Posts Tagged ‘Oscar Wilde’

Black British Politico John Archer’s Address to African Progress Union

May 31, 2019

I think for most of us outside the Black anti-racist movements, this country’s Black history and its tradition of Black activism against racism, imperialism and exploitation is largely unknown. It’s overshadowed to a large extent by the inspirational American civil rights movements of the 1960s, and its heroes and heroines. Towering figures like Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and Rosa Parks. A few Black British anti-slavery activists from the 18th and 19th century, like Olaudah Equiano and Mary Prince, are known to a certain extent, as well as the Crimean War nurse and heroine Mary Seacole. But that’s it. And I think for most mainstream Brits, Blacks and other non-Whites only entered politics and got elected to public office in the 1980s with Diane Abbott, Bernie Grant, Paul Boateng and others.

But Black and Asian activism goes right back to the 19th century, and Britain has had elected BAME politicians since the early 20th century. The BBC 2 series, Victorian Sensations, mentioned two in the second episode of the series broadcast Wednesday night, 29th May 2019. Victorian Sensations is about the massive scientific, social and political changes that shook Victorian society in the 1890s. Last week’s was on scientific advances in electricity and Roentgen’s discovery of X-rays, which revolutionised medicine. The pioneers of X-ray examination, however, paid a terrible price for their research in skin cancer caused by their machines. One British pioneer ended up losing the fingers on one hand, and another arm was amputated completely.

This week’s edition was on ‘Degeneration’, and the late Victorians’ fears of racial, social and imperial decline. This covered the ideas of racial decline in H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, Francis Galton and the birth of the eugenics movement, aimed at preserving and improving British biological stock; the controversy over the New Woman, liberated Victorian ladies, who dared to move out of the traditional female domestic role and pursue masculine hobbies like cycling; Hans Nordau’s book, Degeneration, Lombroso’s Criminal Man, and the fears about mental illness, which resulted in entirely blameless people banged up in lunatic asylums for the most trivial reasons, like a pathetic young man, who was incarcerated for masturbation. It also covered Oscar Wilde, the Aesthetic Movement and the Decadents, including Arthur Symonds, Havelock Ellis and the first sympathetic scientific research in homosexuality. But one of the most interesting pieces in the programme was right at the end, when presenter Paul McGann spoke to a modern Black activists about two Black British activists, who came to Britain from the West Indies, and founded pioneering Black anti-racist movements. One of them was Celeste Matthews, who became a Methodist minister, and founded a Black rights magazine attacking imperialism, Lux.

Another pioneering Black rights activist, who gained public office later in the second decade of 20th century was John Archer. He was elected Mayor of Battersea in 1913, becoming the first person of African descent to hold public office in London. In 1918 he became the first president of the African Progress Union, a post he would hold for three years. This was formed to promote ‘the general welfare of Africans and Afro peoples’ and spread knowledge of Black history. There’s an extract from the speech he gave at the Union’s first meeting in Colin Firth’s and Anthony Arnove’s great anthology of British radical writing and activism throughout history, The People Speak: Democracy Is Not A Spectator Sport (Edinburgh: Canongate 2013). This runs

The people in this country are sadly ignorant with reference to the darker races, and our object is to show to them that we have given up the idea of becoming hewers of wood and drawers of water, that we claim our rightful place within this Empire … That if we are good enough to be brought to fight the wars of the country we are good enough receive the benefits of the country … One of the objects of this association is to demand – not ask, demand; it will be ‘demand’ all the time that I am your president. I am not asking for anything, I am demanding. (p. 189).

Unfortunately we really don’t know about the great history of Black activism in this country. Victorian Sensations gave a small glimpse of this on Wednesday, and I’d like to know more. Not only is this worthwhile in itself, as a piece of British history that’s been unfairly neglected, but we also need it to combat that growing racism that’s spreading across Europe and which has resulted in Farage’s Brexit party getting 36.7 per cent of the vote in the Euro elections last week.

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No, Lord Sugar: It Is Capitalism Stifling Industry and Creativity

December 16, 2018

Ho ho! Some pre-festive fun yesterday, when Mike put up a piece describing how Alan Sugar, the former head of Amstrad and the host of the British version of The Apprentice, threw a strop when left-wingers on the net were rude to him about his promise to emigrate if Jeremy Corbyn became PM. Instead of being horrified at the potential loss to our great nation, Red Labour instead posted a tweet in reply applauding it and saying it was a good reason to vote Labour. They said

Another good reason to #VoteLabour: @Lord_Sugar confirming he’ll leave the country if @jeremycorbyn becomes PM. All without any argument, of course: just personalised nonsense. What a relief that people like Sugar aren’t given gongs or made ‘Enterprise Tsars’ by @UKLabour anymore.

Unable to countenance the idea that the he wasn’t the idol of millions, whose every word was listened to by the masses in rapt attention, Sugar got angry and started insulting them. He tweeted back

Sour grapes you bunch of jealous anti enterprise anarchist losers. You have not achieved anything in life but like to criticize those who have. I paid a personal tax bill last year of over £50m enough to build a hospital. You find the taxes in future I’m off #corbynout

This ill-tempered comment provoked a wave of criticism from others in its turn. It also revealed Sugar to be a snob as defined by Thackeray: ‘a person who meanly admires mean things.’ He also fits another character type identified by Oscar Wilde – someone who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. As for his boasting about how much he makes from the size of his tax bill, once upon a time this would have been considered a very poor comment by the long-established rich. Bragging about your wealth marked you out as being nouveau, a parvenu. Which Sugar is. He’s a self-made millionaire, who clearly believes his millions and his celebrity status excuse his poor manners.

The peeps on Twitter therefore lined up and told the brusque TV host that it was the ordinary people of this country – cleaners, bus drivers, firemen and women, carers, factory workers, teachers, nurses and so on, that actually kept this country running, rather than obscenely rich oligarchs like Sugar himself. They also pointed out that they too paid tax, and were determined to stay in this country, and they had also achieved things that could not be assessed in simple monetary turns. Like family and friends. As for the size of his tax bill, one person told Sugar to look at the size of his employees’ tax bills as opposed to the income of his lowest paid employees. They also wished him off on his planned departure from Britain, with comments like ‘Off you pop, send us a postcard, and so forth.

Several of the people tweeting denied being anarchists, with Darkest Angel also adding that he didn’t know what anarchism is. He clearly doesn’t. He obviously thinks that anarchists are just rabble-rousing hooligans, who go around attacking the rich without appreciating that there are genuine reasons for their anger and their criticisms of capitalism.

One of the tweeters, Jon Goulding, made it very clear that it was due to ordinary people that Sugar had made his money. He said

Don’t you dare claim that teachers and nurses and road builders and factory workers and farm labourers haven’t achieved anything in life just because they haven’t made skip loads of money. You wouldn’t have made jack shit if it weren’t for them, you selfish, shallow charlatan.

See https://voxpoliticalonline.com/2018/12/15/lord-sugar-got-precious-about-his-pledge-to-immigrate-if-corbyn-becomes-pm-and-got-what-he-deserved/

The great anarchist intellectual, Peter Kropotkin, made the same point in his article, Anarchist Communism, first published in The Nineteenth Century, and republished in Anarchist and Anarchist Communism: Its Basis and Principles, ed. by Nicolas Walter (London: Freedom Press 1987). Kropotkin argued that all property should be held in common, as every innovation built upon the work of millions of others, and depended on society for its effectiveness and value.

Our cities, connected by roads and brought into easy communication with all peopled parts of the globe, are the growth of centuries; and each house in these cities, each factory, each shop, derives its value, its very raison d’etre, from the fact that it is situated on a spot of the globe where thousands or millions have gather together. Every smallest part of the immense whole which we call the wealth of civilized nations derives its value precisely from being a part of this whole. What would be the value of an immense London shop or warehouse were it not situated precisely in London, which has become the gathering spot for five millions of human beings? And what the value of our coal-pits, our manufactures, our shipbuilding yards, were it not for the immense traffic which goes on across the seas, for the railways which transport mountains of merchandise, for the cities which number their inhabitants by millions? Who is, then,m the individual who has the right to step forward and, laying his hand on the smallest part of this immense whole, to say, ‘I have produced this; it belongs to me’? And how can we discriminate, in this immense interwoven whole, the part which the isolated individual may appropriate to himself with the slightest approach to justice? Houses and streets, canals and railways, machines and works of art, all these have been created by the combined efforts of generations past and present, of men living on these islands and men living thousands of miles away. (p. 37).

Moreover, Kropotkin also describes how capitalism actively prevents people from producing, in order to keep the prices of their products high. And this system creates monstrous inequalities in which the masses live in poverty, while the labour that could have been used alleviating poverty is spent on creating luxuries for the rich. He writes

But the figures just mentioned, while showing the real increase of production, give only a faint idea of what our production might be under a more reasonable economical organization. We know well that the owners of capital, while trying to produce more wares with fewer ‘hands’, are continually endeavouring at the same time to limit the production, in order to sell at higher prices. When the profits of a concern are going down, the owner of the capital limits the production, or totally suspends it, and prefers to engage his capital in foreign loans or Patagonian gold-mines. Just now there are plenty of pitmen in England who ask for nothing better than to be permitted to extract coal and supply with cheap fuel the households where children are shivering before empty chimneys. There are thousands of weavers who ask for nothing better than to weave stuffs in order to replace the ragged dress of the poor with decent clothing. And so in all branches of industry. How can we talk about a want of means of subsistence when thousands of factories lie idle in Great Britain alone; and when there are, just now, thousands and thousands of unemployed in London alone; thousands of men who would consider themselves happy7 if they were permitted to transform (under the guidance of experienced agriculturists) the clay of Middlesex into a rich soil, and to cover with cornfields and orchards the acres of meadow-land which now yields only a few pounds’ worth of hay? But they are prevented from doing so by the owners of the land, of the weaving factory, and of the coal-mine, because capital finds it more advantageous to supply the Khedive with harems and the Russian Government with ‘strategic railways’ and Krupp guns. Of course the maintenance of harems pays: it gives 10 or 15 per cent on the capital, while the extraction of coal does not pay-that is, it brings 3 or 5 per cent – and that is a sufficient reason for limiting the production and permitting would-be economists to indulge in reproaches to the working classes as to their too rapid multiplication!

Here we have instances of a direct and conscious limitation of production, due to the circumstance that the requisites for production belong to the few, and that these few have the right of disposing of them at their will, without caring about the interests of the community. But there is also the indirect and unconscious limiting of production – that which results from squandering the produce of human labour in luxury, instead of applying it to a further increase of production.

This last cannot even be estimated in figures, but a walk through the rich shops of any city and a glance at the manner in which money is squandered now, can give an approximate idea of this indirect limitation. When a rich man spends a thousand pounds for his stables, he squanders five to six thousand days of human labour, which might be used, under a better social organization, for supplying with comfortable homes those who are compelled to live now in dens. And when a lady spends a hundred pounds for her dress, we cannot but say that she squanders, at least, two years of human labour, which, again under a better organization, might have supplied a hundred women with decent dresses, and much more if applied to a further improvement of the instruments of production. Preachers thunder against luxury, because it is shameful to squander money for feeding and sheltering hounds and horses, when thousands live in the East End on sixpence a day, and other thousands have not even their miserable sixpence every day. But the economist sees more than that in our modern luxury: when millions of days of labour are spent every year for the satisfaction of the stupid vanity of the rich, he says that so many millions of workers have been diverted from the manufacture of those useful instruments which would permit us to decuple and centuple our present production of means of subsistence and of requisites for comfort. (pp. 34-5).

As for The Apprentice, Cassetteboy put up a couple of videos spoofing the show on YouTube a few years ago. They’re a couple of blokes, who edit footage of celebrities and politicians to make them appear ridiculous. And the results can be very, very funny indeed. Here’s what they did to Sugar and his team. Enjoy!

Desperate May Steals Labour Policies

April 29, 2017

Okay, I was weak. I admit it. Against my better judgement, and what I told you all on this blog last week, I watched Have I Got News For You. The programme’s still biased against Labour, but there are, here and there, a few sharp pokes at the Tories.

One of the sharpest last night came from Ian Hislop, who attacked the Tories’ hypocrisy in stealing a policy that they’d previously denounced from Not Very ‘Red’ Ed Miliband. At the last general election, Miliband had said that Labour would put a cap on energy prices. Of course, faced with a threat to corporate profit at the expense of the poor, the Tories went bug-eyed with fury. This was an horrendous interference with the operation of the free market. To neoliberals, the market is molten idol, which must remain sacrosanct at all times. The same rhetoric was used in the 19th century to justify the global price of grain going up, leading to massive famine in India. It was part of the operation of market forces, which all responsible politicians and economists should respect. Even when it meant the death of millions from starvation. See the description of this sordid episode in the book Late Victorian Holocausts.

Of course, the Tories have no concern for the poor. In fact, they actively hate and despise them. But they are afraid of losing the election. So May, it seems, stole Miliband’s policies. And Hislop justifiably pointed out the Toris’ double-standards in this. Under Miliband, it was a horrendous attack on the free market. Under May, well, it’s still a horrendous attack on the free market.

So much for May’s ‘strong and stable’ government. It is, as Mike has pointed out, weak and wobbly. So wobbly that she’s trying to steal policies from Labour, and hoping that nobody will notice.

Well they have.

Not that anybody should be taken in by this. The Tories are a party of inveterate liars. May’s predecessor, David Cameron, broke so many of his election promises that the Tories went through their on-line records censoring them in an effort to rewrite history. As for May, she was going to put workers in the boardroom. Until she was elected, that is, when it became a bad idea.

Which all bears out what Oscar Wilde – or someone- said about May’s party: The Conservatives are an organised hypocrisy.

Guy Standing on IDS’ Personal Welfare Dependency

April 29, 2014

140428IDSshrug

I found this description of Iain Duncan Smith’s hypocrisy in orchestrating a reduction in state support for the poor, while doing all he personally can to gain as much of it himself in Guy Standing’s A Precariat Charter: From Denizens to Citizens (London: Bloomsbury 2014):

Iain Duncan Smith, UK Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, has led a robust campaign against benefits for the poor and precariat, saying he is determined to reduce state dependency and end the ‘something for nothing’ culture. Meanwhile, his own state dependency dwarfs that of any of his targets. A trust run by members of his family has received over £1 million in EU agricultural subsidies in the past decade, in addition to the various tax breaks farmers receives, courtesy of an estate of 1,500 acres inherited by his wife. The EU’s Common Agricultural Policy is regressive, since the primary beneficiaries are large landowners. While the UK government was capping benefits for the poor, claiming that nobody should receive more in benefits than the average wage, it vetoed a European Commission plan to cap the amount of money going in farm subsidies to the wealthy. (p. 312).

Which bears out what a friend of mine said about the Tories: ‘The Conservatives are an organised hypocrisy’. I think he was quoting Oscar Wilde, who was certainly right there.

So now you know: IDS is a benefit scrounger. Let’s have him sanctioned.

Blackadder, Patriotism and the First World War: Michael Gove Repeats ‘The Old Lie’

January 6, 2014

Anzacs World War1

Anzacs at Passchendaele, 1917, the battle described by A.J.P. Taylor as ‘the blindest slaughter of a blind war’.

I’ve reblogged two of Mike’s articles on Vox Populi on Michael Gove’s latest attack on history and the received view of the First World War. In an interview in the Daily Mail, Gove criticised shows like Blackadder and the film, Oh, What A Lovely War!, for presenting the wrong view of the First World War and denigrating the courage, honour and patriotism of the men who fought there. It is, he said, the fault of left-wing academics, and seems particularly incensed at the cynicism and rejection of patriotism in the above TV series and film.

Now, Gove does have something of a point here. Recent scholarship within the last 30 years has criticised the old view that there was a profound gulf between the officers and the working-class men they led, and pointed out that there was more mutual comradeship, acceptance and respect between the two groups than previously considered. I was also told by a very left-wing friend, who has absolutely no time for the Tory party, that the amount of cynicism and bitterness generated by the War has been overstated. Of the men returning from the War, 1/3 bitterly hated it, 1/3 thought it was a good adventure, and 1/3 had no strong feelings about it one way or the other.

The same friend also told me that on the Western Front, the death rate was actually lower than in contemporary Edwardian factories. His comment on this was simply: ‘It’s sh*t.’ This does not exonerate the mass carnage of the First World War so much as show you how immensely cheaply life was held by the Edwardian factory masters. As for courage, George Orwell freely admitted in one of his essays that this was amply demonstrated by the numbers of the titled aristocracy, including dukes, knights and baronets, whose lives were ended in that savage conflict. He called the militaristic anti-intellectual upper classes ‘blimps’, and had nothing but scorn for their conduct of the War, but he did not doubt their courage.

The same friend, who knows far more about the First and Second World Wars than me, also told me that he felt that much of the cynicism about the First World War was a projection of the feelings of bitterness and alienation felt by many people after the Second, when the horrors of War and the Nazi regime seemed, to many, to discredit completely European culture. I dare say there is something in this, but, while the extent of such alienation after the First World War may have been exaggerated, the point remains that it was there.

Already in the 1920s there were complaints from British officers about left-wing propaganda about the War being spread by ‘acidulated radicals’. The film, Oh, What A Lovely War! is written from a left-wing perspective. It was based on the stage play, Journey’s End, which in its turn was based, I believe, on the experiences of First World War soldiers. The Fascist movements that sprang up all over Europe after the War, including Oswald Moseley’s BUF in Britain, were formed by ex-servicemen unable to adapt to civilian life, and who believed they had been betrayed by a corrupt political system. Martin Pugh in his book on Fascism in Britain 1918-1986, repeats that Moseley himself represented and kept true to the servicemen, who had fought and suffered in the War, and now had little to look forward to on their return to Blighty. I’m not so sure. Much of the conventional view about Mosely put out by Skidelsky’s biography has since been demolished. Rather than being a misguided, but at heart decent man, Moseley himself now appears very firmly as a cynical political manipulator all too eager and ready to jettison Mussolini’s ultra-nationalist, but originally non-racist Fascism, for the Nazis and Hitler. Nevertheless, the point remains: the First World created widespread bitterness, of which European Fascism was one expression.

As for Blackadder, this can be compared to the grim reality and the gallows humour with which British squaddies and their officers faced it in the pages of the Wipers Times. This was the servicemen’s newspapers, which took its name from the British mispronunciation of ‘Ypres’, where it was published. Private Eye’s editor, Ian Hislop, last year published a book and appeared on a BBC documentary about it. The Beeb also broadcast a drama about it. Hislop stated that it was full of very, very black humour, and was very much like Blackadder. You could hear the same sentiments expressed in the trooper’s songs of the period. Everyone remembers ‘It’s a Long Way to Tipperary’, but there were others with much less patriotic view of the War. A year or so ago I came across an old songbook, Songs that Won the War. Published about the time of the Second, it collected the songs sung by the troops during the First. Amongst the various patriotic ditties was ‘We Are Fred Karno’s Army’. Fred Karno, remember, was the Music Hall impresario, who launched the career of silent move stars like Charlie Chaplin and the Keystone Kops. The final verse imagines how the British army will be greeted by the Kaiser when they finally reach Berlin. It has the Kaiser looking at them in horror and saying, ‘Vot, Vot! Mein Gott! Vot a shabby lot!’ Somehow, I don’t think that one has been played much at Tory party conferences.

Civilian music hall stars also shared in the deep disillusionment felt by the troops. In a programme on the Music Hall broadcast several years ago on Radio 4, the programme’s presenter, a historian of the Music Hall, noted that after the War variety stars became much more sombre in appearance. Before the War there were stars like ‘The One-Eyed Kaffir’, a White man, who blacked up for his act except for one eye, which was kept as a white patch. After the War, such grotesque make-up vanished. The presenter felt that this was part of a general, more sombre mood throughout British culture engendered by the War. This mood was felt most bitterly by some of the Music Hall stars, who had sung patriotic, jingoistic songs to encourage young men to do their bit and join up. One such singer became very bitter indeed, and stated that he felt personally responsible for the men, who had been maimed and murdered as a result of listening to him.

The bitterness about the War has been expressed most famously, and most movingly, by the great war poets, such as Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen and others less well-known. One of the books in my old school’s sixth form library was Up the Line to Death, an anthology of poetry from the First World War. As well as poetry, Sassoon wrote a letter, ‘The Declaration against War’, in 1917, during his convalescence after being wounded in France. Rather than risk the scandal of a court martial, Owen was declared to be shell-shocked and hospitalised. His declaration is one of the piece anthologised in Colin Firth’s and Anthony Arnove’s The People Speak: Democracy Is Not a Spectator Sport. Here it is:

‘I am making this statement as an act of wilful defiance of military authority, because I believe that the War is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it. I am a soldier, convinced that I am acting on behalf of soldiers. I believe that this War, on which I entered as a war of defence and liberation, has now become a war of aggression and conquest. I believe that the purpose for which I and my fellow soldiers entered upon this War should have been so clearly stated as to have made it impossible to change them, and that, had this been done, the objects which actuated us would now be attainable by negotiation.

I have seen and endured the sufferings of the troops, and I can no longer be a party to prolong these sufferings for ends which I believe to be evil and unjust. I am not protesting against the conduct of the War, but against the political errors and insincerities for which the fighting men are being sacrificed.

On behalf of those who are suffering now I make this protest against the deception which is being practised on them; also I believe that I may help to destroy the callous complacency with which the majority of those at home regard the contrivance of agonies which they do not share and which they have not sufficient imagination to realise’.

The last line sounds very much like a condemnation of the invasion of Iraq and the Neo-Con ‘chickenhawks’ – men who had themselves never seen active service and who indeed had shirked it – that demanded it. And I’ve no doubt whatsoever that it’s applicability to this situation was one of the reasons Arnove and Firth selected it.

As for Owen, I can remember we did Owen’s poem, ‘Gassed’, in English. This describes the horrific state of squaddies left dying and blinded by mustard gas in conflict. It ends with words attacking and repudiating ‘the old lie, ‘Dulce et decorum est, pro patria mori”, a Latin motto meaning ‘It is sweet and right to die for one’s country.

So there it is, Gove, a rejection of patriotism because of the carnage and suffering it caused, by two extremely courageous men, who fought and were injured in the War. I believe Owen was himself killed just before Armistice. Oh, you can argue that Blackadder is based on the prejudiced view of left-wing academics, but they based their views on fact – on what those who actually fought in it actually felt about it.

Yes, historians modify their views about the past all the time, as new research is done, and new arguments brought forth, new topics emerge and techniques used. And that means that some of the bitterness about the War has been revised. Yet there is no doubt that the War did result in mass bitterness amongst former combatants and the civilian population, and feelings of betrayal by the old society and elites that had sent so many to their deaths. Blackadder is fiction, and throughout its four series and numerous specials often took wild liberties with the facts. Yet Blackadder goes forth and its cynicism was based on fact, and I found, as someone who simply watched it, that the final moments of the last episode, in which Blackadder, Baldrick and their friends go over the Top to their deaths, actually a genuinely moving and respectful tribute to those who did die in the muck and trenches.

Way back in the 1980s the Observer wryly remarked that the Tories were now ‘the patriotic party’. This followed Thatcher’s vociferous trumpeting of patriotism as the great British value. ‘Don’t call them boojwah, call them British!’ screamed one headline from the Telegraph supporting her very class-based, politicised view of Britishness and patriotism.

Well, a wiser man, possibly, the great Irish wit, dear old butch Oscar (pace his description in Blackadder) once described patriotism as ‘the last refuge of the scoundrel’.
In this case, it is. And so is Gove.