As the old year of 2016 is now dying, here are some of my favourite pieces of writing about death.
This came to mind because of the very recent death of Richard Adams. The death scene which ends Watership Down – well, there must be a German word which describes knowing something is sentimental, yet still being moved by it. Disneyschmerz perhaps? The nature-loving agnostic imagines an afterlife with as false a comfort as angels escorting the departed to heaven yet a rabbit soul eternally scampering through the beech woods has great charm. By now the reader has come to like and respect Hazel and enjoy the rabbit’s eye view of the English countryside, in whose pockets between roads, housing and farms the rabbits make their lives.
One chilly, blustery morning in March, I cannot tell exactly how many springs later, Hazel was dozing and waking in his burrow. He had spent a good deal of time there lately, for he felt the cold and could not seem to smell or run so well as in days gone by. He had been dreaming in a confused way — something about rain and elder bloom ~ when he woke to realize that there was a rabbit lying quietly beside him — no doubt some young buck who had come to ask his advice. The sentry in the run outside should not really have let him in without asking first. Never mind, thought Hazel. He raised his head and said, “Do you want to talk to me?”
“Yes, that’s what I’ve come for,” replied the other. “You know me, don’t you?”
“Yes, of course,” said Hazel, hoping he would be able to remember his name in a moment. Then he saw that in the darkness of the burrow the stranger’s ears were shining with a faint silver light. “Yes, my lord,” he said, “Yes, I know you.”
“You’ve been feeling tired,” said the stranger, “but I can do something about that. I’ve come to ask whether you’d care to join my Owsla. We shall be glad to have you and you’ll enjoy it. If you’re ready, we might go along now.”
They went out past the young sentry, who paid the visitor no attention. The sun was shining and in spite of the cold there were a few bucks and does at silflay, keeping out of the wind as they nibbled the shoots of spring grass. It seemed to Hazel that he would not be needing his body any more, so he left it lying on the edge of the ditch, but stopped for a moment to watch his rabbits and to try to get used to the extraordinary feeling that strength and speed were flowing inexhaustibly out of him into their sleek young bodies and healthy senses.
“You needn’t worry about them,” said his companion. “They’ll be all right — and thousands like them. If you’ll come along, I’ll show you what I mean.”
He reached the top of the bank in a single, powerful leap. Hazel followed; and together they slipped away, running easily down through the wood, where the first primroses were beginning to bloom.
Shakespeare was much obsessed with deaths – 74 of them in his plays. Someone did a play which featured them all.
These death scenes though are mostly violent sword stabbings, with the occasional strangulation and poisoning so I’ll quote the death of Falstaff reported in Henry V.
ACT II SCENE III London. Before a tavern.
Enter PISTOL, Hostess, NYM, BARDOLPH, and BOY
HOSTESS Prithee, honey-sweet husband, let me bring thee to Staines.
PISTOL No; for my manly heart doth yearn.
BARDOLPH Be blithe: Nym, rouse thy vaunting veins:
BOY Bristle thy courage up; for Falstaff he is dead,
And we must yearn therefore.
BARDOLPH Would I were with him, wheresome’er he is, either in heaven or in hell!
HOSTESS Nay, sure, he’s not in hell: he’s in Arthur’s bosom, if ever man went to Arthur’s bosom. A’ made a finer end and went away an it had been any christom child; a’ parted even just between twelve and one, even at the turning o’ the tide: for after I saw him fumble with the sheets and play withflowers and smile upon his fingers’ ends, I knew there was but one way; for his nose was as sharp as a pen, and a’ babbled of green fields. ‘How now, sir John!’ quoth I ‘what, man! be o’ good cheer.’ So a’ cried out ‘God, God, God!’ three or four times. Now I, to comfort him, bid him a’ should not think of God; I hoped there was no need to trouble himself with any such thoughts yet. So a’ bade me lay more clothes on his feet: I put my hand into the bed and felt them, and they were as cold as any stone; then I felt to his knees, and they were as cold as any stone, and so upward and upward, and all was as cold as any stone.
The Hostess would have been accustomed to tend the dying at a time when the women of the household did the nursing.
The Death of the Mrs Proudie from The Last Chronicle of Barset by Anthony Trollope
Trollope wrote 6 volumes about Cathedral politics in Barsetshire. One day in his club he overheard two men complaining that he was reintroducing the same old characters, including Mrs Proudie and how tired they were of it. So he told the men that he would kill her off that day.
Mrs Proudie of much reforming Evangelical energy has dominated her husband the bishop to carry out her will to the point of utterly humiliating him so they are now bitterly estranged.
Mrs. Proudie’s own maid, Mrs. Draper by name, came to him and said that she had knocked twice at Mrs. Proudie’s door and would knock again. Two minutes after that she returned, running into the room with her arms extended, and exclaiming, “Oh, heavens, sir; mistress is dead!” Mr. Thumble, hardly knowing what he was about, followed the woman into the bedroom, and there he found himself standing awestruck before the corpse of her who had so lately been the presiding spirit of the palace.
The body was still resting on its legs, leaning against the end of the side of the bed, while one of the arms was close clasped round the bed-post. The mouth was rigidly closed, but the eyes were open as though staring at him. Nevertheless there could be no doubt from the first glance that the woman was dead. ..
The bishop when he had heard the tidings of his wife’s death walked back to his seat over the fire, ….. But there was no sound; not a word, nor a moan, nor a sob. It was as though he also were dead, but that a slight irregular movement of his fingers on the top of his bald head, told her [Mrs Draper] that his mind and body were still active. ..
She had in some ways, and at certain periods of his life, been very good to him. …..She had never been idle. She had never been fond of pleasure. She had neglected no acknowledged duty. He did not doubt that she was now on her way to heaven. He took his hands down from his head, and clasping them together, said a little prayer. It may be doubted whether he quite knew for what he was praying. The idea of praying for her soul, now that she was dead, would have scandalized him. He certainly was not praying for his own soul. I think he was praying that God might save him from being glad that his wife was dead.
(As a strict Protestant, Bishop Proudie would not pray for a soul whose destiny is decided at death.)
A Very Easy Death by Simone de Beauvoir
After a long agony of being treated for cancer, Simone de Beauvoir’s mother finally dies. Her sister, Poupette, is at the death bed. De Beauvoir was an atheist, her mother a devout Catholic.
Maman had almost lost consciousness. Suddenly she cried, “I can’t breathe!” her mouth opened, her eyes stared wide, huge in that wasted, ravaged face: with a spasm she entered into coma..
Poupette rang me up: I did not answer. The operator went on ringing for half an hour before I woke. Meanwhile Poupette went back to Maman; already she was no longer there – her heart was beating and she breathed, sitting there with glassy eyes that saw nothing. And then it was over. “The doctors said she would go out like a candle: it wasn’t like that, it wasn’t like that at all,” said my sister, sobbing.
But, Madame,” replied the nurse, “I assure you it was a very easy death.”
“Maman” though religious did not ask for a priest – de Beauvoir concludes:-
“She knew what she ought to have said to God – “Heal me. But Thy will be done: I acquiesce in death.” She did not acquiesce. In this moment of truth she did not choose to utter insincere words…
Maman loved loved life as I love it and in the face of death she had the same feeling of rebellion that I have. During her last days I received many letters with remarks on my most recent book: “If you had not lost your faith death would not terrify you so,” wrote the devout, with rancorous commiseration. Well-intentioned readers urged, “Disappearing is not of the least importance: your works will remain.” And inwardly I told them all that they were wrong. Religion could do no more for my mother than the hope of posthumous success could for me. Whether you think of it as heavenly or as earthly, if you love life immortality is no consolation for death.
A devout Christian, C S Lewis did take consolation in his wife’s immortality though the whole of A Grief Observed is about the despair and misery at his loss of faith he undergoes after her painful death (cancer again). He longs for her undeath but at the end thinks she has been transfigured into something resembling pure intelligence, away from her torturing body:-
How wicked it would be, if we could, to call the dead back! She said not to me but to the chaplain, “I am at peace with God.” She smiled, but not at me. Poi si torno all’ eterna fontana.
The last words in Italian being Dante’s view of his beloved Beatrice in a blissful afterlife.
Lewis’s view of death is harsher in Till We Have Faces, a surprisingly feminist work. Orual the heroine is about to enter into single combat with an enemy which will decide the fate of their city. Her father, the king and a cruel brute, has been lying helpless with a stroke. She is in the royal Bedchamber, searching out armour.
And it was when we were most busied that the Fox’s voice from behind said, “It’s finished.” We turned and looked. The thing on the bead which had been half-alive for so long was dead; had died (if he understood it) seeing a girl ransacking his armoury.
“Peace be upon him,” said Bardia. “We’ll be done here very shortly. Then the women can come to wash the body.” And we turned again at once to settle the matter of the hauberks.
And so the thing I had thought of for so many years at last slipped by in a huddle of business which was, at that moment, of more consequence. An hour later, when I looked back, it astonished me. Yet I have often noticed since how much less stir nearly everyone’s death makes than you expect. Men better loved and more worthy loving than my father go down making only a small eddy.
How the world shrugs off our death is brutally stated by A E Housman’s in Is My Team Ploughing:-
So to all, a long and healthy life, and then a quick and easy death, causing the least amount of nuisance and hassle.
We publish, purely for the information of readers, Labour First’s response to the re-election of Jeremy Corbyn:
Labour First is a network founded in 1988 as the party was going through a previous crisis of entryism by the Hard Left. It exists to ensure that the voices of moderate party members and Labour voters are heard while the party is kept safe from the organised Hard Left, and those who seek to divert us from the work of making life better for ordinary working people and their families.
As such we take a long view and don’t get over-flustered by short-term setbacks. We take heart that over 193,000 votes were cast against Corbyn.
The result of the leadership election doesn’t change any of these fundamental truths:
- Labour will only be able to win in 2020 with a Leader who can connect with mainstream voters.
- Until then our job is to effectively expose and oppose the attacks of this Tory government on public services, social justice and working people’s living standards but also to fight to defend mainstream policies such as Trident renewal, to defend hard-working MPs and councillors from sectarian de-selection threats, to maximise the moderate voice in the party structures at all levels, and to seek to bring in rule changes that will bring stability back to the party.
- In the meantime we campaign wholeheartedly for Labour victories at every level including the 2 forthcoming parliamentary by-elections.
- If “functional unity” to take on the Tories can be achieved e.g. people serving in a Shadow Cabinet elected by the PLP, we welcome that.
- Jeremy should have done the honourable thing and resigned when he lost the Brexit referendum and lost the confidence of the PLP.
- His political views, lack of leadership qualities and the behaviour and ideology of his supporters mean he can never win over the British public or unite the party.
- Eventually as in the 1980s we will prevail because our views are nearer to those of ordinary working people. There has to be a progressive alternative to this Conservative hegemony and that can only be a moderate Labour Party.
Secretary, Labour First
By Alan Thornett (from the Socialist Resistance website)
It was clear, long before it was launched, that the EU referendum held serious dangerous for the left and for multiculturalism and anti-racism in Britain. The campaign itself was always going to be a carnival of racism and xenophobia and an outcome in favour of Brexit would trigger a major shift to the right in British politics—both at the level of government and in terms of social attitudes. Racism and xenophobia would be strengthened and the left thrown onto the defensive.
And now we have it. The Theresa May government, established within a remarkable few frenzied days, is the most right wing in modern times, not just in terms of Brexit but across the board—and she is playing all this to the full. Osborne is gone (replaced by Phillip Hammond), Nikki Morgan gone (replaced by Justine Greening), Michael Gove gone (replaced by Liz Truss), Amber Rudd is home secretary, Jeremy Hunt remains at Health—for confronting the doctors no doubt.
Possibly the most frightening, hard line Brexiteer, Andrea Leadsom goes to the environment (DEFRA). She is not just a climate denier, and in favour of bringing back fox hunting, but she has close links to the Tea Party movement in the USA!
Leadsom would have been to the right of May had she been elected to the Tory leadership—which she might well have been had the vote gone to the Tory ‘rank and file’—and the way she was removed from the race in advance of this might well reflect divisions in the ruling class over how far Brexit should go.
The change of leadership to May, however, is still a big shift to the right and has left the Tories in a stronger, more united, and ideological coherent position, that they were under Cameron—despite the problems they face in implementing Brexit. UKIP has been sidelined, at the moment, by what is in effect, the partial UKIPisation of the Tory Party.
Most significantly, the key positions in terms of Brexit—the issue that will define her administration—go to hard-line right-wing Brexiteers:David Davies as minister for Brexit, Liam Fox as the newly created Minister of foreign trade and Boris Johnson as Foreign Secretary. It means that these people have been handed the power to reshape Britain’s place in the world for the next generation if they get their way.
There are big changes in the structure of government as well. Most significantly the Department for Energy and Climate Change has been abolished and merged with Industry—which is a disaster for the environment and the struggle against climate change.
The Tory right, who have been skulking in the background and sniping about the EU since Cameron won the Tory Leadership from David Davis (and also Liam Fox) in 2005, are back with a vengeance. They are now in charge and are running the show.
It is these people have now been handed the opportunity, by this referendum vote, to reshape British politics (and Britain’s place in the world) on the scale that Thatcher was able to reshape British politics after the defeat of the miners in the 1980s—and they intend to grasp it with both hands. It is not going to be easy and there are many pit-falls in the Brexit process, but unless the May leadership is stopped at next election (and only Corbyn can do it), this is the very dangerous direction of travel.
Even if May is inclined at any point to make concession on Brexit, there will be plenty on the right ready to step in and stop her. UKIP will be waiting to capitalise on any back sliding and there are plenty on the Tory back benches ready to rise up against it.
This whole situation is not just a blow to the left in Britain but it is serving as an inspiration to right-wing forces right across Europe. Le Pen is already welcoming it with both hands and promising a similar referendum in France if she wins the Presidency next year.
Young people in British, who have lost the most under recent governments and who, for the first time face a reduced standard of living in comparison with the previous generation are the most hostile to all this, and were the most pro-remain section of society, and once again have the most to lose.
Three million EU citizens in Britain, who were denied a vote in the referendum, are left wondering what their status in Britain is likely to be after they have been used by May as a bargaining chip in the negotiations with the EU elites.
This was reflected in the 100,000 strong demonstration of mostly young people that took place in London immediately after the vote—organised through social media. It was not a demonstration organised by the left or of the labour movement but it was organised on a progressive basis and was strongly pro-immigration.
The situation of the left
Socialist Resistance argued for a remain vote on the basis that the referendum would be a carnival of reaction leading to a major shift to the right in British politics, and we have been right on both counts.
Those far-left organisations—the SWP, the Socialist Party, and Counterfire, along with the CPB—that agued for exit from the EU on the basis that such a vote would bring down Cameron, push the political situation to the left, and open up new opportunities for radical politics, even increase the chances of a Labour government, got it dramatically wrong. In fact, some are still arguing that there has not been a shift to the right a week after the formation of the May government.
A Brexit vote was always going to bring down the Cameron government, but its replacement, as Socialist Resistance argued throughout, was always going to be well to its right. It was always likely to open the way for dangerous realignment of the hard right—either within the Tory Party or as a part of a wider realignment. In the event it has been the former, and even worse and quicker than most of us predicted.
Those taking SR’s position in the referendum—of a critical remain vote to fight xenophobia—were accused by the Lexiteers of being ‘liberal leftists’ or of departing from basic principles on the class nature of the EU. John Rees accused us (on the Counterfire website) of practicing what he called ‘the linear school of historical analysis’:
“There will not be an automatic lurch to the right even with a figure like Johnson or May as Tory leader. The Tories will just have suffered their biggest reverse since the defeat of Thatcher. Their backbenchers are split down the middle. They only have a 17-seat working majority. They are under investigation for electoral fraud in more seats than that. They have just had to make a series of policy reverses… Only someone entirely wedded to the linear school of historical analysis could fail to see an opportunity for the left in this situation.”
Alex Callinicos was in a similar mode in International Socialism just before the vote. He argued—whilst accusing the ‘Another Europe is Possible’ campaign of “a slide into class collaboration”—that a Brexit vote would shatter the Cameron government just a year after winning a general election. Yes indeed! But what comes next?
In the event they were both wrong. The Brexit vote has not brought about a shift to the left but the biggest shift to the right in British politics since Thatcher took office in 1979—and, unless it is reversed, it could have equally disastrous long-term consequences.
The Lexiteers, however, were still defending the same position three weeks after the vote. This was the position argued by Peter Taaffe three weeks after the vote in Socialism Today: “The vote to leave the EU has rocked capitalist institutions—in Britain and internationally. It is yet another reflection of the anger at mass poverty and savage austerity—and of the growing anti-establishment mood… It is totally false to draw the utterly pessimistic conclusions which some small left groups have done that this result could lead to a ‘carnival of reaction’ in Britain and encourage right-wing forces in Europe and elsewhere.”
Playing the race card
It should be clear now, if it was not clear before, that this referendum was not, at the end of the day, a referendum on the EU but on immigration: i.e. ‘are you in favour of the free movement of people—yes or no?’ This scenario was played out in interview after interview, on the streets, the response was overwhelmingly: too much immigration—end free movement. And the uncomfortable fact is that given Britain’s imperialist and colonialist history, decades of bi-partisan institutionalised racism practiced by both Tories and Labour, and the disgusting xenophobia of the tabloids—the Sun, the Mail and the Express in particular—over many years, it was always going to be thus.
Since the vote racism has been strengthened, racist hate crimes have doubled, the political situation has moved to the right. The Tory Party has also moved to the right, and we are heading for an exit process from the EU that will be shaped by the xenophobic right in which ending free movement of people and cutting immigration to the bone will be the order of the day.
Not that the referendum can be reduced to immigration. There were other important factors involved—not least poverty, alienation and an anti-establishment backlash. In the end, however, it was racism that put the energy (or the venom) into the Brexit campaign. It was the driving force of the Brexit turnout.
Richard Seymour puts it this way: “It was the question of the free movement of labour within the European Union that that harnessed the energies for Leave”. He continues: “Not that most of those who voted Leave had much experience of migration—the areas with the highest numbers of EU nationals living in them were also those with the strongest Remain votes. But that is how it usually works with race politics in the UK.” There are exceptions to this but it is broadly true.
The racist dynamic, however, could not have been clearer. Immediately the mainstream Brexit campaigns took the decision to concentrate almost exclusively on immigration the Brexit vote went into the lead in the polls. There was indeed an anti-establishment backlash. The problem with this is that such backlashes are not necessarily progressive. In fact much of UKIP’s support has been based on it.
In fact the mainstream Brexit campaigns ran the most openly racist campaign in modern times, and they were very effective. What used to be known as playing the race card now passes for ‘normal’ politics. Unless this is reversed quickly they will have done serious damage to British society. The most damaging long-term damage that the referendum campaign has done in Britain has been to make racism ‘respectable’.
The answer of the Brexiteers to the dispossessed and the alienated was that immigrants were taking British jobs, driving down wages and living on benefits. Their campaign broadcast featured a map of Europe with arrows streaming towards Britain from across Europe—representing a flood of immigrants on the move, mostly from the East. During the campaign a Labour pro-remain MP Jo Cox was assassinated by a fascist shouting ‘put Britain first. It is hard to separate his actions, at least at that moment, from the politics of the mainstream Brexiteers. It was a warning that some very unpleasant forces were at work.
Worse than that, the findings of the Ashcroft poll immediately taken immediately after the vote found that by big majorities, voters who saw multiculturalism, feminism, the Green movement, and immigration, as forces for good voted to remain in the EU, whilst those who saw these things as forces for ill voted, by even larger majorities to leave. It is a frightening picture.
There has been another remarkable development as well. Lexit organisations with long histories of anti-racism have been talking down and seeking to minimise the racism and xenophobia involved in this referendum both before the vote and after. The same has been the case with the situation of the 2.4 million EU citizens living in this country who are set be used as a bargaining chip in the Brexit negotiations with the EU.
The Lexit campaign refused to regard the fate of these people as any kind of problem right through the campaign and has said nothing about it since. When I raised this issue at the launch meeting of the campaign earlier in the year I was told that ‘it was very unlikely to be a problem’.
The possibility of an early general election is very dangerous for Labour because the Brexit vote has pushed the situation to the right. One of the reasons that May stresses ‘Brexit means Brexit’ and that a big reduction in immigration is her red line in the negotiations with the EU, is in order to claim to speak for the Brexit vote for the next general election whenever it comes.
She will only go for an early election if she has a big lead in the polls and feels confident that she can tap into the Brexit vote effectively. Labour needs time to tackle the Brexit effect and start to turn the situation back towards the left before it can be sure of winning an election.
Those in the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) who are ganging up with the Tories to remove Jeremy Corbyn on the basis that his departure is essential to winning the next election could hardly be more wrong. The key to defeating the kind of government that May is constructing is precisely the kind of radical anti-austerity and anti-racist alternative that Corbyn represents. It is only this approach which has a chance of cutting through the xenophobic fog of the referendum, give real hope to the dispossessed and the marginalised, and build the kind of movement necessary.
The argument of the PLP plotters that the best way to win the next election is to go back to the politics that lost the last two elections makes no sense. It is a complete misunderstanding of the dynamic of politics in Britain today.
Winning the next election for Labour will require, not a reversion to past failed policies, but a radical programme of austerity busting measures that can mobilise the deprived the alienated and the forgotten. Another thin gruel of Tory policies will not mobilise the movement necessary.
A majority Labour government could become increasingly difficult to achieve, particularly if, as is likely, the boundary commission proposals to reduce the number of seats at Westminster goes through by 2018. Labour needs to call for a progressive anti-austerity alliance in Parliament with the SNP and the Greens now and in the run up to the next general election, whenever that comes.
One way that Labour can boost its chances at the next election is a pledge for radical electoral reform. First and foremost getting rid of the notorious first-past-the-post (FPTP) voting system. This would not only win votes in the election itself but would reshape the system for the new realities of British politics. It would also increase the turnout in elections since every vote would count—which was a factor in the high turnout in the referendum.
The political structure in Britain that prevailed throughout the 20th century has fallen apart with the rise of multiple parties. The voting system that sustained it has become a byword for everything undemocratic and corrupt. Smaller parties (of both right and left) have been emerging with substantial votes—the Green Party and Ukip in England and the SNP in Scotland in particular. We now have what is effectively a six-party system. Under these conditions the FPTP system has gone from the undemocratic to the outrageous.
In the last election we had parties of both the left and the right winning millions of votes but getting minimal representation. Scotland, quite rightly, is heading for independence—though whether the May administration will agree to it as Cameron did is an open question. It any event Scotland will still be not be independent in 2020, but after that who knows.
Jeremy Corbyn has to grasp the nettle over this and come out strongly in favour of electoral reform. John McDonnell, Clive Lewis and others have already called for it along with Caroline Lucas and Owen Jones. It would be a big mistake for Labour to go into the next election whenever it comes without radical proposals for a proportional voting system that would ensure that every vote counts and not just a few marginal constituencies. PR is not just a vote winner in itself but it is crucial with the situation so volatile and the old consensus breaking up. To this should be added the proposal to give the vote to 16 and 17 year olds.
This as part of a manifesto that deals with the housing crisis, the decimation of our NHS, with the growth of zero hours contracts and food banks, the rise of racism and other forms of inequality is the path that we need to go down – a path that will inspire even greater numbers that Jeremy Corbyn has already done over the remarkable last year.
I’d like to be magisterial and say The Railways: Nation, Network and People by Simon Bradley is the definitive work, or as comprehensive a book as you can find on the history of Britain’s railways. I’d like even more to be the happy pedant, pointing out lacunae in the description of how Britain adopted the standard gaurge against Brunel’s broad gauge. But I know almost nothing of railways, though I love travelling by train, so have to come to this book as the general reader of a well-written, entertaining piece of social history that cites novelists and poets as well as engineers. Simon Bradley quotes the book-making Victorians – Dickens, Trollope and Surtees as well as films like Brief Encounter, The Railway Children and the opening scene of a Hard Day’s Night, where the Beatles dodge their screaming fans “behind poster hoardings and into telephone boxes and photo booths” in the cluttered concourse of the 1960s.
Bradley’s book tells a big story – the technical development of the railways and their social impact, and embroiders it with fascinating details eg the contents of the luncheon baskets and the placing of toilets, the slight ring underfoot on the Southern Railway’s preferred concrete over timber platforms. He devotes a whole chapter to signals, which doesn’t stoke my boiler, however, his writing flows and he never loses sight of the human beings – in this case, the solitary signal-man on duty in his box. He explains the sensible height of British platforms (set at 915mm i.e. 3 feet) with a step or two to the train compared to the steep climb on the Continent. He gives the reason why Cambridge station is such a trek from the town centre because the dons feared loss of control of undergraduates and pulled strings to ensure that the station was built well over a mile away from the town.
Former platform on National Cycle Network 1
The railways created their own kingdom “a physically separate domain, in thousands of route-miles fenced off from the rest of the country and ruled by their own mysterious rhythms and laws.”
Cyclist on National Cycle Network 1
Simon Bradley was a young train-spotter – not just of the locomotives but of those working on them. “Driver and ganger alike belonged nonetheless to the world of proper work, visible and practical and comprehensible – a world away from the office-bound lives of most of our own fathers.” He conveys the excitement of the Victorians as this great force entered into their lives, as transforming as computers and the internet in ours. The landscape was altered with embankments and tunnels and viaducts.
Detail of former railway bridge, now carrying cyclists and pedestrians
He points out that bridges were a relatively rare sight before the railways came. Oldest bridges were almost all bespoke structures. Only when canals arrived were bridges multiplied to standard engineers’ design. Now their striding arches are one of the splendours of the British landscape. (For cantilevered iron, the Forth Bridge beats the preening Eiffel Tower any day of the week, and how much finer the Glenfinnan Viaduct is than pompous static showoffery like the Arc de Triomphe.)
Viaduct on the National Cycle Network 1
“Part of the fascination of the railways is their permeation with memories and traces of obsolete working routes, and the human lives and destinies they shaped. The physical record is often patchy, because different aspects of the system have changed and developed at wildly varying speeds. The modernised freight network envisaged by Dr Beeching is already utterly lost; the diffuse small-scale system which he knocked for six is more remote still. Yet the bridges, tunnels and earthworks that carry the twenty-first century traveller are still predominantly those the Victorians witnessed take shape.”
Bradley moves beyond the Victorians and their share-owned competing railway companies through to British Rail and to today’s mess of ownership – state subsidy of dividends to share-holders:-
“The old British Rail system was subsidised between 1 billion and 1.5 billion. Subsidies since this time have reached as high as 6.3 billion….Much of this money comes nowhere near the operating side of the railway, but is sucked straight out again in dividends, administrative and legal costs ,inflated salaried and bonuses. Nor is the system cheap for its users. [Grossly expensive, and Byzantinely complex in fact.] All of these features are intrinsic, not accidental, parts of the business model under which the railways were privatised – a process that,… was meant to address the supposed scandal of a public opened system which required high subsidies in order to operate. It has proved an extremely expensive way of saving money.”
Though Bradley does follow to the modern age via the marshalling yards and the change to diesel, it is the Victorians and Edwardians who dominate from when the technology was innovative and exciting.
The new words such as stoke, shunt, siding, running out of steam, on the right lines. Time, once set by the “guildhall and town hall and church steeple” was set by the “power of capital”. The landowners were challenged and there would be battles between the surveyors and navvies and estate workers where theodolites would be smashed. (In Middlemarch there’s just such a scene – not quoted by Bradley.)
As the railways developed they were felt at the time to be as unstoppable and transforming as our own digital revolution. So in Trollope’s Rachel Ray set in Devon, which was late to be connected, the timid matron Mrs Ray says of her journey to Exeter:- ‘“I thought the train never would have got to the Baslehurst station. It stopped at all the little stations, and really I think I could have walked as fast.” A dozen years had not as yet gone by since the velocity of these trains had been so terrible to Mrs. Ray that she had hardly dared to get into one of them!’ ‘ There are obvious comparisons with the elderly of today who once wondered at the young’s sci-fi interweb thing now complaining of the speed of their Skype.
The railways have been with us for long enough to have created their own archaeology. I live across the road from the busy Edinburgh to Glasgow line, which I walk or cycle under every day. My commute goes past an embankment which was once a line and is now the National Cycle Network 1 cycleway. On the route are ghosts of platforms and you are riding unaware over a viaduct which is visible from the street a hundred feet below. There was a railway yard, now a place for billboards (advertising was a huge feature of Victorian stations). Another part of it is scrubland which the Council is planning to turn into a further cycleway, restoring a bridge or two.
Once a railway line, now scrubland, future cycleway
The living railway, Glasgow to Edinburgh line
When I see the great nineteenth railway structures – the viaducts, the Forth Bridge, the grander railway stations, I feel that we are lesser beings living in the half ruin of a mightier civilisation. We don’t build such grandeur any more but conserve with our heritage industries, our endless touristing.
Bradley’s last chapter is about the volunteers running old lines. He describes a “steam-hauled express arrives from a visitant from the another world, a sort of industrial unicorn or dragon.” Crowds gather to view this icon of another age, as beautiful and obsolete as a full-rigged man of war.
“Made vivid again, here is something that transcends Nature, an amazing work of man; what H.G Wells, writing in 1901, proposed as the best symbol for the century that had just passed, ‘a steam engine running upon a railway.”
The Flying Scotsman
Reblogged from Tendance Coatesy
By Andrew Coates
In France the film, Les Salafistes, has created intense controversy. At one point it seemed as if it might be banned. Now the documentary has been released, with a certificate than denies cinema entry to under-18s. In Saturday’s Guardian Natalie Nougayréde discusses the picture, which includes videos from Daesh (Islamic State – IS, also ISIS) and al-Qaida au Maghreb islamique (AQMI), with interviews with Salafists (rigorist Islamists) and jihadi leaders (Les Salafistes is gruelling viewing – but it can help us understand terror.)
She states, “The most gruelling moment comes when an Isis propaganda films shows a line of captured men walking towards the banks of a river; jihadi militants then shoot them in the head, one by one. The waters of the river start flowing with blood. And we see the pleading, panic-stricken faces of Isis’s victims, filmed close-up just before they are killed.”
Nougayréde considers that Les Salafistes “opens our eyes to a fanatical world”, that we “need to understand that ideology, however twisted and repulsive” Claude Lanzmann – the director the monumental film on the Holocaust, Shoah, she notes, has defended the film and asked for the age limit to be withdrawn. The screen shows better than any book the reality of the most fanatical form of Islamism. Lemine Ould M. Salem et François Margolin, have created a “chef d’oeuvre”. Its formal beauty brings into sharp relief the brutality of the Islamists, and “everyday life under the Sharia in Timbuktu, Mauritania, in Mali, Tunisia (in areas which have been under AQMI occupation or influence), and in Iraq. The age restriction on entry should go. (Fleur Pellerin, ne privez pas les jeunes du film, Salafistes! Le Monde 29.1.16.)
Lanzmann also argues (which the Guardian columnist does not cite) that Les Salafistes shows that “any hope of change, any improvement, any understanding” with the violent Islamists it portrays, is “futile and illusory”.
In yesterday’s Le Monde (30. 1.16) there is a fuller account of Les Salafistes and the controversies surrounding it, as well as on Made in France a thriller that imagined a jihadist cell preparing an attack on Paris. With a planned release in November, as the Paris slaughters took place, it was withdrawn and now will be available only on VOD (View on Demand).
Timbuktu not les Salafistes.
Saturday’s Le Monde Editorial recommends seeing the 2014 fiction Timbuktu rather than Les Salafistes. The Islamic State has already paraded its murders and tortures before the world. Its “exhibitionnisme de l’horreur” poses a serious challenge to societies that value freedom of expression. In the past crimes against humanity, by Stain, Saddam Hussein, Hitler, Pol Pot or Pinochet, were carried out in secret. The Nazis or the Khmer Rouge’s propaganda was designed to hide the reality of genocide; Daesh’s videos are explicit and open, produced to terrorise their enemies and to rouse the spirits of their supporters. Margolin and Salem’s film does not, the Editorial argues, offer a sufficiently clear critical approach for a non-specialist audience. The victims only speak under the eyes of their butchers. The drama Timbuktu, where ordinary people in the city of that name are shown grappling with the everyday despotism of AQIM occupation – the rigorous application of the Islamists’ version of the Sharia, is a better way of thinking through the phenomenon of Jihadism. Its quiet and subversive message, the simple acts of playing prohibited music and smoking (banned), many would agree, unravels the absurdity and cruelty – the callous stoning of an ‘adulterous’ couple – of Islamism on a human scale.
Le Monde’s account of the controversy (La Terreur passe mal sur grand ecran) also observes that books about the Islamic State have reached a wide audience. They offer a better way, less influenced by the emotions that the cinema screen arouses, to understand Jihadism. It is equally the case that, through the Web, a substantial number of people have already seen the kind of horrific scenes Les Salafistes brings to the big screen.
The Empire of Fear.
Empire of Fear. Inside the Islamic State (2015) by the BBC correspondent Andrew Hosken is one of many accessible studies that have reached a wide audience. It is a thorough account of Daesh’s origins in the Al-Qaeda milieu and how it came to – separate – prominence in the aftermath of the US-led Coalition’s invasion of Iraq. Hosken has an eye for detail, tracing out the careers of key Daesh figures such as Zarqawi and Baghdadi. He challenges for example the widely claim that Islamic State leader Baghadadi and ‘Caliph’ was “radicalised” in a US prison in Southern Iraq in 2004. In fact “hardening evidence” indicates, “Baghdadi may have started his career as a jihadist fighter in Afghanistan and may even have known Zarqawi there.” (Page 126)
The failure of the occupation to establish a viable state in Iraq, the absence – to say the least – of the rule of law, and the importance of Shia mass sectarian killings of Sunnis in the Islamic State’s appearance. The inability of the Iraqi army to confront them, culminating in the fall of Mosul, were conditions for its spreading power, consolidation in the Caliphate, in both Iraq AND Syria, and international appeal.
Empire of Fear is valuable not only as history. Hosken states that by 2014 it was estimated that there were between five to seven million people living under Islamic State rule. “The caliphate has not delivered security, human dignity, happiness and the promise of eventual pace, let alone basic serves, but it has produced piles of corpses and promise to produce piles more.” (Page 200) He states that the “violent Islam-based takfirism” – the practice of declaring opponents ‘apostates’ worthy of death – has taken its methods from former Ba’athist recruits, always ready to slaughter opponents.
The suffering of those under the rule of Daesh is immense. “Men and children have been crucified and beheaded, homosexuals thrown to their deaths from high building and women stoned to death in main squares.” (Page 228) The Lion Cubs of the Khalfia, an army of children, are trained for battle. Even some Salafists initially allied with Daesh – with counterparts in Europe still offering succour to the dreams of returning to the golden days of the prophet, have begun to recoil. Hosken observes “..they have ended up with Baghdadi and his vision of an Islamic state with its systemic rapes, its slaves and concubines, child soldiers, murder, torture and genocide.” (Page 236)
The Islamic States efforts to capture more territory and people will continue with or without Baghadadi. The film title Salafistes reminds us that the Islamic State’s totalitarian Islamism is not isolated. It is connected to a broader collection of groups preaching rigorist – Salafist – Islamism, not all users of extreme violence, still less the public glorification of murder. The creation of all-embracing State disciplinary machines to mould their subjects to Islamic observance is a common objective of political Islam, from the Wahhabis in Saudi Arabia to Daesh’s mortal enemies in Iran. The religious cleansing of religious minorities, Yazidis and Middle Eastern Christians continues under a variety of Islamic forces. Yet the degree of oppression and genocide marks the Islamic State out.
The recent Channel Four Documentary The Jihadis Next Door indicated that there is a European audience, however small, for Daesh’s genocidal propaganda. In Britain alone up to 700 people have been attracted enough by Islamic State death videos to go and join their ranks. One can imagine that amongst them some will be capable of watching Les Salfistes in a spirit far from the critical intentions of the film’s directors. It is to be doubted that they would have been reached by the scorn for Islamist rule and the resilience of humanity displayed in Timbuktu.
Hosken concludes, the “group may end up destroying itself or being destroyed by its many enemies. However, whatever happens, its virulent ideology looks likely to survive in a Middle East now riven by sectarian division, injustice, war and authoritarianism,” (Page 257)
The British left, with no government at its command, is not in a position to negotiate in efforts that try to bring “security, justice dignity and peace to a deeply troubled region”. We have little leverage over Bashar Assad’s own despotism in Syria. But we may be able to help Syrian democrats, and those fighting the Islamic State, to give our support to those fighting for dear life for freedom – from the Kurds to Arab and Turkish democrats – by ensuring that there is no quarter given to Daesh’s Salafist allies in Europe and totalitarian Islamists of any kind, independently and against those who see the Syrian Ba’athists as an ultimate rampart against IS.
To defend human rights we need to align with the staunchest adversaries of all forms of oppression, the secularists, the humanists, the democratic left, and, above all, our Kurdish and Arab sisters and brothers who, with great courage, face Daesh every day on the battle field.
This time of year when we think of time passing.
Enter CHRONOS, with a scythe in his hand, and a great globe on his back, which he sets down at his entrance
Weary, weary of my weight,
Let me, let me drop my freight,
And leave the world behind.
I could not bear
The load of human-kind.
From Dryden’s The Secular Masque
Written for the seventeenth century rolling over to the eighteenth. It has the New Year resolution flavour about it at the end:-
All, all of a piece throughout;
Thy chase had a beast in view;
Thy wars brought nothing about;
Thy lovers were all untrue.
‘Tis well an old age is out,
And time to begin a new.
The Three Ages of Man by Titian in the National Gallery of Scotland
A poem which fits the weather as well as the time of year and one of my favourites by Thomas Hardy, who wrote beautifully about time passing and opportunities missed:-
They sing their dearest songs—
He, she, all of them—yea,
Treble and tenor and bass,
And one to play;
With the candles mooning each face. . . .
Ah, no; the years O!
How the sick leaves reel down in throngs!
And brightest things that are theirs. . . .
Ah, no; the years, the years;
Down their carved names the rain-drop ploughs.
Time, time, time
See what’s become of me
While I looked around for my possibilities
I was so hard to please
But look around Leaves are brown
And the sky is a hazy shade of winter..
Look around, leaves are brown,
There’s a patch of snow on the ground
(Simon & Garfunkel – they were young things when that came out)
Who knows where the time goes? Sandy Denny, who died far too young.
And from he who was born middle-aged:-
Chard Whitlow by ”T S Eliot”
As we get older we do not get any younger.
Seasons return, and today I am fifty-five,
And this time last year I was fifty-four,
And this time next year I shall be sixty-two.
And I cannot say I should like (to speak for myself)
To see my time over again— if you can call it time:
Fidgeting uneasily under a draughty stair,
Or counting sleepless nights in the crowded Tube.
From The Hobbit – one of the riddles
This thing all things devours:
Birds, beasts, trees, flowers;
Gnaws iron, bites steel;
Grinds hard stones to meal;
Slays king, ruins town,
And beats high mountain down.
And a picture from the 1976 Soviet edition of The Hobbit.
Have a good time while we mark time passing.
Above: Shachtman and Cannon, on the same side in 1934
2015 marked the seventy-fifth anniversary of the murder of Leon Trotsky by an agent of the Stalinist USSR’s secret police. Workers’ Liberty has published a second volume of documents from the movement which kept alive and developed the revolutionary socialist politics Trotsky fought for. Just before Trotsky’s death, the American Trotskyist organisation split after a dispute triggered by Stalin’s invasion of Poland. The majority was led by James P Cannon, the minority by Max Shachtman. Shachtman’s “heterodox” side, would later repudiate Trotksy’s analysis of Russia as a “degenerated workers’ state”; but that was not their view at the time of the split. Cannon’s “orthodox” side continued to hold onto the degenerated workers’ state position and from that would flow many political errors. This extract from the introduction to The Two Trotskyisms Confront Stalinism by Sean Matgamna puts the record of the two sides into perspective.
The honest critic of the Trotskyist movement — of both the Cannon and Shachtman segments of it, which are intertwined in their history and in their politics — must remind himself and the reader that those criticised must be seen in the framework of the movement as a whole. Even those who were most mistaken most of the time were more than the sum of their mistakes, and some of them a great deal more.
The US Trotskyists, Shachtmanites and Cannonites alike, mobilised 50,000 people in New York in 1939 to stop fascists marching into Jewish neighbourhoods of that city. When some idea of the extent of the Holocaust became public, the Orthodox responded vigorously (and the Heterodox would have concurred): “Anger against Hitler and sympathy for the Jewish people are not enough. Every worker must do what he can to aid and protect the Jews from those who hunt them down. The Allied ruling classes, while making capital of Hitler’s treatment of the Jews for their war propaganda, discuss and deliberation on this question endlessly. The workers in the Allied countries must raise the demand: Give immediate refuge to the Jews… Quotas, immigration laws, visa — these must be cast aside. Open the doors of refuge to those who otherwise face extermination” (Statement of the Fourth International, The Militant, 3 April 1943).
We, the Orthodox — the writer was one of them — identified with the exploited and oppressed and sided with them and with the labour movements of which we ourselves were part; with people struggling for national independence; with the black victims of zoological racism. We took sides always with the exploited and oppressed.
To those we reached we brought the basic Marxist account of class society in history and of the capitalist society in which we live. We criticised, condemned, and organised against Stalinism. Even at the least adequate, the Orthodox Trotskyists generally put forward proposals that in sum meant a radical transformation of Stalinist society, a revolution against Stalinism. Always and everywhere the Orthodox Trotskyists fought chauvinism. When some got lost politically, as they sometimes did and do, it was usually because of a too blandly negative zeal for things that “in themselves” were good, such as anti-capitalism and anti-imperialism. We mobilised political and practical support for movements of colonial revolt.
French Trotskyists, living in a world gone crazy with chauvinism of every kind, set out to win over and organise German soldiers occupying France. They produced a newspaper aimed at German worker-soldiers: some twenty French Trotskyists and German soldier sympathisers lost their lives when the Nazis suppressed it. The Orthodox Trotskyists even kept some elements of feminism alive in a world in which it was long eclipsed: Michel Pablo, in a French jail for helping the Algerians in their war of independence, applied himself to studying and writing about “the woman question”. Large numbers of people shared the view of the Trotskyists on specific questions and worked with them or in parallel to them. The Trotskyists alone presented and argued for a whole world outlook that challenged the outlook of the capitalist and Stalinist ruling classes. We embodied the great truths of Marxism in a world where they had been bricked up alive by Stalinism. We kept fundamental texts of anti-Stalinist Marxism in circulation.
Read the accounts of the day to day mistreatment of black people in the USA in the mid 20th century – Jim Crow in the South, where blacks had been slaves, segregation in the North, all-pervasive humiliations, exclusions, beatings, burnings, mob lynchings, the systematic ill-treatment of children as of grown-up black people. Work through even a little of that terrible story and you run the risk of despairing of the human race. The Trotskyists, challenging Jim Crow, championing and defending the victims of injustice, showed what they were. To have been less would have been despicable. That does not subtract from the merits of those who did what was right and necessary, when most people did not
James P Cannon and Max Shachtman, the main representatives of the two currents of Trotskyism, were, in my judgement, heroes, both of them. Cannon, when almost all of his generation of Communist International leaders had gone down to Stalinism or over to the bourgeoisie, remained what he was in his youth, a fighter for working-class emancipation.
I make no excuses for the traits and deeds of Cannon which are shown in a bad light in this volume. It is necessary to make and keep an honest history of our own movement if we are to learn from it. After Trotsky’s death Cannon found himself, and fought to remain, the central leader of the Trotskyist movement, a job which, as the Heterodox said, he was badly equipped politically to do. He did the best he could, in a world that had turned murderously hostile to the politics he worked for and the goals he fought to achieve. More than once he must have reminded himself of the old lines, “The times are out of joint/O cursed spite that ever I was born to set it right”. James P Cannon remained faithful to the working class and to revolutionary socialism. Such a book as his History of American Trotskyism cannot be taken as full or authoritative history, but it has value as what Gramsci called a “living book”: “not a systematic treatment, but a ‘living’ book, in which political ideology and political science are fused in the dramatic form of a ‘myth’.”
Socialists today can learn much from both Shachtman and Cannon. In his last decade (he died in 1972), Max Shachtman followed the US trade unions into conventional politics and dirty Democratic Party politicking. He took up a relationship to US capitalism paralleling that of the Cannonites to Stalinism of different sorts and at different times. Politically that was suicidal. Those who, again and again, took similar attitudes to one Stalinism or another have no right to sneer and denounce. Shachtman got lost politically at the end of the 1950s; the Cannonites got lost politically, in relation to Stalinism, twenty years earlier! When Trotsky in 1939-40, living under tremendous personal strain, reached a crossroads in his political life and fumbled and stumbled politically, Max Shachtman, who had tremendous and lasting regard for Trotsky and a strong loyalty to what he stood for, had the integrity and spirit to fight him and those who — Cannon and his comrades in the first place — were starting on a course that would warp and distort and in serious part destroy their politics in the decade ahead and long after.
The Prometheus myth has been popular amongst socialists, supplying names for organisations and newspapers. As punishment for stealing fire from the gods and giving it to humankind, the Titan Prometheus is chained forever to a rock in the Caucasian mountains and vultures eternally rip at his liver. Shachtman picked up the proletarian fire Trotsky had for a moment fumbled with and carried it forward. Generations of mockery, obloquy, misrepresentation, and odium where it was not deserved, have been his punishment for having been right against Trotsky and Cannon.
This book is intended as a contribution to the work of those who strive to refurbish and renew the movement that in their own way both James P Cannon and Max Shachtman tried to serve, and served.
A second edition of the book has just been published, and you can get a pdf of the whole of the second edition at:
Copies can be ordered here (note special offer until 19 December).
Orwell originally wanted to be a poet and did keep writing verse.
A Dressed Man is a neat, sharp piece.
His Memories of the Blitz is new to me. As the editor of his poems, Dione Venables says of his poetry in general, “It has its moments.” The Blitz has not figured much in poetry though it is prevalent in films and novels. I can recall some lines of Louis MacNeice’s:-
As sometimes in the blackout and the raids
One joke composed an island in the night.
World War I, a war fought by most able-bodied men, not just professional soldiers, produced many poets. But as for the civilian experience of the World War II, many writers – like C S Lewis (Home Guard) and T S Eliot (fire watcher) took part without turning their experience into verse.
Memories of the Blitz
Not for pursuit of knowledge
Only the chances of war,
Led me to study the music,
Of the male and female snore
That night in the public shelter
With seats no pillow could soften,
Where I fled, driven out of my bed,
By bombs too near and too often.
And oh, the drone of the planes,
And the answering boom of the gun,
And the cups of tea in the dawn,
When the flames out-did the sun.
That was a long time ago,
Three years ago, or nearly,
And more has perished than gas-masks,
I could not tell you clearly,
What there can be to regret,
In a time of casual slaughter,
When the windows were empty of glass,
And pavements running with water.
But the guns have changed their tune,
And the sandbags are three years older,
Snow has kissed the flesh,
From the bones of the German soldier.
The blimp has a patch on its nose,
The railings have gone to the smelter,
Only the ghost and the cat,
Sleep in the Anderson shelter.
For the song that the sirens sang,
Is sunk to a twice-told story,
And the house where the chartered accountant,
Perished in headland glory,
Is only a clump of willow-herb,
Where I share my sorrow
With the deserted bath-tub
And the bigamous sparrow.
That has some very good lines, especially:-
In a time of casual slaughter,
When the windows were empty of glass,
And pavements running with water.
With the abstract “casual slaughter” against the particularities of the blown out windows and the broken water mains.
Also these relics of an urban war with a high civilian death count:-
The blimp has a patch on its nose,
The railings have gone to the smelter,
Only the ghost and the cat,
Sleep in the Anderson shelter.
Which is evocative, like those grey concrete pillboxes you still find on the coast, sunk into sand. Three years ago “a long time ago” for Orwell who of course did not have much time left himself.
The other day a boy of eleven told me the that his class had been to see an Anderson shelter in someone’s garden. It was very damp and mossy, he said.
George Orwell in the Home Guard
Run the film to see Corbyn, Murray and the celeb wadicals at the StWC beanfeast
Jeremy Corbyn’s attendance at lest night’s Stop The War Coalition (StWC) dinner, and his continuing refusal to sever links with – or even criticise – the group, causes some of us who generally wish him well, a real problem.
There can be no doubt, and there hasn’t been for several years, that the StWC is not primarily anti-war per se, but opposed to Western wars, whilst remaining at best indifferent to wars and interventions by non-Western forces.
StWC’s Lindsey German complains in today’s Morning Star, that “there are accusations that we are pro-Assad, pro-Isis, don’t support the Syrians. Every war we have opposed has seen these accusations raised. We were accused of supporting the Taliban, Saddam Hussein, Gadaffi in Libya and now Assad. It has never been true, and it is the weakest of arguments for those supporting war that their opponents of necessity support the other side.”
Now, of course, German is right that opposing a war being waged by your own ruling class does not of necessity involve supporting the other side: but German is lying when she denies that StWC does just that. She’s lying because she, like most of the rest of the StWC leadership subscribe to a crude version of Lenin’s strategy of revolutionary defeatism, which in their hands amounts to little more than “the main enemy is (always) at home”, or indeed, “my enemy’s enemy is my friend.”
German and her partner John Rees know this (and lie about it) because they were in the leadership of the SWP in 2001 and were responsible for Socialist Worker‘s gloating response, to 9/11 and for the SWP’s “line” of refusing to condemn the atrocities. It is a methodology that has informed the approach of the StWC ever since, even if the likes of German, Rees and Murray lie about it and/or resort to evasion. Surprise, surprise: a lot of the more ‘interesting’ articles (including anti-Semitic stuff) have mysteriously disappeared from StWC’s website over the last few days: fortunately, a public-spirited citizen has made sure that they’re preserved for posterity.
A classic example of such dishonest evasion can be found in StWC Chair Andrew Murray’s answers to John Harris’s uncharacteristically probing questions, published in today’s Guardian – for instance:
“I suggest that the Assad regime has to go, and ask Murray if he agrees. But he doesn’t directly answer the question. We bat the point around for a few minutes, before we arrive at the reason why: as a staunch anti-imperialist, he says it’s not his place to call for the toppling of regimes overseas: a strange position for an avowed internationalist, perhaps, but there we are.”
On the 19th of October Murray expressed this judgement:
The only solution to the dreadful civil war which has laid waste to Syria is a negotiated diplomatic end, says Andrew Murray.
The clear need is not for Britain to jump further into this toxic mix. It is for a negotiated diplomatic end to the dreadful civil war which has laid waste to Syria. Ultimately, only the Syrian people can determine their own future political arrangements.
But the foreign powers could assist by all ending their military interventions, open and clandestine, in Syria – ending the bombing and the arming of one side or another.
They should further promote peace by abandoning all the preconditions laid down for negotiations. Such preconditions only serve to prolong the conflict and to give either government or opposition hope that foreign military and diplomatic support could somehow lead to all-out victory.
On the CPB’s site he has added this, (no date),
Our bipartisan armchair strategists are obviously riled by Russia’s escalating military involvement in Syria. But it is a fact. What form of military intervention could now be undertaken which would not lead to a clash with Russia they do not say. Even the head of MI6 has acknowledged that “no-fly zones” are no longer a possibility, unless the NATO powers are prepared to countenance conflict with Moscow.
This is the CPB’s view, expressed on the 14th of October.
In a statement today Communist Party general secretary Robert Griffiths said:
The Communist Party maintains its opposition to US, NATO and British military intervention in Syria. Whatever the pretext – whether to defeat the barbaric ISIS or to rescue civilian populations – the real aim is clear: to strengthen the anti-Assad terrorist forces (Islamic fundamentalists who have largely displaced the Free Syrian Army ‘moderate opposition’), create areas in which these forces can operate freely (in the guise of ‘no-fly zones’ and ‘safe havens’) and ultimately to partition Syria and replace the Assad regime with a compliant puppet one.
Russian military forces are now attacking all the anti-Assad terrorists, including Isis, at the invitation of the Damascus government – which has every right to issue such an invitation as the internationally recognised political authority in Syria.
- Is Andrew Murray saying that his comrades in the CPB should change their ‘line’ that Russia has “every right” to bomb in Syria?
- Does he genuinely support, against the policy of the party to which he belongs, the formal, avowed (if generally disregarded) policy of the StWC?
The fact that Murray, and the StWC as a whole, apparently feels no need to address that question, let alone answer it, is further proof of what a dishonest, hypocritical and politically bankrupt organisation it is. They seem to have a fig leaf, formal, position of opposing Russian bombing in Syria that can be called upon when they’re under pressure in the media, whist in reality doing nothing about it and appointing as their chair someone who, as far as can be judged, supports both the Assad regime and the Russian bombing campaign.
The difficulty those of us who understand this, but are generally in the Corbyn camp, have, is how to make this point whilst not lining up with the right wing who just want to use this as part of their campaign to undermine and eventually remove Corbyn. Not an easy balancing act to maintain, but an essential one.
Above: James Bloodworth exposes the lies and evasions of StWC’s hapless Chris Nineham
Predictably excellent coverage from Tendance Coatesy:
Front National: National Preference.
France’s far-right National Front (FN) party rode a wave of fear over immigration and terrorism to storm to a commanding position in the first round of voting in the country’s high-stakes regional elections on Sunday.
The anti-immigration party led by Marine Le Pen scored around 28 percent of the vote nationally and topped the list in at least six of 13 regions, according to final estimates from the interior ministry.
The FN came ahead of both former president Nicolas Sarkozy’s Les Républicains (formerly the UMP), which earned 27 percent, and President François Hollande’s Socialists, with 23.5 percent, official estimates showed.
Le Pen and her 25-year-old niece Marion Marechal-Le Pen broke the symbolic 40 percent mark in their respective regions, shattering previous records for the party as they tapped into voter anger over a stagnant economy and security fears.
The polls were held under tight security in the first national vote since Islamic State group terrorists killed 130 people in a wave of attacks across Paris on November 13.
Despite its commanding position, the FN now faces a tougher battle in a second round of voting next Sunday after the Socialists announced they were withdrawing candidates in three regions in a bid to block the far right from power.
Progression of Front National.
Le Monde states that the Front National (FN) totaled 6 million votes in the first round.
The real importance of this result gives Marine Le Pen’s party a chance to normalise and streamline its presence,
The Financial Times cites this,
James Shields, professor of French politics at Aston University said: “These results are a shock but they shouldn’t be a surprise.
“What Marine Le Pen wants above all is a chance to show that her party can govern more than a medium-sized town. For that, a region with several million inhabitants offers a perfect testing-ground, giving her party time to deliver some results before the presidential and legislative elections of 2017.”
The Front National has talked of the “suicide collectif du PS” – the group suicide of the Socialist Party.
The far-right won in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais-Picardie, one of the birthplaces of the French labour movement, and the socialist and Communist left. Over the last few months there have been many reports on growth of the FN the area, including a whole series on the radio station France-Culture. As the political scientist Jean-Yves Camus states, “C’est une région à forte tradition ouvrière, victime de désindustrialisation, de délocalisations, de chômage de masse et de fermetures d’entreprises,” It’s a region with a strong working class tradition, the victim of de-industrialisation, the delocalisation of companies, mass unemployment and business closures.”
Languedoc-Roussillon Midi-Pyrénées was another region affected: the birthplace (Castres) of Jean Jaurès (1849 – 1914) the leader of twentieth century French socialism. It was where he received his first Parliamentary mandate, backed by the miners of Carmaux. Jaurès was assassinated in 1914 by a sympathiser of the extreme right, precursors of the Front National.
There is little doubt that spreading anxiety about Islam played a part in the elections. But the FN’s breakthrough cannot be simply attributed to fear in the wake of the Paris murders and Marine Le Pen’s leadership’s (not to mention their activists) attempts to spread hatred against Muslims.
Its strategy has been to campaign and stir up hatred against all foreigners, beginning with those running the European Union (EU). The message, given very clearly in the poster above, is that outsiders are out to get the French, take their jobs, their homes and undermine their living standards.
The party demands that France leaves the Euro, and that “priorité nationale”(or La préférence national) be given to French nationals in employment. Jobs will be given to those with French nationality in preference to anybody else (Les entreprises se verront inciter à prioriser l’emploi, à compétences égales, des personnes ayant la nationalité française). This also means – in terms very close to those proposed by the David Cameron’s government, that social benefits, from housing onwards, are taken away from migrant workers and immigrants. It demands an end to “massive immigration” and free movement in Europe. The FN denounces immigration as “une arme au service du grand capital” (a weapon of Big Business), an apparently ‘anti-capitalist’ position They propose to limit legal immigration 10,000 a year. Being born in France will no longer mean automatically acquiring French nationality.
If the FN claim to support ” laïcité” and to support “assimilation” of different cultures into France this is on the basis of the «racines chrétiennes de la France», Christian roots of France (sometimes «judéo-chrétiennes») – at odds with the universalism of humanist values which have no such unique roots.
The Front National has also worked UKIP and British tabloid territory in spreading scare stories about benefits and housing for migrants and refugees. They even include the principle that demonstrations in favour of illegal migrants are forbidden. and that anti-French racism is recognised as an aggravating factor in criminal offences (1)
The measures the FN propose imply a disengagement from the EU and a return to full national sovereignty. In some respects the FN’s ideas have an echo across a wide spectrum of political currents, including a section of the left. The FN does not simply attack the EU and the effects of globalisation. They stand for ‘sovereignty’, restoring what they claim should be the full power of the ‘nation’. This, known in France as “souverainisme” (soveriegntism) is embraced equally vociferously in the United Kingdom by those urging leaving the EU. Like the British Conservatives they are also hostile to the European Convention on Human Rights.
For the FN this is wider than a political demand. It is tied to a wider programme of economic protectionism. These economics are more widely shared than in the UK. Emmanuel Todd – known in the English-speaking world for his scorn against the Je Suis Charlie movement – is a long standing supporter of “intelligent protectionism”. He, like the FN, is anti-Euro and goes so far to find inspiration in the German nationalist protectionist Frederich List.
Many of the FN’s national policies may be classed as pure demagogy. For their working class and “popular” electorate the FN propose to raise the minimum wage, benefits, notably pensions, (for French citizens), and put controls on the price of gas, electricity, transport and petrol. (Le Front national, cette imposture. le Monde. 4.12.15.)
The governing Parti Socialiste has been unable to offer much in the way of making life better for those out of work in regions like Nord-Pas-de-Calais-Picardie – the national unemployment rate stands at a stubborn 10,2%. In this northern area unemployment amongst the young is at 31,8 %.
These economic issues, rather than identity or religion, are also at the heart of the failure of the Parti socialiste to continue to win overwhelming support from those of a Muslim background. Le Monde (4.12.15.) reports that it is not opposition to gay marriage or to teaching gender equality in schools – issues on which a number of organised Islamic groups made common cause with the conservative Christian right – which has affected their voting behaviour. It is the inability of President Hollande, and his Prime Minister Manuel Valls to improve their living conditions which has struck home.
The complicated alliance of the Socialists’ left opponents in the left-wing Greens (EELV) and the Front de gauche make it hard to decipher their national score of 10 to 11 % (sometimes aligned together, sometimes not), although it is clear that the Green vote has almost halved (l’Humanité). To to predict where and if there will be agreements with the PS is equally hard.
On the far-left the results are negligible. The Nouveau Parti anticapitaliste (NPA) was too weak to present its own lists and backed Lutte ouvrière who obtained 320 054 votes nationally (1,5 %)
The Socialists meanwhile are discussing – and arguing about – possible agreements with other forces for the second round.
The French political class – and all those dependent on the decisions and funding of the French Regions – will soon have to face up to the Front National with its hands on some levers of power.
Indications that initial flash points will concern exactly the allocation of the regional funds.
Political scientists’ analysis: «Le FN réussit à incarner le vote utile contre la gauche»
Le vote Front national devient « un vote de plus en plus national » et « inter-classiste ». C’est ce qu’estiment cinq chercheurs de l’Observatoire des radicalités politiques (ORAP) de la fondation Jean Jaurès. Dans une analyse fine des résultats, ils mettent en évidence « l’hégémonie culturelle » de l’extrême droite, l’échec de la « stratégie Buisson » de la droite et l’aveuglement de la gauche.
Their voters are more and more national (and not locally based), and cross-class. They decsibre the “cultural hegemony” of the far-right and failure of the right (LR, Sarkozy) to capture their electorate by their own nationalist rhetoric and cultural conservatism (Buisson, one of his main advisers), and the blindness of the left.
(1) Front National programme: Immigration Stopper l’immigration, renforcer l’identité française: “Les manifestations de clandestins ou de soutien aux clandestins seront interdites.
– Le racisme anti-Français comme motivation d’un crime ou d’un délit sera considéré comme une circonstance particulièrement aggravante et alourdira la peine encourue.”