Soccer vs. the State: Tackling Football and Radical Politics (Second Edition) by Gabriel Kuhn(PM Press, £15.99)

THERE is a widely accepted idea that football emerged from working-class culture, went through a golden age as ‘the people’s game’ and then sold its soul to Sky, Adidas and Coca Cola. Soccer vs, the State, Gabriel Kuhn’s lively and painstaking examination of the sport’s hidden history and competing cultures, reveals a more complex narrative.

The book is full of surprises. In the early nineteenth century football was played by future ‘captains of industry’ and ‘administrators of empire’. This changed in the 1880s, when ‘professionalisation’ attracted young men seeking an escape from factory work. With professional players came working-class crowds keen to watch their mates.

Another revelation concerns female players. We are currently witnessing a revival, not a genesis. Women participated in medieval village matches and were excluded only when public schools appropriated the game. There was renewed interest in women’s football in World War I, and in 1920 Dick, Kerr’s Ladies (from Preston) beat St Helen’s Ladies before a record crowd of 53,000 at Goodison Park. The response of the FA was to introduce a ban, not lifted until 1971, and to encourage international prohibition of women players.

Kuhn highlights the tension football provokes between workers and bosses on every continent, using archived pamphlets, manifestos, interviews and news clippings. A complex picture emerges of a Jekyll and Hyde sport. There is evidence it’s a counter-revolutionary activity fostering greed, corruption, sectarianism and nationalism; but there are also examples of teamwork on the pitch promoting working class solidarity.  For example, the late Aboriginal activist Charlie Perkins said the Greek and Croatian soccer teams of Adelaide were the first groups to recognise him as a person.

The book provides fascinating snippets of information on activism, racism, anti-fascism, corporate influences on accessibility, bigotry and internationalism.

The author’s impressive archive and interview-based research, and his rich and varied presentation of information, is slightly compromised by the book’s structural flaws. The thematic similarity of some chapters leads to repetition of ideas and makes it hard for readers to refer back to specific information and stories. But Kuhn offers a cornucopia of anecdotes, facts, life histories and extracts to create a fragmented but fascinating picture of a sport facing profound risks and possibilities. The new edition covers the development of feminist clubs, the contribution of ‘ultra’ fans to the fall of Mubarak in Egypt and the impact of the FIFA corruption scandal.

The book is an invaluable resource at a time in which football risks destruction by the greed of club owners and their corporate ‘partners’. At the same time it celebrates the game’s potential for building social cohesion and alternative forms of community.  It is a timely and entertaining read.

Andy Hedgecock

This review first appeared in the Morning Star

Copies of Soccer vs  the State are available, post free UK, from bookshop@fiveleaves.co.uk

The Bookshop of the Broken Hearted, by Robert Hillman (Faber, £8.99)

I’ve mentioned before that there is a category of books, mass-market novels, about falling in love with an accidental bookseller. By accidental, it’s because the shop owner usually inherits a shop, or a bookbarge, and falls for an interesting customer. This sub-genre moves on with The Bookshop of the Broken Hearted, but back in time to Australia in 1967 where sheep-farmer Tom, never a reader, falls for Hannah, an older woman who sets us a bookshop in his small town. But in this case the bookshop is not a major character.
Tom is the sort of sheep farmer who drives his “ute” “forward and back over the acorns while the ducks watched on in approval”  so they can “eat the flesh out of the acorns fallen from the trees planted by the Lutherands fifty years past” – Hannah is a Hungarian-Jewish survivor of Auschwtitz and a death march, a well-read, well-dressed intellectual who seduces him.
Neither has been lucky in love in the past. Tom’s wife ran away, returning pregnant by another man, before running away again to join a Christian commune which is not very Christian to say the least. Tom looks after the child and grows to love him, but his wife and her creepy Pastor are given custody. Hannah has been married twice before. Her first husband and her only son were murdered in Auschwitz, her second, mad, husband is killed in Hungary during the 1956 uprising. She came to Australia to start again, unable to talk about her grief, but determined never to have and therefore never to love a child again for fear of losing them.
But Peter, the child that Tom had grown to love, is determined to leave the prison camp that is the commune and return to the only person who has ever looked after him properly.
Everyone is broken-hearted, including, in a minor way, the young bookshop assistant who has a pash for Tom.
The shop itself struggles, but later becomes successful when it moves into a Lutheran barn at Tom’s, becoming a destination, not least for tourist buses as it is between major vistor sites. And Tom, Hannah and Peter have to work things out.
The Bookshop of the Broken Hearted is essentially a love story. The flashbacks to Hannah’s earlier life are particularly well done and there is nothing maudlin about the book.
But the bookshop itself adds not a lot to the story.
The Bookshop of the Broken Hearted is published in July 2019
Copies can be ordered, post free UK, from bookshop@fiveleaves.co.uk
Ross Bradshaw

It’s Gone Dark Over Bill’s Mother’s by Lisa Blower (Myriad Editions, £8.99)

UNFLINCHING descriptions of sex, violence and addiction are less controversial than in the past, but writers and publishers remain reluctant to tackle important aspects of human experience. Their refusal to talk about class led the writer James Kelman to accuse the literary establishment of treating people without money as if they ‘should be swept under the carpet.’

Lisa Blower lifts that carpet to explore lives deemed superfluous by business, media and government. Her well-rounded and convincing characters have limited choices as they face deprivation, disappointment and a relentless struggle for survival. Blower has been compared to Alan Bennett: the monologue is her preferred form and she shares Bennett’s knack for revelation through detailed observation and telling omission. The similarity ends there. Blower’s purpose is to find a voice for people often dismissed as inarticulate. Her narratives are direct and accessible, but there’s variety of both situation and style. Some are traditional monologues, others more dialogue driven; some are related from the first-person point of view, others use second-person; some are related by people struggling to survive, others by observers who have escaped the circumstances of those less fortunate.

Handled badly, a second-person narrative reads like a ‘choose your own adventure’ game, but Blower’s deft writing creates deeper engagement with the dilemmas of her characters.

There’s a nod to Great Expectations in ‘The Land of Make Believe’. It concerns the struggles of talented, working-class Dee, who tries to fit in at Cambridge University and wants to understand her mother, Ruthie, who works as a prostitute. It’s a touching and powerful tale, freighted with wit and subtle complexities. Blower’s stories are be grittily realistic, but she relishes ambiguity and enjoys injecting humour into the darkest of situations. Her readers are treated with as much respect as her characters.

In another standout story, ‘The Trees in the Wood’, Mia experiences sleep deprivation as a result of grief, while Laura’s sleeplessness is caused by panic and anxiety. It’s a many-layered story. It assesses the power of character-driven fiction in increasing our understanding of science; it highlights the risks modern life poses to sleep and health; and it’s an affecting tale of women’s resilience in the face of tragedy.

In ‘Dirty Laundry’ Alma’s life spirals out of control when she loses her job due to the Icelandic Banking collapse. Gradually, we learn of Alma’s other source of anguish and the story ends with a sense that all may not be lost.

This is a fine collection of twenty tough but tender tales by a writer who celebrates the lives of uncelebrated people with compassion and caustic wit.  It’s a tough but by no means depressing read with moments of hope as well as hardship.

Andy Hedgecock

This review first appeared in the Morning Star

 

Waiting for the Revolution: the British far left from 1956 ed. Evan Smith and Matthew Worley (Manchester, £14.99)

Some time ago I was at a conference  when one of the speakers from the floor commented that he used to be a historian, now he “was history”. This comment came to mind when reading Waiting for the Revolution as so many of the groups mentioned in the book, once the makers of history are now, literally and metaphorically history. You can find the remnants scattered round the Market Square on some Saturdays. The Socialist Party, once 8,000 strong as Militant with three MPs and Liverpool Council under their control. Now with what?, 1000 members, pleading with Labour to be readmitted; the Socialist Workers Party, once perhaps 10,000 strong (if you believed their membership figures) and with a paper selling 30,000, rent asunder as a result of alleged sexual abuse by their former General Secretary; the Revolutionary Communist Group, locally but not nationally the most active of the bunch, usually to be seen flying the flags of Cuba, Palestine and now Venezuela, countries in which they have no influence and no members.
All of these groups are covered here, as well as the old Communist Party of Great Britain (which survives with less than a thousand members in the form of the pre-dissolution hard line split off, the Communist Party of Britain – the size of membership the old CPGB once had in Nottinghamshire alone). The stuff of PhD theses… indeed the word PhD appears in many of the biographies of the contributors to this book, with only two of the seventeen contributors not being linked to a university.
For trainspotters of the left (of which I am one) this is a good read. Unusually for a book on the far left there is a chapter on anarchism, specifically about the Angry Brigade of the late 60s and early 70s, and this is one chapter I would like to see made into a book as there seemed to be much more to say. There’s material on the RCG and the Anti-Apartheid Movement, which brought back the days of that group organising a non-stop picket of the South African Embassy against the wishes of those representing the main South African group in struggle, the African National Congress. There’s material on the role of the Communist Party in the National Union of Mineworkers and the role of the left in support groups for the miners. The chapter on the left and Northern Ireland was another chapter that felt like there was more to say.
The chapter I found most interesting was by Daisy Pailing on the urban left in 1980’s Sheffield  in the earlier life of David Blunkett when he and a number of others tried to use local authority socialism as a bulwark against reaction.based on the strong socialist traditions of the city, generations of Labour families and the local trade union movement. This chapter came to mind at a recent Momentum debate on how to be a socialist councillor and how to use the Nottingham city council in the future as more than a dented shield. Unfortunately the councils have had endless cuts in budgets, a reduction of their powers and heavy loading on services due to an increasingly aged population. It won’t be so easy this time round.
The one chapter that perhaps should have been omitted was Michael Fitzgerald’s hagiography of the Revolutionary Communist Party. Fitzgerald was one of its leaders and one of those who led the organisation to become the reactionary group around Spiked who are to socialism what Melanie Philips is to progressive thought.
But turning to the issue raised over the SWP and their “Comrade Delta” affair, which led to so many activists leaving… their one time American affiliate has just wound itself up because of issues of sexual abuse and a botched cover-up within their leadership. The old Workers Revolutionary Party – which once had substantial support – blew apart because of their leader’s sexual abuse of women members. As did the Scottish Socialist Party over their leader’s alleged sexual behaviour and his alleged demand that members cover it up. Meantime the Socialist Party looks like it will split from its more successful Irish section which has fallen out with the SP’s British leader-for-life.  Several of the other groups have had similar but less publicised sexual scandals and/or splits. It wasn’t Eric Hobsbawm’s idea of “The forward march of labour halted?” that was responsible.
Perhaps it goes back to their notion of democracy, democratic centralism whereby the old Revolutionary Socialist League (ie Militant, then the Socialist Party), quoted in the book, said that “All members of the RSL are required to enter the mass organisations of the working class under the direction of the organisation… for the purpose of of fulfilling the aims of the organisation.” And “All members holding public office, paid or otherwise, shall come under the complete control of the organisation…” Doesn’t sound too great does it? At least the Communist Party trade union members, mentioned in the book, were not generally put in the “impossible position” of always following Party policy in industry to the detriment of the views of those who had elected them to trade union positions.
This book, now in paperback, a companion to a set of essays called Against the Grain, was first published in 2017 and omits reference to the revival of what could be called the far left in the shape of Momentum, Corbynism and, in America, the Democratic Socialists of America. The current Socialist History (number 34) starts to bring the story up to date. Some would argue that there’s nothing far left about any of these groupings and it’s too early to say if they will stay the course, but, Trump and climate breakdown notwithstanding, we might have some more history to be written.
Ross Bradshaw

Fabulosa!: the story of Polari, Britain’s secret gay language by Paul Baker (Reaktion, £15.99, due 1st July)

Older readers might remember the radio comedy Round the Horne which featured the rather camp Kenneth Williams and others, which had a regular nine million listeners. One of the features was the performance of “Julian and Sandy”, specialists in the double-entendre, who included some words that were strange to the average listener. These words were Polari, the series marking the high point of public acknowledgement of the language, but also the period during which Polari went into near terminal decline thanks to changes in public acceptance of gay people. And I do mean gay men as Polari was largely a gay male patois though it was understood but rarely used by many lesbians.
Fabulosa! is probably the last word in writing about Polari, the author here acting as a linguist and a historian. Polari was never a full, inflected language, which drew on Cant, Yiddish, Romany, backstage dialect and navy slang, but was primarily a cultural expression of a then marginalised community and a way of communicating secretly to exclude the outsider. A well-known example of a full sentence is “How bona to vada your dolly old eke” (How lovely to see your face/see you again).
Paul Baker analyses the language’s history and its development in the dark days of the first part of last century, giving a useful outline of gay life before partial legalisation and the Gay Liberation Movement.
Polari was particularly strong in gay bars, among camp men and in the drag scene. It hangs on as an historic memory, appearing now and then in documentaries of the period and is honoured by modern mentions including the Polari literary salon and the deliberately outrageous Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, one of whom is pictured here with Derek Jarman.
The author acknowledges that some Polari is at least dated, arguably racist and misogynist by modern standard but for a lot of gay men it was important and was something of its time.  

An Untouched House by Willem Frederick Hermans (translated by David Colmer) published by Pushkin at £7.99.

My grandfather was an old soldier during the second world war. Too old to have been called up normally, he was called up because he had been in the Territorial Army and had experience of weapons. He became a regimental sergeant-major “in the field”. Somewhere I have a photo of him with a group of other RSMs, friends of his. He was the only one to survive the war.
In charge of a supply column moving up Italy his group found themselves behind enemy lines after Italy surrendered and Germany invaded, sweeping down through Italy leaving his column stranded. Through the offices of some Glasgow Italian soldiers they were able to make contact with local partisans, hand over the supplies to them and fought alongside them for some months. Family legend is that was the one period of the war he would never talk about. What did they do that he could not talk about? Partisan warfare is not exactly nice, you can’t take prisoners.

An Untouched House | Willem Frederik Hermans | 9781782274445
From time to time I’ve read novels or experiences of partisan life and have just read An Untouched House by Willem Frederick Hermans (translated by David Colmer), newly published by Pushkin at £7.99. Hermans was a Dutch writer, read by many in Holland, but whose work was so disliked that he went into voluntary exile. He did not make life easy for himself, as the afterword by Cees Nooteboom, explains. When Hermans died his archives comprise “thirty meters of coagulated anger”.
Partly this was because he published about the war before plucky little Holland had come to terms with aspects of their war that were not the stuff of legend. Later he was a critic of Dutch rule in Indonesia.
This book, first published in 1951, is a novella about a short period in the life of an unnamed Dutch partisan who somehow ended up fighting in an unnamed area of Eastern Europe. After a successful battle against occupying German forces he wanders off and finds the untouched house of the title, a rather beautiful house in an area deserted by its occupants. There’s soup on the stove, evidence of recent flight, but no sign of life.
The partisan explores the house, strips off his filthy battle gear, bathes and sleeps in clean sheets.
Then German soldiers turn up, knocking at the door, planning to requisition the house. He – the partisan – passes himself off as the owner and allows them in, simply grumbling a bit to ensure they look after the place, as any owner would. It sounds a bit like a farce typing this, but shortly afterwards the real owners turn up when the Germans are out on patrol. The partisan has no option but to kill them to avoid being found out. In due course his former partisan comrades arrive, the Germans have been beaten off for good, the German captain had already surrendered to the partisan of the story, now back in uniform and the mystery of the one locked room in the house has been solved.
The partisans proceed to find the wine cellar, get raging drunk and… well, they are not exactly nice to the house, their captive and an elderly deaf and confused man who had turned up to look after his collection of rare fish in that locked room. The fish don’t do well out of this either.
Sorry for the spoiler.
And this book is one of the reasons Hermans was read but not popular in Holland. Every occupied force and every army of occupation likes to think of itself at least in retrospect as the good guys, the most moral. Hermans, in An Untouched House, suggests otherwise.

Ross Bradshaw

An Untouched House is available for £7.99 post free from bookshop@fiveleaves.co.uk

Love’s Work by Gillian Rose (NYRB, £7.99)

 

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This book was re-issued by New York Review of Books in 2011, with an introduction by Michael Wood, and a dedicated poem for the late Gillian Rose by Geoffrey Hill, who is himself now dead. By the time this, the current edition, appeared Gillian Rose was sixteen years deceased, her book first appearing in the year of her death and written in the foreknowledge of her imminent demise.

 Picking the original edition up from the shelves at home, bought in 1995, never read then forgotten, I found it moving to read as if reading in the present tense having also forgotten the detail of her life (and death) so the chapters about her fatal illness came almost as a surprise to me.
 It’s not an easy book to read – I don’t just mean those details, laid out with candour, but Rose was a philosopher and she had a habit of including technical, exclusive language and the odd phrase of mostly untranslated Latin. But it is worth carrying on.
Her book is autobiographical, but not a full autobiography. Chapters include memoirs of her friends and lovers, the very elderly Edna; her priest-lover; her bisexual lover Jim who died in the New York AIDS epidemic; the promiscuous mother-of-five Yvette, who also died of cancer. So many of her friends died. Her family life was broken too, though her teenage self found more familial love with her step-father than her estranged natural father. But it is the chapter on her illness, her realisation she would not survive a year with the details played out, the spread of the cancer, the disagreements between the consultants, the way her colostomy bag deals with body products. Did her death feel more tragic as she was fit and healthy as the cancer was growing inside her, cycling and swimming, feeling alive?
Rose was a Jewish intellectual and at one stage was called upon, with others, to advise the Polish government on what to do with Auschwitz. Save for the branch of her family that came to England some fifty of her relatives had perished in the Holocaust, yet the person who made her weep was a survivor of the Polish nobility resident only in a fraction of his old house who had scraped a living working as a translator under the Communist regime.
The book is searingly honest.
Ross Bradshaw

Contemporary Trotskyism: parties, sects and social movements in Britain by John Kelly (Routledge, £29.99)

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In 1971 I became quite friendly with some people from the International Marxist Group n Glasgow, then a significant Trotskyist group. I did find it a bit strange – people had pretend “cadre” names, though everyone knew who each other was and it is hard to imagine for a second that the state didn’t have the odd implant within the group anyway.
I didn’t get that involved, but I did go to a conference where I found the various factions of the group hated each other more than they hated capitalism. Not for me.
That was my flirtation with Trotskyism. In the intervening years I have worked closely with some Trotskyists on anti-fascist work, seen the arse-end of their sectarianism, seen organisations built by them and organisations destroyed by them, stood appalled at some of their behaviour and made good friends with some individual Trotskyists who I know would have my back if the going got tough. But never thought of joining them.
John Kelly’s Contemporary Trotskyism: parties, sects and social movements in Britain is about as good a guide to that scene as you can get (with the exception of John Sullivan’s essential but dated skit A Soon as this Pub Closes, freely available online).
Kelly reveals there are (or were in 2017) 22 UK-wide Trotskyist parties or groups in Britain, whose membership ranges from a claimed 5,936 members of the Socialist Workers Party to the mighty two of the Revolutionary Communist International Tendency in Britain. At least they do have two as that would be a very large banner for one to carry. Nine of the organisations have fewer than fifteen members, even the Spartacist League whose ten is a fairly small achievement for a group operating here since 1975. Having read the odd paper of the Sparts, the amazing thing is that ten have joined them. My sources in some of the groups indicate that Kelly’s membership figures are fairly accurate, but quite unbelievable about the SWP. During the period around 2012 when about a thousand active members left in the wake of a sexual abuse scandal (involving the SWP’s general secretary, Martin Smith, strangely missing from this book’s index) it became obvious that most of their “members” had never paid dues, never attended branches and many were students, say, who’d signed up at a meeting but were never seen again. One person I came across “joined” several times at a national demonstration, for a laugh. Attendance at any political demonstration nationally or in my home town of  Nottingham will tell you that the SWP is at a very low ebb.
The SWP is famously sectarian, forever setting up front organisations under their control. They were, for example, the only left group that would not join Notts Anti-Fascist Alliance. It was a little too democratic for them. In 1994 Mushroom Bookshop, where I worked, was attacked and wrecked by fifty or so Nazis, many of whom were arrested and about dozen of whom were eventually jailed. Immediately after the attack the local Anti-Nazi League ie the SWP called a press conference about the attack and a demonstration a week later. We were invited to attend their press conference and to speak at their rally about the attack on us! We declined – not least as we were busy putting the shop back together – and working with a much wider grouping to organise the biggest anti-fascist demonstration Nottingham had seen since the 1930s.
More on numbers – the fourth largest Trotskyist group listed is Socialist Appeal with 300 members. This is the group that stayed in the Labour Party when Militant (now the Socialist Party) left, the minority following the former Millie leader Ted Grant in staying. That’s fewer than one person in two parliamentary constituencies. Here in Nottingham the exotically-named Alliance for Workers Liberty has a significant presence, yet nationally only 140 members. These two are the biggest groups in the Labour Party but despite that Tom Watson, yes, that Tom Watson, in his long campaign against his party leader, claimed in 2016 that the Labour Party was at risk of a Trotskyist take over. Indeed, the impact of Corbyn has almost certainly to diminish the number of potential recruits to the main Trotskyist groups, as they are outside the Labour Party. The Socialist Party is a fraction of its size when, as Militant, it had two or three MPs in its ranks, control of Liverpool council and more full time workers than the Labour Party itself. Millie’s much vaunted record of control in Liverpool, by the way, is contested – it is worth finding an old copy of The Racial Policies of Militant in Liverpool published by the Runnymede Trust and the Liverpool Black Caucus during Militant’s high water mark in 1986.
Contemporary Trotskyism starts by explaining what Trotskyism is, bringing back happy memories of debating permanent revolution, the united front, united fronts of a special kind, transitional demands, the revolutionary vanguard party, democratic centralism, rank and fileism and, ultimately, the dictatorship of the proletariat. But primarily this book is about their organisational presence as parties, as internationals (you are nobody unless you have a sister group or two overseas), and within social movements.
And it is in the latter that most people will come across them, often not so much in the vanguard as trying desperately to catch up. This happened in my lifetime with the miners’ strike, the anti-poll tax campaign, CND and the anti-fascist movement. But they were ahead of the game with the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign, Stop the War and others. In the latter the SWP provided the organisational framework for the Stoppers, until two of its leaders, John Rees and Lindsey German, were turfed out, forming Counterfire. The power couple had been blamed for the SWP’s lash up with George Galloway in his Respect Coalition.
John Kelly’s book has many charts such as growth, income and membership of Trotskyist groups but he could have done to have added a chart of longevity of individual leaders. Most of the Trotsskyist groups have the same leaders for life. Tony Cliff (born Yigael Gluckstein in Palestine) founded the SWP (as the Socialist Review Group) in around 1950 and he was still leader fifty years later when he died. Ted Grant (born Isaac Blank in South Africa) formed the group that became Militant in 1937 and was still at the helm in 1992 when he was defenestrated, setting up the Socialist Appeal group which he run until his death in 2006. Gerry Healy was an early colleague of Grant’s before setting up the fiefdom that became the Workers’ Revolutionary Party in 1950 which he led for 35 years before his sexual abuse and bullying led to the implosion of the group, after which he still led a fragment of true believers. Sean Matgamma, like Healy, an Irishman, has led the group that became AWL since 1966 and still leads it, when he is not writing his famously bad poetry. Peter Taaffe was in Militant’s leadership when Ted Grant was expelled and has already racked up twenty years as the leader of the Socialist Party. Alan Thornett…. well, you get the message.
Much of this can be laid at the door of they way these parties seem to operate – outgoing central committees suggest their slate for the incoming committees, and are based round a group of full-timers. Membership commitment (the SWP aside) is high and dues are sometimes 10% of your wage.
Kelly’s book is well-written, given it is a book for trainspotters of a special kind, though strangely its cover features a banner from a tiny Maoist group which must have annoyed some people, not least those members of the Maoist group. Anyone seriously into Trotskyist trainspotting, however, should sign up to receive the bulletins of Splits and Fusions which also has an online archive of current, long-dead and half-forgotten Trotskyist papers and organisations, including the semi-mythical Internal Bulletins. It’s encouraging that the website is self-mocking in its title as, well, that’s what Trotskyist do – split and fuse.
Turning back the International Marxist Group and Nottingham… Our own Ken Coates’ International Group, which became the IMG in 1967 is barely mentioned, nor is (Pat Jordan’s) International Bookshop in Nottingham. Indeed the Trotskyist bookshops are mentioned on one page only and only as a source of funds for the party. Anyone wanting to explore this further should go to http://www.leftontheshelfbooks.co.uk/images/doc/Radical-Bookshops-Listing.pdf which has the best listing of past radical bookshops, communist, Trotskyist and libertarian. But what is worth mentioning is that whereas I rarely come across anyone who used to be in the awful WRP, which at one time had perhaps 6,000 members, in Nottingham at least all the former members of the IMG I know here are still involved in politics, have been and are major and beneficial contributors to trade unions, local and labour history, the women’s movement, refugee support groups and environmental campaigns. Perhaps I should have paid more attention at that conference in 1971.
One final point, given that this website is about left culture, though the Trotskyist movement has produced some excellent writers of non-fiction – Paul Foot and David Widgery stand out – they have produced little left culture of their own. Aside from Rock Against Racism, which was Trotskyist influenced, I’m struggling to think of any long term or even short term arts project coming from that milieu save for a very short-lived coffee-bar and venue run in London by Counterfire modelled, perhaps, on the Partisan coffee house of the late fifties and early sixties. But there is hope, I am told (by a very cultured member) within the Socialist Party. At a recent conference this subject attracted a very large attendance and the SP has spawned an art magazine, Bad Art. I can’t help but think old Ted Grant would think that a bourgeois deviation from the real class struggle.
Ross Bradshaw

At the Existentialist Cafe: freedom, being and apricot cocktails by Sarah Bakewell (Vintage, £9.99)

About forty-five years ago I bought some Sartre and Camus books (from Bissett’s academic bookshop in Aberdeen – long gone of course), then Jean Genet. It was quite cool to carry a Penguin in your pocket.

 Did I know these were existential books? Probably not. I did, after all, read Camus’ Plague without realising it was a metaphor for the German occupation of France. I learned that later, but never got round to finding out what existentialism was. Here was my chance…
Well, existentialism could be summed up by “existence precedes essence”, which even Bakewell says “gains in brevity [but] loses in comprehensibility”. Right. So let’s go back to phenomenology, out of which the e-word came. The brief description of this by Husserl is “to the things themselves”, which it took Husserl 87 volumes to explain. I’m not planning to live long enough to read them. All this lot are long-winded. Sartre, the key person in this book, was asked to write an introduction to a book of essays by Genet. He sent 700 pages, which might have been a tad long, so his publisher turned it into Sartre’s well-known Saint Genet book.
Bakewell’s title, however, is a bit misleading. I expected to be thrown into the world of cafes, of Juliette Gréco , of black polo-neck sweaters (I bought one specially) – we were, but also thrown into the much darker world of Heidegger. In fact the third chapter, twenty-four pages, was all about him and we weaved back and forth to him later, not least his involvement with the National Socialists. Though he had an affair with Hannah Arendt and pre-war friendships with other Jews, he never recanted on his support for the Nazis. His followers only needing an apology before they would accept him back into the fold. And he did have followers, acolytes. One early fan remarked about a lecture that Heidegger had “given us a glimpse into the foundation of the world… manifest in an almost aching brilliance.” But why did he not recant? Perhaps he just being true to himself. These Nazis, eh?
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As an exercise in group biography At the Existentialist Cafe is brilliant. In comes Colin Wilson, in comes James Baldwin, and also from Black America, in comes Richard Wright. And Sonia Orwell has a walk on part. The book is full of humour, for example when Heidegger gives a lecture to some shipping magnates in Bremen there is a huge ovation at the end. Brakewell interjects that perhaps it was simply because he had finished.#
Sartre and the others fell out with each other all the time. At one stage Sartre did a diagram to work out who was speaking to whom, which presumably also included who had been sleeping with whom. He and De Beauvoir were together, unfaithfully on both sides, for fifty-one years, but non-sexually after the first eight or so years. De Beauvoir revelled in her freedom and in sex. Sartre found it all a bit gloopy.
Sartre and De Beavoir also, in a sense, fell out with themselves, changing their own minds among others, particularly post-war when they became neo-Stalinists, somewhat at odds with their ideas of freedom. They fell out with Camus over their support for executions of French collaborators.
So what remains? Sartre is not so much read these days. Many of us have nostalgia for those Paris cafes in the period when we were actually still in short trousers. Visiting them now is not the same but De Beauvoir is still read – at least her 1949 book  Le Deuxième Sexe (The Second Sex) is, not least by young people. Why? At our bookshop book group a young woman said it was because things have not changed, or not changed enough. People agreed. Though it was Sartre who encouraged, indeed pushed her to continue, it is perhaps De Beauvoir’s work that will be the lasting impact of that exciting philosophical movement created in a France still bleeding from the second world war and which was convulsed by the resistance to Colonialism in Algeria and France.
Ross Bradshaw
At the Existentialist Cafe is available, post free, from Five Leaves Bookshop 0115 8373097

Ursula Le Guin, a tribute by Andy Hedgecock

THE DEATH of Ursula K Le Guin on January 22 prompted elegiac tributes from critics, fellow authors and an assortment of activists — feminists, anarchists, socialists and environmental campaigners.

The diversity of Le Guin’s appeal is extraordinary, but so too is the paradox at the heart of her reputation.

She was a writer celebrated for highlighting the iniquities, horrors and dangers of the way we live now and for exploring alternative forms of social and political organisation.

When the US National Book Foundation honoured her contribution to literature in 2014, her award acceptance speech celebrated the positive potential of creative writing. “Hard times are coming when we’ll be wanting the voices of writers who can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being,” she said.

But Le Guin had firm views about the separateness of the creative process. In an interview a decade earlier, she declared: “[People] can read Kant and Schopenhauer if they want speculation. I am an artist, I write stories not treatises. I am not fully in control of, and do not seek control of, my stories.”

The loosely connected books of Le Guin’s Hainish Cycle have done most to establish her reputation as a writer of thoughtful and provocative science fiction and fantasy. The Left Hand of Darkness, 1969, one of the earliest novels to be recognised as feminist science fiction, centres on a diplomatic mission to bring the Gethen planet system to join a coalition of humanoid worlds.

The envoy Genly Ai struggles to understand Gethenian culture, not least because its people are ambisexual. Some feminist commentators disliked the casting of ambisexual characters in traditional male roles and others were disappointed by the assumption of heterosexual norms.

But the book offers a sharp critique of masculinity and explores the theory that gender divisions cause sexual aggression and foster a hunger for war. Le Guin’s assertion that she “eliminated gender to find out what was left” is at odds with the idea that she relinquished control of her narratives because it implies she worked in a self-consciously political way.

Another Hainish book, The Dispossessed of 1974, offers a searing critique of capitalism and proposes a form of anarchist-communism as a potential alternative.

The story is set on two worlds, Urras and Anarres. Urras is rich in resources but its wealth is concentrated into the hands of the few. It is dominated by competing states, one based on patriarchal capitalism, the other on authoritarian parties that claim to rule in the name of the proletariat.

Anarres, on the other hand, is a harsher and economically poorer world with a social structure based on Russian anarchist Pyotr Kropotkin’s book Mutual Aid.

Le Guin, who expressed her enthusiasm for Kropotkin in her non-fiction writing, was too subtle a writer to present a one-sided argument in The Dispossessed. The governmental systems of Urras are not portrayed as one-dimensionally malevolent while the limitations of life on Anarres are presented warts and all.

The key character, Shevek, is a physicist whose career is limited because his beliefs are out of step with his society’s prevailing orthodoxies. His work is further affected by an obligation to perform manual labour when Anarres faces a natural disaster.

None of the political options Le Guin sets out is perfect, hence the book’s subtitle An Ambiguous Utopia, but it is clear that she sees egalitarian and stateless societies, based on mutual aid and collective responsibility, as preferable to capitalist systems based on systems of command and control.

Le Guin’s writing is crammed with speculation about utopianism, sex, sexual politics, anthropology, religion and the misuse of power. Interesting obsessions for a writer who suggested readers should not look to her writing for speculation.

The Word for World is Forest (1976) is an allegorical take on the US involvement in Vietnam and its critique of colonialism, militarism and environmental destruction is more relevant than ever in the context of Donald Trump’s presidency.

In The Telling (2000), Le Guin rejected a purely materialist analysis of human relations in favour of striking a balance between traditional spiritual wisdom and the benefits of technological development.

The Earthsea cycle, a classic of children’s literature, has much to say on the responsible use of power and, as far as I can remember, 1972’s The Wizard of Earthsea was the first book I read with a non-white lead character.

In her later years, perhaps inspired by creeping fascism in US politics and her fears for the environment, Le Guin reaffirmed the social responsibility of artists. “We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings,” she declared.

“Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art and, very often in our art, the art of words.

Andy Hedgecock

This article first appeared in the Morning Star