scientist and Socialist
If your school-age son is somewhat better than clever in any field of science, you may have heard the expression: “He’s an Einstein.” It is indeed unprecedented that the name of a scientist working in highly specialized mathematical physics has become a by-word in the homes of his adopted land. This unique status of Albtrt Einstein rests not only on his scientific pre-eminence but also upon his keen interest in social and political affairs.
Dr. Einstein’s great scientific works—the Special Theory of Relativity (1906), The General Theory of Relativity (1915-20), and the extension of the General Theory to cover electromagnetic phenomena (1950)—can be understood only with the aid of tensor calculus. Obviously, only those versed in higher mathematics con begin to understand the technical phases of Einstein’s theories. But there are different levels of understanding in science and it is perfectly possible to choose a level of relativity theory which can be understood even by those with no special mathematical training. Einstein himself has done an excellent job of “popularizing” in his Relativity, The Special and General Theory. Also recommended is Leopold lnfeld’s Albert Einstein, His Work and Influence on our World (Charles Scribner, N Y, 1950).
On Capitalism and Jewish Nationalism Einstein has become almost as noted a philosopher as a scientist. His views appear to spring from these fundamental beliefs:
(1) “I believe . . . in . . . God who reveals himself in the harmony of all being, not in a God who concerns himself wim the fate and actions of men.”
(2) There is a spontaneous activity of the mind, altogether apart from experience, which can make contributions of the utmost value to natural philosophy.
(3) The simplest equations are most likely to be true, and “The aim of science is … a comprehension as complete as possible . . . and on the other hand the accomplishment of this aim by the use of a minimum of primary concepts and relations.”
Just as Einstein’s belief in “harmony of all being” leads him away from simple experience, deduction, and abstraction in scientific endeavor, so it also leads him toward a cooperative society, However, there is no General Theory dealing with social relations. In Why Socialism? (a chapter in his Out of My Later Years) Dr. Einstein investigates the difficulty of making general formulations of social phenomena.
He does indicate the “essence of the crisis of our time”: “The individual has become more conscious than ever of his dependence upon society. But he does not experience this dependence as a positive asset . . . but rather as a threat to his natural rights, or even his economic existence. . . . Man can find meaning in life, short and perilous as it is, only through devoting himself to society.” Further in this essay, written in 1949, Einstein assails capitalist production “for profit, not for use,” unemployment, inadequate wages, and the worship of acquisitive success.
Dr. Einstein has been active in recent years in two political movements; Zionist and One World. Although he grew up in a non-observant Jewish home and early rejected the concept of a personal God, he has accepted and retained the ethical teachings of Judaism. He supported the opening of Palestine to the dispersed Jews of Europe. On the issue of partition he stated: “I should much rather see reasonable agreement with the Arabs on the basis of living together in peace than in the creation of a Jewish state. Apart from practical considerations, my awareness of the essential nature of Judaism resists the idea of a Jewish state with borders, an army, and a measure of temporal power … I am afraid . . . of . . . the development of a narrow nationalism within our own ranks.”
The threat of another war concerns Albert Einstein constantly. His road to peace lies in “One World”—a supra-national government having the sole function of military security. National troops are to be replaced by international police and offensive weapons are to be outlawed. Einstein now advocates that the Western powers take the lead in the formation of this world government, leaving the door open at all times for Russia to join.
Is He Breaking with Russian Illusion?
These proposals for One World exposed Einstein to attack by four famous Russian scientists in November 1947. These Stalinist spokesmen rationalized their nationalist ambitions and denounced Einstein as a “virtual supporter of the schemes and ambitions of the bitterest foes of peace and international cooperation.” This attack brought to an end a period during which Dr. Einstein was noticeably non-critical of Stalinism and was used by their front movements.
Perhaps nothing shows more clearly the essentially Utopian nature of Einstein’s socialism than does this experience with Stalinism. The utopianism is rooted in the belief that planning is equivalent to socialism and not in the failure to recognize fhe economic factors undermining capitalist society. There are evidences, however, that this weakness is being corrected, since in the conclusion of Why Socialism? we read: “Nevertheless … it is necessary to remember that a planned economy is not yet socialism. A planned economy as such may be accompanied by the complete enslavement of the individual. The achievement of socialism requires some extremely difficult socio-political problems.” Einstein has no answer for the further question: “How can the rights of the individual be protected and therewith a democratic counterweight to the power of bureaucracy be assured?”
Edmund Whittaker, a reviewer of the book Albert Enslein, Philosopher-Scientist, writes: “Some of the observational confirmations [to the General Theory of Relativity] do not appear to he so secure as they were thought to be a few years ago.” It is possible that Einstein may share the fate of other scientists of our era and outlive his most famous works. Already it has been questioned as to whether Einstein is one of the three men who understand Einstein best.
Nevertheless, it may well be his greatest contribution that he has foreshadowed the ideal citizen of the socialist tomorrow—a specialist in his vocational sphere, where there is no room for amateurs; and a serious participant in political life, where there should be no professionals in the sense that special interests and privileges are accrued.
Labor Action New York
July 10 1950
Members of a left group admitting they got things seriously wrong and the organisation needs to fundamentally change: how often has this happened before?
The impossible has happened – so we need to change direction
Tom Walker, Salman Shaheen and Pete Green write on the future of Left Unity.
When something happens that you believed was impossible, there are two ways you can respond. The first is to stick to your guns, keep doing what you were doing before, and say it will all blow over soon. The second is to admit – annoying as it is – that you were wrong.
The election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader is such an event. We, like so many others, believed until a few short months ago that the probability of the left winning the Labour leadership was so low that it could essentially be discounted. Any strategy based on remaining inside Labour was a non-starter, and had been for decades. The left outside Labour considered this so self-evident as to be barely worth discussing. We expected Ed Miliband’s successor to nail the coffin shut. Along with just about everyone else on the left, we got it wrong.
Now, in the face of a historic, game-changing victory, we are concerned that Left Unity looks set to double down on a wrong strategy. The party built its foundations on a political perspective that has suddenly had the rug pulled from under it, as indicated by the recent fall in its membership from just under 2,000 to closer to 1,500 and the likely further erosion to come. Hundreds of resignation letters overwhelmingly tell the same story: the politics of Left Unity are my politics, but now I believe the best shot at making a difference is through the Labour Party.
The case for a network
That is why we submitted our motion (motion 3) calling for Left Unity to stop standing in elections, and in doing so cease being a ‘party’, instead transforming into something more akin to a network. Here is the text:
“Conference recognises that the triumph of Jeremy Corbyn in the Labour leadership election has transformed the political landscape and is now attracting thousands of new members into the Labour Party including many who have been active inside Left Unity. The struggle inside the Labour Party itself over its direction and policies is now critical for the future of the left and the interests of the vast majority of people in Britain.
It follows that Left Unity now needs to devote the opening session of its forthcoming conference to an extended debate about its relationship to the Labour Party and Left Unity’s lack of viability as an electoral alternative.
We propose that:
a) Left Unity dissolve itself as a political party which contests elections at any level.
b) Those present reconstitute ourselves as a Left Unity Network of activists and supporters who are committed to the principles and policies contained in our founding documents and to support for the various campaigns and struggles which correspond to those principles. This network would be open to both members of the Labour Party and those who choose to remain outside it.
c) Conference empowers the current National Council to sustain the existing structures of membership and communications whilst formulating proposals for a new simplified constitution and internal elections appropriate for a network which can be voted on by the membership as a whole.”
The intent is that we would continue as an organisation – constituted along the lines of any single-issue campaign or political association – in a form that allows for membership of the Labour Party. To be clear, no one would be asked to join Labour, and we certainly wouldn’t be ‘entryists’ inside Labour. Giving up elections, however, would mean that it would be legitimate for us to be a political organisation that included some people who were in Labour and some who weren’t (it would also, incidentally, open up Left Unity membership to Greens and others).
This motion has been met with some trepidation. The suggestion that our position is an existential threat to Left Unity has produced an unfortunate ‘defend the party’ response. Yet we believe our path is in practice the only one that offers some chance at preservation – even growth. Far from being an attempt to ‘end’ Left Unity, it is trying to find a way to preserve the good work Left Unity has done in a situation where an electoral challenge to the left of Labour has gone from difficult-but-necessary to being simply unviable.
We believe the answer is to give up the party form but continue as an organisation on the basis of our shared politics. And it is not simply a defensive move: while it would allow some who have resigned from Left Unity to re-join, it would also allow people in Labour who have never been in Left Unity before to sign up. We do not want to be prescriptive about what such a network would do. But there’s no reason why we cannot continue to issue broadsheets, leaflets and other material nationally and locally, hold our own meetings and engage in joint activities with others on the left. This is not a liquidationist proposal as some have interpreted it.
Executed by firing squad 100 years ago today. It seems that his last words were not “Don’t mourn, organize”, but “Fire!” – which makes all the more of a hero.
From the CIO/AFL website:
Joe Hill (1879-1915)
A songwriter, itinerant laborer, and union organizer, Joe Hill became famous around the world after a Utah court convicted him of murder. Even before the international campaign to have his conviction reversed, however, Joe Hill was well known in hobo jungles, on picket lines and at workers’ rallies as the author of popular labor songs and as an Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) agitator. Thanks in large part to his songs and to his stirring, well-publicized call to his fellow workers on the eve of his execution—”Don’t waste time mourning, organize!”—Hill became, and he has remained, the best-known IWW martyr and labor folk hero.
Born Joel Hägglund on Oct. 7, 1879, the future “troubadour of discontent” grew up the fourth of six surviving children in a devoutly religious Lutheran family in Gävle, Sweden, where his father, Olaf, worked as a railroad conductor. Both his parents enjoyed music and often led the family in song. As a young man, Hill composed songs about members of his family, attended concerts at the workers’ association hall in Gävle and played piano in a local café.
In 1887, Hill’s father died from an occupational injury and the children were forced to quit school to support themselves. The 9-year-old Hill worked in a rope factory and later as a fireman on a steam-powered crane. Stricken with skin and joint tuberculosis in 1900, Hill moved to Stockholm in search of a cure and worked odd jobs while receiving radiation treatment and enduring a series of disfiguring operations on his face and neck. Two years later, Hill’s mother, Margareta Katarina Hägglund, died after also undergoing a series of operations to cure a persistent back ailment. With her death, the six surviving Hägglund children sold the family home and ventured out on their own. Four of them settled elsewhere in Sweden, but the future Joe Hill and his younger brother, Paul, booked passage to the United States in 1902.
Little is known of Hill’s doings or whereabouts for the next 12 years. He reportedly worked at various odd jobs in New York before striking out for Chicago, where he worked in a machine shop, got fired and was blacklisted for trying to organize a union. The record finds him in Cleveland in 1905, in San Francisco during the April 1906 Great Earthquake and in San Pedro, Calif., in 1910. There he joined the IWW, served for several years as the secretary for the San Pedro local and wrote many of his most famous songs, including “The Preacher and the Slave” and “Casey Jones—A Union Scab.” His songs, appearing in the IWW’s “Little Red Song Book,” addressed the experience of vitually every major IWW group, from immigrant factory workers to homeless migratory workers to railway shopcraft workers.
In 1911, he was in Tijuana, Mexico, part of an army of several hundred wandering hoboes and radicals who sought to overthrow the Mexican dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz, seize Baja California, emancipate the working class and declare industrial freedom. (The invasion lasted six months before internal dissension and a large detachment of better-trained Mexican troops drove the last 100 rebels back across the border.) In 1912, Hill apparently was active in a “Free Speech” coalition of Wobblies, socialists, single taxers, suffragists and AFL members in San Diego that protested a police decision to close the downtown area to street meetings. He also put in an appearance at a railroad construction crew strike in British Columbia, writing several songs before returning to San Pedro, where he lent musical support to a strike of Italian dockworkers.
The San Pedro dockworkers’ strike led to Hill’s first recorded encounter with the police, who arrested him in June 1913 and held him for 30 days on a charge of vagrancy because, he said later, he was “a little too active to suit the chief of the burg” during the strike. On Jan. 10, 1914, Hill knocked on the door of a Salt Lake City doctor at 11:30 p.m. asking to be treated for a gunshot wound he said was inflicted by an angry husband who had accused Hill of insulting his wife. Earlier that evening, in another part of town, a grocer and his son had been killed. One of the assailants was wounded in the chest by the younger victim before he died. Hill’s injury therefore tied him to the incident. The uncertain testimony of two eyewitnesses and the lack of any corroboration of Hill’s alibi convinced a local jury of Hill’s guilt, even though neither witness was able to identify Hill conclusively and the gun used in the murders was never recovered.
The campaign to exonerate Hill began two months before the trial and continued up to and even beyond his execution by firing squad on Nov. 19, 1915. His supporters included the socially prominent daughter of a former Mormon church president, labor radicals, activists and sympathizers including AFL President Samuel Gompers, the Swedish minister to the United States and even President Woodrow Wilson. The Utah Supreme Court, however, refused to overturn the verdict and the Utah Board of Pardons refused to commute Hill’s sentence. The board declared its willingness to hear testimony from the woman’s husband in a closed session, but Hill refused to identify his alleged assailant, insisting that to do so would harm the reputation of the lady.
Hill became more famous in death than he had been in life. To Bill Haywood, the former president of the Western Federation of Miners and the best-known leader of the IWW, Hill wrote: “Goodbye Bill: I die like a true rebel. Don’t waste any time mourning, organize! It is a hundred miles from here to Wyoming. Could you arrange to have my body hauled to the state line to be buried? I don’t want to be found dead in Utah.” Apparently he did die like a rebel. A member of the firing squad at his execution claimed that the command to “Fire!” had come from Hill himself.
After a brief service in Salt Lake City, Hill’s body was sent to Chicago, where thousands of mourners heard Hill’s “Rebel Girl” sung for the first time, listened to hours of speeches and then walked behind his casket to Graceland Cemetery, where the body was cremated and the ashes mailed to IWW locals in every state but Utah as well as to supporters in every inhabited continent on the globe. According to one of Hill’s Wobbly-songwriter colleagues, Ralph Chaplin (who wrote the words to “Solidarity Forever,” among other songs), all the envelopes were opened on May 1, 1916, and their contents scattered to the winds, in accordance with Hill’s last wishes, expressed in a poem written on the eve of his death:
My Will is easy to decide
For there is nothing to divide.
My kin don’t need to fuss and moan.
“Moss does not cling to rolling stone.”
My body?—Oh!—If I could choose
I would to ashes it reduce
And let the merry breezes blow
My dust to where some flowers grow.
Perhaps some fading flower then
Would come to life and bloom again.
This is my Last and Final Will—
Good Luck to All of you,
By Andrew Coates (at Tendance Coatesy)
Blum: a Generous Humanist Socialist, not a “State Jew”.
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 the “philosémitisme 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.
The SNP’s reactionary social policies are what Scottish Labour should focus on to counter the nationalist diversion of the threatened new referendum.
By Elaine Smith
Labour MSP for Coatbridge and Chryston
One year on from the independence referendum campaign Scotland is again reflecting on it and whether there should be another referendum any time soon.
The referendum was a momentous exercise that saw me personally speak to a countless number of my constituents last year on the doorsteps, and it was a process that saw unprecedented numbers of people taking an interest in voting.
However, it was a process that also caused tensions and provoked some nasty behaviour on both sides.
In the weeks leading up to the independence referendum families were split between Yes and No, friends, work colleagues and even strangers had bitter arguments and indeed some relationships broke down never to be the same again.
In the aftermath, many who voted Yes feel cheated out of what they perceived as a better future and many who voted No feel that they are being viewed as less Scottish.
There is also an issue that the national flag is used by the SNP as a political symbol and the tensions remain while the “neverendum” hangs over us.
Still, for me the most concerning issue is the complete disregard by the SNP for democracy.
There was a massive turn-out to vote on September 18 last year so there can be no doubt that this was a democratically representative vote. The engagement of so many people in the vote was, of course, a positive outcome of the process and there was a clear 10 per cent differential, which resulted in a decision to reject independence.
There had also been clear statements by the then first minister and others in the Yes campaign that this was a “once in a generation” or “once in a lifetime” decision and that the result would be respected.
The No side were also challenged to respect any decision and the irony is that had this vote gone the other way, even by 1 per cent, then we would have been independent by next April with no second chances.
The No campaign has been accused of scaremongering on issues like the currency, pensions and oil prices. Since there was no clear plan I actually found these issues, along with many others, very worrying and, of course, we now know that concern about oil prices were certainly no scare story but all too real in their predictions of the possibility of the price plummeting.
However, having thought long and hard about it, my main motivation for voting against separation was a class-based one. I believe in solidarity and I have more in common with people in Blackpool than those in Braemar.
It’s not a change of constitution that is needed but a change of government to achieve the fairer, more equal and redistributive society that I want to live in and that Labour would implement.
Ironically the success of the SNP in Scotland and the threat of some kind of coalition down south was enough to deliver a return of the Tories.
There is an argument now about whether the so-called “Vow” is being delivered in full, although later analysis shows that it seemed to have had little effect on the vote.
The Scottish Parliament always had vast powers which were never fully used and we were getting major extra powers over tax prior to the referendum campaign even starting. Like others I expect the Smith Commission recommendations to be fully implemented since they were agreed to on a cross-party basis by all the main parties in Scotland including the SNP.
Even if the so-called vow is not implemented in its entirety we will still have one of the most powerful devolved administrations anywhere in the world.
When Labour delivered the referendum to establish the Scottish Parliament there were two clear votes: Yes to devolution and Yes to tax varying powers. The latter issue, therefore, had a mandate of the Scottish people agreed to by a democratic vote.
Interestingly, the SNP disregarded that democratic vote when John Swinney their finance minister gave up the ability to use the tax varying power in 2010 without even consulting the Scottish Parliament, never mind the people.
The vote for the SNP last May was undoubtedly in part an anti-establishment vote and an expression of displeasure with the perception of Westminster politics. Added to this their very effective propaganda machine was working overtime on the theme of “Standing up for Scotland.”
The reality is that there were always 59 Scottish MPs in Westminster but you would be forgiven for thinking otherwise.
What amazes me though is the SNP’s ability to act like the opposition when they have been the government in Scotland for over eight years. Given the chaos in the police service, the savage cuts to local government, the problems in education and the crisis in our health service to mention just a few areas I am amazed that any police officer, teacher, lecturer, nurse, doctor, paramedic or any other public-sector employee votes for them.
It will take time for Labour to regain the trust of the Scottish people but we have made a good start this week by electing Jeremy Corbyn as leader.
The negative tag of “Red Tories” was always nonsense but it was SNP spin that stuck with some people — it clearly cannot be levelled at Labour now.
In Scotland, Kezia Dugdale has started to further democratise the party, giving power to ordinary members and changing conference. Together our labour leadership team can show that, unlike the SNP, we don’t just talk about socialism, we act. The SNP have not implemented one single policy to redistribute wealth from the rich to the poor in society and have actually done the opposite with their damaging council tax freeze and vicious cuts to council budgets.
Rather than spend time, energy and another £15.8 million on another referendum, the SNP should get on with sorting out the problems they are fully responsible for here in Scotland with the vast swathe of powers they now have.
Scottish Labour will get on with our job of holding the SNP government in Edinburgh accountable for their many failures.
And given time maybe the wounds can heal in families, with friends and across the country and we can all once again be proud confident Scots, living in a tolerant, friendly and inclusive nation.
- This article also appears in today’s Morning Star. It is republished here with the permission of the author
Interview by the AWL’s paper Solidarity with Pete Firmin (Political Secretary of the Labour Representation Committee – ‘LCR’) in a personal capacity:
What are the main lessons of the Corbyn campaign so far?
That the existing left doesn’t have to control everything — the reason the campaign has surged is because it’s got out of control and in the positive sense. Nobody has controlled it or been able to control it top down. It’s flourished in ways nobody’s expected. That has been incredibly positive.
In addition lots of people new to politics or at least Labour Party politics have come around it; there’s a big layer of people who are long-term members of the party but have been frustrated over the years by New Labour policies and attacks on democracy. They’re coming out to support the campaign too. I don’t think the party establishment understand that at all. When people like Blair and Clarke and Mandelson come out and say anyone but Corbyn, the more reaction there is against them and they just reinforce us.
The other thing is how politically mixed the support has been. It’s not a firm left support, it’s much looser and more heterogenous. Of course that doesn’t mean the left shouldn’t be firmly involved and try to influence things, but we won’t do that if we assume everyone is fully paid up to all the things the left is for. That will just turn people off.
What have you and other LRC’ers focused on?
I organised in my constituency, Hampstead and Kilburn, for getting people along to the nominating meeting — we lost to Yvette Cooper by one vote. Interestingly our MP, Tulip Siddiq, was backing Andy Burnham but he came fourth. To give her credit we persuaded her to nominate Jeremy and, though she was not supporting him, she defended the decision publicly when it was attacked.
Our Labour Party branches have been doing a weekly stall on the local High Road for the last two years and in the last two months it’s noticeable that everyone who stops wants to speak about the leadership election and a clear majority support Corbyn.
I’ve been active in the social media stuff, encouraging long-standing political contacts and friends to sign up as members or supporters — some of whom have been purged.
The LRC did a public leaflet early on encouraging people to sign up and vote, and LRC members in lots of places have been doing stalls, or been involved as organisers for some of the big meetings, as well as doing phone banks and so on. We’ve generally helped to build the campaign. Also, and I think this is very important, LRC members played a good role in winning union support, particularly in Unison.
What are the main tasks for the left?
I’d argue that we need a new organisation bringing together the whole of the Labour left, and that’s the only way we’ll attract significant numbers to get on board, a significant chunk of the tens of thousands who volunteered to actively support Corbyn. Obviously people are already joining existing organisations in small numbers, but only small numbers. Those organisations don’t have strong roots in most of the places where there is strong Corbyn supporter — either where it’s not that organised formally or where there’s a strong local group.
I don’t think the right will be stupid enough to try to kick Corbyn out in the next few months, but they will try to undermine him in any way they can, and unless we have strong, organised support inside and outside the party he won’t be able to do things, even opposing austerity. Read the rest of this entry »
Now seems an appropriate time to remember George Lansbury, who led the Labour Party from 1932 (shortly after the defection of MacDonald and Snowden) until 1935 (when his pacifism was rejected by the Labour Party Conference). Below we reproduce Jon Cruddas’s speech at the 2011 unveiling of a plaque in honour of Lansbury, in Bow. The speech was originally posted at Labour Uncut and it should go without saying that we at Shiraz don’t necessarily share Cruddas’s assessment:
Thank you very much. It is great to be with you all this afternoon. We are here to celebrate the life of one of the true heroes of the Labour party: George Lansbury. A man who was – to quote the great historian AJP Taylor – “the most lovable figure in British politics”.
We as a party are really only beginning to understand the true significance of the man and of his leadership of the party; a process of rehabilitation is underway yet is far from complete.
I think of Lansbury as arguably the greatest ever Labour leader. Not in an empirical sense in terms of elections won – he never faced the electorate in a general election as our leader.
Raymond Postgate wrote after George had resigned – and two weeks later an election was called – that “now they had lost their only popular leader, it was enough to wreck the labour men’s hopes of a victory”.
Irrespective of this, to have a third Labour government in 1945, or Wilson’s and Callaghan’s governments of the 60s and 70s – or Blair and Brown’s of more recent years – you had to have a party for them to inherit and subsequently lead; indeed from which to govern.
This is part of Lansbury’s legacy – to quote George Thomas
“He not only saved the soul of the party, he saved the party. We could have sunk into oblivion and the Liberals could have been reborn”.
When I think of George Lansbury I am consistently reminded of the fundamental paradox of the Labour party; the source of great hope whilst consistently being a provider of such profound and indeed bitter disappointments for us all. Its relationship between romance and rationalism.
Consider the events leading to George’s resignation. Half of Baldwin’s 500 seats were vulnerable. There was a possibility of a newly confident Labour Party gaining a majority and prime minister Lansbury. Contrast that with the party of 1932 – totally and utterly beaten – 50 odd seats left. Broken. In that short space of time he had overseen a profound transformation.
Yet what about military support for the Abyssinians through the League of Nations: on this to quote Postgate: “its leader was beginning to answer no; its members yes”. George offers to resign: at the 1934 Stockport conference, at the TUC in 1935 in Margate, Before the party conference in Brighton and finally at the conference itself.
At the conference Lansbury rises to speak to choruses of “for he’s a jolly good fellow” throughout the hall. He starts by saying: “I agree with my friends who think it is quite intolerable that you should have a man speaking as leader who disagrees fundamentally on an issue of this kind”. He then makes the most powerful statement possible about his Christian socialist convictions. Read the rest of this entry »
This article by Sean Matgamna, one of the founders of the Alliance for Workers Liberty, also appears on the AWL’s website and in their paper, Solidarity: ________________________________________________________________________
Seize the chance the left has now
In the three months since the general election hundreds of thousands of people have joined the Labour Party, the party that lost the election.
Over 600,000 people have signed up to vote in the Labour leadership election. 300,000 have become full members of the Labour Party. The rise in Labour Party membership started immediately after the general election. Twenty thousand joined in the first couple of days after the defeat. Opinion polls report that in his campaign to become leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn has the support of between 50 and 60% of those eligible to vote. He has the backing of the bulk of the trade unions affiliated to the Labour Party.
Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union explained that what the trade union leaders are trying to do in backing Corbyn is to shift the political axis of mainstream labour movement politics radically from the politics that has ruled the roost in the labour movement for the last 21 years, since the Blairite coup in the mid-1990s. Jeremy Corbyn, Ward said, is the antidote to “the Blairite virus”.
The confluence of large numbers of rebellious people joining the Labour Party and union leaders looking for an “antidote” to neo-Thatcherism — that is what “Blairism” in the labour movement is — has produced something very like a mass movement to reclaim the Labour Party for the working class and the left. This mass movement has to be judged for what it is, not by how it measures up to our own working-class socialist politics. It would be a miracle indeed, if such a movement began with adequate working-class socialist politics.
It is for socialists to work to convince this movement of the need for socialist politics.
To do that socialists must be part of the movement, engage in dialogue with it. The alarm at the idea of a Corbyn victory in the press and in the ranks of the Labour Party Blairites tells its own story. The war criminals, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, architects of British participation in the invasion of Iraq, warn against electing Corbyn. Tony Blair: “If Jeremy Corbyn becomes leader it won’t be a defeat like 1983 or 2015 at the next election. It will mean rout, possibly annihilation.”
Their’s is the voice of the Blairite virus. Their warnings that a Corbyn-led Labour Party would be unelectable are beside the point: a left-wing Labour Party could and would have to inform, shape, educate and re-educate “public opinion”. That is what a proper opposition party does. A serious political party is not, should not be, what the Blair-Thatcherite Labour Party now is — an election machine to install venal careerists in ministerial office. The influx into the Labour Party is itself evidence that this is possible. In any case, it is necessary.
There are vast numbers of people in Britain who have been deprived of a political voice and a political party by Blairite rule in the Labour Party. For a quarter of a century, at least, the working-class and the labour movement has been deprived of genuine representation in Parliament. British politics has been dominated by the political-personal rivalry of different strands of Thatcherism.
In a world on which the banks and their relentless greed have brought down catastrophe, Britian’s “public discourse.” has focused on the hunt for “cheating claimants” and an unending outcry against immigrants. The ideas, norms, consequences and ideology of market capitalism has not been contested by the political labour movement. All that can now be changed.
But let us take the worst possible case: what if the Labour Party in the course of educating “public opinion”were to lose an election? In 1931, when the Labour Party leader, Ramsay MacDonald and his associates went over to the Tories and to a Tory-led coalition government, with Macdonald as Prime Minister, the Labour Party was reduced to about the same number of MPs it had had in 1906, at its beginning. But if the Labour Party had not stood up to Macdonald and to the bourgeois economic consensus of that time then there would have been no 1945 victory for a Labour Party committed to the radical reform-socialist programme which created the modern welfare state. Read the rest of this entry »
Bill Hunter (self-portrait above) died on 9 July. He was a leading member of the early British Trotskyist group, the Revolutionary Communist Party, later a member of the organisations led by the thug and (it turned out) sexual predator Gerry Healy, but in the 1980s joined an opposition faction that eventually broke with Healy
By Sean Matgamna (this obituary also appears in the AWL’s paper Solidarity)
Insofar as it is possible to separate personal qualities from politics, Bill Hunter was a model revolutionary: selfless, dedicated, always striving to be “objective” — that is, not to let personal feelings intrude on political attitudes and decisions — willing to pay whatever personal price his politics demanded of him.
When I first encountered him, early in 1960, I thought he looked the part, with a long ascetic face (after a near-fatal car crash in 1962, his face had to be reconstructed), spare frame and his general air of driving political seriousness. Without these qualities no revolutionary movement is possible. They are not enough, of course. Bill’s political life was a tragic proof of that.
I have a fond memory of Bill from the early 60s. I came upon him in Manchester waiting in the little van he drove — he was Lancashire-Cheshire organiser for the Socialist Labour League — deeply engrossed in The ABC of Communism, the early 1920s book by Bukharin and Preobrazhensky. It was perhaps the sixth time he’d read it, he told me; he reread “the books” of the movement frequently.
He’d been a Trotskyist then for at least 20 years. The title he put on his autobiography, Lifelong Apprentice summed up his attitude. It was the right attitude.
• The next issue of Solidarity will carry a longer obituary.