Above: the anti-EU ‘left’ at the TUC
Accuse any member of the Communist Party or supporter of the Morning Star of being a “Little Englander” or even just a nationalist, over the EU and they’ll get very hot under the collar. Robert Griffiths, general secretary of the CPB recently wrote a self-righteous letter to the New Statesman to complain about the magazine having quoted yours truly describing the MS “plumb[ing] the depths of reactionary Little England nationalism” in its coverage of the EU.
Now, I don’t know for sure whether or not John Boyd is a member of the CPB, but the MS certainly gives him a lot of coverage, regularly printing his anti-EU rants on their letters page, and quoting him approvingly in articles blaming the EU for the decimation of British industry, the undermining of British democracy, the war in Ukraine and the very existence of neoliberal capitalism, etc, etc, etc. Mr Boyd is secretary of the so-called Campaign Against Euro-Federalism, one of a number of interchangeable Stalinist/nationalist anti-EU outfits which evidently meet with the approval of the CPB and the MS.
Yesterday’s Morning Star published Mr Boyd’s latest letter, which I think is worth reproducing for posterity here at Shiraz, if only because letters published in the print edition don’t appear on the MS website. It is a chemically-pure statement of the fanatical, laughably ignorant, and utterly preposterous nationalism and isolationism that lies at the diseased heart the supposedly “left” anti-EU movement. The anti-EU ‘left’ should have this ludicrous, rambling, non-sequitur-ridden missive thrown in their faces at every opportunity. I presume, by the way, that Manu Bazzanu had written a letter attempting to assert elementary socialist internationalism, thus enraging the pro-patriotism Mr Boyd:
The nation state must come first for socialists
MANU BAZZANU (M Star September 25) brushes aside the fundamental importance of nations, nation states and their right to self determination. In fact the signs are that there will be more nation states.
Why side with capitalist interests, the European Union, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership and its secret investment court system (ICS/ISDS) whose aims are to cull the powers of national governments, democracy and independence?
The main cause of wars is one nation state’s interference in the internal affairs and right to self-determination of another.
The Middle East is in turmoil, with the resultant mass movement of refugees, because governments of Britain and other countries have used military force to destroy infrastructures, change regimes with no respect for nation states’ governments, the nations or the peoples within them.
The objective of Islamic State (Isis) is to bring about a worldwide caliphate which does not recognise international borders, nation states and a lot more. Readers of the Morning Star vehemently oppose this.
Is it not correct that support that support should be given to a united Ireland where the Irish nation has been struggling for over 800 years to get rid of English imperialism?
Is it wrong for the French Communist Party congress to sing the Marsellaise before the Internationale? That is patriotism and internationalism in the correct order.
Dockers in the past carried out international solidarity with workers in other nation states by refusing to load or unload particular ships. That is just one example of internationalism.
Even within the EU, and in light of the refugee and Eurozone crises, national governments on behalf of their nation states have rocked this reactionary prison-house of nations to its foundations.
We are currently subjects of the British monarchy, but this does not preclude writing English, Scottish and Welsh patriotic national anthems. They should reflect the national patriotic history and aspirations, clearing us of a few obstacles!
JOHN BOYD, Secretary, Campaign Against Euro-Federalism
August was the seventy-fifth anniversary of the murder of Leon Trotsky by an agent of the Stalinist USSR’s secret police (remembered by his grandson, here). Workers’ Liberty is publishing a second volume of documents from the movement which kept alive and developed the revolutionary socialist politics Trotsky fought for. Just before Trotsky’s death, the American Trotskyist organisation split after a dispute triggered by Stalin’s invasion of Poland. The majority was led by James P Cannon, the minority by Max Shachtman. Shachtman’s “heterodox” side, would later repudiate Trotksy’s analysis of Russia as a “degenerated workers’ state”; but that was not their view at the time of the split. Cannon’s “orthodox” side continued to hold onto the degenerated workers’ state position and from that would flow many political errors. This extract from the introduction to The Two Trotskyisms Confront Stalinism by Sean Matgamna, puts the record of the two sides into perspective:
Above: Shachtman and Cannon, on the same side in 1934
The honest critic of the Trotskyist movement — of both the Cannon and Shachtman segments of it, which are intertwined in their history and in their politics — must remind himself and the reader that those criticised must be seen in the framework of the movement as a whole. Even those who were most mistaken most of the time were more than the sum of their mistakes, and some of them a great deal more.
The US Trotskyists, Shachtmanites and Cannonites alike, mobilised 50,000 people in New York in 1939 to stop fascists marching into Jewish neighbourhoods of that city. When some idea of the extent of the Holocaust became public, the Orthodox responded vigorously (and the Heterodox would have concurred): “Anger against Hitler and sympathy for the Jewish people are not enough. Every worker must do what he can to aid and protect the Jews from those who hunt them down. The Allied ruling classes, while making capital of Hitler’s treatment of the Jews for their war propaganda, discuss and deliberation on this question endlessly. The workers in the Allied countries must raise the demand: Give immediate refuge to the Jews… Quotas, immigration laws, visa — these must be cast aside. Open the doors of refuge to those who otherwise face extermination” (Statement of the Fourth International, The Militant, 3 April 1943).
We, the Orthodox — the writer was one of them — identified with the exploited and oppressed and sided with them and with the labour movements of which we ourselves were part; with people struggling for national independence; with the black victims of zoological racism. We took sides always with the exploited and oppressed.
To those we reached we brought the basic Marxist account of class society in history and of the capitalist society in which we live. We criticised, condemned, and organised against Stalinism. Even at the least adequate, the Orthodox Trotskyists generally put forward proposals that in sum meant a radical transformation of Stalinist society, a revolution against Stalinism. Always and everywhere the Orthodox Trotskyists fought chauvinism. When some got lost politically, as they sometimes did and do, it was usually because of a too blandly negative zeal for things that “in themselves” were good, such as anti-capitalism and anti-imperialism. We mobilised political and practical support for movements of colonial revolt.
French Trotskyists, living in a world gone crazy with chauvinism of every kind, set out to win over and organise German soldiers occupying France. They produced a newspaper aimed at German worker-soldiers: some twenty French Trotskyists and German soldier sympathisers lost their lives when the Nazis suppressed it. The Orthodox Trotskyists even kept some elements of feminism alive in a world in which it was long eclipsed: Michel Pablo, in a French jail for helping the Algerians in their war of independence, applied himself to studying and writing about “the woman question”. Large numbers of people shared the view of the Trotskyists on specific questions and worked with them or in parallel to them. The Trotskyists alone presented and argued for a whole world outlook that challenged the outlook of the capitalist and Stalinist ruling classes. We embodied the great truths of Marxism in a world where they had been bricked up alive by Stalinism. We kept fundamental texts of anti-Stalinist Marxism in circulation.
Read the accounts of the day to day mistreatment of black people in the USA in the mid 20th century – Jim Crow in the South, where blacks had been slaves, segregation in the North, all-pervasive humiliations, exclusions, beatings, burnings, mob lynchings, the systematic ill-treatment of children as of grown-up black people. Work through even a little of that terrible story and you run the risk of despairing of the human race. The Trotskyists, challenging Jim Crow, championing and defending the victims of injustice, showed what they were. To have been less would have been despicable. That does not subtract from the merits of those who did what was right and necessary, when most people did not
James P Cannon and Max Shachtman, the main representatives of the two currents of Trotskyism, were, in my judgement, heroes, both of them. Cannon, when almost all of his generation of Communist International leaders had gone down to Stalinism or over to the bourgeoisie, remained what he was in his youth, a fighter for working-class emancipation.
I make no excuses for the traits and deeds of Cannon which are shown in a bad light in this volume. It is necessary to make and keep an honest history of our own movement if we are to learn from it. After Trotsky’s death Cannon found himself, and fought to remain, the central leader of the Trotskyist movement, a job which, as the Heterodox said, he was badly equipped politically to do. He did the best he could, in a world that had turned murderously hostile to the politics he worked for and the goals he fought to achieve. More than once he must have reminded himself of the old lines, “The times are out of joint/O cursed spite that ever I was born to set it right”. James P Cannon remained faithful to the working class and to revolutionary socialism. Such a book as his History of American Trotskyism cannot be taken as full or authoritative history, but it has value as what Gramsci called a “living book”: “not a systematic treatment, but a ‘living’ book, in which political ideology and political science are fused in the dramatic form of a ‘myth’.”
Socialists today can learn much from both Shachtman and Cannon. In his last decade (he died in 1972), Max Shachtman followed the US trade unions into conventional politics and dirty Democratic Party politicking. He took up a relationship to US capitalism paralleling that of the Cannonites to Stalinism of different sorts and at different times. Politically that was suicidal. Those who, again and again, took similar attitudes to one Stalinism or another have no right to sneer and denounce. Shachtman got lost politically at the end of the 1950s; the Cannonites got lost politically, in relation to Stalinism, twenty years earlier! When Trotsky in 1939-40, living under tremendous personal strain, reached a crossroads in his political life and fumbled and stumbled politically, Max Shachtman, who had tremendous and lasting regard for Trotsky and a strong loyalty to what he stood for, had the integrity and spirit to fight him and those who — Cannon and his comrades in the first place — were starting on a course that would warp and distort and in serious part destroy their politics in the decade ahead and long after.
The Prometheus myth has been popular amongst socialists, supplying names for organisations and newspapers. As punishment for stealing fire from the gods and giving it to humankind, the Titan Prometheus is chained forever to a rock in the Caucasian mountains and vultures eternally rip at his liver. Shachtman picked up the proletarian fire Trotsky had for a moment fumbled with and carried it forward. Generations of mockery, obloquy, misrepresentation, and odium where it was not deserved, have been his punishment for having been right against Trotsky and Cannon.
This book is intended as a contribution to the work of those who strive to refurbish and renew the movement that in their own way both James P Cannon and Max Shachtman tried to serve, and served.
You can order a copy of the book here
Cross-posted by Paul Canning:
The author of this piece is one of the most respected figures on human rights in Ukraine. She has been fearless is going after all abusers, from all sides.
Her organisation, Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group, was birthed from the legendary Russian human rights group Memorial. Reblogged with permission.
By Halya Coynash
Jeremy Corbyn, frontrunner for the UK Labour Party leadership and therefore a potential UK Prime Minister, affirms a commitment to human rights on his website. He demonstrates none when it comes to recent events in Crimea, the rest of Ukraine and Russia, and this is not through lack of attention to this part of the world. His assessment of Russia’s annexation of Crimea coincides nicely with that presented by Russian President Vladimir Putin and on Russian television and he has simply ignored grave human rights concerns under Russian occupation.
In February and March 2014 Russian troops seized control and forcibly annexed Crimea. Ukraine was too weak, even with the undoubted support of the Crimean Tatar population behind it, to defend its sovereign territory. The security assurances given by Russia, the USA and UK to Ukraine via the1994 Budapest Memorandum proved meaningless, and Crimea remains to this day under illegal Russian occupation.
The UK’s unwillingness to risk military conflict with Russia is understandable. Corbyn’s justification for non-intervention is much less so. He first expressed his views on March 8, 2014, two days after the leaders who had been installed at gunpoint had announced a largely alternative-less ‘referendum’ on joining Russia to be held ten days later, on March 16. Corbyn did note that “Russia has gone way beyond its legal powers to use bases in the Crimea. Sending unidentified forces into another country is clearly a violation of that country’s sovereignty.” He then added the non sequitur that Russian President Vladimir Putin had called ex-President Viktor Yanukovych “political history” and expressed woolly hopes for a “reduction of tensions”.
He asserts that one must “recognize the history lurking behind the drama”, and that “Ukraine’s national borders have ebbed and flowed with the tides of history”. He then claims significant collaboration with the Nazis during the Second World War and states that “their descendants could be seen bearing Nazi insignia and spouting racist slogans in Kiev only a week ago.”
This is the first of a number of assertions that parrot attempts to discredit Euromaidan made first by Yanukovych, then by Putin. They are to this day pushed by Russian state-controlled media, including Russia Today which Corbyn is on record as praising for objective reporting. The refrain is heard again in an article for Morning Star in April: “The far-right is now sitting in government in Ukraine. The origins of the Ukrainian far-right go back to those who welcomed the Nazi invasion in 1941 and acted as allies of the invaders.”
The narrative Corbyn repeats, both with respect to Euromaidan and to subsequent events, has been repeatedly refuted by prominent Jewish figures in Ukraine and by Viacheslav Likhachev, the main researcher on anti-Semitism and xenophobia in Ukraine. It has also been debunked by the results of both presidential and parliamentary elections in 2014, where both far-right parties did extremely badly.
Corbyn’s chief villains in all parts of the world appear to be the USA and NATO. In the above articles written shortly after Russia’s invasion of Crimea, he effectively suggests that Russia is protecting itself against attempts by NATO to “encircle it”. From the Morning Star article, one could forget that it was Russia who breached international law by invading Crimea, and by funding and manning those who were by then already seizing control in parts of eastern Ukraine. Russia’s behaviour was, he claims, “not unprovoked, and the right of people to seek a federal structure or independence should not be denied”. This is how he describes the seizure of government buildings, airports and military units in Crimea by Russian forces.
It is supposedly NATO whose “belligerence endangers us all”, although there was no question back in Spring 2014 of Ukraine joining NATO. Corbyn from the comfort of his North Islington home is against Poland and the Baltic States having been allowed to join NATO, although the Baltic republics are now seriously concerned that even such membership will not prevent Russian aggression.
This, Corbyn will claim, as does the Kremlin-funded Russia Today, is all US / NATO imperialist propaganda.
On a recent interview for Russia Today, Corbyn is reported to have suggested that he would seek closer ties with Russia. He is in interesting company with the same closer ties currently being promoted by a number of far-right parties in Europe including France’s National Front; Hungary’s Jobbik; and Bulgaria’s Ataka Party. It was members of a number of far-right and some neo-Nazi parties who were invited to Crimea to ‘observe’ the March 16 ‘referendum’, and then in November ‘elections’ held by the Kremlin-backed militants in Donbas.
It is obvious why Russia Today ignores or denies the mounting evidence of human rights abuse in Crimea and in areas under Kremlin-backed militant control in Donbas. It is unclear and disturbing why Corbyn is following suit.
The following are just some of the developments that cannot be attributed to US or NATO propaganda.
A serious attack on Crimean Tatar leaders and the Crimean Tatar Mejlis or representative assembly. Crimean Tatar leaders Mustafa Dzhemiliev and the Head of the Mejlis Refat Chubarov have been banned from their homeland. Dzhemiliev’s son Khaiser has been taken to Russia and is facing a lengthy term of imprisonment with his father unable to even visit him. The Deputy Head of the Mejlis, Akhtem Chiygoz has been in detention since Jan 2015 on legally absurd charges of involvement in a demonstration on Feb 26, 2014, i.e. before Russia’s invasion and annexation. The vast majority of Crimean Tatars opposed Russian occupation from the outset and they have been increasingly targeted in repressive measures aimed at forcing them into exile or silence. Chiygoz believes that his ongoing detention is specifically because he has made it clear that Crimea is his homeland and he is not leaving. Russia forced virtually all Crimean Tatar and independent Crimean media to close or move to mainland Ukraine. The investigation into the murder of Reshat Ametov, abducted from his peaceful protest outside parliament and tortured to death has been terminated, and the occupation authorities have made no attempt to investigate the abduction and / or forced disappearances of a number of other civic activists and young Crimean Tatar men.
A Euromaidan activist Oleksandr Kostenko is facing a 4-year sentence on equally absurd charges relating to an alleged incident in Feb 2014, before annexation and in Kyiv, not Crimea. His father has disappeared in mysterious circumstances and all attempts to get the clear evidence that Kostenko was subjected to torture have failed.
The same is true of Russia’s “absolutely Stalinist” Crimean show trial of renowned Ukrainian film director Oleg Sentsov and left-wing civic activist Oleksandr Kolchenko. They, together with two other opponents of Russian occupation were arrested, almost certainly tortured and then taken by force to Russia where Sentsov has now been sentenced to 20 years quite literally for nothing.
At least one blogger is in detention for writing articles critical of Russian occupation. Ukrainians who held a meeting where they laid flowers in honour of the Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko and read his works were prosecuted for holding a ‘prohibited symbol’ – a Ukrainian flag. Similar cases of harassment are ongoing.
All faiths except the Russian Orthodox Church are facing repression in Crimea. The same is also true of the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics in Donbas.
The list of very serious concerns – of hostage-taking; extra-judicial executions and torture carried out by Kremlin-backed militants in Donbas – is very long.
Does Corbyn really see all of this as the fault of NATO? Does he genuinely believe that Amnesty International, Russian human rights organizations, as well as the slain opposition politician Boris Nemtsov were all duped (or paid?) by NATO when they revealed details of direct Russian military involvement and deaths in Ukraine?
Or does he not care? This, one assumes, is the case with former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder who found it lucrative to move to Russia and become a spokesperson for Gasprom. It is likely that Marine Le Pen has similar reasons for supporting Russia’s position on Crimea and eastern Ukraine.
It would be a damning position for a future leader of the United Kingdom.
Illustration by Sébastien Thibault
Owen Jones’s piece in yesterday’s Guardian – ‘Antisemitism has no place on the left. It is time to confront it‘ – acknowledges the fact that this foul poison exists not just on the traditional extreme right, but also within the pro-Palestine movement and sections of the left. To some of us, this is merely a statement of the obvious, and something that we have been banging on about for years. But the importance of Jones’s piece cannot be overestimated: much of the left (and that includes the Guardianista liberal-left) refuses to acknowledge that the problem even exists. It is to Owen Jones’s credit that he has broken this taboo.
Jones’s article has its shortcomings: he repeats, for instance, the old canard that “Some ardent supporters of the Israeli government oppose all critics of Israeli policy and accuse them of anti-Semitism (or, if those critics are Jewish, of being “self-hating Jews”)”: I, for one, have never heard such arguments being used by defenders of Israel, although the claim that they are is treated as an established fact by ‘anti-Zionists’.
And Jones does not deal with the crucial issue of ‘absolute anti-Zionism’ – a more widespread and pernicious problem on the left than crude, racist antisemitism. ‘Absolute anti-Zionism’ is opposition to the very existence of the Jewish state. From that all the overt anti-Semitism and covert softness on anti-Semitism to be found on the left and within the PSC and BDS movements, follows. It is the so-called ‘One-State solution’ and is the thinly disguised sub-text of slogans like “Palestine must be free – from the River to the Sea.” It is the policy of the SWP and much of the rest of the British kitsch-Trot left. Stalinists of the Morning Star variety in theory back the Two States position, but you’d be forgiven not realising this from what they say within the labour movement and write in the Morning Star. Until he very recently clarified his position, and came out clearly for two states, it seemed quite possible that Jeremy Corbyn was a one stater.
And on the subject of Corbyn, Jones’s piece is also weak: it’s simply not good enough to argue (as does Jones) that “He [ie Corbyn] could not possibly have known the personal backgrounds of every individual who has joined him at the many rallies he has attended over the years.” Whether Corbyn knew the politics of each and every one of the many anti-Semites he’s been filmed and photographed alongside, and in some cases is on record defending, is not the issue: the issue is that now that he does know who these people are, he should clearly denounce them and disown them by name – instead of blustering about how he deplores all forms of racism and is in favour of peace. And, surely, Corbyn knew exactly what the politics of Hezbollah and Hamas were when he welcomed them as “friends.” For the record, I make these comments as someone who has just voted for Corbyn.
For sure, Jones’s piece does not go far enough, or make its case as plainly as it should: but it’s an important breakthrough for the ‘anti-Zionist’ liberal-left, and all the more welcome because its published in the absolute anti-Zionists’ respectable, mainstream mouthpiece: the Guardian.
Above: Jones (left) with arch-critic Alan Johnson after the publication of Jones’s Guardian piece
I’ve always looked up to you, from the days when we were in Socialist Organiser – you the Marx-reading shop steward in a car plant and me the young student. In 2011 you described Jeremy Corbyn in these terms: “Corbyn is now beyond the pale and part of a de facto anti-democratic, pro-fascist and anti-semitic current that claims to be “left-wing” but is in fact, profoundly reactionary and anti-working class.” So why did you urge Unite (my trade union) to back Corbyn? Will you vote for him? Why? Is it democratic centralism? If so, fuck that Jim. Look back at what you wrote in 2011 and, as Dylan sang, ‘Don’t think twice, its alright.’
(NB Alan Johnson is not the MP of the same name! This Alan’s Open Letter to Jeremy Corbyn, expanding on many of the points he raises above, can be read here).
Thanks for your kind words and because I admire your intellect and evident principles I’ve given some thought to your comments (incidentally, although I was a motor industry shop steward when we first knew each other, before that I’d also been a student and I don’t think our ages are that different …).
Firstly, you are quite justified in drawing attention to what I’ve previously written about Corbyn’s attitude to a number of international issues (ie knee-jerk anti-Americanism) and – perhaps worse – his unsavoury “friends” and/or associates in the Palestine solidarity movement (anti-semites like Hamas and Hesbollah, the Jew-hating Islamist Raed Salah and the holocaust-denier Paul Eisen, for instance).
These “friends” (Corbyn’s own description of Hamas and Hesbollah representatives when he hosted them in Parliament in 2009) are significant, disturbing and a matter that should be (and has been) raised by myself and others within the Corbyn campaign – and we will continue to raise these issues in the event that Corbyn wins.
Are these concerns (as you and some other people I know and respect, have argued) sufficient to make support for Corbyn unacceptable or unprincipled? I’d argue not, and here’s why:
We live and ‘do’ politics within a British labour movement that has some pretty awful political traditions within it: craven reformism, nationalism, various forms of racism, sexism and general backwardness. I’ve been on the knocker, over the years, for some truly dreadful people who happened to wear a Labour rosette. The mainstream left of the Labour movement is – in its way- just as bad. Influenced to varying degrees by Stalinism, it takes lousy positions on international affairs, often seems to operate on the bankrupt principle of “my enemy’s enemy is my friend” and has a long-standing tendency to allow its (correct) support for the Palestinian cause slide over into indifference to anti-Semitism. It also has a terrible habit (which I think at least partly explains Corbyn’s warm words to Hamas and Hesbollah) of being diplomatic towards people it regards as perhaps dodgy, but broadly “on the right side.”
Corbyn is part of that left – as was Tony Benn, who we all supported when he stood for the Deputy Leadership against Dennis Healey in 1981. Like Benn (and unlike shysters of the Livingstone/ Galloway variety) he seems to be a decent and principled human being, despite his political failings and downright naivety on a range of (mainly international) issues..
Yes, the British labour movement, including the “left”, has some rotten politics. But it’s our movement and in the assessment of Marxists and serious socialists, the only hope we have of building a decent, democratic society ruled by the working class. We work within that movement to transform it, so that society itself can be transformed. We are consistent democrats who relate to workers in struggle in their existing organisations – organisations that are infused with all sorts of Stalinist, bourgeois, reformist and other reactionary ideas.
The Corbyn campaign is dominated by the politics that dominates the mainstream left in Britain – a soft Stalinism and incoherent “anti imperialism” that also dominates the Morning Star, the Communist Party of Britain, the SWP and Stop The War (the misnamed outfit still, unfortunately, supported by our union, Unite). But the rank and file people (many of them young and new to the movement) who’ve been enthused by Corbyn’s campaign have been attracted by his anti-austerity stance, his opposition to the neoliberal consensus, and his inspiring if not always entirely coherent message that a better, fairer and more equal society is possible. We cannot stand aside from this movement by abstaining or backing the wretched Burnham or Cooper. Just as serious socialists have always argued for active, positive engagement with the actual, existing labour movement as a whole, so we must argue for engagement with that movement’s left – and for now, that means support for the Corbyn campaign. That’s also the best way of making our criticism of his international policies heard by the people who need to hear it – his ordinary supporters, the young and not-so-young people he’s enthused and inspired and who make up the bedrock of his support.
That’s why, Alan, despite the many harsh words I’ve spoken and written about Corbyn and the kind of politics he represents, I’m supporting him. And that, by the way, is my honestly-held personal opinion, and nothing to do with the AWL, for whom I do not speak on this matter. I don’t suppose we’re going to agree on this, but please feel free to come back at me with any further thoughts or comments.
With best wishes
Above “left” and right anti-EU campaigns: spot the difference
“Following the accession of eastern European states to the EU, migrant labour has been rapidly moving west while capital and manufacturing jobs are moving east.
“While western European countries have been experiencing a large influx of migrant labour, eastern European states are suffering population falls and an inevitable brain drain, leading to a loss of skilled labour and young people as well as an uncertain future of that classic imperialist outcome — underdevelopment.
“In more developed member states, wages have been under pressure in a process known as “social dumping,” as cheap foreign labour replaces the indigenous workforce and trade union bargaining power is severely weakened” – Brian Denny (of various “left” anti-EU campaigns) in today’s Morning Star
“A large influx of migrant labour” … “social dumping” (a great euphemism, that) … “cheap foreign labour replaces the indigenous workforce…”: and the likes of Denny tell us their campaign is not xenophobic and little-Englandish
Denny’s thoroughly reactionary article is entitled “Get out of this quagmire”: the left needs to get out of Denny’s filthy borderline-racist quagmire – backed by the Morning Star and the Communist Party – once and for all.
My old comrade John Cunningham makes an important point (one that needs to be hammered home more often) in a letter published in today’s Guardian:
Above: Serge, anti-Stalinist Marxist
Jonathan Jones (Labour centrists like me aren’t cynics: we’re the left’s only true ethical wing, 8 August) regurgitates, yet again, the tired old myth that Marxism and Stalinism are somehow basically the same. That the one emerged from the other. This is nonsense (as nonsensical as the idea that there is such as creature as a “Corbynite”). The democratic left, the far left, the anti-Stalinist left (call it what you will) in the UK and elsewhere has a solid and honourable record of anti-Stalinism, actually much better and more consistent than either Labour centrists or the right (Labour or Tory). The left’s analysis and critique of Stalinism, through the writings of Isaac Deutscher, Trotsky, Victor Serge, the Critique group in Glasgow, the now defunct journal Labour Focus on Eastern Europe and numerous contributors to the New Left Review (to name just a few of the many voices involved) has been thorough, detailed, nuanced and totally damning.
The centre left and right, by contrast, have had little to offer other than moral outrage, which they were all too ready to drop when circumstances suited them. The left in western Europe has nothing to apologise for in its attitude to Stalinism. As for “the chains of a brutal history”, the left was the first to expose the crimes of Stalin and has fought long and hard to destroy those chains. Stalinism is not a continuation of Marxism, on the contrary it is the absolute negation of it.
The death yesterday of Robert Conquest, author of The Great Terror, reminds us of the pathetic attempt by public school Stalinist hack Seumas Mine to challenge Conquest’s facts about the death-toll brought about by Stalinism.
The following article by Milne, written shortly before the final collapse of the USSR, appeared in the Guardian of March 10 1990. Until we republished it here at Shiraz (29 September 2012) it was not available anywhere else online, nor is it included in the 2012 book, wonderfully entitled The Revenge of History, made up of the “cream” of Milne’s Guardian columns. Conquest was a right-winger and virulent anti-communist: but he was an objective and thoroughly scupulous historian. Milne’s desperate attempt to challenge Conquest’s estimated death-toll (later verified as substantially correct when the Soviet archives were fully opened in 1991) is, perversely, a tribute to an honest man:
In the preface to the 40th anniversary edition of his pioneering work, The Great Terror (first published in 1968) Conquest stated that in the light of documents released since 1991 from the Presidential, State, Party and Police archives, and the declassification by Russia’s Federal Security Service of some 2 million secret documents:
“Exact numbers may never be known with complete certainty, but the total of deaths caused by the whole range of Soviet regime’s terrors can hardly be lower than some thirteen to fifteen million.”
From THE GUARDIAN Saturday March 10 1990
The figure of 25 million deaths that is being attributed to the Stalin regime should be revised in the light of glasnost reports. Seumas Milne analyses new Soviet data that records much lower gulag populations
Stalin’s missing millions
All over South-east of England billboards have appeared in the past week declaring: “Once upon a time there was an uncle who murdered 25 million of his children.” Next to this startling slogan is a photograph of the man who was the undisputed leader of the Soviet Union for a generation, hugging an Aryan-looking Young Pioneer with pigtails.
The advertisement is a trailer for Thames Television’s block-buster documentary series on the life of Stalin, which begins on Tuesday. Forthcoming press publicity will follow a similar theme, setting out the kind of absurdities which could have led to arrest and execution at the height of the Soviet Terror in the late 1930’s.
The programmes come as glasnost has provoked a stream of new information and memoirs about the Stalin era in the Soviet Union itself, 30 years after Khruschev’s secret speech denouncing his former boss led to the first phase of revelations and rehabilitations. For the most part attention in the Soviet media has turned to more pressing problems. But the flood of new horror stories has emboldened an academic and political current which is bent on overturning the consensus view of Hitler and Nazism as the supreme evil of 20th century history.
Not only is it increasingly common for Stalin to be bracketed with Hitler as the twin monster of the modern era, even in the Soviet Union, but in West Germany and Austria a significant “revisionist” academic trend — represented by historians like Ernst Nolte, Andreas Hilgruber, and Ernst Topitsch — goes on to argue that the Stalinist system was actually responsible for the Nazis and the second world war.
Central to these debates is the issue of the number of Stalin’s victims. Controversy about the scale of repression in the Stalin era has rumbled on in Western universities for many years, and has now been joined by Soviet experts who are equally divided. Thames Television, with its 25 million deaths, has opted for the furthest extreme.
Hitherto, the British writer Robert Conquest who in the 1950’s worked for the Foreign Office propaganda outfit IRD, led the field with his view that Stalin was responsible for 20 million deaths. Phillip Whitehead, one of the Stalin series producers, says he is not to blame for the advertising campaign but thinks a 25 million figure can be defended if the Soviet dead in the first three months of the Nazi invasion of 1941 are included on the grounds of Stalin’s negligence.
But even that is not enough for Thomas Methuen, publishers of of the companion book to the series, who bid up the figure to 30 million in their publicity and — in an echo of the German revisionists — describe Stalin as “the greatest mass killer of the 20th century.” The record estimate so far has been 50 million, made in the Sunday Times two years nago.
There are three basic catagories of people usually regarded as Stalin’s victims: first there are those executed for political offences, most of whom died in the Terror years of 1937-8. Then there are those who died in the labour camps or in the process of mass deportations. Finally — and almost certainly the biggest number — there are the peasants who died during the famine of the early 30s.
In the complete absence of any hard evidence from the Soviet Union, estimates for a grand total of all three have been made by extrapolating the number of “excess deaths” from census figures. This process is fraught with statistical problems, including the fact that the 1937 census was supported, and the 1939 census is thought to have been artificially inflated by terrified Soviet statisticians.. Add to that disputes about the size of peasant families and the possibilities for discrepancies multiply.
Among Soviet specialists and demographers in the West, the majority view appears to be that the kind of numbers used by Robert Conquest and his supporters are wildly exaggerated. Prof Sheila Fitzpatrick, of Chicago University comments: “the younger generation of Soviet historians tend to go for far lower numbers. There is no basis in fact for Conquest’s claims.”
Some of the most recent Western demographic analysis, by Barbera Anderson and Brian Silver in the US, estimates that the most likely figure for all the “excess” deaths — whether from purges, famine or deportations — between 1926 and 1939 lies in a range with a median of 3.5 million, and a limit of eight million.
Estimates of that order have found support across a broad range of academic work, from Frank Lorrimer’s pioneering post-war analysis to Prof Jerry Hough’s 1979 study to the 1980s research by the British academic, Stephen Wheatcroft, now at the University of Melbourne. But this growing consensus has been thrown on the defensive by Soviet specialists like Roy Medvedev, who — using the same data — have apparently backed Conquest’s position, or something like it.
When it comes to the famine deaths, an exact figure will almost certainly never be known. But suddenly, after years of working in the dark, specialists are obtainingv some hard Soviet data. Last month, the KGB published for the first time the records of the number of victims of the Stalin purges.
Between 1930 and 1953, the report states, 3,778,234 people had been sentenced for counter-revolutionary activities or anti-state crimes,of whom 786,098 were shot. From his office at the Hoover Institute in California yesterday, Conquest said it was difficult to say whether the figures were right, but he thought “they could be true.”
Even more remarkably, the records originally made by the NKVD (forerunner of the KGB) of those held in labour camps and penal colonies during the Stalin years are now becoming available. An article from a “restricted access” Soviet Interior Ministry journal has been passed to the Guardian, which lists the total Gulag populations during the 1930s and 1940s.
Originally collated for Khrushchev in the 1950s, the figures show how the camp numbers rose relentlessly from 179,000 in 1930 to 510,307 in 1934, to 1,296,494 in 1936, to 1,881,570 in 1938 at the height of the Terror. The population fell during the war, but reached its peak in 1950 when 2,561,351 people are recorded as detained in camps or colonies.
These figures published openly here for the first time are huge: but they are a long way from the 19 million camp population estimated by Robert Conquest. The Soviet report records that an average of 200,000 were released every year, and puts the death-rate in the camps at 3 per cent a year per on average, rising to more than 5 per cent in 1937-8. The camps were mostly emptied of political prisoners after Stalin’s death.
Are the figures credible? In the context of the current political atmosphere in the Soviet Union and the fact that they were in a restricted publication, it seems improbable that they have been tampered with. Of course, they do not cover the famine and other disasters. But they do begin to add credence to the mainstream academic view that the deaths attributable to Stalin’s policies was closer to 3.5 million than 25 million.
Why do numbers matter anyway? After all Robert Conquest may be out by a factor of five or 10, but the repressions were still enormous.
If, however, a figure of 20 million or 25 million becomes current currency, it adds credence to the Stalin-Hitler comparison. Already, anyone who questions these figures — even in the academic debates — is denounced as a “neo-Stalinist.”
As the Irish writer Alexander Cockburn who started what turned into a highly emotional exchange last year in the American journal, the Nation, puts it: “Any computation that does not soar past 10 million is somehow taken as being soft on Stalin.” And by minimising the quantitative gulf between the Hitler and Stalin killings, it becomes easier to skate over the uniqueness of the Nazi genocide and war.
JD adds: This last comment (“it becomes easier to skate over the uniqueness of the Nazi genocide and war”), suggesting that Conquest’s aim was to down-play Nazi genocide, is a simply despicable piece of Stalinist guilt-by-innuendo against Conquest, a proven and consistent anti fascist (which is more than can be said for the tradition Seumas belongs to). It demonstrates just how well the contemptible Milne has leaned from the filthy, lying methodology of Stalinism.
Above: Robert Conquest with Aretha Franklin and Alan Greenspan
I’ve just heard the news of the death of Robert Conquest, historian, entertaining right-winger, debunker of liberal pro-Stalinist mythology, and master limerikician. I shall write more, in due course, about Conquest’s politics and his role as a historian. But, for now, let’s just enjoy his limericks …
… all of which brings me on to the true limerick – lewd, obscene and offensive – and the widely-acknowledged master of the genre, Robert Conquest. To the best of my knowledge, Conquest’s limericks have never been published in a proper collected edition, though several have appeared in his friend Kingsley Amis’s Memoirs and Collected Letters.
Here are some of the best:
A usage that’s seldom got right
Is when to say shit and when shite,
And many a chap
Will fall back on crap,
Which is vulgar, evasive, and trite.
Seven Ages: first puking and mewling
Then very pissed-off with your schooling
Then fucks, and then fights
Next judging chaps’ rights
Then sitting in slippers: then drooling.
There was a young fellow called Shit,
A name he disliked quite a bit,
So he changed it to Shite,
A step in the right
Direction, one has to admit.
That snobbish surrealist, Garsall,
Once did himself up in a parcel;
He addressed it ‘Lord Garsall,
The Keep, Garsall Castle’
And mailed it first-class up his arsehole.
There was old Scot named McTavish
Who went for an anthropoid ravish
But the object of rape was the wrong sex of ape
So the anthropoid ravished McTavish
Possibly my favourite, entitled AT THE ZOO:
There was plenty of good-natured chaff
When I popped in to fuck the giraffe,
And the PRZS
Could hardly suppress
A dry professorial laugh.
Kingsley Amis wrote a follow-up:
When I came back to roger the gnu
I was scarcely delayed coming through,
and the staff – most polite –
cried, “please stay overnight”,
it’s a priviledge granted to few.
Yevgeniy Zhuravel interviews Kirill Medvedev (above), a Moscow-based poet, translator, and activist. He is the founder of the Arkady Kots band.
YZ: Can you tell a bit about yourself and how did you became a leftist? It seems that in Russia till recently it was not a common political choice.
KM: I became a self-conscious leftist at the beginning of the 2000s. There is a rather typical scenario for that generation of the Russian left, which emerged mostly from the Soviet intelligentsia of different levels of prosperity. Many of us were still able to spend our childhood under still rather comfortable conditions, so we were able to absorb the humanistic code of the Soviet intelligentsia, and then suddenly found ourselves in the historical hole of the 90s, when this code turned out to be not only redundant, but simply made survival difficult. Some of our parents had believed that shock therapy and total privatisation are the necessary stages on the way to democracy, others voted for the failed Communist Party, and some became quickly disappointed and depoliticised. The new left emerged from this trauma, but not out of a desire for revanche, but with the feeling that both nostalgia for Soviet times and jolly anti-Sovietism, which brought most of the intelligentsia to support Putin, are dead ends; that if one wants to be a citizen and a political subject, some hard work is required in order to build a new political culture and environment. Sometime during 2003-2004, I started getting an idea that maybe this thankless job—being part of the left—is not the worst way to spend the next decade or two.
YZ: The band that you are a part of is called Arkadiy Kots, after the Russian translator of “The Internationale”. Who are the people in the band, why this particular name was chosen and what musical and political traditions do you follow?
KM: The name seemed to be appropriate because Kots was simultaneously a poet, a translator, an activist and a sociologist; he wrote a study on the Belgian unions from the beginning of the 20th century. Such synthesis is interesting to us. Oleg Zhuravlev, with whom we founded the group, is a well-known young sociologist, member of the “Public Sociology Lab” collective, which does research on the recent protests in Russia and Ukraine. They just published a book in Russia, which will be released in Holland soon. Nikolay Oleynikov is a member of the renowned art-group “What has to be done?”(Chto Delat?). His work is related to antifascism and gender problems. In fact, in the Free Marxist Press, we published his collection “Sex of the Oppressed”, the discussions of sex and politics. If Oleg brings to the group the spirit of research, Nikolaj the spirit of militant queer carnival. Anya Petrovich and Misha Griboedov are more professionally connected to music: they are practically the musical directors of the group, fighting, for example, with my horrible unprofessionalism. Gosha Komarov, an activist of the Worker’s Platforms, which unites the most workerist (proletarian) part of the left radicals, is a multi-instrumentalist. This is the backbone of the group, we are all convinced communists, but, as it happens, we occasionally end up playing with people who do not share our views, which gives us some openness and a chance not to turn into a sect.
We translate a lot to Russian – from Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger to old Italian anarchist songs. We write songs based on poems of Russian poets and write our own: “Be Involved in Political Struggle”, “It is not shameful to be a worker” etc., which hide uneasy reflections about our own political subjectivity.
Overall we try to juxtapose maximised aesthetic openness with a clear political message, to get out of the boundaries of the radical left, subcultural milieu. Right now we are working on an album devoted to the history of the worker’s movements, from Luddites to Zhanaozen, with a support of Confederation of Labour of Russia, whose congress we recently opened with our Russian versions of songs “Bread and Roses” and “Power in a Union”, and gave a concert after the end of it.
YZ:You started the Free Marxist Press publishing house back in 2008. How did it evolve? What did you print recently and what are the plans?
KM: It all had started with samizdat (DIY?) books – “Why I am a Marxist?” by Ernest Mandel, Pasolini’s “Communist Party – to the Youth”, “Marxism and Feminism” by Marcuse etc. Later on we started making small press runs at print shops. Producing a book from A to Z—translation, formatting, cover design, printing, binding, distribution – for me personally was an important experience, though a little bit exotic, mixing the spirit of completely unalienated creative work a la William Morris, on the one hand, and the productionism of the 20s, on the other. Being engaged in the material production of a book one gets into a very special relationships with a text which it contains. Read the rest of this entry »
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