Category Archives: Labour History

Revolutionary Yiddishland – a history of Jewish radicalism by Alain Brossat and Sylvie Klingberg (Verso, £16.99)

Revolutionary-yiddishland-1050stThere’s nowhere called Yiddishland, except it is everywhere, it’s a state of mind. You don’t have to be fluent in Yiddish, you don’t have to be Jewish (though both of these make life easier). And you don’t all have to be in the same state of mind as the other inhabitants, other than to value the diaspora and have an interest in the shared history of a disparate community of Yiddish speakers. 

Not every part of Yiddishland in the past was a happy place, Hersh Mendel, quoted in this book, remarked that he “cannot remember one single joyful hour” at heder (religious education classes). He became a revolutionary.This was the period, one of the periods, when Jews lived in abject poverty. Yaakov Greenstein recalls “a neighbour’s farm where there were eight children at home. The father went from village to village with a colleague, collecting scrap metal. They had a cart but no horse to pull it; one of them took the front, the other pushed, and they went along the roads, in this way, among the goyim, from dawn to night.” For some, the answer lay in socialism which could lead to family problems such as disapproval from religious parents annoyed because the Bund (the main Jewish socialist organisation) published its daily newspaper on Shabbos, on the Sabbath.

The revolutionary Yiddishland that people like Mendel and Greenstein joined was that of the Bund, of Poale Zion (the socialist Zionist group) and even the Communist Party where they had their own battles to survive and hold on to their Jewish culture. This is the milieu that the authors cover, the world not of industrialists or prominent figures but “the tailors, shoemakers, furriers, carpenters, tinsmiths and other Yiddish craftsmen…” internationalists who were “exploited in the wretched workshops of Warsaw, Bialystok and Vilnius.”
Revolutionary Yiddishland was first published in France in 1983 when there was a critical mass of people still alive from that period to interview. The new English-language edition keeps their memory alive, as the best parts of the book are the interviews, quotes and reminiscences of those who were the history younger people can only experience secondhand. We read of people like Pierre Sherf, wounded while taking part in the Spanish Civil War, a volunteer in the French army against the Nazis and then active in the underground Resistance with other Romanian immigrants in France. People like Hanna Levy-Haas from Sarajevo, another member of the Resistance, this time to the Italian occupation of Montenegro. As an elder, living in Israel, she became active in the women’s movement and against the war in Lebanon.
Those who were Communists had the greatest problems over the Molotov/Ribbentrop pact. Unease would be an understatement and in France the Yiddish left paper Naie presse could barely hold the Party line. When Hitler invaded the Soviet Union, Adam Rayski said “And so, for us to become ourselves again – that is Jews, Frenchmen, anti-fascists – we needed Hitler’s aggression.” But it was not over yet with activists like Artur London arrested as part of the anti-Semitic Slansky round-up in Czechoslovakia. The fact that he survived being in Mauthausen concentration camp helping to prove his culpability. This was the revolution betrayed.
Brossat and Klingberg return to the early debates within the Jewish socialist world, including the warning of the Bund leader Henryk Erlich against the likely Bolshevik dictatorship. Erlich was later murdered by Stalin’s men. Organisations split over their attitude to the Russian Revolution leading to now long-forgotten groups like the Faraynikte and the Kombund, the latter being the group of Bundists who went over to the Communists after the Revolution, as did many members of Poale Zion. Odd to think the British descendant organisation of Poale Zion in this country is the right-wing Jewish Labour Movement.
Within Russia policy on Jews changed constantly. Yiddish schools flourished, while Yevsektsia (the Jewish section of the Communist Party) sought Jewish agricultural colonisation in the Crimea, more popular than the Birobidzhan Yiddish “homeland” and more successful economically. That Birobidzhan was designated a republic in 1936 did not stop the Jewish leadership there being decimated in the Great Purges of 37 and 38. Editors, bureaucrats, committed Communists were wiped out. Anybody with a Bundist or Poale Zion history was at particular risk. Colonisation projects were closed, newspapers were suppressed and Yiddish was replaced in most schools by Russian. Brossart and Klingberg write “by the end of the 1930s the entire ‘national’ and ‘democratic’ gains of the Jewish population had been reduced to nothing.”
Committed Jewish communists would continue to be arrested, post-war, with the closure of the of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee in Russia. The final spasms being the anti-Semitic Gomulka purges in Poland in 68 and 69, when the “anti-party element” David Szarfharc, expelled from the CP, said that “five minutes of a certain speech by Gomulka had done more for that [the desire to emigrate to Israel] than decades of Zionist propaganda.”
Ironically Israel became the  home for many of these revolutionaries, including Sylvie Klingberg’s own father Marcus Klingberg who, despite everything, spied for the Soviet Union. He was finally arrested in 1983 and sentenced to twenty years in prison. Sylvie Klingberg became an activist in the Israeli socialist group Matzpen which was an anti-Soviet breakaway from the Israeli Communist Party. They must have had some interesting family discussions.
Ross Bradshaw
This review first appeared in Jewish Socialist, issue 70 (www.jewishsocialist.org.uk)

Radical Walking Tours of New York City by Bruce Kayton (Seven Stories, £11.99)

In the era of Trump I won’t exactly be rushing back to the USA, but I wish I’d known of this book on my one previous visit, when I spent some time in New York. During that visit I joined some friends in marching with a largely Hispanic demonstration against police brutality. I don’t speak any Spanish but it did not take much knowledge of the language to know why big, tearful, poor Hispanic women were holding up pictures of their sons. There had been a lot of Hispanic men from “the Projects” shot in the back, allegedly when running away from burglaries. Immediately after the demonstration I joined a distant relative at a restaurant at the top of the World Trade Center. It had a luxurious men’s room where a Black man handed you a towel…

Poverty and wealth then. Most of the New York guides concentrated on the latter, this book the former, or at least attempts to break the poverty, racism – including restrictive employment practices, red-baiting, union-busting and environmental damage on which the wealth is built. In any one chapter you can find details of union struggles, anti-war activism, socialist bookshops, Black self-organisation from the nineteenth, twentieth and early in this century.

Over all, however, is the blight of gentrification. One of the flats rented by the anarchist Emma Goldman was recently on the market for $4000 a month while the Black gay poet Langston Hughes’ old house in Harlem would set you back a million.  The writer suggests that if you want to visit Revolution Books, the best radical bookshop in New York, you check its website first as it has moved so many times, most recently from Chelsea to Harlem, as it has been priced out of premises after premises.

The section on Brooklyn Bridge remembers how many men died in its construction and the terrible illnesses the underwater workers suffered. The Bridge has become a way of snarling up the city and over 700 Occupy marchers were arrested there. At least some aspects of New York’s radical past continue.

This is a great book to dip into, full of interesting snippets of labour history, though an index would have been a great help.

Ross Bradshaw

 

Revolutionary Activism in the 1950s and 60s, volume 2, Britain 1965-1970 by Ernest Tate (Resistance Books, £13)

Yes, I can feel your eyes glazing over already, but there’s more to this book than you think, not least the many photographs of Vanessa Redgrave, Tariq Ali and Richard Branson at the front of big London marches against the Vietnam War. BRANSON? Yes, the world’s worst balloonist and train operator hung out with revolutionaries in the 1960s. At least Stephen Hawking (pictured likewise, walking with canes) kept his socialist principles.
The local – Nottingham – interest is with the late Ken Coates, one of the key people in the International Group which joined with others to form the nucleus of what became the International Marxist Group, British section of the Fourth International (that’s the Trotskyist one). Pat Jordan, who once ran a radical – and comic – bookshop in St Anns is also there at the start. Pat came to a sad end, some of which is covered here.
Ken Coates went on to be the key person in the Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation, which continues in Radford with a set up involving Spokesman Books and Russell Press.
In this book he features large in a long chapter on the Russell Tribunal on the Vietnam War which pulled together an investigative panel including Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. The author spends too long discussing the disastrous finances of the Tribunal but at last I started to understand the mercurial Ralph Schoenman who was at the centre of the various controversies around the Tribunal and anti-Vietnam War activity until his (American) passport was taken away, meaning he could not travel to Europe any more.
Opposition to the Vietnam War is at the centre of the book and Tate takes us behind the scenes as he was an organiser of the mass mobilisations in London in the 1960s.
Equally fascinating,but in a car-crash kind of way, are the later chapters of the book where Tate describes the work of the Fourth International when they decided to take to the hills, Cuban style, to ferment guerrilla uprisings in South America. Few of the participants survived. Tate had been sent from Canada to build a group in the UK and returns home, exhausted and broke. Volume one covers his earlier years building the Canadian movement but he is frozen out of his own organisation as it descends into a cult-like grouping. They take a “turn” to industry. Having mostly failed to organise a working class base they substitute themselves for the working class by sending previously professional workers onto the factory floor. Hilariously, he describes holding bi-weekly training sessions on how to be working class (which he was himself) including showing people how to use basic tools so that they were not completely ignorant after they left their middle class jobs.
It’s beyond the scope of the book but his former UK comrades did the same here.
Not surprisingly, it was the beginning of the end.
Ross Bradshaw

Rebel Footprints, a guide to uncovering London’s radical history by David Rosenberg (Pluto, £9.99)

Dave is one of a number of Five Leaves’s writers who graduated from our finishing school and – with our blessing – joined a bigger publisher. His Five Leaves’ Battle for the East End was about Jewish responses to fascism in the 1930s. Here he operates on a wider canvas, but with the same view of how people make history. His chapters – all followed by walking guides – cover Clerkenwell Green, Bow, Spitalfields, Bloomsbury, Battersea, Poplar, Bermondsey and, no surprise, Cable Street. There’s also a chapter on suffragettes. Dave is a walk guide and runs regular trips round most of these places, including bespoke walks (with lots of pub stops if you are the RMT!). Of course this is history – there are not too many members of the Amalgamated Stevedores Union around these days and the Stratford Dialectical and Radical Club’s Facebook page seems to be down but it was these workers, often Irish or Jewish immigrants, often women workers, who broke the sweatshops and the fascists, who won the right to vote, who took on the landlords and cruel factory bosses. We owe them. Dave’s book brings forgotten names and battles back to life. It’s worth reading in an armchair in Nottingham, and worth a couple of trips to London to follow some of the guided walks.
Ross Bradshaw

Proud Journey: a Spanish Civil War Memoir by Bob Cooney (Marx Memorial Library and Manifesto Press, £5.00)

I knew Bob Cooney in Aberdeen, and interviewed him once for Aberdeen Peoples Press about the Spanish Civil War. I can’t find my copy of the interview but do remember that our meeting did not go well. Bob was an unreconstructed Stalinist and I was a young libertarian socialist. The local Young Communist League worked well with the libertarians, both then strong in Aberdeen, sharing a similar view of the Tankies, as they were called. Bob was one of nineteen volunteers from Aberdeen who joined the International Brigades, five of whom were killed in action. This book is based on a manuscript written by him in 1944 and never before published.

I am not and never have been a Trotskyist, but I found the opening chapter of Bob’s book hard to stomach. That he called his opening chapter “Fascists and Trotskyists” is something of a trigger warning, but when he says that “Trotskyists … served as the lieutenants of fascism within the labour movement” and “… time and again the Spanish Trotskyists under the cover of left-wing phrases gave active assistance to Franco…” I was tempted to go no further. Some years ago my late friend (and Five Leaves’ author) Walter Gregory – who is mentioned in passing in this book – mentioned that in Spain the Trotskyist-influenced POUM put up graffiti saying “Dondo Nin? (were is Nin?) referring to their missing leader Andres Nin. The CP replied with “Ask the fascists!”, but the POUM knew that their leader had been taken by the communists. He was murdered by them. Walter remarked that people were fooled. Oddly, however, in Bob Cooney’s book the anarchist union CNT is mentioned favourably.

It’s a pity that these outrageous remarks start the book as it is a remarkable record of the war, particularly of Bob’s long journey back to the Ebro as the Republic was forced to retreat. Of the 500 men who started with him only 20 were left to cross the Ebro. He describes the night marches, the lack of food, the torn footwear and the desperate attempts to hold the line or cover the retreat. Friends steadily fall in battle.

Even when not in retreat the situation was desperate. In the campaign to take Hill 481 “Lieutenant John Angus was in command. He fell seriously wounded in the chest. His successor, Lieutenant Walter Gregory, got a bullet in the neck [though survived]. Sergeant Bill Harrington took over, till he too was seriously wounded and Corporal Joe Harkins …. assumed command. Harkins fell, mortally wounded, just before Lieutenant Lewis Clive, the original company commander, returned from hospital. Clive was killed on the following day.”

Cooney was lucky. He was captured prior to this battle, with Joe Harkins, but in the heat of the combat they were able to escape. He was hit by one bullet, but though “red hot” it was spent and did him no damage. As a record of the war, this is worth reading, though we know that the Republic, starved of arms, had little chance of surviving against Franco and his German and Italian supporters.

The book is also worth reading for Bob’s account of street battles with homegrown fascists on the streets of Aberdeen. This section included a great story of him infiltrating an identity parade with a CP leaflet in hand to ensure he was picked out by fascist “witnesses”. Except he had not been at that particular incident so his being picked out effectively discredited the testimony against his arrested comrades and they got off.

Ross Bradshaw

Who Dips in the Tin? The Butty System in the Nottinghamshire Coalfield by Barry Johnson (Notts and Derbyshire Labour History Society, £2.50)

This short pamphlet is a reminder of the bad old days before the mines (remember them?) were nationalised – a reminder why it was so important to take them out of the hands of the masters. The butty system was a method of sub-contracting. The owners contracted out getting coal to individual men who paid day labourers to work for them. This was bad because the labourers had no guarantee of employment, had to work their socks off to be taken on again, took risks with safety and could be rejected on the whim of the contractor. It suited the owners to have men divided against each other and the contractor doing the dirty work while they piled up the profits.

The miners campaigned against this system and for the “throw-in” system whereby all those who worked the “stall” had an equal share of the piece work earnings.

With casualisation, sub-contracting and franchising the butty system is back of course in industry after industry. It does not have the force it had when dockers’ and miners’ wages were forced down and people struggled to earn a living, but it’s all part of the same system. Anyone who thinks sub-contracting is a good system would do well to read this forgotten part of Nottinghamshire history. It’s a pity the N &D LHS did not spend a little more on production quality though – the typesetting is awful, large gaps between the lines and a tiny typeface!

Ross Bradshaw