There’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.
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.
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.
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!