Category Archives: Politics

Britain’s Communists: the untold story by John Green (Artery, £9.99)

I71nA8qx72UL._SY600_ am not, and never have been a Communist, but some of my best friends over the years have been. At its height the Communist Party of Great Britain had 60,000 members and even at its dissolution there were over 6000. The continuing organisation – the Communist Party of Britain has around 1000 members and, beyond its good daily paper (the Morning Star) has little influence. John Green, rather than analysing the twists and turns of Party policy, looks at the influence the Party and its members had over the decades.

The author tells the story thematically, including the struggle against fascism, the peace movement, the women’s movement, internationalism, among professional workers and, “the main focus”, within trade unions. The book comes alive in looking at the Party’s influence on literature and culture, on books, the stage and film. I’m not sure whether the arts were over-represented within the CP but certainly it had active members of import ranging from the lyricist Lionel Bart , the playwright Arnold Wesker through to critics such as Raymond Williams and many fine novelists and poets. Not all stayed with the Party of course but in arts, the trade unions and elsewhere the Party had influence beyond its numbers.

Over the past few years there has been much more attention given to the history of the CP. This book is a readable and worthwhile addition.

Ross Bradshaw

The Village Against the World by Dan Hancox (Verso, £9.99)

village against the worldIt seems appropriate to have read this book on the train back from celebrating the Liverpool bookshop News from Nowhere’s fortieth birthday party, since the shop and the village of Marinaleda, the subject of this book, share a utopian vision.

In the case of Marinaleda, the residents of this Andalusian pueblo turned their despair at poverty and landlessness into anger, occupied land near them and campaigned for land reform. Eventually the regional government quietly bought the land from one of the local mega-estates and passed it to the pueblo. But having the land was just the start. The local council, under the inspired leadership of Sanchez Gordillo, planted the area with crops that were labour intensive and which needed local processing – part of the grand plan which meant that local unemployment hovers around 5% while unemployment in similar pueblos has, in the current crisis, reached 40-50%. Marinaleda – with a population of under 3,000 also has communally built sports and leisure facilities and well-built, self-built, public housing. La Lucha, the struggle, has been waged for thirty-five years, often in the public eye, with mass hunger strikes, demonstrations and occupations to further the cause.  And in turn the village supports other causes, the whole looked down on by murals of Che Guevara and socialist realist imagery.

Throughout, the council has been run by a small, local left wing party, elected and re-elected with substantial majorities. The council also organises cultural activities, rock concerts and decisions are taken by large mass meetings of the whole pueblo in which even children vote. That people are content is indicated by the consistent majority in favour of Gordillo’s party and the absence of crime in the pueblo. Indeed, the council breaks the national law by not employing police – there is no need for them.

Dan Hancox is wise enough as a writer to talk to the opposition, and there is some, though they come across as the kind of grumpy UKIP-types with chips on their shoulders. They moan that they don’t feel comfortable at community events – of course not, if they had their way there would not be any! More worrying is that the village’s progress has been based on the charismatic Gordillo, clearly now ill. Will there be a next generation of Gordillo supporters able to take the community forward? I’d like to think so, but Hancox indicates that young people, who benefit from la lucha but never lived through the hungry years, are attracted by the excitement of the cities.

I read the book in one sitting – train journeys are good for that – and have only three complaints. The first is the author’s overuse of the word unique. OK, the place is unique, and Andelusian culture is unique, and each pueblo is unique…. You get my point. The other is that Verso could have spent a little more on photographs. Elsewhere I’ve seen pictures of, for example, the housing in the pueblo and more images of the public spaces and surrounding countryside. The book gave me a feel for the place, but I wanted to see a bit more utopia while reading about it. My final point is the title, but the reverse is true in Marinaleda as the village is with the world, or at least wants a better one. 

Ross Bradshaw

North Korea: state of paranoia by Paul French (Zed, £12.99)

NorthKoreaIf I was offered a choice of two weeks in a caravan in Mablethorpe or an all expenses paid fortnight in Pyongyang it would be a hard choice, but for a tiny group of British communists Mablethorpe would face instant rejection. Surprisingly, even now, the intellectual descendants of those who checked out the weather report on Radio Moscow, pored over tractor production statistics in Ukraine, took the side of China in the Sino-Soviet split, struggled with the pronunciation of Enver Hoxha when it was time to move on to Albania believe that North Korea, run by a hereditary dictatorship, is a socialist paradise. Even after Kim Jong-un offed his uncle that’s OK by them. The number of such people – followers of the “Juche” theorie of Jong-un’s granddad – is tiny, but a lesson to us all in showing why we should avoid hitching our wagon to some foreign state about which, really, we know nothing.

Anyone reading Paul French’s book on North Korea must surely despair that anything good can come out of this. He analyses the history of the regime, its changing fortunes (prior to mass starvation, it was actually doing quite nicely), its armaments, economics, the possibilities of reform and its relationship with the outside world. The three countries that matter to it are, of course, South Korea, China and America. The big issue is nuclear. Feeling constantly under threat, and in need of a bargaining chip, North Korea has armed itself to the teeth. Most countries do, but perhaps the lesson of Iraq is that such rogue states feel that they do need weapons of mass destruction to protect themselves. Or is the nuclear option simply a bargaining chip to ensure that the hateful West continues to bail out the country by giving aid?

Paul French tells us all that we need to know about North Korea, but one line stands out: according to the Seoul government North Korea (or more correctly the Democratic Republic of People’s Korea) need only reduce their arms spend by 5% to resolve the country’s food crisis.

Ross Bradshaw

Look Back in Anger: the miners’s strike in Nottinghamshire – 30 years on by Harry Paterson (Five Leaves, £9.99)

Paterson-Harry-LookBackInAngerOn 5th March 1984, following an Area ballot, Cortonwood pit in South Yorkshire came out on strike against the government’s proposed schedule of colliery closures. A domino effect followed, with the Yorkshire, South Wales and Scotland coalfields voting locally to strike. The much-repeated assertion that NUM President Arthur Scargill called for a national strike for reasons of political hubris is the first of many fallacies that Harry Paterson’s timely and unflinchingly powerful book explodes. Likewise the incessant right-wing carping, which continues to this day, that Scargill refused a national ballot; actually, a democratic vote at Conference went against it. The fact that the majority of miners in the UK were already out on strike at this point kind of speaks for itself.

Thirty years down the line, the miners’ strike remains a raw and emotional subject. Particularly in the Midlands. Every Nottinghamshire pit, most of them by a significant majority, voted to keep working. (Leicestershire demonstrated an equally pro-management stance; read David Bell’s The Dirty Thirty: Heroes of the Miners’ Strike, also published by Five Leaves, for a stirring account of the few men who stuck to their principles and supported their union.) A generation later, communities – families, even – remain divided. That is, where communities exist at all. The aftermath of Thatcher’s deliberate offensive against trade unionism is a country stripped of industry; a country of mass unemployment, of harsh class division, where a job for life is a thing of your father’s, or even your grandfather’s, generation.

My grandfather worked at Annesley. He was born in the last years of the 1800s. He was out in the Great Strike of 1926. He obviously died before the 1984/85 strike. I don’t want to conjecture about what he would have thought of the strike-breaking Notts majority. Even now, reading Paterson’s account, a sense of shame pervades. But to Paterson’s credit Look Back in Anger is more than just Scab: The Book. The opening chapters establish a history of mining and trade unionism in Britain, contrapuntally sketching in Nottinghamshire’s gravitation towards Spencerism and trying to define the prevalent social causes for such a move. Paterson progresses to a labyrinthine tour of the complex functionality of the NUM which – as the strike progresses and the union is increasingly besieged by Thatcherism, the media and the manipulated shift in public opinion – eventually sees the Nottinghamshire Area form the breakaway Union of Democratic Mineworkers. Paterson lays bare the political manoeuvring and dirty tricks that eased the UDM into being in a series of revelations as gripping as any thriller.

It would be disingenuous to suggest that Paterson is anything but on the striking miners’ side, but the steady accretion of new evidence, accounts and documents pertaining to the strike – culminating in papers released earlier this year under the Thirty Years’ Rule – leave no cause for doubt. Thatcher secretly marked 75 more pits for closure than were publicly mooted. At the time, Scargill called her plans “the thin end of the wedge”: history vindicates him.

Look Back in Anger (the title borrowed from John Osborne) is aptly named. To read it is to get mad. Mad at what happened back then. Mad at the fact that it’s still happening now. But the book is also studded with moments which illustrate all that is good and decent in working class men and women. One particular anecdote sums up the principles of solidarity and community that the striking miners were fighting for. A Newstead miner who’d spent his entire adult life at the coalface was on the cusp of reaping well-deserved redundancy benefits. Conflicted by management threats vis-à-vis loss of benefits vs kinship with his striking workmates, the strikers backed him wholeheartedly in returning to work; he saw out his stint, and contributed all his pay pay packets to the strike fund.

Neil Fulwood 

 

Anarchists Against the Wall, edited by Uri Gordon and Ohal Grietzer (AK Press, £9)

anarchistswallSome years ago, a friend who lived in Belfast at the height of the war n Ireland said that she would see news coverage of the riots and shootings on the television and have to pinch herself to remember that she lived in the same city. She lived peacefully in an area quite untroubled by the war. I was reminded of this reading Anarchists Against the Wall as one contributor referred to those Israelis who feel no need to think about the occupation while sitting in a coffee shop or eating hummus in Jaffa. The one difference is that the man and woman in the Jaffa cafe have almost certainly been in the Israeli Defence Forces, or have children who have been, or children who will be. Yet the number of Israelis prepared to take action over “the situation” – hamatsáv – is few, especially at the cutting edge of protest against “the wall”. For many, emigration is a way out, with perhaps a million Israelis living abroad.

For a small number of Israelis, a life of permanent protest is the only option, Anarchists Against the Wall (AATW) being one of the most active organisations. In this short book AATW members outline their history and actions. The book is split between reprinting some AATW leaflets and a longer, and more interesting, section of personal accounts by activists. AATW began, formally, in 2003. The group rejects lobbying, electoral efforts and “interfaith” dialogue in favour of direct action and civil disobedience having “let go the coat-tails of the Zionist left” to work with the “popular committees” of Palestinians on the West Bank, especially at Bil’in and Ni’lin, on the weekly demonstrations against the wall. While twenty Palestinians have been killed in these types of demonstrations, AATW members have had no fatalities but share in being teargassed and being shot at by rubber bullets, and occasional live ammunition. They accept that they cannot be equal partners in resisting the occupation – Israelis can go home or drop out of activity at any time – but their solidarity actions give them “an opportunity to cross the barriers of national allegiance.”

The book is primarily about the group’s day to day activities, though demonstrations against the war in Gaza are also mentioned, with some reference to individual involvement in campaigns against gentrification within Israel, within the social movements and actions in solidarity with refugees. To the Israeli right AATW activists are traitors, more so to those who (shockingly) describe the 1967 Green Line as the “Auschwitz borders” to justify Israeli expansion. AATW has little time for groups like Peace Now, which have faded anyway after the failure of Oslo. One contributor remarks “So we give up on these people. Our statements [at general peace demonstrations] are not meant to communicate but to rage and keep us going.”

In exchange “Radical activists in Israel/Palestine run from one action to the next. It feels like everything is urgent.” Another writes “We hardly ever bother with promoting our various grand-scheme-of-things ideas. Once the occupation is behind us, we will have the luxury to discuss our diverse opinions.” A further contributor adds “Personally, I do not think I will see the end of the occupation in my lifetime — I am thirty years old.” Yet another, “’When the occupation ends. . . . ‘ How many times have we said this to ourselves, fantasizing over a future paradise, while becoming more and more cynical and disillusioned with each passing year. Today we know better. The occupation is not going to end; it is here to stay.”

Little wonder that the group is subject to burn out. One chapter is devoted to trauma, with some activists showing genuine symptoms of post-traumatic stress due their regular exposure to violence.

Some Jewish critics of Israel  will have found it difficult to speak of their views within the formal Jewish community, if involved in it, or within traditional Jewish families brought up on Zionism. For some Israelis, becoming a dissident means isolation from friends and family. “Like others, I have gradually lost contact with most of my friends from home. Some of us cannot deal with the confrontations and so we drift apart.” Whilst most Palestinians welcome Israeli Jews taking part in their struggle, others question this. “A local Palestinian farmer stopped me and bluntly asked what I was doing there. Why, for example, was I not in Tel Aviv talking to Israelis, or demonstrating outside the Knesset or prime minister’s house? I did not have a decent answer for him, but I did not go to another demonstration for three years, although I did not confront Israeli society either. I just left the country.”

I admire what AATW does, and would encourage people to read this book, yet I was left with a feeling of unease. So many of the contributors felt little hope for the future, and the weekly demonstrations clearly take their toll (exactly why the IDF comes down so hard on those taking part). Some of the writers remarked on how isolated they felt from all their fellow Israelis, how difficult it was, even, to take part in joint campaigns on other issues. Yet in the book there is only a passing reference to the International Solidarity Movement, which operates in similar territory, and no mention of, for example, Gush Shalom (the radical peace bloc), B’Tselem (the Israeli human rights organisation, active against the occupation), the soldiers’ movement Breaking the Silence, the Israeli Coalition Against House Demolitions or any other group which might not share AATW’s anarchist views but are on the same side. I wonder how much of the isolation is self-imposed. The book left me wanting to know more.

Ross Bradshaw

A version of this review will shortly appear in Jewish Socialist magazine

 

Chavs: the demonisation of the working class by Owen Jones (Verso, £9.99)

chavsA bookshop customer bought this the other day, together with a Bill Bryson book. Perhaps guessing that I was mentally raising an eyebrow he said that he knew that reading Chavs would put him in a bad mood so he was planning to read Bryson afterwards to make himself feel better. He had a point.

A year or two back Chavs was the must-read leftie book. It really took off – I bought my copy at the time from a WH Smith’s bookstall in Crewe railway station. I’ve only just got round to reading it, to my shame. In the meantime Owen Jones has become the Milky Bar Kid of the British left (a phrase coined by the Five Leaves’ writer Harry Paterson), the Tories have got worse, UKIP are on the rise, but fortunately Jones’ chapter on the BNP has become out of date. And I suspect that a lot of people who bought this book have not quite finished it yet.  Why not? Because it really is bloody depressing.

I read the book with a view to covering it here, and turned down so many pages from which to quote – Jones knows how to marshal his facts.  Here’s one I did not know – “over half of the top one hundred journalists were educated at a private school” – one of the reasons for their distaste at worst and lack of understanding at best for the working class, especially those from the north. I could have filled this short review with a fraction of Jones’s battery of facts which present a convincing case for the deliberate break up of working class organisations and ways of living – think the decline of trade unions, the deliberate rundown of industry and the great sell off of social housing – and the “chavification of working class people, the constant portrayal of them/us as being “‘non-aspirational’ layabouts, slobs, racists, boozers, thugs – you name it”. We can see this most in the current millionaire cabinet attack on those who are not in work or claim benefits.

Chavs is essential reading but I got more out of the forthcoming The People: the rise and fall of the working class 1910-2010 by Selina Todd (John Murray, £25, due April) as though the working class lost out in the end at least some of the century was “ours”. A review will follow at some stage. Owen Jones’ book could be summed up by one of his sentences: “Chav-hate is a way of justifying an equal society” which “justifies the preservation of the pecking order, based on the fiction that it is actually a fair reflection of people’s worth.” He is not wrong.

Ross Bradshaw

Fighting Fit: a memoir by Chanie Rosenberg (Redwords, £6.00)

fightingfitLast year, at the Jewish Socialists’ Group annual seder/Passover meal, people were reading stories and poems of liberation. Someone read a poem by Isaac Rosenberg, one of the greatest of  poets of WWI (in which he was killed). MCing the event was the Five Leaves writer David Rosenberg who remarked that he was unrelated to the poet… but one of the others present was Chanie Rosenberg, a first cousin of Isaac’s. Chanie, who was born in 1922 obviously never met her cousin, but talked about his short life and work with the background of family knowledge. It felt like a magical moment, with the long dead Isaac Rosenberg almost, almost within touching distance.

Unfortunately Chanie does not include mention of her connection to Isaac Rosenberg in this short memoir. Indeed, the memoir barely touches the surface of her interesting life. I wish she had written more. Some of the text is bitty, but she shows flashes of inspiration, for example when she describes her courtship with Ygail Gluckstein/Tony Cliff in Palestine saying “Cliff was attracted by my South African passport. [He had been desperate to find ways of leaving Palestine.] Bolstered by this and possibly some other useful characteristics, we started living together.”

The memoir is particularly strong on her early years in South Africa, where Jews were considered white but subject to racism by the English and Afrikaaner majority among whites. She describes knowing one Black family which had members who could pass as white, who no longer talked to one another to avoid risking the “white” members being exposed. Chanie rejected South African racism and, later, Jewish nationalism in the form of Zionism. With Cliff she was one of the founder members of the group they set up after leaving Palestine, which became the Socialist Workers Party. The SWP was once the biggest group on the UK left, now in serious decline following various internal bust-ups over sexual harassment by a leading member. Chanie remains loyal to her Party. Her own political involvement included successful activity in the National Union of Teachers, for which she was blacklisted for some time. Unfortunately the memoir skates over most of the issues the SWP has been involved with over the years. It would have been nice to have known what she really thought.

The memoir includes a quite unrelated, but excellent, illustrated essay on the Russian painter Kazimir Malevich, indicating the Chanie Rosenberg could have been a significant writer had she given more time to it.

Ross Bradshaw

 

 

 

Autonomy: the cover designs of Anarchy 1961-1970 (Hyphen, £25)

The bookshop stocks quite a few books that were turned down by the publishing wing of the Five Leaves empire, usually coming out from more appropriate publishers – some bigger, some smaller. This book is one of them. I loved the idea – colour images of Colin Ward’s Anarchy magazine, with supporting essays – I just could not see how it could be produced economically, 100+ full colour images and information about a long-dead magazine that never sold more than 2-3,000 copies. Anarchy was hugely influential though, taking up issues like adventure playgrounds long before anyone else, with lots of important writers cutting their teeth on the mag. The Rufus Segar covers were in advance of their time… but how to sell it?
Fortunately, Daniel Poyner found a much better publisher in Hyphen, which only publishes in the field of graphic design, and which can reach a market outside of political archaeologists.
And what a job they have made of it. £25 is a lot for a paperback book, but it is worth every penny. The supporting essays are by the late Raphael Samuel, who understood the importance of Anarchy and Colin Ward’s ideas, and Richard Hollis on Anarchy‘s design in relation to the 1960s. Ward and Hollis have, separately, had an involvement with the publishing side of Five Leaves but we had no role in putting this book, or the contributors together.
Last week someone came into the shop with a satchel full of library-borrowings, a sort of Wardist grab-bag. Did we know of any organisation locally or nationally that brought together those who followed Colin Ward’s constructive anarchism? I admitted failure on this. Ward remains influential – Lawrence and Wishart are bringing out a memorial volume for him this year, and Five Leaves is planning a final volume of his essays, but those who he influenced are scattered. This book – one of those shortlisted for the 2013 Bread and Roses Award for Radical Publishing – will make him better known in the design world. But it is hard to think how a permanent organisation promoting Wardism (a term he would have disliked) could survive as his own generation fades out and the generation he influenced most slip into retirement. But the bookshop is here, in part, because of his influence!

Ross Bradshaw

The Memory Chalet by Tony Judt (Vintage)

How to Thrive in the Digital Age by Tom ChatfieldIf my own personal library (God, that sounds pretentious) could have only one type of book, it would be essays. Accessible essays on all sorts of subjects. You can see where the annual Five Leaves essay collection comes from. At the heart of the collection would be a group of books like this one. Excellent essays, fairly personal in orientation, but grounded in experience and an understanding of history and politics.
Reading The Memory Chalet is difficult though, because you are aware that the author was dying when he wrote them. In fact he did not write them, he dictated them as motor neuron disease made movement impossible. The reader is always conscious that these were the last writings by a major writer occupying his well-ordered mind in a productive way. What else could he have done?
The essays I am drawn back to are the more personal accounts – of early travels in Europe, of his disenchantment with Zionism born out of living on a kibbutz, of London bus routes, of manual labour on board a ship, alternating “between scrubbing diesel boilers and throwing up in the teeth of a North Sea blizzard”.
Judt was of the left, at home mostly in the pages of the London Review of Books, but was quite clear about the kind of socialism he wanted – in the 1960s supporting Havel, Michnik, Kis and other “outcast” intellectuals who he saw as the best hope in replacing the “dead dogma immured in a decaying society” that was Eastern Europe under communism, and which also helped him reconnect to his East European Jewish origins.
Judt finishes the book with a chalet – a cafe at a small train stop In Murren, Switzerland – with the mountains falling away into the valley below, with the sight of summer barns you can climb up to. You can wait for the next train “punctual, predictable” or just wait, in a place where nothing goes wrong. Judt was rootless, lived in many places, but he ends “We cannot choose where we start out in life, but we may finish where we will. I know where I shall be: going nowhere in particular on that little train, forever and ever.” And that’s when you cry.

Ross Bradshaw

Undercover: the true story of Britain’s secret police by Rob Evans and Paul Lewis (Faber)

UndercoverIt’s not often I read a book with a raised cover – you know the sort, the title being a bit bumpy. Clearly Faber thought this book would reach the mass market – the sub-heads “They steal identities. They break the law. They sleep with the enemy.” are also a bit bumpy in another way. And then the cover image of that stupid Guy Fawkes mask, beloved of (some) protesters and (most)  press photographers everywhere. But this book is sensational, and “they” did all of these things, in some cases not just sleeping with their enemy but fathering a child with that enemy.  And a lot of  the action was in Nottingham. If you were on another planet you might have missed the fuss about Nottingham’s Mr Mark Stone/Mark Kennedy, the copper who infiltrated and made himself central to local protest groups over many years. He also made himself central to the lives of the core individuals involved, and had several sexual relationships while undercover. He and the Special Demonstration Squad were eventually exposed. Almost all the policemen and one of the policewomen who were deep undercover, also mostly for many years, had sexual relations with members of the groups they infiltrated. In some case they became instigators of illegal action. It now appears that the famous McDonald’s/McLibel leaflet was written mainly by a policeman and that the tiny London Greenpeace Group who produced it had almost as many infiltrators as activists. Perhaps McDonald should sue the police. The story of the SDS is fascinating reading, though the question remains as to how, psychologically, these long-terms undercover police spies could live with, act with and sleep with people yet have “normal” lives too. What kind of person could do this?

Ross Bradshaw