Posts Tagged ‘Peasants’

History Debunked on the White Slaves of Early Modern Scotland

June 21, 2021

This is another video from History Debunked’s Simon Webb. I’ve put up a number of his videos because they seem to contradict and refute some of the falsehoods deliberately being told about slavery and the maltreatment of Blacks in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests. I’ve made it very clear that I despise Black Lives Matter, but I fully recognise the reasons behind their anger. As a community, Blacks do suffer from poor educational achievement, poverty, a lack of career opportunities, drug abuse and the violent criminality that goes with it. I know from talking to Black and Asian friends and relatives that there is real racial discrimination out there, including the threat of genuine Nazi violence. What I object to is some of the glib assertions and false history that has been added to genuine fact and the one-sided presentation of these problems. It’s simply an historical fact that slavery has existed in very many societies right across the world. It existed in Africa, and the Black slaves we acquired during the days of the transatlantic slave trade were purchased from powerful African slaving states like Dahomey, Whydah and a number of others. Black Africans were also enslaved by Muslim Arabs, Turks, as well as Indians and were exported from east Africa as far as modern Sumatra and Java. One historian of slavery has remarked that it has been so prevalent across the world, that what is remarkable is not that White Europeans practised it, but that White Europeans and Americans abolished it. But slavery is increasingly being presented as something that only White Europeans and their colonies did to Blacks.

In this video Webb talks about a form of slavery practised in Britain from the late 17th century to the end of the 18th century, which I doubt few people know about. It was the enslavement of White Scots people to work in their country’s mines and salt pans. The law, Anent Colliers and Salters, was passed in 1660 and was designed to stop shortages of labour in the coal mining and salt-making industries. The salt was produced through boiling seawater in vast pans. These were large parts of the Scots economy at the time, and the law was intended to stop workers in those industries going off and seeking gainful employment elsewhere. The law bound the miners and salters to their masters, who were given the power to beat them, whipping those who refused to work, as well as the right to sell them to other owners. They could not look for other jobs or even leave the area. In 1661 the law was extended so that the masters could forcibly conscript into their employment tramps and vagabonds. And there were harsh punishments for runaway miners. When one owner put up a mine for sale, as occasionally happened, the men were listed alongside equipment and livestock like the pit ponies. In 1701 Scotland passed what was dubbed ‘the Scots Habeas Corpus Act’, which prevented Scots from being imprisoned without cause. But it specifically excluded the workers in the above industries. In 1775 legislation was passed emancipating colliers and salters, but it applied only to new workers. It contained a ‘grandfather clause’, specifically excluding previous workers. It was only in 1799 that a law was passed freeing all miners and salt workers north of the border. He explicitly states at the end that the moral of all this was that slavery was not something that was done solely to Blacks. It was also done to Whites and continued until a few decades before the emancipation of all slaves.

As with all of his videos, I think you have to be aware of his personal bias. He seems to be a Telegraph-reading Tory, and some of what he says is incorrect. He has said that Britain never advertised for Caribbean workers, but this has been contradicted by several of the great commenters here, who remember just such appeals. In my understanding, he is wrong in what he says about the Mansfield judgement banning slavery in Britain. The judgement was issued by Lord Mansfield on a case brought before him by the Abolitionists on behalf of a slave, James Somerset. Somerset had been sold to another master, who wanted to take him abroad, which Somerset didn’t want to do. It’s like the later Dredd Scott in America. Webb claims that the judgement did not rule against slavery, only that slaves couldn’t be taken out of the country, because Mansfield had no power to pass judgement outlawing existing forms of British slavery such as that of the miners and salters.

This is wrong. In every book I read it is stated that Lord Mansfield ruled that slavery did not exist under English law. This is correct. Slavery had died out in England by the end of the 12th century as the Normans banned it. The former slaves instead became villeins, serfs. The mass of English peasants were unfree. By law they could not leave the manors on which they were settled, their property was technically that of their lords, and they had to pay a fine compensating the lord for his loss when their daughters married. In addition to working on their own plots of land, they were also required to do labour service on their lords’ demesnes. Their property reverted to their masters on their deaths, so that their widows and children had to appeal to the lord to get it back. Meanwhile, the parish priest had the rest to take the deceased peasant’s best beast, meaning his best cow, ox or bull. It’s not as severe as chattel slavery, and serfs have certain rights, which slaves don’t. But sometimes, especially in the Russia as the tsars, the distinction between serfdom and chattel slaves is a fine one. Serfdom was abolished in France during the French Revolution. Other states, like Denmark and the German states, abolished it in the decades following and during the 19th century, as did Russia under tsar Alexander II.

In school we’re taught, or given the impression, that serfdom died out because of an acute labour shortage following the death of between a third and half of the European population during the Black Death in the 14th century. In fact what happened is that the Black Death commenced a long period in which serfdom began withering away as landlords began to compete amongst each other to persuade peasants to settle on their estates and commute labour services into money rents. But the process was a long one. The last serf died in 1645, I believe. In one of her programmes in which she visits various historic towns, Dr Alice Roberts, a former female star of Time Team, medical doctor, anthropologist and Professor for the Public Engagement with Science at Birmingham university visited one of the great cities of Norfolk. She learned there about a battle in the 16th century when the local peasants revolted against attempts to turn them back into bondsmen – serfs.

Furthermore, even if slavery was formally abolished in England and serfdom had withered away, it was still customary to purchase certain types of human being. Time Team’s Tony Robinson, also known as Blackadder’s Baldrick, described the appalling conditions suffered by 18th and 19th century mill workers in his series, The Worst Jobs in History. He trembled with raw, justified outrage when he told how millowners would to workhouses and orphanages to buy the children left there to use as their workers. Wives were also seen as the property of their husbands, and the traditional form of divorce amongst British peasant and working class communities was to take them to market to sell. It happened up and down the country, including Bristol, where you could get a reproduction of an advertisement for such a sale down at the Central Library. The transportation of certain criminals also acted as a form of slavery. The Monmouth rebels in the West Country, who supported the illegitimate Duke of Monmouth against James II, if they escaped hanging by Judge Jefferies were transported to Barbados, where they were sold to the planters for sacks of sugar. Irish rebels were also treated the same way. A friend of mine at the Empire and Commonwealth Museum, who was a staunch anti-slavery activist with a mixed-race African wife, told me how you could still see the former cabins occupied by the White Irish amongst those of the Black plantation labourers in Barbados and the Caribbean. The Irish cabins were patriotically decorated with shamrocks.

I think the Mansfield judgement only applied to English law. Scots law is different, because until the Act of Union in the early 18th century England and Scotland were different countries with separate parliaments and different legal systems. Since the 12th century, English law includes custom and precedent. A judgement passed on one case acts as the model for others in similar cases. Scots law is based on Roman law. As I understand, a judgement passed in one case is not automatically binding for similar cases. It can be used as the basis for a similar decision, but the judge is also free to disregard it and make his own judgement. Lord Mansfield’s judgement probably only affected English, and not Scots law. Nevertheless, it was highly influential in that during the 1820s and ’30s before the abolition of slavery in the British Empire, Black slaves in the Caribbean used it as the basis for their own efforts to gain their freedom. There were a series of slaves, like Grace James of Antigua, who had been brought to Britain, or English overseas territories like Gibraltar, by their masters. On their return home, they presented themselves to the Guardian and Protector of Slaves, the official charged with protecting the slaves from brutality and maltreatment, as free people of colour illegally held in slavery. Their owners naturally objected, claiming they were being robbed of their property. The colonial authorities appealed to the home government for guidance, and the diplomatic correspondence, as printed in the government’s blue books, included copies of the Mansfield judgement.

I also believe that the conditions for miners in the north of England was similar to those in Scotland. I think it may have been on Bargain Hunt, one of the Beeb’s early evening antique shows, or perhaps Great Railway Journeys with Michael Portillo, that they were in County Durham. The presenter was shown around the miner’s hall, the grand headquarters of the local trade union. He was told about the horrendous, oppressive conditions contained in the contract that traditionally had to be signed by every miner binding him to his master. These were only successfully fought and finally overturned thanks to union opposition in the 19th century. Which is another demonstration why we need strong, effective unions.

There was considerable sympathy for enslaved Blacks amongst working people, and particularly in Scotland. It’s been claimed that one reason for this was because of the enslavement of White, Scottish mineworkers. Thus the authorities and slave masters complained that there was too much sympathy for runaways among ordinary Scots, who were hiding and protesting them.

I think that possibly too little is known about serfdom and the traditional enslavement of Whites in Britain and Europe. Some of this might simply be due to the fact that most history is ‘history from above’, the actions of monarchs and great statesmen and politicians, rather than social history, or ‘history from below’. Another factor may well be the myth most Brits have grown up with – that Britain is the country from which freedom and good government flows. What isn’t appreciated is that every one of the freedoms we enjoy, and which are being stripped from us by the Tories, were hard won through the blood, sweat, toil and tears of ordinary folk and their champions.

It has led to a distorted view of history, the myth of ‘merrie England’ in which everything was somehow better in the old days, when lords ruled and the hoi polloi knew their place. It’s a view that the right do want to bring back. But a lack of understanding of traditional forms of British forced labour, that applied to Whites, has also contributed to the equally distorted view that slavery and forced labour is very much something that Whites inflicted on Blacks or other people of colour.

Both are wrong, and need to be fought.

The German Communist Party’s 1931 Demands for Women’s Equality

November 4, 2020

One of the other books I’ve been reading during the lockdown is The German Left and the Weimar Republic: Selection of Documents, edited by Ben Fowkes, (Chicago: Haymarket Books 2014). The Weimar Republic was the name given to Germany for the all too brief period from the end of the First World War to the the Nazi seizure of power in 1933/4. It was a tumultuous period which saw the brief rise of workers’, peasants’ and soldiers’ council seize power briefly, the brutal suppression of soviet republics up and down Germany by the Freikorps, the rise of the Nazis, and splits in the majority Germany socialist, the SPD, which produced the USPD (Independent Socialist Party of Germany), the SAP (Socialist Workers’ Party) and the German Communist Party. The book collects a number of documents from these left-wing parties and movements, which reveal their policies and attitudes towards some of the most important issues of the day.

In 1931 the KPD proposed a law to protect and give full equal rights to working women. I’m putting this up, because while I’m very definitely not a Communist, these demands show how far ahead of their time the Communists were. Women’s right to work was attacked by the Nazis, who saw women’s proper sphere as ‘Kinder, Kirche, Kuche’ – children, church and kitchen. And although governments now are keen, or claim to be keen, to promote women’s equality in politics, culture, industry and science, the laws protection working women from exploitation and arbitrary dismissal have been and are being rolled back. This is line with the general attack on worker’s employment rights and job security.

The KPD proposals ran

We call on the Reichstag to demand that the government introduce a bill to protect and give full equality of rights to working women according to the following principles:

  1. Establishment of complete economic, cultural and political equality of rights between women and men. All laws and emergency ordinances that contradict this are to be abrogated with immediate effect.
  2. Women in all enterprises in industry and agriculture, doing the same work as men, are to be paid wages at the same level as men. The longest daily working time for women is to be set at seven hours, with full wage equality, while for unhealthy and heavy work, as well as for young females below the age of 18, it is to be set at six hours.
  3. (Similar provisions for office workers).
  4. Working women are to have a fully equal right to occupy all posts in all professions. Women workers, office employees and civil service officials are not be dismissed because they are married. All working women are to receive free professional training appropriate to their professional capacity.
  5. All unemployed women must have a legal right to full unemployment insurance payments without means testing or reference to the income of family members. Every kind of compulsory labour or compulsory re-training is prohibited. The right to receive social insurance during the whole period of unemployment is to be guaranteed.
  6. All working women employed in industry, agriculture, commerce and transport and domestic work as well as women in the so -called free professions, housewives and the female relatives or working peasants are to be included in the social insurance system.
  7. Dismissal of pregnant women is legally prohibited up to the 12th month after the birth of the child. The pregnant woman is to receive full pay and be exempt from work from eight weeks before until eight weeks after the birth. Nursing mothers are to receive half and hour twice a day for breast-feeding their children, without any reduction in wages. Maternity homes in sufficient numbers are to be made available to all working women, also creches for babies and children up to three years old, nurseries for children from three to school age. These services are to be provided free of payment. They are to be directed and supervised by control committees made up of delegates from the working population, mainly women.
  8. The interruption of pregnancy is to be permitted by law. The contrary paragraphs of the penal code (184 Section 3 and 28) are to be abolished. All persons condemned under the previous abortion paragraphs are to be amnestied immediately, and all current cases are to be terminated. Abortion carried out by a doctor and the provision of the means to avoid pregnancy count as medicate help in the national system of insurance.
  9. When entering marriage, the woman retains her right to decide independently in all legal and personal matters. She is not dependent on the husband in any of her decisions. After marriage, the women may take the name of her husband, but she may also continue to be known under her maiden name. She has the same parental power over her children as the man.
  10. All exceptional provisions dealing with the unmarried mother and the illegitimate child are removed. Every unmarried women has the right to be bear the title of ‘Frau’. In mixed marriages, the choice of nationality is left to the woman.

Obviously, abortion rights are still extremely controversial today. And one of the reasons for the introduction of zero hours contracts and firms insisting that their employees should sign documents stating that they are self-employed is deny women rights like maternity leave. And unemployed women and men are required to go for compulsory retraining and work under Blair’s wretched ‘welfare to work’ initiative. Which is another Tory idea taken from the Americans.

The reduction of the working day for women would be controversial today. More women work part-time than men because they do the majority of work rearing children and running the home. A week or so ago someone proposed that women’s working day should therefore be shortened generally for those reasons. But one of the drawbacks of this would be that women would need to be paid more than men in order to close the gender income gap. Many men on the political right already feel that they will be discriminated against regarding pay rates because of this.

The KPD made these demands nearly 90 years ago, and despite many of them having been introduced over the following decades, we still need to follow their recommendations to defend the rights of all working women along with workers generally.

To Fight the Tories and the Racists, Labour Should Platform More White Working Class Speakers

October 19, 2020

This is not by any means a criticism of the Labour party’s great Black and Asian MPs, activists and ordinary members and supporters, like Dawn Butler and Diane Abbot. It is simply a case of effectively mobilising White working class support for Labour, which necessarily and rightly includes non-White politicos and supporters to combat Tory propaganda.

Much Conservative rhetoric aimed at winning over White working class support presents the Labour party as profoundly, traitorously anti-British. BAME anti-racist activists, like Diane Abbot, are criticised and abused by the right, and particularly the far right, as people who actively hate traditional British culture and wish to see it destroyed. This nasty rhetoric was ramped up several notches a few weeks ago with the controversy over the Beeb’s supposed ban of ‘Rule, Britannia’ and ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ at the Last Night of the Proms. This was to show that the Beeb was run by anti-patriotic lefty liberals. In fact it was nothing of the support. It was simply a response to the regulations imposed by the Coronavirus lockdown. Although they have been eased, they still prohibit public singing. It’s why those churches, which have reopened, now use recorded music while the congregation remains silent. In one way, it’s almost like a return to the Middle Ages, when it was only the clergy who participated in the ritual of the mass while the congregation heard it. I’m not surprised that the ban did cause controversy. There have been allegations before, including by Private Eye, that the Prom’s producers at the Beeb are acutely uncomfortable with the performance of the two classic pieces, and would like to stop their performance. But that wasn’t the case this year. Also, ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ is much more than a jingoistic ditty. It’s lyrics include lines about ‘justice and equality’, civilised values that should be at the heart of liberal society.

And I’m afraid this rhetoric and the xenophobic nationalism is going to increase with the failure of Brexit. It now looks like Britain is going to exit the EU without a deal. So much for all the Leaver talk from Johnson, Gove etc about oven ready deals and that making trade arrangements with the EU would be so simple, they weren’t worth worrying about. The EU would be so desperate to make one, they’d come running to us. Anybody who said otherwise was being un-patriotic and trying to terrify the British public unnecessarily with ‘Project Fear’.

But the Remoaners, as the Brexiteers have dubbed them, have been amply proved right. Boris and his cohorts told businesses that they wouldn’t have to worry about complex paperwork to carry on trading with the EU. Everything would be simple and straightforward. But our industry is suffering because Johnson and the rest haven’t provided clear guidance for them. In addition, we now have two tariff borders, one in the Irish Sea, and another in Kent. A no-deal Brexit means that we could be faced with shortages of food and medicines. The Tories are desperately trying to negotiate a deal with America, but this will mean lowering our food hygiene standards to their abysmal levels. This will do preciously little for the economy, but it will harm our farmers.

Brexit will increase poverty, despair and starvation.

There were genuinely left-wing, anti-racist peeps, who voted ‘leave’, and with entirely understandable reasons. Our farmers and fishing industry was hit by the EU. The Common Agricultural Policy was designed for small scale, peasant agriculture such as practiced in France and Germany. It did not suit highly mechanised farming employing relatively few people, which is the case in Britain. And the opening up of British waters to foreign fishing decimated our own fishing fleet. Tony Benn and others in the Labour party foresaw this. It’s why they opposed our entry into the EU at the time of the 1970s referendum.

But many Brexiteers are racist, and Brexit was presented as a way of stopping further immigration. Apart from the furore over the Proms, there has also been very vehement criticism of the numbers of asylum seekers crossing the Channel from France. The numbers involved are trivial compared to those who legally immigrate here. The people crossing the Channel in flimsy, makeshift boats and dinghies do so because other, legal means of entering Britain have been closed. But you wouldn’t know that from arch-Tory right-wingers like Alex Belfield. They are attacked as illegal immigrants, a potential threat to the communities in which they are housed, and the left blamed for encouraging them to cross, which puts the migrants themselves in danger. Belfield would like them intercepted by the navy, or deterred from crossing altogether. The liberals and left-wingers defending the migrants wish to have proper legal channels opened up for these migrants, so that they wouldn’t have to risk their lives crossing the Channel.

At the same time, Belfield and other right-wing opponents of immigration present the left as very middle class, out of touch and actively hostile to the White working class. Belfield in his videos rants about how the BBC is dominated by Guardian reading, chinos wearing, latte sipping lefty snowflakes, who all, of course, eat avocado toast. Right-wing organisations like the New Culture Forum and hacks like Douglas Murray have put videos up on YouTube about the demonization of the White working class. The working class, including the White working class, has been demonised, but by the Conservative, Thatcherite elite. As Owen Jones, who himself has received any number of vicious personal attacks, showed in his book Chavs.

With Brexit about to fail, I think we can be sure that the Tories and the Brexiteers will now increase their attacks on immigration and ethnic minorities, because it’s the only way they have of maintaining any kind of support for it.

I think here Labour should learn from a campaigning trick of the Nazis. I’ll make it clear that I have nothing but contempt and disgust for Hitler and his squalid dictatorship. They ruled by terror and violence, and were responsible for the horrific deaths of millions. 11 1/2 million were murdered and died of starvation and overwork in the concentration camps. Six million were Jews, and 5 1/2 million assorted non-Jews, including political prisoners, the long term unemployed, the disabled and Roma. The Nazis also intended to cleans a stretch of land from Poland to the Ukraine and Russia of its indigenous people in preparation for German colonisation. The surviving population would become poorly educated, depressed peasant farmers and labourers to serve the colonists.

Nazism and Fascism are truly horrific movements, that need to be fought everywhere.

But unfortunately Hitler and the Nazis were terribly effective political campaigners. Although they described themselves as ‘socialist’, they despised ‘Marxist’ socialism, which included reformists like the SPD, the German equivalent of the Labour party, and the organised working class. They smashed the trade unions and sent their leaders and activists to the concentration camps. As social Darwinists, they saw the aristocracy and business elite as biologically superior with an absolute right to their social position and authority.

But at the same time, the Nazis were determined to win over the working class. While they stressed class collaboration, with Hitler declaring that ‘the class conscious worker is as unwelcome in our movement as the race conscious Jew’, the Nazis also claimed that they wished to create a genuine classless society. In the new volksgemeinschaft (people’s/ ethnic community) all were to be looked upon as equals. The only difference was supposed to be social function. And Nazism was going to be meritocratic. Any ethnic German would be able to rise socially, no matter how humble his origins, provided he had the talent.

To show that they were serious about this, the Nazis conspicuously put working class speakers on their platforms along with those from the middle and upper classes.

I believe that Labour needs to do the same with White working class speakers.

The people, who are serious about improving conditions for the White working class are, as I have said, the Labour left. They will do so because they’re committed to the working class as a whole. The Jewish anti-racist, anti-Fascist bloggers and activists Tony Greenstein and David Rosenberg have pointed out again and again that the only way of effectively fighting Nazi scumbags like the National Front and BNP is through actively working to improve conditions for all the working class.

Very many of Labour’s great BAME politicos and members are working class. I think Abbot is. And the anti-immigrant right have also included in their attacks on Dawn Butler statements that they’re tired of hearing how working class she is. They’re aware that the Black and Asian targets of their ire are working class, but that doesn’t count as they’re not White working class. And indeed they see them as actively anti-White.

Which is why I believe they need to be partnered on their platforms with White working class speakers. I’m aware that this is already very likely to be the case. But it needs to be so obvious, that the racists will find it difficult to minimise or deny it. It needs to be done to show the racists, and those inclined to listen to them, that BAME politicos like Abbot and Butler are not anti-White and have White working class support.

I also believe that something similar but vice versa may have to be done for Black MPs so that they are obviously given support by White speakers. Under Starmer, Labour has been haemorrhaging not only its traditional Labour voters and supporters in general, but particularly its Black members. This has partly been due to Starmer’s dismissive and mercenary attitude towards Black Lives Matter, but also his utter failure to take any action on the right-wing ‘centrists’ responsible for the racist bullying of respected Black MPs and activists like Abbot, Lammy and so on. Labour needs to show that it is still genuinely committed to improving conditions for Blacks and other ethnic minorities. And that this doesn’t mean being anti-White.

Whatever their colour, working class Brits need to stand together and support each other. Because the racists and Tories will try to divide us to push through their policies.

Which will hurt all of us, regardless of our creed or skin colour.

Gorbachev’s Final Programme for the Russian Communist Party

September 22, 2020

Robert V. Daniels’ A Documentary History of Communism in Russia from Lenin to Gorbachev (Burlington, Vermont: University of Vermont Press 1993) contains the last party political programme Gorbachev. This was put forward at the last party plenum in 1991 before Communism finally collapsed. It’s an optimistic document which seeks to transform the totalitarian party and the Soviet Union’s command economy into a democratic party with a mixed economy. Gorbachev also cites as the principles underlying the transformation not just the values of the Communist party, but also the wider values of democracy, humanism and social justice.

The extract’s several pages long, and so I won’t quote it in full. But here some passages that are particularly interesting, beginning with Gorbachev’s statement of their values.

  1. Our Principles

… In its political activity the CPS will be guided by: – the interests of comprehensive social progress, which is assured by way of reforms…

-The principles of humanism and universal values.

-The principles of democracy and freedom in al ltheir various manifestations…

-The principles of social justice…

– The principles of of patriotism and internationalism…

-The interests of integrating the country into the world economy.

Section III, ‘Our Immediate Goals’ declares

… The CPSU stands for the achievement of the following goals:

In the political system. Development of the Soviet multinational state as a genuine democratic federation of sovereign republics;

setting up a state under the rule of law, and the development of democratic institutions; the system of soviets as the foundations of the state structure, as organs of popular rule and self-administration and of political representation of the interests of all strata of society; separation of powers – legislative, executive and judicial…

In the area of nationality relations: Equal rights for all people independently of their nationality and place of residence; equal rights and free development of all nationality under the unconditional priority of the rights of man…

In the economy. Structural rebuilding (perestroika) of the national economy, re-orienting it toward the consumer;

modernization of industry, construction, transport and communications on the basis of high technology, overcoming our lag behind the world scientific technical level, and thinking through the conversion of military production.

transition to a mixed economy based on the variety and legal equality of different forms of property – state, collective and private, joint stock and cooperative. Active cooperation in establishing the property of labour collectives and the priority development of this form of social prosperity;

formation of a regulated market economy as a means to stimulate the growth of economic efficiency, the expansion of social wealth, and the raising of the living standards of the people. This assumes free price formation with stage gains to needy groups of the population, the introduction of an active anti-monopoly policy, restoring the financial system to health, overcoming inflation, and achieving the convertibility of the ruble.

working out and introducing a modern agrarian policy; free development of the peasantry; allotment of land (including leaseholds with the right of inheritance) to all who are willing and able to work it effectively; state support of the agro-price parity in the exchange of the products of industry and agriculture;

comprehensive integration of the country in the world economy, and broad participation in world economic relations in the interest of the economic and social progress of Soviet society.

In the social sphere. Carrying out a state policy that allows us to reduce to a minimum the unavoidable difficulties and expenses connected with overcoming the crisis in the economy and making the transition to the market…

Averting the slide toward ecological catastrophe, solving the problems of [Lake] Baikal, the Aral Sea, and other zones of ecological impoverishment, and continuing the liquidation of the consequences of the Chernobyl disaster.

In education, science and culture. Spiritual development of the people, impoving the education and culture of each person, and strengthening morality, the sense of civic duty and responsibility and patriotism…

IV. Whose Interest the Party Expresses

… In cooperation with the labour movement and the trade unions we will defend the interests of the workers, to secure: due representation of the working class in the organs of power at all levels, real rights of labour collectives to run enterprises and dispose of the results of their labour, a reliable system of social protection…

We stand for freedom of conscience for all citizens. The party takes a respectful position toward the feelings of believers…

… We are against militant anti-Communism as a form of political extremism and negation of democracy that is extremely dangerous for the fate of society…

V. For a Party of Political Action

Communists are clearly aware that only a radically renewed party – a party of political action – can successfully solve new tasks.

The most important direction of renewal for the party is its profound democratization. This assumes the independence of the parties of the republics that belong to CPS, and space for the initiative of local and primary organizations.

… Guarantees must be worked out in the party so that its cadres never utilize their posts for mercenary interests, never speak contrary to conscience, and do not fear a hard struggle to achieve noble ends.

The renewal of the party presupposes a new approach to the understanding of its place in society and its relations with the state, and in the choice of means for the achievement of its political goals. The party acts exclusively by legal political methods. It will fight for deputies’ seats in democratic elections, winning the support of voters for its electoral platform and its basic directions of policy and practical action. Taking part in the formation of the organs of state power and administration, it will conduct its policy through them. It is ready to enter into broad collaboration wherever this is dictated by circumstances, and to conclude alliances and coalitions with other parties and organizations in the interest of carrying out a program of democratic reforms. In those organs of power where the Communist deputies are in the minority, they will assume the place of a constructive opposition, standing up against any attempt at infringing with the interests of the toilers and the rights and freedoms of citizens. Collaborating with other parliamentary groups, Communist deputies will manifest cooperation toward positive undertakings that come from other parties and movements…

The CPSU is built on the adherence of its members to the ideas of certain values. For us the main one of these is the idea of humane, democratic socialism. Reviving and developing the initial humanitarian principles of Marx, Engels and Lenin, we include in our arsenal of ideas the entire richness of national and world socialist and democratic thought. We consider communism as a historic perspective, a social ideal, based on universal human values, on the harmonious union of progress and justice, of the free self-realization of the individual.

(pp.379-82).

It’s an inspiring document, and if it had been passed and Communism and the Soviet Union not collapsed, it would have transformed the Communist party into a modern, centre-left party, committed to genuine democracy, religious freedom, technological innovation and development, tackling the ecological crisis, rooting out corruption within the party and standing with other groups to defend workers’ rights. I do have a problem with its condemnation of extreme anti-Communism. You would expect this from a leader who still wanted the Communist party to be the leading political force in the Soviet Union. It could just refer to groups like the morons who set up various Nazi parties and organisations in the 1980s. They had absolutely no understanding of what Nazism stood for, just that it was anti-Communist. But that clause could be used against other, far more moderate groups demanding radical change. I was impressed, however, by the statement that the Communists should be prepared to take a back seat in opposition. This completely overturns the central Communist dogma that the party should always take the leading role, even when in a coalition with other parties. It’s how Stalin got them to win democratic elections, before purging and dissolving those parties and sending their members to death or the gulag.

Ultimately the programme failed. One reason is that Gorbachev really didn’t understand just how hated the Communist party actually was. When I was studying the rise of Communist and Fascist regimes at college in the mid-80s, one of the newspapers reported that there were underground pop groups in the USSR singing such ditties as ‘Kill the Commies and the Komsomol too.’ The Komsomol was the Communist party youth organisation.

Daniel Kalder in his book Dictator Literature: A History of Despots through their writing (Oneworld: 2018) that Gorby’s project was undermined by the release under glasnost of Lenin’s suppressed works. Gorbachev had based his reforms on a presumed contrast between a democratic, benevolent Lenin, who had pledged Russia to a kind of state-directed capitalism in his New Economic Policy, and Stalin with his brutal totalitarianism, collectivisation of agriculture and the construction of the Soviet command economy. But Lenin frequently wrote for the moment, and his writings contradict themselves, though there is a central strand of thought that is consistent throughout. More seriously, he himself was viciously intolerant and a major architect of the Soviet one party state through the banning of other parties. The newly republished works showed just how false the image of Lenin as some kindly figure was, and just how nasty he was in reality.

But even after 30 a years, I still think Gorby’s proposed reforms are an excellent guide to what socialism should be. And his vision was far better than the bandit capitalism and massive corruption of Yeltsin’s administration, when the Soviet economy melted down. And its anti-authoritarianism and intolerance of corruption makes it far better than the regime of the current arkhiplut, Vladimir Putin. Although it has to be said that he’s done much good restoring conditions after Yeltsin’s maladministration.

And it’s also far better than the neoliberalism that has infected the Labour party, introduced by Tony Blair in Britain and Gerhard Schroder in Germany. I think we need something like Gorbachev’s vision here, in the 21st century Labour party, instead of further Thatcherism under Starmer.

Hooray! Copies of My Book Demanding Workers’ Parliamentary Chamber Have Arrived!

September 16, 2020

I got the two copies of my self-published book For A Workers’ Chamber, published with the print on demand service Lulu through the post today. I wrote the book way back in 2018. It argues that as parliament is dominated by millionaire company directors and senior management, working people have been effectively excluded. Blairite Labour is no help, as it has enthusiastically embraced this policy. I therefore argue that what is needed to correct this is a parliamentary chamber composed of working people, elected by working people, following ideas and demands going back as Robert Owen’s Grand Consolidated Trade Union and the Chartist’s assembly of a parliament of trades in the 19th century. The book’s blurb runs

For a Worker’s Chamber argues that a special representative chamber of composed of representatives of the working class, elected by the working class, is necessary to counter the domination of parliament by millionaires and the heads of industries.

It traces the idea of worker’s special legislative assemblies from Robert Owen’s Grand Consolidated Trade Union, anarchism, syndicalism, Guild Socialism, the workers’, soldiers’ and peasants’ councils in Revolutionary Russia, Germany and Austria, the Utopian Socialism of Saint-Simon and the Corporativism of Fascist Italy. It also discusses the liberal forms of corporativism which emerged in Britain during the First and Second World Wars, as well as the system of workers’ control and producer’s chambers in Tito’s Yugoslavia.

It argues that parliamentary democracy should not be abandoned, but needs to be expanded in include a worker’s chamber to make it more representative.

I ordered two copies of my book as I want to send one to the Labour Party. It’s now holding a policy review, and they’ve been asking members to send in suggestions for a policy. I really this idea is quite extreme and Utopian, but I want to send a copy of it to them to remind them just who they were set up to represent and where their priorities should lie. And they definitely do not lie with chasing Tory votes, taking over Thatcher’s policies and dismantling the welfare state, privatising the NHS and enrolling rich businessmen in parliament.

I’d like to send the second copy to any Labour MP or senior figure in the movement, who might be interested in it. Ken Livingstone would be the obvious choice, as he was a strong supporter of workers’ rights and industrial democracy when he was head of the GLC. Unfortunately, he has been forced out of the party due to being smeared as an anti-Semite, simply because he correctly pointed out that Hitler initially supported Zionism and sending Jews to Israel. The German Zionists signed a pact with him, the Ha’avara Agreement, which is documented on the website of the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem.

I’m also thinking of sending it Richard Burgon, who is now one of the leading figures in left-wing Labour politics. I realise that it is probably too extreme for him, as he’s traditional centrist Labour, wanting the return of nationalisation for the NHS and utilities and a state managed but mixed economy. You know, the standard post-war social democratic consensus until Thatcher’s election in 1979. But I’m also worried about sending it to him in case his enemies in the party use it to smear him as a Commie or Trotskyite, just as they did with Corbyn.

The book is only one of a number of pamphlets and books I’ve self-published. I tried sending copies of them to the press, but didn’t get any interest. If you have any suggestions for any senior Labour figure, or simply ordinary MP or official, who would enjoy reading a copy, please let me know.

Shaw’s Classic Defence of Socialism for Women Part Three

May 16, 2020

George Bernard Shaw, The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism, Capitalism, Sovietism and Fascism, foreword by Polly Toynbee (London: Alma Classics 2012).

Socialism and Marriage, Children, Liberty and Religion

Shaw also discusses what socialism would mean for marriage, liberty, children and the churches, and these are the most problematic sections of the book. He looks forward to marriage being a purely voluntary commitment, where people people can marry for love instead of financial advancement. This will produce biologically better children, because people will be able to choose the best partners, rather than be limited to only those from their class. At the same time incompatible partners will be able to divorce each other free of stigma.

He defines liberty in terms of personal freedom. Under socialism, people will be freer because the amount of time they will have for their personal amusement and recreation will be greater. Legislation might go down, because the laws currently needed to protect people will become unnecessary as socialism is established and society advances. Shaw also believes that greater free time would be enough to attract the top brains to management positions in the absence of the usual inducement of greater pay. Shaw realised that not everyone could run industries, and that it was necessary to hire the very best people, who would be a small minority. Giving them greater leisure time was the best way to do this, and he later criticises the Soviet government for not equalising incomes.

But this is sheer utopianism. The Bolsheviks had tried to equalise incomes, and it didn’t work, which is why they went back to higher rates of pay for managers and so on. And as we’ve seen, socialism doesn’t necessarily lead to greater free time and certainly not less legislation. The better argument is that socialism leads to greater liberty because under socialism people have better opportunities available to them for careers, sport, entertainment and personal improvement than they would if they were mere capitalist wage slaves.

Religious people will also object to his views on religion and the churches. While earlier in the book Shaw addressed the reader as a fellow Christian, his attitude in this section is one of a religious sceptic. The reader will have already been warned of this through the foreword by Toynbee. The Groaniad columnist is a high-ranking member of the both the Secular and Humanist Societies, and her columns and articles in just about every magazine or newspaper she wrote for contained sneers at religion. Shaw considers the various Christian denominations irreconcilable in their theologies, and pour scorn on orthodox Christian doctrines such as the Atonement, that Christ died for our sins. Religion should not be taught in school, because of the incompatibility of the account of the Creation in Genesis with modern science. Children should not be taught about religion at all under they are of the age of consent. If their parents do teach them, the children are to be removed from their care. This is the attitude of very aggressive secularists and atheists. Richard Dawkins had the same attitude, but eventually reversed it. It’s far too authoritarian for most people. Mike and I went to a church school, and received a very good education from teachers that did believe in evolution. Religion deals with ultimate questions of existence and morality that go far beyond science. I therefore strongly believe that parents have the right to bring their children up in their religion, as long as they are aware of the existence of other views and that those who hold them are not wicked simply for doing so. He also believed that instead of children having information pumped into them, the business should be to educate children to the basic level they need to be able to live and work in modern society, and then allow the child to choose for itself what it wants to study.

Communism and Fascism

This last section of the book includes Shaw’s observations on Russian Communism and Fascism. Shaw had visited the USSR in the early ’30s, and like the other Fabians had been duped by Stalin. He praised it as the new socialist society that was eradicating poverty and class differences. He also thought that its early history vindicated the Fabian approach of cautious nationalisation. Lenin had first nationalised everything, and then had to go back on it and restore capitalism and the capitalist managers under the New Economic Policy. But Russia was to be admired because it had done this reversal quite openly, while such changes were kept very quiet in capitalism. If there were problems in the country’s industrialisation, it was due to mass sabotage by the kulaks – the wealthy peasants – and the industrialists. He also recognised that the previous capitalist elite were disenfranchised, forced into manual labour, and their children denied education until the working class children had been served. At the same time, the Soviet leaders had been members of the upper classes themselves, and in order to present themselves as working class leaders had claimed working class parentage. These issues were, however, gradually working themselves out. The Soviet leaders no longer had need of such personal propaganda, and the former capitalists could reconcile themselves to the regime as members of the intellectual proletariat. And some of the industrialisation was being performed by criminals, but this was less arduous than the labour in our prisons.

Shaw is right about the NEP showing that nationalisation needs to be preceded by careful preparation. But he was obviously kept ignorant of the famine that was raging in the USSR through forced collectivisation and the mass murder of the kulaks. And rather than a few criminals in the gulags, the real figures were millions of forced labourers. They were innocent of any crime except Stalin’s paranoia and the need of his managers for cheap slave labour. It’s believed that about 30 millions died in Stalin’s purges, while 7 million died in the famine in the Ukraine.

Shaw’s treatment of Fascism seems to be based mostly on the career of Mussolini. He considers Fascism just a revival of the craze for absolute monarchy and military leadership, of the kind that had produced Henry VIII in England, Napoleon, and now Mussolini, Adolf Hitler, the Shah of Iran and Ataturk in Turkey. These new absolute rulers had started out as working class radicals, before find out that the changes they wanted would not come from the working class. They had therefore appealed to the respectable middle class, swept away democracy and the old municipal councils, which were really talking shops for elderly tradesmen which accomplished little. They had then embarked on a campaign against liberalism and the left, smashing those organisations and imprisoning their members. Some form of parliament had been retained in order to reassure the people. At the same time, wars were started to divert the population and stop them criticising the new generalissimo. Industry was approaching socialism by combining into trusts. However, the government would not introduce socialism or truly effective government because of middle class opposition. Fascist regimes wouldn’t last, because their leaders were, like the rest of us, only mortal. In fact Mussolini was overthrown by the other Fascists, who then surrendered to the Allies, partly because of his failing health. That, and his utter military incompetence which meant that Italy was very definitely losing the War and the Allies were steadily advancing up the peninsula. While this potted biography of the typical Fascist is true of Mussolini, it doesn’t really fit some of the others. The Shah, for example, was an Indian prince.

Anarchism and Syndicalism

Shaw is much less informed about anarchism. He really only discusses it in terms of ‘Communist Anarchism’, which he dismisses as a silly contradiction in terms. Communism meant more legislation, while anarchism clearly meant less. He should have the articles and books on Anarcho-communism by Peter Kropotkin. Kropotkin believed that goods and services should be taken over by the whole community. However, rather than a complete absence of government and legislation, society would be managed instead by individual communities and federations.

He also dismisses syndicalism, in which industry would be taken over and run by the trade unions. He considers this just another form of capitalism, with the place of the managers being taken by the workers. These would still fleece the consumer, while at the same time leave the problem of the great inequality in the distribution of wealth untouched, as some industries would obviously be poorer than others. But the Guild Socialists did believe that there should be a kind of central authority to represent the interests of the consumer. And one of the reasons why nationalisation, in the view of some socialists, failed to gain the popular support needed to defend it against the privatisations of the Tories is because the workers in the nationalised industries after the War were disappointed in their hopes for a great role in their management. The Labour party merely wanted nationalisation to be a simple exchange of public for private management, with no profound changes to the management structure. In some cases the same personnel were left in place. Unions were to be given a role in management through the various planning bodies. But this was far less than many workers and trade unionists hoped. If nationalisation is to have any meaning, it must allow for a proper, expanded role of the workers themselves in the business of managing their companies and industries.

The book ends with a peroration and a discussion of the works that have influenced and interest Shaw. In the peroration Shaw exhorts the readers not to be upset by the mass poverty and misery of the time, but to deplore the waste of opportunities for health, prosperity and happiness of the time, and to look forward and work for a better, socialist future.

His ‘Instead of a Bibliography’ is a kind of potted history of books critical of capitalism and advocating socialism from David Ricardo’s formulation of capitalism in the 19th century. These also include literary figures like Ruskin, Carlyle and Dickens. He states that he has replaced Marx’s theory of surplus value with Jevons treatment of rent, in order to show how capitalism deprives workers of their rightful share of the profits.

 

 

Manifesto for a Truly Democratic, Socialist America

January 23, 2020

Bhaskar Sunkara, The Socialist Manifesto: The Case for Radical Politics in an Era of Extreme Inequality (London: Verso 2019).

Introduction

This is a superb book, though conditions have changed since the book was published last year through Labour’s election defeat and the fall of Corbyn, that the new age of socialist activism and success Sunkara looks forward to is now far more doubtful. Sunkara is an American radical journalist, and the founder and editor of the left-wing magazine, Jacobin. Originally from Trinidade, he immigrated to the USA with his family when he was young. Growing up in New York, he read extensively in the Big Apple’s public library, where he came to realise the country’s dependence on services provided by the state. He immersed himself in the history and literature of socialism, finally joining the Democratic Socialists of America. He is also a registered Democrat.

The book comes praised by Glenn Greenwald of The Intercept, Naomi Klein and Owen Jones. The book was partly inspired by the success of Jeremy Corbyn over here and Bernie Sanders in America in bringing socialism back into the political arena after decades of neoliberalism. This is made clear by the blurb on the dust jacket’s inside flap. This states

Socialism was pronounced dead when the Soviet Union collapsed. But with the success of Jeremy Corbyn’s left-led Labour party and increasing economic inequality, the politics of class struggle and wealth redistribution is back on the agenda. In The Socialist Manifesto Bhaskar Sunkara offers a primer on socialism for the twenty-first century, outlining where it came from, what it is, and what a socialist political system might look like.

Tracing the history of some of socialism’s highs and lows – from the creation of Germany’s Social Democratic Party through bloody communist revolutions to the predicaments of midcentury social democracy – Sunkara contends that, in our global age, socialism is still the only way forward. Drawing on history and his own experience in left-wing activism, Sunkara explains how socialists can win better wages and housing and create democratic institutions in workplaces and communities.

In showing how and why socialism can work today, The Socialist Manifesto is for anyone seeking a real solution to the vast inequalities of our age.

The Way to Socialism in America

The book begins with a ‘Day in the Life of a Socialist Citizen’, which maps out one possible path for the transformation of America into a socialist state. Sunkara asks the reader to imagine himself as a worker at Jon Bongiovi’s pasta sauce business in Texas to show that, even under a benign and paternalistic employer, the capitalist system still leaves the workers poor and powerless. In order to compete, the firm must not only make a profit, but invest in machinery while at the same time either cutting wages or laying people off. However, the workers are empowered by a new wave of strikes and left-wing activism that sees the election of President Springsteen. Springsteen establishes a welfare state, which allows the workers to devote more of their time and energy to pressing for their demands without having to fear for their livelihood. The worker’s movement continues making gains until the economy has become nationalised. Individual firms still exist, and are run by the workers themselves rather than the state. Some of them fail. But there are also government banking schemes to help workers set up their own businesses, though still state-owned and collectively managed, when they have a good idea and are fed up with their present job. Like bottling pasta sauce. America is still a vibrant democracy, and there are a number of other parties, including a capitalist party, though that is waning in popularity. It’s not utopia, but it is a system where workers are genuinely valued.

The Rise and Transformation of Socialism from Marxism to Reformism

The socialism, whose history the book tells and advocates, is that the Marxist and Marxist derived parties, Communism and social democracy, rather than the Utopian socialism of the generation before Marx and the more extreme versions of anarchist communism and syndicalism. The book naturally describes the career of Marx and Engels, and the formation of the German SDP. This moved away from revolutionary Marxism to reformism under the influences of Eduard Bernstein and Karl Kautsky, who believed that capitalism’s survival and the growing prosperity of industrial workers had disproven crucial aspects of Marxist doctrine. Initially pacifist, like the other European socialist parties, the SDP voted for war credits at the outbreak of the First World War. This caused a split, with a minority forming the Independent Socialists (USPD) and the Communist Party. When the 1919 revolution broke out, the majority SDP under President Ebert moved to crush it using right-wing Freikorps brigades. Although the SDP was one prop of the Weimar coalition, it was never able to establish socialism in Germany, and so fell with the other parties in the collapse of the Republic to the Nazis.

Russian Communism

Sunkara’s account of the rise of Russian communism is interesting for his argument that the Bolsheviks originally weren’t any more dictatorial than their rivals, the Mensheviks. Even Kautsky recognised the need for a strong, centralised party. But Lenin originally was no dictator. Pravda rejected 44 of his articles, and the were other voices as strong or stronger within the party. What pushed it towards first authoritarianism and then totalitarianism was the stubborn opposition of the rival socialist parties, the Mensheviks and the Socialist Revolutionaries. They were invited to join a government coalition with the Bolsheviks, but walked out and began active opposition. The Revolution was then threatened by the revolt of the Whites, leading to the Civil War, in which Britain and other western countries sent troops in order to overthrow the Bolshevik regime. This, and the chaotic conditions created by the Revolution itself led to the Bolshevik party assuming a monopoly of state power, partly as the only means available of restoring order. This began the party’s journey towards the murderously repressive state it became, though interparty democracy was still alive in the 1920s before the rise of Stalin.

Mao and China

The emergence of communism in China, its seizure of power and the reign of Chairman Mao is also covered as an example of socialism in the Third World. The nations of the Developing World, like China, took over revolutionary socialism – communism – rather than reformism, because conditions in Russia more closely resembled those in their nations. Russian had been a largely agricultural country, in which the majority of its citizens were peasants. Industrial workers’ similarly represented only a minuscule fraction of the Chinese population, and so Mao turned to the peasants instead as a revolutionary force. This chapter concludes that Chinese communism was less about empowering and liberating the workers than as a movement for national modernisation.

Sweden and the Rise and Fall of Social Democracy

The book also examines the rise and progress of Swedish social democracy. The Swedish socialist party took power early through alliances with the Agrarians and the Liberals. This allowed them to introduce generous welfare legislation and transform the country from one of the most socially backward, feudal and patriarchal states in Europe to the progressive nation it is today. But there were also losses as well as gains. The Swedes compromised their commitment to all-out socialism by preserving private industry – only 5 per cent of the Swedish economy was nationalised – and acting to regulate the economy in alliance with the trade unions and industrialists. This corporative system collapsed during the oil crisis of the 1970s. This caused inflation. The government tried to resist wage rises, which the unions resisted. The industrialists resented the growth of working class activism and began measures to counteract them. Olof Palme, the country’s prime minister, then moved in a left-ward direction through establishing funds that would allow the trade unions gradually to buy up companies. The industrialists recognised an existential threat, and succeeded in overthrowing the government.

The Swedish model, meanwhile, had been highly influential through Labour party MP Anthony Crosland’s The Future of Socialism, which in turn led to Tony Blair’s ‘Third Way’ as the Labour government in Britain moved from social democracy to a more left-wing alternative to neoliberalism. Other European socialist parties followed, such as the German SDP. France’s President Mitterand in the 1980s tried to break this pattern in the 1980s, but his government was also overthrown through capital flight, the industrialists taking their money out of the French economy. Mitterand tried to hang on by promising to safeguard industry and govern responsibly, but it was no use.

Socialism and America

The chapter on socialism in America is particularly interesting, as it shows, contrary to the impression given by America’s two-party system, that the country has a very strong history and tradition of working class parties and socialism, from combative unions like the IWW to organised parties like the Knights of Labor, Democratic Socialists of America, and the Socialist Labor, Populist, Progressive and Communist Parties. However, socialism has never gained power there, as it has in Britain and Europe, because of a variety of factors. These include the extreme violence of the state and private industry, the latter hiring gunmen, to put down strikes; factional infighting between socialist groups, partly caused by the extreme range of socialist opinions and the restriction of some socialist groups to particular ethnicities, and the anti-Communist hysteria of the Cold War.

A strategy for Success

Thechapter ‘How We Win’ contains Sunakara’s own observations and recommendations for socialist campaigning and the construction of genuine socialism in America. These are

1. Class-struggle social democracy does not close down avenues for radicals; it opens them.

2. Class-struggle social democracy has the potential to win a major national election today.

3. Winning an election isn’t the same as winning power.

4. They’ll do everything to stop us.

5. Our immediate demands are very much achievable.

6. We must move quickly from social democracy to democratic socialism.

7. We need socialists.

8. The working class had changed over the past hundred and fifty years, but not as much we think.

9. Socialists must embed themselves in working class struggles.

10. It is not enough to work with unions for progressive change. We must wage democratic battles within them.

11. A loose network of leftists and rank-and-file activists isn’t enough. We need a political party.

12. We need to take into account American particularities.

13. We need to democratise our political institutions.

14. Our politics must be universalist.

15. History matters.

Conclusion

This is the clarion call for genuinely radical activism. It will almost certainly start right-wing alarm bells ringing, as Sunkara calls for left-wing activists to join main parties like the Democrats in the US and Labour in Britain. They are not to be infiltrators, but as people genuinely committed to these parties and working peoples’ causes and issues. The claims that the working class has somehow died out or no longer has radical potential is overstated. It has changed, but 60 per cent of the population are still employees drawing wages or a salary, and who have no money of their own. And the book shows very clearly that the transformation to a genuinely socialist economy is needed. Social democracy has won considerable gains for working people, gains that still persist despite constant right-wing attack. But these aren’t enough, and if left unchallenged, capital will always try to destroy them.

The book’s angled towards the US, but its lessons and many of its recommendations still apply of this side of the pond. The resurgence of genuine socialist activism in Britain is now far less certain in Britain. But hopefully this book will help show to more people why it’s still possible and needed. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Anton Petrov’s Tribute to Veteran Cosmonaut and Space Artist, Alexei Leonov

October 16, 2019

Last Friday, 11th October 2019, Alexei Leonov passed away, aged 85. Born on 30th May 1934, Leonov was one of the first Russian cosmonauts and the first man to walk in space. His obituary in yesterday’s I, written by Nataliya Vasilyeva, ran

Alexei Leonov, the legendary Soviet cosmonaut who became the first human to walk in space 54 years ago – and who nearly did not make it back into his space capsule – has died in Moscow aged 85.

Leonov, described by the Russian Space Agency as Cosmonaut No 11, was an icon both in his country as well as in the US. He was such a legend that the late science-fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke named a Soviet spaceship after him in his sequel to 2001: A Space Odyssey, the 1982 novel 2010: Odyssey Two.

Leonov staked his place in space history on 18 March 1965, when he became the first person to walk in space. Secured by a tether, he exited his Voskhod 2 space capsule. “I stepped into that void and I didn’t fall in,” he recalled later. “I was mesmerised by the stars. They were everywhere – up above, down below, to the left, to the right. I can still hear my breath and my heartbeat in that silence.”

Spacewalking always carries a high risk but Leonov’s pioneering venture was particularly nerve-racking, according to details that only became public decades later. His spacesuit had inflated so much in the vacuum of space that he could not get back into the spacecraft. He had to open a valve to release oxygen from his suit to be able to fit through the hatch. Leonov’s 12-minute spacewalk preceded the first American spacewalk, by Ed White, by less than three months.

Leonov was born in 1934 into a large peasant family in western Siberia. Like countless Soviet peasants, his father was arrested and shipped off to Gulag prison camps under Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, but he managed to survive and reunite with his family. 

The future cosmonaut had a strong artistic bent and even thought about going to art school before he enrolled in a pilot training course and, later, an aviation college. Leonov did not give up sketching even in space, and took coloured pencils with him on the Apollo-Soyuz flight in 1975.

That mission was the first between the Soviet Union and the US, carried out at the height of the Cold War. Apollo-Soyuz 19 was a prelude to the international co-operation aboard the current international Space Station.

Nasa offered its sympathies to Leonov’s family, saying it was saddened by his death. “His venture into the vacuum of space began the history of extra-vehicular activity that makes today’s Space Station maintenance possible”, it said in a statement.

“One of the finest people I have ever known,” the Canadian retired astronaut Chris Hadfield wrote. “Alexei Arkhipovich Leonov, artist, leader, spacewalker and friend, I salute you.”

Russian space fans have been laying flowers at his monument on the memorial alley in Moscow that honours Russia’s cosmonauts. Leonov, who will be buried today at a military memorial cemetery outside the Russian capital, is survived by his wife, a daughter and two grandchildren. 

Anton Petrov put up his own personal tribute to the great cosmonaut on YouTube yesterday, 15th October 2019, at his vlog, What Da Math. Petrov posts about astronomy and space, and his video yesterday placed Leonov in his context as one of a series of great Soviet science popularisers before Neil deGrasse Tyson, Brian Greene or Carl Sagan. Petrov shows the stunning paintings done by Leonov with his friend, the science artist Andrei Sokolov. He describes how Leonov’s spacesuit expanded so that he couldn’t enter the capsule, and was forced to let some of the oxygen out. As a result, he nearly lost consciousness. This showed both the Russians and Americans that spacesuits had to be built differently. He also describes how Leonov, during his 12 minutes in space, was profoundly struck by the profound silence. It was so deep he could hear his heart pumping, the blood coursing through his veins, even the sound of his muscles moving over each other.

Petrov states that the Russian cosmonauts did not enjoy the same celebrity status as their American counterparts, who could live off book signings. Many had to support their families with other work. In Leonov’s case, it was painting. He illustrated a number of books, some with his friend Sokolov. These are paintings Petrov uses for the visuals in his video. He considers these books the equivalent to works by modern science educators like Carl Sagan. They were meant to encourage, inspire and educate. Sokolov’s and Leonov’s art was not just beautiful, but very accurate scientifically and included some SF elements. Some of these elements were borrowed by other science fiction writers. the opening shot of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 is somewhat similar to one of Sokolov’s and Leonov’s paintings. This became a joke between the two, with Leonov creating a miniature version for the great American director to keep. Kubrick also borrowed many of the ideas for the movie from the Russian film director, Pavel Kushentsev. An extremely talented cameraman, Kushentsev made films about the first Moon landing, the first space station and the first man in space decades and years before they became reality. And all of his movies were scientifically accurate. Some of his movies are on YouTube, and Petrov gives the links at his site there for this video.

Petrov explains that he is talking about these men because their era has ended with Leonov’s death. Leonov was the last of the five astronauts on the Voskhod programme, and so all the men who inspired youngsters with amazing paintings and film are now gone. He considers it unfortunate that some of their experiences in the last days of their lives were not very happy. They did not live to see the future they depicted, and their paintings were not appreciated by the modern generation. Kushentsev said before his death,

Popular science is dying, because there is no money. No demand. Nobody wants to educate. Everyone just wants to make money everywhere possible. But one mustn’t live like this. This is how animals live. Men have reached the level of animals – all they want to do is eat and sleep. There is no understand that this humanity has passed a certain phase of evolution. We must understand the direction of this evolution. For this, we need culture, we need knowledge. 

Petrov believes Kushentsev’s criticism of modern Russian society also applies more broadly to the modern generation in the West, to all of us as well. We are all doing what he said we shouldn’t – just living for the money, to eat and sleep. Unfortunately, according to Petrov, nothing has changed in the 20 years since his death. But there are people out there in the world working to change this, to produce culture, to inspire and share knowledge. But sometimes the world crushes them, simply because it can. But Petrov says that, like those Soviet men before him, despite not being a famous astronaut or talented artist, or even someone who has very good diction, he will continue doing his part of sealing the hope for humanity, continue the work of these great men and inspire new generations to do things, believe in science and create a better world. Because as Leonov once said,

the Earth was small, light blue and so touchingly alone. Our home that must be defended like a holy relic. The Earth was absolutely round. I believe I never knew what the word ’round’ meant until I saw the Earth from space. 

Petrov concludes ‘Goodbye, comrade, and thank you for all the paintings.

This is the first of two videos about Russian art from that era of space exploration. I’ll post the other up shortly.

I don’t feel quite as pessimistic as Kushentsev. Brian Cox, who’s now taken Sagan’s place as the chief space broadcaster on British television, has attracted record audiences for his stage presentation about science and the universe. There is a massive interest among the public in space and space exploration. At the same time, there are a number of really great science vlogs and channels on YouTube. Petrov’s is one, but I also recommend John Michael Godier and the Science and Futurism channel, presented by Isaac Arthur.

Sokolov’s and Leonov’s paintings, they are of a universe of rich, vibrant colour. Spacesuited figures explores strange, new worlds, tending vast machines. They stand in front of planetary landers somewhat resembling the American lunar module. Or crawl across the landscape in rovers, gazing at horizons above which hang alien, often multiple, suns. The best space art shows worlds you’d like to visit, to see realised. These paintings have this effect. It’s a pity that on the blurb for this video over at YouTube, Petrov says that these paintings come from old postcards, which are difficult to come by. It’s a pity, as they still have the power to provoke wonder and inspire.

I’m not sure Leonov himself was quite so pessimistic. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the main space museum was closed, and many of its exhibits sold off. Before it finally closed its doors to the public, they held a rave in it. I think Leonov was in attendance, sitting at the back with his wife. Someone asked him what he thought of it all. The old space traveler replied that they had found graffiti on the walls on Babylon complaining about the behaviour of the younger generation. ‘It is,’ he said, ‘the young man’s world’. It is indeed, and may cosmonauts, space pioneers, scientists and artists like Leonov, Sokolov, Kushentsev and Kubrick continue to inspire the young men and women of the future to take their strides in the High Frontier.

Radio 4 Programme Next Week on Attempts to Reverse Rural Depopulation in Spain

April 23, 2019

According to the new Radio Times for 27th April – 3rd May 2019, Radio 4’s Crossing Continents next Thursday, 2nd May, at 11.00 a.m., looks at a movement to repopulate the Spanish countryside, focusing on a group of single women going to meet single men in a village near Madrid. The paragraph about the programme by David McGillivray on page 128 runs

It’s hard to arrest depopulation once it’s started. But Linda Pressly finds the opposite in Spain. Initiatives to reverse the decline of the Spanish countryside include a movement of young people – they have a name, “neo-rurales” – who have begun to occupy abandoned villages. Pressly also uncovers a charming personal story. Maria Carvajal was one of a bus full of single women who arrived in a village north of Madrid to meet single men unable to find female partners. There was no preview available but I infer that she found love iwth lonely shepherd Antonio Cerrado. A caravan of love indeed.

This could be worth listening to. About a year ago Mike wondered how Labour could win in rural areas, like his part of Wales. It’s a good question, as there’s a real crisis in the countryside with poor locals being priced out of housing by wealthy outsiders, looking for second or retirement homes. Bus services into country areas are being cut, and local shops, like pubs, post offices and general stores, are closing down. There are parts of Europe where the process of depopulation is particularly acute. I was listening to a conversation between male feminist and anti-Fascist Kevin Logan and another anti-Fascist about the rise of the far right. They agreed that one of the stimuli behind the rise of the vile Alternative fuer Deutschland and its horrendous Nazi links was the massive, devastating depopulation of parts of the former East Germany, where whole small towns have been abandoned as their populations have moved west in search of better opportunities.

Rural depopulation also concerned the Nazis, who saw themselves very much as the party of the peasants. They developed a series of policies designed to reverse it, and create a healthy, ideologically and racially pure peasantry, who would feed Germany and provide the basis for its new value system. This involved a banning foreign imports, lowering taxation on agricultural goods and products, loans for people wishing to move to the countryside. They were also concerned to provide them with secure tenure. So secure, in fact, that they wouldn’t be able to escape it, and they and their descendants would be tied to the soil like serfs.

I did think that some of their ideas might be worth discussing, aside from the obviously horrific and unacceptable connections to the Nazi regime itself. However, with all the anti-Semitism smears directed against Corbyn and his supporters, the last thing I wanted to do was give the smear merchants more ammunition. They’d just love it if a left-wing blogger started discussing whether some aspects of Nazi policy was worth implementing, even if it was about farming and absolutely rejected and condemned their horrific, genocidal racism and totalitarianism.

But the Crossing Continents programme may be worth listening to, and provide some ideas on how Britain could also start to regenerate its countryside. Perhaps we need a British version of the neo-rurales?

The Spanish Civil War and the Real Origins of Orwell’s Anti-Communism

January 2, 2019

Orwell’s 1984 is one of the very greatest classic dystopian novels depicting a bleak future in which the state has nearly absolute, total control. It’s particularly impressed Russians and others, who lived through and criticized Stalinism. Some of these have expressed amazement at how Orwell could have written the book without actually experiencing the horrific reality of Stalin’s USSR for himself. After the War, Orwell became a snitch for MI5 providing the agency with information on the suspected Communists. It’s a sordid part of his brilliant career as an anti-imperialist, socialist writer and activist. Conservatives have naturally seized on Orwell’s 1984, and the earlier satire, Animal Farm, to argue that the great writer had become so profoundly disillusioned that he had abandoned socialism altogether to become a fierce critic of it.

This is unlikely, as the previous year Orwell had written The Lion and the Unicorn, subtitled Socialism and the English. This examined English identity, and argued that for socialism to win in England, it had to adapt to British traditions and the English national character. But it didn’t reject socialism. Instead, it looked forward to a socialist victory and a socialist revolution, but one that would be so in keeping with English nationhood that some would wonder if there had been a revolution at all. He believed this would come about through the increasing blurring of class lines, and pointed to the emergence of a class of people occupying suburban council housing, who could not be easily defined as either working or middle class.

This view of the necessity of developing of a particularly British, English variety of socialism was one of the fundamental assumptions of the Fabians. They said in the History of the society that

‘Fabian Essays’ presented the case for Socialism in plain language which everybody could understand. It based Socialism, not on the speculations of a German philosopher, but on the obvious evolution of society as we see it around us. It accepted economic science as taught by the accredited British professors; it built up the edifice of Socialism on the foundations of our existing political and social institutions; it proved that Socialism was but the next step in the development of society, rendered inevitable by the changes which followed from the industrial revolution of the eighteenth century.

In Lane W. Lancaster, Masters of Political Thought, Vol. 3, Hegel to Dewey (London: George G. Harrap & Co. Ltd 1959) 309.

George Bernard Shaw, in his paper ‘The Transition to Social Democracy’, also stressed that the movement towards socialism was a proper part of general developments in British society. He wrote of the Fabian programme

There is not one new item in it. All are applications of principles already in full activity. All have on them that stamp of the vestry which is so congenial to the British mind. None of them compel the use of the words Socialism or Evolution; at no point do they involve guillotining, declaring the Rights of Man, swearing on the alter of the country, or anything else that is supposed to be essentially un-English. And they are all sure to come – landmarks on our course already visible to far-sighted politicians even of the party that dreads them.

Lancaster, op. cit., p. 316.

Shaw was right, and continues to be right. Thatcher wanted to privatise everything because she was afraid of the ‘ratcheting down’ of increasing nationalization, and believed this would result in the gradual emergence of a completely socialized British economy. And the fact that so much British socialism was based on British rather than continental traditions may also explain why Conservatives spend so much of their effort trying to persuade the public that that Socialists, or at least the Labour left, are all agents of Moscow.

It appears to me that what turned Orwell into an anti-Communist was seeing the Communist party abandon its socialist allies and attack their achievements under Stalin’s orders in the Spanish Civil War. The Trotskyite writer Ernest Mandel discusses this betrayal in his From Stalinism to Eurocommunism (New York: Schocken Books 1978).

The switch to a defence of the bourgeois state and the social status quo in the ‘democratic’ imperialist countries – which implied the defence of private property in the event of severe social crisis and national defence in the event of imperialist war – was made officially by the Seventh Congress of the Comintern. It had been preceded by an initial turn in this direction by the French Communist Party (PCF) when the Stalin-Laval military pact was signed. The clearest reflection of this turn was the Popular Front policy; its most radical effects came with the application of this policy during the Spanish Civil War. In Spain, the Communist Party made itself the most determined, consistent and bloody defender of the reestablishment of the bourgeois order against the collectivisations spontaneously effected by the workers and poor peasants of the Republic and against the organs of power created by the proletariat, particularly the committees and militias, which had inflicted a decisive defeat on the miltaro-fascist insurgents in nearly all the large cities of the country in July 1936. (p. 18).

Others have also pointed out that the nightmare world of 1984 is a depiction of a revolution that has taken the wrong turn, not one that has failed, which is another tactic adopted by Conservative propagandists. Orwell was greatly impressed by the achievements of the Spanish anarchists, and anarchism is highly critical of state socialism and particularly the USSR.

It thus seems to me that what Orwell attacked in Animal Farm and 1984 was not socialism as such, but its usurpation and abuse by bitterly intolerant, repressive groups like the Bolsheviks. It was a view partly based by what he had seen in Spain, and would no doubt have been reinforced by his awareness of the way Stalin had also rounded up, imprisoned and shot socialist dissidents in the USSR. Orwell was probably anti-Communist, not anti-Socialist.